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1. Scorpion Bombs: the rest of the story

The world recently learned that the Islamic State in Iraq (ISIS) has resurrected a biological weapon from the second century. Scorpion bombs are being lobbed into towns and villages to terrorize the inhabitants. As the story goes, this tactic was used almost 2,000 years ago against the desert stronghold of Hatra which was once a powerful, walled city 50 miles southwest of Mosul. But this historical interpretation might be just a bit too quick.

What we know from the writings of Herodian, who documented the ancient attacks by Hatrians on Roman invaders, is that the people crafted earthenware bombs loaded with “insects.” The favored hypothesis is that these devices were loaded with scorpions. And it’s true that these creatures (although not insects) were abundant in the desert. In fact, Persian kings offered bounties for these stinging arthropods to ensure the safe and pain-free passage of lucrative caravans through the region. But the local abundance of scorpions is not sufficient to draw a conclusion.

Scorpions tend toward cannibalism, so packing a bunch of these creatures into canisters for any period of time would have been (and presumably still is) a problem. According to an ancient writer, powdered monkshood could be used to sedate scorpions, although at high doses this plant extract is insecticidal (how ISIS solves this problem is not evident). But there’s another problem with the scorpion hypothesis.

A Syrian account of the siege of Hatra specified that the residents used “poisonous flying insects” to repulse the Romans. But, of course, scorpions don’t fly. One possibility is that the natural historians of yore were thinking of the scorpionfly (a flying insect in which the male genitalia curl over the back and resemble a scorpion’s tail), but these are small creatures are found in damp habitats, not deserts. Another possibility is that ancient reports of scorpions becoming airborne during high winds account for flying scorpions, although such a remarkable phenomenon hasn’t been reported by modern biologists. Finally, some scholars speculate that the clay bombshells were filled with assassin bugs, which can fly and deliver extremely painful bites.

Leiurus quinquestriatus, or deathstalker scorpion. Photo by  Matt Reinbold. CC BY-SA 2.0 via furryscalyman Flickr.
Leiurus quinquestriatus, or deathstalker scorpion. Photo by Matt Reinbold. CC BY-SA 2.0 via furryscalyman Flickr.

In the end, it seems likely that the Hatrian defenders and the ISIS militants latched onto the opportunities presented by the local arthropod fauna. But why would scorpions be so terrifying then or now? These creatures deliver a painful sting to be sure, but they are only rarely deadly. The responses of the Roman invaders and the Iranian townsfolk seem disproportionate to the consequences of being stung.

To understand why panic ensues when insects (or scorpions) rain down on a village, we must appreciate the evolutionary and cultural relationships between these creatures and the human mind. Our fear of insects and their relatives is rooted in six qualities of these little beasts—and scorpions score well.

  • First, our reaction arises from the capacity of these creatures to invade our homes and bodies. Scorpions, with their nocturnal activity and flattened bodies, are adept at slipping under doorsills and hiding in our shoes, closets, and furniture.
  • Second, insects and their kin have the ability to evade us through quick, unpredictable movements. While scorpions might not skitter with the panache of cockroaches, they are still reasonably nimble.
  • Third, many insects undergo rapid population growth and reach staggeringly large numbers which threaten our sense of individuality. While scorpions are not particulary prolific, having them scatter from exploding canisters (as described in the modern attacks), surely generates a sense of frightening abundance.
  • Fourth, various arthropods can harm us both directly (biting and stinging) and indirectly (transmitting disease and destroying our property). Scorpions certainly qualify in the former sense, as they are well-prepared to deliver a dose of venom that elicits intense pain, sometimes accompanied by a slowed pulse, irregular breathing, convulsions—and occasionally, death.
  • Fifth, insects and their relatives instill a disturbing sense of otherness with their alien bodies. Scorpions are hideously animalistic, even rather monstrous being like a demonic blending of a crab, spider, and a viper in terms of their form and function.
  • Sixth, these creatures defy our will and control through a kind of depraved mindlessness or radical autonomy. Scorpions can appear to be like tiny robots, with their jointed bodies and legs taking them into the world without regard to fear or decency.

Perhaps it is in this last sense that scorpions most resemble the ISIS assailants. Both seem to be predators, unconstrained by ethical constraints, maniacally and unreflectively seeking to satisfy their own bestial desires. Of course, we ought not to dehumanize our enemy—no matter how brutal his actions—by equating him with insects or their kin. (This rhetorical move has been made throughout history to justify horrible treatment of other people.) But perhaps this sense of amorality accounts for our fear of both ISIS and their unwitting, arthropod conscripts.

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2. The other torture report

At long last – despite the attempts at sabotage by and over the protests of the CIA, and notwithstanding the dilatory efforts of the State Department – the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has finally issued the executive summary of its 6,300-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. We should celebrate its publication as a genuine victory for opponents of torture. We should thank Senator Dianne Feinstein (whom some of us have been known to call “the senator from the National Security Agency”) for her courage in making it happen.

Like many people, I’ve got my criticisms of the Senate report. Suffice it to say that we’ve still got work to do if we want to end US torture.

We now know something about the Senate report, but many folks may not have heard about the other torture report, the one that came out a couple of weeks ago, and was barely mentioned in the US media. In some ways, this one is even more damning. For one thing, it comes from the international body responsible for overseeing compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – the UN Committee Against Torture. For another, unlike the Senate report, the UN report does not treat US torture as something practiced by a single agency, or that ended with the Bush administration. The UN Committee Against Torture reports on US practices that continue to this day.

Here are some key points:

Guards from Camp 5 at Joint Task Force Guantanamo escort a detainee from his cell to a recreational facility within the camp.
Guards from Camp 5 at Joint Task Force Guantanamo escort a detainee from his cell to a recreational facility within the camp. Photo by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park. Public domain via Joint Task Force Guantanamo.
  • The United States still refuses to pass a law making torture a federal crime. It also refuses to withdraw some of the “reservations” it put in place when it signed the Convention. These include the insistence that only treatment resulting in “prolonged mental harm,” counts as the kind of severe mental suffering outlawed in the Convention.
  • Many high civilian officials and some military personnel have not been prosecuted for acts of torture they are alleged to have committed. It would be nice, too, says the Committee, if the United States were to join the International Criminal Court, where other torturers have already been successfully tried. If we can’t prosecute them at home, maybe the international community can do it.
  • The remaining 142 detainees at Guantánamo must be released or tried in civilian courts, and the prison there must be shut down.
  • Evidence of US torture must be declassified, especially the torture of anyone still being held at Guantánamo.
  • While the US Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations prohibits many forms of torture, a classified “annex” still permits sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation. These are both forms of cruel treatment which must end.
  • People held in US jails and prisons must be protected from long-term solitary confinement and rape. “Supermax” facilities and “Secure Housing Units,” where inmates spend years and even decades in complete isolation must be shut down. As many as 80,000 prisoners are believed to be in solitary confinement in US prisons today – a form of treatment we now understand can cause lasting psychosis in as short a time as two weeks.
  • The United States should end the death penalty, or at the very least declare a moratorium until it can find a quick and painless method of execution.
  • The United States must address out-of-control police brutality, especially “against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and LGBTI individuals.” This finding is especially poignant in a period when we have just witnessed the failure to indict two white policemen who killed unarmed Black men: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. Like many who have been demonstrating during the last few weeks against racially selective police violence, the Committee was also concerned about “racial profiling by police and immigration offices and growing militarization of policing activities.”

Why should an international body focused specifically on torture care about an apparently broader issue like police behavior? In fact, torture and race- or identity-based police brutality are intimately linked by the reality that lies at the foundation of institutionalized state torture.

Every nation that uses torture must first identify one or more groups of people who are torture’s “legitimate” targets. They are legitimate targets because in the minds of the torturers and of the society that gives torture a home, these people are not entirely human. (In fact, the Chilean secret police called the people they tortured “humanoids.”) Instead, groups singled out for torture are a uniquely degraded and dangerous threat to the body politic, and therefore anything “we” must do to protect ourselves becomes licit. In the United States, with lots of encouragement from the news and entertainment media, many white people believe that African American men represent this kind of unique threat. The logic that allows police to kill unarmed Black men with impunity is not all that different from the logic that produces pogroms or underlies drone assassination programs in far-off places, or that makes it impossible to prosecute our own torturers.

At 15 pages, the whole UN report is certainly a quicker read than the Senate committee’s 500-page “summary.” And it’s a good reminder that, whatever President Obama might wish, this is not the time to close the book on torture. It’s time to re-open the discussion, to hold the torturers accountable, and to bring a real end to US torture.

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3. The English question: a Burkean response?

The prospective award of substantial new powers to the Scottish Parliament, which is currently being debated by the Smith Commission, has engendered a growing unease about the constitutional position of many different parts of the UK. This issue is causing concern in Wales, still reeling at the rushed and unfortunate decision to rule the Barnett formula out of the current constitutional debate, and Northern Ireland, where there is a gathering sense of uncertainty about questions ranging from income tax to the prospect of a hung Parliament, following the 2015 election, and the political leverage this might offer to the Democratic Unionist Party.

And there are concerns, too, for those English regions that feel squeezed between an ever more powerful London and a more autonomous Scotland primed to use the new levers it may acquire to divert investment in its direction.

The aftermath of the Scottish referendum has also unleashed a much wider debate about how England as a whole fares in the post-devolved Union, and specifically about some of the anomalies and asymmetries which Labour’s devolution reforms have accentuated — not least the question of how legislation that affects England only or mainly is handled in the Commons. The Conservatives have sought to claim this issue for itself, identifying with one particular answer to the West Lothian conundrum — English-votes-for-English-laws (EVEL).

Experts and campaigners have been quick to proclaim the pros and cons of this particular idea (which in fact can signal a spectrum of different changes, ranging from denying non-English MPs the right to vote on final readings of Bills to finding different ways of giving English representatives a greater role during the passage of legislation), and the main parties have for the most part responded to it in a dismally partisan fashion.

But these anxieties and worries need to be framed in relation to each other, so that this becomes a moment for wider reflection and democratic debate about some of the principles, conventions, and structures of governance within the UK. With the notable exception of the debate which the Lords staged a few weeks ago, these questions have been given too little consideration. Foundational issues such as how all the different pieces of the devolution puzzle might be knitted together, and what kind of democratic process is now required to ensure such an overview, are worryingly absent from much political discourse.

PM and Deputy PM outside Number 10 by The Prime Minister’s Office. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

There is a growing imperative for the parties to consider what kind of territorial constitution they now wish the UK to become, and to indicate the direction of travel in which they wish constitutional reform to move. Instead Labour says little, a stance that reflects its steady transformation into the conservative party in this area — grimly determined to defend a constitutional settlement which it introduced during the first Blair government.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been more sure-footed politically on this issue. Yet they would do well to ponder the curious evolution of their own unionism — for so long an essential ingredient within the party’s DNA. As it has become ever more Anglicized in terms of its parliamentary representation and grassroots strength, and as it has lost its foothold in Scotland and fallen back in Wales, the Unionist party has increasingly turned into the party of Southern and Eastern England. (Indeed one of the most striking features of UKIP’s current ascendancy is its current success in reaching across the chasm of electoral geography which neither of the two main parties at Westminster seems able to bridge). And while it makes considerable political sense for the Conservatives to try to harness a growing set of English grievances and sensitivities, this needs to be squared with the party’s attempt to pose as the champion of the Unionist tradition when dealing with Scottish separatism, on the one hand, and the strongly devolutionist drift of its policy thinking on Scotland and England, on the other.

These discordant notes need somehow to be brought into a new melodious arrangement. This, after all, is the Conservative party, which has always developed its thinking around the values of constitutional preservation, a respect for established institutions and governing structures, and a Burkean understanding of change as best undertaken in organic and evolutionary ways, rather than at the behest of abstract principle or rationalistic design. And accordingly, when the party has on occasions argued for big reforms — for instance the Corn Laws or the great Reform Act of 1867 — it has done so on the grounds that these changes would ensure the integrity and continuity of the system as a whole.

Houses of Parliament at twilight by Davide Simonetti CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

This ethic has formed the heart of a distinctively Conservative statecraft, an approach to governance reflecting the embedded values of prudent territorial management, sensitivity to the dispositions of the English shires, and a willingness to craft and oversee distinctive institutional settlements for the different territorial parts of the UK. Tory statecraft has for the most part sought to take the political sting out of differences over nationality and territory within the UK, rather than to accentuate and make political capital out of them.

But one of the most striking features of the current situation is the relative paucity of voices considering constitutional change in this kind of way. Instead, the party’s leadership seems to have been spooked by the rise of UKIP into jettisoning its remaining Burkean instincts. Forcing a vote on a proposal for the reform of the House of Commons, which it knows will create a major political division may well make some electoral sense — though whether English anomie will be impressed or satiated by EVEL remains to be seen — but also carries the risk of opening up territorial tensions without the prospect of a viable solution to them within a unionist framework.

Above all, the Conservative party needs to connect the case for the greater recognition and protection of English interests to its commitment to putting the Union on a more durable and fairer footing. Such a position is fundamentally different to the kinds of populist and resentful nationalism which UKIP, and some of its fellow travellers, currently favour. Interestingly, there are signs in recent polling that the English have responded to the Referendum, and the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK, by becoming somewhat less resentful and aggrieved about England’s position in the Union. Such a stance is not compatible, however, with the fantasy of symmetrical devolution all round which underlies the suggestions of those Conservative Cromwellians, who wish to introduce the kind of territorial reform to the House of Commons that would almost certainly amount to the creation of an English parliament and the potential dissolution of the Union.

The Conservatives would do well therefore to rediscover their own tradition of statecraft. This means re-engaging with the diversity of England and the English, and considering the changes that need to be made to the governance and economy of different parts of England — to its counties and rural towns, as well as city-regions and metropolitan authorities — as well as to the Westminster parliament. The boldness and ambition of the offer that George Osborne recently made to Manchester suggest an appreciation of the growing desire for devolution among the English. The challenge now is to shape a more extensive conversation that encompasses all the different pieces of the devolution jigsaw.

Headline image credit: Flag by treehouse1977. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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4. The Best Nonfiction of 2014

A lot is made of the romance of bookstores. The smell of paper! The joy of discovery! The ancient, cracking leather bindings of books with dated inscriptions! And it's true that bookstores are magical places to browse and linger — just maybe not in the two days before Christmas. Because in the swirling mad hum [...]

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5. Why are structural reforms so difficult?

In times of economic crisis, politicians and analysts alike are typically quick to call for structural reforms to stimulate economic growth. Job security regulations are often identified as a policy area in need of such reforms. These regulations restrict the managerial capacity to dismiss employees to allow for downsizing or to replace workers and use new forms of employment such as fixed-term contracts when hiring new workers. Mainstream economics typically blames such regulations for the sclerosis of European labour markets, in particular in southern Europe. But so far, European countries have mostly failed to reform dismissal protection – despite the economic crisis and pressure from international organizations. Why are these regulations so difficult to reform (i.e. dismantle)?

The easy answer is, of course, that some powerful groups, in particular trade unions, oppose these reforms. However, opposition to reform is costly, and unions have been under massive political pressure in recent years to assent to such structural reforms. Why are unions so adamantly opposed to structural reforms and in particular the reduction of dismissal protection in case of open-ended contracts? What is so special about these regulations?

Job security regulations are more important to trade unions than one might think at first sight. In fact, trade unions have at least three reasons to fight the reform of dismissal protection in case of open-ended contracts. The first reason is rather straightforward: unions need to represent their members’ interest in statutory dismissal protection. The two other reasons, however, are often overlooked: unions have an organizational interest in retaining dismissal protection because these regulations prevent employers hostile to trade unions from singling out union members in workforce reductions. Put differently, protection against arbitrary dismissal also involves the protection of the local union organization against anti-union employers. In addition, unions have an interest in protecting their involvement in the administration of dismissals because this involvement allows them to influence management decisions at the company level. In many countries, job security regulations give trade unions important co-decision rights in case of dismissals (e.g. Swedish regulations award unions the right to co-decide the selection of workers in case of dismissals for economic reasons). Put simply, job security regulations often make unions relevant actors in the workplace.

The Apprentice: you’re fired? by Adam Foster. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via flickr

Of course, these three reasons don’t have the same weight in all European countries. For instance, the fear of employers hostile to unions is probably more important in southern European countries characterized by conflictual industrial relations (in most of these countries, employers were not required to recognize local union representations before the 1970s), while the involvement in the administration of dismissals is particularly important in countries characterized by long traditions of cooperative industrial relations (e.g. Germany and Sweden). Everywhere though, unions have sufficient reason to fight any reform of dismissal protection.

Facing such union resistance, governments have typically resorted to the deregulation of temporary employment. Unions have been more accepting of such two-tier reforms because temporarily employed workers are underrepresented among the union rank-and-file and because in the case of temporary employment unions have no organizational interests to defend. The deregulation of temporary employment (while the protection awarded to workers on open-ended contracts has remained more or less constant) has become a prominent example of so-called dualization processes, which are characterized by a differential treatment of workers in standard employment relationships (‘insiders’) and workers in more precarious employment relationships (‘outsiders’). Arguably, in some countries like Italy, the share of workers benefitting from (overly?) strict dismissal protection is now lower than the share of workers benefitting from hardly any dismissal protection at all.

So where are we standing after about three decades of calls for structural reforms such as the deregulation of job security? The three aforementioned reasons for unions to oppose the reform of dismissal protection in case of open-ended contracts are still there. The average union member still benefits from these regulations, unions continue to be worried about employers taking advantage of collective dismissals to rid themselves of unionized workers, and the institutional involvement in the administration of dismissals continues to be an important source of union power – in particular in times of dwindling membership.

Today, however, unions have a fourth reason to oppose structural reforms. For three decades they have reluctantly assented to two-tier reforms only to be confronted with further calls for numerical flexibility. By now there are as many workers on precarious contracts as there are workers on regular open-ended contracts – in particular in the countries that are said to be in greatest need of structural reforms. Nevertheless, calls for reform focus almost exclusively on dismissal protection of workers on open-ended contracts rather than on measures to improve the lot of the disadvantaged young, women, or elderly on precarious contracts. You don’t have to be a radical Italian trade unionist to find this one-sidedness a little bit odd.

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6. Why Republican governors embrace Obamacare

The national headlines following the 2014 Midterm elections trumpeted the Republican success in seizing the majority in the US Senate and expanding its strength in the US House to record numbers since 1929. These wins were striking but hardly surprising given the tsunami of polls. The big news that continues to elude commentators are the Republican wins in gubernatorial elections – wins that may well have more impact on everyday lives than the Washington battle that pits a Republican Congress against President Barack Obama’s veto pen. Republicans not only pulled out wins in hotly contested battles in Florida, Kansas, Maine, and Wisconsin, but they also invaded Democratic strongholds by prevailing in Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

Will the GOP gubernatorial wins sweep in a revolution that, among other things, wipes out Obamacare’s centerpiece – the state’s decision to expand Medicaid? Many commentators are predicting just that – repeal or blockage of health reform. They often point to the fiery partisanship in Washington.

The talking heads are wrong. The raw partisanship in Washington cools in the hands of governors facing the nitty-gritty job of running their states – searching for revenues to design budgets and addressing the pressure from doctors and hospitals and advocates for the vulnerable.

Partisanship has been a tractor beam on many states. Democratic states have moved faster and further towards expanding Medicaid than their Republican counterparts, providing some credence to the recent reports that new Republican governors will hinder reform. What is striking, however, is that partisanship – and particularly steadfast GOP opposition to reform — has often been moderated or overridden by the real-world circumstances facing governors. What could possibly convince a politically skilled GOP governor to take on their party on such a high profile issue?

Carrots. The decision to adopt the expansion of Medicaid rests with states. The federal government has served up an enticing financial package: 100% of the costs for the first three years of the program and 90% afterward.

Hospitals that serve the uninsured and poor are facing dramatic reductions in federal government funding, leaving many to worry about dire financial crises. Medicaid expansion is a lifeline for these providers. It also may help state budgets by picking up the cost of caring for the uninsured, what is known as “uncompensated” or charity care.

Here is one of the most striking patterns in our era of partisan polarization: states with Republican governors in Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and others embraced Medicaid reform. In Arizona for example, conservative firebrand Governor Jan Brewer forced Medicaid reform through the state legislature as an imperative to create jobs, save hospitals, and ensure coverage for Arizona residents. Governor John Kasich passed it by going rogue on his Republican legislature by circumventing them altogether and risking a constitutional crisis.

The Republican recent romp has elected a new crop of pragmatic governors. Maryland Governor-Elect Larry Hogan and Illinois Governor-Elect Bruce Rauner seem poised to find a path forward to implementing reform. Florida’s Scott has supported Medicaid expansion in the past and may find more support in the GOP legislature now that the election is over. Some Republican governors favor reform in a modified form so they can publicly frame it as a “conservative model” that fits their states.

A new normal is arriving. The uncompromising push to repeal Obamacare is being replaced with a pragmatism geared to solving real problems. The irony of the GOP gubernatorial success in 2014 is that it may mark the turning point from vitriolic partisanship to real-world problem solving.

Headline image credit: Election vote. CC0 via Pixabay.

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7. Gary King: an update on Dataverse

At the American Political Science Association meetings earlier this year, Gary King, Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard University, gave a presentation on Dataverse. Dataverse is an important tool that many researchers use to archive and share their research materials. As many readers of this blog may already know, the journal that I co-edit, Political Analysis, uses Dataverse to archive and disseminate the replication materials for the articles we publish in our journal. I asked Gary to write some remarks about Dataverse, based on his APSA presentation. His remarks are below.

*   *   *   *   *

An update on Dataverse

By Gary King

If you’re an academic researcher, odds are you’re not a professional archivist and so you probably have more interesting things to do when making data available than following the detailed protocols and procedures established over many years by the archiving community. That of course might be OK for any one of us but it is a terrible loss for all of us. The Dataverse Network Project offers a solution to this problem by eliminating transaction costs and changing the incentives to make data available by giving you substantial web visibility and academic citation credit for your data and scholarship (King, 2007). Dataverse Networks are installed at universities and other institutions around the world (e.g., here is the Dataverse network at Harvard’s IQSS), and represent the world’s largest collection of social science research data. In recent years, Dataverse has also been adopted by an increasingly diverse array of other fields and protocols and procedures are being built out to enable numerous fields of science, social science, and the humanities to work together.

With a few minutes of set-up time, you can add your own Dataverse to your homepage with a list of data sets or replication data sets you make available, with whatever levels of permission you want for the broader community, and a vast array of professional services (e.g., here’s my Dataverse on my homepage). People will be able to more easily find your data and homepage, explore your data and scholarship, find connections to other resources, download data in any format, and learn proper ways of citing your work. They will even be able to analyze your data while still on your web site with a vast array of statistical methods through the transparent and automated connection Dataverse has built to Zelig: Everyone’s Statistical Software, and through Zelig to R. The result is that your data will be professionally preserved and easier to access — effectively automating the tasks of professional archiving, including citing, sharing, analyzing, archiving, preserving, distributing, cataloging, translating, disseminating, naming, verifying, and replicating data.

Dataverse Network Diagram, by Institute for Quantitative Social Science. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Dataverse is an active project with new developments in software, protocols, and community connections coming rapidly. A brand new version of the code, written from scratch, will be available in a few months. Through generous grants from the Sloan Foundation, we have been working hard on eliminating other types of transaction costs for capturing data for the research community. These include deep integration with scholarly journals so that it can be trivially easy for an editor to encourage or require data associated with publications to be made available. We presently offer journals three options:

  • Do it yourself. Authors publish data to their own dataverse, put the citation to their data in their final submitted paper. Journals verify compliance by having the copyeditor check for the existence of the citation.
  • Journal verification. Authors submit draft of replication data to Journal Dataverse. Journal reviews it, and approves it for release. Finally, the dataset is published with a formal data citation and back to the article. (See, for example, the Political Analysis Dataverse, with replication data back to 1999.)
  • Full automation: Seamless integration between journal submission system and Dataverse; Automatic Link created between article and data. The result is that it is easy for the journal and author and many errors are eliminated.

Full automation in our third option is where we are heading. Already today, in 400 scholarly journals in the Open Journal System, the author enters their data as part of submission of the final draft of the accepted paper for publication, and the citation, permanent links between the data and the article, and formal preservation is taken care of, all automatically. We are working on expanding this as an option for all of OJS’s 5,000+ journals, and to a wide array of other scholarly journal publishers. The result will be that we capture data with the least effort on anyone’s part, at exactly the point where it is easiest and most important to capture.

We are also working on extending Dataverse to cover new higher levels of security that are more prevalent in big data collections and those in public health, medicine, and other areas with informative data on human subjects. Yes, you can preserve data and make it available under appropriate protections, even if you have highly confidential, proprietary, or otherwise sensitive data. We are working on other privacy tools as well. We already have an extensive versioning system in Dataverse, but are planning to add support for continuously updated data such as streamed from sensors, tools for online fast data access, queries, visualization, analysis methods for when data cannot be moved because of size or privacy concerns, and ways to use the huge volume of web analytics to improve Dataverse and Zelig.

This post comes from the talk I gave at the American Political Association Meetings August 2014, using these slides. Many thanks to Mike Alvarez for inviting this post.

Featured image: Matrix code computer by Comfreak. CC0 via Pixabay.

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8. The food we eat: A Q&A on agricultural and food controversies

The world is more interested in issues surrounding agriculture and food than ever before. Questions swirl around the safety of our food, how it’s made, and what we can do to ensure we eat the best food. We asked F. Bailey Norwood, one of the authors of Agricultural and Food Controversies: What Everyone Needs to Know, to answer some of today’s most pressing queries.

Why has agriculture become so controversial?

There are many reasons, but a major one is the fact that agriculture today involves both big corporations and big government. Individuals with left-leaning political beliefs are hostile towards big corporations, whereas those on the right feel the same way about big government. This creates political tension that is not easy to resolve. Big corporations exist because there are economies-of-scale in agriculture, and there are extensive government regulations due to the many ways agriculture affects human health and the environment. Rather than lament the politicization of food, perhaps we should view it as a sign of a healthy democracy.

How do regulators know whether the pesticides we apply are safe?

The same way kings and popes would make sure their food wasn’t poisoned: they had official tasters who ate the food first. Our tasters are laboratory animals, who are exposed to varying amounts of pesticides, to determine at what level exposure to pesticides are unsafe. Humans are obviously not laboratory animals, so there is a safety-factor built into regulations, such that humans will not be exposed to even 1/100 of the amount that would impair the health of a lab rat.

What is the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of the food I eat?

Some foods emit more greenhouse gases than others. Beef, for instance, has a higher carbon footprint per-calorie than most other foods. Vegans are often found to have smaller carbon footprints than their omnivorous counterparts. Rather than concentrating on which foods you eat, an alternative strategy is to buy cheaper food and use the savings to purchase carbon offsets. Although this may not have the cultural appeal as Meatless Mondays, it is arguably the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of your food.

Are foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) safe to eat?

The most prestigious scientific organizations like the National Academy of Sciences believe so. Those who both understand the science of genetic modification and fear such foods usually do so because they believe the corporations creating GMOs have excessive political influence. What is so interesting about the GMO debate is that the practice of cutting genes out of one organism and placing them into the DNA of another organism has become so controversial, yet the practice of altering plant genes by zapping their DNA with radiation has not. At my university, opposition to GMOs has discouraged us from improving wheat by genetic modification, but some of our best wheat varieties were created by inducing genetic mutations in wheat through chemicals. It is not clear why one of these is feared and the other one is ignored.

Should I join the local foods movement?

If you believe you can acquire better food from local sources, whether it be higher quality or lower prices, then yes, buying local foods is a great idea. The local food movement might also help induce a cultural change such that people begin eating healthier foods. That said, there is little validity to the argument that buying local foods is good for economic growth, and there is no guarantee that local foods are better for the environment.

Headline image credit: Ecologically grown vegetables by Elina Mark. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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9. Touchy-feely politics

In April 2009, Barack and Michelle Obama met Queen Elizabeth I during their first state visit to England. At one point during their encounter, Michelle Obama put her arm around the Queen’s lower back and rubbed her shoulder, and the Queen reciprocated. It was the kind of gesture that might seem quite unremarkable when exchanged by friends, or even casual acquaintances: but, given the participants on this particular occasion, it unsurprisingly attracted a great deal more attention. The British tabloid press responded with all the measured calm for which it is so famous. The Daily Mail called their interaction “utterly astonishing,” and saw it as evidence of a “new touchy feely protocol.”

Responding to this scenario with faux amazement of this sort, however, wrongly suggests that the rules against touching a monarch differ fundamentally from those that govern the non-royal lives that the rest of us live. Rather than brewing a storm in a royal teacup in this way, we can instead use this moment to reflect upon the role that quieter, implicit, unspoken codes and rituals continue to play in our everyday interactions. The fact that the Queen cannot typically be touched doesn’t make her unlike the rest of us: it just means that the rules are clearer and less ambiguous in her case, and so too are the moments in which they are contravened.

Nowhere is the presence of such tacit codes clearer, perhaps, than in moments of greeting and parting, those ritualised exchanges that book-end so many of our daily interactions. Even something as routine as a handshake has a deeper symbolism buried within it – it is likely that the gesture first came to prominence among Quakers in the seventeenth century, as a deliberately egalitarian alternative to the doffing of hats, so it carries a political message of equality in addition to its social utility. The precise way in which a handshake is carried out – its degree of limpness or firmness, say – can tacitly set the tone for the conversation that follows.

Then there are the more intimate alternatives to the handshake – an embrace, or a peck on the cheek. It’s only at such a moment that both I, and the person with whom I am speaking, have to specify and give expression to our understanding of our relationship, and its level of intimacy. It’s a potentially fraught moment. What if I reach my hand out to be shaken at the precise moment that my interlocutor leans in for a hug? What if we exchange kisses on one cheek, but I swoop in for a kiss on the other side while the other person has already withdrawn his or her face, leaving me awkwardly to pucker up at thin air? It’s hard to say whether it is more embarrassing to be the one who has expected a greater degree of intimacy and been denied it, or the one who issues an accidental rebuff. A stiff moment of silence typically follows.

Described in this way, the most routine moments, which usually pass without incident, start to sound like a potential minefield of awkwardness and humiliation. We might hope to avoid experiencing such emotions ourselves, but the very fact that they are possible confirms just how important are these quiet, everyday exchanges. The more overt rituals that still structure touch-feely politics at the highest level are simply a magnification of the role that these rituals play in our everyday lives.

Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. Public Domain via Flickr.

Once restrictions on touching the monarch have officially been formulated, it increases the political significance that casual acts of touch can assume. While restrictions of this sort have existed in many different cultures and eras, the point at which they were codified in English history can be pinpointed quite precisely. This occurred during the reign of Henry VIII, in the form of the Eltham Ordinances of 1526, orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey. These regulations stressed that only Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber could dress the King, but insisted “that none of the said Grooms or Ushers do approach or presume…to lay hands upon his royal person.” The fact that Henry’s body couldn’t routinely be handled enabled him to invest those moments in which he did deign to touch his subjects all the more significant.

The implications of this situation were sharply recognised by Thomas More, as reported in the posthumous biography by his son-in-law, William Roper. Roper recalled the King walking with More in his garden after dinner one day, and “holding his arm about his neck.” Roper recognised this as a great sign of favour, and congratulated More, who wryly replied that “I believe he doth as singly favour me as any subject within this realm. Howbeit, son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France … it should not fail to go.” More’s bleakly prophetic words recognised both the importance of these moments of unobtrusive intimacy, and their tendency to pale in comparison with the brutalities of realpolitik.

This moment suggests that the “new touchy-feely protocol” between the Queen and Michelle Obama was not in fact new, but continued a long-standing tendency for rulers to allow their bodies to be accessed in casual ways at carefully chosen moments. Barack Obama has shown himself to be no less aware of the symbolic force of striking moments of gentle contact, as with the 2012 photo, shown around the world, of the President allowing a five-year-old to feel his hair and confirm that it felt like the boy’s own. The real interest in such moments, however, lies less in what they tell us about the behaviour of rulers, than in the opportunity that they provide for reflection on the significance of such moments, so often fleeting and barely registered, in our own lives. The rituals that govern everyday conduct are less explicit than the Eltham Ordinances, but it is their unspoken nature that grants them both their quiet importance, and their perennial capacity for embarrassment.

Header image credit: ‘No Touching’ by Scott Akerman. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

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10. “Happy Birthday, Mr. Putin!”: celebrating political masculinity in Russia

A key element of Vladimir Putin’s legitimation strategy has been the cultivation of a macho image. His various public relations stunts subduing wild animals, playing rough sports, and displaying his muscular torso, drew on widely familiar ideas about masculinity. The purpose was to portray Putin as a strong, decisive leader who could be counted upon to solve challenging problems with a convincing mixture of cool levelheadedness and the credible threat to use force as needed. But while masculinity is demonstrated through such displays, it is also reinforced by the sexualized attention of traditionally feminine, attractive young women.

The mobilization of masculinity as a political resource has been visible in Putin’s birthday gifts, as well as in other Putin-oriented cultural productions. While Putin has been receiving elaborate birthday presents almost since the start of his first term as Russian president, this post largely focuses on a handful of gifts in recent years that have come from organized pro-Putin activists and emphasized Putin’s masculinity.

In October 2010, as a gift for Putin’s 58th birthday, twelve female students and alumni of Moscow State University’s prestigious journalism department published a calendar featuring photographs of themselves looking as if they had walked out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Offering witty, sexualized quips, each young woman suggested herself as a potential lover for Mr. Putin. “You put the forest fires out, but I’m still burning,” smiled a student illustrating the month of March. In a similar vein, in July 2011 a group called Putin’s Army announced an “I’ll Rip [It] for Putin” contest with a video that got over 2.5 million hits. The clip featured a buxom young woman ripping open her tank top to demonstrate her dedication to Putin. In October, Putin’s Army continued its activity by filming a video for Putin’s fifty-ninth birthday. Promising that their birthday gift would be “the sweetest,” a handful of women wearing only underpants and white button-down shirts were shown baking their idol a chocolate birthday cake (decorated with a heart) while squirting whipped cream into their mouths. An email-hacking incident in 2012 revealed that the Kremlin-sponsored youth group, Nashi, had funded Putin’s Army along with a range of other pro-Putin web projects.

Valerie Sperling - Putin 2
Vladimir Putin by Kremlin.ru. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Nor did pro-Kremlin groups let Putin’s 60th birthday pass without a new proclamation of young women’s love for the president. In early October 2012, the United Russia party’s youth wing, Young Guard, produced a video for the occasion featuring attractive young women mimicking a variety of Putin’s manly exploits (flying a fighter jet, playing ice-hockey, and scuba diving for “ancient” pottery). In each setting, the women’s femininity was exaggerated, and most of them were shown receiving a text message from Putin (“The Very One”) while carrying out their feats. The final scene, over the strains of “Blueberry Hill” (which Putin had sung at a celebrity fundraiser two years earlier), showed all the women standing together on a city street, waiting in great anticipation — with a birthday cake — for Putin to arrive. The clip closed with the “Blueberry Hill” lyric ostensibly ringing in each woman’s mind: “My dreams came true.” The video playfully spoofed Putin’s stunts while upholding his image as a highly desirable man from the standpoint of the women who thrilled over his text messages and grew giddy at the prospect of seeing him in person.

If pro-Putin youth groups presented any public gifts to the president in 2013, none attained viral status on the Internet. Putin spent his birthday in Bali that year at the APEC summit, where he was serenaded with “Happy Birthday to You!” by Indonesia’s president. Putin was also the subject of a music video released the previous day, written and performed by a St. Petersburg artist, Aleksei Sergienko, who had made the news a year earlier after showing fifteen portraits of Putin at an exhibit titled “The President. A Kind-Hearted Man.” Sergienko’s song, titled, “Hang in there, man!” (Muzhik, derzhis’!), repeatedly encouraged Putin to “hang in there” as he resolutely confronted challenges ranging from Pussy Riot’s insults to European demands for LGBT rights. “We wish him strength,” explained Sergienko.

In 2014, playful presents from pro-Kremlin youth groups addressing Putin primarily as a manly sex object gave way to birthday offerings with a more grandiose and nationalistic tone. The latest such group, called Network — formed “from the ashes” of Nashi — produced two gifts starkly emphasizing Putin’s achievements as an unshakeable national leader navigating a hostile international environment. The first was an art exhibit, organized for Putin’s 62nd birthday, featuring artistic renderings of “The Twelve Labors of Putin” (modeled after the Twelve Labors of Hercules). Here Putin could be seen shielding Russia from the economic sanctions (rendered as serpents) imposed after Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and beheading the Hydra-head belonging to the US. Network’s second gift was a series of giant patriotic murals emblazoned on walls in seven Russian cities, each illustrating one of Putin’s achievements for Russia: Strength, Remembrance, Arctic, Sovereignty, History, Security, and Olympics — an anagram for the Russian word “Spasibo” (thank you). As Network’s press secretary explained, under Putin, Russia was winning. With Putin in charge, the state, like its leader, was now seen as strong, tough, victorious, and — naturally — manly.

Featured image: Russian president Vladimir Putin by World Economic Forum, photo by Remy Steinegger. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

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11. The development of peace

The story of peace is as old as the story of humanity itself, and certainly as old as war. It is a story of progress, often in very difficult circumstances. Historically, peace has often been taken, to imply an absence of overt violence or war between or sometimes within states–in other words, a negative peace. War is often thought to be the natural state of humanity, peace of any sort being fragile and fleeting. I would challenge this view. Peace in its various forms has been by far humanity’s more common experience—as the archaeological, ethnographic, and historic records indicate. Much of history has been relatively peaceful and orderly, while frameworks for security, law, redistribution of resources, and justice have constantly been advancing. Peace has been at the centre of the human experience, and a sophisticated version of peace has become widely accepted in modernity, representing a more positive form of peace.

Peace has been organized domestically within the state, internationally through global organizations and institutions, or transnationally through actors whose ambit covers all of these levels. Peace can be public or private. Peace has often been a hidden phenomenon, subservient to power and interests.

The longer term aspiration for a self-sustaining, positive peace via a process aimed at a comprehensive outcome has rarely been attained, however, even with the combined assistance—in recent times—of international donors, the United Nations, World Bank, military forces, or international NGOs.

Peace is also a rather ambiguous concept. Authoritarian governments and powerful states have, throughout history, had a tendency to impose their version of peace on their own citizens as well as those of other states, as with the Soviet Union’s suppression of dissent amongst its own population and those of its satellite states, such as East Germany or Czechoslovakia. Peace and war may be closely connected, such as when military force is deployed to make peace, as with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) airstrikes in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 and in Yugoslavia in 1999.

CND badge. Photo by Gerald Holtom. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons
CND badge. Photo by Gerald Holtom. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Both George Orwell (1903–50), in his novel 1984, and the French social theorist Michel Foucault (1926–84) noted the dangers of the relationship between war and peace in their well-known aphorisms: ‘peace is war’, ‘war is peace’. Nevertheless, peace is closely associated with a variety of political, social, economic, and cultural struggles against the horrors of war and oppression. Peace activism has normally been based on campaigns for individual and group rights and needs, for material and legal equality between groups, genders, races, and religions, disarmament, and to build international institutions. This has required the construction of local and international associations, networks, and institutions, which coalesced around widely accepted agendas. Peace activism supported internationally organized civil society campaigns against slavery in the 18th century, and for basic human dignity and rights ever since. Various peace movements have struggled for independence and self-determination, or for voting rights and disarmament (most famously perhaps, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).

Ordinary people can, and have often, mobilized for peace in societal terms using peaceful methods of resistance. A wealth of historical and contemporary evidence supports a popular desire for a broad, positive form of peace. Recent research indicates that its development will tend to be hybrid. A hybrid peace framework ultimately must represent a wide range of social practices, identities, as well as indicating the coexistence of different forms of state, and a widely pluralist international community.

Featured image credit: Dove. CC0 via Pixabay.

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12. Scotland is a different place now

One of the ironies of the Scottish independence referendum is that Scotland is widely recognised to be a changed place despite the majority voting in favour of the union. It became clear during the course of 2014 that something significant was happening. Scotland witnessed levels of public engagement and debate never before seen. Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Glasgow 1960’ comes to mind. Returning to Glasgow ‘after long exile’, MacDiarmid’s narrator encounters packed trams heading for Ibrox, the home of Rangers football club, but discovers that the crowds are going to listen to a debate between ‘Professor MacFadyen and a Spainish pairty’ and that newspapers with headlines ‘Special! Turkish Poet’s Abstruse New Song’ were selling ‘like hot cakes’.

The Scottish Question may not have been debated on quite so elevated a level but debates were conducted the length and breadth of Scotland in a remarkably civil, engaging, and open manner. Those who sought to portray these debates as something sinister could do no better than refer to a professional politician who had an egg thrown at him while he addressed meetings on top of an Irn Bru crate. The dull, limited, predictable, binary debate of the conventional press contrasted with the expansive, lively, and engaging discussions that took place in often novel venues in every nook and cranny of Scotland. The Scottish Question, as debated by the public, was not restricted to a narrow constitutional question but became a genuine dialogue about what kind of place Scotland should seek to become. The referendum started a process that has not been halted by the outcome of a referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country, the formal question that provoked this all-embracing national conversation.

The result of referendum and reaction to it has been in stark contrast to the referendum on devolution 35 years ago. In 1979, Scots had narrowly voted for a very limited form of devolution – 51.6% in favour on a turnout of 63.7% – but the measure on offer was not implemented as it failed to achieve the weighted majority demanded by Parliament at Westminster. The expectation in the run-up to that referendum had been that a decisive majority would vote for devolution. The slight numeric majority hid a defeat in expectations. Expectations were very different in the months leading up to September 18th this year. Early in 2014, opponents of independence thought that they might push support for independence below 30% and were still convinced that it would win less than 40% only a few weeks before Scots went to vote. In the event, 55.3% voted for the union on a record turnout of 84.6% but it has been the 45% that has been celebrated as victory. It has been the membership of the Yes parties, that has increased dramatically, with the membership of the Scottish National Party now dwarfing that of the other Scottish parties. With just under 100,000 members, the SNP can claim to be the only mass party in the UK today. Politics is an expectations game and supporters of independence knew that they had a ‘mountain to climb’, in the words of the chair of the official Yes campaign.

As opinion polls narrowed towards the end of the campaign, a ‘Vow’ was signed by the three main UK party leaders promising substantially more devolution while protecting Scotland’s share of public spending. This means that even the debate around the narrowed constitutionalist understanding of the Scottish Question will continue. More powers will be delivered with ramifications for the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland is a changed place but an answer to the Scottish Question remains as elusive as ever.

Headline image credit: Glencoe, Scotland panorama by Gil Cavalcanti. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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13. Charting events in international security in 2013

The world today is a very complex place. Events such as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the devastating conflict erupting in Syria, and the often-fraught relations between the world’s superpowers highlight an intricate and interconnecting web of international relations and national interests. The SIPRI Yearbook, published every year, keeps track of these global developments around issues of security, and analyses the data and implications behind the headlines you’ve been reading in the past year – from conflicts and armaments to peace negotiations and treaties.

Did you know, for example, that in 2013, the Arms Trade Treaty was opened for signature in the UN HQ in New York City? This treaty, when it comes into force, will roll out international arms regulation for trading in arms, and prohibit the sale of any arms by a state party which will be used in genocide or crimes against humanity. Or that throughout 2013 the Democratic Republic of Congo, combined with international assistance, made considerable gains in stabilizing troubled regions of the country, bringing the state one step closer to security and safety?

With snippets taken from the SIPRI Yearbook 2014, which analyses significant events across the globe in the previous year, the map below helps you explore the global state of affairs, as they happened in 2013:

Headline image credit: Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria after the 2012 Battle of Azaz. Photo by Christian Triebert. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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14. How Malcolm X’s visit to the Oxford Union is relevant today

Fifty years ago today, a most unlikely figure was called to speak at the Oxford Union Debating Society: Mr. Malcolm X. The Union, with its historic chamber modeled on the House of Commons, was the political training ground for the scions of the British establishment. Malcolm X, by contrast, had become a global icon of black militancy, with a reputation as a dangerous Black Muslim. The visit seemed something of an awkward pairing. Malcolm X encountered a hotel receptionist who tried to make him write his name in full in the guest book (she had never heard of him), sat through a bow tie silver service dinner ahead of the debate, and had to listen to a conservative debating opponent accuse him of being a racist on a par with the Prime Minister of South Africa. A closer look at the event, though, reveals the pairing of Malcolm X and the Oxford Union to be a good fit — and reveals much about the issues of race and rights then, and now.

From the perspective of the Oxford Union, a controversial speaker was an entirely good thing. The BBC covered Malcolm X’s costs and broadcast the debate. In late 1964, though, Malcolm X also spoke to student concerns about race equality. For many years, the British media’s (sympathetic) coverage of anti-racist protests in the American South and South Africa gave the impression that racial discrimination was chiefly to be found elsewhere. A bitter election which turned on anti-immigration sentiment in late 1964 in Smethwick, in the English midlands, with its infamous slogan, “If you want a n***** for you neighbour, vote Labour,” exposed the virulence of the race issue in Britain, too. Students followed this news abroad and at home. Some visited “racial hotspots” in person. Others joined demonstrations in solidarity. Still, on the surface, such issues seemed a world away from Oxford’s dreaming spires.

But some students in Oxford were also grappling with the question of race in their own institution. The Union President, Eric Antony Abrahams, was a Jamaican Rhodes Scholar, who had vowed to his sister in his first week that he would “fill the Union chamber with blacks.” Abrahams was part of a growing cohort of students from newly independent nations who studied in Britain, many of whom called for changes in curriculum and representation. Three days before Malcolm X arrived, Oxford students released a report showing that more than half of University landladies in the city refused to accept students of color. The University had an official policy of non-discrimination, but the fact that many landladies turned down black applicants in practice had been a running sore for years. The report, and Malcolm X’s visit, brought the matter to public attention. Student activism ultimately forced a change in practice, part of a nationwide series of protests against the unofficial color-bar in many British lodgings. At a time when Ferguson is rightly at the forefront of the news, events in Oxford in 1964 remind us that atrocities elsewhere should serve as a prompt to address, rather than a reason to ignore, questions of rights and representation nearer to home.

Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin on March 26, 1964. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin on 26 March 1964. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For Malcolm X, coming to Oxford was an exciting challenge. He loved pitting his wits against the brightest and the best. As chance would have it, as Prisoner 22843 in the Norfolk Penal Colony in Massachusetts, he may well have debated against a visiting team from Oxford. More germane, though, was Malcolm’s desire in what turned out to be the final year of his life to place the black freedom struggle in America within the global context of human rights. He had spent the better part of 1964 in the Middle East and Africa. In each stop along his dizzying itinerary of states, he attempted to build support for international opposition to racial discrimination in America. Malcolm’s visits to Europe in late 1964 were no different. But it was Oxford that afforded him the opportunity to broadcast his views before his widest single audience yet. Citing the recent murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, Malcolm X told his audience: “In that country, where I am from, still our lives are not worth two cents.”

At a time when cities across the United States have recently braced themselves against the threat of rebellion in the aftermath of the acquittal of Michael Brown’s killer, it is hard not to conclude that for many African Americans, Malcolm’s words at Oxford continue to haunt the nation. Indeed, by placing the civil rights movement in broad relief internationally, Malcolm sought to link the fate of African Americans with West Indians, Pakistanis, West Africans, Indians, and others, seeking their own justice in the capitals and banlieus of Europe. Emphasizing the independence of this new emergent world both within and outside of the confines of Europe, Malcolm hoped that the “time of revolution” his audience was living in would in part be defined by a broader sense of what it meant to be human. There could no longer be distinctions between “black” and “white” deaths — despite his condemnation of the media for continuing to indulge such distinctions.

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15. Looking beyond the Scottish referendum

In British constitutional history, 2014 will undoubtedly be remembered for one thing and one thing only — the Scottish independence referendum. ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ was the deceptively simple question that veiled a far more complex reality. This complexity was revealed in the pre-election build-up as the three main parties offered concession upon concession in order to head-off a ‘Yes’ vote. As such, ‘No’ did not mean ‘no’ but a preference for ‘devo-max’ and a model of devolution that was ‘as close to a federal state as you can be in a country where one nation is 85% of the population’ as Gordon Brown put it. But what did the Scottish independence referendum really expose about the changing nature of politics?

This week’s recommendations by the Smith Commission on Scottish devolution (full control over income tax rates and bands, devolution of some element of VAT plus Air Passenger Duty, the devolution of responsibility for some welfare benefits, etc.) represents the latest but not the final stage in the post-referendum politics of devolution in the UK. Indeed, just hours after the Smith Commission had been published more than 100 English councils demanded more powers — ‘Its England’s turn now’ — and David Cameron committed the coalition government to publish an English votes plan by Christmas. English votes for English laws are not quite the same as the devolution of powers that is demanded by local authorities from Cornwall to Cumbria but it does suggest a need to stop — step back — and reflect upon the broader implications of the Scottish independence referendum. I’ve attempted to answer five questions below to help tease out some of the broader issues.

What did we learn?

We learnt a huge amount about democratic energy and participatory zeal. Doom and gloom about democratic apathy and public disengagement from politics was replaced with a vitality and verve that was almost tangible as every school hall, pub, and youth club was filled with debates about the pros and cons of independence. The lesson for the political parties and politicians is that public will engage in politics when they feel they have been given a meaningful role, a real choice, and a say in matters such as their country’s fiscal policy. The statistics speak for themselves: 4,283,392 people voted (85% turnout) and as Robert Crawford hoped, Scotland has emerged as a stronger country with an intensified (and globally admired) sense of itself as a democratic place.

Tenement block in Leith (North Junction Street/Lindsay Road junction), with both YES and NO referendum posters and Union flag. By Brian McNeil CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Tenement block in Leith with both YES and NO referendum posters and Union flag. By Brian McNeil CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What is the key challenge?

The Scottish independence referendum breathed new life into politics and the question for all the main political parties is how to sustain and channel that democratic energy in other ways and across the UK. This won’t be easy as the Scottish referendum tapped into a number of very deep historical and cultural issues in order to generate its energy but there must be some way to harness and replicate the civic energy and civic engagement that Scotland displayed with such pride. Put slightly differently, if the main political parties cannot offer some of the hope and belief that energized the referendum campaign on both sides then the more extreme populist parties will feast upon the political frustrations that currently exist.

Where does this leave us now?

Confused and divided. Confused in the sense of lacking any real understanding of what the United Kingdom is any more, both constitutionally and politically; divided in the sense that there is no shared agreement amongst the main parties about what is to be done. To some extent — and as James Mitchell highlighted, this is not a new situation for the UK but I would argue that the situation is now more extreme. It’s increasingly a unitary state in the very loosest sense of the term but the parties are divided on the best way to deliver a new sense of equilibrium within the system. More devolution to Scotland unleashes similar demands from other parts of the UK but the culture of Westminster and Whitehall lacks the capacity to deal with the constitution in a ‘joined-up’ manner. The current situation is therefore one of classically British ad hoc, unprincipled muddling through — with the recent devolution agreement between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the leaders of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority being a case in point.

Is the post-referendum UK experiencing a ‘constitutional moment’?

Yes, it probably is but this is the problem. The Scottish independence referendum was a ‘democratic moment’ in the sense that there was a bottom-up pressure for change that was accommodated by the democratic process. The post-referendum discussions and debates have, however, been undertaken at an elite level and the most telling evidence of this comes not in the form of the Smith Commission but in the work of William Hague’s committee on ‘a fair settlement that applies to all parts of the UK’. When announcing this committee the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that ‘it is also important we have wider civic engagement about how to improve governance in our United Kingdom…we will say more about this in the coming days’. But so far these plans for ‘wider civic engagement’ have remained undisclosed. The idea of a national Citizens Assembly has been rejected and as a result the UK is experiencing an elite-driven top-down ‘constitutional moment’ but certainly not a ‘bottom-up public-led’ democratic moment.

What is the big issue that no one is talking about?

One of the most positive elements of the Scottish independence referendum had nothing to do with the quality of the debate, the inclusion of a cross-section of society, or the level or turnout. It had everything to do with the simple fact that two countries were able to decide upon their mutual futures through peaceful and democratic means. This was an independence referendum that was not driven by war, crisis or disaster; nor did it demand battle or bloodshed; and the results were peacefully accepted with grace and goodwill on both sides. In a world that too often seems bloodied and bowed by territorial politics maybe this is the ‘big issue’ that we should be talking about and learning from.

Heading image: Flags outside Parliament by Calum Hutchinson. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. The parsonage allowance and standing in the state courts

In Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Lew, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently dismissed a constitutional challenge to the parsonage allowance provisions of the Internal Revenue Code (Code). Under Section 107(2) of the Code, a “minister of the gospel” need not pay income taxes on the housing allowance received by the minister as part of his or her compensation. According to the plaintiffs in this case, the income tax exclusion established by Code Section 107(2) violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the exclusion is available only to clergy, not to individuals who receive cash housing allowances from their secular employers.

In dismissing the case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the appeals court did not reach the substantive merits of this constitutional claim. Rather, the Seventh Circuit dismissed the case on the basis of standing or, to be precise, the plaintiffs’ lack of standing. In procedural terms, the appeals court ruled, the FFRF plaintiffs never asked the IRS for tax-free treatment for their housing allowances:

[T]he plaintiffs were never denied the parsonage exemption because they never asked for it. Without a request, there can be no denial. And absent any personal denial of a benefit, the plaintiffs’ claim amounts to nothing more than a generalized grievance of about Section 107(2)’s unconstitutionality, which does not support standing. (Emphasis in the court’s original).

The Seventh Circuit’s decision is consistent with the trend, encouraged by the US Supreme Court, to narrow taxpayer standing in the federal courts. As I recently argued in the Hastings Constitutional Law Journal, the corollary of this formalistic trend is that First Amendment lawsuits like FFRF’s challenge to the income tax exclusion for clerical housing allowances will increasingly occur in the state courts which are generally more receptive than the federal courts to claims of taxpayer standing.

FFRF has announced its intention to press its constitutional objections to Section 107. It is thus likely that these objections will be addressed in one or more state courts with more liberal procedural rules for standing.

First Church Parsonage Windsor CT by Grondemar. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
First Church Parsonage Windsor CT by Grondemar. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The US Constitution empowers federal courts to hear “Cases” and “Controversies.” Over the years, the federal courts have elaborated the Constitution’s “case or controversy” test to require what has become known as “standing.” Among other elements, such standing necessitates that a plaintiff have experienced “personal and individual” injury rather than a generalized grievance shared with others.

In dismissing the FFRF challenge to the parsonage allowance provisions of the Internal Revenue Code, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the plaintiffs did not meet this exacting standard of personalized injury. As a procedural matter, the plaintiffs had not asked the IRS to exclude from their respective gross incomes the housing allowances paid to them by their secular employer. Hence, in formal terms, the plaintiffs had no individualized injury and thus no standing to pursue their lawsuit.

The FFRF plaintiffs can now ask the IRS to exclude their housing allowances from their gross incomes and, when refused such favorable treatment, can commence their litigation again in the federal courts. Alternatively, FFRF can restart this litigation in the state courts where the tests for standing are generally more liberal than in the federal courts.

FFRF originally began its challenge to the Code’s parsonage allowance provision as a federal case in the US District Court for Eastern District of California. FFRF then refiled its litigation in the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, where the FFRF plaintiffs prevailed on the merits. From there, the case went to the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit which has now ordered the case dismissed for lack of standing.

In terms of statutory law and case law, the standing rules for California’s state courts are among the most liberal in the nation. The case law of Wisconsin similarly opens the door to that state’s courts in contrast to the less welcoming standing tests of the federal courts.

California’s and Wisconsin’s respective income taxes include benefits for clerical housing allowances identical to Code Section 107. Thus, any constitutional deficiency of the federal exclusion also applies to the equivalent state income tax exclusions of parsonage allowances. So why didn’t FFRF start its litigation against the parsonage allowance in the California or Wisconsin state courts in the first place, rather than resorting to the federal courts located in those states?

Perhaps the FFRF litigants thought that a state court’s constitutional invalidation of that state’s parsonage allowance exclusion would be insufficiently influential. Or perhaps FFRF’s lawyers concluded that elected state court judges would be less receptive to their challenge than life-tenured federal judges.

In any event, FFRF says that its procedural defeat in the Seventh Circuit will not deter additional litigation concerning the alleged unconstitutionality of the favorable tax income treatment extended to parsonage allowances. Whatever the reason the FFRF lawyers chose to proceed in the federal courts, they must now be considering the advisability of litigating their concerns in the state courts, with more generous tests for standing.

On the substantive merits, I disagree with FFRF that the income tax exclusion for clerical housing allowances violates the First Amendment. As I have discussed in the Cardozo Law Review, that exclusion has both secular purpose and secular effect: In constitutional terms, Code Section 107 is a permissible (though not required) attempt to minimize the church-state entanglement which would result from taxing such allowances. While there are strong tax policy arguments against Section 107(2), those arguments don’t make that section unconstitutional.

In light of FFRF’s determination to keep litigating, it is likely a matter of time before this substantive constitutional issue will be addressed in one or more state courts with more liberal procedural rules for standing.

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17. Income inequality in the United States

How has the average American income shifted since the US Census bureau began collecting data in the 1950s? Are median wages rising or falling? Andrew Beveridge, Co-Founder and CEO of census data mapping program Social Explorer, gives us the hard data on income inequality in the United States. In the short video below, Beveridge analyzes decades of income data from the American census to illuminate the factors causing this economic disparity, which has increased significantly over the past four decades. Exploring median average income and wages through time, along with the implications behind these changes, allows for a more complete picture of the increasing wealth gap among modern-day Americans.

Featured image credit: A man sleeping under a luxury condo sign on the street of The Bowery in Manhattan. Photo by David Shankbone. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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18. A New Episode of the Narrative Breakdown & My NYPL Panel on Native American YA Literature

Guess what? Those two things in my subject line are one and the same thing! We have a new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up, which also happens to be a recording of a panel I mentioned many moons ago:   me, fellow editor and publisher Stacy Whitman, and our authors Eric Gansworth and Joseph Bruchac, respectively, discussing their books If I Ever Get Out of Here and Killer of Enemies, respectively. It was a really great, meaty, interesting conversation (IMO) about how Stacy and I came to edit these books, editor-author relationships in general, writing YA, privilege, and cross-cultural publishing. And now you can see a writeup of it from Publishers Weekly at this link, and listen to the full recording here. Thanks for checking it out!

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19. Slacktivism as optical illusion

Oxford Dictionaries included slacktivism on its Word of the Year 2014 shortlist, so we invited several experts to comment on this Internet activism phenomenon.

Slacktivism is a portmanteau, bridging slacker and activism. It is usually not intended as a compliment.

The term is born out of frustration with the current state of public discourse: signing an e-petition, retweeting a message, or “liking” something on Facebook seems too easy. When people engage in these simple digital acts around social causes, we wonder: are they fooling themselves into believing they can make a difference? What can these clicks actually accomplish? Do they degrade “real” social activism, or make citizens less likely to take more substantial steps?

But if we examine these digital acts a little more closely, it turns out that slacktivism is a bit of an optical illusion. Simple digital acts of participation can be wispy or powerful. They can be a dead end for social engagement, or Act 1 in a grand narrative of social mobilization. It all depends on the context and the intended purpose of these digital actions, and on how committed, organized groups of citizens make use of them.

Three features are particularly important when deciding whether an act of online participation should be dismissed as “just slacktivism.”

First is what Andrew Chadwick (2013) calls “the hybrid media system.” One major goal of most citizen activism is to attract media attention. Mainstream media still help to set the agenda for the national conversation – whether CNN and USA Today are covering Ebola or the national debt helps to magnify attention to each of those issues. In the pre-digital era, activist groups would stage rallies and send press releases to attract the attention of the media. Today, journalists and their editors often turn to digital media in order to pick out potential stories worth covering. So online petitions, likes, and hashtags can be more than just slacktivism if they are strategically used to attract media attention.

Second is the target of the digital action. All activist tactics – digital or offline – should be viewed within their strategic context. Who is being targeted, and why would the target listen? Marshall Ganz (2010) writes that “Strategy is how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” Digital petitions, by this logic, can be tremendously effective or a complete waste of time. A petition to “stop animal cruelty,” aimed at no one in particular, is guaranteed to make no difference. But a recent wave of online petitions aimed at Boy Scout Troops resulted in the Boy Scouts of America officially changing its position and allowing openly gay youths to participate in the organization. Likewise, when online “slackers” submit millions of online comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality, those comments carry the force of demonstrated public opinion. When online citizens tweet or post their displeasure at corporations, reputation-conscious companies have been known to change their policies and practices.

Third, is the organizational context. Some simple acts of digital engagement can indeed leave people less likely to engage in larger-scale activism. In particular, researchers have found that initial acts of token support can relieve psychological pressure that would otherwise push an individual to engage more deeply. But these same acts can also operate as the first step in a “ladder of engagement.” You start by retweeting a news article, and then signing a petition. In the process, you are added to the member rolls of a “netroots” advocacy organization. And that organization then reaches out to you, inviting you to a street protest or a local meeting about the issue. As Hahrie Han (2014) demonstrates, organizations develop activists by building relationships with them over time. These initial acts of “slacktivism” can vanish into nothing, or provide a base for civic mobilization.

The complaints we hear today about “slacktivism” are identical to an earlier generation of complaints about “armchair activism.” Where today we hear that actions performed via the Internet are too simple to make a difference, in the 1970s we heard that actions performed via the mail or the telephone were too simple to make a difference. Then, as now, those complaints were an optical illusion: the power of these activist techniques depends on what angle you observe them from. The medium through which we engage in politics matters less than the networks, relationships, and strategies we employ along the way.

Headline image credit: Large crowd of small symbolic 3d figures, over white. © higyou via iStock.

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20. Slacktivism, clicktivism, and “real” social change

Oxford Dictionaries included slacktivism on its Word of the Year 2014 shortlist, so we invited several experts to comment on this Internet activism phenomenon.

Like its corollary clicktivism, slacktivism is a term that unites entrenched technosceptics and romantic revolutionaries from a pre-Internet or, more precisely, a pre-social media age as they admonish younger generations for their lack of commitment to “real” social change or willingness to do “what it takes” to make the world around them a better place.

This perception is based on drawing a corollary between the mounting evidence that people are spending more and more time online and the perception that political and social movements are no longer what they were. I would agree with both observations.

I would not agree, however, with this widely held assumption that online forms of sociopolitical mobilization, information-exchange, or community-building are either inferior or less genuine to offline varieties. There are good, bad, and indifferent forms of online political engagement just as there are in the offline world, e.g. going on a demonstration or signing a paper petition are not in themselves signs of above-average mobilization. In this sense then slacktivism, defined as actions in “support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement,” existed long before the Internet came of age in the 1990s with the world wide web. And slacktivism, according to this part of the definition, will exist long after the social media platforms that dominate the internet of today have made way for the next generation of goods and services. Disapproval at the way any given generation makes use — or not — of the media and communications of their time will also continue long after the target of this pejorative term, so-called digital natives, have grown up and started to lament the way their children seem to have become disengaged from the social and political problems of their time in turn. Half-hearted or short-lived forms of political action, empty rhetoric, or fleeting movements for change are neither reducible to, nor are they synonymous with any particular technological artefact or system, even a transformative and complex one such as the Internet. This held true for the Internet’s socio-technological precursors such as television, the telephone, radio, and even the printing press.

Activist table office. © ToozDesign via iStock.
Activist table office. © ToozDesign via iStock.

My taking distance from this easy dismissal of the way people use the Internet to call to account power abuses at home and abroad, or to share information and get organized by going online, arises from a longstanding concern I have about the way that media pundits — and some parts of academe — look for easy ways to generate headlines or sell books by drawing such false dichotomies between our online and our offline lives. This preference for the simple either/or tends to overlook more pressing questions about the changing face and nature of sociopolitical engagement in a domain that is being squeezed from all sides by incumbent political and economic interests. It is tempting, and comforting to treat online mobilization as suspicious by default, but to do so, as astute observers (not) so long ago have already noted (Walter Benjamin and Donna Haraway for instance) does a disservice to critical analyses of how society and technological change collide and collude with one another, and in complex, over-determined ways. But I would go further here to argue that tarring all forms of online activism as slacktivism is a form of myopic thinking that would condemn the ways in which today’s generation’s communicate their concerns about the injustices of the world in which they live online. It also underestimates the politicizing effect that recent revelations about way in which the internet, the medium and means in which they find out about their world is being excessively if not illegally data-mined and surveilled by vested — governmental and commercial — interests.

Assuming that the Internet, admittedly a harbinger of major shifts in the way people access information, communicate with one another, and organize, is the main cause for the supposedly declining levels of civic engagement of the younger generation is to succumb to the triple perils of technological determinism, older-generational myopia, and sloppy thinking. It also overlooks, indeed ignores, the fact that organizing online is a time-consuming, energy-draining, and expensive undertaking. This holds true even if many of the tools and applications people can draw on are offered “free” or are, arguably, relatively easy to use. Sustaining a blog, a website, a social media account, getting people to sign an e-petition, or deploying email to good effect are activities that require know-how, want-to, and wherewithal. Moreover, mounting any sort of campaign or community project in order to address a social injustice at home let alone around the world, cannot be done these days without recourse to the internet.

What has changed, like it or not, is that in Internet-dependent contexts, any sort of serious political or social form of action now has to include an online dimension, and a sustained one at that. This means that additional energies need to be devoted to developing multi-sited and multi-skilled forms of strategic thinking, deployment of human resources, and ways to make those qualities that can inspire and mobilize people to get involved work for the online environment (e.g. how to use micro-blogging idioms well), on the ground (e.g. face-to-face meetings), and in non-digital formats (e.g. in written or physical forms). It is a sign of our age that sociopolitical action needs to know how to combine age-old, pre-digital age techniques to mobilize others with those that can speak in the 24/7, mobile, and user-generated idioms of online solidarity that can engage people close to home as well as those living far away. Huge sociocultural and political power differentials aside, given that people and communities access and use the Internet in many ways at any one time around the world, the effort and commitment required of pre-Internet forms of organizing pale in comparison to those called for in an Internet age.

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21. Scholarly reflections on ‘slacktivism’

Whether its the use of Facebook in the 2008 US Presidential election or the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, there are new forms of activism emerging online. But are all these forms of activism equal? With the inclusion of slacktivism on Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year shortlist, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this new word and emerging phenomenon.

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“I’m sure slacktivism is meant to criticize the “activity” and the slackers who do it. It was probably made up by real activists who felt they had to draw a line and protect their own credibility. Still, the phenomenon may not be as bad as it seems. There are all those partially reformed slackers out there, they came of age with the Internet, and they’ll never be real activists, right, so isn’t it better that they at least be slacktivists? Also, how many activists are there? But there are more than two billion Internet users worldwide — potentially that’s a lot of slacktivists. So here’s the question occasioned by this year’s contest for Word of the Year: Can two billion slacktivists accomplish more than all of the certified activists? Anyway, I’m a sucker for a blend.”
Michael Adams, Indiana University at Bloomington, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, Slang: The People’s Poetry, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages

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Mission Accomplished - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by Anthony Quintano. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Mission Accomplished – ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by Anthony Quintano. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“This term is a combination of the words slacker and activist and generally refers to actions, largely on the Internet, to influence policy or politics that require little to no effort. Slacktivism typically is used to criticize behavior that appears to have only a marginal utility, but makes the participants feel better about themselves. Slacktivism typically includes signing Internet petitions, joining a Facebook group, changing your online profile picture to a symbolic image, mass e-mail campaigns, and resending political or policy content through social media. While the term is most often applied to Internet activities, it can also refer to offline activism that also requires little to no effort or commitment, such as wearing a ribbon or political button. The primary concern with slacktivism is that it may occupy or satisfy people with ineffective activities who would otherwise be more engaged participants in more influential forms of activism. However, these critiques may be an oversimplification, as slacktivism activities can have a measurable influence and do not preclude more direct forms of activism.”
Kevin M. Wagner, Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics

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“A bit of a mouthful, but highly descriptive. People who care about political and social causes are usually comfortable with talking about -isms. Too bad they don’t put more of their time where their hearts are. (The political scientist Robert Putnam talked about this decline of social capital in his book Bowling Alone.)”
Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, DC; author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World and the forthcoming Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

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Headline image credit: Computer Keyboard by Marina Shemes via PublicDomainPictures.net.

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22. Put the debate about slacktivism to rest

Oxford Dictionaries included slacktivism on its Word of the Year 2014 shortlist, so we invited several experts to comment on this Internet activism phenomenon.

The term slacktivism is based on a question that should never have been asked: are digital activists doing anything worthwhile, or are they mere “slacktivists,” activists who are slacking off?

The word arose from a debate about what value there was to all those people who were willing to click a few buttons to express their outcry over the shooting of Trayvon Martin or participate in the ALS ice-bucket challenge—but do nothing else. While some have hailed this new era of digital activism as a great democratizing force, opening up the political process and giving voice to people in a new way, others have scoffed at its impact. “The revolution will not be tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote.

Asking whether digital activism is a meaningful lever for social change is the wrong question to ask for several reasons.

First, the forms and capabilities of digital activism itself are changing rapidly, so that answers to the question become obsolete almost as fast as the technologies on which they are based.

Second, the types and uses of digital activism are as diverse as traditional forms of activism, ranging tremendously in what they can accomplish. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Digital activism, like regular activism, can be both effective and ineffective, both thin and thick.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, focusing on digital activism puts the emphasis on the tools, not the people who use the tools. The success of any change effort has always depended on the capabilities of the people who use whatever tools are at their disposal.

The right question to ask, then, is not “How good are the tools?” but instead “How good are the people and organizations who use those tools?” Lots of organizations, campaigns, and movements all over the world try to get people engaged in activism every day. Some are better than others. Why?

Conventional wisdom might argue that an organization’s ability to engage activists depends on a charismatic leader, a catchy message, or, in this day and age, its ability to leverage big data and technology. Those things all matter. But after spending two years comparing high-engagement organizations to their low-engagement counterparts, I find that what really differentiates the high-engagement organizations is their ability to create transformative experiences for their activists.

While most organizations focus on trying to get more people to do more stuff by making participation as easy as possible, these high-engagement organizations are doing more. Whether they are doing it online or offline, these organizations are carefully engaging people in ways that cultivate the motivational, strategic, and practical capacities they need to engage in further activism—as a result, everything from the kinds of activities they plan, to the way they structure their organizations, to the way they communicate with volunteers, is different. Combined with a hard-nosed focus on numbers, these organizations are thus able to achieve both the breadth and depth of activism that many organizations seek.

So let’s put the debate about slacktivism to rest. Instead, let’s begin asking how we can use technology to create transformative spaces where people can develop their individual and collective agency. If technology can create the kinds of interpersonal, transformative spaces face-to-face organizations have built for years, then we’ll be able to get the depth we want, but on a grander scale than we’ve ever had before.

Headline image credit: Protest Illustration. Public domain via Pixabay.

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23. Thanks, Obamacomics!

gruber graphic0011 101x150 Thanks, Obamacomics!A graphic novel has become Exhibit A in the latest Obamacare controversy.

Clear, simple, understandable, useful – those are just a few of the words that recurred in reviews of Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works, a 2012 graphic novel by Xeric-winner Nathan Schreiber and MIT’s Jonathan Gruber.

The irony of these descriptions is no doubt evident to anyone who has been following political news over the past weeks — years after Gruber won praise for his adeptness in making the proposed health law easy to grasp, Gruber has become the center of a political storm due to his recent off-the-cuff claim that the language of Affordable Care Act was deliberately misleading and designed to take advantage of Americans’ “stupidity.”

The dust-up has given new life to the Gruber and Schreiber graphic novel, which thanks to the vagaries of Amazon pricing algorithms appears to become an expensive collectible in hardcover. Conservative sites are finding the book funny in unintended ways, although no one has yet to explain the replacement of its originally announced artist, Dean Motter. It’s natural to assume that there may have been issues of scheduling or style, but perhaps there just wasn’t a place for health care in Terminal City.

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24. The importance of mentoring

Throughout my career, there have been many times when advice, support, and criticism were critical for my own professional development. Sometimes that assistance came from people who were formally tasked with providing advice; a good example is a Ph.D. advisor (in my case, John Aldrich of Duke University, who has been a fantastic advisor and mentor to a long list of very successful students). Sometimes that advice was less formal, coming from senior colleagues, other academics at conferences, and in many cases from peers. The lesson is professional advice and support — or to put it into a single term, mentoring — comes from many different sources and occurs in many different ways.

However, there is growing concern in political science that more mentoring is necessary, that there are scholars who are not getting the professional support and advice that they need to help them with career decisions, teaching, and the publication of their research. There are many good programs that have developed in recent years to help provide more mentoring in political methodology, for example the excellent “Visions in Methodology” program. And the Society for Political Methodology recently approved the foundation of a new professional award, to recognize excellent mentors. But more needs to be done to improve mentoring and mentoring opportunities in academia.

During the 2014 American Political Science Association conference, there was a very informative panel discussion, “How to Be a Good Mentee: Mentoring for Methodologists.” The discussion was chaired by Megan Shannon of the University of Colorado, and participants were Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer (Rice University), Tiffany D. Barnes (University of Kentucky), and Brett Ashley Leeds (Rice University). I had an opportunity to listen to much of this panel discussion, and found it quite helpful.

After the conference I sent Leslie, Tiffany, and Ashley some questions about mentoring by email. Their responses are informative and helpful, and should be read by anyone who is interested in mentoring.

R. Michael Alvarez: How have you benefited from being involved in mentoring relationships?

Tiffany D. Barnes: I have benefited in a number of ways from being involved in a mentoring relationship. Mentors have provided me with feedback on research at multiple different stages of the research process. They have provided me with professional advice about a number of things including applying for fellowships and grants, marketing my book manuscript to university presses, and navigating the negotiation process at my university. My mentoring relationships have broadened my network of scholars with similar research interests and/or professional goals, which in turn have resulted in a number of different opportunities (e.g. coauthors, and invitations to participate in conference panels/round tables, mini-conferences, and edited volumes/special journal issues). Equally important, my mentoring relationships have resulted in a number of valuable friendships that make working in the profession more enjoyable.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: As a mentee, I really benefited from getting guidance, feedback, and research assistance from many different formal and informal mentors over the years. As a mentor, I get to give that back which is a great opportunity.

Brett Ashley Leeds: I believe fundamentally that no one figures everything out on his or her own. I know for sure that I did not, and I have had (and continue to have) a variety of mentors throughout my career. As a mentee, what I really value is knowing that I have people who respect me enough to tell me when I am wrong and to help me improve. As a mentor, I not only learn a lot from thinking intently about my mentees’ work and articulating my opinions for them, but I also get great personal satisfaction from the relationships that evolve and from helping others to succeed. It feels good to pay forward what has been done for me.

Woman looking away and smiling. © GlobalStock via iStock.
Woman looking away and smiling. © GlobalStock via iStock.

R. Michael Alvarez: Why has the issue of mentoring become an important topic of conversation in academia, and in particular, in political science?

Tiffany D. Barnes: Although it is well established that mentoring is an important aspect of professional development, it has recently become an important topic of conversation because academics have become aware that not all scholars have the same opportunities to develop mentorship relationships nor do they derive the same benefits from mentor relationships. In particular, women and minorities may face more challenges when it comes to identifying mentors in the field and they may not reap the same benefits (e.g. opportunities to collaborate, sponsorship) from mentorship relationships as men do. In the long run, this “mentor gap” may have negative repercussions for the retention and career advancement of some otherwise talented scholars.

If a scholar feels they would benefit by mentoring, how can they seek out a mentor? What should they look for in an appropriate mentor?

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: Mentoring relationships can be both informal and formal. Informal relationships often emerge when scholars ask for advice and support from colleagues in their department, subfields, or various disciplinary organizations. Formal relationships sometimes emerge organically or at the initiative of a mentee or mentor, but they also can be entered into through a number of mentoring programs in the discipline. For women, the Visions in Methodology program offers a mentoring program through which mentees can ask to be paired with a mentor. They usually ask the mentee to suggest someone they would like to be paired with and then check with the suggested mentor about interest and availability. The Midwest Women’s Caucus has a mentoring program for women in any subfield. They ask individuals interested in mentoring and being mentored to volunteer to participate and then pair them by interest. Other organizations and groups probably offer similar programs.

In seeking a mentor, either formally or informally, you should think about exactly what you want out of the relationship. Are you looking for someone to provide you with general guidance about the profession or are you seeking someone who is willing to read your work from time to time and talk through research challenges when you come across them? Are you in your first year out, feeling lost, and needing help getting back on track or are you close to tenure and looking for guidance on how to navigate the process? Do you want a mentor whose style is to give “pep talks” or “straight talk?” Knowing what you want out of the relationship will help you identify the right person for the job.

Tiffany D. Barnes: Scholars who want to find a mentor can look for a mentor by signing up for a formal mentor match or by identifying someone in the profession who shares similar research interests or professional goals.

A formal mentor match is good option for identifying someone who is interested in serving in a capacity as a mentor. Typically the mentor program will ask you questions about what you are looking for in a mentor relationship, your research interests, your rank, and your professional interests. The program will try to match you with a mentor based on this information. If you are paired with someone through a program, you can be confident that your mentor wants to help you. These relationships can be very valuable, but, as with all mentor-mentee relationships, it requires initiative on the part of the mentee. It is the mentee’s responsibility to drive the mentor-mentee relationship. Mentees should identify why they want a mentor and reach out to the mentor and ask for help in areas where they can benefit the most. One criticism of formal matching programs is that they may not always result in the best “fit.” Even if you do not think the match is the best fit, there are still a number of benefits you can derive from the relationship. Your research interests do not have to perfectly overlap for you to benefit from the relationship. Indeed, most successful scholars have a wealth of information, advice, and perspective to offer junior colleagues. It is up to the mentee to identify areas where your needs or interests intersect with the mentor’s strengths, experiences, and interests — and to capitalize on these opportunities.

A second option is to develop a more informal mentor relationship. To do this, mentees should identify someone in the field who has similar research interests or professional goals. Mentees should identify different opportunities to get to know scholars with similar interests and try to develop these relationships from there. For example, you may have the opportunity to establish relationships with scholars when you present research on the same panel, when someone shows interest in your work by offering comments or questions about your research (or vice versa), or even when you have the opportunity to bring a guest speaker to your university. By following up with people after the initial meeting and/or taking them up on their offer to read and comment on your research, you can begin to establish relationships with them. These relationships may take time to develop and they may be difficult establish if you are new to the profession or do not know many scholars in your field. Finally, when attempting to establish more informal mentor relationships, it is important to be self-aware. Some people will show interest in you and be eager to get to know and help you, others will not, and no one is obligated to do so. Respect people’s rights to not be interested in you and try not to take it personal.

Brett Ashley Leeds: My view is that it is less important to find one person that can be identified as “a mentor” and instead to focus on finding mentoring, even if it comes from a variety of people. I encourage scholars to identify people who have skills, abilities, and/or information that they think would be useful to them– basically people they would like to emulate in particular areas of their work. Approach these folks politely in person or by email (for instance, asking to have coffee at a conference) and ask questions. Some will not be responsive, but many will be responsive and helpful. Follow up with those who are helpful. In some cases a relationship will develop.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the most important “dos” and “don’ts” for a scholar who is in a mentoring relationship?

Brett Ashley Leeds: Since below I cover some tips for mentors, here are some tips for mentees: (1) Figure out what it is you want to know/learn. Think of both specific and general questions so you are prepared to ask when the opportunity arises. (2) Recognize the time and costs of what you ask and make things as easy as possible for your mentor by reminding him/her of past interactions and explaining the specific feedback you are looking for. (3) Understand that ultimately you are responsible for your own decisions. Ask your mentor to explain why he/she believes a particular action/approach is best, and for major decisions, seek advice from multiple people. (4) Let your mentors know about the outcomes. For example, if a mentor helps you with a paper, send a note when the paper is accepted for publication.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: For mentees, be assertive and discuss with your mentor when your relationship begins just what you each want from the relationship and are willing to commit to it. If you need something from your mentor, don’t wait for him/her to reach out to you. Email, call, or arrange to meet with your mentor at a conference. Since the mentee is the one who needs the mentoring relationship the most, the mentee needs to take the initiative to ask for help or guidance from the mentor.

Tiffany D. Barnes: Establish clear expectations and boundaries. Tell your mentor what you are hoping to get out of a mentoring relationship, and don’t be afraid to ask your mentor for help in areas where you could benefit the most. That said, it is important to acknowledge that your mentor may not always be willing or able to help you in the ways you want. Respect these boundaries and do not take them personal.

When establishing boundaries, it is important to respect your mentor’s time and to be cognizant and courteous with the time you ask of your mentor. For example, if your mentor agrees to meet with you for half an hour, pay attention to the time and wrap up your meeting in a timely manner. Your mentor will likely appreciate not having to cut you short, and, if they know you respect their time, it may make them more likely to make time for you in the future.

Don’t expect any single mentor to fulfill all of your mentoring needs. Different people, depending on their experience and expertise, have different things to offer. Try to identify the areas where your mentor is most likely to be of help to you and build on these strengths. Along these same lines, although your mentor likely gives great advice, you cannot expect them to have the answer to all of your questions. It is important to weight their point of view carefully and to seek out a number of different perspectives.

Seek to develop a number of mentoring relationships. It can be useful to have mentors within your own department, in your university (but outside your department), and in the discipline more broadly. Moreover, it is often just as useful to develop relationships with senior mentors, as it is to develop relationships with peer mentors.

Student With Teacher In Class.  © monkeybusinessimages via iStock.
Student With Teacher In Class. © monkeybusinessimages via iStock.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the responsibilities of a mentor?

Brett Ashley Leeds (1) Create an environment in which you can provide effective constructive criticism. This tends to require first establishing an environment of mutual respect. (2) Know what you know and what you don’t, and know that your experience is not universal. (3) Always explain why you are giving the advice you are giving and be willing to consider alternatives. (4) Recognize that in the end, your mentee should make his/her own decisions and may not always take all of your advice. (5) Recognize how important your opinion may be to your mentee; wield this power responsibly.

Tiffany D. Barnes: A mentor should establish clear boundaries with their mentee. Be honest and upfront the role you are and are not willing to play as a mentor. Be clear about your time constraints and the amount of time you are willing to commit to your mentee.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: If it is a formal mentoring relationship, make sure you and your mentee establish ground rules at the beginning about what each of you wants from the relationship and are willing to give to it. Don’t commit to something you aren’t willing to follow through with and be sure to follow through with whatever you commit to do for your mentee. If you can only commit to an hour of time twice a semester, that is fine, but make sure your mentee knows that and agrees that it is sufficient for him/her. If you are willing to provide general guidance but don’t want to read/comment on your mentee’s work, that is fine. But, again, make sure your mentee knows that from the beginning. Keep in mind that your mentee may place very high value on your advice and guidance so give it carefully.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the personal and professional benefits of being a mentor?

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: Too numerous to list in a short response!

Brett Ashley Leeds: It has often been said that one only really knows something when she can teach it to others. Mentoring gives me an opportunity to clarify and articulate my views on professional issues and research in a way that I otherwise might not. I frequently learn in the act of mentoring. The main benefits, however, are personal, and come from the satisfaction of helping others to achieve their goals and the feeling of paying forward what has been done in the past for me.

R. Michael Alvarez: How can professional organizations (like the Society for Political Methodology) facilitate professional mentoring?

Brett Ashley Leeds: The most important thing that professional organizations can do is provide opportunities that encourage interaction among scholars who don’t already know one another, and particularly between junior and senior scholars. Small conferences, dinners, and receptions help a lot with this. Poster sessions in which junior scholars are matched with senior discussants also help.

Tiffany D. Barnes: In my experience professional organizations play both, an important formal and informal role in facilitating professional mentoring.

Professional organization can formally facilitate mentoring relationship by matching mentors with mentees. I have two different successful mentoring relationships that were products of mentoring matches. This is a great way to help young scholars identify someone in the profession who is willing to serve as a mentor.

Professional organizations can also facilitate mentoring by simply providing both professional and social opportunities for junior scholars to meet likeminded senior (and junior!) colleagues. By becoming involved in professional organizations that align with your professional interests you will establish relationships with colleagues in your field. Most of these relationships will emerge naturally and develop slowly over time. Although you may not formally call the individuals you meet here “mentors,” they will become an important part of your mentoring community.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: One of many ways is a formal mentoring program. The Visions in Methodology mentoring program is a fantastic example, but it is only for women. This is a very positive feature of the program because women in a field with a small representation of women face different and sometimes more challenging sets of obstacles than men. However, plenty of men in the field would also benefit immensely from mentoring and so offering a similar program for men or a program that is open to both women and men, if it does not already exist, would help to facilitate formal professional mentoring in the methods subfield.

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25. Ferguson. Power.

Ferguson, Missouri. Nov. 24, 2014. (Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters)

from "Power" by Audre Lorde:

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

(photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

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