Archive for the ‘The University’ Category

The Impact of Impact

An interesting scholarly article appeared in the journal Studies in Higher Education in February of this year, by Jennifer Chubb and Richard Watermeyer. It investigates some aspects of the research funding system in the UK and Australia.

Give any research academic in Australia today (or the UK, or well, anywhere) a few minutes to vent about their job and you will most likely hear a tirade about grants — whether the writing of research grant applications, the application process, the chances of success, who and what tends to succeed, the pressures universities exert on researchers to obtain them, or any aspect of the related culture.

Well, come to think of it, there might be tirades against many possible things. The university universe is not short on tirades or things to tirade against.

While anyone in the academic world will be very familiar with the standard grievances — and it would take far too long to attempt to make a list — they are grievances usually only aired in private.

What is good about this article is that it uses the medium of a research article to air the views of academics, suitably anonymised, in public. The focus is on a particularly problematic aspect of the process of research funding in Australia and the UK: impact statements.

To quote the article,

In both UK and Australian funding contexts… the perceived merit of a research funding application is now linked to the capacity of the applicant to prescribe convincing (pathways to) research impacts, or more specifically, credible statements of how they will ensure economic and/or societal returns from their research… ‘Impact Statements’ … demand that academics demonstrate an awareness of their external communities and how they will benefit from the proposed research… [and] require that academics demonstrate methodological competency in engaging with their research users, showing how research will be translated and appropriated in ways that most effectively service users’ needs.

On its face, it looks like a good idea: any research asking for public money must make some attempt to justify its effect on society. And that doesn’t just look like a good idea, it is a good idea.

However, most research — including especially most important and worthy research — has zero-to-infinitesimal direct impact on society — or at least very little that can be explained in the few sentences of the word limit to create an “impact”. There are certainly areas that do have direct impact: most medical research; some (but not all) climate research; some renewable energy research; some biotechnology and nanotechnology research, and so on. But of course, that research with the most immediate direct economic or commercial impact is already funded by private capital and does not need public funding. Most research is much slower, uncertain, slowly and methodically working towards a long-term scientific or scholarly goal — with occasional surprises and breakthroughs.

But what impact statements, and the associated culture, demand are not accurate stories with all the complexity of scientific understanding, research programmes, educated guesswork and careful methodology that sensible research requires. That would take too long. Boring! We want impact. In a few words. Major impact. High velocity. Boom. That’s what we’re looking for. And that’s just not how research works.

Alas, simply saying that your research makes the world a better place by improving its store of important scientific and scholarly knowledge, and making society better because by supporting this research the society becomes the kind of society that supports this kind of research, is much too subtle for the politics of the situation to allow. Rather, the politics of the situation make the impact statement into a crude sales pitch.

Thus, we have a situation where, in the principal public statements made to support scientific and scholarly research, the predominant, sufficient and principal good reason for the public to support scientific and scholarly research is out of the question — it is inexpressible. It is also, in effectively preventing full justifications from being aired (at least where it counts), a scientific version of the censorship by concision so familiar in mainstream media.

How would, say, Euler have written an impact statement for his research into, say, analysis? The impact of theorems which gradually improve mathematical understanding, over decades and centuries, to the point where they enable breakthroughs in other sciences, engineering, or technology, is impossible to quantify. Even for those parts of Euler’s research which have had major, definite and decisive impact, like Euler’s theorem in number theory central to RSA encryption, the idea that Euler could have had any inkling of this application, over 200 years later, is laughable. Even in  1940 Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology sung the praises of number theory precisely because of its uselessness.

So, justification based on “impact” would have been an impossible task for Euler. And Euler is the most prolific mathematician of all time, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. God help any lesser mortal.

To be fair, pure mathematics is in some sense too easy a case. The very inapplicability of pure mathematics is so clear that any statement about “impact” in this context can only seriously be understood as a source of amusement. A three-year project to think hard and prove some theorems about some interesting and important field of mathematics — but which may have some practical applications, one day, but this is impossible to predict, and in all likelihood not — is so far from the average person’s concept of “impact” that we can only feel that the poor mathematician has been dragged by a faceless bureaucracy into a system designed for someone else, in some other time and place.

Or, perhaps slightly more accurately, and disturbingly, a pure mathematician made to justify their research based on “impact” is a lamb about to be fed to the lions. But thankfully, mathematicians will not be fed to the lions — or at least, not all of them — because the emperor has taken their side. A society without mathematicians produces none of the STEM-literate graduates that the emperor, capital, demands. The survival of the planet, as it turns out, also demands STEM-literate graduates, but as the perilous state of the planet so clearly attests, it is capital, not the planet, which is a much stronger determinant of social outcomes, at least under present social arrangements.

Mathematics aside, the point remains. Requiring 30-second written advertisements called “impact statements” leads to exaggeration, over-speculation, and, at best, twisting of the truth.

But don’t take if from me — it’s much more interesting to requote the senior academics at Australian/UK universities quoted in the article:

It’s virtually impossible to write one of these grants and be fully frank and honest in what it is you’re writing about. (Australia, Professor)

‘illusions’ (UK, Professor); ‘virtually meaningless’, or ‘made up stories’ (Australia, Professor) ‘…taking away from the absolute truth about what should be done’ (UK, Professor). Words such as lying, lies, stories, disguise, hoodwink, game – playing, distorting, fear, distrust, over- engineering, flower-up, bull-dust, disconnected, narrowing and the recurrence of the word ‘problem’

Would I believe it? No, would it help me get the money – yes. (UK, Professor)

I will write my proposals which will have in the middle of them all this work, yeah but on the fringes will tell some untruths about what it might do because that’s the only way it’s going to get funded and you know I’ve got a job to do, and that’s the way I’ve got to do it. It’s a shame isn’t it? (UK, Professor)

If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullshit or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with his [sic] Head of Department. If you don’t play the game, you don’t do well by your university. So anyone that’s so ethical that they won’t bend the rules in order to play the game is going to be in trouble, which is deplorable. (Australia, Professor)It’s about survival. It’s not sincere all the way through…that’s when it gets disheartening. It puts people on the back foot and fuels a climate of distrust. (UK, Professor)

It is impossible to predict the outcome of a scientific piece of work, and no matter what framework it is that you want to apply it will be artificial and come out with the wrong answer because if you try to predict things you are on a hiding to nothing. (UK, Professor)

The idea therefore that impact could be factored in in advance was viewed as a dumb question put in there by someone who doesn’t know what research is. I don’t know what you’re supposed to say, something like ‘I’m Columbus, I’m going to discover the West Indies?!’ (Australia, Professor)

It’s disingenuous, no scientist really begins the true process of scientific discovery with the belief it is going to follow this very smooth path to impact because he or she knows full well that that just doesn’t occur and so there’s a real problem with the impact agenda- and that is it’s not true it’s wrong – it flies in the face of scientific practice. (UK, Professor)

It’s really virtually impossible to write an (Australian Research Council) ARC grant now without lying and this is the kind of issue that they should be looking at. (Australia, Professor)

It becomes increasingly difficult – one would be very hard pressed to write a successful grant application that’s fully truthful…you’re going to get phony answers, they’re setting themselves up for lies…[they go on]…it’s absurd to expect every grant proposal to have an impact story. (Australia, Professor)

Trying to force people to tell a causal story is really tight, it’s going to restrict impact to narrow immediate stuff, rather than the big stuff, and force people to be dishonest. (UK, Professor)

They’re just playing games – I mean, I think it’s a whole load of nonsense, you’re looking for short term impact and reward so you’re playing a game…it’s over inflated stuff. (Professor, Australia)


Written by dan

April 29th, 2016 at 12:57 pm

US Anti-war and Israel-Palestine divestment movements

(Disclaimer: I understand that the substitutes are poor here, and the whole exercise may well be taken as trivialising racism, rape and rape culture, which are very serious concerns. If it is taken that way, I apologise in advance. I also realise it is horrible, as a white male, to put words in the mouths of fictitious indigenous females; but the characters are purely figments of my imagination, and I hope that I get across relevant moral considerations despite the means.)

* * *

You live in a town called Hell. In the town live 195 men and many more women. It is a one-company town; most of the people in the town are employed by a single company. Your father is head of the company. You are a white female.

One day, evidence comes to light that a large number of men in the town have committed rape. Some of the men have worse evidence against them than others, but there is serious evidence against almost all of them. The worst evidence is against your father, who has ruthlessly abused his position of power; the company’s other executives also have damning evidence against them.

A friend comes to visit you; she is of indigenous descent. She tells you she is one of the victims of rape, and the perpetrator is a close associate of your father. Among the depraved inhabitants of Hell, the perpetrator is by no means the worst, and less brutal than your father; but among the associates of your father, he is one of the worst, and his record of crimes is long. However, the perpetrator is black, and the only black man among your father’s associates.

No charges have yet been laid, despite the abundance of evidence. But your friend wishes to press charges over her crime, knowing full well the difficulties of seeking a rape conviction, all the more so in the local political climate of Hell. She sees it also as a step in the struggle for justice for indigenous people. She asks for your support.

You: “I applaud your courage, and your efforts to stem the historical tide of injustice against your people. But don’t you think it might look racist if the the only person prosecuted is the one black perpetrator?”

Her: “This is my case. I can only carry on my own struggle, and I need your help. Besides, a crime is a crime regardless of the colour of the perpetrator.”

You: “You are right, and your cause is just, but for me the circumstances are difficult. Even though it is not racist to prosecute your case, if in fact only your case is prosecuted, that is a racist outcome, although the racism would have nothing to do with you. If I am not to be racist, I must support not only the prosecution of this one black man, but all others also. Moreover, if I am to be consistent, then I must support prosecution also in the much worse case of my father. Would it not appear hypocritical to support you without first getting my own house in order? My father is the most powerful man in this town, and he is family; and he is a monster. He will do everything in his power — and his powers are vast — to avoid it.”

Her: “I do not envy you your problems, just as I am sure you do not envy me mine.”

You: “You put me to shame. You take painful efforts to seek justice while my father lives in impunity. But think practically. Your chances of success are not great, but at least you have a chance. A successful prosecution of my father in this town would be nigh impossible.”

Her: “That is your question, though you will have my solidarity if you seek justice. Though we live in a rape culture, and we live in Hell, your position is one of economic power and white privilege.”

You: “To go into active opposition against my father, and the company, is to oppose all the greatest powers of this town. I would have to oppose the whole system, every one of its meannesses and cruelties, every pompous crime and lying institution in our world. You ask me to declare one way or the other. You force my hand.”

Her: “I understand your difficulties. But would it not be worse to refuse to support your friend, and with me the struggle of my people, after all we have suffered, than it would be to embark on a quest for universal justice — pure, transparent, consistent justice — with all the difficulties and struggle that entails?”


Written by dan

April 25th, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Savaging the Tapestry of the Law

Getting off the bus at Berkeley, my stop is right next to the law building.

I know that is where John Yoo, the torture lawyer, is a professor.

There are over a thousand students and faculty in the law school, who go there all the time.

And everybody knows what John Yoo has done, and that he is in the school there.

So what else would you do but go in?

* * *

Approaching the Berkeley law school, on a massive monumental inscription, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr intones:

When I think thus of the law, I see a princess mightier than she who wrought at Bayeux, eternally weaving into her web dim figures of the ever-lengthening past — figures too dim to be noticed by the idle, too symbolic to be interpreted except by her pupils, but to the discerning eye disclosing every painful step and every world-shaking contest by which mankind has worked and fought its way from savage isolation to organic social life.

Let us put aside for a moment any potential differences with such a hagiographic description of the State and its judicial apparatus.

Let us merely ask: could there be any more beautiful description of precisely that which Yoo’s work has systematically destroyed?

* * *

Entering Boalt Hall, the building housing the school of law, one sees students working hard, lectures in progress, the usual goings-on of an academic paradise.

On bulletin boards are plastered advertisements and posters: for law journals, talks, panels, conferences, classes, and more.

Many of these posters advertise a talk on the obscuranta of the Ninth Amendment to the US Constitution: a debate on “Unenumerated rights”.

Hardly the best-known amendment, and hardly the sexiest topic.

But the moderator of this debate is none other than John Yoo.

So what else could you do but make a note of it?

* * *

The strategy seems clear: a gradual normalisation of academic presence, testing the waters with esoteric scholasticism.

There is no advertisement of the event online: google searches turn up nothing. Clearly attempting to fly under the radar.

From lower to higher profile events, evidently hoping that, step by gradual step, nobody will remember the dictum from Nuremberg:

The prostitution of a judicial system for the accomplishment of criminal ends involves an element of evil to the State which is not found in frank atrocities which do not sully judicial robes.

Even the dedicated activists of Fire John Yoo have nothing of it at their website.

So what else could you do but notify

* * *

A protest is held, and press conference given, below the mighty words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Nonviolently, peacefully, even politely, we march into the school.

Some in jumpsuits, some carrying pictures, some wearing ribbons, the procession enters the library.

Have you ever seen police blocking off access in a public library?

* * *

The room is full, explain the officers, looking a little guilty: someone exits the room even as they say it.

Full minus one equals full — the officers of the Law now deny arithmetic and the conservation of matter.

There is no sense to it, but Yoo’s intentional nonsense wrought far worse.

But with the Law’s tapestry so savagely riven, and the architect inside, what could one expect?

* * *

But I looked beyond the Law’s tapestry, here represented by automatons under arms, brute force blocking off publicly owned bookshelves.

And I looked at the students all around studying: we had speeches but we kept it quite quiet in the library.

Almost every one refused to make eye contact. Elsewhere I have seen the secret smile, the secret wink, the secret fist, the secret delight in violation of obedient social norms. Not here.

Should we pity the children — but they are not children! Should we educate them — but they are highly intelligent!

Should we teach them the law in law school? Is it too confusing to differentiate academic debate from criminal behaviour?

There were some students with us, but the silence spoke to me. It whispered of late Weimar Germany.

Do they have too much work? Stress? Debt? Is protest inherently crazy? I felt like a homeless outcst beggar pleading for change.

But I will plead for change, as long as it is necessary.

Why did it take a peripatetic mathematician, on a research visit, on wanderings preoccupied with symplectic geometry, to instigate this?


Written by dan

March 10th, 2010 at 7:51 am

The antiwar movement in the large, and measuring it

I read this article and thought it was interesting. I had some comments on it, which pertain to the antiwar movement at large, so I thought I would share them. Make of them what you will.

1. Measuring is good when possible!

Being a scientist (and a mathematician at that), I like data. Observing and measuring is good. If you can find things to measure, more power to you.

However, I can see some difficulties in the context of the antiwar movement. In particular, some things are hard to measure; and more, some important or essential things that an activist group should be doing, might have completely zero short-term measurable effect. Some details follow.

2. The scale of antiwar goals.

To stop, or even prevent, a single war is a massive, world-historic event. To reduce the US national military budget, say to a level comparable to the rest of the world, even more so: that amounts to a total restructuring of the economy. To stop militarism, more so again: that is a culture and an economic and institutional inertia written deeply into american life. And, to stop jingoistic patriotism — the insane loyalty to a single geographic region with some arbitrary boundaries denoting the fates of long forgotten kings, emperors and imperialists who once carved up the earth for themselves — indeed amounts to a complete change of american life: so that every wave of the flag is met with curiosity or stupefaction, rather than with cheers and tears; so that the “american” in american life it more or less ceases to exist, to the extent it denotes anything more than a geographic location.

Make no mistake, the antiwar movement has these as goals, and not just in the US, but everywhere. They are not complete goals — a world with all these achieved might still be one of rank inequality, authoritarianism, and thwarted human life. One might argue they are best pursued alongside others — perhaps it can only be done along with a restructuring of the rules of international trade, greater international economic and political integration, debt forgiveness, the satisfaction of humanitarian and economic needs and so on; or more radically, the restructuring of the global economy, economic democracy, north-south reparations, finding a better economic alternative to capitalism, etc.

Nonetheless, the broad antiwar goals are goals for the long term. They chart a course for human history. Their time-frame is measured in centuries — even as the insanity and potential for catastrophe is so great as to demand that they be achieved now. Thus, one expects progress to be slow, even negligible; but one wishes, and needs, it to be done now.

Of course there are more local and immediate goals too, but the big picture must always be kept in mind, where measurable progress can be expected to be indistinguishable from zero even in the best possible case.

3. Sometimes vast changes happen unpredictably — in the meantime, ideas are important.

Events like the founding of the United Nations and the end of the cold war were world-changing — and entirely unpredictable a few years beforehand. Nobody would have advocated the second world war, or (say) the invasion of Afghanistan, in order to achieve these goals. The end of the second world war was indeed the impetus for the founding of the UN, but it is a superficial reading of history to regard that as the sole cause. These were not mere elite decisions, not merely the brokering of power by beloved leaders.

The creation of the United Nations built upon a century of pacifist organising and activism, the advocacy of various schemes of international integration, agitation for the outlawing of war (achieved in 1928 by the Briand-Kellogg pact, and today binding on all nations as customary international law), and the work of organisations like the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom. Nobody could have measured any progress whatsoever towards international integration until the first world war led to the League of Nations; and after its demise, again, until the second world war led to the UN. History is unpredictable, but the course of history depends upon the ideas and institutions that are in existence; the power of those ideas; and the balance of forces those ideas and their supporting institutions have at their disposal. By measurability standards the WILPFs and the Bertha von Suttners of the world are clearly zero or close to it. By the standards of history, they are monumental.

The conclusion must be that in political activism, the mere propagation of ideas — perhaps even the mere existence of active organisations working for those ideas — is of value in itself. Having an organisation, having people willing to meet regularly, putting time into the cause, in itself is something. Of course, the more people doing it, the wider the ideas spread, and the more clearly they are formulated and powerfully they are expressed, the better. Some of this may be measurable. But much of it surely cannot.

In any case I think, in the activist context, the proposition that no measurable effect implies no political effect is not always true.

4. Sometimes vast changes happen after long struggles — at the beginning, nothing was measurable.

An insistence on measurability would have stopped people speaking out against the Vietnam war for many years — as I recall, Kennedy first sent troops in around 1963 but the protest movement did not pick up until the end of the decade. Recall the stories of Chomsky and fellow activists going to speak every weekend, I think at the Boston Common — with a significant police presence, not to beat up the antiwar protestors (as we see more usually today!), but to protect Chomsky and company from being beaten up by pro-war onlookers. An absolutely hopeless situation — and disorganised at that — but without this sort of persistence, the later massive movement could never have arisen.

More generally, the situation for most serious activists — those antagonistic to power, to received ideology, and not subservient to some faction of power (like the CAP Shwarz refers to) — almost always seems hopeless. Power is strong by definition, it has legions of unthinking supporters, and no shortage of subservient academics, pundits, and intellectuals. Challenging a political and intellectual hegemony is tough work! The best approach however seems clear: have a realistic analysis, but do what is required for the cause and for the good. As Gramsci put it: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

History shows that it can be done. And, often it is drastic. The pace of change can quicken, dramatically. Ideas can be widespread, and regarded as good, just as impractical. Many people are not prepared to act until they believe that others are prepared to act. Political action is self-referential, at least at first, its philosophy is logically circular, as with much of social life — but it happens. And it cannot happen without an impetus that is non-measurable up to the instant it occurs, collapsing the nesting of logical brackets, and making a reality of the common knowledge that we think other people think we think they think.

5. The local situation may also make measurability hard.

None of this is to say that measurable effects should not be noted where possible, just that good work may not always have short-term measurable consequences. For campus organising, I can think of some sorts of measurements that could be made. But thinking about it, the same problems seems to apply even to goals local to a single campus. Getting the local war criminal prosecuted would be monumental in US history. Stopping, or placing further institutional limits on, military research would be a massive shift in the direction of the whole university — one can well argue, at least to a first approximation, that Stanford built itself into a world-class institution precisely by taking government money for military-related research. Moreover, current military research on campus is institutionally protected by white-washed reports and “academic freedom” and runs together with the vast sums of “defence”-related money supporting the economy of not just Stanford, but the entire country — military Keynesianism.

In addition, arguably the low-lying fruit (no classified research on campus, no ROTC on campus, for example) have already been won by movements long ago (well, the 1970s!).

But, the general idea seems fine. Activist groups should have identifiable goals, visions, and so on. And activist groups should not be wasting their limited time and resources by doing things which do not help their cause — or by not helping their cause as much as they potentially could.

I would just say to be on guard that too much of a focus on short-term measurability could potentially detract from the sort of cultural and ideological change that is, in the long run, central to any antiwar, or anti-imperialist, or pacifist mission, and which seems nigh impossible to measure objectively.


Written by dan

October 31st, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Remarks at dinner

These are my prepared remarks, what I said was some approximation to these.

Hi, I’m Dan. I’m a grad student here in the mathematics department. Thanks for coming.

We are here today because we’re concerned.

We’re here today to make a peaceful and nonviolent statement that we are deeply concerned about what’s going on at this university, and more broadly what’s going on in this country and the world.

I would ask everybody here to treat everybody else, including people who disagree with us, with the respect they are entitled to.

But our concern today is not any ordinary concern. It’s a concern that goes to the heart of what it means to live in a humane society.

Some things are so morally abhorrent that no society can condone them and call itself civilized.

Some actions amount to crimes. But some actions go beyond mere crimes.

Such as torture. Such as the waging of aggressive war.

Some actions so shock the conscience, they so strike at the heart of what it means to be human, that we consider them crimes not just against the victim, not just against the law, but against every human being. Torture, war, they ruin the human soul, they break lives, they lessen us all.

And I think what brings us here today is our concern that there is substantial evidence – growing by the day, with every newly released report and memo – that a tenured faculty member here at Stanford has been:

firstly, a principal participant in the planning and propaganda efforts of an aggressive war waged in supreme violation of international law;

and secondly, an explicit authorizer of brutalities which have long been widely understood as torture.

War and torture. Hundreds of thousands, millions of ruined lives. A tenured faculty member. That is the situation which confronts us here today.

* * *

Let me tell you what this is not about.

This is not personal. Maybe, if you live here at Roble, you might take this personally. But I have nothing personal against anybody, here at Stanford, or anywhere; and I hope that you don’t either. We are not attacking anyone on a personal basis, but we do want to see accountability where there is evidence of involvement in extremely serious crimes.

Second, this is not about beliefs; this is about actions. If there’s a faculty member who makes a statement I disagree with, well, we can respectfully and politely disagree. If there’s a faculty member who makes a statement that is shocking and offensive – we might respectfully but not politely disagree. Maybe we might even be moved to protest. Freedom of speech protects unpopular views, as it protects protest; academic freedom protects intellectual inquiry.

But here, today, we are in a different category. We have a professor who did not merely advocate for brutalities like waterboarding – but authorised them. A professor who did not merely cheerlead for war, but was involved in official planning and propaganda efforts of that war, at the highest levels. These are not things to respectfully disagree about. These are not experiences to learn from. These are crimes to be prosecuted.

What do we do, if the authorities are not prosecuting — whether in US courts, overseas, or internationally?

What does it say about us, about our campus, if we let this pass?

What does it say about us, about our campus, if we ignore the evidence of these monstrous crimes and have a dinner party instead?

* * *

Let’s just briefly review some of the evidence.

You probably all know that our professor was National Security Adviser and chair of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee. We now know that this committee authorised specific instances of waterboarding – and the discussions there were so detailed they were “almost choreographed”. Moreover, our professor was not a passive participant; according to the report, she was “decisive”. She told the CIA: “This is your baby. Go do it.”

Now, in the last week, a declassified narrative from the Senate Intelligence Committee reveals that our professor became on July 17, 2002, so far as we know, the first high-ranking US official explicitly to authorize the brutal drowning technique known as waterboarding.

Now, torture is a crime under international law, under US law, there’s an international treaty about it. It’s very clear. There’s no defence of protecting national security. There’s no defence of intelligence chatter. Read the convention. Article 2 says that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture”. There are some things that, if you are minimally civilized, if you respect minimal human rights, you just don’t do. The evidence suggests that it also doesn’t work very well, but that’s not the point; it’s just wrong, and it’s a crime.

However, there are these “torture memos”. More of these have come out last week. Our professor assures us that everything she authorized was legal, and these memos provide the legal argument. Well, just go and read these memos and see what you think about the reasoning. Don’t be afraid of legalese, this stuff speaks for itself.

Take the memo of August 1, 2002, which was released last week. August 2002, just after our professor authorised waterboarding. The conclusion: waterboarding, and all other desired techniques, not torture.

So, how is waterboarding not torture? Well, there might be a bunch of legal precedents that it is, going right back to the Spanish-American war, 1898, but somehow the lawyers didn’t find them.

Anyway, the reasoning is pretty good. The statute says that to be torture, waterboarding must “inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering”. But you see, waterboarding only – only! — involves the panic of imminent death from drowning! That’s not actual physical pain, you see. Okay, but what about actual physical suffering? The physiological response of drowning seems like physical suffering to me! But no, you see, we are informed, that’s not how it works. The phrase “pain and suffering” in the defintion of torture must be understood as a single concept, not “pain”, not “suffering”, but “pain-and-suffering”. So, there’s no pain, might be suffering, but there’s no “pain-and-suffering”. Get it?

And so it goes on.

The requirement in the War Crimes act is for “specific intent”. So, says the memo, you have to actually explicitly specifically intend to inflict severe pain or suffering! If you intend anything else, it can’t be torture! You just have to believe in good faith of something other than that you are inflicting severe pain or suffering. Your belief doesn’t even have to be reasonable. And — and this is a key point — your good faith belief that you didn’t actually specifically intend to inflict severe pain or suffering can be established by reliance on experts. Like legal advice. Like this very memo.

And this is the way to regard these memos. They were regarded as a “Golden Shield”. They were written to get torturers out of jail. And producing fallacious legal arguments, reinterpreting the law to justify conduct that was previously clearly torture, has another name: aiding and abetting torture.

And there’s plenty more. Go and read it, I’m just scratching the surface. Especially read the bit about putting someone in a box with insects.

So every time our illustrious professor talks about how everything was assuredly legal, that is the reasoning it’s based on. It’s ridiculous, it’s unbelievably bad, it has been rescinded as an embarrassment, and it is aiding and abetting torture

And, our professor can’t claim any ignorance about this. We know from the recently released report of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that through 2002-2003, she was present at several meetings in the White House at which Mr. Yoo, her Berkeley colleague, provided legal advice. So she has heard it. She knows how bad it is. And yet, the evidence is that she was decisive regardless.

* * *

Torture is one thing, and it’s terrible. But I’m sorry, my friends, there are worse things in the world than torture. A full-scale war is much, much worse.

War is generally illegal, has been illegal since 1928. It can only be justified, legally, in two circumstances: as self-defence from imminent attack, or with authorisation from the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. That doesn’t necessarily make it moral, or good, but makes it legal. That’s international law. Very simple. And neither condition was satisfied in the case of Iraq. So it’s illegal. It’s aggressive war.

And the waging of aggressive war is not just a crime. It’s a crime against the world, a crime against humanity, the same crime for which the Nazis were tried at Nuremberg. Countries don’t invade other countries in the 21st century. That belongs to a world long past, that belongs in past ages of barbarism.

So the invasion of Iraq is not to be regarded as a mistake, or a blunder, but, to quote the Nuremberg tribunal, it is “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” That is the position at international law, reaffirmed ever since.

Well, what is the role of our illustrious professor?

She was one of the “five Administration officials most responsible for providing public information and shaping public opinion on Iraq”, and central to policy formulation and execution. Here I’m quoting a Congressional Committee and leading reports. She was among the topofficials promoting, planning, and eventually perpetrating the war.

Smoking guns and mushroom clouds. That’s our professor.

The Center for Public Integrity has calculated that, overall, the Bush administration made 935 public false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. Of those 935, our illustrious professor made 56 false statements.

Aggressive war, and a breathtaking tragedy. Hundreds of thousands have died as a result of the war – by some estimates, well over a million. Over 4 million refugees. Lives broken across an entire region of the planet. A humanitarian catastrophe, and still ongoing.

That’s our professor, who’s having dinner parties in dormitories.

* * *

In the end, for us here at Stanford, I think it comes down to asking –

What sort of a world do you want to live in? and

What sort of a campus do you want to study in?

The horrors are not over. Violence in Iraq continues. War in Afghanistan escalates. Bombings in Pakistan escalate. Foreign policy goes on with the new President, as it has gone on for a long time, and it is not pretty. Before Iraq and Afghanistan there were interventions, just to name a few – in Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Libya, Grenada, Angola, Guatemala, Iran; the list goes on, and it’s bipartisan.

There is plenty to push the President on. And on the question of prosecuting torture, he is possibly wavering, he’s been hedging.

He needs some backbone. But we can help to give him some backbone. Imagine what a message a strong stand by Stanford students on campus could send.

Because for us, this is not an abstract question. For us, this question has come home – today, it has come home for dinner.

I think it’s important to realise that, in calling for prosecutions, we are not looking for retribution. The most important thing is to make sure that the horrible episodes we have seen – war, torture, aggression, violations of international law – do not happen again. How do you ensure they do not happen again? By letting anybody who is thinking of doing it again know that if they do it again, they will be prosecuted. And how do you ensure that? By prosecuting those who did it this time. The best way to put the past behind us is for people to face accountability now.

It’s also the law – article 12 of the Convention Against Torture requires investigations, whenever there is reasonable ground to believe torture has been committed.

But we have to ask ourselves some questions:

How can we change a culture where such a professor considers herself able to invite herself over to dinner, where dozens will sign up adoringly?

Somehow we have to grow up. We have to realise that not every adult around here, not every authority figure, is someone to look up to.

Somehow we have to get people to think about their place in the world, their place at this university, and the place of this university in the world. Considering the role of this university in the power structures of society, what do we want it to be? And how can we make it so?

So I invite you to join with us, work with the coalition that is coming together to work on this issue, to work for justice, for accountability, and for peace.

After all, we all live here. It is the responsibility of all of us.


Written by dan

April 28th, 2009 at 3:43 am

War Criminals of Tomorrow

An awesome video by a friend.

“Condoleezza Rice is back at Stanford University. What does it mean for the Stanford community to accept an alleged war criminal on their campus? What does the pipeline of war criminals to universities mean for students everywhere? Please read about Rice’s alleged crimes during the past 8 years: and support the movement on Stanford’s campus to hold Rice and former Bush administration officials accountable…”


Written by dan

April 25th, 2009 at 3:47 am

The poverty of student life

“Modern capitalism and its spectacle allot everyone a specific role in a general passivity. The student is no exception to the rule. He has a provisional part to play, a rehearsal for his final role as an element in market society as conservative as the rest. Being a student is a form of initiation. An initiation which echoes the rites of more primitive societies with bizarre precision. It goes on outside of history, cut off from social reality. The student leads a double life, poised between his present status and his future role. The two are absolutely separate, and the journey from one to the other is a mechanical event “in the future.” Meanwhile, he basks in a schizophrenic consciousness, withdrawing into his initiation group to hide from that future. Protected from history, the present is a mystic trance.”

A very interesting essay, much more nuanced than the stuff I tend to read lately. I feel like I am missing a lot of the cultural background of Paris 1966; it’s written before 1968, but I’m not sure how much it is before, politically, consciousness-wise, ideology-wise, etc. Without this background and zeitgeist, I find it pretty heavy going, as the arguments are pretty nuanced. At one second he is denouncing general passivity, then subservience to power, then a bohemian lifestyle, then the student’s own consumerism of Camus vs Sartre etc. All very insightful, but I find it hard to put such things together to get a picture of the period! Perhaps this is the problem when you read the marginalised voice without knowing what the mainstream ones were saying.

Note how suddenly his view of Berkeley is much less nuanced and sophisticated — that’s probably reciprocal to my own view and understanding of events in France.

I find it a bit over-sophisticated — in the best French traditions! — but that may just amount to being over-sophisticated for me, with my lack of knowledge of the period. I also had an impression of bad tactics, since it seemed to denounce pretty much everyone (except a group in Japan I’ve not heard of before), which is often justified but not always useful. This then gives me an impression also of hypocrisy, since this seems to indicate a sort of sectarianism, over-denunciation and cliquishness which he is himself denouncing.

But this is an essay from another time and another place, so it’s hard to judge these things.

In broad terms though I thought is was an excellent critique of “the student”, and a very powerful argument at the end — I found it suddenly much less acidic there, though maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with it — for workers’ councils and so on.


Written by dan

March 23rd, 2009 at 7:12 am

Things to learn about the world

I am interested pretty broadly in radical politics, and especially in alternatives, vision for a better world, and strategy of how to get there. This means alternatives in all realms of society: politics, economics, kinship, environment, gender relations, race relations, etc. But I guess my major radical political interest is in economic alternatives to capitalism (I am a mathematician after all 😛 ). Out of the proposals I’ve seen — and it is to my undying bafflement that I have barely seen any, or any discussion of them — the one I that strikes me most favourably is the participatory economics ideas written down by Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, and various others, mostly the sort of people that write on /

Nonetheless I’m pretty open-minded about alternatives. Just not authoritarian socialist ones — command planning, leninism/maoism/trotskyism, etc. Various other ideas, often given labels like market socialism, solidarity economics, democratic socialism, etc, are all worth learning and thinking about, I think. As well as historical examples, which I think are very important, e.g. libertarian Spain, the Paris commune, Chile under Allende, Scandinavia under social democracy, participatory budgeting in Brazil and India, the Yugoslav model, etc etc etc… Of all these, I find libertarian Spain (i.e. the economic system established in anarchist-controlled regions during the Spanish civil war) the most inspiring. I see “participatory economics” not as a great theoretical development, but as a continuation / modernization of this anarchist / libertarian socialist tradition, adapted to the present day.

Also, when discussing vision per se, seems to me this is often best conveyed by storytelling/fiction. Plus, fiction is fun to read.

So, these are the sorts of things to learn, although I am definitely open to many other things.

Parecon: Life After Capitalism
Michael Albert

The Dispossessed
Ursula K Le Guin

No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism
Daniel Guerin


Written by dan

February 13th, 2009 at 10:00 am