Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Wanderer

When I got my PhD from Stanford University at the beginning of 1976, I had already started on a one-year job in Claremont Graduate School in California. The future seemed golden. It didn’t occur to me that it would be 1983 before I landed a tenure-track job. But that’s what happened.

Picture for no tenure blog post
I had a good PhD. My professors (Julius Moravcsik, John Perry, Dagfinn Føllesdal) were well-known and supportive. (I always felt well-treated at Stanford.) And I was publishing regularly (in such places as Phronesis, Noûs, and the Canadian Journal of Philosophy). Yet I spent eight years in one-year jobs. This had a lasting effect. 1975-1983 represents eight years without pension credit; it marks nearly a decade of low income, rented accommodation, no savings. It was a long period in which to deal with disappointment, anxiety, and resentment. But why was it that way?

I had several weaknesses that might have contributed to my failure to launch, career-wise.

1. I was in the wrong field. Most of my efforts were focussed on ancient philosophy, but basically I was not interested in historical research. My first degree was in science. My interest was in certain philosophical problems that also interested the ancients. I wasn't all that interested in getting the philology straight, or straightened out. Still: I did publish in the field. (I am still proud of three articles I published in those years; one is among the best I have ever managed.)

2. I was (and am) very bourgeois. My identity resides in a certain kind of risk-avoiding prudence, in doing things because they are done, an owlish earnestness about culture—in short, an attitude that makes many people think “Who does he think he is?” Relatively few people in the profession think of themselves as “coming from a family,” as I did, and this didn’t quite fit with the North American ethos of those days. It gave (and gives) me airs, I suppose. I was thought, with some justice, to be arrogant. And yet: I was quite sociable, and capable of both receiving and giving pleasure in society. It wasn’t as if I was friendless and unpopular.

3. I was (and am) brown. A South Asian Indian before it was chic to be so. (See photo!)
Which of these weaknesses predominated in my many failures to land a good job? Honestly, I don’t know. At one campus interview (at the University of Toronto, actually) I remember a very distinguished scholar asking me (in a rather prosecutorial tone) whether I had read Zabarella. This suggests a preoccupation with weakness 1—though my job talk had been a terrific success. Another time, somebody told me that I was “too good” for the job they were offering. This suggests weakness 2 was the problem. But an explicit concern with scholarship or character doesn’t rule out an implicit concern with “otherness”. (In fact, one of the main lessons we have learned about discrimination is that it gets deflected to other concerns.)

The question resurfaced at the front of my mind recently when somebody from the Canada Research Chairs secretariat called to interview me on my experience as a member of a visible minority. This kind of interview is meant to, and does, elicit opinions normally unvoiced. And voicing an opinion tends to disinhibit thought. Moreover, I had been sensitized by a Statistics Canada study that suggested that non-white professional immigrants take about eight years to catch up to their peers—exactly as long as I took, if you assume that getting a tenure-track job seven years after my PhD is “catching up.”

The interviewer didn’t express much apparent emotion one way or another, as one would expect from a professional. But she kept probing. Was there anything else I felt strange about? And, actually, there was--though it was rather superficial.

My main career priorities are (of course) to have a good job and have my papers published in visible places. By 1985, I was publishing well, and the University of Alberta had started bumping my salary up to reflect my years in the profession. The gap was closed by 1991 or so; I was a full professor by 1989. I owe the folks at Alberta a lot for doing me right. (Not to mention for hiring me in the first place.)

But there are things that never came my way: professional influence and honours. I never did get to sit on national committees or boards. I have only once sat on a national adjudication committee. This was in 2005 (i.e., thirty years in). On this occasion, I was repeatedly assigned as “second reader” on the committee to a much younger guy who wasn’t expert in most of the topics. This petty incident epitomizes my doubt. How could I be second chair to a mostly unpublished person on files in philosophy of biology and mind? (And isn’t it unhealthy to worry about rubbish like this?) It wasn’t until 2009 that I got invited to give my one and only keynote address; in Canada, I still never have been. These things are superficial. (Have I said that already?) And often tedious. But they lead to networking and influence and interdisciplinary connections. I wonder why I never had these opportunities.

I am fine now. (Is it my bourgeois pride that compels me to say so?) I feel privileged to teach in a great department, and to enjoy the friendship and respect of my colleagues. But it has always been this way: esteem up close and the hint of something else just over the horizon. And I still wonder a little: what do distant, nameless “selectors” think when they look at my photograph?

Friday, November 18, 2011

The City of Fashion . . .

. . . is clearly London.

Why, they erect these quaint little red structures . . . 

. . . just so models can advertise:

The only thing I don't understand is: what does 'TELEPHONE' mean?

UPDATE: My friend, Dennis Des Chene adds some archival material.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Direct Political Action in India

India is experiencing direct political action. And not everybody is celebrating.
Back when Independence came, India had a relatively honest bureaucracy, so some say. But with Independence came the socialist planned state, and every commercial action needed a multitude of licences and permission. In a socialist state, public salaries were stagnant. The opportunities offered by the Licence Raj, and the neediness engendered by the levellers, led to increasing corruption. But the last two decades have eclipsed all that. Indian tycoons built huge fortunes off such opportunities as the sale of cell-phone rights. They have done so dishonestly.
I don’t know if that story is completely accurate, but India now has a bureaucracy and political class that are very corrupt by any standards. The 2G cell-phone scandal is said to have cost the Treasury $40 billion; the Commonwealth Games fiasco modernized the Capital—but at a cost in corruption that can only be guessed at.
This is where direct action comes in. Anna Hazare is an Indian who has been in the news lately. He proposed anti-corruption legislation to create the office of Lokpal, or Guardian of the People, with very broad powers to root out corruption. He has been fasting to protest its non-adoption. Yesterday, India’s Parliament passed a non-binding resolution endorsing Hazare’s main demands, and he broke his fast. “Today the Parliament is discussing the issues you have raised,” Hazare said, “It is the people’s parliament that is supreme.” It should be clear: Hazare’s phrase “the people’s parliament” does not mean Parliament. He is referring to the protest movement he started.
Hazare is a decorated retired soldier and a dynamic social worker. He introduced dramatic and very successful agricultural reform in his own village, and the results made him famous and influential. Disturbingly, though, there are reports that these reforms were achieved tyrannically. In a forthcoming book, the well-known journalist Mukul Sharma reports (in Ramachandra Guha’s summary) that “Liquor, tobacco, even cable TV were forbidden. Dalit families were compelled to adopt a vegetarian diet. Those who violated these rules—or orders—were tied to a post and flogged.” Local elections were not held; national campaigns were disallowed.
The mode of the anti-corruption campaign, and Hazare’s own predelictions, have caused many Indian intellectuals considerable anxiety. A few days ago, I posted links to Arundhati Roy writing in the Hindu, a left-wing newspaper, and to that newspaper’s own editorial on the subject (which notes that many of the provisions of the Lokpal bill are unconstitutional). Roy, who is a left-wing activist herself (and a Booker Prize winner for her novel, The God of Small Things) writes:
While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare's demands are certainly not. Contrary to Gandhiji's ideas about the decentralisation of power, the Jan Lokpal Bill is a draconian, anti-corruption law, in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy, with thousands of employees, with the power to police everybody from the Prime Minister, the judiciary, members of Parliament, and all of the bureaucracy, down to the lowest government official.
Roy is not disturbed just by the content of the Lokpal proposal. She deplores the movement itself: “the Maoists and the Jan Lokpal Bill have one thing in common — they both seek the overthrow of the Indian State.” Hazare does not care for India’s constitutional democracy: the last 64 years (since Independence) have been wasted, he has said.
Niraja Gopal Jayal, an eminent political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, strikes a note that is, at least to my ear, less authentic and less urgent than Roy’s:
If we allow civil society (or any segment of it, however well-intentioned) to dictate the law to Parliament today, on what grounds do we deny the same privilege to others tomorrow — corporate lobbies, for example?
Surely this cannot be the main concern: it is possible to regulate corporate lobbies. Still Jayal’s concern, like Roy’s, is with power being exercised outside the normal constitutional channels. “The supreme irony is that to give in to the demands of [Anna Hazare] would be tantamount to opening the doors to legalising the very forms of influence on which Hazare is so generously staking his life,” she writes in the Indian Express.
It’s a peculiarly Indian conversation. Gandhian principles of civil pressure struggling against pride in indigenous institutions and protectiveness of their legitimacy. Unlike China, India doesn’t enforce anti-corruption laws by shooting those found guilty. Like China before said executions, the new economy has reinforced and accelerated a long decline in public morality. The issue that engages many Indian intellectuals is how to break the culture of corruption within the Constitution. Hazare accepts no such restrictions.
Perhaps we should allow a politician the last word. Here is Rahul Gandhi, speaking in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament:
Democracy is central to fighting corruption. Individuals . . . have galvanized people in the cause of freedom and development. However, individual dictates, no matter how well intentioned, must not weaken the democratic process. This process is often lengthy and lumbering. But it is so in order to be inclusive and fair.

(Cross-posted at New APPS.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Nationalist Scoundrels

I am viscerally opposed I am to Canadian nationalism--the protection of Canadian jobs against qualified non-Canadian applicants, and of Canadian culture on radio and TV. It is mostly a whiny way that Canadians claim entitlements that they don't deserve, and as such it reminds me of union featherbedding on a grand scale. But as a person of Indian origin, I am proud of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. This has led me to wonder when nationalism is morally permissible.

Nations are, I take it, groups of people historically united by culture, political organization, and language, and who constitute a significant majority in a geographical area. The majority criterion is important: Jews have shared culture, but they are not a nation, except in Israel.

Nationalism is an exclusionary ideology adopted by such a group. It aims to reserve political participation, economic opportunities, and cultural liberty for members of the group. Minority rights movements may ask for some of these things, but they are not nationalisms because they are not conducted by nations.

Is nationalism ever morally justified? Is it ever right to adopt an ideology that encourages the exclusion of people? Is it ever right for a majority to do so?

Well, it can be right when either it reacts to the colonial subjugation of a nation, or when it attempts to preserve the shared culture against an imminent threat. For example, Indian nationalism was morally justified during British rule. It isn’t justified any more, and has fortunately ceased to exist (I think) having been replaced by provincial nationalisms that have very little justification (though occasionally a modicum). Quebec nationalism was justified when the French language was under threat in North America. It is putrefying now (and enjoying it). There are many other examples of this sort.

On the other hand, there are many cases where nationalism is clearly unjustified or even preposterous. There is an English nation, but it has never been subjugated or threatened. It is debatable whether there is an American nation, but even if there is, the same applies. And in fact, there is no significant American nationalist movement in the sense just defined. (There is American patriotism, to an uncomfortable degree, and American militarism, ditto—but this is a different matter.) Aggressive nationalism is preposterous and can never be justified. The German nation was under threat in the 1930s, but how many brain cells does it take to see that this didn’t even begin to justify the annexation of Czechoslovakia or Poland?

Canadians are not a nation. There is no group of people historically united by culture, political organization, and language, and who constitute a significant majority in Canada. This is one reason why multiculturalism has worked here. In the US, multiculturalism is a vibrant cultural force, but members of non English-speaking cultures have to face a degree of intolerance. (In Australia, the nation is so ineluctably sexy that Chinese and Indians simply surrender with soft moans and shudders. This is the coming form of nationalism, but I won’t discuss it further here.) Canadians are more like Europeans than Americans in the tolerance dimension. In Europe, however, minority cultures bump up against nations. In Canada, there is tolerance, but no nation. These are great conditions for multiculturalism. (In Quebec, by the way, there is a nation, and multiculturalism has a harder ride.)

I ask the question about Canada in particular, but having asked it I wonder whether Canada is the only democratic country in the world that still harbours mainstream nationalism. There is a bit of it in Australia and in many European countries, but in these countries it is mostly a fringe movement. Every country tries to protect itself against levels of immigration that (in its view) would unduly stress its economy. But in which independent democracy other than Canada do polite centrists lament the incursions of qualified non-nationals?

Everybody knows the term CanCon here: it stands for Canadian Content, and it’s a phrase because radio stations and cable channels must carry a quota of it. This is appalling, and in my view it has a bad effect on the Canadian entertainment industry. Is there OzCon or DutchCon? (Actually, as I discovered, there are analogues: but somehow it doesn't feel as damaging to me.)

It’s all very puzzling. Back in the early sixties, George Grant wrote a barnburner called Lament for a Nation. This elegantly written but myopic book—I’ll write more about it in a future post—set the agenda for the then rising Canadian nationalist movement. The title was characteristically brilliant. Would it have stoked as much fury if it had been more accurately titled Lament for a Nation Unborn?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why Not Here?

The rioting in Britain isn't following a pattern that is easily explained by protest or reaction to oppression. You could have said something like that about London late last week. But yesterday, Tuesday, there was looting in Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, etc. From BBC TV coverage in Birmingham (possibly taken from CCTV feeds) it appears that a few young people appear suddenly, attack shops, the word gets out, and then more people arrive, etc.

One explanation that has been offered is this: watching riots and looting in London, people in other cities decide that they too can have boxes full of merchandise. Some were apparently trying things on in H&M before running off with them. The riots "didn't seem to be politically motivated, nor did they have any sense of community or social solidarity," said an observer quoted by Zoe Williams in the Guardian; "We're not all gathering together for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker," said another. "Greed," "entitlement," and "consumerism" are the buzzwords today.

I don't know if this is what happened, but if it is, then why not here? I don't want to put ideas in anybody's head, but why can't people in Toronto (or any number of other cities) watch what's happening in England and decide that they too can have boxes of merchandise? If it's not about anything in particular, then why should it respect national boundaries? Should we worry about riots in Markham and North York (the banlieues of Toronto)?