Long walks, moral complexity, pirates


in Books and literature, Daily updates, Oxford, Politics

Angor Wat grafitti

Today involved some good reading, four more iced shots of espresso, two important meetings, and a long and social walk with Margaret. In the manner of debt collectors everywhere, I have learned that you can get a long way with people who are not being responsive to emails by simply showing up at their doorstep. In half an hour, you can get further than two weeks worth of messages would ever take you.

I have decided, for my paper on ‘failed states,’ to argue that the term is more trouble than it is worth. It conflates a number of different circumstances in which states might find themselves in ways that make it a hopeless muddle, both from a theoretical and an empirical point of view. This should make the paper much more interesting to write; there is great pleasure to be taken in choosing an argument and defending it. The only trouble, it seems, is that the more education you go through, the less thoroughly you can believe that anything you are saying is really true.

That is one reason for which it is so satisfying to write about gay marriage or Guantanamo Bay. These are circumstances where I can stand four-square behind a moral position.

PS. One piece of truly essential thesis reading did get fished today: the copy of The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists that Josiah lent me last night. Gideon Defoe has made a valuable contribution to the study of pirate-scientist dynamics. One particularly useful fact for someone leaving academia: Charles Darwin was working as an unpaid naturalist on the Beagle. It seems that it really is possible to learn a great deal from such work.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

sasha January 5, 2007 at 6:16 pm

I completely agree with tossing the idea of ‘failed states.’ It’s a dangerous term at best (because of its overtly negative implications) that doesn’t actually describe anything well. All of the states that could be lumped under the term ‘failed’ could also be recatergorized into groups like ‘recovering from colonial exploitation,’ ‘suffering from heavy corporate exploitation,’ ‘fought over by rich warlords hoarding valuable resources,’ ‘plainly governed by the military’ and so forth.

It’s much like school children. Why call them failing when it could be ‘never has anything to eat before class,’ ‘needs someone at home to help with homework,’ or even ‘gifted but bored’ – kids and states all fail for their own reasons, and using the term ‘failed’ suggests to me that we’re happy looking at the outcomes alone, while turning a blind eye to causes and circumstances. We oughtn’t be so complacent, especially if our goal is understanding.

Milan January 5, 2007 at 7:02 pm

‘If my years of experience solving crimes has taught me anything,’ said the Pirate Captain, looking reassuringly nonchalant by tipping his chair back dangerously, ‘it’s that you can’t catch a mouse without cheese!’

‘Your years of experience solving crimes? But you’re a pirate,’ whispered Darwin. ‘Surely that doesn’t involve much detective work?’

‘Aarrrr’ roared the Pirate Captain, because it seemed a good way to end the conversation.

R.K. January 5, 2007 at 7:48 pm

I know you are into trees.

The oldest known Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was 3,200 years old at the time when it was cut down.

Look what was happening then.

Anon @ Wadh January 6, 2007 at 10:18 pm

Wikipedia says nothing about whether Darwin was paid. How sure are you about that?

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