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Archive for the 'Current Events' Category

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Sandra Fahy on North Korea and the Impact of Famine

Sandra Fahy, Marching Through Suffering

“This fact, that they use humor and wordplay, directly challenges the notion that [North Koreans] are all brainwashed victims.”—Sandra Fahy

Earlier this Fall, North Korea News interviewed Sandra Fahy about her book Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, which we just published. It’s a fascinating interview in which Fahy describes some of the challenges of studying North Korea, particularly given her background in anthropology. Obviously not able to talk to people living in North Korea, Fahy spoke with recent defectors to learn about how North Koreans make sense of their world.

Fahy points out that the famine in North Korea has not produced the kind of social upheaval some policymakers thought might happen. She argues that famine rarely does cause these kinds of monumental change, however, she was surprised by the lack of anger on the part of North Koreans:

When I was conducting the research I was surprised by something: I had expected North Koreans would have been angry, annoyed, judging of the state for failing to provide food for them (as it promised to do).

They were angry after the fact, in South Korea and China, but when I asked them to recollect their lives in North Korea they did not have anger toward the state then. They did not see the triage of resources toward the military, toward the capital, as unfair. Rather “that’s just the way it was”—this kind of banal rationalization that was unusual to me.

I believe my most important findings are these: first of all, we should not presume that those who defect are always and necessarily the worst off. Many still hold the memory of Kim Il Sung highly, while demonizing Kim Jong Il.

(more…)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Discouraging North American and European Citizens from Foreign Jihad

Mental Health in the War on Terror

This week our featured book is Mental Health in the War on Terror, by Neil Krishan Aggarwal. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. In today’s guest post, Aggarwal discusses a recent New York Times article on efforts to keep Western citizens from “traveling to fight in war zones in Muslim countries,” and how the War on Terror has been and is being shaped by sometimes troubling stereotypes.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for Mental Health in the War on Terror!

Discouraging North American and European Citizens from Foreign Jihad
By Neil Krishan Aggarwal

A New York Times article dated January 13, 2015 and titled “West Struggles against Flow to War Zones” describes North American and European officials struggling to “stem the flow of their citizens traveling to fight in war zones in Muslim countries.” The article comes after last week’s tragic attacks in France and reflects major themes from my book Mental Health in the War on Terror: Culture, Science, and Statecraft. In my book, I analyze questionable claims of Orientalist stereotypical scholarship and de-radicalization programs, some of which appear in this article. By scrutinizing this article, I hope to show how such claims recur in an influential newspaper and shape public discussions of the War on Terror. Only by inspecting such claims one at a time can we discern how the War on Terror has permeated popular culture.

1. The “West/Rest” fallacy. The authors begin: “For more than a decade, Western governments have struggled to stem the flow of their citizens traveling to fight in war zones in Muslim countries.” This assertion implies a rigid division among Muslims and non-Muslims. Where does the West begin and end? What is the standard for “Muslim countries”? Is a Muslim country defined on the basis of political system (Saudi Arabia), population (Indonesia), or Orientalist notions of the Middle East? Are we not comparing apples and oranges by contrasting entities based on geography (“Western”) and religion (“Muslim”)? (more…)

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Mental Health, Culture, and Power in the War on Terror

Mental Health in the War on Terror

This week our featured book is Mental Health in the War on Terror, by Neil Krishan Aggarwal. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. In today’s post, we have an excerpt from the first chapter of Mental Health in the War on Terror, in which Aggarwal introduces his project, takes a close look at the causes and symptoms of PTSD, and examines the effects that the War on Terror had on an American veteran and a detainee at Guantánamo Bay.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for Mental Health in the War on Terror!

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Mental Health in the War on Terror, by Neil Krishan Aggarwal

Mental Health in the War on Terror

“Very few people are able to synthesize the disciplines of anthropology, mental health, cultural studies, political theory, religious studies, bioethics and forensics as Aggarwal does in this book. He offers a balanced and insightful account of the challenges of forensic psychiatry in assessing and managing terrorism suspects.” — Hamada Hamid, Yale University

This week our featured book is Mental Health in the War on Terror, by Neil Krishan Aggarwal. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Mental Health in the War on Terror. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 16th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Jared Del Rosso on the Torture Debate and the CIA Report

Jared Del Rosso

“The report offers, at last, a peak at the CIA’s own documentary record. What we find is what critics of the program have long known we’d find. Not the mastery or enhancement of violence, but torture.”—Jared Del Rosso

The following post is by Jared Del Rosso, author of the forthcoming Talking About Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate:

On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the executive summary of its report on CIA interrogations during the war on terror. The Committee’s investigation began in 2009. The report, more than 6,000 pages in total, was completed in late 2011 and approved by the Committee in December 2012. For the better part of the last two years, the Committee has been negotiating the release of the summary with the CIA. The Agency provided a response to the investigation in 2013, and the Committee incorporated some of that response into its report. Since then, the Committee and the CIA have been hashing out what would be redacted in the summary. The negotiations were frequently bitter, and they delayed the release of the document for several months.

All this is to say that the report is long overdue. It’s been over a decade since the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs inaugurated the “torture debate.” Since then, public attention to torture has come in fits and starts with the release of investigations, memos, emails, an interrogation log, and, of course, photographs.

In Talking about Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate, I show that U.S. politicians are especially responsive to the release of documents produced by the country’s own interrogators and soldiers. This includes the Abu Ghraib photographs, which military police at the facility in Iraq took with personal cameras. The impact of the photographs is well-known. But other documents also influenced the debate. In December 2004, the Bush administration released FBI emails describing military practices at Guantánamo. Earlier in the year, military officials and investigators had assured Congress that serious instances of detainee abuse were isolated to Abu Ghraib and that there had only been a few, minor instances of abuse at Guantánamo. The emails, however, undermined this claim. One described an agent’s observations of detainees “chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18, 24 hours, or more.” One detainee “was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night.” The release of the FBI emails and, later, the military’s interrogation log of Mohammed al Qahtani directly contradicted what high-ranking military officials had said about interrogations at Guantánamo and emboldened congressional democrats, who had previously treaded carefully around the facility and the administration’s role in promoting the abuse and torture of detainees.

(more…)

Friday, November 21st, 2014

George Packer on The New Censorship by Joel Simon

Joel Simon, The New Censorship

In Why the Press is Less Free Today, a recent article in The New Yorker, George Packer discussed some of the key issues and arguments raised in The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, by Joel Simon.

Packer’s article and Simon’s book come at a time when journalists are increasingly under threat. As Packer writes, between 2002 and 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.), five hundred and six journalists were killed worldwide, as opposed to three hundred and ninety in the previous decade. Packer comments on the seeming contradiction of more journalists being killed at a time when other freedoms seem to be proliferating:

It seems strange to speak of growing censorship in an era when elections are common around the world, private freedoms have expanded even in repressive countries like China, the Internet and social media swamp our brains with indiscriminate information every nanosecond, and anyone with a Twitter account or a Facebook page can be a journalist. But Simon makes a persuasive case that the global trend is toward less, not greater, freedom of the press. “Deluged with data, we are blind to the larger reality,” he writes. “Around the world new systems of control are taking hold. They are stifling the global conversation and impeding the development of policies and solutions based on an informed understanding of the local realities. Repression and violence against journalists is at record levels, and press freedom is in decline.”

(more…)

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Joel Simon Discusses The New Censorship on The Leonard Lopate Show

Yesterday, Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom appeared on The Leonard Lopate Show to talk about the book and the increasing threats to journalists. Simon warns that these threats are leading to a shortage of the news reports we need to make sense of our globalized world and to fight against human rights abuses, manage conflict, and promote accountability.

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Marc Lynch on the Arab Uprisings and Their Aftermath

“The pan-Arab revolutionary unity of early 2011 has long since given way to sectarianism, polarization between Islamists and their enemies, and horror over the relentless images of death and despair in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”—March Lynch

The Arab Uprisings Explained, Marc Lynch

In The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East, edited by Marc Lynch, leading scholars and observers of the Middle East examine the causes, dynamics, and effects of the Arab uprisings. Marc Lynch discussed some of the conclusions from the book in a Washington Post blog post from this summer and also discusses the failure of political scientists to predict the uprisings in the first place.

In a follow up, Lynch examines how experts, including himself, responded to and analyzed events that occurred during the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Lynch’s article comes out of a recent study in which he asked the contributors to The Arab Uprisings Explained to write short memos assessing their contributions after having another year to reflect on what has transpired since they wrote their original pieces. (free PDF available here)

In summarizing the contributors critiques of their own work and their failures to understand some of the dynamics of the Arab Uprisings, Lynch writes:

We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

Lynch admits that he and his colleagues might have become “too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment. That’s a fine quality in activists, but not so helpful for academic rigor.”

Lynch also revisits some of his own positions and analyses from the past three years since the Arab Spring. Specifically, he looks at the destabilizing effects of U.S. and Allied intervention in Libya, an action Lynch initially supported. Lynch concedes:

It is impossible to look at Libya’s failed state and civil war, its proxy conflict and regional destabilization, and not conclude that the intervention’s negative effects over the long term outweigh the short-term benefits. Moammar Gaddafi’s fall, combined with the prominence of armed militias, left Libya without a functioning state and little solid ground upon which to build a new political order. The likelihood of such an outcome should have weighed more heavily in my analysis.

(more…)

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

An Interview with Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship

“This is the most deadly and dangerous time for journalists in decades”—Joel Simon
Joel Simon, The New CensorshipThe following is an interview with Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom. On November 11 at Book Court in Brooklyn, there was a launch for a book and a discussion with Simon and George Packer of The New Yorker. Packer later wrote about a commentary based on the book on Why the Press is Less Free Today. For more on the book you can also read an excerpt from the chapter News of the Future (and the Future of News).

Question: Why did you write this book?

Joel Simon: As always there were a mix of personal and professional reasons. From a professional perspective, I hope to draw attention to the crisis that we are confronting around global free expression. This is the most deadly and dangerous time for journalists in decades, with record numbers being killed and imprisoned. Around the world, according to all available data, press freedom is in decline and the information we depend on makes sense of our globalized world is not flowing as freely as people believe. I hope the book draws attention to this urgent threat, helps readers understand its origins and consequences, and to points toward strategies that can help mitigate the impact.

From a personal perspective, I have always loved to tell stories. This is in large measure why I became a journalist and since my day job is a running an international nonprofit it is not something I generally able to do. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to take a step back, and consider the big picture, and sit, write, and contemplate.

Q: The book is called The New Censorship. How is this different from the old censorship?

JS: Traditional censorship is based on hierarchies of control. In its most rigid formulation, a country’s political leadership determines what people can know and state directives are executed by actual censors who occupy newsrooms and prevent the publication of prohibited material. In other words, people don’t know what they don’t know. This kind of censorship is anachronism in a globalized, networked world in which even autocratic regimes have to integrate into the international financial and information systems. So unless you want to ban the Internet—something only a handful of countries do these days—you need to find a way to manage information rather than relying on simple repression. In the book, I look at a variety of strategies focusing on new breed of elected autocrats who I dub the “democratators.” I look at the Chinese system for managing the Internet, and also explore the way that terror and criminal groups are using social media to disseminate message of fear and intimidation.

Q: You use this term, global citizen. What do you mean by that?

JS: One of the primary themes I explore in the book is the way that technology has transformed the global information system, including the global media. I use the term global citizen to represent all those who recognize that their interests transcend national boundaries. In order to make informed decisions about matters that affect their lives, global citizens require access to global information. It is true that technology makes it possible to access information from around the world in ways that would have not even been conceivable a few decades ago. But the glut of information blinds us to the huge gaps in our knowledge of global events, gaps produced by pressure from authoritarian governments, murderous violence perpetrated by criminal and terrorist groups, smothering surveillance of our online communication, and clear deficiencies in the media structures. By definition censorship itself transcends national boundaries, since it prevents people from outside the country where the censorship is taking place from accessing information that may be essential for their own lives. One of the primary arguments for press freedom in a national context is that it necessary for good governance and accountability. But there is no effective mechanism to ensure that news and information produces accountability at the global level.

(more…)

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Sex and World Peace: What’s Next

“Empower women and you enhance security in all its dimensions. Disempower women, and you undermine that security.”—Valerie Hudson

Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson

The following post if from Valerie Hudson, co-author of Sex and World Peace.

My co-authors and I are very grateful that Gloria Steinem found Sex and World Peace to be an important read. How the insecurity of women creates insecurity for the broader collective, whether at the local, national, regional, or international levels, is a vital topic of concern not only to scholars, but to policymakers and policy advocates as well. In a very real way, whether we speak of food security, economic security, demographic security, security and governance, security and health, or any one of a numbers of interlocked aspects of collective security, women are the great pivot. Empower women and you enhance security in all its dimensions. Disempower women, and you undermine that security.

We are often asked what will follow Sex and World Peace and its initial efforts to demonstrate those linkages that are often invisible in our security discourse. To date, we are engaged in two research projects, one nearing completion and one just getting underway.

Scheduled for publication in June 2015 by Columbia University Press is the forthcoming volume, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy. In that book, journalist Patricia Leidl and I examine how attention to the situation of women has become, in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “a cornerstone of our foreign policy.” Certainly women have not been seen as such until very recently. How as a nation did we come to the point where a Secretary of State could openly claim “the subjugation of women is a direct threat to the security of the United States”? We call this new understanding “The Hillary Doctrine” after its most eloquent exponent.

Furthermore, what then did the United States do, as a nation, to implement that vision through foreign policy? How did the White House, State Department, Defense, USAID, and other elements of the federal government craft policies and programming to attend to the Hillary Doctrine? And what was the result? What can we learn from the track record of successes and failures that would be of use to an incoming presidential administration?

(more…)

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Gloria Steinem on “Sex and World Peace”

Sex and World PeaceAs part of her Reading Our Way to the Revolution, Gloria Steinem has selected Sex and World Peace as the book of the month. In the coming days, Steinem will be featuring the book and you can follow #GloriaReads for more updates. Here’s Gloria Steinem on the book:

Sex & World Peace is a rare book that could and should change everything from our behavior toward each other to our foreign policy. Ever since it was published in 2012, I’ve been carrying it with me to quote wherever I speak, and urging it on anyone working against or worried about violence, whether in our own homes and streets, in our militarism toward other countries, or in the terrorism that’s directed at us.

This well-written, well-documented, and very readable book by Valerie M. Hudson—plus three other scholars, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett—proves that violence in macrocosm happens wherever and whenever violence has been normalized in microcosm.

To cut to the bottom line: The biggest determinant of violence within a nation, or the willingness of one nation to be violent against another nation, is not poverty, not natural resources, not religion, and not even degree of democracy. It’s violence against females.

(more…)

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Richard Betts on the Failures and Future of U.S. Military Actions

“The United States needs to temper the ambitions unleashed by its post–Cold War dominance, not only in reaction to the setbacks it has experienced in small wars but also to prepare for bigger wars for bigger stakes against bigger powers.”—Richard K. Betts

Richard Betts, American ForceIn a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Richard K. Betts, author of American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security, examines America’s era of permanent war and what lays ahead. Citing the mixed success, if not failure, of American intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Betts argues that the United States need to think through its strategies before committing to military action. More specifically, he suggests that half-measures tend to fail as in the case of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Obama’s surge in Afghanistan when he committed 30,000 troops instead of the 40,000 requested by the Pentagon. The United States has also become too reliant on air power, which rarely works when used without a deployment of ground troops. Finally, the U.S. has found itself working with unstable governments, who are unwilling to do what the United States wants and often can barely survive once American troops have left. Betts writes:

[The] United States should fight wars less frequently but more decisively, erring, when combat is necessary, on the side of committing too many forces rather than too few. Second, the country should avoid fighting in places where victory depends on controlling the politics of chaotic countries, since local politicians will rarely do what Americans want when that differs from their own aims. And third, Washington should give priority to first-order challenges, focusing its military planning on fighting wars with great powers and focusing its diplomacy on preventing them.

(more…)

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Interview with Andrew Nathan on the Hong Kong Protests

“The protests reveal that Hong Kong young people are much more pro-democracy than we had any way of knowing. It’s fascinating to see the youth, who have grown up under this system, demonstrate how little they believe in the Chinese government.”—Andrew Nathan

China's Search for Security, Andrew NathanIn the following interview, originally published in Columbia News on October 8, Andrew Nathan looks at recent events in Hong Kong and the possible future of the protest movement there. Andrew Nathan’s China’s Search for Security, co-authored with Andrew Scobell, is now out in paperback:

Q: What is at the root of the Occupy Central demonstrations?

Andrew Nathan: When China took over Hong Kong in 1997, it agreed that Hong Kong could preserve its way of life for 50 years. The Chinese government also agreed to provide universal suffrage for the election of the Hong Kong chief executive at some point. China recently announced that in the next election, which will take place in 2017, all eligible voters will be able to vote. But it turns out that the nominees for the post will be chosen by an election committee appointed by the Chinese government. The people in Hong Kong had expected real democracy. The Occupy Central protests are the result.

Q: Is there any chance the demonstrators will prevail?

AN: Most of us have long believed that most of the Hong Kong population is pragmatic and passive, because they know what they’re up against with China and they can’t afford to be terribly political. As soon as the Chinese government decision was announced the students—many in high school—jumped in and they were ahead of the adult leadership who had been planning a protest. But it’s very unlikely Beijing will yield on the core question. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has an image of being tough and inflexible. And China has a lot at stake in keeping control of the situation in Hong Kong. The more they sense opposition there, the less they are likely to allow democracy.

(more…)

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Dean Starkman: Wrecking an Economy Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Dean Starkman, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

“We know the banks are eager to put the scandal of the financial crisis behind them. What’s disturbing is that, in the name of deference, convenience, or something darker, the Justice Department is letting them do just that.”—Dean Starkman

In his book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman charts the history of the financial press culminating in an analysis of the failure of mainstream journalism to cover the events and trends leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

In a sense, he argues that the financial press abandoned its roots in investigative journalism and let mortgage lenders, banks, and Wall Street off the hook. Recently, in the New Republic, Starkman suggests that the government is doing the same after the fact. Despite some settlements paid out by the likes of J.P. Morgan and Citigroup, the Justice Department “has permitted the banks, for a price, to bury their sins.” Starkman writes:

It bears saying one more time: It’s a disgrace that the Justice Department has failed to bring a single criminal charge against any Wall Street or mortgage executive of consequence for their roles in wrecking the economy, despite having managed to make arrests in the comparatively piddling schemes of Enron and the Savings & Loan flimflam. (The latter resulted in more than 800 convictions, including those of many top executives.) These settlements are wan consolation. The sums being surrendered, for starters, are large only until compared with the $13 trillion or so the public lost in the financial crash—or, for that matter, with the banks’ own coffers. (Citi’s pure profit in the two years before the wipeout was more than triple its penalty.) Not to mention that the money won’t be paid by any parties actually responsible, but by the banks’ current shareholders, who pretty much had nothing to do with the misdeeds in question. And the bulk of the settlements will be tax deductible. For destroying trillions in wealth and thousands of jobs, banks will get a write-off.

(more…)

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Making Sense of Afghanistan’s Electoral Crisis — A Post by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson

“While Kerry again has brokered a deal between feuding candidates, there is no reason to believe that this deal will ultimately hold and it is the candidates who will ultimately determine whether there is a peaceful transition of power or not.”—Noah Coburn and Anna Larson on the recent elections in Afghanistan

Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan, Noah Coburn and Anna LarsonThe following post is by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson, coauthors of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape:

Following the last minute intervention of John Kerry, the elections in Afghanistan to replace Hamid Karzai as president, have entered a chaotic period of counting, re-counting and accusations of fraud and corruption. How do we make sense of the power plays that are going on on both sides? Often forgotten in the mainstream press, these elections are actually the fifth in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001, and turning to look back at some of the lessons from these elections can help us think about the current process. We’ve spent much of the past six years tracking candidates, officials and voters in Afghanistan and our book, Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape, provides some important lessons.

First, elections are shaped by the cultures and history that they are held in. Too often local forms of democracy are ignored and we recount the long history of democratization (and sometimes de-democratization) that Afghanistan has experienced since its first elections in the 1950s. Clearly there is no evidence to suggest that elections or democracy are somehow incompatible with Afghan culture. Despite this, a group of former commanders and the political elite, have manipulated elections over the past decade to consolidate their own power. This has created more skepticism about elections on the part of many Afghan voters. The high turnout in the 2014 elections suggests that most Afghans want to see a new direction in the government away from some of the nepotism of the Karzai regime. However, the current wheeling and dealing between Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai, and Kerry points to the fact that it is the political elite alone that control the resources in the country and this vote is unlikely to change that.

(more…)

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Joel Migdal on the Historical Contexts of The Present-Day Middle East

Joel Migdal, Shifting Sands

Joel Migdal, author of Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East, recently appeared on the podcast This is Hell!, to provide some historical context to recent events in the Middle East.

In this wide-ranging conversation that starts in the Cold War and winds past the Arab Spring, Migdal discusses the Sunni-Shia-irreconcilability myth, how the creation of Israel and the growth of Arab nationalism shaped the post-WW2 landscape, how monarchies, republics and non-state actors are shifting the regional power dynamics and why new maps won’t save the Middle East, but neither will American presidents.

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Erik M. Conway on The Role of Neoliberalism in Climate Change

“Market fundamentalism allows us to continue believing that we’re not responsible for climate change or its impacts.”—Erik M. Conway

Erik M. Conway, The Decline of Western CivilizationThe following post is by Erik M. Conway, the coauthor (with Naomi Oreskes) of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

One of the important intellectual underpinnings of the American refusal to undertake significant efforts to mitigate climate change has been the economic doctrine of neoliberalism. The term is rather amorphous, and means different things to different people. Naomi Oreskes and myself use it in the sense of what George Soros called market fundamentalism. Market fundamentalists believe in the perfection of economic markets as they currently exist, and that only markets “free” of government interference can protect individual liberty.

There are many things wrong with market fundamentalism, but the aspect of it that’s preventing us from dealing with climate change effectively is that markets as they currently exist don’t account for the cost of pollution. It’s free to dump carbon dioxide and methane and many other things into the atmosphere. In other words, we use the atmosphere as an open sewer, and don’t charge anyone for dumping stuff into it. In economic terms, pollution is an “externality,” a thing that exists outside the market system.

Market fundamentalists like to speak of the “magic of the market place.” Somehow, they think, markets will magically fix these externalities. But markets can’t fix problems that are external to those markets, no matter how hard we wish they would. That sums up the problem. Market fundamentalism is a form of magical thinking. And unfortunately, otherwise reasonable people routinely engage in this sort of magical thinking.

The good news is that, at least in principle, it’s fairly easy to fix this externality. In the 1970s, economists interested in reforming environmental regulation away from what they called “command and control” restrictions towards more market-friendly policies revived an old idea, the idea of pollution pricing. Emissions trading, what we now refer to as “cap and trade,” was one way to establish a price on pollution. Pollution taxes are another (economists often call this kind of tax “Pigovian,” after their inventor, Arthur Pigou). Both are simply ways of extending the market system to cover air and water pollution as well.

(more…)

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

The Other Closet: An Introduction to Atheism and Coming Out Processes

Atheists in America

“[R]esearch suggests that this notable decrease in sectarianism and increase in overall tolerance of other religions is not extended to atheists. To put it mildly, attitudes toward atheists are wary and unaffirming. Survey data consistently find that atheists are regarded as “more troubling” than other groups of individuals on a long list of historically oppressed populations.” — Melanie E. Brewster

This week our featured book is Atheists in America, edited by Melanie E. Brewster. Today, we are happy to present “The Other Closet: An Introduction to Atheism and Coming Out Processes,” the introduction to Atheists in America, written by editor Melanie Brewster. In this introduction, Brewster discusses the rise of New Atheism in America, takes a look at who atheists in the U.S. actually are (demographically speaking), and looks at the phenomenon of “closeting” as it relates to atheism.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Atheists in America!

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Piketty and the Pope — A Post by Santiago Zabala

“Although Piketty will probably continue to teach economics in France instead of moving into the Vatican, the Pope now has an economist whom he can rely upon when he pontificates from Rome, regardless of all accusations of Marxism.”—Santiago Zabala

Santiago Zabala, Hermeneutic CommunismOver the past couple of years, Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and Pope Francis have become two of the most high-profile critics of the current capitalist economic system. As Santiago Zabala, co-author of Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx, points out, this has brought them condemnation from conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, who have accused Piketty and the Pope of Marxism.

In his essay Piketty and the Pope, and why Marx is back, Zabala argues that being labeled a Marxist is “simply a sign that Marx has returned from the remnants of communism to invite academics, activists, and even clerics to seek in his thought solutions to the ongoing global recession.” Zabala goes on to examine the ways in which Piketty’s economic analysis and his call for a progressive global tax on capital or wealth address some of the concerns Pope Francis has about the growing economic inequality and the current economic system. Zabala writes:

Piketty seems to have provided both historical and economic justification for the Pope’s concerns over an “economy of exclusion” and a “financial system which rules rather than serves.” If capitalism has become such an economic system it is not simply because of its natural drift toward high inequality, which the author demonstrates through detailed historical analysis, but also because capitalism permits the concentration of wealth to perpetuate from one generation to the next.

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Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Akeel Bilgrami and Sumit Ganguly on the Indian Elections

Akeel Bilgram and Sumit Ganguly on Narendra Modi

What does the election of Narendra Modi mean for India? Recently, in separate articles, two Columbia University Press authors Akeel Bilgrami and Sumit Ganguly weighed in on the results and what it means for India’s future.

Writing for The Hindu, Akeel Bilgrami, co-editor of the forthcoming Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?, offers a very skeptical view of Modi as either representing any real change for India or hope for its future:

[Narendra Modi] … has the added glamour of the nation’s most exalted office which, suppressing his natural swagger, he has approached with an affectation of humility and express concern for the poor and working people of the country, the very people that the policies and politics he stands for will sink into ever-increasing poverty and insecurity.

These unstintingly negative remarks I have made are intended to recoil from the charitable and hopeful responses that even some of those made anxious by Mr. Modi’s election have resigned themselves to. A belief in democracy requires two things: an acceptance of the upshot of an election and a refusal to blame the electorate if the upshot fills one with dread. Beyond this no graciousness is required, least of all a slackening of the critical powers one brings to assessing the upshot. In particular, there is no reason to surrender to some hope that a deeply tainted victor is going to revise his convictions or his character, simply because of the reality of having to live with his victory. Such realism, like much realism, is better described as complacence. It pacifies the effort and struggle that is called for to oppose what he represents. This pacification was already being advised prior to his election by political commentators who chastised Mr. Modi’s critics as unintelligent for applying the term “fascist,” with its European connotations, to what Mr. Modi represents in the Indian context.

Sumit Ganguly, most recently the co-author of India, Pakistan, and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia weighed in with an article in Foreign Affairs. In the piece, “India’s Missing Right: What the BJP’s Victory Says about Indian Politics,” Ganguly examines the history of the Right in India and why the Congress Party has dominated Indian politics since Independence.

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