Monthly Archives: March 2014


The “end of history” thesis appears to have come to its final end in recent weeks. Certainly, the once-heralded spread of democracy and liberal values throughout the world is now looking far from inevitable.

Even before recent discouraging developments in—take your pick—Crimea (phony ballots and voter suppression before Anschluss), Turkey (farewell to Twitter, amid other suppressions of a free press), or Venezuela (jailed mayors and slain students), trend lines were not encouraging.  Freedom House, the reliable global monitor of such matters, reports 8 straight years of more declines in political liberties and civil rights worldwide than gains. Unfree and partly free countries now outnumber free ones 107 to 88. So much for Hegel (and Fukuyama), at least for the next half century or so.

What was so emphatically depressing about those Crimea ballots, shown above, (which allowed select voters the “choice” between joining Russia directly or joining it indirectly) was their dramatic illustration of another Freedom House finding: that “modern authoritarians” are suppressing all opposition even while maintaining the outward trappings of legality and democratic process (though quietly and insistently dismantling or dominating institutions that guarantee real pluralism, including legislatures, the judiciary, police and security forces, the media, civil society, and even the economy).

The Crimea nastiness focused the world’s attention on this new form of “managed democracy” because we saw it brazenly employed in a transnational land grab that violated most widely accepted principles of international law and national sovereignty. And if it could happen in Crimea (and tomorrow in other parts of southern and eastern Ukraine), why can’t our current crop of smooth autocrats use managed democracy to acquire whatever territories they set their eyes on. President Hamid Karzai, who harbors notions of bringing Pashtun regions of Pakistan into Afghanistan, has already endorsed Crimea’s annexation as the valid exercise of the principle of self-determination, and he’s not even thought to be an autocrat.

But if the world is turning into a bleak stage for the cynical manipulation and abuse of democratic principles for undemocratic, illiberal, or simply self-aggrandizing ends, then the United States cannot hold itself entirely blameless. We haven’t exactly been burnishing the image of democracy lately. Our recent governmental disfunctions, often driven by thoroughly unprincipled partisanship, have given people around the world good reason to think that democracy may not be a model system of reasonable, efficient, or even particularly virtuous governance. The rolling back of voter-rights protections in certain states and the imposition of new voting requirements in others raises questions about the depth of our commitment to core practices of democracy. And the growing power of money in politics has raised concerns about a drift toward patrimonial capitalism and even oligarchy.

All that said, reports of the death of American democracy are greatly exaggerated. Our system has come through other depressions, gilded ages, and even, as in the years preceding the Civil War, crippling bouts of political gridlock. What makes our current shortcomings so problematic and worrisome is that they now come under the intense scrutiny of friends and foes around the world, the former counting on us to serve as a model, the latter hoping we fail.

Even worse, we appear to be doing our very best to convince the world through our own cultural exports that our foes’ fondest wishes are coming true.  Speaking at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture a few weeks ago, Martha Bayles, author of Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, (a section of which is excerpted in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review), made a sobering point about the huge popularity of the Netflix series House of Cards in China. A dark drama about corruption, intrigue, and murder in the highest corridors of power in Washington, the show particularly appeals to elite Chinese viewers who seem to take comfort in the fact that political life in America appears to be at least as rotten as their own.

House of Cards may be an extreme case, but as Bayles shows in her timely book, the decline of America’s public diplomacy efforts and institutions—which once vigorously promoted our strongest civic and political ideals—means that popular culture exports are now the main shapers of our image abroad. And when not glorifying violence, crime, or casual sex, most of these exports depict a people largely cut off from sustaining ties with family or community, completely absorbed in preening narcissim and seflish consumerism. So this, both friends and foes must think, is what American democracy hath wrought! Needless to say, the picture inspires neither emulation nor respect.

No, we can’t blame the world’s growing democracy deficit on Hollywood and other engines of American popular culture production. After all, television and film depictions of contemporary American society are not entirely caricatures. But we must at least recognize how little we do to correct the distorted picture of what our nation holds most dear. And how doing so little costs us, and the world, so much.

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In Defense of the Misunderstood Hedgehog

While we welcome the arrival this week of Nate Silver’s new 538 blog, and in fact, defend his focus on “data journalism” here on our sister blog The Infernal Machine, it is our 21st-century age-of-the-brand duty to come to the defense of our namesake, the hedgehog, recently maligned.

To catch you up, the 538 blog has adopted the fox as its mascot, drawn from the same Archilochus quotation that runs in the front of every Hedgehog Review issue:

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Silver explains why the fox mentality appealed, expanding the notion of “many things” to “many different forms of data journalism.” (The fact that the fox is trendy and cute can’t hurt.)

As to where the fox’s nemesis, the hedgehog, comes out in all of this, New York Magazine has already inquired. Silver’s response:

So if you all are the foxes, who’s a hedgehog? 
Uhhhh, you know … the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, WashingtonPost, and Wall Street Journal are probably the most hedgehoglike people. They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.

It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.

Our humble hedgehog is not easily offended. It even agrees that this definition loosely and somewhat carelessly follows the intellectual typology laid out by Isaiah Berlin in his important essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”  (Others have also pondered the origins of the fox and hedgehog.) Still, our editors have in mind quite different understandings of the hedgehog when they set about their work. In the past, in fact, each issue tackled one theme, exploring a single topic of broad cultural significance from a variety of angles. While in more recent times we have added a number of non-thematic essays,  the subject of cultural change is still our “one big thing.”

We will go further and admit we share something more substantial with other philosophical hedgehogs, something quite out of step with fashionable postmodern attitudes.  That is, we believe in the truth—and, even more, that pursuing it is essential to the pursuit of the good.

If we and our contributors can take up the hunt with the nimbleness of foxes, so much the better. And while we imagine that our hedgehog is not even on the radar of the new fox on the block, we suspect we two have more in common than a philosophical Greek might have thought.

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Is Nothing Truly Alive?


Theo Jansen's Strandbeest.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is no such thing as life.

That is the provocative claim made by Ferris Jabr in a recent op-ed appearing in The New York Times. Ferris Jabr is an associate editor at Scientific American, and at first blush, his claim sounds ridiculous. I know I’m alive. So there’s one example of life. Surely Jabr knows that he himself is alive. And we all see hundreds of examples of living things every day. So why exactly does Jabr think there is no such thing as life?

Jabr makes his case this way: “What is life? Science cannot tell us. Since the time of Aristotle, philosophers and scientists have struggled and failed to produce a precise, universally accepted definition of life.” Since we don’t have a definition of life, he continues, how can we talk about living things?  He points out that science textbooks describe living things by picking out features that living things often have. Such lists usually point to organization, growth, reproduction, and evolution. If something has all or most of these features, then it’s probably alive.

However, Jabr explains that these textbook lists fail miserably as definitions of life.  We can find things that are organized, display growth, reproduce, and evolve, and yet are not alive.  And for some things—viruses, for example—we can’t figure out whether they’re alive or not.

He continues: “Why is it so difficult for scientists to cleanly separate the living and nonliving and make a final decision about ambiguously animate viruses?”  Jabr has an explanation: “Because they have been trying to define something that never existed in the first place…Life is a concept, not a reality.”

But here Jabr has gone astray.  He concludes from the fact that life doesn’t have a definition that there is really no such thing as life.  But this is an invalid inference. For a concept can lack a definition and yet still be a real thing.  

Here’s an easy example: redness. Redness doesn’t have a definition. If you don’t believe me, take a stab at defining it. It’s a color—sure. It’s not blue, or yellow, or black, or any of the colors that aren’t red. Neither is it some particular wavelength of light; that’s what causes us to experience redness, but that isn’t what redness is. But this isn’t helping—none of these distinctions tell us what redness is. Redness is its own special thing, and nothing besides redness itself accounts for what it is. Nevertheless, redness is real. It’s a real thing whose concept doesn’t have a definition. The concept of redness is what is called a primitive concept.  It helps define other things, but nothing else defines it. It’s an unexplained explainer.

Redness isn’t the only primitive concept.  There are plenty of others.  For example: the concept of being part of something, the concept of possibility, the concept of goodness, the concept of being identical to something, to name a few.  But most importantly for the matter at hand, others have researched the very issue Jabr’s talking about—the failure of philosophical and scientific efforts to define life—and have given good reasons to think that the concept of life is primitive.  Perhaps most notably, Michael Thompson, a philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh, has made this case in his profound and influential book Life and Action (2008).

Where does all this leave Jabr’s argument?  The absence of a definition for a concept in no way suggests that the concept lacks real instances.  And life certainly seems to have real instances.  So it looks as though we should continue to accept the reality of life and simply recognize that it can’t be defined. Jabr’s case turns out to be less than compelling.

But so what? What’s the real-world significance of arguing in a New York Times op-ed that life doesn’t exist? More than we might initially think. To see what I’m getting at, let’s suppose for the moment that Jabr is right. Jabr illustrates the upshot of his claim about the non-existence of life by comparing things we ordinarily think of as living with certain artifacts, in particular the life-like handiwork of Dutch artist Theo Jansen. Jansen’s Strandbeest are wind-propelled mobile structures that resemble gigantic, many-footed arthropods. Jabr’s conclusion is that “Recognizing life as a [mere] concept is, in many ways, liberating. We no longer need to recoil from our impulse to endow Mr. Jansen’s sculptures with “life” because they move on their own. The real reason Strandbeest enchant us is the same reason that any so-called “living thing” fascinates us: not because it is “alive,” but because it is so complex and, in its complexity, beautiful.”

If life isn’t real—if life is just a sort of beautiful complexity—then the distance between artifacts like the Strandbeest and things we normally consider living is removed. With this distance removed, we are free to see the Strandbeest as “alive.” Jabr thinks his conceptual innovation has brought enchantment to artifacts.

But there is a dark flip-side to this argument.  For with the loss of distance between life and mere elegant complexity, we are also free to see genuinely living things as mere complex artifacts. When a complex artifact—say, a watch—has outlasted its practical usefulness or lost its aesthetic value, there’s no barrier to it being scrapped or thrown away. Of course, we are ordinarily much more hesitant to treat living creatures in this way. Why this is so is a complicated question, but it is in part because we recognize that living creatures possess a mysterious value in virtue of being alive.  Anyone who has seen an animal die learns this, watching the animating spark fade away.

However, if we lose the distance between life and mere complexity, will we feel a heightened sense of loss when we discard a watch?  Or will we merely be less inclined to believe in the strange yet precious value of living creatures?  Jabr thinks he is bringing enchantment to artifacts.  We should worry he is disenchanting the living.

Paul Nedelisky  received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 2013 and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, where he is working on a book about science and morality.


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The Debate Over Nudging

Think of this post as a little nudge to reflect further on “nudging.”

To wit: A recent post on this blog by Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie, “Human Freedom and the Art of Nudging,” sparked three thoughtful replies on the blog Political Theology, each representing a different philosophical camp.

In the original post, Mathewes and McRorie point out that “nudging,” the idea of influencing your behavior by, say, placing the sugar-loaded cereal on a lower or higher shelf, is not  impeding your freedom, as some have contended. They write:

The issue, then, is not between freedom and tyranny. The issue is whether we will choose to consciously and deliberately shape those forces, or rather let them be determined by purely economic factors, as is the current status quo, such as in the case of the eye-level Kellogg’s cereal…. That is, the choice is not between a paternalistic “bureaucrat in Washington DC” and “you,” or between being “nudged” or manipulated by someone else or having your own innocent agency; the choice is between having the nudger be responsive to political leaders whom you put in power and the nudger be, say, some advertising executive over whose decisions you never have any say.

The responses on the Political Theology blog:

First, Hunter Baker and Micah Watson take the classical conservative viewpoint, with their post, “It Matters Who is Doing the Nudging.”

Then, Roland Boer offers the Marxist stance in “Nudging: Can Reform Make a Better Society?”

Finally, Kevin Vallier chimes in with “Reasonable Libertarian Worries about Nudging.”

Now, Mathewes and McRorie are back with two replies, “A Response to the Responses; or, a Note of Clarification about Nudges, Paternalism, and Agency” Part I and Part II.

The last word, at least for now:

The question before us now is not, “Should we engage in nudging on behalf of the public?” In light of the fact our lives are constantly being nudged—both by government and the very shape of the markets in which we swim every day—the question is instead, “How ought we to use the tools we have at hand to reflectively order our lives together so as to best promote the common good?” In this way, discussions over nudging and the practical impact of our public policies can bring to the fore fundamental questions about the nature of human freedom, and our common life together.


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The Culture War and America’s Image Abroad

How do people around the world see America?

In different ways,  of course, depending on a host of factors. These include levels of economic and social development, religion, politics, manners, and mores.

Whatever they think about America, though, most people today get their image of the United States, including its values, from America’s popular culture exports. Some would argue that this composite picture, emerging largely from American films, TV shows, and music, is a funhouse mirror reflection of American reality, a picture that may attract some people in some parts of the world but that is just as likely to trouble and offend many others in other parts.

"Through A Screen Darkly" by Martha BaylesAmerica did not always think that its image should be entrusted solely to its popular culture machine. For a time, and quite successfully, it devoted considerable resources to advancing its values and principles through the institutions and practices of public diplomacy, including the United State Information Agency, assorted USIA- and State Department-sponsored cultural programs, student exchanges, and American libraries.

But at the end of the Cold War, America’s pursuit of public diplomacy fell victim to the collapse of a fragile domestic consensus that transcended partisan and even deeper cultural divides within American society. The culture war that emerged with clarity and force then greatly complicated and arguably destroyed our faith in government-supported and government-directed efforts to win hearts and minds.

That, at least, is part of the story that critic and author Martha Bayles tells in her new and valuable book, Through a Screen DarklyPopular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, just published by Yale University Press. Bayles’s book is already sparking discussion, and for good reason. Here is part of an admiring review that appeared in The Weekly Standard:

Bayles understands that the golden age of American public diplomacy is over. The Cold War audience yearned to be free; our mission was to ensure that they were well-informed and to urge them to be hopeful yet patient. Today’s audience has far more in common with its rulers than did the peoples of the Warsaw Pact, who were subject to an alien Communist regime. And today’s regimes can reassert their authority by mobilizing against a common threat to ruler and ruled: a godless, rootless America. Our gospel of freedom and individual possibility has little purchase in places where familiarity with our popular culture demonstrates that the outcome of our gospel is loathsome.

Bayles’s genius here is not just in dissecting the pathology of the pop-culture mind, but in revealing its effects on the world at large—in matters of war, peace, freedom, and human relations. She is also open to the idea that the entertainment industry’s distortions and libels have a degree of truth to them. And that’s the bad news: America’s image, as distorted in Hollywood’s mirror, may be telling us something unlovely about ourselves.

A segment adapted from that book appears in the new spring issue of The Hedgehog Review, and Bayles herself addressed some of her book’s points at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture on March 5.

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