On Tyranny: Confronting Democratic Decay

My latest read was completed in about 90 minutes over two days.  Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century purports to be a historically-informed manual to resist creeping tyranny and democratic decay.  In this short pamphlet, Snyder reminds readers of two key lessons: first, that tyranny (in Aristotelian or Platonic fashion) springs from the decay of democratic practices and norms, and second, that autocracy installs itself by creeping slowly into daily life, before major watershed events (in other words, as he mentions, the persecution of Jews was determined by the indifference towards, tacit acceptance of, and small-scale collaboration by ordinary citizens in the early discriminatory and exclusionary practices of the Third Reich, far before Einsatzgruppen were established).  These lessons culminate in the main thesis of the book: the survival of liberal democracy depends on individual actions in the everyday, rather than in trusting abstract ‘institutions’ or political leaders.

The book’s twenty lessons are diverse and range from ways to be an engaged and informed citizen (“stand out”, “investigate”, “practice corporeal politics”), to ways of resisting discrimination (“make eye contact and small talk”, “establish a private life”, “learn from peers in other countries”), to the straight-on alarmist (“If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny”).  Snyder’s lessons are a mix of the very insightful – the first lesson, how tyranny relies on citizens anticipating and pre-emptively enabling the regime is certainly of that kind – and the quite conventional (“stand out”, “believe in truth”).  Some, indeed, could be taken from any civics self-help book; in lesson nine (“Be kind to our language”), which begins by reflecting sharply on the weaponized meaning of some words such as “the people” in anti-democratic politics, Snyder descends into clichés: “So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.”  Snyder’s dislike of electronics returns in the following lesson, privileging print journalists over television journalism (it is unclear whether Snyder’s rejection of “learning from a screen” applies to electronic reading or merely to television).

Some lessons, in turn, while prima facie relevant, fade into irrelevance in the grander scheme of things, or are sloppily argued. It is unclear why possessing passports (lesson sixteen, “learn from peers in other countries”) would be a key part of resistance – surely a significant part of the hurdles to traveling abroad lie elsewhere?  The next lesson, meanwhile, provides such a basic mischaracterization of Carl Schmitt’s theory of the exception as to overturn Snyder’s point.

The value of Snyder’s book, therefore, lies in its outline of the looming threat.  Snyder forcefully pushes back on the idea that American society could simply weather the storm and return to a status quo ante Trump.  The central idea – that tyranny installs itself in the fabric of society, in the minds of citizens, transforming how we think and act in the everyday – is certainly apt, and fits within the larger current of resisting the normalization of antidemocratic behaviour.  Snyder lends historical credence to the urge to challenge creeping autocracy, in much the same way as Michiko Kakutani’s masterful review of a Hitler biography drew attention to fascist resonances.  That being said, if Snyder’s book draws attention to the worst-case scenario – totalitarianism – it ought not to detract from the far more insidious scenario: democratic institutions emptied of content, meaning, and values.  In drawing from Aristotle’s notion of the decay of regimes, Snyder fails to highlight the potential decay of ideal forms of government into their perverted types – demagogy and antidemocratic mob rule.

See it/Shoot it II: Killing Terrorists

In my last post on Christopher Fuller’s See it/Shoot it, I covered the distinction between pre-emption and prevention and wondered how the conflation of the two played a role in the development of the lethal drone campaign (Reminder: the full review – forthcoming in International Affairs – is available here).  Today, I turn to another pillar of the targeted killings campaign – namely, the distinction between ‘kill’ and ‘capture’ as the default modus operandi for counterterrorism.  As Fuller’s book describes, the beginnings of modern American counterterrorism entailed a willingness to hit – whether pre-emptively or in retaliation – lethally when needed.  Of course, such a commitment to lethal counterterrorism is required for any drone-led targeted killing campaign.

The first chapter of Fuller’s book lays out a clear commitment, dating back to NSDD 138 (1984), in favour of treating counterterrorism as a military problem – part of a war on terrorism (p. 33) – rather than a crime-based approach spearheaded by law enforcement.  Simultaneously, Fuller later notes that Reagan sought to have it both ways: while he approved NSDD 138 (without actively implementing it) and established the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre, he also agreed with Congress in treating terrorism as crime (p. 180-181).  For Fuller, Clinton’s administration – while failing to implement this policy successfully – proved decisive in settling the question of the legality of lethal counterterrorism, setting the stage for the Bush (and especially Obama) implementation of the lethal drone campaign.

So how did we get there?  Fuller does not give a definite answer to the question of how killing terrorists became the default option.  In fact, the first part of the book deals rather with the opposite, namely, the reluctance on the part of the CIA to brush up too closely against the presidential ban on assassination enacted by President Ford and reaffirmed by Reagan (p. 42).  While internal debates within the CIA sought to justify lethal counterterrorism (p. 44), the Clinton administration debates showed that the debate was far from resolved (see p. 99-101).  Indeed, George Tenet, then Director of Central Intelligence, is quoted as being concerned that the CIA-led lethal counterterrorism was becoming a default policy rather than a last resort (p. 143).

It seems, indeed, that the preference for killing rather than capturing terrorists, which lies at the foundation of the CIA drone campaign and of American counterterrorism (p. 210), emerges mainly out of pragmatic calculations, rather than a conscious policy decision.  In Fuller’s words, “The awkward truth is that militarily, legally, and politically it has proven much easier for the US government to kill known and suspected terrorists than to arrest and take them through the justice system.” (p. 190) After the Clinton administration tried to use extraordinary rendition (p. 182), its pursuit of Osama Bin Laden was complicated by the fact that capturing him alive was deemed impossible (p. 156-157).  Clinton, meanwhile, for political reasons, refused to explicitly authorize targeted killing missions, in order to shield his administration from the eventual fallout (p. 158-163).

In Fuller’s account, then, the preference for killing terrorists through drones emerges as a result of the failure of other, perhaps more palatable alternatives.  The Bush administration pursued kill and capture missions in parallel, with extraordinary rendition (and torture) as a key alternative to the killing of terrorists (p. 189).  Obama’s decision to abandon torture and extraordinary rendition, then, made the expansion of the use of lethal drone strikes the most appealing alternative.  The continuing state of “war” against terrorism, then, it seems, can be attributed in part to a series of pragmatic constraints which make war the simplest option.  What this history of drone-led targeted killing demonstrates, however, is that the use of lethal drones for counterterrorism does not necessarily rest on solid strategic foundations.  To say that targeted killing is expedient is not the same as to say it is effective in a strategic sense.

Christopher Fuller’s See It/Shoot It: On “Preemptive” Drone Strikes

One of the more interesting books I have read this fall has been Chris Fuller’s history of the development of the CIA’s drone program, published last summer by Yale University Press.  In this book, Fuller offers both an account of the development of the drone as a major counterterrorism tool but also – and much more significantly – a history of what he argues is a coherent American counterterrorism grand strategy since the drafting of NSDD 138 under Ronald Reagan in 1984.  I have written a review of the book, forthcoming in International Affairs; a pre-print can be downloaded here.

My objective here (and in a further post this week) is to expand on a few points I make in the review regarding questions left unanswered, and which I did not have space to develop. I am wary of writing a ‘this-is-not-the-book-I-would-have-written’ review, and I apologize in advance for – what I suspect – may come across as such.  Again, this is not meant to take away from the (considerable) merits of the book – as I say in the review, it should be of great interest to anyone interested in targeted killing, contemporary war studies, and counterterrorism.

According to Fuller, the first tenet of the counterterrorism policy articulated in NSDD 138 is a willingness to strike “pre-emptively”.  The CIA-led drone campaign of the War on Terror, indeed, seeks to eliminate terrorists (or suspects of terrorism) prior to them committing an attack.  Unfortunately, Fuller never fully explores the meaning of “pre-emption”, how it was envisioned by the creators of NSDD 138 (George Shultz, William Casey, and Oliver North), and later enacted post-2001.  The main actors of Fuller’s narrative do hint at the distinction between “prevention” and “pre-emption” on multiple occasions.  George Shultz, for instance, is quoted as “calling for the development of ‘the appropriate preventative or pre-emptive actions against terrorists before they strike.'”  (p. 30) William Casey, similarly, stated that the United States “cannot and will not abstain from forcible action to prevent, pre-empt, or respond to terrorist acts where the conditions justify – the knowledge justifies – the use of force.” (p. 36)  Fuller does not pick up on either of these threads to discuss the distinction between prevention and pre-emption, or the development of a counterterrorist doctrine conflating the two.  At best, he mentions that the Department of Justice sought to expand the concept of “imminence” after 9/11 to justify targeted killings where no evidence of a soon forthcoming attack is present (p. 59); however, he reverts a paragraph later to discussing “these preemptive attacks” (p. 60).

In Fuller’s view, “the CIA’s drone campaign follows the exact proposals and legal arguments set out by the Reagan administration in NSDD 138.” (p. 61)  The two quotes above, however, suggest to me that Shultz and Casey at least made a distinction between prevention and pre-emption, even though they might have argued that such a distinction made no concrete difference on the legality of actions.  It seems to me that the collapse of the preemption-prevention distinction has been one of the key enablers of the expansion of the War on Terror globally.  In fact, it is hard to conceive of the current drone campaign without the collapse of the distinction between preemptive and preventive war.  Was this an initial intent of NSDD 138?  Did it develop under the impulse of the Clinton administration, whom Fuller credits with developing the legal architecture for targeted killing? (p. 129) Or is it, as is commonly thought, a product of the Bush administration?

In other words, Fuller makes a compelling case for continuity in American counterterrorism – notably, on the willingness to strike lethally before an attack is perpetrated – since the middle of the 1980s.  He explains how such doctrinal developments preceded and drove the development of lethal drone technology (p. 30, and especially in Chapter 3).  In highlighting consistency, however, key elements of the legal underpinnings of the War on Terror are elided.  The history of the CIA drone program and its policy foundations must also be a history of its legal architecture, particularly if, as Fuller argues, the abiding by this legal framework has direct implications on the effectiveness of counterterrorism strategies (See chapter 4 on the “covert action pendulum”).

“Uncomfortable” Universities and “Problematic” Speech

What does it mean to say that education requires students to be uncomfortable?  My father had a teacher in high school who would take that literally, opening the windows in his 8am classes in the middle of February in freezing Montreal.  It is hardly earth-shattering these days to say, as the head of the UK’s new Office for Students does, that “‘comfortable’ is the start of a slippery slope towards ‘complacent’ or ‘self-satisfied’. And doesn’t much of the most profound learning require discomfort?”  Yet, beyond that platitude, it seems to me that very few have actually reflected on what “discomfort” means, and how students should be made properly “uncomfortable”.  The op-ed quoted above is hardly illuminating in that regard, comparing directly the headache from reading a complicated book to a challenge to one’s cultural and religious identity.

In the past month, Canadian higher education has been rocked by two major controversies surrounding questions of free speech on university campuses.  First, in October, Masuma Khan, a student union leader at Dalhousie University, writing in her personal capacity, was targeted by an investigation (later dropped) for equating the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary with a celebration of colonialism and “white fragility”.  Second, last week, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, Lindsay Shepherd, was accused by university administrators of causing “violence” and allowing transphobia in her class for showing a video from public television featuring Jordan Peterson[1].  In both cases, arguments were made that universities should not shy away from “uncomfortable” situations.  The Toronto Star editorial board, for instance, wrote that “The debate [about Khan] rages on, disruptive and uncomfortable – just what we ought to expect on campus” and that “Shepherd’s ordeal underlines why it’s so important to safeguard the role of universities as places that provide the maximum possible opportunity to exchange ideas and as spaces for those who would challenge conventional wisdom.”

Discomfort can come in many forms.  I can be made uncomfortable by reading or thinking about something foreign to me, where I have to stretch my mind and question basic assumptions to understand what I read.  James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, Plato’s Republic, or a work of non-Western literature might require that kind of discomfort – confronting something unusual and temporally, spatially, and culturally foreign. Discomfort can also mean dealing with controversial ideas which force a questioning of one’s opinions: reading Carl Schmitt can be “uncomfortable”, as can reading Foucault, Derrida, Edward Said, etc. In most, if not all cases, these kinds of “discomfort” are encouraged.

Then there’s the discomfort of thinking about unpleasant, violent, or horrific subjects – reading Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth makes me “uncomfortable” too, although that discomfort is on a far different level from that of being challenged by Joycean grammar or by the different cultural codes of Ancient Greece.  And there’s also the discomfort of unsettling one’s received ideas about identity, as the Michael Garber op-ed above mentioned, which can come from any of the above sources – confrontation with foreign, controversial, or horrific ideas.  Again, in most cases, these are encouraged, within boundaries.

Finally, there’s also “discomfort” coming from personal trauma – that which “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” is (originally) meant to address: for a sexual assault survivor, discussing rape can be deeply traumatic, as a discussion of war experiences can be for a veteran or a civilian who experienced war.  And, of course, exclusion and hate speech, whether explicit or implicit (through the fostering of a “toxic climate” for groups of people) – is also obviously “uncomfortable”.  Most commentators would agree that, on these counts, some form of accommodation must be made to attenuate or eliminate the discomfort caused.

So, in discussing free speech and learning environments, it is necessary to think about and distinguish different types of discomfort.  To conflate them all is not only lazy, it also leads to caricatures which have been proliferating – either the students-as-snowflakes or the overstretching of “violence” and “harm” until they become meaningless.  It is all fine to call for “brave” students to step out into spaces that are both “safe” and “brave”, but until one confronts the question of the types of discomfort to be encouraged, that call will remain meaningless.

So where do the Dalhousie and Wilfrid Laurier cases fall on this spectrum of discomfort?  Obviously, that too remains open for debate.  Personally, while Khan’s speech obviously causes “discomfort”, I think it is safe to say it did not cause any form of “harm” or “violence”.  As for showing a clip of Jordan Peterson in class, how one will characterize it will depend on one’s past and present experience and identity – it is again normal to expect transgender students to be more significantly affected by such discussions.  What should be done, however, is to reflect on the kind of “harm” caused, rather than blindly equating any debate on issues affecting vulnerable minorities and prejudice.

Finally, I wish to highlight a few thought-provoking contributions on this issue.  First, Jen Mustapha draws an important distinction:

Second, Andrew Potter provides a compelling defense of free speech as a “right to hear” – rather than a “right to speak” and links this directly to the institution of liberal democracy.  Potter’s contribution aptly reflects on ‘why’ “uncomfortable” speech should be encouraged, but also provides an avenue to think about ‘what’ discomfort can be productive.  Finally, on the Wilfrid Laurier affaire, I mention Shree Paradkar’s column and Emmett Macfarlane’s op-ed, which both provide nuanced contexts and appraisals.

So, in summary, one kind of speech to ban is any mention of “problematic” speech: it might be comfortable, but it makes for little more than lazy caricature.

[1] Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, gained notoriety for refusing to use students’ preferred gender pronouns when addressing them. Since then, he has become a notorious right-wing speaker, among other things decrying “postmodern neo-Marxism” and proposing to create a database of “corrupt” ideological university professors.

Green Open Access: An Imperfect Standard

In my last post on the lack of accessibility of Gold Open Access for early career researchers (ECRs), I mentioned that in my opinion Green Open Access was a very imperfect solution – in fact, hardly a solution at all.  I expand here on why that is the case, and why a focus on green OA presents new challenges for publication practices which compound the – already many – challenges of moving towards a greater accessibility of research.

Not all OA initiatives are equal.  Green Open Access, by far the commonest kind, refers to the depositing of a non-final version of the published manuscript into a research repository – generally either an institutional repository (managed by the university with which the researcher is affiliated), a subject-specific repository (such as ArXiv/SocArXiv), an academic networking website such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate, or Mendeley, or a personal website.  Various publishers have rules on what version can be posted where and when, with the most common being that accepted manuscripts (after peer-review, but before proofreading and typesetting) can be made public in repositories after an embargo period, while the “version of record” – the published version – may not be shared publicly for free.  The published article remains accessible only with paid access (with publishers either explicitly authorizing (SAGE) or tacitly tolerating the private sharing of full articles.

Gold Open Access, meanwhile, means that the article is immediately available to all readers without restrictions and may be posted without restrictions.  Furthermore, unlike Green OA, the author retains copyright of the work – generally through a Creative Commons license, and may therefore re-use content more widely without requiring permissions from the publisher.  This model, however, generally requires the payment of a hefty Article Processing Charge (APC) in order to be published.[1]

Given the costs of Gold OA, most universities have embraced Green OA as the way forward.  My own institution, Durham University, thus states that ” Durham University has a preference for the green route to open access and as a result does not provide any funds to cover the costs of gold open access.”[2]  Similarly, after offering a Central Fund covering APCs for several years – with evidence suggesting researchers increasingly using it – the University of Nottingham discontinued its funding for Gold OA due to financial reasons.  Therefore, most universities now maintain institutional repositories in which affiliated researchers – including temporary staff and PhD students – are encouraged and/or required to deposit their research outputs in the most final version possible.

The privileging of Green OA does of course go some way in making research more easily available to more people.  Papers, after all, are freely accessible, in nearly-final versions, one year or two after being published.  Several solutions have been proposed to improve the access to Green OA papers, from browser extensions such as Kopernio, Unpaywall (see also here), and the Open Access Button which hunt down Green OA versions of paywalled articles to the LSE’s Request a Copy service which allows for the private sharing of selected embargoed products.

Yet again, however, I feel that encouraging Green OA as a principal vehicle for OA merely cements and perpetuates existing academic hierarchies.  First, of course, since Gold OA is still available (and sometimes required) for researchers with major research grants, academics with research funding can disseminate their work far better than ‘regular’ researchers which disadvantages ECRs among others.  Academics who can afford to publish Gold OA articles in traditional journals (rather than full-OA journals), where APCs tend to be higher, can enjoy the advantages of both reputation and access.

Second, citation practices must be considered.  The disadvantage of Green OA is that we end up with multiple versions of papers – preprints, accepted manuscripts, and versions of record – circulating concurrently, and cited as such. The purpose of citations, of course, is above all to provide a trace of the research, allowing scholars to follow links to sources.  Having multiple versions of papers complicates this, as versions will differ to varying degrees in page numbers (who hasn’t encountered and been infuriated by this problem with multiple editions of books?), wording, and sometimes even substantial arguments (between preprints and versions of record).  There may even be a hierarchy in citation practices appearing, as some scholars will be able to access and cite versions of record while others will be restricted to citing Green OA versions.

Finally, and getting back to the issue of ECRs’ relation to OA, Green OA poses a problem of measuring the reach of articles.  It is well-known that citation counts, download counts, and AltMetrics scores matter more than they should for the constitution of researchers’ profiles and reputation – with some even suggesting that the hunt for metrics means academia has been “hacked”.  Having multiple versions of papers circulating means that metrics are harder to trace, calculate, and report, which can impact the attractiveness of ECRs looking for employment or seeking to promote their work.  Paradoxically, ECRs might then be better off promoting the paywalled versions of their work – which will attract most citations – rather than actively disseminating the repository versions).

None of this is to say that Green OA should be jettisoned.  In the current environment, while an imperfect solution, it does nevertheless provide researchers – particularly outside of academia – with access to the work of academics.  There is, however, a danger of considering Green OA as an acceptable standard – as the REF’s adoption of Green OA may suggest – and not going further.  If the purpose of open access is to strive for greater egalitarianism in research access, then Green OA is not the solution, and universities should not be satisfied with having “a preference for the green route to open access.”

[1] Some refer to OA publication without APC as “diamond OA”, although the term has not really caught on.

[2] My former institution, the University of St Andrews, states that “Our preference in respect of publishing in journals is for Open Access by means of the Green route.”

Open Access and ECRs: Not so Open After All?

This week is Open Access Week, in which researchers are encouraged to promote research that is accessible to all interested parties, and reflect on how they can themselves encourage greater availability of their works.  Open Access publication[1] is a hugely significant issue within the current movement to rethink publishing relationships in academia, not least for British academics: the REF exercise requires all article submissions to be available in at least a “Green OA” version, with expectations that this requirement will extend to books in the next exercise.  In this context, the push for open access has huge implications for early career researchers (ECR) and their employment, advancement, and development opportunities.  Sadly, the current push for OA, while well-intentioned, in flipping and replicating the subscription-based publication model, has forgotten about ECRs, leaving young researchers behind and replicating the existing hierarchies present in academia.

It is safe to say that, so far, the push for open access is occurring within the constraints of the conventional publication model.[2]  Green OA, while common, remains a very imperfect solution to the problem of access.  While ECRs have access to Green OA through institutional and disciplinary repositories, the gold standard remains, well, Gold OA, in which the author commonly pays an Article Processing Charge to the publisher to get published.  And as usual, such funds tend to dry up where ECRs are concerned.

Advocates of Gold OA – not least large publishers – like to suggest that sources of funding are available to cover APCs (running from several hundred dollars to a few thousand per article).  Yet, these sources – grant funding, dedicated library budgets for APC funding, etc. – are hard to come by for employed academics; they are virtually inexistent for ECRs who are studying or in non-permanent positions.  To publish by paying an APC is, for an early career academic, fanciful in most cases.

The alternative, then, is to redirect one’s work to an open access journal that does not charge an APC.  These exist, and in fact, form the bulk of OA journals, as a Harvard Library study of OA publishing makes clear (p. 16).  Yet, these journals – with rare exceptions – lack the prestige and recognition of more established journals.  As Alex Holocombe and Mark C. Wilson make clear:

Independent open-access journals are often of high scholarly quality, albeit run on a shoestring budget and sometimes lacking features of expensive journals. Unfortunately, these journals can find it difficult to develop the positive reputation and “brand” that subscription journals with a longer history sometimes enjoy.

For ECRs, it would be foolish to suggest brand consideration plays no role.  When applying for jobs, funding, and promotion, the outlet for publication plays a huge role – we all know of academics invited for job interviews and sometimes offered employment largely on the back of articles published in prestigious outlets.  Simply put, from the list of journals in Politics and International Relations available in the Directory of Open Access Journals, there is only one journal where I could consider submitting my work – and their APC waiver policy expires at the end of the year.  As Claire Dupont makes clear:

So, ECRs face a stark choice when it comes to OA publishing: either they go the route of Green OA – which is a limited and imperfect solution at best – or they harm their career prospects by foregoing high-quality outlets.  While these choices affect academics at all stages of their careers, both the constraints and the consequences are greater for young academics, for whom a job – and a career – may hang in the balance.

The current push for OA thus largely replicates and accentuates existing hierarchies in academia, again harming the most vulnerable – ECRs and also scholars from developing countries.[3]  In pushing for greater access and inclusivity in the research process, the academic community must ensure it does not remain a revolution for the few, tenured academics lucky enough to obtain grant funding, work at wealthy institutions, or secure enough in their position to afford publishing in smaller, less prestigious outlets.  Otherwise, ECRs – myself included – may start wondering how open Open Access actually is.

My thanks to Claire Dupont and Angie who shared their thoughts on this subject with me.

P.-S.: Sam Moore has a blog post on the LSE Impact Blog which argues that ECRs should embrace open access.  Read it here.

[1] Open Access publication – the availability of published academic outputs, mainly articles – is only one part of the open access movement; other connected but distinct elements include openness of the review and publication process, and availabity of research data.  I deal here principally with OA publication.

[2] Calls for complete overhauls of the publishing industry, while many, remain marginal and have not materialised yet: see for instance here and here.

[3] Taylor and Francis offers partial and complete APC waivers to scholars from developing countries when publishing in full OA journals.  While this may solve the funding issue, it does nothing to address the question of the quality and prestige of full OA outlets, thus running the risk of forcing scholars from developing countries to publish in second-tier outlets if they want to publish OA.

Controversy and Retraction – “The Case for Colonialism” vs “In Defense of Transracialism”

The – justified – criticism of the publication of “The Case for Colonialism” recalls another recent controversy concerning the publication of an article going against the common arguments of the field.  I’m talking, of course, about Rebecca Tuvel‘s article “In Defense of Transracialism”, published in the journal Hypatia last May.  Prima facie, the reactions are similar: accusations of widely insufficient engagement with the relevant literature, of harming disenfranchised populations in academia, and of perpetuating exclusionary practices.  In Tuvel’s, as in Gilley’s case, calls for retraction abounded, and editors refused to retract the article.  Yet, as I hope to make clear below, the “transracialism” article did not warrant retraction, for the same reason as the “colonialism” article does.

“In Defense of Transracialism” asks a simple question: why is gender taken as an attribute under the full control of the individual – where self-identification should be the only relevant criterion for definition – while race is taken to be assigned and immutable?  In other words, why is transgenderism taken to be a human right while transracialism (as in the Rachel Dolezal case) rejected?  This is, by all accounts, a hugely controversial position to take, and Tuvel (and the Hypatia journal) was accused in a petition signed by over 800 scholars – including prominent names such as Judith Butler and Wendy Brown – of sending a message “that white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes without broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism”, and of “caus[ing] further harm” through this publication.

As I mentioned in my previous post on “The Case for Colonialism”, I am not convinved that accusations of “harm” or “violence” are valid.  Kelly Oliver, Tuvel’s dissertation adviser, denounced the jump to accusations of violence well:[1]

 The most vocal figures on social media claimed they were harmed, even traumatized, by Tuvel’s article, and by my defense of its right to exist. Some said that Tuvel’s article harmed them, and I was doing violence to them, even triggering PTSD, just by calling for an open discussion of, and debate over, the arguments in the article. While I readily agree that words can do harm and that hate speech exists, my call for philosophical engagement with Tuvel’s article does not constitute harmful speech. In fact, if an essay that openly supports trans identity does violence, and defense of open debate causes PTSD, then by which name should we call the physical violence inflicted on trans people and others daily? What of the PTSD caused by domestic violence, rape, and hate crimes? If an essay written by a young feminist scholar in support of trans rights is violent and harmful, then haven’t we leveled all violence such that everything has become swept up by it, and the very notion of violence has lost its meaning? Certainly, at the very least, we need to distinguish between levels of violence. One Facebook critic called my remarks “unforgivable,” seemingly putting them on par with crimes against humanity.

Indeed, it is quite surreal to compare the “violence” and “harm” caused by the publication of one article (and possibly a forthcoming book) with the harm done to a female tenure-track professor by such an overblown reaction.  Not all harm is equal, and excluding some questions from academic pursuit for such reasons seems the very antithesis to free speech and academic inquiry.

That being said, as I also mentioned, research going against the main academic current in a discipline must pass a higher threshold: whoever seeks to overturn conventional arguments must shoulder the burden of evidence and make their case more forcefully.  This is not censorship, but prudent scepticism.  On that point, Tuvel falls short for the same reason as Gilley: her lack of engagement with the most relevant literature, in her case, literature on race theory and by minority scholars.  That being said, one key difference between the “colonialism” and the “transracialism” articles must be noted: Gilley’s piece is a standalone piece, making a complete argument, while Tuvel’s article is an exploratory article, meant to culminate in a forthcoming book.  One can therefore expect, and hope, that Tuvel’s book will indeed engage – as it should – with the relevant literature and judge her work in its most complete form.

Most importantly, however, “In Defense of Transracialism”, unlike “The Case for Colonialism”, did undergo the full peer review process and was recommended for publication.  This, in itself, makes any case for retraction moot.  As retraction is an extreme measure, it must be reserved for extreme cases of misconduct.  In other words, better let one poor article slip through than retract too hastily.  Gilley’s viewpoint article was published due to unacceptable perversions of peer review; Tuvel’s was published as a result of a complete, and fair (if perhaps flawed) process.  It is certainly fair to criticise and rebut the article (although, as I suggested above, waiting for the book may not be a bad idea); but retraction would have been a mistake, and the editor of Hypatia, Sally Scholz (now former editor, having resigned), must be commended for standing by the article and not retracting it.

In summary, therefore, the crucial differences between a radical article on feminist philosophy published in Hypatia, a journal of radical feminist philosophy, and an article defending colonialism in Third World Quarterly, an explicitly postcolonial journal, should lead to very different outcomes. “In Defense of Transracialism” is the controversial output of a normal publication process, and should be treated as such; “The Case for Colonialism” was published as a result of a perversion of peer review and should not be allowed to stand.  In both cases, scholars may wonder how the article passed through – or indeed, did not pass through – peer review.  However, the publication process relies on delegating the responsibility of judging worthiness of publication to anonymous reviewers and, barring evidence of misconduct, these reviewers should be trusted.


P.-S.: The Hypatia controversy was compounded by the flurry of contradictory statements made by the Journal’s editor (Sally Scholz), its Associate Editorial Board, and its Board of Directors.  The Daily Nous has followed the fallout extensively here, here, here, and here.


I close with a precision on my last post: Natasha Saunders pointed out that I may have been too generous in reading Shahid Qadir’s statement.  As Natasha points out, Qadir never claims that the article was recommended for publication by reviewers, merely that it did “undergo double-blind peer review and was subsequently published”, leaving open the possibility that the Journal decided to publish it against the advice of reviewers.  As such, it is possible that the article was never, in fact, recommended for publication by anyone, and that Qadir decided unilaterally, for whatever reason – fear of accusations of censorship, clickbait, etc. – to publish an article that he knew was unfit for publication.  At any rate, this makes two things clear: 1) A full inquiry by Taylor and Francis and the editorial board (or what remains of it) is necessary to understand how the peer review was perverted in this instance; 2) it is very questionable whether the current editor can be trusted to respect good academic practice, and a resignation/removal seems to be in order.

I thank Natasha for this very perceptive correction, and encourage you to keep an eye out for her forthcoming book!


[1] See also Suzanne Danuta Walters’ article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Jesse Walters’ article on NYMag.com.

The Fallout from “The Case for Colonialism”

The publication in Third World Quarterly of the article “The Case for Colonialism”, written by Bruce Gilley, has caused more than a little stir among IR scholars in particular and academics more widely.  Gilley’s article has led to a flurry of accusations, from a number of members of the editorial board resigning by accusing the journal of betraying its post- and anti-colonial founding ethos and charging the editor with failing to respect the peer review process, to a number of rebuttals, and complaints that Gilley is perpetuating systemic colonial violence against non-Western countries and scholars; today, Gilley himself requested that his article be withdrawn, “regret[ting] the pain and anger that it has caused for many people.”

Once again, therefore, the question is asked: what should be done – and by whom – when dealing with problematic articles such as “The Case for Colonialism”?  Colleen Flaherty, in Inside Higher Education, suggested the proper solution should be to write rebuttals, not to demand retraction.  Similarly, the editor of TWQ, Shahid Qadir, expressed an intention to publish rebuttals to Gilley’s viewpoint.  In my view, however, rebuttal is not enough here, and a retraction is in order.

First of all, let me say why on which grounds I do not support a call for retraction.  Vijay Prashad, in co-authoring a letter of resignation from the TWQ editorial board, stated that the publication of the article “causes offence and hurt and thereby clearly violates that very principle of free speech.”  It seems to me that the violation of free speech, here, would be precisely to refuse to publish some arguments – for instance defending colonialism – because they are found to be inelegant, unorthodox, or even offensive.  If academia is to allow an exchange of ideas, different and even outrageous ideas should not be rejected simply because they go against the overwhelming majority opinion.  Therefore, I do not support the idea that the publication of one article would cause “offence and hurt” and violates free speech.

That being said, when going against commonly accepted arguments, the author has an obligation to shoulder the burden of evidence.  Gilley, in this case, wants to dismiss the whole of postcolonial literature in Political Science, IR, Anthropology, History, etc.  That, obviously, requires that he actually engages with this literature (which he does not).  The threshold of evidence required in overturning multiple well-established fields of inquiring is – and should be – much higher.  That is not censure, that’s prudent research.  Gilley, by all accounts, does not meet the challenge, and is therefore hardly in a position to complain of censure.[1]  Furthermore, the article is, very obviously, very, very bad.  As the many rebuttals have shown, Gilley cherry picks, ignores, and twists evidence.  Not only does he ignore much of the work in colonial history, his argumentation often defies the most elementary rules of logic and proper evidence.

Based on such shortcomings, one must wonder how the article passed through peer review, which is (nominally) the gatekeeper ensuring publication of work of sufficient quality.  And here is the most shocking element of l’Affaire Gilley: it didn’t.  According to Vijay Prashad, at least three reviewers rejected the piece – with unanimous recommendations that it not be allowed to be resubmitted – before it was published.  Shahid Qadir, the editor, claims it passed double blind review; we can only therefore assume it was sent to at least five reviewers in total, only two of which recommended it for publication.  That three experienced reviewers were summarily ignored defies comprehension, and constitutes a perversion of the review process.  On this ground alone – that the peer review process was biased, perverted, and twisted, I see no other option than to formally retract the article.  It should not have been published, and this must be acknowledged.

Retraction is, naturally, a heavy-handed solution that should be reserved for the most egregious violations of publication procedures, such as plagiarism or failure to follow peer review procedures (NB: as stated above, I do not support retraction of articles pushing unpopular or controversial ideas, even on grounds of “violence” or “harm”).  Reviewers sometimes err and recommend publication of poor articles (which is not the case here); such errors must be accepted and are not grounds for retraction, barring misconduct on the author or reviewers’ part.  Nevertheless, in cases of grave violations of peer review, such as here, where an article is repeatedly sent out for review against reviewers’ advice until favourable reviewers are found (assuming Shahid Qadir is truthful), there is no choice left.  Without a retraction of the article and a full explanation of the failings, I don’t see how any can take Third World Quarterly seriously anymore.



[1] I am not aware of any such complaints by Gilley; however, Flaherty, in Inside Higher Education, noted that he has previously complained of viewpoint orthodoxy in academia.

On Book Reviews

I have recently been forced to put my doctoral studies on the ice for a few months. During this enforced break, while I can still work, I have chosen not to spend any time on tasks directly related to my doctorate (such as writing papers to see to my supervisor, mapping out the thesis structure and reading with a view to writing my chapters) but rather to explore connected projects which I would have less time to do normally.  That means, among others, reading outside of my specialization, focusing on theorists who I would normally only skim, picking up old readings, topics and interests, and so on. Writing-wise, I have decided to explore short projects which orient my research without becoming long-term foci, allowing me to remain flexible and diverse in my reading and thinking.  The first type of such project, which I discuss here, is book reviews.

In a recent blog post on the Völkerrechts Blog, Michaela Hailbronner discussed the purpose of book reviews for young academics.  As she notes, reviewing books which one finds interesting is a great way to proceed, as it makes the reading and writing easier to fit into what one is already doing anyway. In my case, however, not being constrained by my thesis research plan is an explicit aim. At the same time, obviously, I can only review books where I have some kind of prior knowledge of the subject. Nevertheless, in picking my books to review, I try to stray a bit outside of the core of my thesis. I select books which contribute to my current projects (my thesis, the publications I plan based on it, and the publications I plan from my MPhil on Carl Schmitt) while also broadening my horizons. In other words, I use (commissioned) book reviews to orient my reading while giving a tangible objective beyond ‘reading for interest’.

Another aspect I appreciate of book reviews is it’s emphasis on returning to what is a fundamental task for all researchers: reading, critically summarizing, and analyzing a source. This is something we have to do over and over, but that rarely is presented in the foreground, and that we may do quickly if we are in a rush. Book reviews force me to pause and reflect on one source, and to analyse it carefully. In other words, it’s like building up muscle memory and training at doing good research.

Finally, I am also hoping to explore a genre in which I have not published yet, but that again constitutes another basic research task: review essays. Unlike book reviews, review essays emphasize the connections, disconnections, and interactions among several books on a given topic.  This resembles the preparation one must do before writing a research paper, when one seeks to integrate the literature into a coherent argument and compare sources against each other. As this takes more time than a single book review, I am keeping my proposals closer to my thesis topic: thus, I review sources closer to my field, preparing my return to the PhD in a few months.

This post was about my writing plans; another post will follow soon about my reading plans, and my plans for this blog, which I hope to make more active.

Book Reviews Roundup (updated August 2017)

In the past few months I have written a number of book reviews for journals, which will get published in the coming months.

First up, I wrote a review of Carlo Galli’s Janus’s Gaze, which comprises five essays on aspects of interpreting the thought of Carl Schmitt, for the journal Carl Schmitt Studien.  The review – along with the whole issue of CSS, in open access – is available here.

The second review is of Jeffrey S. Lantis’ Arms and Influence, which presents a model of the relation between norm change and technological innovation,  forthcoming (normally this fall) in Political Studies Review.  A pre-publication copy can be found here.

The third review is of Laurie Calhoun’s We Kill Because we Can, a virulent critique of targeted killing, also for Political Studies Review.  A pre-publication copy can be found here.

Finally, my review of Jack McDonald’s Enemies Known and Unknown for International Affairs is published in the July 2017 issue.  The review is available in free access here.