China: Zero Tolerance for Academic Freedom, not unlike Malaysia


October 18, 2017

China: Zero Tolerance for Academic Freedom, not unlike Malaysia

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

Universities will be closely scrutinised, professors will be evaluated and the Party will punish those lacking ideological firmness. Such is the program released by Xi Jinping’s government to coincide with the Communist Party congress, where Xi is seeking to reinforce his authority as a world leader.

Image result for Academic Freedom in China

Dr Bill Chou Kwok-ping, a political scientist who was last month elected vice-president of Macau’s biggest pro-democracy group is the second Macau academic to lose his job after intervening in political debates in as many months, stirring concerns about academic freedom in the former Portuguese colony.

Image result for Academic Freedom in China

 

Efforts to control universities and disregard academic freedom are also taking place abroad. In early September, Reuters and The Guardian exposed efforts by Chinese authorities to partially restrict access to the American Political Science Review from within China. The Review, one of the most reputable journals in its field, is published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press (CUP). Ultimately the publishing house resisted the Chinese pressure, but the news has sparked upset, coming just a few weeks after another controversy that shook the foundations of academia.

The “China Quarterly” affair

In August, China scholars from around the world learnt that Beijing had demanded that Cambridge University Press withdraw 315 articles and book reviews from China Quarterly, produced by University of London’s respected School of Oriental and African Studies and published by CUP.

These articles dealt with topics considered sensitive by the Chinese government: the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests; Mao Zedong and China’s Cultural Revolution; ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang; Taiwan; and anything relating to democratic reform.

CUP complied, pulling the offending articles from their Chinese site, explaining that it would rather withdraw a small number of articles of interest to a handful of academics, in order to ensure the continued availability in China of its numerous other academic and educational publications.

Image result for China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle

 

Led by China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle, academics and NGOs expressed outrage that CUP would favour its own commercial interests above academic freedom, and threatened to boycott the publishing house.

Faced with protests, the Chinese government defended its actions in an editorial published in the August 20 edition of the Global Times, stating that, while it respects academic freedom in the UK, China has the right to decide what can be published within its borders.

Three days after the censorship came to lighy, CUP had a sudden change of heart, and made the 315 articles available again.

Around the same time, the US-based Association of Asian Studies (AAS) revealed it had received a similar demand but did not comply.

Ideological battle

The controversy highlights the oppressive nature of the government of the People’s Republic. Despite the undeniable international character of Chinese universities, higher education and research must tow the party line.

Deng Xiaoping’s late-1970s policies of economic reform and opening-up enabled the country to become a laboratory of ideas in the last quarter of the 20th century. But for the past decade or so, China appears to be engaged in an ideological battle against the West.

Following the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy, behind the US, which was itself weakened by the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the resulting severe recession.

Yet China quickly found itself facing dissatisfaction from those steamrollered by a policy of growth at all costs, in spite of the country’s economic and diplomatic successes. Many Chinese intellectuals began to think the lot of their fellow citizens should be improved with a final – political – reform.

Image result for liu xiaobo

Led by writer, Nobel laureate and university professor Liu Xiaobo, one of the key activists of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, hundreds of intellectuals signed the Charter 08, a manifesto in favour of democratising the regime. For this Liu was sentenced in 2009 to an 11-year prison term. He was released in July 2017 and died a few days later.

Document #9, the “anti-subversion kit”

Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012-2013 signalled a new era in the curtailing of freedom of thought. Fearing any threat to the purity of their ideology, Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders released a handbook listing the subversive ideas to be eradicated, the infamous Document #9.

The following topics are now banned from public discussion: western constitutional democracy, the universal nature of human rights, the empowerment of civil society, multiple interpretations of history, and anything questioning the validity of Chinese economic reforms and socialism.

Image result for  China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle

While post-Mao China was not free of taboos, they were usually limited to the “three Ts”: Taiwan, Tiananmen and Tibet. Several things have changed since 2012. Firstly, the publication of Document #9 expanded the scope of unacceptable ideas: any subject, without exception, could now be censored.

Secondly, Chinese universities are now the reluctant front-line soldiers in this ideological battle: in 2015, the Minister for Education urged universities to ban the use of textbooks promoting Western values. Lastly, any contravening of the new norm is now subject to severe repression, and the CPC has no qualms about openly resorting to totalitarian tactics.

A violent crackdown

On top of routine intimidation, 248 human rights advocates were rounded up in a brutal mass arrest in July 2015. In the resulting atmosphere of fear, liberal intellectuals no longer think it wise to answer questions from foreign journalists; they practice broad self-censorship and, when possible, wind up living in exile abroad. For those who remain, harassment is commonplace.

These attacks against fundamental rights and specifically academic freedom are now extending beyond mainland China, starting with the special administrative regions. In 2014, several Macau professors were abruptly dismissed; in Hong Kong, the 2015 disappearances of five book-sellers and publishers is still unresolved. These cases reveal the widening cracks in the “one country, two systems” model. Yet Beijing’s influence does not stop there.

n the summer of 2014, the European Association for Chinese Studies had several pages of its program ripped out by the Confucius Institute the day before its biannual conference in Portugal.

The institute apparently objected to advertising from Taiwanese sponsors. That same year, the American Association of University Professors initiated calls for the closure of Confucius Institutes, claiming they undermine freedom of speech on US university campuses.

Last month Australia acknowledged Chinese government interference in its universities. Beijing has been carrying out unprecedented influence and control operations targeting Chinese students as well as Chinese and non-Chinese professors. In response, the Group of Eight (Go8), a coalition of the top eight universities in Australia, has called for a coordinated and measured response.

In 2016, more than a quarter of the 550,000 overseas students enrolled in Australian universities came from China. They represent a significant financial boon for Australian universities, who don’t want to offend the Chinese government. The question is, can the core values of academic institutions be preserved without incurring the wrath of Party leaders?

This article was originally published in French

 

Emigration as Liberation


September 25, 2017

Emigration as Liberation

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

http://www.bakrimusa.com

Image result for Bakri Musa

Dr. M Bakri Musa–A Prolific Author, Essayist and Public Intellectual

Many attribute America’s dynamism and openness to its tradition of accepting new immigrants, current Trump-stirred anti-immigrant hysteria notwithstanding. The hitch in that presumption is whether the very process of emigrating–the uprooting of oneself from one’s familiar surroundings to seek an uncertain future elsewhere–contributes to the opening up of one’s mind or whether it is the reverse? That is, only those who are already open-minded would consider immigration. In short, what is cause and what is effect?

This issue is complicated by the dynamics of immigration today being so much different from what they were a century ago. Ease of travel and communication has much to do with the change. Today someone from China immigrating to America does not face the same emotionally-wrenching decision as those “shanghaied” to work on American railroads of a century ago. Today’s immigrants could Skype or Facetime their relatives back in the village upon landing at San Francisco airport. They could also return for visits during the New Year and other holidays. Even those who had been forced to leave their native country, as with the Vietnamese refugees, are now able to return freely to their land of birth.

Image result for Liberation

This age of globalization is also referred to as the Age of Migration because of the unprecedented number of people moving across borders either individually or in groups as refugees.

There is angst in Malaysia today (and elsewhere in the developing world) over the “brain drain,” the emigration of its talented citizens. The mainstream media and blogosphere are filled with stories of individuals having to make supposedly heart-wrenching decisions to leave the country of their birth. Those personal dramas and emotions are contrived, and a bit of a stretch.

The experiences of today’s immigrants are in no way comparable to what their earlier counterparts had to endure. Unlike them, present-day immigrants are able to make many trips home or have face-to-face chats via Web camera, not to mention frequent phone calls. Many still hold on to their old passports and retain their properties in the old country. In short, the emotional trauma of immigration, if there is any, is nowhere on the same scale as what those who came before them had to endure. The experiences of the Vietnamese and Somalians should give comfort to current refugees from places like Syria and Afghanistan.

Image result for Mahathir, Badawi and Najib

Both Malaysian Prime Ministers–Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak–were chosen by Dr. Mahathir to screw Malaysia to the ground so that he can look good. In doing so, Mahathir destroyed his own legacy. The lesson to learn is : Never be selfish. –Din Merican

This is especially true of immigrants under the “brain drain” category. Their relocation is akin to an extended sojourn abroad and an opportunity to earn a better income, as well as to widen their experiences and perspectives. Because today’s émigrés return home many times, those visits home become occasions for them to relate their new experiences. That in turn helps those at home to have similar “foreign” experiences, albeit vicariously. That too can be mind-liberating on both parties.

Again, modern technology comes to the rescue; it softens if not eliminates the trauma of migration.

The virtual reality that digital technology delivers may lack the sensory and physical components but it still delivers the essence. The images of the carnage perpetrated by a suicide bomber in London carried on your cellphone in the comfort and safety of your palm may not have the smell of burnt flesh, nonetheless the sight of blood, maimed bodies, and screaming victims captures the brute reality close enough.

Image result for Kerismuddin

The Prime Minister and his Deputy Zahid Hamidi –Quality of Leadership?

Digital technology is the transforming invention of our times. As such, access to it should be a basic public service, made free or affordable. It should be considered a public good in the same manner as highways, healthcare, and utilities.

Take for instance highways; it would be hard to consider a country developed without cars and roads. At the same time, both are major killers and destroyers of human life, as well as deleterious to the environment, but those are not reasons not to have cars and roads. Likewise, the digital highway; there are recognized dangers, the obvious being fraud, gambling, and pornography. Again, those are not reasons to ban or limit the Internet. Instead the focus should be on educating citizens on the dangers, just as we do with cars and highway users.

I venture that the broad-mindedness and increasing assertiveness of Malaysians in recent years, especially among the young, is attributable to the fact that Malaysia is an open society and its cyber world remains uncensored. That is one of the few enduring legacies of Mahathir despite his second thoughts lately on Internet freedom. Now that we have tasted freedom albeit only in the cyber world, there is no turning back.

Technology–The Liberator and Great Equalizer, says Dr. Bakri Musa


September 19, 2017

Technology–The Liberator and Great Equalizer

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

Image result for M. Bakri Musa

The challenge for Malays and non-Malays in this global era is to cultivate an open mind because the alternative means depriving yourself of new opportunities.–Dr. M Bakri Musa

Modern technology, specifically digital, brings us to the outside world, and it to us. Today what happens in the isolated caves high in the mountains of Kabul can be recorded on a cell phone and then posted on the Web for the whole world to see. Even a repressive regime like China could not control the dissemination of images of its tanks bulldozing innocent citizens back at Tiananmen Square in 1989, though not for lack of trying.

The success of the Arab Jasmine Revolution owes much to this digital revolution. Through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, ordinary citizens communicated with each other in real time to organize massive demonstrations that brought down powerful leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

I assert that the digital technology is a much more powerful and consequential instrument of liberation than the AK47, hitherto (still is) the favorite with not-so-bright revolutionaries worldwide.

Eygpt’s Hosni Mubarak was derailed not by a gunman, like his predecessor Anwar Sadat, but by a social revolution made possible by the online social network. If there were to be a leader of that movement, it would be Google executive Wael Ghonim. Unlike earlier Arab revolutionaries who were military officers, this guy was, for lack of better word, a geek. What an incredible achievement what he had done! No one could have predicted that Hosni Mubarak, who only a few months previously was the most powerful man in the Arab world, would face charges of premeditated murder for the deaths of those protestors.

Image result for klaus schwab quotes

Digital technology is not the only modern agent of liberation. Modern transportation has reduced if not removed the barrier of geography. Today I can fly from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur in less time than it took my sister to get from Kuala Pilah to Teachers’ College in Kota Baru via Malayan Railway back in the 1950s.

Travel, in so far as it affords one the opportunity to experience different cultures and realities, can be liberating. While the digital revolution might afford a virtual reality on the convenience and safety of your sofa, travel lets you experience reality in its raw, unfiltered physical form.

The liberating effect of travel works both on the traveler as well as the host. This liberating result, however, is not guaranteed. Seeing how the rest of the world operates may not necessarily open up minds; in some it would result in the exact opposite.

Image result for klaus schwab quotes

The Chinese Emperor of the 15th Century sent out explorers out to the vast Pacific and Indian Oceans. Far from opening up Chinese minds, those exotics foreign expeditions merely reaffirmed their smug superiority that they had nothing to learn from the barbarians outside, a manifestation of a collective “confirmation bias” at the societal level.

The Chinese were so confident of their superiority that they eschewed the need for further foreign explorations. They went further. They ordered the dismantling of their advanced and massive maritime infrastructures and banned the building of boats, declaring that to be frivolous and resource-wasting exercises.

Meanwhile the Europeans continued with theirs. The scale was considerably much less, their ships pale imitations of the Chinese. The length of Columbus’s flagship Santa Maria was less than half the width of Cheng Ho’s.

Unlike the ancient Chinese, the medieval Europeans had no pretensions of grandeur; they explored the world with an open mind. They had no delusions about their ways being the best; instead they observed in those foreign lands things they could take home, like tea and spices. It did not take them long to recognize the enormous potential in trading those commodities by introducing new culinary experiences to European palates. The Europeans also soon discovered that the Chinese had a voracious appetite for opium, which the Brits could secure with ease from India. Lucrative commercial domination soon led to the political variety, and thus colonialism was born.

Image result for M. Bakri Musa

Why one culture reacted a certain way and another, the very opposite, is intriguing. In the final analysis, it boils down to a culture’s openness to new ideas and experiences, its collective open mindedness. The ancient Chinese had closed minds; the medieval Europeans, open.

Today some foreigners arrive in a new country, and on encountering an alien culture would retreat, fearing it would “contaminate” their pristine values. They would close ranks and congregate in their own little ghettoes, refusing to integrate with the native majority. We see this in America as well as Malaysia.

Related image

“…the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Technology and Digitization) is empowering the empowering the economically disadvantaged by giving them access to digital networks, increasing the efficiency of organisations, improving medical care with personalised drugs and providing a technological solution to climate change”.–Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, President, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.

 

Others view their new experiences as open opportunities and endless learning. Some are simply grateful to be given a new lease on life after escaping the wretchedness of their native land. Eastern Europeans who came to America early in the last century were grateful and thus more than eager to join the American mainstream. They readily gave up their old ways to integrate as quickly as possible into their new society. They learned English quickly and changed their names to make them sound more Anglo-Saxon, with Pawlinsky morphing into the less jaw-breaking Paul.

Even when they were actively discriminated against, and the early Jews, Irish and Italians in America definitely were, they continued to adopt American ways. They did not rush to build Italian or Jewish schools; instead they built their own English schools so their children would not be handicapped in integrating into mainstream American society. They did not consider such actions as repudiating or denigrating their own culture. Far from it! They realized that their own culture and ways of life would more likely survive if were to thrive and be successful in their adopted land.

Today St. Patrick Day and Octoberfest are celebrated more exuberantly in Chicago and Milwaukee respectively than in Dublin or Berlin.

It is tempting to attribute the contrasting reactions of early immigrants to America from Europe to later ones from Asia and Latin America to the differences in circumstances that prompted them to emigrate. The Europeans were forcibly thrown out of their native lands through pogroms or wars. In contrast, recent Asian and Latin American immigrants cross the border voluntarily, for the most part (the South Vietnamese being the most recent notable exception). The Europeans did not ever want to return to their homelands. By contrast, many recent Hispanics consider their stay in America temporary, remaining just long enough to accumulate some money so they could return and live comfortably back in their native land. As such, they do not feel compelled to learn English or in any way integrate into American society.

A similar “temporary abode” mentality occurred with immigrants from China and India into Malaysia early last century. Brought in by the colonials to work the tin mines and rubber plantations, their mindset was to work hard, accumulate enough savings, and then balik Tongsan (return to their motherland, China). Hence there was little need to learn the local language or adapt to local culture. They remained insular, xenophobic, and closed-minded.

They were completely different from the Chinese men and women who much earlier voluntarily settled in the Straits Settlement, the Peranakan. They absorbed many of the elements of Malay culture, including the language and attire. They were not obsessed with balik Tongsan. When the British were in charge, those Chinese learned English; in independent Malaysia, they worked with the majority Malays.

The challenge for Malays and non-Malays in this global era is to cultivate an open mind because the alternative means depriving yourself of new opportunities.

Trump appeases an authoritarian Malaysian Prime Minister to The White House


September 13, 2017

Trump appeases an authoritarian Malaysian Prime Minister to the White House

By Editorial Board, The Washington Post

The Post’s View

Opinion

 

Malaysian PM Najib Razak reviews an honour guard at The White House. Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

PRESIDENT TRUMP has made a habit of embracing authoritarian rulers he regards as friendly, without regard for their subversion of democratic norms or gross human rights violations. Yet his meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House on Tuesday sets a new low. Not only is Mr. Najib known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia’s progress toward democracy. He also is a subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy investigation ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department.

U.S. investigators have charged that Mr. Najib and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund for their own uses, including $730 million that ended up in accounts controlled by the Prime Minister. Justice first filed civil suits seeking the freezing of some $1.7 billion in assets in the United States, including real estate, artworks and stakes in Hollywood movies; more recently, the department asked that those actions be put on hold while it pursues a criminal investigation. Mr. Najib has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing, but the U.S. investigation prompted speculation in Malaysia that he could be arrested if he set foot on American soil — not good PR for a leader who is obligated to call an election sometime in the next few months.

[Here’s what President Trump should tell Malaysia’s prime minister]

With his White House invitation, Mr. Trump has neatly gotten Mr. Najib off that hook and provided him with what the regime will portray as a tacit pre-election endorsement. Despite his repression, Mr. Najib could use that sort of help: In the last election, in 2013, his party lost the popular vote and retained power only because of the gerrymandering of election districts.

Image result for Trump welcomes Najib Razak to The White House

President Trump and other top American officials, left, met at the White House with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia and his delegation, right .The Post’s Editorial states: “The best way for the United States to build a stronger alliance with Malaysia and bolster its independence from China is to encourage those in the country who support liberal democratic values — while holding Mr. Najib accountable for his human rights violations, as well as any financial crimes he may have committed in the United States”.

If the White House received anything in exchange for that huge political favor, it’s not evident. That’s particularly unfortunate because Mr. Najib’s regime is not only a conspicuous violator of human rights but a relative friend to North Korea. The regime of Kim Jong Un has exported workers to Malaysia to earn hard currency. Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother was murdered in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport — so far with no consequences for Pyongyang.

Image result for Trump welcomes Najib Razak to The White House

Mr. Trump isn’t the only  U.S. President to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Mr. Najib. Barack Obama was the first appeaser who played golf with and visited the Malaysian Prime Minister in Malaysia.

Mr. Trump isn’t the first U.S. President to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Mr. Najib. President Barack Obama golfed with the Prime Minister and flattered him with the first visit by a U.S. President to Malaysia in nearly half a century. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump may imagine that courting Mr. Najib is a necessary counter to China, which has hosted him twice in the past year and wooed him with promises of about $100 billion in investments. Yet Mr. Najib’s corruption and disregard for democratic norms mean he will inevitably prefer the values-free patronage of Beijing over alliance with Washington.

The best way for the United States to build a stronger alliance with Malaysia and bolster its independence from China is to encourage those in the country who support liberal democratic values — while holding Mr. Najib accountable for his human rights violations, as well as any financial crimes he may have committed in the United States. If Mr. Trump makes a start at that on Tuesday, he could begin to mitigate the error of inviting Mr. Najib to the White House.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/trump-welcomes-an-authoritarian-to-the-white-house/2017/09/11/9d19f51c-9707-11e7-b569-3360011663b4_story.html?utm_term=.e59f606520a0

A New Way to study Economics


September 13, 2017

A New Way to study Economics

by John Cassidy

https://www.newyorker.com

Image result for The New Way to study Economics

Dealing with Unemployment,Inequality, and  Poverty

With the new school year starting, there is good news for incoming students of economics—and anybody else who wants to learn about issues like inequality, globalization, and the most efficient ways to tackle climate change. A group of economists from both sides of the Atlantic, part of a project called CORE Econ, has put together a new introductory economics curriculum, one that is modern, comprehensive, and freely available online.

In this country, many colleges encourage Econ 101 students to buy (or rent) expensive textbooks, which can cost up to three hundred dollars, or even more for some hardcover editions. The CORE curriculum includes a lengthy e-book titled “The Economy,” lecture slides, and quizzes to test understanding. Some of the material has already been used successfully at colleges like University College London and Sciences Po, in Paris.

The project is a collaborative effort that emerged after the world financial crisis of 2008–9, and the ensuing Great Recession, when many students (and teachers) complained that existing textbooks didn’t do a good job of explaining what was happening. In many countries, groups of students demanded an overhaul in how economics was taught, with less emphasis on free-market doctrines and more emphasis on real-world problems.

Traditional, wallet-busting introductory textbooks do cover topics like pollution, rising inequality, and speculative busts. But in many cases this material comes after lengthy explanations of more traditional topics: supply-and-demand curves, consumer preferences, the theory of the firm, gains from trade, and the efficiency properties of atomized, competitive markets. In his highly popular “Principles of Economics,” Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw begins by listing a set of ten basic principles, which include “Rational people think at the margin,” “Trade can make everybody better off,” and “Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity.”

The CORE approach isn’t particularly radical. (Students looking for expositions of Marxian economics or Modern Monetary Theory will have to look elsewhere.) But it treats perfectly competitive markets as special cases rather than the norm, trying to incorporate from the very beginning the progress economists have made during the past forty years or so in analyzing more complex situations: when firms have some monopoly power; people aren’t fully rational; a lot of key information is privately held; and the gains generated by trade, innovation, and finance are distributed very unevenly. The CORE curriculum also takes economic history seriously.

The e-book begins with a discussion of inequality. One of first things students learn is that, in 2014, the “90/10 ratio”—the average income of the richest ten per cent of households divided by the average income of the poorest ten per cent—was 5.4 in Norway, sixteen in the United States, and a hundred and forty-five in Botswana. Then comes a discussion of how to measure standards of living, and a section on the famous “hockey stick” graph, which shows how these standards have risen exponentially since the industrial revolution.

Image result for The New Way to study Economics

The text stresses that technical progress is the primary force driving economic growth. Citing the Yale economist William Nordhaus’s famous study of the development of electric lighting, it illustrates how standard economic statistics, such as the gross domestic product, sometimes fail to fully account for this progress. Befitting a twenty-first-century text, sections devoted to the causes and consequences of technological innovation recur throughout the e-book, and the information economy receives its own chapter. So do globalization, the environment, and economic cataclysms, such as the Depression and the global financial crisis.

Given the breadth of its coverage, the CORE curriculum may be challenging to some students, but it takes advantage of being a native online product. (In Britain, a paperback version of the e-book is also available.) The presentation features lots of graphs and charts, and, in some cases, students can download data sets to create their own. The quizzes are interactive, and the presentation is enlivened by potted biographies of famous dead economists (Smith, Keynes, etc.) as well as video interviews with eminent living ones, such as Thomas Piketty.

Image result for The New Way to study Economics

Unlike most textbooks, the CORE e-book was produced by a large team of collaborators. More than twenty economists from both sides of the Atlantic and from India, Colombia, Chile, and Turkey contributed to it. (Two of them, Suresh Naidu and Rajiv Sethi, teach at Columbia and Barnard, respectively.) The coördinators of the project were Wendy Carlin, of University College London, Sam Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute, and Margaret Stevens, of Oxford University. The Institute for New Economic Thinking provided some funding to help get things off the ground.

The members of the CORE team deserve credit for responding to the critics of economics without pandering to them. They have produced a careful but engrossing curriculum that will hopefully draw more young people into economics, and encourage them to continue their studies. (At University College London, students who took the CORE course did better in subsequent economics classes than earlier cohorts who took a more traditional introductory course.)

But the CORE material isn’t just for incoming students. It will also reward the attention of general readers and people who think they are already reasonably conversant with economics. (Personal testimony: Having gone through some of the material in detail, I think I might finally understand the Malthusian model and how to calculate bank leverage ratios!) All this, and the price can’t be beat.

 

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!


August 1, 2017

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!

https://www.newyorker.com

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani! On Thursday, the Times’ chief daily book critic announced that she would be leaving her regular reviewing post after thirty-eight years at the paper, marking the end of a literary era. Her assessments of novels and memoirs, works of history, biography, politics, and poetry have guided generations of American readers, and the prospect of getting a Kakutani review has been the hope and fear of more writers than could possibly be counted—a seriously big deal, or ordeal, as the case might be. A good review brought on elation. “It was like having the good fairy touch you on the shoulder with her wand,” Mary Karr told NPR. A bad one incited rage, sometimes despair. Nicholson Baker compared getting a negative Kakutani review to undergoing surgery without anesthesia; Jonathan Franzen called her “the stupidest person in New York.” (She had deemed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.”) What made her scary to writers made her reliable to readers: you couldn’t easily predict where her favor would fall.

Image result for Michiko Kakutani

Thank You. Michiko, for your Book Reviews in  the New York Times. You will be sorely missed. –Din Merican

More so than any critic working today, Kakutani has become synonymous with her profession. Her name long ago entered the lexicon as a verb (“to be Kakutanied”), a signifier of the ultimate cultural prestige. On “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw declared herself “terrified” of getting the Michiko treatment. A generation later, Hannah Horvath, on “Girls,” just wanted to “lock eyes” with her across a room—not an easy feat, considering Kakutani’s reputation for guarding her privacy. She turns down interviews, never does panels, and is rarely photographed. A head shot of Joan Didion is still, mysteriously, the first picture to appear on a Google search for Kakutani. Her Twitter avatar is an egg, though not one of the old default cartoon ones, beloved of trolls, but, rather, an attractive, hard-boiled number, luxuriating against a sea-green pillow.

Who is Michiko Kakutani? What is she like? One minuscule clue came in the much-discussed interview that she conducted with Barack Obama in January, days before his second term came to an end. When the President referred to his teen-age years, and his adolescent preference for “imbibing things that weren’t very healthy,” Kakutani responded, “I think all of us did.” Michiko Kakutani imbibed unhealthy substances in high school! I thought, with weird excitement. That she had couched this confession in a universal statement, thus disclosing absolutely nothing about herself, only added to her mystique.

Image result for Michiko Kakutani

She is careful to hide herself on the page, too. “I” is a word that you will never read in a Kakutani review. She had no interest in the first person as a critical device, and that avoidance of the personal pronoun is part of what could make her negative reviews feel so lacerating. When she wrote, for instance, that Don DeLillo’s novel “Cosmopolis” was “a major dud, as lugubrious and heavy-handed as a bad Wim Wenders film, as dated as an old issue of Interview magazine,” the burn was all the sicker from being simultaneously so specific and so remote. (Note how this statement is actually three insults squeezed into one; what did Wim Wenders do to get so brutally Kakutanied along with DeLillo?)

Certain observers resented Kakutani for resisting “I,” a preference that became more noticeable as the chatty, confessional informality of Internet writing started to change the tone of criticism in the early aughts. Ben Yagoda, writing in Slate, accused Kakutani of having no humor, no wit, and no voice of her own. (He was, to this critic’s mind, overly aggrieved by the goofy reviews that Kakutani sometimes wrote in character. It’s a gruelling business, trying to find fresh ways to write about other people’s writing, let alone trying to do it multiple times a week. Let a critic have some fun.) Yagoda implored Kakutani to retire the old-fashioned epithet “the reader,” which she preferred to the personal pronoun. Then there’s the argument that the critic should use the first person to lay all her cards on the table, owning up to the particular experiences that shaped the taste that she’s bringing to bear on someone else’s work. But self-exposure wasn’t Kakutani’s style. What a critic needs most is independence, the ability to evaluate a work on her, and its, own terms. Some people find their independence through the first person, stressing the subjective nature of the whole critical enterprise. Kakutani found it by screening herself with the privacy afforded by the third. If she loved your book, or if she hated it, it wasn’t personal. “The reader” might always change her mind—next time.

Kakutani had deeper concerns about the possible pitfalls of relying too much on the first person. Writing in 2006 about the fraudulent memoirist James Frey, whose partially fabricated account of his struggles with addiction came to be seen as a high point of narcissism during the era’s memoir craze, she connected Frey’s slippery personal revisionism to broader cultural trends eroding the value of objectivity and truth. It was surprising, to say the least, to find, in a piece about one guy’s lies, references to Holocaust historiography, Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal, and the Bush White House’s manipulative cynicism regarding the invasion of Iraq. But Kakutani’s argument—that postmodernism and deconstruction had ushered in a view of the world in which “all meaning is relative, all truth elusive,” easily manipulated by people in power—proved perceptive and darkly prescient.

“We live in a relativistic culture where television ‘reality shows’ are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics,” she wrote. “This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like ‘credibility’ and ‘perception’ replace the old ideas of objective truth—a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability.” Kakutani has said that she’ll take advantage of her retirement as a regular critic to write longer pieces about politics and culture, and that’s a good thing. For all the uproar that any given rave or take down of hers could incite, she kept her eye on the bigger picture.