Saideman, ISA, BDS

A quick thought on one small argument embedded in Prof. Steve Saideman’s post, “BDS and the ISA.” (The ISA is the International Studies Association, a grouping of many political scientists and other scholars.  Steve and I have both been members.)

I have plenty of issues with BDS, the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement that targets Israel, but I wanted to comment on one line in Saideman’s post: “While I am not a fan of slippery slope arguments, it is not clear why Israel is targeted and not heaps of other places where there is significant repression: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Trump’s America, etc.”

I hear variants of that argument a lot. But I do not actually think it is that puzzling, even leaving aside that once the BDS ball gets rolling, BDS probably has a certain appeal or cache on some campuses. If you look at the list, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China are all authoritarian countries. They are not democracies.

In other words, I think the interesting comparison regarding Israel and BDS is not just repression (We’re better than Saudi Arabia!) but repression + democracy. If, as Israel or its supporters often note, you claim to be a democracy (the region’s only democracy) and claim to have the most moral army in the world, maybe you make yourself more vulnerable to this kind of campaign. You self-impose different standards by which to be judged. Not to mention that democracies tend to be more porous with information, whether from opposition politicians, civil society, or other elements that counter the power establishment. Maybe Turkey is a fair comparison (though I’d trust someone who knows something about Turkey unlike me).

Trump’s America? Well, we’re not there yet…

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Back to Normal Political Instability

Jay Ulfelder (@jay_ulfelderasks if the present level of political instability is the world boiling over or just getting back to normal. I was surprised to see that his answer is the world is getting back to normal. According to Ulfelder, over the last decade, observed (actual) political instability has been noticeably below the predicted level of instability. The drop from 2000 to 2010 looks especially steep.

Which led me to wonder: Why was I surprised? Are the Arab Spring or events in Ukraine having an outsized impact on my perception of the level of political instability? One possibility is that in contrast to a data set that codes all cases of different types of political instability we, and the media upon which we rely, only focus on a few big illustrations.

So we may be significantly below predicted levels of political instability but a few “celebrity” or much-covered examples may distort our perception of the global total. Maybe no matter what you tell me about the relatively low level of political instability in 2011 – both compared to predicted levels for 2011 and to historical annual rates as high as 4% – I will remember the wave of Arab uprisings and the fall of long-time dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

This does raise a question, as Rex Byrnen noted:

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In my mind, our media-influenced perception is actually a weighted perception; we care about or pay attention to some places more than others, a potential explanation for my initial surprise.

In Defense of Academia

Earlier today think tanker Michael Doran tweeted out a link from the multi-author blog The Monkey Cage. The linked post was about the nature of networking at academic conferences like the annual conventions of the American Political Science Association and the International Studies Association. The post referenced, but chose not to directly address, an earlier discussion about the same topic that was couched in offensive and insensitive language regarding underage children, prostitution, and sexual promiscuity. That original post was trying to use these as metaphors, but it was obviously poorly done—the author removed the post, apologized, and explained what he was trying to do and how the message got lost.

Doran’s tweet referred to academia as a “perverse little bubble.” (I can’t say whether this was in response to the networking or to the issue of sexualized politics.) This isn’t the first time Doran has expressed less-than-positive comments about academia and academics; I’ve argued with him on Twitter before about this. Others in the policymaking and think tank worlds have also disparaged academia as too-ivory towerish. The debate over what academics contribute to the human good is an old one, though it seems to have been getting more attention lately with the Republican war on the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences.

It certainly behooves us academics to defend our work and our relevance, since we do make demands of the state and the public but bristle at suggestions of interference in our research. Most of us could do a much better job in our defense and in promoting the relevance of our ideas and research for real world policy problems. So I join the expanding crowd of scholars who are doing this by highlighting several points (or perhaps misconceptions) about academics and academia.

1. To begin with, it’s far too broad to say that “academics” or “academia” don’t matter or don’t care about the real world. Some academics sometimes think directly about these things and channel their research toward such ends, while at others time these same academics consider other questions because they are interesting and important in other ways. This gets to another point. I don’t have any detailed evidence for this, but I suspect that when critics say academics should focus more on the real world, they mean the stuff of high politics–conflict and war, economics, relations between major powers, and so on. There are plenty of other real world but less visible or dramatic issues that matter and that academics do work on.

At the same time, there is a distinction to be made between fields and disciplines. It’s natural that policymakers are less likely to draw directly on, say, studies of medieval English literature to think about how to prevent an escalation of violence between two states. But:

2. Even those academics who don’t research and write directly on specific policy issues matter a great deal and contribute a great deal. They do so by teaching students skills like critical thinking, how to conduct the detailed—sometimes boring—research necessary for a good grasp of an issue and the necessary evidence for considering the issue, how to write, and how to analyze.

3. More broadly, thinking about political science and international relations specifically, the work that professors do serves as building blocks for the less-academic-more-policy-oriented work that comes later, which in turn forms the basis for information and analysis that others use in their own think tank, media, or other work. Sometimes non-academic analysts draw unknowingly on the work done by professors, because the information/evidence/research is solid and therefore used by others. And sometimes these analysts draw directly from academic journals.

4. The presumption that academia is a stale and isolated exercise in irrelevance might have had more weight in the past. But today, when more and more academics work in the public sphere by writing op-eds for traditional media, writing for non-traditional media, giving media interviews, and engaging in social media like Twitter and blogging, that perception just doesn’t stand. Obviously many, many academics do not do this. But take a look at the blogrolls of sites like The Monkey Cage or Duck of Minerva, or check out Lawyers, Guns & Money or Political Violence @ a Glance to get a sense of how many academics are participating in the public sphere, the highly relevant issues they are exploring, and how they are doing it.

5. There is perhaps a less visible vitality in academia that critics like Doran often miss. Academia is subject to hierarchy, like any other area, but here there are multiple and different kinds of hierarchies that undermine the notion of “academia” being a monolith, which in turn undermines the criticism of it all being too out-of-date and extraneous to the real world. There are hierarchies in social media (who has more followers/readers); in traditional research (who is cited the most); in perceptions of up and coming research (whose work is most interesting); who gets called for media interviews; who gives public talks around the world; and so on. These reflect the diversity and vitality of the academy.

6. Critics of the academy often ignore the fact that boundaries between it and the think tank and policymaking worlds (normally the ones they unfavorably compare academia to) are often blurred. Academics also go into government and think tanks, and back again; many think tankers teach academic courses. (Doran is himself an example of this process of back-and-forth.)

7. Finally, I’ll just add that the notion that academic culture is particularly ill-suited to the real world, or that it has terrible problems that wouldn’t exist anywhere else, is simply silly. Every profession/career/job/occupation has its own culture, and sub-areas within them also have their own sub-cultures. For example, sexism and gendered politics are by no means an “academic thing,” and any suggestion to that effect is simply disingenuous or dishonest. This doesn’t make any such norms right; on the contrary, their existence is proof that something needs to change and the culture be reformed. But again, that’s not an “academic thing.”

Of course not every academic does work directly connected to policymakers’ concerns; many really do get lost in theoretical musings and jargon completely indecipherable and off-putting to outsiders (including other academics). Then again, not every think tanker has access to or has their stuff read by policymakers. But at bottom, the freedom to study and write about different issues is the hallmark of academic freedom, which was implemented to prevent strict religious and other doctrines and agendas from shutting down genuine human curiosity and opening up society to new ideas. This, in turn, is what helps us think about how to resolve pressing social, economic, and political problems.