Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk. By Catherine Rampell.

Megan Parker, right, a receptionist at the Atlanta law firm of Busch, Slipakoff, and Schuh, and Laura Burnett, a paralegal, are college graduates, as are all their co-workers. Rich Addicks for The New York Times.

It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk. By Catherine Rampell. New York Times, February 19, 2013.

Egypt’s Belly Dancing Barometer. By Thomas L. Friedman.

Egypt’s Belly Dancing Barometer. By Thomas L. Friedman. New York Times, February 19, 2013.

More on Egypt and Morsi here.


The Daily News of Egypt reported that the national administrative court ruled last week that the popular Al-Tet “belly dancing channel” be taken off the air for broadcasting without a license. Who knew that Egypt had a belly dancing channel? (Does Comcast know about this?) It is evidently quite popular but apparently offensive to some of the rising Islamist forces in Egypt. It is not clear how much the Muslim Brotherhood’s party had to do with the belly ban, but what is clear is that no one in Egypt is having much fun these days.

The country is more divided than ever between Islamist and less religious and liberal parties, and the Egyptian currency has lost 8 percent of its value against the dollar in the last two months. Even more disturbing, there has been a sharp increase lately in cases of police brutality and rape directed at opposition protesters. It is all adding up to the first impression that President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are blowing their first chance at power.

Sometime in the next few months, Morsi is to visit the White House. He has only one chance to make a second impression if he wants to continue to receive U.S. aid from Congress. But the more I see of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, the more I wonder if it has any second impression to offer.

Since the start of the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square, every time the Muslim Brotherhood faced a choice of whether to behave in an inclusive way or grab more power, true to its Bolshevik tendencies it grabbed more power and sacrificed inclusion. This was true whether it was about how quickly to hold elections (before the opposition could organize) or how quickly to draw up and vote on a new constitution (before opposition complaints could be addressed) or how broadly to include opposition figures in the government (as little as possible). The opposition is not blameless — it has taken too long to get its act together — but Morsi’s power grab will haunt him.

Egypt is in dire economic condition. Youth unemployment is rampant, everything is in decay, tourism and foreign investment and reserves are down sharply. As a result, Egypt needs an I.M.F. bailout. Any bailout, though, will involve economic pain — including cuts in food and fuel subsidies to shrink Egypt’s steadily widening budget deficit. This will hurt.

In order to get Egyptians to sign on to that pain, a big majority needs to feel invested in the government and its success. And that is not the case today. Morsi desperately needs a national unity government, made up of a broad cross-section of Egyptian parties, but, so far, the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to reach any understanding with the National Salvation Front, the opposition coalition.

Egypt also desperately needs foreign investment to create jobs. There are billions of dollars of Egyptian capital sitting outside the country today, because Egyptian investors, particularly Christians, are fearful of having money confiscated or themselves arrested on specious charges, as happened to some after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall. One of the best things Morsi could do for himself and for Egypt would be to announce an amnesty of everyone from the Mubarak era who does not have blood on his hands or can be proved in short order to have stolen government money. Egypt needs every ounce of its own talent and capital it can mobilize back home. This is no time for revenge.

The Brotherhood, though, doesn’t just need a new governing strategy. It needs to understand that its version of political Islam — which is resistant to women’s empowerment and religious and political pluralism — might be sustainable if you are Iran or Saudi Arabia, and you have huge reserves of oil and gas to buy off all the contradictions between your ideology and economic growth. But if you are Egypt and basically your only natural resource is your people — men and women — you need to be as open to the world and modernity as possible to unleash all of their potential for growth.

Bottom line: Either the Muslim Brotherhood changes or it fails — and the sooner it realizes that the better. I understand why President Obama’s team prefers to convey this message privately: so the political forces in Egypt don’t start focusing on us instead of on each other. That’s wise. But I don’t think we are conveying this message forcefully enough. And Egyptian democracy advocates certainly don’t. In an open letter to President Obama last week in Al-Ahram Weekly, the Egyptian human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan wrote Obama that the muted “stances of your administration have given political cover to the current authoritarian regime in Egypt and allowed it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression.”

It would not be healthy for us to re-create with the Muslim Brotherhood the bargain we had with Mubarak. That is, just be nice to Israel and nasty to the jihadists and you can do whatever you want to your own people out back. It also won’t be possible. The Egyptian people tolerated that under Mubarak for years. But now they are mobilized, and they have lost their fear. Both we and Morsi need to understand that this old bargain is not sustainable any longer.

Where Have All the Babies Gone? By Joel Kotkin and Harry Siegel.

Where Have All the Babies Gone? By Joel Kotkin and Harry Siegel. The Daily Beast, February 19, 2013. Also find it at here.

See also: Living Alone in the Age of Post-Familialism. By Eric Klinenberg and Joel Kotkin. Minnesota Pubic Radio, February 5, 2013.

The Rise of Post-Familialism. By Joel Kotkin., October 12, 2012.

The Savage New World. By Alan Taylor.

The Savage New World: How Ghastly Were the Beginnings of European America? By Alan Taylor. The New Republic, February 20, 2013. Also find it here.

Review of The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675. By Bernard Bailyn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 614 pp.

Matthaeus Merian, The Massacre of the Settlers in 1622. Virginia Historical Society.

Clueless in Gaza. By John B. Judis.

Clueless in Gaza: New Evidence That Bush Undermined a Two-State Solution. By John B. Judis. The New Republic, February 19, 2013.

Egypt’s Opposition Needs Unity—and Leadership. By Seifeldin Fawzy.

Egypt’s Opposition Needs Unity—and Leadership. By Seifeldin Fawzy. The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, February 18, 2013.

More on Egypt and Morsi here.

Grasslands and Human Evolution.

Not much changed in 12 million years: An acacia tree stands in the Kenyan savannah. Dr Sarah Feakins set out to investigate what types of vegetation dominated the landscape surrounding the African Rift Valley over history.

Grassed up: A cherished theory about why people walk upright has just bitten the dust. The Economist, February 16, 2013.

AFRICA’S great grasslands are one of that continent’s most famous features. They are also reckoned by many to have been crucial to human evolution. This school of thought holds that people walk upright because their ancestors could thus see farther on an open plain. Forest primates do not need to be bipedal, the argument continues, because the trees limit their vision anyway.

As “Just So” stories go, it is perfectly plausible. But some go further and argue that the transition took place when the savannahs themselves came into existence, replacing the pre-existing forest and forcing human ancestors to adapt or die out. Fossil evidence suggests humanity’s upright stance began to evolve between 6m and 4m years ago. So the question is, did that coincide with the formation of the savannah? A paper in Geology, by Sarah Feakins, of the University of Southern California, suggests not.

Dr Feakins studied sediment cores from the Gulf of Aden, a place where offshore winds deposit detritus from a goodly part of the east of the African continent. In these, she discovered plant molecules that date back between 12m and 1m years. Such molecules contain carbon, and carbon atoms come in various isotopes, whose ratios give away their history. In particular, the ratio of ¹²C to ¹³C can tell you what sort of plant made the molecule in question.

Plants in rainforests tend to discriminate against ¹³C. Those in modern African grasslands are less selective and ¹³C is thus more abundant in their molecules. Dr Feakins was therefore able to ask when these grasslands came about.

To her surprise, they seem to have been there even 12m years ago. Close examination of the cores shows that the nature of the grass changed over the millennia, as species that were adapted to dry conditions took over from those that prefer wetter weather, but savannah of some form there always was.

The climatic change she observed was already known about. It was the reason people suspected forests had given way to savannah. But, contrary to that suspicion, Dr Feakins has shown that early humanity’s east African homeland was never heavily forested, so the idea that people were constrained to walk upright by the disappearance of the forests is wrong.

Perhaps it was more pull than push—a pre-existing, but empty ecological niche crying out to be filled by an enterprising species that could make the transition. But perhaps those who seek an ecological explanation of this sort are, as it were, barking up the wrong tree.

USC Dornsife assistant professor Sarah Feakins served as lead author of a study that recently appeared online in Geology. The study provides insights about the development of hominins and the landscape that herbivores (horses, hippos and antelopes) grazed many million years ago. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf.

Our ancestors did NOT begin walking on two legs to see further on plains of Africa: New study casts doubt on long-held theory. By Damien Gayle. Daily Mail, February 20, 2013.

Bipedaling Toward Truth. By Robert Perkins. USC Dornsife, January 31, 2013.

A new geology study recently published online in Geology led by Sarah Feakins, assistant professor of earth sciences in USC Dornsife, raises questions about the environment in which our ancestors took shape and developed bipedalism.

Northeast African vegetation change over 12 m.y. By Sarah J. Feakins, Naomi E. Levin, Hannah M. Liddy, Alexa Sieracki, Timothy I. Eglinton, and Raymonde Bonnefille. Geology, March 2013. Also find it here.


Taking History Seriously. By Walter Russell Mead.

Reader Mailbag: Taking History Seriously. By Walter Russell Mead, Via Meadia, September 22, 2012.

A Crisis of Civilization. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, April 4, 2012.

Wonks and Blogs. By Walter Russell Mead.

Wonks and Blogs. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, April 27, 2012.

A Tale of Two Blogospheres: Discursive Practices on the Left and Right. By Aaron Shaw and Yochai Benkler. American Behavioral Scientist, April 2012.

The Humanities and Common Sense. By Roger Berkowtiz.

The Humanities and Common Sense. By Roger Berkowtiz. Via Meadia, August 10, 2012. Archived here and here. Also at Hannah Arendt Center.

Survival Strategy for Humanists: Engage, Engage. By Jacques Berlinerblau. The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2012. Berlinerblau blog entries at The Huffington Post.

The “Popular Religion” Paradigm in Old Testament Research: A Sociological Critique. By Jacques Berlinerblau. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, December 1993.


What is amazing is that not only do our students not want what we offer, but neither do our colleagues. It is an amazing and staggering truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. And if you want to really experience the problem, attend an academic conference some day, where you will see panels of scholars presenting their work, sometimes to one or two audience members. According to Berlinerblau, the average audience at academic conference panels is 14 persons.

The standard response to such realizations is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for decades or even centuries until someone, somewhere, pulls down a dusty volume and reads something that changes the world. There is truth in such claims. When one goes digging in archives, there are pearls of wisdom to be found. What is more, the scholarly process consists of the accumulation of information and insight over generations. In other words, academic research is like basic scientific research, useless but useful in itself.

The problem with this argument is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. While there are exceptions, little original research is left to do in most fields of the humanities. Few important books are published each year. The vast majority are as derivative as they are unnecessary. We would all do well to read and think about the few important books (obviously there will be some disagreement and divergent schools) than to spend our time trying to establish our expertise by commenting on some small part of those books.

The result of the academic imperative of publish or perish is the increasing specialization that leads to the knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.

. . . . . . . . . .

The focus on pedagogy is a mistake and comes from the basic flawed assumption that the problem with the humanities is that the professors aren’t good communicators. It may be true that professors communicate poorly, but the real problem is deeper. If generations of secondary school teachers trained in pedagogy have taught us anything, it is that pedagogical teaching is not useful. Authority in the classroom comes from knowledge and insight, not from pedagogical techniques or theories.

The pressing issue is less pedagogy than the fact that what most professors know is so specialized as to be irrelevant. What is needed is not better pedagogical training, but a more broad and erudite training, one that focuses less on original research and academic publishing and instead demands reading widely and writing for an educated yet popular audience. What we need, in other words, are academics who read widely with excitement and inspiration and speak to the interested public.

More professors should be blogging and writing in public-interest journals. They should be reviewing literature rather than each other’s books and, shockingly, they should be writing fewer academic monographs.