Politics as a Vocation

Who would Weber vote for in this election? Here’s a hint:

As far as political… activities are concerned… Western experience has pre­sented two fundamental types of protagonist. On the one hand, there are individuals for whom those actives constitute an aspect of broader social position, generally a privileged one. Typically, such individuals do not identify closely with those activities, are not expressly trained and qualified for them, and do not make a particularly strong commitment to them.

On the other hand, we encounter individuals for whom political and administrative concerns lie at the centre of their life, and constitute the most significant way of positioning themselves in society, or of orienting and in a sense justifying their very existence. Essentially, the process of state-building, as Politics as a Vocation construes it, involves the progressive devaluing of the first type - let us call it ‘notable’ - to the advantage of the second, to which we might attach the label ‘professional’…

Getting from Pudong to Hongqiao

So let’s say you bought the cheapest plane ticket you could get, even though it involved a five hour layover in Shanghai, but it was only when you were heading out to the airport that you noticed the layover also involved switching airports in Shanghai! Fear not, this post is intended to help you make your connecting flight. When it happened to me I discovered that most of the relevant online information was out of date or confusing, so hopefully this will help others navigate their journey!

This post covers the trip from Shanghai Pudong International Airport 上海浦东国际机场 (上海浦東國際機場) to Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport 上海虹桥国际机场 (上海虹橋國際機場). I assume that it should help those going in the opposite direction as well, but I haven’t personally made that trip.

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Explaining Israel to Taiwanese

Last week the American Anthropology Association (AAA) announced the results of a historic vote over a resolution advocating the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. With 51% of the membership voting, the resolution failed by just 39 votes: 2,423-2,384, essentially a tie. Having written a fair amount advocating the boycott for Savage Minds (see here, here, and here) as well as a postmortem after the vote, I was asked to write a piece for the Taiwanese anthropology blog, Guava Anthropology. Since that piece draws a lot from the Savage Minds posts linked above, I won’t post the entire thing here; however, I did add a section trying to explain Israel to a Taiwanese audience which I think is worth reposting in English, so I’ve cleaned it up a bit and posted it below.

Jews are not the same thing as Israelis

Having lived in Taiwan for over a decade, I frequently find myself explaining to Taiwanese friends, colleagues, and students that being Jewish doesn’t make me an Israeli. Because so many of these same Taiwanese adamantly proclaim that their ethnic Chinese heritage does not make them “Chinese” I’m surprised that they find it so hard to separate my ethnicity from my nationality (I’m American). But it isn’t really that surprising. After all, the conflation of ethnicity and nationalism in both Taiwan and Israel is the result of deliberate government policies. Since 1950 Israel’s Law of Return offers Jews world over the right to Israeli citizenship. Similarly, for much of its history, Taiwan’s KMT government claimed to represent all of China and “depicted itself as the guardian of ‘traditional Chinese culture’.”

Today, the younger generation of American Jews, just like the younger generation of Taiwanese, is beginning to question such ethno-nationalist identities. Just as young people in Taiwan are more likely to support Taiwanese independence than their parents were, so too are young Jews in America more likely to be critical of Israel than their parent’s generation ever was.

Although many Taiwanese do see similarities between Israel and Taiwan, these are often informed by self-serving myths promoted by the Israeli government. Thus Israel is seen, like Taiwan, as a country whose existence is threatened by hostile neighbors. Israel likes to portray itself as a kind of David standing up to the Arab Goliath. As a Jewish kid growing up in America many of the holidays we celebrated (Purim, Hanukkah, etc.) were built around such David and Goliath narratives, encouraging us to think of ourselves in the same way.

While Jews from my parent’s generation still see Israel as a David figure, those my age or younger are more likely to see Israel in the role of Goliath. Just as younger Taiwanese tend to see China as a colonial presence in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, most younger Jews similarly see the continued occupation of Palestinians territory in Gaza and the West Bank as unjust bullying by one of the best funded military powers in the region.

There is another way in which Israel is more like China than it is like Taiwan: both countries deflect criticism of government policies by deliberately misunderstanding them as an insults against their population. China has objected to so many criticisms on the grounds that they “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” that the phrase has become a joke. Similarly, the Israelis frequently attempt to portray criticisms of their policies towards the Palestinians as anti-semitism.

Wawa No Cidal

Some preliminary thoughts on having just seen 太陽的孩子 Wawa No Cidal.

First of all, this is an emotionally charged film that shows some of the real issues facing indigenous peoples in Taiwan without reducing them to stereotypes. It also deserves credit for making extensive use of the Amis language. For all these reasons everyone should watch and support this film. Having said all that, I really wish they had spent some more time on the screenplay. There were a lot of scenes that were insufficiently motivated and several dramatic tensions that were never sufficiently developed. (e.g. A sixth grader looks at a medical prescription and intuitively knows that this would be a better cancer treatment than what her grandfather is getting? An Amis police officer gets scolded by a grandmother and looks sick but doesn’t really do anything other than look sick? An old school friend changes enough to help the local community but not enough to really do anything to help the community? etc.) These things matter because I fear they will limit the films appeal to a mostly local audience.

More importantly, the main motivation for preserving a particular way of life presented in the film is because of the father character and vague references to ancestors. (The fact that the irrigation ditches shown in the film were probably built during the Japanese era and that the Amis traditionally grew millet, not rice are are convienetly ignored.) The film’s efforts to show the problems facing contemporary indigenous society mean that we don’t really get much of a sense as to what about indigenous society is worth preserving. The film mostly speaks to those who already value what the film’s protagonists are fighting for, but doesn’t have much to say to those for whom these values are not self-evident. The largely indigenous audience I saw the film with absolutely loved it, and maybe that is good enough, but I wonder…

The way of life presented in the film is one that is already dying. We mostly see empty houses and old people living on their own. It makes one feel that any efforts to preserve the culture are just a stop gap until the old people have gone. There is little to make us see what value the culture holds for the younger generation. The screenplay tries to make up for this with a forced scene in which the young girl shouts “I am Pangcah” to gain courage before a race, but I didn’t feel this scene worked as intended. It felt forced and seemed somewhat out of place with regard to the rest of the story. (The entire subplot about joining a track team was introduced into the film rather suddenly, like an afterthought.) I feel that 不一樣的月光 Finding Sayun did a better job grappling with what indigenous culture means for today’s indigenous youth and the tensions between urban and rural life. These themes are not ignored in the film, but they have to give way to the central theme of land development and remain under-developed.

Finally, I feel that the film would have benefited from a more complex portrayal of the NGOs and government officials working with indigenous groups. It is interesting to compare the film to Court (one of the best films of the year) because of its ability to portray exactly this kind of complexity without loosing any emotional depth. But maybe it is wrong to want this to be the kind of film that would do well on the international film circuit? To the extent that the film is simply intended to be a popular film aimed at a local audience I think it has succeeded admirably and I expect it to do well when it opens in theaters later this week.

Embassy to Rome

In 155 BCE Rome fined Athens 500 talents for the sacking of Oropus. This was a huge amount for Athens to pay, so they sent the leading philosophers of the Stoic (Diogenes), Academic (Carneades, representing what is also known as the Skeptic school), and Peripatetic (Critolaus) schools to Rome to negotiate the fine. (The Epicureans were notoriously uninterested in politics, so there was no point in asking them.) It seems they were successful in significantly reducing the fine down to about 1001, but it was also an important event in the history of philosophy as it accelerated the adoption of Hellenistic philosophy by the Romans.

Of the three, the skeptic Carneades seems to have made the biggest impression on the Romans:

During his stay at Rome, he attracted great notice from his eloquent speeches on philosophical subjects, and it was here that, in the presence of Cato the Elder, he delivered his several orations on Justice. The first oration was in commendation of the virtue of Roman justice, and the next day the second was delivered, in which all the arguments he’d made on the first were refuted, as he persuasively attempted to prove that justice was inevitably problematic, and not a given when it came to virtue, but merely a compact device deemed necessary for the maintenance of a well-ordered society. Recognizing the potential danger of the argument, Cato was shocked at this and he moved the Roman Senate to send the philosopher home to his school, and prevent the Roman youth from the threat of re-examining all Roman doctrines. Carneades lived twenty-seven years after this at Athens.

I have tremendous respect for Yanis Varoufakis, but his appeals to the Troika were nowhere nearly as effective or influential as those of Carneades before the Roman senate.

  1. I learned about this event listening to an episode of the podcast History of Philosophy without any gaps in which David Sedley was interviewed. That is where I got the “100” figure for the reduced fine. I haven’t been able to find a source for this online. (Not that I spent much time looking…)

A lot of school lunches

An audit of the U.S. military’s spending in Afghanistan has revealed that a whopping $45 billion is unaccounted for.

Full Story

From a post I wrote back in 2003:

A study by the Defense Department’s inspector general found that the Pentagon couldn’t properly account for more than a trillion dollars in monies spent.

That’s a lot of school lunches, affordable housing, environmental subsidies, NEH grants, etc…

Philosophy Podcasts

One of the joys of being on sabbatical has been time to read and study philosophy. Equipped with my Bose QuietComfort 20i noise cancelling headphones I can clearly hear podcasts as I walk Juno around the streets and riverside parks of Taipei. Here are some quick notes on what I’ve heard so far.

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A new home for Keywords!

I’m sick of Wordpress. For many of the same reasons articluated here. So I moved my homepage and this site over got GitHub Pages using Jekyll. It turns out it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Here’s a list of all the problems I encountered and how I fixed them. But I’m glad I made the change. I’m planning on slowly migrating most (but not all) of my other sites as well. Since I’m still tweaking a few things, let me know if you see anything strange…

Do What You Love

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL [Do What You Love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

Miya Tokumitsu, “In the name of love

The Authentic Benjamin

we late-moderns turn to Benjamin as a kind of figure of pure authenticity, almost a source out of time and out of history. The reason for this is simple, once it is put against the background of, for example, Agamben’s theory of history and modernity. How else, conceptually, could we imagine a source for the kind of emancipation necessary to fully transcend political modernity? In this context, then, Benjamin’s very person emerges as the embodiment of this possibility, and the source, only apparently the product of this modernity, of a pure theory of potentiality – the living exception to the exception.

Jennings, Ronald C. 2011. “Sovereignty and Political Modernity: A Genealogy of Agamben’s Critique of Sovereignty.” Anthropological Theory 11 (1): 23–61.

Sotomayor’s Dissent

While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals—here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures. Today, by permitting a majority of the voters in Michigan to do what our Constitution forbids, the Court ends the debate over race-sensitive admissions policies in Michigan in a manner that contravenes constitutional protections long recognized in our precedents. […]

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On Sunflowers, Sunlight, and Sovereignty


The occupation, by several hundred students, of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on March 18th, and the subsequent birth of what has been called the “Sunflower Student Movement” has inspired millions of people around the world. More importantly, for me, it has inspired a whole new generation of Taiwanese young people to take an active interest in national politics. After over two weeks, however, the time has come to be a little reflective about the movement’s hopes, goals and aspirations. As I see it, the movement highlights one of the central contradictions of progressive politics in Taiwan: the tension between sovereignty and democracy. Putting it this way may shock a few readers, since so many people who care about Taiwan tend to equate the two. Since there is so much ignorance and misinformation about the topic it is necessary for me to first make a few preliminary remarks about Taiwanese sovereignty. Those already familiar with the basic facts might wish to skip ahead.

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Cervical Spondylosis

This summer I developed radiating pain in my right shoulder. I’ve hurt myself in the past, and I assumed it was a muscle injury that could be treated with ice, rest, yoga, massage, etc. but nothing I did made it better. It seemed to come and go quite randomly, and the pain got so bad that I was completely incapable of focusing on my work. Further research suggested an alternative diagnosis: cervical spondylosis. Although my doctors were initially at odds over what my x-ray showed, an MRI proved that it was indeed cervical spondylosis.


For the tl;dr crowd: I got better (mostly, anyway). But read on if you want to know why and how I beat this thing and my long-term prognosis.

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Institutional Racism Round-up

There are so many stories about institutional racism going around on Facebook and Twitter right now it is hard to keep track of them all. Here is a small sampling:

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Scaling Linguistic Diversity

The conference panel, “Scaling Linguistic Diversity: Language Standardization as a Scale-Making Project,” which I organized together with Sonia Das, was accepted for the 112th AAA Annual meeting to be held at the Chicago Hilton November 20-24, 2013.

Session Abstract

Language standardization can be usefully understood as a “scale-making project” (Tsing 2000). Standardization and linguistic differentiation (Irvine and Gal 2000) can solidify existing sociolinguistic hierarchies at the level of the nation-state, or they can challenge them, redrawing the map so as to link the local with the global in new ways. The metaphor of “sociolinguistic scale” (Blommaert 2007), based on the notion of “indexical order” (Silverstein 2003), rejects the simplistic micro-macro dichotomy, instead measuring processes of typification and framing through linguistic practices. This allows scholars to talk about the role of language in social as well as geographic mobility. Also, by treating scale as a “project,” it becomes possible to articulate its contested, ideological nature. Doing so opens up new possibilities for productive exchange between work on “language ideology” (Woolard and Schieffelin 1994) and “language and political economy” (Irvine 1989), as well as for interdisciplinary exchange around issues of heteroglossia, mobility, and indigeneity. In situations of linguistic “superdiversity” (Blommaert and Rampton 2011), scale accomplishes a lot of the work done by ecological approaches (Mühlhäusler 1996) without the burden of biological metaphors. Viewing language standardization as a scale-making project also helps to focus discussion of “linguistic fields” (Bourdieu 1977) onto processes by which official and “alternative linguistic markets” (Woolard 1985) are created. Finally scale has a temporal dimension, bringing together language trees and language maps to create vertical linkages that can either reinforce or transcend horizontal boundaries. Whether working with minorities, migrants, vernacular or endangered language communities, the papers on this panel treat language standardization as a scale-making project to explore contestations and debates surrounding language ideologies, interdiscursive processes, code-switching, and acts of sociolinguistic boundary-making. Through their attention to various scalar dimensions, metaphors, and processes, each of these papers breaks away from teleological views of language standardization that envision the authoring and institutionalization of dictionaries, religious texts and pedagogical materials as unilinear processes whose end results are a foregone conclusion. Some highlight how orthographic standards index competing language ideologies at different scales (Falconi), or how similar ideologies of scale index contradictory language ideologies pertaining to standards (Friedman). Others destabilize ideologies of diglossia (Fenigsen) and challenge simplistic notions of code-switching (Spreng) by revealing actors’ ability to negotiate evaluations of standards at multiple levels of scale. Another highlights temporal dimensions of scale by exploring how standardization naturalizes globalized pasts and futures (Das). In doing so, each of these papers raises important questions about the role of language standardization in social reproduction and social change: How do linguistic boundaries map onto geographic and temporal boundaries at different scales? How do language practices deploy scalar metaphors to index local, global, primordial, modern, and other identities? How do official language ideologies shape and, in turn, get shaped by scaling processes? How does one characterize standardization projects that cross multiple dimensions of time and space? Such questions relate scale to standardization by demonstrating the contested ideological natures of both.

Individual paper abstracts below.

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