Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Copyright vs. the Truth

The family of the poet Ted Hughes has just "withdrawn permission" for Hughes's biographer to quote from his papers and letters, including papers and letters that the family has already sold to the British Library. The biographer, who's been working on this book for years, has already read those papers. He knows what's in them. But he is no longer allowed to tell us what he knows. How can this be? Copyright law.

The Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, who began working on a biography of the former poet laureate in 2010, said he was surprised that the estate has barred him from private archives, asked that he return photocopies of privately held documents, and withdrawn his right to quote extensively from the poet's work – described by the professor as "an essential aspect of serious scholarship".

That's right. A respected scholar (and Bate is extremely well-respected) has been legally barred from quoting archives that are housed in the national library. Because Hughes's heirs have inherited his copyright. This has become a standard tactic used by writers' families to suppress facts.

In 1987, J. D. Salinger sued Random House and successfully blocked a biography of him, because it used letters that Salinger had sent to people. Under earlier copyright law, those letters would have been fair game, but under current law the author and his heirs have a right to control just about everything he's touched. So Salinger could prevent biographers from using his letters. This is so extreme that when the biographer paraphrased what he'd seen in the letters instead of quoting them, Salinger still managed to sue and win. It's not that Salinger was suppressing lies about him. After all, he had written everything in those letters himself. Copyright law allowed him to keep the truth from the light of day.

Later, James Joyce's family forced the Joyce scholar Carol Shloss to remove nearly all the archival evidence from her book on the role Joyce's daughter Lucia played in her father's work. Shloss then got savaged by reviewers for making claims that she apparently couldn't back up with facts. Actually, Shloss did have the documented facts, she just wasn't allowed to use them.

Shloss eventually won the right to republish her book with the actual evidence in it, but it took years and years of suits and counter-suits. And even if that sounds like a happy ending, it's not. If a publisher knows that publishing your book is going to mean years of expensive litigation, it is not going to publish your book, even if you have a good chance of winning in the end. The threat of legal action by estates is enough.

Here's the joke: this law can only be used to prevent a scholar from telling the truth. The estate only holds the copyright of a letter or diary because their ancestor did actually write it. A writer's heirs could never sue a biographer for libel. Dead people cannot be libeled. But a writer's family can come after your house for quoting that writer accurately.

Worse still, families can use the threat of withdrawing permission in order to demand that biographers turn out the biographies that the family wants. If you don't make Grampa look the way they want Grampa to look, they can kill a book that you've already spent years working on. The law is abused to create propaganda instead of scholarship, to force biographers to turn out distorted, hero-worship versions of the truth. Society gains nothing from that. The law as currently enforced actually promotes falsehood and dishonesty.

And please remember: this law does not only apply to writers. It applies to everyone, including public figures. Everyone's personal letters, diaries, and journals are copyrighted until 75 years after they die. Which means that public figures' heirs will also be free to cherry-pick which historical evidence about them gets published, and what can never see the light of day.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to Break Up the CIA

We have reached the point where the CIA is publicly bucking the right of the Senate Intelligence committee to oversee it. If even half of the charges in Amy Davidson's superb piece are true, the CIA has become totally unmoored and no longer seems even to acknowledge the idea that it has to answer to our elected officials. But you don't have to believe Davidson, or even Dianne Feinstein, to read CIA director John O. Brennan's public statements. Brennan does not speak as if he were answerable to the Senate. When your spies are trying to have the oversight committee's staff arrested, you're down the rabbit hole. Once the spies aren't accountable to the elected leaders, you don't really have a democracy any more.

How to deal with an insubordinate intelligence service? It's a difficult question that the CIA has unfortunately raised before. You can't disrupt their genuinely necessary defense work. But you also can't let them be the ones who decide what's necessary and what's not, or to be the sole judges of their own behavior. Putting in new leadership has been tried. Congressional hearings have been tried. It might be time for the death penalty: not an end to American intelligence work, but the end of a specific dysfunctional intelligence agency. How could that be done?

Step 1: Divide the CIA between other intelligence services. The good news is our complicated security establishment means that the CIA is not the only game in town. The CIA can be carved up, in stages if that's needed to prevent disruption, and transferred to other agencies. Much of the Directorate of Operations, which does the covert-action stuff, could go straight to the Pentagon. Various intelligence-gathering and analysis units could go to the NSA or to military intelligence. A lot of the counter-espionage and domestic counter-terrorism could go to the FBI. Ongoing operations would not be interrupted. But the CIA personnel transferred to those other agencies would be accountable to the supervisors there.

My thinking here is that the CIA certainly contains many valuable officers, but has apparently developed a deep-rooted culture of insubordination to authorities outside the CIA. (I am especially tired of hearing people ask whether the old CIA hands will be willing to accept this or that nominee for Director.) The point here is to keep the officers but break up the unit and its problematic culture. As soon as practical, the former-CIA personnel should be dispersed within their new agencies, so that ex-CIA hands no longer form their own little units or clubs. They need to be supervised, isolated from one another, and absorbed into a different organizational culture.

Of course, an agency that recognizes no authority but its own will resist being broken up, so two more steps would have to be taken right at the beginning:

Step 2. Another authority needs to take immediate custody of ALL CIA records. Either the NSA, the FBI, or some new group created for the purpose needs to take everything the CIA has. The CIA should be able to copy records they need, and to request copies from the custodian, but the custodial agency keeps the originals. Anyone destroying records or holding them back gets charged for national-security crimes. Because destroying or stealing intelligence actually is a crime.

Step 3. A watchdog office needs to be created to supervise CIA employees during the breakup and for at least a decade after.  Congress needs to empower a special inspector's office with full security clearance to oversee the CIA's compliance. After all, the agency would be dissolved because of its refusal to comply with authority, and the dissolution would make many of its old hands angry. The new inspector's office would also need a separate criminal-prosecution wing, to whom those who disobeyed lawful commands would be referred. The inspector's office would need to check in periodically on all ex-CIA agents, to make sure they hadn't held onto classified material and that they weren't colluding with each other. And the inspector's office needs to be able to turn their lives inside out if necessary. Those who refuse to accept transfer to new agencies and resign instead should expect the inspector's office to look at them much more closely and much more often. If that means that some ex-spies lose a good deal of their privacy to a surveillance regime in the name of national security, well, it may be us or them.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Solving the Two-Body Problem

For years now, my spouse and I have had what academics call the "two-body problem": two careers at two universities in two places. It's a common problem for our professional generation, and we have an easier version of it than most. My spouse (the more accomplished blogger Flavia) works at a school about 250 miles away from mine. We maintain two homes and commute between them. We have been lucky that we are not farther apart, and that we can travel by car rather than plane. But like most of our generation, we have had no visible or easy solution for our problem. Professorships are very hard to come by, and job mobility after one's early career is almost nonexistent except for a handful of stars. We have always promised each other that we would  live together full-time some day, but we have never been able to promise when or how that day would come.

Now we know. As Flavia has announced recently, we have completed a busy and complicated season of job searches. The result is that she will be moving to my university in the fall of 2015 with a position befitting her accomplishments. This, as she points out, is mostly the result of outrageous luck: both of our schools unexpectedly listed a job in just the right sub-field this year. That not only meant that we could apply to each other's departments, but that each department understood that it might lose us to the other. We never planned for this, because we could not have planned for this.

The particular version of a happy ending we got is the one I least expected. It's not just that I viewed it as the most unlikely result; I have operated for years under the assumption that it was not possible. I thought my employer would never offer my spouse a job, and was absolutely certain that they would never offer one she could afford to take. I was wrong. But that wrongness was the basis of my career strategies for years; that is how little I planned this.

So how to solve the two-body problem? My advice is worthless, in normal academic-job-advice terms. I could not have made this happen, nor could Flavia. Most of the key events were entirely beyond our control. But that is true of every academic job search. You cannot make someone offer you a job. You always have to be lucky. All you can do is be ready when the lucky break comes.

One of Flavia's old friends once asked us, "So what is the strategy for you two?" and we had to say there was no strategy, because there was no obvious endgame. The only strategy was to keep doing our jobs as well as we could and to build our professional value as best we were able. But that is a strategy, too: the only strategy you can really follow. The last few months and weeks have been exceptionally busy and superficially eventful, but most of what Flavia and I did to make this happen, the things that were about our efforts instead of about luck, happened over the four or five years before those jobs were ever posted.

The real success here is Flavia's. The ultimate resolution of our problem was a job offer to her, and I will  enjoy the privilege of living and working with my spouse mostly because I am lucky enough to have a talented and ambitious spouse. 

The conventional wisdom is that it is easier to find a second job for a less accomplished partner. If one of us were clearly junior to the other in career terms, or did not have a serious research agenda, the usual thinking goes, it would be much easier for a department to find a starter gig or to create a non-tenure-track job. It's harder and more expensive to find a job for a professional peer. So, on paper, marrying an intellectual heavyweight like Flavia should have been a big mistake; she is nobody's trailing spouse. And nobody moves back down to an entry-level job the same week her book comes out.

But that "wrong move" turned out to be the right move for me. My colleagues and my institution saw a chance to hire someone who, because of the nature of the profession, would not otherwise be applying for this job at this stage of her career. (Every academic job search gets an abundance of applications from talented new PhDs, but since the market is poorly structured for mid-career job-seekers only a few places get many talented mid-career applicants.) This was not about credentials that Flavia scraped together after this job opening turned up. She didn't write that book over Thanksgiving weekend. This was about qualifications she has been steadily building for years, before she had any notion that this job opening would exist.

My ultimate role was to strengthen Flavia's negotiating hand. The decision to offer her a job was about her qualifications. The decision to make her an offer reflecting those qualifications was almost certainly about both the opportunity to hire her and the possibility of losing me. Hiring Flavia is a bargain at virtually any price, but passing up a bargain is easier than giving up something you already have. My school could have saved money by hiring one of those promising-but-inexperienced applicants for less money, but only at the risk of losing one of their established faculty members.

I am sure that my colleagues believed that I might leave; I have spent the last five years working under the assumption that I would eventually have to. And I have tried to be aboveboard about external job searches, telling my department chairs when I was applying and keeping them up to date about the progress of outside searches (including telling my chair promptly when I was eliminated). That included being transparent about my application to my spouse's school. 

I have also worked hard on publishing my research over the last five years, because it's a publishing record that is most likely to help you change jobs. My annual reports have made it clear that my supervisors consider me productive. So the idea that I might leave my job in order to be closer to my wife wasn't a new concept introduced in the midst of negotiations. I didn't actually say anything to my bosses during negotiations. My institution had already spent a few years thinking about the chances that I might leave, and the chances that I could.

But I also spent the last five years trying to be a good citizen of my department and university. This should also have been the wrong move, because I didn't expect to be able to stay, but it almost certainly turned out to be the right one. The conventional wisdom when you want to change jobs is that you should focus as much of your energy on research and publication as you can, and as little on service or committee work as you can get away with. I've written before about research as hard currency and service as local scrip. Publication is valuable to outside employers, while service is mostly valuable to the place you're serving. One keeps its value wherever you go, and the other can only be spent on-site. Amassing local scrip has no purpose if you're planning to leave. More importantly, I didn't believe that my institutional scrip could ever be put toward what I really wanted, because I didn't think "Mid-career Job for Spouse" was something they carried in the company store.

But I've spent the last few years doing a lot of administrative work. I have told my department that I needed to look for other jobs, but I have also told them that I was committed to doing my job properly for as long as I was here. That means working for the school's long-term future whether I intended to share it or not, doing some serious administrative chores inside my department and also becoming one of the department's public faces to the rest of the university. I did those things for the same basic reasons that baseball players run out ground balls: not because I thought it would get me anywhere, but because I would feel bad about myself if I didn't and because I was afraid if I stopped doing things the right way I would develop bad habits and lose the ability to do my job properly. But today I see the last few years differently. If I had used my weekly commute as an excuse to slack off, I'm not sure my colleagues would have worked so hard to end that commute. And I don't think they would have focused on keeping me if I had focused on trying to leave, at the rest of the department's expense. This could not have possibly happened if Flavia were not so very qualified. It likely would not have happened if my department did not think I could, and would, eventually leave. But they also had to believe that I was worth keeping.

The other reason they teach ballplayers to run out hopeless ground balls is because occasionally it does actually get you somewhere. Sometimes you hit the ball and don't seem to have any chance at reaching base. But then some piece of unexpected luck, some fluke, gives you an unforeseen opportunity. Players are taught to run hard for first base, no matter what, so that they have a chance to be lucky. You need to put in the work before there is any apparent hope; if you don't turn on your full speed until something surprising happens, you're probably too late. If you ever get a sudden bit of good luck, you need to be running as hard as you can.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fear Itself: Ukraine Edition

The single most important thing Barack Obama needs to do about Ukraine is not to panic. The single most important thing anyone else in the United States can do about Ukraine is not to panic Barack Obama. Developments in the Crimea are extremely dangerous, and that's exactly why everybody needs to calm down.

I have no idea whether or not Obama is handling this situation well or badly. Neither does anybody else who's not party to what he's telling other international leaders on private lines. How Obama is handling things is about what he's saying to people like Angela Merkel and about how those people responding. I don't think there will be any way to measure his success or failure for a while.

On the other hand, it's clear from the other side of the planet that Vladimir Putin has panicked and committed himself when he shouldn't have. There is virtually no endgame in which Russia doesn't lose more than this stupid adventure was worth. There are many endgames where things spiral out of control because Putin continues to panic or is too afraid of losing face to do what's in his own self-interest. He's dangerously unpredictable right now, and that is more than bad enough. What we really don't need right now is another nervous world leader scared to lose face. That's a recipe for a  spasm of pointless bloodshed that will leave scars on that region for a generation.

Of course, the American news media is essentially an industry of panic. So your TV is full of panicky or opportunistic people shouting loudly that Obama should panic right now. They're saying that Obama has to do something, by which they mean look like he's doing something. They complain that Obama is not tough enough, by which they mean that he does not act tough enough. Again, I have no idea how tough Obama is or isn't being behind closed doors. What I do know is that acting tough is seldom a sign of actually being tough. And acting tough because other people call you weak is absolutely a confession of weakness.

I don't know anything about the Ukraine situation. But some things are obvious:

1. There is not a military solution to this, and any military intervention will make things worse. The point is to keep the violence from expanding. And fighting a top-five military power on its own borders is not winnable; any "victory" would cost far more than it would be worth. It just can't be done.

Anyone demanding that Obama "get tough" by flexing military muscle needs to go to their quiet corner, get their binky, and soothe themselves for a while.

2. What's already happened cannot be reversed quickly.  Obviously, our preferred fantasy outcome is that the Russian troops just pack up and go back to Russia quietly, cleaning up their litter as they go. But that's just a fantasy. They may eventually leave peacefully. They will not immediately leave peacefully. Getting them out without bloodshed will take some time. Attempting to get them out by force won't be quick either, and there's no way to predict how it would go.

Anyone demanding, in essence, that Obama make this never have happened is simply freaking out, and should be disregarded.

3. No Russian leader is going to pull back an invasion force because the President of the United States tells him to. It doesn't matter who that President is. I mean, that's just crazy talk. This is not about us.

4. There is no workable solution to this that doesn't leave Russia access to its naval facilities in Crimea. Even if you, like me, know approximately zero about Russian history, you know that access to a warm-water port has been one of Russia's key strategic goals for centuries. That didn't change in the last six months, and it's not going to change in the next six months either. Putin's panicky invasion is at least partly a response to fear of losing key Black Sea bases, and that's a totally reasonable fear that he has acted on foolishly and unreasonably.

If this ends with the Russians backing out but keeping their naval bases, that is the best case scenario. Those bases are their only legitimate strategic goal. If you hear people complaining that Obama is "too soft" because this ends with the Russians keeping their main Crimean base, those people are out of their minds. If this ends with the Russians only in those naval bases, that would be the best outcome imaginable.

5. There is no military situation that panicking will not make worse.

Not panicking is not itself the solution. Obama can't turn this around simply through the force of his personal calm. But he can't do anything positive if he doesn't stay calm. This problem demands a cool head and a steady hand. Flipping out and getting emotional will only invite disaster.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Friday, February 21, 2014

Shakespeare Q & A at Dagblog

I'm answering questions about Shakespeare for any curious Dagbloggers (or other friends of the blog) here.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

An Armed Society Is a Bloody Society

Gun-rights advocates love to quote Robert Heinlein's line that "An armed society is a polite society." Heinlein argued that in a culture where many are packing lethal weapons, people are more careful with their manners because they're afraid of being killed over a minor lapse of etiquette. Heinlein is wrong on his facts; history makes it very clear that real armed societies don't work that way. But what's really ghastly is that Heinlein and his fans imagine his fantasy as a good thing. The belief that "an armed society is a polite society" depends on a conviction that murder is better than bad manners.

So we have Chad Oulson shot to death for texting before a movie started. We have Jordan Davis killed for refusing to turn down his music in a parking lot. We have two teenagers killed in separate incidents for egging cars. 18-year-old Tavarus Erving was killed in Atlanta on Halloween by someone who thought Erving had egged his Mercedes; his killer fired ten rounds. 15-year-old Adrian Broadway was killed with a shotgun last Saturday night in Arkansas; she was with four friends, egging the car of a boy who had earlier played a prank on them, and the boy's father responded with deadly force.

Those four killings happened in the last three-and-a-half months, between October 31 and February 15. That's an average of one meaningless gun death every 29.5 days.

What all four killers had in common was the idea that they were allowed to kill people who were not being sufficiently respectful to them. They were armed, so everyone else had to be polite, and the man with the gun got to decide what was polite.

Let's not pretty this up. None of this was self-defense. The killers weren't interested in self-defense. All four assailants knew damned well that their victims weren't armed. Two of killers actually fired into fleeing vehicles. This was always about using a weapon to extort deference from other people. That is what today's twisted and mutated "gun rights" movement actually wants. An armed society is a polite society.

The movie-theater murderer allegedly told his victim, "I'll teach you to throw popcorn at me." The loud-music murderer, who was willing to kill a teenager rather than tolerate rap music on his way into and out of a store, writes letters from jail opining that more black people would have better manners if more of them were killed:

“The jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots, when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

The killer wrote that letter to his grandmother.

This senseless violence isn't a side effect of Stand Your Ground laws. It is one of their primary goals: a feature, not a bug. Extracting "respect" through intimidation is what today's sick version of the gun-rights movement is about. The whole point of Stand Your Ground laws is to take away the idea of necessity from self-defense. Today's gun-rights advocates don't think it's fair that they can only shoot someone dead if they absolutely have to. They believe they have a right to kill someone in order to teach them a lesson in manners: I'll teach you to throw popcorn at me. Stand-Your-Ground advocates consider the right to shoot someone else dead a privilege to which they are entitled. That is their idea of The Polite Society.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Friday, February 14, 2014

Gay Athletes to the Rescue

Michael Sam's brave decision to come out as gay before the NFL draft has been exactly the story that the NFL desperately needs. 

Now that the Superbowl has ended and the focus is no longer on the league's stars playing national games, coverage of the NFL was going to drift back to ongoing storylines that make the league look absolutely horrible. There's the ugly bullying case in Miami, where the league's investigator has just released his final report. There's the murder trial of star player Aaron Hernandez. But even worse than all of these is the steady drumbeat of medical news about concussions, brain damage, and the terrible toll on former players. Retired stars have killed themselves with bullets to the heart and requested that their brains be autopsied. As shocking as that is, the concussion story isn't merely a scandal. It suggests that football itself might be fundamentally unsafe, that even routine play causes long-term neurological damage. That story line has the potential to kill organized football, because it makes the case that organized football deserves to die.

Right in the nick of time comes poised, photogenic Michael Sam, talented enough to get drafted despite his orientation, brave enough to come out before draft day even if it might mean being taken in a later round with less guaranteed money. And he, knowing the stakes for other gay players and for his own career, has played the media superbly. He could not have managed this announcement better.

That he did is a stroke of enormous luck for the lords of the NFL. Suddenly, in the dead of off-season winter, they have a major feel-good story. Even if a few anonymous team executives mouthed some code-word reservations about having an out gay athlete on their teams, the story has largely played out as a great step forward for the NFL. Instead of stories about crippling brain damage, the league gets stories about advances in social justice.

It's worth noting that the first team owner to announce that gay players like Sam are welcome (in principle) on his team was Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, whose former tight end is about to go on trial for murder. (Kraft was careful to say that he left the actual football decisions to his head coach, and that Sam would only be drafted by the Patriots for football reasons.) I don't doubt that Bob Kraft had genuinely noble reasons for making a public stand other team owners weren't brave enough to make. It does show good character on his part. But this is also a good moment for Kraft's organization to show off all the good character they can muster.

What's most amazing is that we have reached the point where an athlete coming out of the closet is no longer treated as a scandal, but as an uplifting relief from scandals. It's a good day when a gay athlete making a stand is the good news that a pro sports league is looking for. That's what make me most optimistic for the future of gay rights in our country. So bravo to Michael Sam for his bold step forward, two cheers for the NFL's ability to recognize good PR, and -- in honor of the day -- hooray for love.

cross-posted from Dagblog