Let’s Not Forget the Good News: Croatia Joins the EU

With the ongoing conflict in Syria, Southern Europe’s financial difficulties, growing social unrest in Turkey and Egypt, and much else, it seems that “good news” often gets too little attention. Less than two decades after the end of some the most violent and brutal fighting in human history, Croatia just became the 28th member of the European Union. This is a triumph of the Croatian people’s will, international mediation, post-conflict institution building, and international organizations (though not all would agree with the latter assessment). Indeed, Croatia’s accession is merely another step in the rebuilding of the former Yugoslavia: the previous step was Slovenia’s accession and adoption of the Euro, the next steps will include the membership of Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, those “irredeemable” hotbeds of violence from the 90s, have remained free of fighting for over a decade, without any indication that conflict will recur.

But, for now, this is Croatia’s moment alone. The failures of post-conflict institution-building  in Afghanistan and Iraq loom large over the international community’s collective conscience, as well they should. However, these experiences shouldn’t cloud the massive successes elsewhere. This week, we celebrate one of these success as Croatia joins the EU and cements its status as a 21st century liberal democracy. A remarkable trajectory for a country sadly often known solely for its achievements in strife rather than liberty. Congratulations, Croatia, and welcome to the European Union.

For more of his thoughts on the role of international actors in post-conflict societies, follow William on Twitter.


Perry Anderson’s Revisionist History of India

Last year, Perry Anderson released three essays (here, here, and here) in the London Review of Books, that formed the bulk of a monograph he released later that same year. The essays (and book chapters) focus on the Indian independence movement, the partition of India and Pakistan, and post-independence India. I’ve just finished the LRB essays because, hey, they total 45,000 words (85 pages) and they sit on the outskirts of my research agenda. This is clearly a revisionist account, but revisionism is healthy, because it forces you to buttress the conventional account through rebuttal of the criticism. If you cannot fend off that criticism across all areas, it forces you toward synthesis.

A few of the more quotable quotes (and like Twitter, quotation does not mean endorsement!):

On the recent ideational construction of India, perhaps not a surprise given Perry’s brother:

“The subcontinent as we know it today never formed a single political or cultural unit in premodern times. For much the longest stretches of its history, its lands were divided between a varying assortment of middle-sized kingdoms of different stripes. Of the three larger empires it witnessed, none covered the territory of Nehru’s Discovery of India. Maurya and Mughal control extended to contemporary Afghanistan, ceased much below the Deccan, and never came near Manipur. The area of Gupta control was considerably less. Separated by intervals of five hundred and a thousand years, there was no remembered political or ideological connection between these realms, or even common religious affiliation: at its height the first of them Buddhist, the second Hindu, the third Muslim. Beneath a changing mosaic of mostly regional rulers, there was more continuity of cultural and social patterns, caste – the best claimant to a cultural demarcation – being attested very early, but no uniformity. The ‘idea of India’ was a European not a local invention, as the name itself makes clear. No such term, or equivalent, as ‘India’ existed in any indigenous language. A Greek coinage, taken from the Indus river, it was so foreign to the subcontinent that as late as the 16th century, Europeans could define Indians simply as ‘the natives of all unknown countries’ and use it to describe the inhabitants of the Americas.”

On the early years of Indian democracy:

“The consequences [of first past the post polling rules] were central to the nature of the Indian democracy that emerged once elections were held. For twenty years, across five polls between 1951 and 1971, Congress never once won a majority of votes. In this period, at the peak of its popularity as an organisation, its average share of the electorate was 45 per cent. This yielded it crushing majorities in the Lok Sabha, amounting to just under 70 per cent of the seats in Parliament.”

A great quote from Ambedkar on the problems of caste for Indian democracy:

“Winding up the debate in the Constituent Assembly that approved the constitution, of which he was a leading architect, Ambedkar remarked: ‘We are going to enter a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life, we will have inequality … We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this assembly has so laboriously constructed.’”

Poor Gandhi:

“‘I have searched far and wide for another individual, placed in comparable circumstances, who has used the first person singular with such unabashed abandon as M.K. Gandhi,’ wrote one Indian critic, warning of the dangers of ‘such cocksureness in an ill-stocked mind’.”

Poor Nehru:

“As those who knew and admired him at close range were well aware, his was – in the words of Savarpalli Gopal, the loyal assistant who became his principal biographer – a ‘commonplace mind’ that was ‘not capable of deep or original thought’. The shallowness of his intellectual equipment was connected to the side of his personality that so easily drifted away from realities resistant to his hopes or fancies. It is striking how similar was the way two such opposite contemporaries as Patel and Jinnah could see him – the former speaking on occasion of his ‘childlike innocence’, the latter comparing him to Peter Pan. Gopal’s image is more telling still: early on, Nehru ‘made a cradle of emotional nationalism and rocked himself in it’, as if a child cocooning himself to sleep away from the outside world.”

Poor Nehru’s trusted advisors:

“The most damaging feature of the regime was less this centrifugal aspect than the development of a court of sycophants at extra-ministerial level. Unlike Gandhi, Nehru was a poor judge of character, and his choice of confidants consistently disastrous. Promoting to chief of staff over the heads of senior officers his henchman in overthrowing Abdullah, B.N. Kaul, a poltroon from Kashmir with no battlefield experience who fled the field at the first opportunity, Nehru was directly responsible for the debacle of 1962. For his personal secretary, he installed a repellent familiar from Kerala, M.O. Mathai, who acquired inordinate power, taking Nehru’s daughter to bed and passing his paperwork to the CIA, until his reputation became so noxious that Nehru was reluctantly forced to part with him. For political operations in Kashmir, the North-East or closer to home, he relied on a dim police thug, Bhola Nath Mullik, formerly of British employ, head of the Intelligence Bureau. The only actual colleague he trusted was Krishna Menon, an incompetent windbag who ended in disgrace along with Kaul.”

A great phrase about Indian judicial activism:

“The court, now self-recruiting, is the most powerful judiciary on earth. It has acquired such an abnormal degree of authority because of the decay of the representative institutions around it. Even admirers are aware of the risks. In the graphic phrase of Upendra Baxi, India’s leading legal scholar and one of the first to bring a public interest suit before the court, it is ‘chemotherapy for a carcinogenic body politic’. So long as the malady persists, few Indians would think the country better off without it.”

On the challenges of Muslims in Indian public life, historically and today:

“By the mid-1930s, Congress as a party was close to monolithically Hindu – just 3 per cent of its membership were Muslim. Privately, its more clear-sighted leaders knew this. Publicly, the party claimed to represent the entire nation, regardless of religious affiliation.”

“All told, the ‘security agencies’ of the Indian Union, as the Sachar Report politely calls them, employ close to two million. How many Muslims do they contain? The answer is too sensitive to divulge: as the report notes, no data on their composition are available for three-quarters of these. Put simply, Muslims are not wanted in their ranks. In 1999, a former defence minister let slip that they numbered just 1 per cent of 1,100,000 regulars. In the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) – the CIA and FBI of the Indian state – it is an ‘unwritten code’ that there should be not a single Muslim; so too in the National Security Guards and Special Protection Group, its Secret Service corps.”

If you are looking for rebuttals to Anderson, the LRB’s own letters section has several informed criticisms. This book review is also compelling, and has the admirably clear title, “Why Perry Anderson is Wrong.” Interestingly, several of the critiques are that Anderson understates the degree to which his revisionism is already conventional wisdom in Marxist or sociologically informed Indian historical accounts.

What We’re Reading

  • One of the most high-profile and devastating attacks by Indian Maoists occurred on the 25th of May, killing and injuring many Congress leaders, including the founder of Salwa Judum, a pro-government paramilitary force that fast gained notoriety for its abuses against civilians. Tusha Mittal at Tehelka highlights the ruthlessness of this militia after her trek into Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, the states which contain the heartland of the insurgency.
  • A Pakistani version of TV series Glee will hit local TV channels in the fall. “Like its smash hit forerunner, ‘Taan’ follows the lives and loves of a group of young people who regularly burst into song. But this time they attend a music academy in Lahore, instead of an American high school.” Plotlines include “love affairs between two men and between a Taliban extremist and a beautiful Christian girl.”
  • There’s a lot of work on unit cohesion and combat effectiveness. Probably less work on wife-swapping and combat effectiveness. Some in the Indian Navy may be exploring the topic.
  • Poverty ex machina? “A typical poor person is poor not because he is irresponsible, but because he was born in Africa.”
  • And, on the same topic, Matt Yglesias details the results of an experiment run by Chris Blattman, Nathan Fiala and Sebastian Martinez in Uganda. “Money with no strings attached not only directly raises the living standards of those who receive it, but it also increases hours worked and labor productivity, seemingly laying the groundwork for growth to come.”
  • Cass Sunstein describes the biggest Supreme Court decision you haven’t heard of, which increases executive power and the power and strength of Obamacare.
  • Is the Syrian Civil War the Spanish Civil War of our time? Harvey Morris examines the historical dangers of intervention and non-intervention in civil wars. The critical part of the analogy is whether the non-influence of Western democracies opens up room for the influence of other parties. It remains to be seen whether anyone is as interested in Syria as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were in Spain but some elements, namely Iran’s continued support of the Assad regime and Turkish and Saudi support of more extreme parts of the opposition, demand at least some consideration for the analogy. In any case, I doubt J.K. Rowling will be going to fight against tyranny in Syria.

Affirmative action in Brazil: the challenges of racial classification

It’s old news that Brazil is enacting social quotas – both socioeconomic and racial – for public higher education. In my earlier post, I detailed the impact this sort of policy could have on the quality of higher education.  However, before I had the chance to write a follow-up to that post, a new piece of legislation began being drafted to introduce affirmative action to the civil service.

This is not the first policy of its kind in Brazil. Yet, it is too soon to discuss the implications and effects of this law. Regardless of the final shape the bill takes, any affirmative action will have to grapple with the basic issue of identification of the beneficiaries.

In Brazil, racial classification has always been a contentious topic. For many decades, the government refused to even collect racial information, arguing that race was not a salient issue on this side of the Americas.  However, even if one agrees that there is racial discrimination in Brazil, and that part of the country’s huge inequality hinges upon race and not only class and education, the issue of racial classification is not something to be quickly dismissed. A recent New York Times  forum, for instance, shows very different perspectives.

On the one hand, Peter Fry, a leading anthropologist, argues: “[…], unlike the U.S., the majority of Brazilians do not classify themselves neatly into blacks and whites. In Brazil, therefore, eligibility for racial quotas is always a problem.”

On the other hand, Antonio Sergio Guimarães, a leading sociologist fights back:

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Brazil is the temptation to introduce a systematic verification of self-declared color or race to prevent fraud in affirmative action programs. Race and color are social constructs. It is impossible to define their borders scientifically. Passing is something inherent to this kind of classification. It can be motivated by selfish economic protection or by political altruistic reasons. The fear of fraud must be restrained to give a chance to these programs to flourish.

Ultimately, these scholars seem to be discussing an empirical and methodological issue of racial classification with wide implications for redistribution. Despite the known complexities of racial classification, much analysis relies on a single self-classification based on fixed, mutually exclusive, choices.

Bailey, Loveman and Muniz (2012) present an interesting analysis of Brazil’s racial make-up and racial inequality, taking different racial classification schemes into consideration:

They demonstrate that very different pictures of Brazil’s racial make-up are created depending on which scheme is followed. Comparing the most extreme cases, Brazil could be either 70.4% or 40.7% White. Beneficiaries of affirmative action could either comprise 29.6% or 59.3% of the population. These are hugely different percentages.

Furthermore, these different measurements are not necessarily robust.  Even if more than one measure is used, there is still a lot of incongruence.

In their paper, they go on to convincingly show that different measures also imply different mappings of income inequality between those groups. Their findings do not necessarily challenge the finding that Blacks are, on average, worse off than Whites, but they do bring more precise, rigorous, and contextual evidence to support that claim. In any case, these findings do not mean that race should be disregarded and that it does not influence social interactions in Brazil. They argue that these different measures provide more evidence that race is a multi-dimensional social construct and should be analyzed as such – there is no “true race” to be measured.

But, what do these findings tell us when discussing redistributive policies based on race? Do these inconsistencies hinder any systematic implementation of affirmative action? Or are inconsistencies (and, to some extent, fraud) a “lesser-evil”, with affirmative action a good idea despite these issues? The recent policies seem to have embraced affirmative action despite these problematic measurement issues. The consequences of these choices are still to be fully understood.

At the Frontline of the Battle for Syria

Earlier this week PBS’s Frontline aired a powerful new documentary on Syria that lets viewers see the ongoing fighting up close and through the eyes of the rebels, the regime, and those trapped in the middle. It does a fantastic job of integrating the micro-level dynamics of the violence on the ground with the macro-level political forces operating in the country more broadly.

The Battle for Syria is gripping footage and courageous journalism. In the first of two segments, freelance cameraman Jeremiah Bailey Hoover joins The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as the two use smuggling routes to slip inside the country from across the Turkish border. They journey to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and meet a squad of rebel fighters engaged in street-to-street warfare against the tanks, snipers and air force of the regime.

The battle line cuts through the heart of Aleppo. Graves are dug in local gardens, waiting to receive the still-warm dead. The rebels retreat and advance. They kill a sniper and retrieve bodies lying in the street. They receive a defector and capture a spy who betrayed himself by mistakenly praising Assad at the rebel checkpoint. With the front line moving by the hour and death in the air, it’s not clear who controls the neighborhood.

The streets are typically deserted but civilians pop up here and there. In a telling scene, a man approaches the front with an absurd level of nonchalance as he walks hand-in-hand with his young children, ignoring the rebel’s entreaties to stay back, telling them that the regime snipers will not shoot as they walk on by. Another man shouts angrily at the rebels, cursing them for inviting the Government’s artillery and air power to bombard the neighborhood without discrimination.

Just as The Battle for Syria lays bare the micro-level uncertainties that prevail on the frontlines among civilians betwixt and between the two combatants, the film’s second segment recounts the macro-level narrative of how the fighting resulted from a series of increasingly polarizing events beginning with a few kids from the town of Daraa, who had the balls to spray-paint anti-Assad graffiti on the walls of their school.

The film traces how the torture subsequently suffered by the boys at the hands of the regime was recorded and shown on YouTube, quickly becoming a focal point for people to organize collectively and express their outrage. Although their demands were limited and relatively inchoate, the regime responded with a brutal crack-down. Even so, the examples of successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened the people and the protests gained momentum and the repression of the regime only served to empower those willing to use violence to meet the violence.

How is it that such a small spark could light this kind of fire and how does it relate to the broader structural forces that drive political instability in some countries but not others?

Timur Kuran has suggested one way to think about how broad structuralist forces interact with the individual determinants of opposition. In a famous analysis of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Kuran distinguished between an individual’s private and public preferences. Citizens living under authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe were often afraid of expressing their true desires—i.e., opposition— publicly for fear of punishment. Instead, they behaved as though they supported communism in a form of “preference falsification,” cloaking such private truths with public lies.

Individual support or opposition to a political regime is not uniformly distributed throughout society. In Syria, for example, Sunni Islamists have a long history of resentment against the Assad regime and are die-hard opponents; others like the Alawite minority are die-hard supporters, many of whom fear for their lives were Assad to fall from power. Most people, however, are somewhere in between.

Kuran’s second point is that the mere sight of people collectively engaging in public defiance can inspire those on the sidelines to take part. He suggests that the die-hard opponents who mobilize early in protest can lower the threshold of others who, though privately sympathetic, would otherwise remain on the sidelines out of fear or social pressure. The participation of these individuals, in turn, add to the size of the protest movement and make it even easier for even more reluctant yet privately dissatisfied individuals to join in. This process is further accelerated if dramatic events like the torture of children can serve as focal points to channel public dissatisfaction. Subsequent repression by the regime that results in additional casualties can raise grievances and lower thresholds even further. Such a cascading effect helps explain how seemingly minor incidents can have major repercussions. Though apparently unpredictable in advance, they seem obvious in hindsight.

Preference falsification helps us see why authoritarian regimes seems so stable until the eve of their disintegration. In Eastern Europe, when citizens realized that there were thousands of others who were just like them, the regimes collapsed remarkably swiftly. This, according to Kuran, is why seemingly strong dictatorships are actually highly vulnerable to the public expression of political opposition. Indeed, as Lisa Wedeen has shown, fears of public unrest drove a remarkable effort by Bashar’s father, Hafez, to build a cult of personality. That pretty much everyone privately knew this cult was ridiculous missed the point: ensuring the mere semblance of outward support was enough to keep citizens engaging in docile preference falsification and unaware of the true scale of discontent.

In a cruel irony, The Battle for Syria recounts Bashar’s elderly mother, Anisa, chiding her son for lacking the firm hand of his father.

Dommage for Catalonia: Identity and Economic Crisis

Since the beginning of the Euro crisis, there has been a substantial amount of analysis, and more than a bit of hand-wringing, over the (arguably counterproductive) resurgence of nationalism among the European Union’s constituent states. Nicholas Sambanis’s New York Times op-ed from a few weeks ago is representative: he suggests that the crisis has refocused the European populace on their parochial national identities at the expense of their (potentially) continental one, and that such socio-psychological (re)orientation is preventing concerted action to solve the problem:

As Europe’s status declines, the already shaky European identity will weaken further and the citizens of the richer European nations will be more likely to identify nationally — as Germans or French — rather than as Europeans. This will increase their reluctance to use their taxes for bailouts of the ethnically different Southern Europeans, especially the culturally distant Greeks; and it will diminish any prospect of fiscal integration that could help save the euro.
The result is a vicious circle: as ethnic identities return, ethnic differences become more pronounced, and all sides fall back on stereotypes and the stigmatization of the adversary through language or actions intended to dehumanize, thereby justifying hostile actions. This is a common pattern in ethnic conflicts around the world, and it is also evident in Europe today.

Indeed, the economic malaise plaguing Europe provides some interesting evidence for the interaction between crises, insecurity, institutions, elite behavior, and political identity. It has certainly provided a clarifying moment for those who argue that European identity is sufficiently well-developed to have coherent political meaning. The importance of identity is difficult to observe when peoples’ various subject positions (religion, regional identity, nationality, etc.) coexist in harmony. It is when identities are brought into conflict—via social unrest, economic crisis, political competition or war—that they become the most salient. Events of recent years have not boded well for the European project, and have arguably reaffirmed the primacy of the nation-state as the locus of mass political allegiance.

Recent days have added another wrinkle to this narrative. Underreported in the American press, September 11th saw a colossal Catalan nationalist rally in Barcelona. Local police reported 1.5 million attendees. To put this into perspective, that’s nearly as many people as live in the city, and more than 20 percent of the total population of Catalonia. September 11th is Catalonia’s “national day,” commemorating the 1714 Siege of Barcelona that, according to the relevant national mythos, marked the end of Catalan independence. The holiday often draws a decent-sized crowd. This week’s demonstration, though, was orders of magnitude larger than usual. Reports indicate that protesters expressed grievances over their homeland’s disproportionate tax burden within the Spanish state, itself cash-strapped as it struggles with a balance-of-payments crisis originating in Brussels and Berlin.

There are a few points to be made here. The first is to reiterate that for European elites who profess such dedication to their continent-wide project of neoliberal cosmopolitan governance, austerity policies have been highly counterproductive. By requiring Europe’s periphery to deflate its way to renewed growth, Brussels (read: Berlin) is imposing scarcity and economic misery on the very populations it seeks to bind into a unified community of fate. Competition for a shrinking resource base is a poor breeding ground for mutual identification and positive fellow-feeling, yet rather than play savior by easing the damage done to places like Catalonia by international capital markets, institutional Europe has only exacerbated their ill effects.

The second is to note that the last few years provide a measure of support for the account of modern nationalism advanced by Karl Polanyi more than a half-century ago. For Polanyi, the overly-intensive identification with volk and fatherland that plagued midcentury Europe had roots in the collapse of the nineteenth century economic order and the incapacity of extant institutions to assert control over the fates of their societies. The renewed intensity of Catalan nationalism suggests that it continues to function as a kind of psycho-social defense mechanism through which people search for communities of fate with the capacity to control their own destinies. Madrid lies at the mercy of international creditors and lacks the institutional capability to address Spanish problems with any kind of decisiveness. In some ways it’s not surprising that the citizens of Catalonia search for other notions of community with the potential to do better.

Affirmative Action in Brazil: The Country of Racial Inequality Battles the Country of Racial Democracy

On August 29th, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil signed into law a policy that would require public federal universities to reserve at least half of their admission spots for students who had attended public high schools. The law also dictates that there should be quotas based on the racial composition of the state in which the university is located; that is, the number of students admitted should mirror the racial composition of the state.

This law has generated a lot of debate, with the introduction of the racial quota proving particularly controversial. While the debate isn’t new, this latest development marks a major milestone. Last April, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of racial quotes at University of Brasília (UnB), finally burying the much-used argument that racial quotas were unconstitutional, in turn paving the way for this law.

Most students in public federal universities, which are usually of better quality than private universities, come from private elementary and high schools. In four years, Brazilian federal universities will be very different in terms of the demographics of their students, particularly in comparison to the situation prior to 2003, before the first experiment with affirmative action and the expansion of federal universities through a policy of restructuring of higher public education (REUNI).

Now that the social quotas have been enacted by law, universities have four years to adapt to the changes. The effect of the law will certainly vary depending on the field of study – medicine, law and engineering are usually more competitive than other undergraduate majors. But what can we generally expect as a result of this development? In particular, will quotas “lower the quality” of teaching and research in public universities?

There are as many ways to answer this question as there are ways to measure the “quality” of schools and students. Based on the experience of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBa), Antonio Sergio Guimarães et al. collected data and provided analysis on three measures: absolute performance, relative performance, and dropout rates (if you’re interested, there are many others that you can find mentioned here).

Absolute performance is a standardized measure based on coursework grades. Relative performance assesses the development of the students: do students improve their relative positions from entrance admission scores to coursework scores? In other words, are students climbing up the “educational ladder” while in college, are the entrance positions relatively stable over time, or are students’ performances exacerbating the entrance score differences?

Based on these measures, Guimarães et al. compare three types of students: non-beneficiaries (students that did not fill quotas requirements), non-effective beneficiaries (students that, even though they fulfilled the quota requirements, would have been admitted without quotas), and effective beneficiaries (students that were admitted because of the quotas).

They show that, as expected, effective beneficiaries indeed are in much worse socioeconomic positions than the other types of students. Also, effective beneficiaries have, on average, worse absolute performance, as the graph below shows (vertical axis gives the absolute performance, blue and green ticks present the estimate for non-beneficiaries and non-effective beneficiaries, and yellow ticks are for effective beneficiaries):

In terms of relative performance, the authors find that effective beneficiaries perform, on average, similar to other types of students. And, based on a few measures of relative performance, they clearly outperform both the non-beneficiaries and the non-effective beneficiaries.

This point deserves greater attention. It could be argued that effective beneficiaries outperform other students in terms of relative performance because they have more room for improvement given their lower entrance exam scores. The authors acknowledge this point and, based on a series of analyses, attempt to measure the degree to which effective beneficiaries were able to rise to the challenge and keep up with other types of students, accounting for this initial improvement. Their analysis shows that 50% of effective beneficiaries, on average, improved their performance in college (compared to the entrance scores) and rose to the same level as other types of students. In low demand majors, this percentage is as high as 75% and in high demand majors, the percentage is about 40%.

Furthermore, even though it takes longer for effective beneficiaries to graduate (many of them have to work while attending school), they dropout at lower rates than other types of students. This is demonstrated in the graph below (colors are the same as above, blue for non-beneficiaries, green for non-effective beneficiaries, and yellow for effective beneficiaries):

The answer, then, to the fear that social and racial quotas will lower the “quality” of public universities is a cautious “no”. There are many threats to the future of public higher education in Brazil, but, based on the pieces of evidence we have, social quotas do not seem to be a particularly threatening one.