Eviatar Zerubavel on Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable

ZerubavelWhy is the term “openly gay” so widely used but “openly straight” is not? What are the unspoken assumptions behind terms like “male nurse,” “working mom,” and “white trash?” Offering a revealing and provocative look at the word choices we make every day without even realizing it, Taken for Granted exposes the subtly encoded ways we talk about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social status, and more. A little book about a very big idea, Taken for Granted draws our attention to what we implicitly assume to be normal—and in the process unsettles the very notion of normality.

What is this book about?

This book examines how we separate the “special” from the “ordinary,” which we tend to assume by default. By drawing explicit attention to what we implicitly take for granted, it thus highlights the presumed normality of our social world. In so doing, it is actually designed to unsettle our very notion of normality.

The two opening chapters of this book are titled “The Marked and the Unmarked” and “Semiotic Asymmetry.” What do you mean by that?

I am essentially referring to the cultural asymmetry between what we consider special, or marked, and ordinary, or unmarked. It is the unmistakably asymmetrical semiotic arrangement whereby we have a special road sign indicating a curvy road ahead yet none for a straight one, parking spots and toilet booths specifically marked for the disabled yet none for the able-bodied. It is the asymmetrical arrangement whereby, unlike vegetarians, other dinner guests are rarely expected to notify their hosts in advance that they do eat meat, which is conventionally presumed.

This is a function of uneven distributions of semiotic “weight” between what we conventionally consider “normal” and “abnormal.” Thus, for example, while African and European ancestors are equivalent in terms of what they contribute to their American descendants’ genetic makeup, they differ considerably in their respective semiotic contributions to their racial identity, which is why we consider Barack Obama a black man whose mother was white rather than a white man whose father was black. By the same token, although bisexuality is a blend of both homo- and heterosexual dispositions, bisexuals nevertheless tend to be lumped with homosexuals rather than heterosexuals.

Whether or not we mark something is not just a matter of personal choice. Yet nor is anything inherently marked. As I demonstrate in the book, ordinariness (“normality”) and specialness (“abnormality”) are products of particular semiotic norms, traditions, and conventions we share as members of particular communities.

Does all this also skew the way we view people?

It certainly does, as suggested by the fact that when a character’s racial identity is not specified in a play or a script, white actors are more likely than non-white ones to be cast in that role. Furthermore, we have distinct cultural stereotypes of Asians, lesbians, and drug addicts, for example, yet rarely ones of law-abiding citizens, the mentally healthy, or the able-bodied. Such glaring asymmetry underscores the relative semiotic ease at which we construct stereotypes of cultural abnormality compared to those of cultural normality.

Does that also affect prejudice?

Of course it does. After the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, for example, no one demanded tighter security measures against Christian Americans! Nor do Americans expect “moderate whites” to publicly condemn mass shooters the way “moderate Muslims” are often expected to publicly condemn Muslim terrorists, even though mass shooters tend to be white. And had Donald Trump lived at the time of President Theodore Roosevelt, I am sure he would not have insisted that he produce his birth certificate, as his Dutch roots would not have clashed with Trump’s presumed notion of “normal” Americanness the way Obama’s African ones evidently did.

Does power play any role in all this?

Social dominance involves the power to set standards of normality and “other” whatever and whoever deviates from them. Moreover, it involves the privilege of being assumed by default and therefore the ability to protect a group’s assumed normality from being challenged. What allows a certain idea, practice, or identity to maintain its cultural dominance, in short, is the fact that it is conventionally considered “self-evident” and thereby taken for granted.

“Normality” thus helps establish as well as maintain social dominance. By marking something, we actually normalize what remains unmarked, thereby implying that it can be assumed by default. Marking femaleness, blackness, homosexuality, and disability, for instance, is thus inseparable from presuming the normality of maleness, whiteness, straightness, and able-bodiedness.

Furthermore, social dominance also includes the power to affect what others take for granted by essentially leading them to almost habitually make certain tacit assumptions without even realizing that they are making them.

Much of the evidence on which you draw in this book comes from language. Why?

Language offers us a window into the way we think. Furthermore, it also affects the way we think. It was the very act of labeling it sexual harassment, after all, that gave this hitherto preconceptualized phenomenon a cultural life!

Examining the words we use is particularly useful in helping reveal what we assume by default and therefore take for granted. Indeed, the extent to which we consider something ordinary, or “normal,” is inversely related to the availability of cultural labels to denote it. Its taken-for-grantedness is therefore evidenced in its semiotic superfluity, so clearly manifested in the paucity of words and phrases denoting what we conventionally assume by default. In other words, since what we take for granted is essentially presumed, it need not be explicitly articulated. Since romantic relations are conventionally presumed to be monogamous, for example, the term polyamory is in fact used much more widely than its conventionally taken-for-granted counterpart monoamory. The term biracial is likewise used far more widely than its nominally equivalent counterpart monoracial.

Therefore, as we encounter the term male nurse, for example, we need to also be able to “hear” the absence of its lexical counterpart female nurse. By the same token, as we encounter the term LGBT community, we need to also be able to “hear” the absence of the term straight community, which implies that, unlike being gay, to be straight is to have the option of disregarding one’s straightness. And when we hear the term Black History Month, we must likewise “hear” the absence of the term White History Month, a sad testimony to the fact that black American history is still regarded by many as separate from “American” history, and African Americans as tacitly excluded from the cultural category “Americans.” The same can be said of phrases such as “the best female tennis player in the world.” As Serena Williams reminds us, “do people say LeBron is one of the world’s best male athletes?”

What are your thoughts about social change?

In the book I address fundamental “assumption reversals” that often accompany major cultural changes. The recent change from an essentially passive to a pronouncedly active definition of consent in American sexual ethics (that is, from silence implying consent to silence implying absence of consent) is a perfect case in point. Such reversals are often manifested lexically. Although housekeeping used to be married middle-class American women’s most common occupation, the emergence of the term stay-at-home mom and the waning prominence of its contrasting counterpart working mom (yet rarely working dad …) thus attest to the decline in its presumed normality.

That is why we also need to attend to the semiotically subversive use of language. The term cisgender, for instance, is explicitly designed to cast transgender persons and people whose gender identity conforms to their birth-assigned sex as categorical equals. Putting “trans” and “ordinary” identities on an equal semiotic footing, in other words, helps normalize the former by subverting the latter’s presumed normality, which is also true of terms such as straight (with regard to gay) and neurotypical (with regard to autistic). Our conventional view of what is so “normal” as to be assumed by default, in short, need not be taken for granted as self-evident.

Eviatar Zerubavel is Board of Governors and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. His many books include Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology, The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, and Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community. He lives in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Keith Whittington: Tolerating Campus Dissent, Left and Right

WhittingtonThe reminders come nearly daily that tolerating freedom of speech and thought on college campuses—and in American society—is hard. It is very easy to say that we love freedom of speech in the abstract. It is much harder to adhere to that conviction when confronted with speech that we ourselves find to be, well, intolerable. When we encounter ideas or rhetoric that we find abhorrent, we are tempted to look for loopholes in the freedom of speech, to rationalize efforts to silence those who make us uncomfortable. This instinct is only natural and all too human, but it is an instinct at odds with the requirements of a liberal democracy and very much at odds with the ideals of a modern university.

The passing of Barbara Bush unfortunately became the occasion for another such reminder. An English professor at California State University, Fresno took to Twitter to celebrate the former first lady’s death, denouncing Bush as a “racist” and the mother of a “war criminal.” No stranger to provocative Twitter posts, the professor seemed to initially revel in the outrage she had generated before retreating from the increasingly intense public glare.

Fresno State president Joseph Castro was soon engaged in damage control, but in doing so did not represent the principles of either the university or the Constitution well. Castro did not content himself with reminding members of the public that the professor spoke only for herself and not the institution and did not even get around to emphasizing that universities are home to a large number of independent-minded individuals who hold a wide range of views and frequently disagree with one another. Instead, he chose to join the outraged public in denouncing a member of his own faculty for expressing views “contrary to the core values of our University,” which he identified as values of “empathy” and “respect.” The president subsequently emphasized that “we are all held accountable for our actions.” Indeed, the tweet was, in Castro’s view, “beyond free speech,” apparently because it was “disrespectful.”

Castro is, of course, correct that everyone is accountable for their actions. The question is what accounting is appropriate for appalling opinions expressed on a personal social media account. The speech of university professors can and should be criticized when it is wrong. Students and colleagues may choose to avoid quarrelsome professors. University professors are subject to discipline, and even termination, if they engage in professional misconduct. When American citizens who happen to be members of the faculty at a state university express unpopular political opinions in the public sphere, their speech is constitutionally protected from reprisals by state government officials, including university presidents. When members of the campus community spend their free time engaging in public debate, any university leader should refrain from asserting that “disrespectful,” uncivil, or odious comments are beyond the bounds of freedom of speech and subject to official sanction.

Universities should strive to nurture campus communities that are open to intellectual diversity and raucous debate. University professors should strive, even in their free time, to contribute positively to our social discourse and not to drag it further into the gutter. But freedom of speech is often messy and sometimes unpleasant. The disagreements among members of a diverse society are often deep and intense, and those disagreements will sometimes be expressed with passion. We are quick to recognize when others have offended us, but slow to recognize when we have given offense. We make greater progress in overcoming those disagreements and in making productive use of unconventional thinking, however, when we accept that we will sometimes be offended and we tolerate that with which we fervently disagree. Not every expressed idea is a good one. Not every disagreement will give way to greater insight. But intellectual and social progress is best made when we tolerate dissent rather than shout it down, when we criticize rather than punish, when we turn away from the provocateur rather than fan the flames.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: The Ten Commandments of Political Risk

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little
When we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery
Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

—Excerpts from Sir Francis Drake’s prayer, 1577 (apocryphal)

HulsmanThe great goal, the Everest of my book, has been to identify the historical elements that comprise the rules of the road for mastering political risk analysis and to holistically put our ten commandments to use in explaining the baffling world we presently live in. Having discovered these commandments—and illuminated them through the use of historical story-telling, deriving them from real-world policy situations throughout the ages—we can get to the Holy Grail of actual understanding.

Here at the end of our story, through the use of this unique heuristic method, we have delineated the long and neglected history of political risk analysis, linking this important tale to the broader efforts of both business and political leaders to master risk in general. Confident in what geopolitical risk analysis has been, is, and can be, it is clear that the Delphic dream of soothsaying—in a limited way, over limited issues, for a limited period of time—can be partially fulfilled.

  • “We are the risk.” As the history surrounding Sejanus and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire makes clear (alongside the corroborating tale of present-day Europe’s decadent decline), geopolitical analysts have a terrible time looking in the mirror and seeing that the society they are part of can itself be the major geopolitical risk problem.

 

  • Gaming out “lunatics.” Far too often geopolitical risk analysts let those with very different belief systems off the hook by lazily assuming that they must be crazy, rather than looking for the method to their madness. As the story of “The Old Man of the Mountain” and the Third Crusade (with inter-chapters on both Charles Manson and ISIS) makes clear, there is almost always an internal logic to any seemingly mad geopolitical interlocutor that can be followed and assessed.

 

  • Gaming out “chess players.” Amidst the daily tumult of a constant barrage of information, it is easy to lose sight of the intellectual needle in the haystack: the assessment of “chess players,” those geopolitical decision-makers who have stable, rational, coherent, long-term strategies in place to further their geopolitical goals. As reviewing the history of Niccolo Machiavelli and Pope Julius II (with an inter-chapter on George Washington and Alexander Hamilton) illuminates, finding these rare geostrategic birds is well worth the effort, as once they are identified (which is difficult), their future actions can rather easily be predicted.

 

  • Recognizing game changers. As the stirring story of John Adams in the sultry summer of 1776 makes clear, seeing the bigger picture—discerning how specific contemporaneous events fit into the larger historical pattern—is a mighty tool in political risk analysis. Separating the wheat from the chaff and intellectually drilling down on what really matters and its historical meaning (as we see both Adams and inter-chapter hero Winston Churchill doing in very different historical contexts) allows the political risk analyst as well as the foreign policy practitioner to see the world as it actually is.

 

  • Balance is the key to foreign policy. Having discovered the secrets of one major driver of geopolitics—be it macroeconomics, geopolitics, or cultural power—far too often analysts quickly forget that there are others and that it is the mix that explains everything. The twin stories of a beleaguered Venetian Republic and a seemingly all-conquering Napoleon in 1797 allow a dual critique of both an economics-only and overly militaristic policies and the doom to which both one-sided initiatives inevitably lead.

 

  • If you are digging yourself an intellectual hole in foreign policy analysis—stop. The “losing gambler in Vegas” syndrome affects both policy-makers and analysts. As the legendary Robert E. Lee found to his supreme peril at Gettysburg (and also “the best and the brightest” of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as they met their nemesis in Indochina), pushing ahead with an already failed policy in a desperate effort to recoup past losses leads to calamity.

 

  • Know your country’s place in the world. The singular case of the late Victorian titan Lord Salisbury—who bravely and correctly righted Britain’s foreign policy to fit the paradox of its relatively declining but still dominant place in the world of the 1890s—highlights this vital requirement for both policy-makers and analysts alike. Only by fearlessly and correctly assessing your country’s true place in the world (as the inter-chapter on the Genro of Japan makes clear happened across the globe from Salisbury a generation earlier) can you pursue successful political risk analysis.

 

  • Do not put all your eggs in one strategic basket. Distantly related to the “losing gambler in Vegas” syndrome, the “promised land fallacy” besets decision-makers and analysts who ruinously rely on one overall strategy to magically attempt to alter their country’s overall geopolitical position in the world. In the case of Wilhelmine Germany, Admiral Von Tirpitz’s disastrous plan to challenge British naval might (echoing the inter-chapter on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s equally ruinous “Wars of National Liberation” gambit) helped lead to the Great War and Germany’s destruction.

 

  • Know the nature of the world you are living in. The trials and tribulations of Beatle George Harrison (with the inter-chapter focusing on the diametrically opposed case of the fall of Brian Jones and the rise of the Rolling Stones) and the stunning, lightning-quick dismemberment of his band dramatically underline that successful systems can collapse in the blink of an eye if their underlying power realities change, failing to any longer reflect the systemic power facts on the ground that created such a system in the first place. Policy-makers as well as political risk analysts must know both the nature of the global system they are living in (is it characterized by one great power, two, or many?) as well as if that system is durable, fragile, or evolving.

 

  • Prepare for the “butterfly effect.” The telling present-day case of Deng Xiaoping and the colossal success he made of both Chinese foreign and economic policy must not obscure the reality that East Asia today sits on a powder keg, a single random event away from 1914; just one drunken Chinese sea captain could quite plausibly upset the strategic equilibrium in Asia. The best policy-makers and political risk analysts (as the inter-chapter example of Harold Macmillan also makes clear) see the weaknesses in even the most successful foreign policies, having resilient initiatives at the ready to stave off seemingly unexpected disasters.

 

In traveling far from home, as Sir Francis Drake bid us to do in the swashbuckling, mesmerizing prayer that opens this article and To Dare More Boldly, our journey through history has been bountifully rewarded. For yes, within limits, the future can be foretold through the use of political risk analysis. Truly venturing far from our intellectual shore, in daring more boldly, we have come to see the stars. 

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 3—Increased access to knowledge

Bit

This is the third post in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. This post describes how Open Review led to increased access to knowledge. In particular, I’ll provide information about the general readership patterns, and I’ll specifically focus on readership of the versions of the manuscript that were machine translated into more than 100 languages. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and higher sales.

Readership

During the Open Review period, people from all over the world were able to read Bit by Bit before it was even published. The map at the top of the page shows the locations of readers around the world.

In total, we had 23,514 sessions and 79,426 page views from 15,650 users. Also, unlike annotations, which decreased over time, there was a relatively constant level of traffic, averaging about 500 sessions per week.

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How does these sessions begin? The most common channels were direct navigation followed by organic search. Only about 20% of the traffic came from referrals (following links) and social.

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What devices were people using? About 30% of sessions were on mobile phones. Therefore, responsive design is important to ensure access.  

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In fact, mobile was more common for users from developing countries. For example, in the US, there were about 6 desktop sessions for every 1 mobile session. In India, however, there were about 3.5 mobile sessions for every desktop session. Also, there were more mobile sessions from India than mobile sessions from US.  Here are the top 10 country-platform combinations.

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Machine Translations

In addition to posting the book in English, we also machine translated the book into more than 100 languages using Google Translate. Of course, Google Translate is not perfect, but reading a bad translation might be better than no translation at all. And because Google Translate is getting better quickly, a few years from now machine translation might be a viable approach for many languages.

So, did these machine translations get used? No and yes. In terms of page views, no other single language had more than 2%. So, this seems to argue against the value of machine translation. On the other hand, if you add up all the page views in languages other than English it becomes a sizable number. The non-English page lead to a 20% increase in page views (65,428 English to 79,426 Total).

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If you are considering Open Review of your manuscript, you might be wondering if machine translation was worth it. There were two main costs: adjusting the website to handle multiple languages and the money we had to pay Google for the translations. Now that we’ve open sourced our code, you won’t need to work about the fixed cost related to website design. But, we did pay approximately $3000 USD to Google for translations in August 2016 (I expect that the cost of machine translation will come down). In terms of benefits, they are not really clear. I don’t know if people actually learned anything from these machine translations, and I don’t think they did much to support the other goals of the Open Review: better books and higher sales.  But, it did certainly capture people’s attention when I said that the book was available in 100 languages, and it showed a commitment to access. Future authors and publishers will have to decide what makes sense in their case, but as machine translation continues to improve, I’m optimistic that multiple languages will be part of the Open Review process in some way in the future.

This post is the third post in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and higher sales.

You can put your own manuscript through Open Review using the Open Review Toolkit, either by downloading the open-source code or hiring one of the preferred partners. The Open Review Toolkit is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 2—Higher sales

This post is the second in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. This post describes how Open Review led to higher sales. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and increased access to knowledge.

Before talking about sales in more detail, I think I should start by acknowledging that it is a bit unusual for authors to talk about this stuff. But sales are an important part of the Open Review process because of one simple and inescapable fact: publishers need revenue. My editor is amazing, and she’s spent a lot of time making Bit by Bit better, as have her colleagues that do production and design. These people need to be paid salaries, and those salaries have come from somewhere. If you want to work with a publisher—even a non-profit publisher—then you have to be sensitive to the fact that they need revenue to be sustainable. Fortunately, in addition to better books and increased access to knowledge, Open Review also helps sell books. So for the rest of this post, I’m going to provide a purely economic assessment of the Open Review process.

One of the first questions that some people ask about Open Review is: “Aren’t you giving your book away for free?”  And the answer is definitely no. Open Review is free like Google is free.

Notice that Google makes a lot of money without ever charging you anything. That’s because you are giving Google something valuable, your data and your attention. Then, Google monetizes what you provide them. Open Review is the same.

In addition to improving the manuscript, which should lead to more sales, there are three main that Open Review increases sales: collecting email addresses, providing market intelligence, and promoting course adoptions.

Email addresses

After discussions with my editor, we decided that the main business metric during the Open Review of Bit by Bit was collecting email addresses of people who wanted to be notified when the book was complete. These addresses are valuable to the publisher because they can form the basis of a successful launch for the book. 

How did we collect email address?  Simple, we just asked people like this:

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During the Open Review process we collected 340 unique valid emails address. Aside from a spike at the beginning, these arrive at a pace of about 1 per day with no sign of slowing down.

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Who are these people? One quick way to summarize it is to look at the email ending (.com, .edu, .jp, etc). Based on this data, it seems that that Open Review helped us collect email address from people all over the world.

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Another way to summarize the types of people who provided their email address is to look at the email suffixes (everything that comes after @). This shows, for example, which schools and companies are most represented.

Just collecting 340 email addresses was enough to significantly increase sales of Bit by Bit. And, in future Open Review projects, authors and publishers can get better at collecting email addresses. Just as Amazon is constantly running experiments to get you to buy more stuff, and the New York Times is running experiments to get you to click on more headlines, we were running experiments to collect more addresses. And unlike the experiments by Amazon and the New York Times, our experiments were overseen by Princeton’s Human Subjects Institutional Research Board.  

We tried six different ways to collect email addresses, and then we let Google Analytics use a multi-armed bandit approach find the best one. Here’s how they compared:

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These differences are not huge, but they illustrate that Open Review websites can use the same kind of conversation optimization techniques that are common on modern, commercial websites. And I’m confident that future Open Review projects could be have an even higher rate of email sign-ups with additional design improvements and experimentation.

Market intelligence

In addition to collecting email addresses, the Open Review process also provides market intelligence that helped tailor the marketing of the book. For example, using a tool called Google Webmaster you can see which parts of your book are being linked to:

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From this information, we learned that in addition to the book itself, people were most interested in the Open Review process and the chapter on Ethics. Then, when we were developing marketing copy for the book, we tried to emphasize this chapter.

Using Google Webmaster, you can also see which search terms are leading people to your book. In my case, you will see that 9 of the top 10 terms are not in English (in fact 48 of the top 50 terms are not in English). This is because of the machine translation process, which I talk about more in the post on increased access to knowledge. I was hoping that we would receive more organic search traffic in English, but as learned during this project: it is very hard to show up in the top 10 in organic search for most keywords.

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In case you are curious, গবেষণা নকশা means “research design” in Bengali (Bangla).  

A final way that this market intelligence was helpful was in selling foreign rights to the book. For example, I provide this map of global traffic to representatives from Princeton University Press before they went to the London Book Fair to sell the foreign rights to Bit by Bit. This traffic shows in a very concrete way that there was an interest in the book outside of the United States.

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Course adoptions

Finally, in addition to email addresses to help launch the book and market intelligence, Open Review accelerates course adoptions. My understanding is there is typically a slow ramp-up in course adoptions over the period of several years. But that slow ramp-up would be problematic for my book, which is freshest right when published and will gradually go stale over time. Given that the lifespan for this edition is limited, early course adoptions are key, and Open Review helped with that. I know of about 10 courses (list here) that have adopted the book in whole or in part during the Open Review process. This helped prime the pump for course adoptions when the book went on sale.

In this post, I’ve tried to describe the business case for Open Review, and I’ve shown how Open Review can help with collecting email addresses, gathering market intelligence, and speeding course adoptions. I think that purely on economic terms Open Review makes sense for publishers and authors for some books. If more people explore and develop Open Review as a model, I expect that these economic benefits would increase.  Further, this simply economic analysis does not count the benefits that come from better books and increased access to knowledge, two things that both authors and publishers value.

This post is the second in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit. You can also read more about how the Open Review of Bit by Bit led to a better book and increased access to knowledge. And, you can put your own manuscript through Open Review using the Open Review Toolkit, either by downloading the open-source code or hiring one of the preferred partners. The Open Review Toolkit is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 1—Better books

My new book Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age is for social scientists who want to do more data science, data scientists who want to do more social science, and anyone interesting in the combination of these two fields. The central premise of Bit by Bit is that the digital age creates new opportunities for social research. As I was writing Bit by Bit, I also began thinking about how the digital age creates new opportunities for academic authors and publishers. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that we could publish academic books in a more modern way by adopting some of the same techniques that I was writing about. I knew that I wanted Bit by Bit to be published in this new way, so I created a process called Open Review that has three goals: better books, higher sales, and increased access to knowledge. Then, much as doctors used to test new vaccines on themselves, I tested Open Review on my own book.

This post is the first in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit. I will describe how Open Review led to a better book. After I explain the mechanics of Open Review, I’ll focus on three ways that Open Review led to a better book: annotations, implicit feedback, and psychological effects. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to higher sales and increased access to knowledge.

How Open Review works

When I submitted my manuscript for peer review, I also created a website that hosted the manuscript for a parallel Open Review. During Open Review, anyone in the world could come and read the book and annotate it using hypothes.is, an open source annotation system. Here’s a picture of what it looked like to participants.

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In addition to collecting annotations, the Open Review website also collected all kinds of other information. Once the peer review process was complete, I used the information from the peer review and the Open Review to improve the manuscript.

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In the rest of this post, I’ll describe how the Open Review of Bit by Bit helped improve the book, and I’ll focus three things: annotations, implicit feedback, and psychological effects.

Annotations

The most direct way that Open Review produced better books is through annotations. Readers used hypothes.is, an open source annotation system, to leave annotations like those shown in the image at the top of this post.

During the Open Review period, 31 people contributed 495 annotations. These annotations were extremely helpful, and they led to many improvements in Bit by Bit. People often ask how these annotations compare to peer review, and I think it is best to think of them as complementary. The peer review was done by experts, and the feedback that I received often pushed me to write a slightly different book. The Open Review, on the other hand, was done by a mix of experts and novices, and the feedback was more focused on helping me write the book that I was trying to write. A further difference is the granularity of the feedback. During peer review, the feedback often involved removing or adding entire chapters, whereas doing Open Review the annotations were often focused on improving specific sentences.

The most common annotations were related to clunky writing. For example, an annotation by differentgranite urged me avoid unnecessarily switching between “golf club” and “driver.” Likewise an annotation by fasiha pointed out that I was using “call data” and “call logs” in a way that was confusing. There were many, many small changes like these helped improve the manuscript.

In addition to helping with writing, some annotations showed me that I had skipped a step in my argument. For example an annotation by kerrymcc pointed out that when I was writing about asking people questions, I skipped qualitative interviews and jumped right to surveys. In the revised manuscript, I’ve added a paragraph that explains this distinction and why I focus on surveys.

The changes in the annotations described above might have come from a copy editor (although my copy editor was much more focused on grammar than writing). But, some of the annotations during Open Review could not have come from any copy editor. For example, an annotation by jugander pointed me to a paper I had not seen that was a wonderful illustration of a concept that I was trying to explain. Similarly, an annotation by pkrafft pointed out a very subtle problem in the way that I was describing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. These annotations were both from people with deep expertise in computational social science and they helped improve the intellectual content of the book.

A skeptic might read these examples and not be very impressed.  It is certainly true that the Open Review process did not lead to massive changes to the book. But, these examples—and dozens of other—are small improvements that I did make. Overall, I think that these many small improvements added up to a major improvement.

Here are a few graphs summarizing the annotations.

Annotations by person: Most annotations were submitted by a small number of people.

Bit

Annotations by date: Most annotations were submitted relatively early in the process. The spike in late November occurred when a single person read the entire manuscript and made many helpful annotations.

Bit

Annotations by chapter: Chapters later in the book received fewer annotations, but the ethics chapter was somewhat of an exception.

Bit

Annotations by url: Here are the 20 sections of the book that received the most annotations.  In this case, I don’t see a clear pattern, but this might be helpful information for other projects.

Bit

One last thing to keep in mind about these annotations is that they underestimate the amount of feedback that I received because they only count annotations that received through the Open Review website. In fact, when people heard about Open Review, they sometimes invited me to give a talk or asked for a pdf of the manuscript on which they could comment. Basically, the Open Review website is a big sign that says “I want feedback” and that feedback that comes in a variety of forms in addition the annotations.

One challenge with the annotations is that they come in continuously, but I tended to make my revisions in chunks. Therefore, there was often a long lag between when the annotation was made and when I responded. I think that participants in the Open Review process might have been more engaged if I had responded more quickly. I hope that future Open Review authors can figure out a better workflow for responding to and incorporating annotations into the manuscript.

Implicit feedback

In addition to the annotations, the second way that Open Review can lead to better books is through implicit feedback. That is, readers were voting with their clicks about which parts of the book are interesting or boring. And this “reader analytics” are apparently a hot thing in the commercial book publishing world. To be honest, this feedback proved less helpful than I had hoped, but that might be because I didn’t have a good dashboard in place. Here are five elements that I’d recommend for an Open Review dashboard (and all of them are possible with Google Analytics):

  • Which parts of the book are being read the most?
  • What are the main entry pages?
  • What are the main exit pages?
  • What pages have the highest completion rate (based on scroll depth)?
  • What pages have lowest completion rate (based on scroll depth)?

Psychological effects

There is one last way that Open Review led to a better a book: it made me more energized to make revisions. To be honest, for me, writing Bit by Bit was frustrating and exhausting. It was a huge struggle to get the point where the manuscript was ready for peer review and Open Review. Then, after receiving the feedback from peer review, I needed to revise the manuscript. Without the Open Review process—which I found exciting and rejuvenating—I’m not sure if I would have had the mental energy that was need to make revisions.

In conclusion, Open Review definitely helped make Bit by Bit better, and there are many ways that Open Review could be improved.

I want to say again that I’m grateful to everyone that contributed to the Open Review process:

benzevenbergen, bp3, cfelton, chase171, banivos, DBLarremore, differentgranite, dmerson, dmf, efosse, fasiha, huntr, jboy, jeschonnek.1, jtorous, jugander, kerrymcc, leohavemann, LMZ, Nick_Adams, nicolemarwell, nir, person, pkrafft, rchew, sculliwag, sjk, Stephen_L_Morgan, toz, vnemana

You can also read more about how the Open Review of Bit by Bit lead to higher sales and increased access to knowledge. And, you can put your own manuscript through Open Review using the Open Review Toolkit, either by downloading the open-source code or hiring one of the preferred partners. The Open Review Toolkit is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

The Promised Land Fallacy: Von Tirpitz Disastrously Builds a Navy

by Dr. John C. Hulsman
Hulsman

The Dangerous Mirage of the Promised Land Fallacy

Distantly related to the losing gambler’s syndrome is the promised land fallacy, the naïve view that one attribute of power or one strategy is sufficient to overcome the complexity of the world and—in silver bullet-like fashion—change the terms of the geopolitical game. In essence, it’s the very human effort to falsely manufacture a game-changing strategy rather than recognising that game-changing events generally happen organically.

Political risk analysts throughout the ages, frustrated by the constraints of living in the world as they have found it, are often highly susceptible to dreaming up analysis designed to liberate them from the shackles of reality. Ruinously, reality always wins.

In the years following the innovative genius of British Prime Minister Lord Robert Salisbury’s foreign policy, Anglo-German relations nevertheless spiraled out of control. No one was more responsible for this than Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, whose wrong-headed promised land strategy to supersede the British navy instead led Germany directly over the cliff into the charnel house of the Great War.

For Wilhelmine Germany, the building of a fleet from scratch to challenge the mighty Royal Navy was meant to be the country’s ticket to its place in the sun. The German political and military elite, frustrated that the world (especially haughty Great Britain) failed to recognise the ascension of Germany to Great Power status, set about rushing the forces of history, rather than merely waiting for their yearly relative gains in global power to become apparent over time. Already possessing the greatest army in the world, the Kaiser became intent on building a threatening navy.

Instead of heralding an era of German dominance, the elite in Berlin unwittingly started a process that led to its doom. The naval race awoke an alarmed London to the coming German threat to its position as the single greatest power in the world (though one in relative decline), a fact that helped directly lead to war and ruinous German defeat. Far from leading to the promised land, this approach puts political risk analysts forever at the mercy of the latest intellectual fad, often leading to simplistic analysis that doesn’t stand up to the realities of a complicated world.

Von Tirpitz Recklessly Challenges British Naval Dominance

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz became the living embodiment of the Kaiser’s drive to build a world-class navy, almost from scratch. Born March 19, 1849, pictures of von Tirpitz show a man looking like nothing so much as an enraged walrus, with his long, flowing beard, fierce eyes, and stern countenance.

Yet von Tirpitz was much more than this caricature of a stiff-necked Prussian. For one thing, he knew the English personally and well, spoke the language fluently, and even sent his two daughters to the prestigious Cheltenham Ladies’ College. For another, von Tirpitz rose through the German navy’s ranks largely through his own merits, something unheard of at the time. Tirpitz, for all the Prussian glowering, was essentially a creative, outward-looking, self-made man.

In 1897, von Tirpitz was made head of the powerful Imperial Navy Office, an unassailable bureaucratic perch that allowed him to relentlessly focus on making the German navy a force to be reckoned with; he was to remain central to German naval thinking until 1916. His primary strategic recommendation was that Germany must build as many battleships as possible and challenge British naval hegemony. Initially, von Tirpitz advocated the creation of two squadrons of eight battleships, plus a fleet flagship and two reserves.

Between 1898 and 1912, von Tirpitz managed to get four naval acts through the German Parliament, greatly expanding the size of the country’s High Seas Fleet. Over time, his clearly stated strategic goal became to construct a navy that two-thirds of the size of the dominant British Fleet. In the narrowest of terms, von Tirpitz was successful, in that he took the very meagre German navy he had inherited in the 1890s and transformed it into a world-class force.

The Germans miscalculate

The irony was that, for both von Tirpitz and the Kaiser, the German naval build-up was essentially defensive in nature. They did not wish to overwhelm Britain as a revolutionary power, but merely to be taken seriously by it as a valued guarantor of the status quo. The von Tirpitz strategic plan was to build the world’s second-largest navy after Britain’s, announcing Germany’s arrival on the world stage as an undisputed great power.

In this vision, the naval build-up would get the Germans to the promised land, making the British see sense and accommodate Germany’s rise to great power status. Yet, as so often has proven the case for those whose political risk analysis leads them to adopt the promised land strategy, unintended consequences overwhelmed these initial goals.

In direct reaction to von Tirpitz’s naval programme, Britain (between 1902-1910) embarked on its own massive naval build-up, with the express purpose of safeguarding its naval dominance and seeing off the perceived German strategic threat. As such, von Tirpitz’s build-up, far from cowing Britain into supporting Germany’s overall strategic rise, instead came to be seen as a mortal threat in London.

Conclusion: The promised land strategy and unintended consequences

The unintended result of the von Tirpitz plan was to leave Germany in the worst of all possible strategic worlds. Its efforts to catch up with the dominant British navy narrowed, but did not eliminate, Britain’s maritime advantage. In an immediate, limited sense, the Germans won the naval arms race by whittling down British dominance. But the cost of this pyrrhic victory was exorbitant.

For the change in strategic circumstances was enough to alarm Britain into fundamentally changing its foreign and strategic policies, but did not alter the overriding fact that in 1914 it still possessed by a long way the most powerful naval force in the world. It was the naval arms race that persuaded Britain to wholly adopt Lord Salisbury’s evolving policy and instead look for allies to deal with what was seen—as the result of the von Tirpitz plan—as an increasingly malevolent German threat.

Unwittingly the promised land fallacy unleashed by von Tirpitz directly led to the closer Anglo-French ties that were to form the basis of the resistance to Germany in World War I. With Britain pressed to withdraw its Mediterranean fleet to its home waters to fend off the impending German naval threat, much closer ties with Paris became an absolute strategic imperative so as to safeguard (through the French navy taking London’s place in the Mediterranean) the Suez Canal, the jugular of the British Empire.

Britain, turning its back decisively on its nineteenth-century post-Napoleonic foreign policy heritage, formally allied itself with European powers France in 1904, and Russia, in 1907. Incredibly, the Germans—in pursuing their promised land strategy to secure in von Tirpitz’s words German ‘political independence’ from England—had instead forced the British into their eternal enemy France’s waiting arms, the worst possible strategic thing Berlin could have done. World War I was not far away.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

John Hulsman on To Dare More Boldly

HulsmanOur baffling new multipolar world grows ever more complex, desperately calling for new ways of thinking, particularly when it comes to political risk. To Dare More Boldly provides those ways, telling the story of the rise of political risk analysis, both as a discipline and a lucrative high-stakes industry that guides the strategic decisions of corporations and governments around the world. It assesses why recent predictions have gone so wrong and boldly puts forward ten analytical commandments that can stand the test of time. To Dare More Boldly creatively explains why political risk analysis is vital for business and political leaders alike, and authoritatively establishes the analytical rules of thumb that practitioners need to do it effectively.

What’s audacious about political risk?
It’s a great and arresting word, isn’t it? It’s also entirely accurate. After the Cold War (though you can actually date it back to the Pythia of Ancient Greece as I do), the political risk industry seemed to spring fully formed out of nowhere, with leading businesses, multinational corporations, and even governments hanging on the words of erudite soothsayers, who in the tradition of the Pythia or Merlin seemed to promise the magic of uniquely understanding the present and the future. As a member of this select fraternity, I wanted to tell the true story of what is actually going on here, in all of our audacity.

Why did the notion of audacity inspire you to write To Dare More Boldly?
The curse of our present age is that despite the omnipresence of communication, no one seems to have very much to say. Certainly I have found this true in my field of global geopolitical analysis, of political risk. Instead, people with precious little to say describe rather than analyze, ape other ‘right-thinking people’ clustering around one safe opinion, so that even if they are wrong, everyone is incorrect together, and there is no accountability, no price to be paid for analytical mediocrity.

I was inspired to do exactly the opposite, due to my impatience with the present very poor state of imagination in the political risk analysis field, and empathy for creative figures like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who in Pet Sounds bravely and audaciously swung for the fences, and in doing so re-made popular music. I want to do nothing less than the same for the global analysis of political risk.

What’s audacious about the book?
As was true of Brian Wilson’s work, it is baroque in structure, with inter-chapters pointing out the principles—our ten commandments of political risk—that apply across time and space and are truly universal, rather than artificially cherry-picked to suit my argument. For example, there is a chapter on the need to know the nature of the world you actually live in, where the power resides, and if such a system is politically stable. I look at the rapid, shocking decline of the Beatles (epitomized by the increasing creative frustrations of George Harrison) as my main example of what I mean. But there is also a fascinating inter-chapter on the rise and surprising durability of the Rolling Stones, a band who in the mid-1960s seemed on their last legs—as another example of how systems can determine outcomes. Emulating Brian Wilson’s baroque structure allows for a creativity, a timelessness, and a richness that a straightforward analysis would not have made possible.

Examples of pop groups are not the usual fare for books focused on political risk analysis or about practical analytical insights for businesses. Is this another example of the book’s audacity?
Absolutely. Along the way, and it is part of the cult of mediocrity which so pervades modern thinking, we have falsely equated being boring with being profound. I have the opposite approach, that Shakespeare is for everyone, that murky writing and thinking are indicative of bad writing and thinking, that the novelist E.M Forster was right and that the key to life as he said at the beginning of Howard’s End is only to connect.

I use examples across all of history, but ones that fascinated me and I hope my audience. The Greco-Persian Wars, the fall of Rome, the Assassins and the Third Crusade, Machiavelli and the Borgias, John Adams and July 4, Napoleon and Venice, Robert E. Lee and Gettysburg, Lord Salisbury and the British Empire, the fall of the Kaiser’s Germany, the Beatles and the Stones, and Harold Macmillan’s friendship with Jack Kennedy are all covered. But so are more immediate topics like Charles Manson, ISIS, Europe’s present crisis, the rise and rise of China, and power ebbing away from the west as the world becomes truly one of many poles of power. We have forgotten the powerful intellectual pull of Homeric storytelling, which this book is entirely based on. I hope my analysis is profound. But I also hope it is fun.

What does To Dare More Boldly put forward to creatively improve this intellectual wasteland you describe?
That’s exactly the right question. For if you are going to tear down the present, you must put something in its place, or otherwise what you are doing is just nihilism. To Dare More Boldly puts forward ten analytical precepts derived from the real world of history—our ten commandments—a ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ list across all of recorded history that makes an analytical understanding of how to master political risk in the world possible. Rather than saying nothing or being laughably wrong (how many of my colleagues called Brexit correctly?) the book underlines that the present and the future in terms of political risk can be mastered for businesses by the following of such principles that have stood the test of time throughout and across history, the real world laboratory we all live in. I hope the book is creative and valuable both for businesses that need to master the confusing new era we find ourselves in, and for the general reader who rightly also wants to understand the times they live in.

John C. Hulsman is president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His books include Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (Pantheon), The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable (Princeton), and To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad (St. Martin’s). He lives in Painswick, England.

Hanna Gray on An Academic Life

GrayHanna Holborn Gray has lived her entire life in the world of higher education. The daughter of academics, she fled Hitler’s Germany with her parents in the 1930s, emigrating to New Haven, where her father was a professor at Yale University. She has studied and taught at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. She was the first woman to serve as provost of Yale. In 1978, she became the first woman president of a major research university when she was appointed to lead the University of Chicago, a position she held for fifteen years. In 1991, Gray was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to education. An Academic Life is a candid self-portrait by one of academia’s most respected trailblazers. It speaks to the fundamental issues of purpose, academic freedom, and governance that arise time and again in higher education and that pose sharp challenges to the independence and scholarly integrity of each new generation.

Why did you decide to write a memoir?

In part because a number of people suggested that I write something about my experience as president of a research university and about my time more generally in higher education, given my long involvement in the academic world. I began teaching some 65 years ago and had grown up as a faculty child, my grandfathers and aunt were also academics. My parents were refugees from the Hitler regime, and I was interested in memorializing them and their exiled colleagues and in analyzing the difference the exiles had made in the American academic environment. I was interested also in reflecting on what it had been like to be raised in and to be the beneficiary of two cultures.

What is important about the Central European academic refugees?

The refugees from Hitler’s Germany, who began to arrive in 1933, represented very different fields of scholarship and science, and their considerable influence on the disciplines of learning in America varied accordingly. The impact was greatest where the ground had been prepared for their introduction of intellectual approaches and subjects that had not been widely adopted in the U.S. but which scholars and their universities were anxious to take up and incorporate into their programs. What the academic refugees as a group, however varying their academic offerings and specializations, brought to American higher education, was a cosmopolitan intellectual outlook, a breadth of culture and scholarly background, that helped transform a somewhat parochial academic world into a deprovincialized outlook and to international leadership in higher education. The European professors were models of a broadened and deepened culture to their students; their research opened new vistas in the fields they studied. At the same time, the European professors and the work they pursued were themselves greatly influenced by their new environment.

How was your life shaped by your parents’ immigration?

I was lucky in countless ways. My family’s early escape from Germany in 1933, my father’s already finding a position at Yale University in 1934 and receiving tenure there after a few years, meant that my family was more settled and my childhood more stable than was the case with many of the exiles. At the same time, I observed my parents confronting the inescapable difficulties of exile—understanding and adapting to a new culture, managing life in a new language (my father had to learn immediately to lecture with his imperfect English in an undergraduate setting foreign to his experience), establishing some financial security while never regaining a former prosperity, adapting to a changed social status and social environment, overcoming homesickness and separation from extended family, caught in anxiety over what was happening in their home country and to the people they cared about. My parents worried about their children being drawn to American popular culture, which they found difficult to tolerate (although they liked just about everything else in America). They encouraged our learning English even while sometimes saddened by hearing us chatter away in our new language, and they ensured that we would retain our German. So we lived in a German-speaking household with German cuisine and an emphasis on high European culture, on educational achievement, and on the priority of intellectual pursuits. To live in two cultures while wanting to be as like one’s American schoolmates as possible could be a source of tension, but it was an extraordinary gift that, as I came increasingly to see, enriched my life and my perspective. To be a little bit different was not a bad thing, given the slightly unusual path I ultimately chose.

Why did you become an academic?

Although I was determined in my youth not to follow in the footsteps of my parents and other relatives, not to become a teacher or an academic, I found already in my sophomore year in college that I wanted to be a historian, that the study of the past and understanding the present through the ways in which it had historically developed seemed my natural way of thinking, and  also the most interesting study imaginable. I think I was influenced in my decision to some degree by the models of my teachers at Bryn Mawr College.  My historian father never pushed or encouraged this direction, but of course he was a model also. To become a historian was to become an academic, and I was increasingly engaged in coming to know and becoming involved in the academic institutions in which I studied and taught, in their missions and in the powerful need to strengthen and preserve those as they were threatened or distorted in times of crisis or complacency.

What have been the principal changes and continuities for higher education you describe over the course of your career?

There have been very large changes since the thirties and especially since the end of World War II. The war saw the emergence of the essential partnership between government and the universities for the purposes of conducting major research, above all in the sciences. The end of the war saw the G.I. Bill of Rights. The first created  basis for the federal government’s support of areas that require both major investments of resources and highly trained experts in science and in other fields deemed to meet major public needs and the national interest. The G. I. Bill represented the beginnings of the greater democratization of higher education and of broadened access to its institutions; with that came a demographic change in the makeup of its student bodies and the backgrounds of the faculty. The end of the war saw a new international outlook on the part of American higher education and an explosion of growth in every part of the university world that brought American universities to the forefront of accomplishment and prestige. Higher education underwent a period of immense expansion and unprecedented prosperity. All this rested on a faith, pervasive in the postwar world, in the potential for education to create a better world and to produce both social mobility and a meritocratic society that would realize the true promise of democracy. That faith in education began to ebb as resources for its support began to decline and to be shifted toward other priorities, including those of elementary and secondary education. At the same time, as Increasing numbers of women entered higher education, and coeducation increased.  The burgeoning civil rights movement drew attention also to the need to bring minority students and faculty into higher education as well as to improve opportunities for women and lower income students. As the federal government entered this area of policy with its affirmative action requirements, as happened earlier in the areas of student and project support, new conflicts arose in university-government relation over the dangers of political intrusion into university affairs. The sixties saw an outburst of student radicalism and demands for higher education to become more “relevant” in addressing social problems and for students to obtain a strong voice in university governance; the time saw also a proliferation of curricular developments that focused on new areas of study such as women’s  and African-American and non-Western studies. The following decades witnessed periods of economic expansion and contraction and of an increasingly intense and not always healthy competition among its different institutions. As the costs of higher education grew, and as questions of educational quality and outcome and even of the worth of higher education came more and more to be raised, the public’s attitude toward universities became more skeptical and critical. Universities adopted a more consumerist style as they sought to satisfy their constituents and to recruit students in a highly competitive environment.  At the same time, they were being asked to prepare students for the world of work and to design programs more oriented toward that end. In the wake of these concerns, the traditional liberal arts have come increasingly under siege.

But the continuities that have marked higher education over the years are equally striking. The history of universities is a history of recurrence: the same basic questions and dilemmas re-emerge for reconsideration and debate over and over again, but in new contexts. The issues of academic freedom, its definition and sustenance, of free expression and discussion, of the university’s role in political and social matters, of its institutional autonomies and their limits may take new forms as they occur, but they are the same basic issues that have dominated the lives of universities forever. Today’s disputes over academic freedom and over free speech and its limits on our campuses represent one, and a highly significant, version of that. On the international front, too, we continue to witness countries in which the repressive treatment of universities by authoritarian regimes threaten their existence. For universities, too, the age-old issues of their role in both teaching and research and the balance between those missions continue to provoke fierce debate as the institutions seek understanding of their larger purposes and their contributions to the social order.

Hanna Holborn Gray is the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago, where she served as president from 1978 to 1993. She is the author of Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories. She lives in Chicago.

Getting to Goldilocks: Napoleon, the Venetian Republic and Balance in Political Risk Analysis

by Dr. John C. Hulsman
Hulsman

Introduction: The Self-Inflicted Haplessness of Venice

The Most Serene Republic of Venice, one of the most consequential states of the European Renaissance, ended the 1,100 years of its existence not with a bang but with a pathetic whimper. At its height and for hundreds of years, the Venetian maritime empire dominated the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean, as well as possessing a central land base in the Veneto on the northern Italian mainland. However, by the time the great Napoleon had fixed his sights on what he rightly called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ and determined that the Venetian pearl would be his, the city-state was but a shadow of its former self, largely because of a simple failure of political risk analysis.

Why was this former great power so utterly defenceless before Napoleon’s hordes? The simple, overriding answer to this question is that the Venetians had learned an important lesson down the centuries—war is often folly and always expensive—while entirely forgetting that they might need to keep other important—and countervailing—truisms about international relations in mind as well.

First amongst these is that having merely carrots (economic power) as an instrument on the global stage only works in a world populated entirely by rabbits; military power is sometimes required too. And whatever else you might say of him, the young Napoleon was hardly a rabbit.

Because of this fundamental misreading of human nature, the Venetian Republic responded with a reckless strategy of disarmament over the centuries that erased its mighty position in the world. By the latter days of the eighteenth century, the city-state was so divorced from the reality of power politics that when threatened by the French, it had absolutely no choice but to surrender.

Political risk analysts often exhibit a similar lack of balance, dooming their assessments. The holy grail of analysis is getting to Goldilocks—making policy assessments that are neither too hard nor too soft, by eschewing extremes and mono-causal answers and actually balancing the numerous important factors determining outcomes.

Venice’s Slow Castration

From the early sixteenth century on, the oligarchs who ran the Republic preferred to avoid the hard economic choices and belt-tightening that could have corrected their dangerous military decline (much like today’s modern European states). But as Venice was still a very rich city, and as its elite’s cosseted life of masked balls and opulence were hard to part with, it was far easier to do nothing about what seemed at the time to be merely a theoretical problem. It was only when Napoleon showed up at Venice’s doorstep that theory became all too real.

And to a point, of course, the Venetians were absolutely right. Often wars explode in the faces of those who engage in them, and almost always they are ruinously expensive. Peace in general is a better alternative for both the health of any state and the welfare of its people. No one is arguing that in general the Venetians were onto something with their peace-first strategy.

The problem was that over the centuries it became a peace-only strategy. For having grasped one essential reality of the world, the Venetian Republic wholly ignored other, darker, but no less important lessons about the nature of human beings and international relations. By 1796, on the eve of Napoleon’s brilliant Italian campaign, the Republic could no longer defend itself. Of its pathetic fleet of thirteen ships of the line, only a handful of even these proved to be seaworthy. The army was in even worse shape, consisting of only a few brigades of Croatian mercenaries.

The fundamental problem was that in policy terms the oligarchs had forgotten about balance in both foreign policy and political risk analysis, not being prepared to pay the steep price that would have been necessary to upgrade the Venetian fleet with the latest technology of eighteenth-century warfare. Through this intellectual failure of balance, Venice had castrated itself long before Napoleon came thundering out of the mountains, sealing its own doom.

Napoleon’s France as a Country on Military Steroids 

In his bedazzled, gilded youth, Napoleon Bonaparte shown like the sun. Beyond Alexander the Great, it is difficult to think of any leader in the history of the world to whom fame and glory came so early, and so overwhelmingly. Supremely competent, decisive, preternaturally driven, eloquent, quick-witted, and far-seeing, Bonaparte was capable of inspiring almost religious devotion in both his marshals and his men.

In 1797, Napoleon could uncannily see the inherent defencelessness of the Venetian Republic, a government that had chosen to simply ignore the basic imperative any state has to defend itself. However, Napoleon was to make a diametrically opposed analytical misjudgement himself.

The Venetians were undoubtedly lotus-eaters, basking in their tranquil apathy, as the forces of the real world slowly and ominously gathered around them. But in worshipping the god Mars, Napoleon was to make an equally disastrous political risk mistake. For behind all his highly impressive domestic reforms was an effort to increasingly militarise French society, to make it fit for purpose to take on the rest of Continental Europe for almost a generation. This imbalanced over-reliance on war was to doom the glorious Bonaparte. In always seeing the need for war, he was as out of kilter as were the Venetians, who never saw the need for it.

For in reality, it was the overly militaristic, self-perpetuating expansionism of Napoleon’s France that led to his greatest strategic setbacks in both Spain and Russia. Both the Spanish and Russian disasters arose out of Napoleon fighting wars of choice, conflicts that a less martial status quo power would have entirely avoided.

Of course, Napoleon paid the ultimate price for his utopian, overly militaristic, unbalanced folly, ironically much as the Venetian oligarchs had done. On May 5, 1821, the great man died in exile on the obscure island of St. Helena, far from the trappings of his once-supreme power, an unwitting victim of having legendarily used the military lever of politics without ever learning that there are other motive forces of history as well.

Conclusion: The Benefits of Balance

Two great powers, the Venetian Republic and its vanquisher, the great Napoleon, were laid waste to when they could not overcome a fundamental political risk analytical error. Commercial Venice forgot along the way that a state’s paramount need is always to defend itself, that there will always be creatures in the foreign policy jungle to be fought off. Evil and aggression in the world cannot be wished away just because it is far more pleasant to attend glittering seaside parties and to produce breath-taking works of art.

Some sort of balance is called for. Over the centuries, Venice’s abdication of responsibility for seeing the world as it is left it entirely at the mercy of the young, covetous Napoleon when he made his way over the Alps. But given the Venetians’ fundamental misreading of the world, it hardly mattered that it was Napoleon who brought the Venetian Republic down. Someone would have.

But Napoleon, in his diametrically opposed way, made the same fundamental error as the Italian oligarchs he so effortlessly conquered. The sword had made Napoleon the most famous man in the world and given him, a minor Corsican aristocrat, first a throne and then the dominant position in Europe.

It is human and understandable that even a man of Bonaparte’s first-rate intellect, having personally experienced how far the military component of power could take both a genius and a country, failed to see that his over-reliance on the military instrument of power was highly skewed, to the exclusion of a more balanced strategy, such as that pursued by Pitt’s England throughout the period. It is understandable, but Napoleon’s sad end makes it clear that his failure of balance was absolutely toxic.

Modern political risk analysts would do well to take note of both the historical examples of Venice and Napoleon. There are many motive forces of history and analysis, and all the major ones must be taken into account altogether if political risk analysis is to get anywhere. To forget the absolute need for getting to Goldilocks—the essential political risk commandment of the imperative of finding analytical balance—is to get every big thing wrong, no matter how right analysts are about the detail. For both analysis and policy require more than one basic insight into how our complicated world works.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain

View from Central Terrace, Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province, China. Photograph by author, 2005.

“The attributes of a great place like this
are difficult for someone like myself to relate.”

—Translation modified from Illich, Marina. “Selections from the Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Polymath: Chankya Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje), 1717–1786.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 2006.

“‘At the formation of the world, this earth is situated on top of a golden wheel. On the golden wheel are sharp spikes, one of which bore a small golden wheel. This wheel is located half way up the northern terrace. It is where Mañjuśrī’s Palace of the Seven Jewels is located. Groves of fruit trees fill the entire compound, surrounded by ten thousand bodhisattvas. On top of the northern terrace is a pond. Its name is the golden well. The great sage Mañjuśrī and all sagely entourage appear from it. It is interconnected with the Diamond Grotto. The domain of the Great Sage is no ordinary realm.’”

“‘世界初成. 此大地踞金輪之上. 又於金輪上. 撮骨狼牙. 生一小金輪.其輪.至北臺半腹.文殊菩薩七寶宮殿之所在焉.園林果樹.咸悉充滿. 一萬菩薩之所圍遶. 北臺上面. 有一水池. 名曰金井. 大聖文殊. 與諸聖眾. 於中出沒. 與金剛窟正相通矣. 大聖所都. 非凡境界.’”

Taishō shinshū daizōkyō 大正新修大藏經 (The Buddhist Canon, comp. Taishō era, 1912–1926). Edited by Takakusu Junjirō 高楠順次郎 and Watanabe Kaigyoku 渡邊海旭. Tokyo: Taishō issaikyo kankokai, 1924–1932. 2099: 51, 1119a2–15.

The domain of the Great Sage, or Mount Wutai—also known as the Clear and Cool Mountains, the Pure and Cool Mountains, the Clear and Cold Mountains, or the Five-Peaked Mountain—has been a preeminent site of international pilgrimage for over a millennium. Home to more than one hundred temples, the entire range is considered a Buddhist paradise on earth, and has received visitors ranging from emperors to monastic and lay devotees.

Wen-shing Chou’s Mount Wutai explores the history of this sacred Buddhist mountain through Qing dynasty-era objects of art, architecture, worship, and translation. Chou explains how Qing Buddhist rulers and clerics from Inner Asia, including Manchus, Tibetans, and Mongols, reimagined the mountain as their own during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Mañjughọsa Emperor, 18th century. Thangka. Ink and colors on silk. 113.5 × 64 cm. The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Purchased by anonymous donor and with Museum funds, F2000.4.

“‘I see the Clear and Cool Mountains illuminated by the radiance of lapis lazuli, foothills of the mountain ornamented by various jeweled trees whose radiance brightly illuminates the entire place without the slightest difference between day and night, and that land of the Venerable One is not a place within my domain.’”

“’Ngas bltas na ri bo dwangs bsil ’di baiḍūrya’i mdangs su gsal zhing / ri bo rnams kyi zhol du rin bo che’i ljon shing sna tshogs kyis sbras pa ’od ’tsher bas nyin mtshan kyad med du lhan ne lhang nger snang ste / rje btsun gyi yul ni kho bo’i spyod yul min no shes smras te mi nang bar gyur to /.’”

—Lcang skya Rol pa’i rdo rje, Lo chen Ngag dbang bskal bzang, Gro tshang Mkhan sprul, and Lcang lung Ārya Paṇḍita Ngag dbang blo bzang bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan. Zhing mchog ri bo dwangs bsil gyi gnas bshad dad pa’i padmo rgyas byed ngo mtshar nyi ma’i snang ba (Guide to the Clear and Cool Mountains: A Vision of Marvelous Sun Rays That Causes Lotuses of Devotion to Blossom). Beijing: Zung gru ze’i par khang, 1831. Typeset edition, Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe sgrun khang, 1993. 29b, lines 1 and 2.

Map of Mount Wutai in Laozang Danba, New Gazetteer of Clear and Cool Mountains, 1701. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

“‘Have you not heard that the same phenomenon will be perceived differently by three people? Just as the eyes of their karmic retribution are different, what they see will also be different. If the Clear and Cool Mountains that you see are in the color of emerald green, with terraces and hills filled with variegated jeweled trees with illuminating radiance that eliminates the slightest difference between day and night, this dwelling place of the bodhisattva is not within my reach.’”

“‘師豈不聞一法無異, 三人殊見者乎? 蓋隨其各具業報之眼有殊, 而所見亦異. 若某所見清涼山, 碧琉璃色, 諸臺麓間, 皆雜寶林, 光明煥發, 日夜無閒. 而菩薩住處, 非我所及也.’”

—Qingliang shan zhi 清凉山志 (Gazetteer of the Clear and Cool Mountains). Compiled by Zhencheng 鎮澄 (1546–1617). Originally published 1596; revised in 1660 by Lama Awang Laozang 阿王老 藏 (1601–1687); reprinted in Gugong bowuyuan, Qingliang shan zhi, Qingliang shan xin zhi, Qinding Qingliang shan zhi. Updated compilation by Yinguang 印光 (1862–1940) in 1933; reprinted in Du Jiexiang 杜潔祥, ed., Zhongguo fosi shizhi huikan 中國佛寺史志彙刊. Taipei: Mingwen shuju, 1980–1985. Juan 7, 8a.

Bodhisattva’s Peak, Mount Wutai. From Sekino and Daijō, Shina bunka shiseki, vol. 1, pl. 92.

“What mountain anywhere is not sacred?
Why go to the Five-Peaked Mountain with a walking stick?
Even if a lion with the golden mane manifests in the clouds,
It is nothing special when seen with pure eye.”

“Nyin cig ri bo rtse lngar chas tsam na / hwa shang zhig gis tshigs su bcad pa smras pa / sa phyogs gang gi ri kun chos kyi ri / ci’i phyir ri bo rtse lngar ’khar bas ’gro / smrin gseb mngon pa’i seng ge gser ral can / ngag pa’i mig gis bltas na dge mtshan min / zhes so // chan shis de la ’jus nas dag pa’i mig ces pa ci yin zhes dril pas cang mi zer ro / de nas chan shis khur po bsnams te bzhud do /.

—Lcang skya, Zhing mchog, 42b, lines 1 and 3.

Gelöng Lhundrub, Panoramic View of Mount Wutai, ca. 1846. Honolulu Museum of Art. Accession no. 3202.1.

“This little map of Mount Wutai cannot possibly exhaust every detail of the mountain. The benefactors from all four directions who make a pilgrimage to the sacred realm of the Clear and Cool, see this map of the mountain, listen to and recount the spiritual efficacy and wondrous dharma of the bodhisattva, will in this life be free from all calamities and diseases, and enjoy boundless blessings, happiness, and longevity. After this life, they will be reborn in a blessed land…. Should a person make the vow to print this image, they will accumulate immeasurable merit.”

“此五台一小山圖, 未能盡其詳細, 四方善士凡朝清涼聖境, 及見此山圖, 聞講菩薩靈驗妙法者, 今生能消一切災難疾病, 享福享壽, 福祿綿長, 命終之後, 生於有福之地…. 如有大發願心, 印此山圖者, 則功德無量矣.”

—Inscription of Gelöng Lhundrub, Panoramic Picture of the Sacred Realm of the Mountain of Five Terraces, 1846, bottom-right corner.

Jan Assmann: Remembering the Exodus

Almost 30 years ago, friends in Jerusalem invited my family to a Passover Seder. It might be fun, they said, to have me on board as an Egyptologist to professionally depict the sufferings in the house of serfdom. As the youngest child at the Seder, my daughter Corinna had to learn and ask the question, “Ma nishtana?”,  triggering a chain of liturgical and improvised recitations. I began to think about how an Egyptologist would reconstruct and ‘remember’ the Exodus. After all, I was a complete outsider at the Seder. My only legitimation lay in the fact that it was Egypt that the children of Israel left in order to start a new form of community in Canaan. I wondered, was there a specifically anti-Egyptian gist in this narrative?

When I was asked to write a book on Exodus for Princeton University Press, I felt the time had finally come to set to work. As an Egyptologist, I knew for sure that there was no Egyptian evidence that could corroborate the historicity of the story. There was no use inquiring into what really happened in the time of Ramesses II. Instead, I asked, “How was this event remembered?” This approach allowed me to read the book of Exodus not as a historical account, but as an act of remembering in itself. It also allowed me to locate the story not in the Late Bronze Age, but rather in the time of its narration­—probably the sixth century BCE.

Re-reading the book of Exodus, I remarked with surprise that the Exodus proper—from the sufferings of serfdom to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea—fills just one part of the book. The two other parts contain the revelation of the Law at Mt. Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle. The theme of revelation, however, is present in all three parts:

  1. First, God reveals his name to Moses at the Burning Bush and commissions Moses to lead his people to Canaan, the Promised Land (chs. 3-6). God reveals his power by hitting Pharaoh and his land with ten plagues and drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds (chs. 7-15a).
  2. In the second part, God reveals himself to his chosen people, with whom he forms a covenant, and whom he instructs about the rules to remain true to this covenant (chs. 15b-24).
  3. In the third part, God reveals to Moses the structure of the Tabernacle in the cloud (chs. 25-31) and—in a scene of reconciliation after the crisis of the Golden Calf—his view from behind and his merciful or unforgiving nature.

The book’s narrative arc starts with trauma and ends with triumph: from extreme God-forsakenness to God living ‘in the midst of his people’, ‘sitting on the cherubim.’ Near the middle of the book, the text even contains God’s detailed prescription as to how this story should be remembered by future generations. This prescription is implemented and acted out in the feast of Passover, starting with the Seder night.

The book of Exodus, it turns out, is about much more than just the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. It is about the foundation of a new, revealed religion based on covenant, faith and law, and of a nation chosen to be the carrier of this religion, serving as a prototype that at the end of time will be adopted by all nations on earth.

So where, one may ask, is the “anti-Egyptian gist”? It lies in the opposition of serfdom and freedom. Egypt represents the old system of sacral kingship, where religion and state are the same and the king rules as a god on earth. This system is overturned by the religion of covenant and faith that liberates its members from serving Pharaoh into the service of God. Freedom means autonomy as a diasporic nation—forced to obey the host country’s laws, but at the same time obeying a higher authority whose laws are meant to last forever, untouched by any mundane government. This is religion in a new key, independent of state and country, religion that is able to resist oppression and persecution—religion, that is, as we understand it today. This is why I finally titled my book The Invention of Religion.

Freedom is the major theme of the Passover Haggadah. Freedom in times of exile and persecution—this is what the Seder celebrates. Yet kherût, or freedom, is not a biblical word. It became a keyword only in the Diaspora, when Egypt came to stand for any country and any period where and when the Jews were oppressed. “Wherever you live,” wrote Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution, “it is probably Egypt.” Remembering the Exodus means exiting Egypt.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.