July 23rd, 2010

[BLOG] Some Thursday links


  • 80 Beats observes the discovery of a star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way, that's the most massive star discovered to date with a mass three hundred times that of our sun.

  • At the Everyday Sociology Blog, Janice Prince Inniss writes about the rising rates of intermarriage in the United States, with Asians and Hispanics marrying outside their demographic more often than whites or blacks, and some potential partners (whites, mainly) more valued than others.

  • Lawyers, Guns and Money's Robert Farley is properly scathing of a book, Walter Laqueur's The Last Days of Europe, that's terribly sloppy in its argument that Europe is becoming Eurabia.

  • Marginal Revolution quotes from a Stratfor analysis of Greece's situation that's altogether too reductionistic: Greek problems aren't all about geography, people.

  • At the Search, Douglas Todd points out that rumours that Muslim birth rates in Canada are so high that soon we'll be elected Muslim prime ministers are, well, Eurabia.

  • Towleroad's Andy Towle announces that after many years, the Obama administration has helped the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission to finally gain consultative status at the United Nations, along with other groups. Abroad, a coalition of mainly Muslim countries has opposed the recognition; inside the United States, some Republicans followed suit.

  • Undercover Economist Tim Harford writes about the thriving--and mass popularity--of board games like Settlers of Catan in Germany.

  • Window on Eurasia reports speculations that the recent ouster of the nationalist governor of the Russian republic of Bashkortostan might mean that the Russian government is finally going to place the autonomous ethnic republics more tightly under its control.

[BRIEF NOTE] On the republic of letters that isn't

I'm obliged to Noel for pointing me in the direction of the remarkable Economist article "Social networks and statehood: The future is another country". I'll just quote the first four paragraphs; they're quite representative of the whole.

A couple of months or so after becoming Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron wanted a few tips from somebody who could tell him how it felt to be responsible for, and accountable to, many millions of people: people who expected things from him, even though in most cases he would never shake their hands.

He turned not to a fellow head of government but to…Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and boss of Facebook, the phenomenally successful social network. (It announced on July 21st that it had 500m users, up from 150m at the start of 2009.) In a well-publicised online video chat this month, the two men swapped ideas about ways for networks to help governments. Was this just a political leader seeking a spot of help from the private sector—or was it more like diplomacy, a comparison of notes between the masters of two great nations?

In some ways, it might seem absurd to call Facebook a state and Mr Zuckerberg its governor. It has no land to defend; no police to enforce law and order; it does not have subjects, bound by a clear cluster of rights, obligations and cultural signals. Compared with citizenship of a country, membership is easy to acquire and renounce. Nor do Facebook’s boss and his executives depend directly on the assent of an “electorate” that can unseat them. Technically, the only people they report to are the shareholders.

But many web-watchers do detect country-like features in Facebook. “[It] is a device that allows people to get together and control their own destiny, much like a nation-state,” says David Post, a law professor at Temple University. If that sounds like a flattering description of Facebook’s “groups” (often rallying people with whimsical fads and aversions), then it is worth recalling a classic definition of the modern nation-state. As Benedict Anderson, a political scientist, put it, such polities are “imagined communities” in which each person feels a bond with millions of anonymous fellow-citizens. In centuries past, people looked up to kings or bishops; but in an age of mass literacy and printing in vernacular languages, so Mr Anderson argued, horizontal ties matter more.


So. Despite not having the basic characteristics of a state or a country-no territory, no government, no concept of the citizen or the subject, no monopoly on force--Facebook is still "country-like," based as it is on communities of shared interest. Facebook is a country, sure; my Monday night anime group, the St. Thomas's congregation, and my readership also constitute countries--or country-like entities, more fairly--on that basis. If we're defining affinity groups as being reasonably like countries, one term or the other has just lost meaning.

I've long been taken with the idea of the Republic of Letters, the term used for the transnational correspondences between writers and thinkers in Europe and America that corresponded with the Enlightenment and quite probably accelerated that phenomenon. The idea that the Internet might be facilitating a similar awakening, this time including not just the elites of one small part of the world but a much larger share of the global population, appeals to me. The Internet, though, is not a state, is quite easily controlled by states. In the same way, the Republic of Letters was never an actual polity, rather, it was a term for an established community of discourse, one girded by rules and self-regulating, but one ultimately under the control of the states where the Republic's writers lived.

I very much doubt that any of the Republic's constituents dreamed that, one day, that republic would work at all like any of the states in which they lived. Are we 21st century types really that much less immune to these fantasies?