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Politics & Law

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Knowledge in a Conspiratorial World

Do conspiracy theories merit belief? Of course not, or so a nascent consensus of political commentators tells us. But conspiracies do happen — think Watergate — so an outright dismissal of theories that do not fit with a given consensus might risk overlooking important facts. In his recent book ‘The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories’ (2014), philosopher Matthew Dentith — a self-professed ‘conspiracy theory theorist’, i.e. someone who researches belief in conspiracy theories (rather than proposing conspiracy theories himself) — tackles the thorny epistemological questions that emerge from the nexus of secrecy, ideology, and the social world. As BRB reviewer Ori Freiman summarizes the gist of Dentith’s argument, while some (or perhaps most) conspiracy theories are irrational, some conspiracies are rational, and we must therefore not dismiss a theory *only* because it invokes, or asserts, the existence of a conspiracy. Once we acknowledge that a belief in conspiracy theories can be rational, we can further investigate the existence of a conspiracy and the evidence the theory cites. If we succeed in making a tight connection between the conspirators and the events in question, we can consider the conspiracy theory in relation to other possible explanations. Dentith’s book, Freiman concludes, is a thoughtful exploration of the world of conspiracy theories, based on vivid examples from history and fantasy, and rigorously argued.

How to Destroy Europe, in 8 Easy Steps

The Eurozone, and the larger European Union within which it is embedded, finds itself at risk of turning into a project of safeguarding the wealth and status of the select few — what Jürgen Habermas has characterized as a ‘hybrid actor’ consisting of European institutions and private investors and financial conglomerates. Private banks, mostly French and German, were bailed out in 2010, at the expense of the public, and countries such as Greece found themselves unable to meet their financial obligations. But just because a country hasn’t paid up, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t paid a price. European leaders, argues BRB editor Axel Gelfert, must start valuing people, not numbers.

Who Owns Germany?

‘Who owns Germany?’ What might look like a polemical question, intended to incite envy, is in fact a valid concern that merits attention from social scientists and policy-makers. On average, a German household owns wealth to the tune of more than two-hundred thousand Euros. But wealth is unevenly distributed — which is why half of the population owns barely 1.4 percent of total wealth, whereas two thirds of Germany’s wealth are in the hands of the top 10 percent. In his eponymous book, ‘Who Owns Germany?’ (Westend, Frankfurt 2014), Jens Berger traces the origins and the consequences of uneven wealth distribution, its hidden mechanisms and those profiteer from policies that continue to channel wealth from the bottom to the top. Throughout, writes reviewer Patrick Schreiner, Berger maintains a measured tone and displays a keen attention to detail and an awareness of the social realities — from the casualization of labour to the malfunctions of the international financial markets.

Reputation and Disenchantment

In a world that is more and more connected by electronic and other social media, questions of reputation and its management become ever more important, even to individuals who previously would not have thought of themselves as being in the public limelight. A recent volume, ‘La Réputation’ (2013), edited by Gloria Origgi and published by the Centre Edgar-Morin, explores this topic from an interdisciplinary perspective. Composed of twelve articles, ranging from psychology and economics to philosophy and sociology, the volume aims at a ‘disenchantment’ of the elusive notion of reputation. As reviewer Thomas Mollanger notes, though the volume engages little with the extensive body of reputation research in the English-speaking world, it nonetheless succeeds in highlighting and analyzing the centrality of reputation to a range of social phenomena.

American Foundations and the Politics of Philanthropy

In his book ‘Foundations of the American Century’ (Columbia University Press 2012), Inderjeet Parmar provides a wide-ranging study of the influence American philanthropic foundations have exerted on world politics and the ‘soft power’ that comes with cultural hegemony. The mutual penetration of state and society, notest Parmar, is ‘so deep and comprehensive – physically, politically, ideologically, psychologically, and organizationally – that it is almost impossible to say where one ends and the other begins’. Parmar’s book succeeds, writes reviewer Houman Barekat, because he studiously avoids the trap of implying an unmediated vertical relationship between the philanthropies and the political and economic elites whose goals they ultimately served. Nuanced and well-researched, Parmar’s study provides a healthy antidote to simplistic critiques of US ‘elites’, while bringing out – through case studies of Indonesia and Chile – how the initiatives of ‘philanthropic’ organizations dovetailed with and complemented those of the American state.

Offense Taken

When do images and words become so powerful that they warrant punishment, or should be considered morally reprehensible? In this essay, Bruce Fleming, Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy Annapolis, reflects on the policing of speech and the increasing polarization of public debate in the United States. In an unlikely pairing, he contrasts Sarah Palin’s ‘America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag’ with John Searle’s ‘Making the Social World’. What could a political memoir and mission statement of a presidential wannabe have to do with a scholarly work by a Berkeley philosophy professor? Read more to find out.

Germany Goes Global: Farewell, Europe?

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Germany’s reunification on 3 October 1990, Ulrike Guerot reconsiders Germany’s place in Europe. Having been, for the longest time, the great engine both of Europe’s economic strength and its political unity, Germany is falling out of love with, or at least is becoming more indifferent towards, the very European Union it helped to bring into existence. A new-found pragmatism and growing global ambitions — as indicated by the government’s ongoing efforts to gain a seat on the UN Security Council — show that the country’s perception of its place in a globalised world are shifting. In Europe, too, Germany is gradually replacing foreign policy by hard-nosed trade policy. The challenge to the future of the European Union is profound.

God’s Executioner

A sixteenth-century journal kept by Frantz Schmidt, a Nuremberg executioner, affords a rare insight into the gruesome world of early modern retribution. But, says author and historian Joel Harrington, beyond the facticity of all the deaths caused by “Meister Frantz”, the journal also throws light on early modern concepts of identity, social status, and the human body as well as on the development of both the picaresque and autobiographical genres. As Meister Frantz grows in both professional and storytelling experience, his accounts of the various unfortunates he encounters become both more colourful and more revealing of his inner world. Consequently, the journal unveils not so much a detailed portrait as a vivid sketch of the moral cosmology of a sixteenth-century executioner.