Who is targeting America’s greatest political scientists?

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

The APSA hotel fire was not quite as dramatic as this picture of a Beirut, Lebanon hotel fire from June 2014   But now your interest is piqued, amirite? EPA/WISSAM HICHMI

Last Thursday I suggested 10 perfectly anodyne ways to mess with political scientists attending the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual meeting last week.  Someone adopted a not-so-anodyne approach:

A series of suspicious fires early Saturday at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Northwest forced guests from their rooms into smoky corridors and onto the grounds of the hotel in the pre-dawn darkness.

Guests said that at about 1 a.m., they were told to leave their rooms. One of them, Kenneth Benoit, said he left his 10th-floor room to find a corridor filled with smoke and people crowding fire-exit stairwells.

Benoit said he was allowed back into his room after several hours, only to have to leave when the fire alarm sounded again….

At 7:30 a.m., a hotel official announced that the building had been searched twice and that people would be allowed to return to their rooms, he said. He said the conference gradually got back to normal.

Yes, if by “back to normal” you mean “half the participants operating at 10 percent capacity.”

For more on-the-spot reporting from top notch political science bloggers and reporters, see here, here, here, and here.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I was one of the Marriott Wardman guests forced from their hotel room at 1 a.m.  And I’m pretty steamed.  No one makes sure I’m sleep-deprived at these events except for me, dammit!  And despite a six-hour police presence, and despite evidence that the fires were set intentionally, no one has been apprehended.

As a good social scientist, I cannot let this stand.  So I must ask — cui bono?  Who had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to set the APSA fire?   After at least a half-hour a long, good think, here’s a list of my top 10 suspects:

10)  Billy Joel.  Within minutes of the evacuation from the Marriott, the #APSAonFire hashtag was born, as well as the questions about who started it.  Which meant that, for the first time in at least a decade, political scientists started thinking about this song:

If this is Billy Joel’s play for sustained relevancy… well, he should have waited and targeted the American Economics Association instead.

9)  U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  It’s safe to say that most political scientists think that terrorism is an overrated security concern.  What better way to reduce carping about ICE or TSA than to force political scientists to endure their own emergency and realize the value of preemptive preparedness?  Except that since the communication with the evacuees during the actual fire was pretty bad, this would have… um…. backfired.

8)  Sociologists.  Think of sociologists as the “usual suspects” when something goes wrong in a social science enterprise.  In fact, I doubt that they’re responsible, but I could only think of nine viable candidates — but sociologists are the social scientists’ natural residual category.

7)  Sen. Tom Coburn.  The senior senator from Oklahoma has devoted years to trying to cut National Science Foundation funding for political science.  Alas, recently APSA was able to defeat Senator Coburn by actually doing rather than teaching.  Coburn is retiring soon, which means it’s endgame strategy time for his desire to end political science as we know it.  I hope he has a good alibi is all I’m saying.

6)  The British.  As the Inside Higher Ed story about the fire noted, “Several [political scientists] joked that — this being the bicentennial of the year that the British burned the White House — British political scientists should be prime suspects.”  Well, let’s get rid of the joking!!  APSA has overshadowed the British equivalent of APSA for decades now — this would be just the kind of asymmetric attack designed to level the playing field between the two associations.  

5)  Charli Carpenter.  Just as APSA began, the political scientist, Duck of Minerva blogger, good friend of Spoiler Alerts, and the author of the just-released “Lost” Causes: Agenda Vetting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security wrote quite the jeremiad against APSA, explaining why she wouldn’t be attending:

I’m boycotting my professional organization for scheduling a conference so as to inhibit work-life-balance and pose an undue burden on parents in the profession, especially mothers. I’m boycotting APSA because they have done this year by year over the protest of their members. What began as an irreconcilable personal conflict for a parent of grade schoolers and partner to a dual-career spouse – what began, that is, as a simple work-life balance choice – has turned over the years into a political statement that I’ll continue to make until APSA’s policy changes.

Could Carpenter have decided to go beyond boycotting?  All I know is that if she’s as dogged in her pursuit to change the date of APSA as she is in her impeccable research, then the association is in big trouble. That said, it would seem hypocritical for her to boycott APSA for work/life balance reasons and then schlep all the way down to D.C. to engage in this attack.  Which brings me to those who were down in D.C. already…

4)  Experimental political scientists.  As I tweeted out at the start of the fire:

If you wanted to experiment on how political scientists handle extreme sleep deprivation at APSA (as opposed to the more customary sleep deprivation), this would be a good way to do it.  Or, maybe this was a simpler effort to survey the distribution of poli sci wear at 1 a.m.  These aren’t really great research topics, however.  Which brings me to my next suspect….

3)  Twitter.  We know that Facebook and OKCupid have run experiments on their customers — maybe Twitter decided on an even more extreme experiment to see whether some quality tweets could be tweeted? If so, then Seth Masket won this little experiment hands down:

Which brings me to my next suspect…

2)  God.  Two years ago, APSA was thwarted by the gross stupidity of planning a conference in a hurricane city during hurricane season the extreme winds of hurricanes.  This time, it was fire.  Next year, APSA is supposed to be in San Francisco.  If there’s an earthquake (or locusts) a year from now, then perhaps e should consider the possibility that the Almighty is not keen about political scientists?

And finally, and most bizarrely,

1)  The American Political Science Association. Sounds pretty absurd, doesn’t it?  Why would APSA set fire to its own conference hotel?  Why would APSA do anything to further expose its chaotic decision-making structure (in response to the fire, the association first cancelled all panels before noon and then, an hour later, reinstated all panels after 9:30 a.m., and then apologized for the confusion)?

Because the best way to demonstrate one’s relevancy in D.C. is to become an object of attack, that’s why.  Beltway observers pay far more attention to trouble spots than non-trouble spots.  The fire generated news coverage for APSA that is unparalleled compared to coverage in prior years.  It even merited semi-positive reporting from National Review, for Pete’s sake.  And that’s publicity that you can’t buy.

Just remember, the greatest trick that APSA ever pulled was convincing the world that political science exists.

Additional suspects are welcomed in the comments.

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Devin Fergus · September 2, 2014

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