When In Truth Did We Win Anything?

Progress is dead.

In the same sense that Nietzsche spoke of the death of God, only to be habitually misunderstood by the same kinds of people that misunderstand Einstein saying that God does not play dice with the universe. The question Nietzsche had was how it might be possible to retain some consistent vision of values or ethics in the absence of a belief in God as the unquestioned authority over such values. The whole point was to find some deeper, more robust way to sustain those values.

So what “progress” is it that has died? The kind that people–primarily white, educated and liberal people–told themselves had already been accomplished and would inevitably continue to be accomplished. Progress as slightly smug self-congratulation is dead. Progress as the accomplished work of an earlier generation of almost mythical heroes is dead. Progress as irreversible is dead.

The aspirational content of progress is not, any more than ethics and morality were dead with “God”. We just have to find a deeper way to work for those aspirations and to never assume that they are final, finished work if they appear, however briefly, to be an animating part of our public institutions and civic lives.

So what does this mean as a revision of the more smug style of telling the history of the modern world? It does not mean that we must tell the opposite history: that the last two centuries have been a never-ending catastrophe of anti-progress, that nothing has ever changed, that a nightmare that began in 1492 has continued uninterrupted and undifferentiated ever since. That is the same kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was desperate to avoid as the concept of God lost its status as the secure guarantor of moral claims.

We have no grounds for complaining about the failures of our present if we did not somewhere develop an understanding of what a better world would be like. That understanding has risen out of experience and experiment, out of actions taken and institutions remade. It has been and remains real. If we tell ourselves that nothing has ever changed, we are also telling ourselves, whether we mean to or not, that nothing ever can change.

The weariness that is settling over most of us–even people who long have been bowed under by the weary awareness that the promise of progress has never been fulfilled–is because we now know that anything that does change can be changed back again. Slavery was abolished, but it can be resurrected. In corners and shadows in our world, it has been. One form or another of legal racism has been edited out of the laws, but it either marches on regardless of the law or the law falls into the hands of people who would perpetuate racism. One group of people arises who reject injustice, but another group finds their way to injustice and they baptize themselves in its foul pools. There are no procedures or rules or systems that prevent the renewal of social evil. There is no philosophy or belief which is self-proving and secure against its half-hearted adoption by insincere and doubtful adherents.

Trying to figure out what in the human past is so thoroughly past that it will never come again is a fool’s errand. Trying to think of the past as an atavism that erupts somehow into a present full of progress is equally foolish. We don’t carry a terrible past inside of us like a parasite. We make new futures of terror and beauty from what we have been, but also from what we are. There’s always a new way to be terrible. The torch-bearers of Charlottesville are not mocking ghosts who can only briefly haunt the living. They are terrible children, familiar fathers, the man next door, the face behind the counter or the voice on the phone. New and urgent, but also known burdens, the rock that we sisyphi push up the hill and that veers to crush some of us–always the same some–reliably and repeatedly on its way back down.

Progress is not a machine programmed to arrive at a predestined utopia. It is not an arc that bends towards justice like the rain falling to the force of gravity. It is a twisting road we must walk in a never-ending maze of twisting roads. We walk it because we ought to, not because we’ve been given assurances of getting to the other side.

Posted in Politics, Production of History | 7 Comments

Recipe for Coalition: 1. Add Recognition, At Least Half a Cup.

David Atkins at Washington Monthly has a point about what progressives, Democrats and anyone else who is dismayed by the current political situation in the United States has to do.

It’s entirely possible that at a grassroots level in many parts of the country, the advice is unnecessary because it’s long since been taken. It’s hard for me and maybe many to tell whether online sniping between pundits, Twitter feeds, Tumblr blogs and so on has anything at all to do with how most people live and inhabit their political choices.

Assuming for a moment that there’s either some resemblance between the tensions expressed in the public sphere and those felt on the ground, or that the public sphere has the potential to eventually impose its discourse on others, then there is a basic understanding of coalition politics that is being entirely sidestepped by many people. I’ve complained before about a version of this point, that the discourse about “allies” in identity politics doesn’t really recognize what an alliance is. You don’t expect allies to be identical to your own party or movement–and you only are interested in allies when you have to be, because there’s no other way to realize your own political aspirations.

In the context of the current debate, if we can call it that, between mainstream Democrats and left progressives, well, the problem is that both sides (or maybe there’s more than two) tend to think that “alliance” or “coalition” means, “I’m going to tell the other guys all the ways in which they suck, I’m going to accuse them of being racists/sexists/corporate shills/almost Republicans/cowards/delusional and then I’m going to demand that they join the coalition, which means shutting up and obeying everything we tell them to do.”

If anyone wants to make the point about working together in a helpful way that actually leads to a coalition, here’s how to start: through a generous acknowledgement of the legitimate grievances and helpful contributions of the faction or group that you do not identify with. You outline the sustaining terms and common ground for a coalition. You bracket off the issues that your side is prepared to push off to the margins and identify some of the issues that you believe the other factions will have to push off to the margins. You figure out strategically which seats or offices the other side(s) has the best chance to win, and which seats and offices your side has the best chance to win, and you offer to support all of those races equally. You acknowledge the cases where the other faction has a far better candidate in basic terms (say, in the last Pennsylvania Senate race, John Fetterman was simply a more charismatic, engaging, interesting candidate by far than Katie McGinty, period–she had no chance to beat a very beatable opponent) and you agree that you’ll try to acknowledge that kind of difference when you see it and go with the winning chance regardless.

You parsimoniously identify the two or three essential issues where candidates and spokespeople from any faction just have to satisfy you; you hope the other guys do the same.

And so on. It’s time to stop saying, “We have to work together, you whiny BernieBro crazy purist impractical nonsense faux-socialist millennial brats!” and “We have to work together, you corporate stooge neoliberal basically-Republican money-chasing scumbags!” In those cases, just skip the “have to work together” part, since it really means, “You must bend the knee to us and submit in every way”.

That, by the way, is the privilege of every political actor, from individuals all the way up to movements: to insist that they want it all, exactly as they want it. But you know what, that means one more thing: you have the power, or a plan for having the power, to make those unyielding demands meaningful. If you have the power or a plan for having the power, stop talking *to* the political factions you intend to compel or coerce into submission to your own agenda. If that’s the way it is, stop whining about Kamala Harris or Cory Booker to the mainstream Democratic Party, because you do not expect them to care. If that’s the way it is, stop whining to Sanders supporters about how they’re sexist or immature or unrealistic, because you do not expect them to listen.

Right now I don’t think that either mainstream Democrats or Sanders-aligned progressives have a plan for compelling or coercing their opposing faction, and neither do they have an awareness of the necessity of coalition and the necessary requirements for coalition. As far as I can tell, the plan on both sides is “We’ll lose again! And lose even more seats in state legislatures and Congress! And then you’ll be sorry! Then you’ll listen!”

The Tea Party had a plan that actually worked for compelling the mainstream Republican Party to obey them. I think maybe even some in the Tea Party are now regretting that. In an earlier era, the mainstream Republican Party from 1968-2000 had a plan for giving the ancestors of the Tea Party enough of what they wanted to keep them happy and in coalition. Thinking of that kind is more or less absent among Democrats, progressives and radicals. More’s the pity.

Posted in Politics | 13 Comments

On Confederate Counterfactuals

For some years, I’ve taught a course on counterfactual history. Unlike many scholarly historians, I find counterfactual history useful for a variety of reasons.

For one, I accept the argument that a number of its proponents have made that all arguments about historical causality are at least implicitly counterfactual, and that those claims can often be made more effectively if the counterfactuals are explored more explicitly. For the same reason, I think all claims about the contingent nature of historical events and about human agency in history require at least some acknowledgement of counterfactual possibilities.

I also think there are some humanists who’ve done an important job of asking about the emotional and philosophical meanings of certainty in history, about why we’re sure that certain key events or long-term narratives are inevitable or necessary. Often our need to see certain things as highly deterministic is less derived from evidence or analysis and more by a sense of our contemporary politics or values, that to acknowledge certain contingencies or uncertainties in the past is to make something in the present more fragile than we wish it to be.

I also just think counterfactuals are interesting and enjoyable and that is sufficient justification for pursuing them. I’m glad to turn E.H. Carr’s famous denunciation of the counterfactual as a “parlour game” on its head and see that as an endorsement. Counterfactuals and historical fiction both challenge the limits of historical scholarship and force historians to recognize that there are other ways of knowing, imagining and making use of the past that may require other practices of imagination and interpretation than the traditional approach favored by historians since the late 19th Century.

That said, the striking thing about actual counterfactual writing is not its imaginative character but instead how cramped and fetishized much of it is. A vast percentage of it, both by fiction writers and by scholars who’ve taken a stab at it, concerns a small handful of famous battles, a small handful of famous white male leaders, and a smattering of familiar and very Eurocentric events. Niall Ferguson, in his introduction to the anthology Virtual History, seems to think that this narrowness of focus is one of the things that recommends counterfactuals as a scholarly exercise. (He makes a fairly tortured argument that counterfactual writing is a salutary poke in the eye to Marxist-inflected social history and must concentrate on a small subset of historical actors where we have explicit evidence that they consciously contemplated several courses of action before undertaking one of them.)

One reason I think it’s worth pushing counterfactuals more generally is to ask what counterfactuals written outside of that cramped space might look like, and why we might be reluctant in some cases to undertake them. If I try to write a counterfactual analysis of the “scramble for Africa” of the late 19th Century, I immediately confront some pretty serious conceptual, political and intellectual challenges. If I confine my counterfactual to Bismarck or Cecil Rhodes or Joseph Chamberlain or David Livingstone, I’m just reproducing the old Eurocentric narratives that claim that the conquest of sub-Saharan Africa was just a kind of epiphenomenal side-effect of European history decided upon by famous male leaders. If I try to write a counterfactual where African agency produces a different substantive overall outcome, I’m in danger of “blaming the victims”, of imagining that Africans could have stopped colonialism if they’d only done something other than what they did. (And if I try to do that, I’m also up against serious limits to plausibility and accuracy, since there really doesn’t seem to have been an overall possibility of a different outcome from collective or sustained action by Africans, just variations in local outcomes.) If I argue that colonialism was completely deterministic and inevitable and no counterfactuals are possible, I put in jeopardy a whole series of nested assumptions about the moral responsibility of imperial leaders and European nations. But these all seem like valuable conversations to have, and if asking about counterfactuals as a possibility helps push them forward, good.

The other way to think about the cramped space that most counterfactuals live in is to ask why they’re so uncreatively confined to a narrow range of conjectures about what-might-have-been. So let’s take one of the two stock counterfactuals, namely, “What if the South had won the Civil War?”, which the producers of Game of Thrones have announced will be the basis of the next series they will produce. This has not surprisingly and to my mind completely justifiably produced a lot of dismayed chatter on social media.

Partly it’s because Benioff and Weiss don’t by their own admission have much knowledge about this extremely crowded field of counterfactual writing. “I read a book by Shelby Foote” does not inspire confidence. If nothing else, I’d tell them to hire some researchers stat so that they don’t end up being sued by one of about thirty authors for pretty much rehashing an existing might-have-been story. Maybe they should even option one or more of those stories: Bring the Jubilee might work pretty well. (But please god, not that awful goddamn Harry Turtledove book.)

The deeper problem is that for a subject that receives this much attention, the range of counterfactuals is narrowly confined to essentially nostalgic takes on the antebellum South, to the point of being a kind of odd side branch of Lost Cause thinking. There are exceptions, but not many. They’re also generally obsessed with battlefield analysis, Gettsyburg in particular, and Pickett’s Charge even more particularly.

If you really thought about it, here’s some other counterfactuals about the Civil War that are at least as plausible as the more typical, “The South wins and either becomes a racist nightmare dystopia that dominates the North or it becomes a genteel civilization that eventually slowly emancipates the slaves and makes racial peace”.

1. The North imposes a genuinely tough and unforgiving form of military occupation and sees Reconstruction through more thoroughly until it’s finished, resulting in an America with more racial justice and with a South that is fully reintegrated into the Union, more along the lines of post-1950 Germany or Japan. Nobody writes that one up, but it’s not completely without plausibility, nor is it without appeal. (Counterfactual fiction has a somewhat understandable aversion to writing about outcomes that were far better than the real world because of the loss of dramatic potential, but there are good examples of engaging stories that follow that path.)

2. A US where slave revolts became widespread after Harper’s Ferry (or at some earlier moment), leading to an overall collapse of public order in some slave states and subsequent federal intervention, eventually leading to emancipation without a Civil War.

3. A US where the South secedes and the North decides to let them secede but also overthrows Dred Scott, encourages fugitive slaves, and closes the border to the South and prevents westward movement. The South becomes an impoverished shithole banana republic and in the early 20th Century begs for readmission to the Union.

4. A South that is permitted to secede that then wages war on Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America and Mexico to try and secure more territory for slavery and eventually loses in a series of border conflicts, including the re-annexation of most of Texas.

5. A South which successfully sues for favorable peace after Gettysburg only to fall to a socialist revolution in the early 20th Century due to an alliance between slaves, freedmen, small landholders and industrial laborers against the old plantation class.

See, the thing you discover is that whether you’re doing fiction or you’re trying to make a careful counterfactual argument that is somewhat scholarly in nature, almost all “The South and the Civil War” counterfactuals are captive to the Lost Cause and are deeply solicitious of Southern white manhood–of the need to compliment the honor and dignity of Confederate soldiers, the legitimacy of the Confederate cause, to treat the Civil War as a noble conflict between brothers, and so on. But there are so many other stories that could be told–or conjectures that could be made. (And have been made, at least by some scholars of Reconstruction.)

So if Benioff and Weiss keep going with this, I really urge them to leave Shelby Foote behind. If they really must do this, try something else that’s really provocative for a change. I think a series where an independent South is a horrific failed state or a series where Reconstruction is genuinely harsh to good ends also would get people talking, and for once, the provocations would be aimed in a different direction than they habitually are.

Posted in Academia, Production of History | 25 Comments

A Matter of Perspective

If you were going to strip away the layered sociocultural histories that surround opinions like “colleges are bad for America” or “bring back coal jobs”, you would have some baseline economic truth that you’d think would reorder those opinions.

a) Coal doesn’t employ that many people and wouldn’t even if it grew by 100% or more. And it only employs them in a narrow geographic range of places, and the product of that labor is only narrowly important to the overall energy infrastructure of the country. And if coal continues to be extracted at roughly the level it is extracted (or more), it’s likely going to be extracted increasingly through highly mechanized strategies that dispense with most human labor.

b) If you were looking for an economic sector that employs a lot of people evenly across most of the country that’s actually in serious and accelerating economic trouble, you’d probably take note of conventional retail jobs, especially in big-box and department stores. It’s not just the jobs here that matter, but the tax revenues to almost all municipalities and the consequences of abandoned or dramatically underutilized retail buildings.

c) If you were looking for one of America’s major remaining economic strengths in a global economy, you’d doubtless focus on higher education. Many families with economic resources in other countries continue to want to send their children here for advanced education, and many American families continue to have a massive range of excellent choices from community colleges to public research universities to expensive private 4-year institutions. A college education of any kind continues to deliver major benefits to graduates in the current economy, even if those have become more precarious and even if social mobility *into* college educations has become more constrained.

d) If you were looking for areas of economic opportunity that might be distributed nationwide rather than constrained to a precious few geographic regions, you’d probably be looking at skilled manufacturing (often requiring a college education), programming and other tech-sector work, health care work, teaching (at all levels), energy sector work besides coal and oil (including fracking but also wind/solar), climate change adaptation manufacturing (everything from flood control to mold removal to new styles of construction).


But we don’t get to strip away the layered sociocultural histories. So put them back into play. What makes these four points something that are so easily obscured, ignored or skewed by partisan discourses? It’s not just fake news and propaganda that’s responsible.

Fundamentally, coal is a stand-in for a much wider range of jobs, livelihoods, community circumstances, life experiences, worldviews. It’s everywhere that towns were built around a single industry, and everyone who was willing to work hard and suffer in difficult and exploitative labor for a life in return for having roots, feeling solidarity in locality, staying put. In the longer history of things, single industry towns have always been marking time to their inevitable ends, maybe even before the modern capitalist world system took shape. The bitterness of that is that their residents often are attracted to the seeming promise of a kind of simplicity of permanence, a stepping-out from the flowing motion of people and goods and ways of life. So yes, people know that coal’s gone, and as is always the case with moral economy, the vision of what people believed they once had only gets sharper and brighter and more simplistic as it disappears–and more desperately desired. And it gets easier as desire hones to a fine point to find scapegoats to blame: the politicians, the city folks, the young, the eggheads, the blacks and Mexicans.

The jobs that people really are losing? They weren’t good jobs to begin with, they weren’t what defined a community’s sense of self (nobody thinks of themselves as part of that town or small city that has that street with the Best Buy and the Circuit City and the Kohls and the Target on it). So no one feels anything other than the ordinary desperation of joblessness in a jobless world when the Target or the Sears closes up.

The jobs that people really are gaining? Well, in towns where the college or university employs people (as they do, all over the country), at least some of those jobs are complicatedly disdained *within* the college or university even as they provide salary and benefits to their workers–so maybe it’s easy to feel both attachment to the employment and annoyance at the institution all at once. And colleges and universities have hardly been great employers of late for their faculties, for the most part, as adjunctification has intensified. And the costs of educating children in higher ed are high, with the outcomes more tenuous feeling. So loyalty and affection is frayed even before the talk shows get to work.

More to the point, those jobs that are the heart of the economy to come? Most people on the other side, on the economy that was, believe, with some justification, that there is no program of retraining or education that will make that economy to come available to them. Technocrats like to imagine they are standing in a place of invisible neutrality when they look over the facts and lay out the best choices. But those choices look very different depending on where you stand. You can’t tell the story of these four facts about the economy dispassionately without already being someone who is on the right side (for now) of the history they embody.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 5 Comments

Trump As Desecration

I still regret to some extent that at the beginning of Swarthmore College’s Aydelotte Foundation (before it received its current name) we decided that a good initial test of the ability to have conversations across and within disciplines was best suited to a shared college-wide reading of Jonathan Haidt’s flawed book The Righteous Mind. I would rather have found a book that didn’t frustrate and irritate most of the participants.

I don’t regret the conversations, though. And the odd thing is that I keep coming back to the book with new complaints against its claims, so it did help me actually rethink and refocus some of how I observe and imagine political life.

Haidt argues that liberal political dispositions, which he views (like other political dispositions) as substantially subconscious and intuitive, are unresponsive to blasphemy or sacrilege, that liberals do not cross-wire deep emotional responses connected to disgust or repulsion to politics, do not have strong notions about the sacred and the profane as a part of their subconscious script for reading the public sphere and political events.

My colleague and friend Ben Berger pointed out during one of our discussions that this observation seemed fundamentally wrong to him–that people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious, and that many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do. Ben observed that Haidt might be missing that because many liberals and leftists did not feel deeply trespassed against in this way in their own favored institutional and social worlds, and usually looked upon a public sphere that largely aligned with their vision of civic propriety and ritual.

I’m not opposed per se to Haidt’s insistence that some of our political affiliations and reactions stem from deeper, non-conscious cognitive predispositions: I just think he woefully mismaps those findings to real politics, to history, to institutions, and so on. I think Ben’s point now seems deeply confirmed. Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.

Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.

Even when we intellectually understand that our sense of the sacred in civic and public life may be dysfunctionally entangled in stifling technocratic arrogance or neoliberal visions of governmentality, even when we believe ourselves to be open to a more carnivalesque or improvisational mode of public leadership, we still have very deep feelings about what’s proper and improper, righteous and demonic, sanitary and repellant. And Trump is violating every intuition, every deep reservoir of feeling we have about how one ought to be a man, a leader, a symbol of our national identity. We are not distracted when we respond to those feelings. In fact, we might be better off to articulate our responses as feelings, as intense and profound and utterly righteous feelings.

Posted in Politics | 17 Comments

Helpful Hints for Skeptics

I suppose I knew in some way that there were people whose primary self-identification was “skeptic”, and even that there were people who saw themselves as part of the “skeptic community”. But it’s been interesting to encounter the kinds of conversations that self-identified members of the skeptic community have been having with one another, and especially the self-congratulatory chortling of some such over something like the lame “hoax” of gender studies.

Skepticism is really just a broad property of many forms of intellectual inquiry and a generalized way to be in the world. Most scholars are in some respect or another skeptics, or they employ skepticism as a rhetorical mode and as a motivation for their research. Lots of writers, public figures, and so on at least partake of skepticism in some fashion. I’m a bit depressed that people who identify so thoroughly with skepticism that they see that as their primary community and regard the word as a personal identifier don’t seem to be very good at being skeptical.

So a bit of advice for anyone who aspires to not just use skepticism as a tool but to be a skeptic through-and-through.

1) Read Montaigne. Be Montaigne. He’s the role model for skepticism. And take note of his defining statement: What do I know? If you haven’t read Montaigne, you’re missing out.

2) Regard everything you think you know as provisional. Be sure of nothing. When you wake up in the morning, decide to argue that what you were sure of yesterday must be wrong. Just to see what shakes loose when you do it.

3) Never, ever, think your shit doesn’t stink. If you’re spending most of your time attacking others, regarding other people as untrue or unscientific or unrational who need to have your withering skeptical gaze upon them, you’re not a skeptic. Skepticism is first and last introspective. You are the best focus of your own skepticism. Skepticism that is relentlessly other-directed is just assholery with a self-flattering label. Skepticism requires humility.

4) Always doubt your first impulses. Always regard your initial feelings as suspect.

5) Always read past the headline. Always read the fine print. Always read the details. Never be easy to manipulate.

6) Never subcontract your skepticism. “Skeptical community” is in that sense already a mistake. No one else’s skepticism can substitute for your own. Yes, no person is an island, and yes, you too stand on the shoulders of giants. But when it comes to thinking a problem through from as many perspectives as possible, when it comes to asking the unasked questions, every skeptic has to stand on their own two feet.

7) Never give yourself excuses. If you don’t have the time to think something through, to explore it, to look at all the perspectives possible, to ask the counter-intuitive questions, then fine: you don’t have the time. Don’t decide that you already know all the answers without having to do any of the work. Don’t start flapping your gums about the results of your skepticism if you never did the work of thinking skeptically about something.

8) Never be obsessive in your interest in a single domain or argument. If you have something that is so precious to you that you can’t afford to subject it to skepticism, if you have an idee fixe, if you’re on a crusade, you’re not a skeptic.

9) Never resist changing sides. Always be willing to walk a mile in other shoes. Skepticism should be mobile. If you have a white whale you’re chasing, you’re not a good skeptic. A good skeptic should be chasing Ahab as often as the other way round–and sometimes should just be carving scrimshaw and watching while the whale and the captain chase each other.

10) Be curious. A skeptic is a wanderer. If you’re using skepticism as a reason not to read something, not to think about something, not to learn something new, you’re not a good skeptic.

Posted in Academia, Generalist's Work, Oath for Experts | 5 Comments

Some Work Is Hard

Dear friends, have you ever felt after reading an academic article that annoyed you, hearing a scholarly talk that seemed like nonsense to you, enduring a grant proposal that seemed like a waste of money to you, that you’d like to expose that entire field or discipline as a load of worthless gibberish and see it kicked out of the academy?

You probably didn’t do anything about it, because you’re not an asshole. You realized that a single data point doesn’t mean anything, and besides, you realized that your own tastes and preferences aren’t really defensible as a rigorous basis for constructing hierarchies of value within academia. You probably realized that you don’t really know that much about the field that you disdain, that you couldn’t seriously defend your irritation as an actual proposition in a room full of your colleagues. You realized that if lots of people do that kind of work, there must be something important about it.

Or maybe you are an asshole, and you decided to do something about your feelings. Maybe you even convinced yourself that you’re some kind of heroic crusader trying to save academia from an insidious menace to its professionalism. So what do you have to do next?

Here’s what you don’t do: generate a “hoax” that you think shows that the field or discipline that you loathe is without value and then publish it in a near-vanity open-access press that isn’t even connected to the discipline or field you disdain. This in fact proves nothing except that you are in fact an asshole. It actually proves more: that you’re a lazy asshole. At a minimum, if you think a “hoax” paper shows low standards in an entire field of study, standards that are lower than other disciplines or fields of study, you need to publish your hoax in what that field regards as its most prestigious, carefully-reviewed, field-defining journal. If, for example, you can write an entire article that is not only dependent upon fraudulent citations but is deliberate word salad gibberish (and you carefully indicate your intentions as such to an objective third party prior to beginning the effort) and publish it in Nature or the Journal of the American Medical Association or the American Historical Review or American Ethnologist, etcetera etcetera, you may have demonstrated something, though most likely it would be that something’s gone wrong with the editors or editorial board of that prestigious, discipline-defining journal. If you publish it in a three-year old open-access journal with no reputation that publishes an indifferent array of interdisciplinary work across a huge range of subjects and disciplines, you’ve demonstrated that your check cleared. That’s it. Oh, also that you’re an asshole. And lazy.

Let me put it this way: if there are a lot of people in your profession who have undergone the same basic tests of professional capability that you have–they have the same degree, they have functioned as teachers and as scholars in their home institutions, they have undergone tenure review and promotion review (which includes an institution-wide evaluation), they sit alongside you in committees, and so on, then if you want to deem everything they do as completely lacking in value, as programmatically valueless, you have a hard job ahead of you. Because you’re not just arguing against one or two practicioners whose ethics or capabilities you question, you’re not even just arguing against a whole field, you’re arguing that there is something deeply systematically wrong with the entirety of your profession, with all of academia.

That hard job entails being deeply and systematically informed about the field you are attacking. You have to show an expertise that qualifies you to understand what that field is and to show how and when it established its (to you, illegitimate) place in the profession. This is important both because it is a demonstration of the profession you are trying to preserve and it is a sign of your ethical relationship to other professionals. You don’t just trash people because you have a flip opinion or you always do an eyeroll when that guy down the hall says something that you personally think is silly or risible. You don’t just trash an entire field because you read a bad article once or heard a dumb talk once. You don’t cherry-pick, especially if you’re allegedly a scientist or otherwise committed to rigorous standards of proof. You read and think about the most highly-cited, most field-defining, most respected and assigned, work in the field you dislike. If you’re going to do something like this, you have to do it right.

I’m not wild about evolutionary psychology as a field, for example. I’ve heard some work presented in that field that seems horribly weak by common social science standards. I have serious questions about the work of many of its most prominent representatives. I worry a lot about the bad uses that evolutionary psychological arguments are put to by activists, politicians and the general public. But if I set out to argue that the field should be in no way represented in academia, or that it is a fraud? I would spend a year or more reading evolutionary psychology carefully, I would think hard about the history and development of the field, I would examine its connections and affinities within its own discipline and other disciplines, I’d assure myself that there is almost no one who calls himself or herself an evolutionary psychologist who would pass muster for me, and then and only then would I go after the field as a scholarly act. Otherwise, I’d confine myself to some mild sniping and some targeted critique of specific published works that are relevant to some other claim I’m making. Because I can tell you already, knowing something about the field, that it’s got plenty of legitimacy inside of it. I may be critical of it, but it deserves its place at the table. It exists as a real and serious attempt to answer a series of important questions using a series of legitimate methods. It connects to many other subdisciplines like behaviorial economics. If I did all that work, I’d find that at best I have a critical engagement with evolutionary psychology, not the right to argue for its expulsion from the profession. Because I know this, I value its presence and I’m content if my colleagues in psychology decide that it is a field they would like to invest resources in. If I worry sufficiently about it, I will do more work so that I earn the right to have that worry become a constitutive force in arguments about legitimacy and about resources.

That’s what being a scholar is about: knowing your shit, and treating knowledge responsibly. What’s that? It’s hard to do, and you’re busy? Then shut the fuck up and get back to work. Save it for beer talk at your next professional association meeting. If you’re going to step into the public sphere, if you’re going to make judgments of value in a faculty meeting, then it’s work. It has to be done with rigor and craft like any other scholarly work, in direct proportion to how seriously you want to be taken and how serious the critique you’re offering might be.

Posted in Academia, Oath for Experts | 26 Comments

There’s No Hope For Him Now, Travis

We are at the moment.

Oh, it might take a few more crises and outrages, but the institutions of established political power in Washington–and in the interstate systems that bind Washington to the world–have arrived at their reckoning with Trump.

David Brooks, of all people, finally has an acute insight: that the entire world is obsessed with trying to figure out a man whose thoughts are just “six fireflies, beeping around in a jar”. Brooks calls Trump a child. I’m going to go with the frequent speculation that Trump is actually cognitively impaired in some serious way, that he has no real filters left and cannot control his impulses. I don’t think he or the people around him are playing ten-dimensional chess.

The moment is dangerous. Three things can happen, and only one of them is good. Two of them risk the end of everything possible and good in the American experiment.

1. The institutions of the national security state, and very possibly following that domestic justice, land management, economic authority and so on, will effectively pursue a soft coup d’etat. They will keep Trump as a figurehead, but he will be a palace captive. He will receive fake news briefings that are intended to provoke predictable tweets from him, he will be allowed to have televisions that only turn to certain channels, and so on. Visiting dignitaries will be shown to him for a handshake, and nothing more. He won’t do press conferences ever again. He’ll be photographed occasionally sitting in the Oval Office or at a Cabinet meeting. The standard recipe for an ailing dictator who needs to be visualized as still being in charge, but who is really not actually running anything. And all of the decisions that are supposed to rest on a President will in fact reside in very real terms with Cabinet officers, with White House staff, with Congress, with anyone bold enough to play the game and seize some authority. Cabinet officers will or will not work out covenants with one another to not step on each other’s toes. Palace intrigues will swirl around who is speaking with the “voice of Trump” at any given moment. These are always unstable situations with considerable potential to explode into conflict and incoherence, but the real danger is this: once this kind of soft coup is fully operationalized, it will not be easily undone later on by the election of a person who is capable of doing the Constitutionally-prescribed duties of the President. A good ruler will find it very difficult to get rid of regents who have gotten a taste for power while ruling on behalf of a previous child-king.

2. Trump himself or the people around him or his loyal base of supporters continue to insist on his retention of authority despite the fact that he’s impaired. We lurch from crisis to crisis, descending every day deeper into shared delirium. That happens too in history, is happening right now here and there around the world: people closest to the void at the heart of political power decide that they themselves are safest if they embrace that void, and amplify its capricious, random perturbations in all directions. We the People, already both mad and slightly maddened ourselves, become caregivers and captives of a mad king. We hope that all we get out of that are follies and whims to amuse later generations, and not catastrophes either caused or compounded by a mind that is vanishing down the event horizon of an imploding ego with the mass of a thousand suns. We hope to endure, to survive.

3. Or we get him out. And I no longer think that impeachment is the way to go, and not merely because the House of Representatives will never permit it under their present disposition. It’s also that at least some of the dangerous or erratic things Trump has done and will continue to do are not “high crimes and misdemeanors”. It’s not a crime for the President to violate classification: he can do it legally any time he pleases. No, I think what’s going to be needed is Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. We are going to need people in the White House, in the Cabinet, and in Congress who are willing to say that the President is mentally impaired and cannot fulfill the duties of his office. That also has some gravity to it. It is, in a way, a soft coup as well. But it preserves some semblance of Constitutional order–it does not construct an elaborate system of oligarchic bypass around a President that might endure after that President leaves office. Some Trump supporters may howl in fury at such a move, but I’m beginning to wonder whether others might not be quietly or privately relieved: they would still have sent a strong message about wanting to see dramatic changes in how the government operates, they would have proved their political strength, and they’d have a basically conservative President with a conservative Congress, very likely through 2020. It would even allow them to continue a sympathetic feeling for Trump himself: they could console themselves, believing that he’d been the right man but just at the wrong time of his life, when he was no longer able to do the job. Travis Coates becomes a man when he accepts that it’s his responsibility to kill Old Yeller, after all.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

No One Is Available To Take Your Call

So let’s think about it this way.

In a democratic society (which we increasingly are not), should an electorate be allowed to choose a sleazy, corrupt, volatile, sexually abusive, contemptuous-of-duty, lying, incompetent scumbag if the candidate embraces all of that about himself/herself, if there is nothing in any of that which is a surprise, if it’s all there in plain sight before the election? If in fact the candidate is preferred by some for those attributes, because they are expressing their feelings of contempt for the institution or government that is staging the election?

This not a novel problem in democracies, classical or modern. There are Congressional districts in the United States where voters have routinely re-elected Representatives who had most or all of these characteristics, knowing full well that this is what they were choosing. There are Presidents that came pretty close too. (With Warren Harding, voters didn’t know about his sex life or his financial sleaziness in advance.) Berlusconi in Italy fits the bill, and there are other examples all around.

The important thing is not: can people select such a person to lead, with their eyes wide open about what they are doing? Yes, they can, and we shouldn’t be able to simply re-stage the election in a non-elective manner in order to thwart them. That’s the logic of a coup d’etat.

So what makes us a government of laws and principles, then, if it’s possible to elect a person knowing them to be grossly unprincipled and approving of that? In the end, it is this: that there could be or should be some security that the enforcement of the law runs on a separate track from the choice of representatives or leaders.

If there is some reason to think that there is an independent system for holding the elected leadership accountable for actually breaking the law or for violating clearly stated rules, then there is no problem with an electorate voting for someone who has a propensity towards such violations. They’re essentially taking a risk that they will lose their preferred choice at a later date. Yes, the laws being violated or the rules broken may be exceptionally consequential (that’s why there are laws and rules!) but so be it.

The heart of our present dilemma is that there is presently no one who will hold the current elected leader accountable, or there will be no one soon. This is what I’m not sure folks are fully thinking through: there remains a kind of remnant expectation of procedural and cultural norms that functioned reasonably well in Watergate still functioning, but almost every single one of them is gone, most of them deliberately sabotaged. There are no more Barry Goldwaters who, when presented with smoking guns, will recognize an honorable obligation.

The current House of Representatives will under no circumstances of any kind initiate an impeachment proceeding, let alone actually impeach the President. He could murder a baby live on television and they would not. The majority in the House no longer respects the institution they serve or the government they represent. The Senate is unlikely to bring meaningful pressure for accountability of any kind. The Supreme Court might still have a whisper-thin majority that would make a ruling against Trump, but that ends with the next retirement or death. The Justice Department will not only be inactive, it will actively sabotage any inquiry. The Cabinet have been leashed. The press is unaccustomed to being outside the circuit of power and scarcely knows how to use what is left of its fading dominion over the public sphere.

There is no one to send a demand to. We are now alone. We, More than Half the People. The institutions, it turns out, are no better than the human beings who inhabit them, and the sun is setting on the day of people who might have upheld the institutions against their own naked self-interest or their party’s hold on political power. In a way, the only people left to send a demand to are Them, Less than Half the People, and they’re not in a mood to receive it.

Posted in Politics | 8 Comments

Legitimate Versions of Bret Stephens’ Column

There’s really two things that tipped me into cancellation, actually. One is Liz Spayd, the Public Editor of the New York Times, implying that it’s only rigid leftists who were upset with the hiring of Stephens, and that we weren’t really going to cancel for real anyway. That’s some special condescension right there, and it’s also tactically about the dumbest thing you could say to people who are pissed off. It says, in effect: go away then, we didn’t want you as readers anyway. The second was James Bennet, the editor responsible for hiring Stephens, implying that it’s liberal orthodoxy and close-mindedness to not at least listen to Stephens, and that was Stephens said is within the range of legitimate opinion. Bennet here is acting as if this is a single column rather than the hiring of a writer to fulfill a regular role on his pages. He’s also defending the content of Stephens’ content-less column and doing nothing to acknowledge that the worst offense of this column (and his past editorial writing) is the cheap sophistry of his work. I don’t dislike Stephens’ NYT column because I’m rigidly unwilling to talk about issues and problems with standard climate change science or climate change activism. I taught an entire course that compelled students to read several prominent critics of climate change science and activism, and I regularly pipe up with my own criticisms of climate change activism. There is nothing that pisses me off more than someone who just hand-waves criticism away by implying that the critics are ideologically rigid and inattentive to what was actually said. That too shows a kind of casual condescension for a readership.

So let me be clear: there are several versions of what Stephens seemed to want to say that would be completely acceptable, interesting, legitimate, as far as I’m concerned. As it stands, the column says the following:

1. We’re too certain of too many things
2. We’re too certain of too many things, especially science, because we trust in the data we have and the methods we have for collecting it, like Hillary Clinton’s campaign was
3. Because you see, some things are only about probabilities, unlike other things that aren’t
4. Climate science is only about probabilities, not certainties
5. If climate science is only about probability, not certainty, maybe we shouldn’t act on it
6. After all, we have made many mistakes in the past based on probabilities and science

Folks who read this blog regularly have certainly heard me say some similar things, though often in a very different manner and in different, more specific, contexts. And, I hope in my own case, in an actually searching and open-minded way, rather than as sophistry intended to endorse a particular political orthodoxy. The problem here with Stephens is that all science is probabilistic on some level. I could just as easily say, “There is a probability that the aspirin I take in the morning will suddenly cause an unexpected allergic reaction and I will die within 30 minutes, despite having no prior allergy to it.” It’s true! It doesn’t mean I should never take aspirin again. He makes a big move towards epistemological skepticism to open his column and then applies that skepticism in a highly limited way that doesn’t match the opening.

The column is, as Will Bunch noted, a fact-free nothingburger, intended largely to troll and annoy liberals and then to complain that they’re intolerant of alternative opinions when they get annoyed. What annoys me is a newspaper that’s marketing itself as a vehicle for truth, for ambitious attempts to understand the world, for challenging thinking, playing along with the smack-the-imaginary-intolerant-liberal game. Fuck that noise.

I want to prove that there are alternative versions of Stephens’ column that would be perfectly respectable–where I would readily concede the legitimacy of the opinion and would also regard Stephens (or any other writer) as legitimately expanding the range of what we can argue, and I would submit, most of these would be read in a similarly open-minded or appreciative (if perhaps in some cases puzzled) spirit by many “liberals”.

Epistemological Rebel

1. Do we really know anything?
2. Maybe formal knowledge doesn’t tell us what’s really true about the world and the universe.
3a. Maybe we should trust our feelings and intuitions more and act impulsively on them. (Basically, this is Romanticism and its various 20th Century descendants).
3b. Or maybe we should look for forms of faith and detachment from this world. (Basically, some forms of spirituality.)
3c. Maybe all knowledge is too entangled in the reproduction of institutional and political power. (Basically, some forms of anti-foundationalist philosophy.)
4. This applies to everything, not just climate action or climate science. What does that look like?

Hey, I grant you: this would not be popular with most readers, liberal and conservative. And it would lead in a really different kind of direction for a weekly or regular column. But all of these exist in the world, they’re possible directions for commentary. The point is that this branch recognizes that a general epistemological or philosophical complaint has to be applied generally.

Risk and the Precautionary Principle

1. A vast amount of our collective and individual action involves projections, hypothetical, models, probabilities, intuitions of risk. Not just conservative AND liberal politics, but businesses, families, etc.
2. How do we know how to map our thinking about what might happen to the costs and challenges of acting because of that thinking?
3. Case Studies guided by some consistent clearly-stated principles

E.g., a column that does this every single week, where that’s the entire focus: how do we reconcile what might happen with what we should do about it? Think of the Ethicist column in the NY Times Magazine or maybe the NPR show modelled on Freakonomics as models here. It’s completely plausible–there are a zillion things to talk about under this heading. This solves the problem of Stephens just applying this entire way of thinking once to question a single political plan, and it makes him set down some kind of consistent logic that could gore his own ox. You want to say someone’s an independent thinker, that’s what he’s got to do. This takes understanding probability, of course, and engaging directly with actual projections by climate scientists rather than hand-waving about how they use probability and so it’s not completely certain. One thing that might lead out from that engagement is that the possibility that things won’t be as bad as the mainstream projections would have it is mirrored by a possibility that things will be vastly worse.

Why Don’t People Trust Science? Or Probability? Historical Explorations

1. Science or social science have often been used in the past to justify public initiatives and governmental programs
2. Sometimes they’ve been badly wrong; sometimes they’ve been wrong in smaller and less damaging ways; sometimes they’ve been right
3. Is there anything about the cases of being wrong that we can learn from, if we review them with an open mind?
4. Do scientists need to engage publics differently with an awareness that at least some of these historical errors (or perceived but misremembered errors) are remembered in various ways?
5. Is this specifically one of the issues hampering attempts to move from climate science to climate action?

This is pretty much a kind of column theme close to my own thinking at times on this blog. I think it’s a useful approach. Maybe this isn’t quite a week-after-week theme, but it surely could support a series of 5-10 columns. The point here is to think deeply about what kinds of mistakes have been made, and what the causality of those mistakes might have been. I think there’s a range of examples and underlying causes–and probably to the discomfort of Stephens’ ideology, at least some of them have to do with the intersection of business interests, the economics of higher education, and science. E.g., they’re not “liberal hubris”, but something grubbier and more tied to the ideology of market conservatism and to governmental authority of all types and ideologies. It wasn’t “liberals” who thought it was a great idea to introduce cane toads to control agricultural pests. But this isn’t exclusively so–I’m just as willing to pile scorn on Paul Ehrlich as any Austrian economist might be.

Again, the saving grace is for Stephens or someone like him would involve not chopping off feet and hands to fit a body onto the bed of Procrustes. If a hypothetical columnist wants to argue that climate action plans and policies closely resemble past mistakes in fitting science to policy, some rich and well-chosen examples have to come into play first. Protip hint: polling during the Clinton campaign is not a rich or well-chosen example.

What’s the Debate About Probability and Projection Within Climate Science?

1. Here’s what climate scientists actually say and disagree about when it comes to making projections
2. Here’s what climate scientists actually say and disagree about when it comes to suggesting strategies for mitigation
3. How are we who are not climate scientists to decide which ideas or research to favor? How literate do we have to be to make those judgments?

If Stephens wants to really think about this just with climate science, he could learn a bit about the rather vigorous debate between climate scientists about what kinds of projections and estimations are responsible and which aren’t. And about the caution that many of them demonstrate when they try to match up their most certain projection ranges with possible strategies for mitigation. There’s a fine column or series of columns in that somewhere. But it takes actually knowing something, which doesn’t seem to be a big thing with most of the New York Times‘ regular columnists.

Is It Actually Possible To Care About the Far Future in a Real Way?
Screw It: I’m Alive Right Now and I Want What I Want

1. Nobody has really ever given up what matters to them right now for the benefit of people who aren’t even born yet
2. Seeming examples of that are deceptive (e.g., people who seem to be sacrificing for their kids and grandkids are just hoping that there will be a reciprocal benefit to them and they’ll be cared for in turn; or they are just making a big deal out of a ‘sacrifice’ they had to make no matter what anyway; or it’s about the real actual emotional relationship they have with a real actual person rather than a hypothetical future person). Etc.
3. What would it take to actually have an ethics that was more about the lives of people (and environments) that are two or three centuries ahead? What would we be like if we lived that way?


1. Who cares about a century from now? Let those people solve their own problems.
2. Look at what Americans a century ago left in our laps to solve: a ruinous war that fueled an even worse one, an unregulated and amateurish financial system that caused a global economic disaster that afflicted people for decades, resurgent racism and lynching that still haunts us today, an incoherent distinction between alcohol and other controlled substances that fueled mass imprisonment on one hand and the ravages of alcoholism on the other, etc. Were they thinking about us? No.
3. People can cope with anything, we’ll figure out a way to live with big changes and nobody will really know the difference.
4. Or we won’t, and so what? The dinosaurs didn’t figure out how to stop volcanoes erupting or how to keep comets away. This is just where our evolution led us. That’s the way it goes.

I am completely ok with either of these approaches as something to read if they’re argued in an interesting, stylistically alive fashion. The first is basically what Roy Scranton does in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene; there are other ways to work this terrain than Scranton’s. I have some sympathy for the approach that says: this is actually a really hard problem that most climate scientists and climate activists underestimate because most of them don’t really think a lot about how other people think or feel. I’m not at all sympathetic to the second approach, but I recognize its hard coherence. It’s a legitimate point of view–though its bleakness applies to way, way more than climate action. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t lend itself to having a political opinion about specific policies–it’s a kind of nihilism that works better as a literary sensibility. But I dunno, a hard nihilist who was brutal and vicious in his/her assessment of EVERYONE would be a breath of fresh air on an opinion page, a kind of 21st Century Mencken.


The major thrust here is to say: do NOT give me this guff about how sensitive snowflakes don’t want to hear unconventional thoughts or diversity of opinion. It is the laziness and conventionality of Stephens’ column that indicts it. If James Bennet is on a mission to broaden the range and form of opinions on his page, Stephens is very nearly the worst possible vehicle to accomplish that. It is as if someone said they were tired of vanilla ice cream and decided to go wild by ordering FRENCH vanilla ice cream.

Posted in Miscellany, Politics | 25 Comments