The Vision Thing

We’re having a “visioning exercise” here at Swarthmore this fall. I couldn’t attend an early gathering for this purpose, and I’m teaching during the next one. This might be just as well, as I’m having to fight back a certain amount of skepticism about the effort even as I feel that the people who’ve organized this deserve a chance to achieve whatever goals they had in mind. I’ve been a part of past strategic planning and we did some of our own work through meeting with groups of various sizes and trying to find out what their “visions” for Swarthmore might be. I found those efforts to be a moderately useful way to tackle a very difficult problem, which is to get various members of an institutional community to have a meaningful conversation about their aspirations for the short and medium-term future of the organization.

I suppose my mild discomfort is with the proposition that we need a consultant to accomplish this aim. Faculty at a wide range of academic institutions tend to be skeptical about consultants on campus. With some reason. I’ve been in more than ten conversations over the last decade with consultants brought on campus for various reasons. One of them was an unmitigated disaster, from my point of view. A few have been revelatory or profoundly useful. Most of have been the equivalent of slipping into lukewarm bathwater: not uncomfortable, not desired, a kind of neutral and inoffensive experience that nevertheless feels like it’s a missed opportunity.

It is too easy for faculty to slip into automatic, knee-jerk negativity about consultants. So I want to think carefully about when I might (and have) found them useful as a part of deliberation or administration in my career.

1. When the consultants have deep knowledge about an issue that has high-stakes implications for academia, where that issue is both technically specific and outside the experience of most or all faculty and existing staff, and yet where there are meaningful decisions to be made that have broad philosophical implications that everyone is qualified to evaluate. There’s no point to hiring a consultant to tell you about an issue that is so technical that no one listening can develop a meaningful understanding of it during a series of short visits. If such an issue is important, you have to hire a permanent administrator who can deal with it. If such an issue is trivial, you ignore it or hire a short-term contractor to deal with it out of sight and mind. If you’re bringing in someone to talk with the community, there has to be something for them to decide upon (eventually).

2. When the community or some proportion of it is openly and unambiguously incapable of making decisions about its future, and acknowledges as much. The classic situation is when an academic department is in “receivership” because of hostility between two or more factions within the department. At that point, someone who is completely outside the situation and who is seen as having no stakes whatsoever in its resolution is tremendously useful. In general, a consultant who is trying to mediate existing disputes can be very helpful. But this takes having concrete disputes that most parties confess have become intractable–you can’t mediate invisible, passive-aggressive disputes, because you can’t even be sure they exist and because the parties to the dispute may contest whether they are in fact involved.

3. When the consultant is using a method to study the campus and its community that by nature is hard to use if you’re an insider. I think primarily this means that if you decide you need an ethnographic examination of your own community, you look for a consultancy that can do that. More generally, any time there’s some thought that your own community is too insular, too prideful, too self-regarding, too limited in its understanding of the big picture, you might legitimately want a consultant to come in. But note that in this case the role of a consultant is more confrontational or even antagonistic: you’re hiring someone to tell you truths that you might not want to hear. This is generally not what consultants do, because they’re usually trying to be soothing and friendly and to not get the people who hired them into trouble by stirring up a hornet’s nest. In a way, you’d need some degree of internal consensus about a need for an “intervention” of some kind for this to work–some agreement that there is an understanding that is possible that is beyond the grasp of people in the community, for some reason. Your consultants would need a skill set and a set of methods suited to this sort of delivery of potentially unwelcome news. I feel as if this the hardest kind of consultancy to buy in the present market, but maybe the kind that most possible buyers could use most.

4. When hiring the consultant is a bridge to some later group of contractors or partners that you know you’re going to need but don’t presently have any relationship to. Maybe you need a new building, maybe you’re going to create a totally new academic program, maybe you’re going to invest in a completely new infrastructure of some kind. You need the consultant even if you know the technical issues because that’s how you build new collaborative relationships with people who will eventually be service providers or who will recommend service providers to you. This is almost consultant as matchmaker.

5. When many people agree there are “unknown unknowns” surrounding the strategic situation that an institution is facing. Probing for issues that neither the institution nor the consultant are accustomed to thinking about, trying to find opportunities that would never occur in the course of everyday thinking about the current situation.

I have a modest problem is when consultancy is used to defer responsibility for a decision that administrators and faculty already know they want to make, or when a consultancy is a deliberate red flag waved at some bulls, a distraction. I understand the managerial realpolitik involved here, and if faculty were totally honest about it, they’d probably admit that they have their own ways of shifting responsibility or distracting critics when they make decisions within their own units and departments. This is a minor and basically petty feeling on my part: there are good, pragmatic reasons to pay for a service that provides some protective cover when facing a decision, as long as the consultant doesn’t end up producing something so inauthentic or generic that it ends up being a provocation in its own right.

I have a bigger problem with consultancy being used as a substitute for something an institutional community should be doing on its own. Then it becomes something like an ill-fitting prosthesis being used to avoid undergoing the painful ordeal of physical therapy. A community of intelligent, well-meaning people with a good deal of communicative alignment and shared professional and cultural norms should be able to find a way to talk, think and decide collectively. If a small institution of faculty, staff, students and associated publics need continuous assistance to accomplish those basic functions, then that’s a fairly grim prognosis for the possibility of larger communities and groups that have very great degrees of difference within them being able to do the same.

Posted in Academia, Oath for Experts, Swarthmore | Leave a comment

The Soft Spot

Part of the problem in South Africa right now is that public universities all over a neoliberal world are paradoxically the most vulnerable part of an invulnerable system. This was even true in the 1960s, but it’s especially true now. They’re vulnerable because the invulnerable order that still provides them resources is far less interested in the university as a characteristic institution that defines its own modernity than it once was. Indeed, the global system as it manifests in postcolonial Africa has increasingly decided that signifying modernity is a low priority generally, that all the monuments and performances that mark it are less important than oil wells, mines, and providing land and people to development institutions so that the possibility of some eventual modernity can be studied. Above all, less important than some small fringe of people getting their cut of the action. The rest can sell oranges on the sidewalk or starve on their land as they will.

South Africa’s rulers still cling to the notion that they ought to have hospitals and universities and roads and affordable housing and arts funding and monuments, but it is a half-hearted clinging, the reflex of old habit rather than holding on to something dear and irreplaceable.

You can’t get at the president’s chicken coops or the minister’s elegant hotel room. There’s no way to occupy a Swiss bank account. The money’s being made far away or right under your nose, but it’s behind walls and razor wire. If you’re inside, you either need your little share to keep from drowning, or you’re getting your big share and have some payments to make on your BMW.

You can get at the university and not just because the people inside the walls are willing to push it outside and let it take its chances. You can get at it because the university’s own aspirations compel it to vulnerability. It is by nature and design a porous system. Not “open” but fissured, not without hierarchy but neither a highly hierarchical system. Students are regulated and governed, but they also must be present, speaking and consenting at the heart of the institution’s life, in its classrooms and buildings. The oil well can operate without anyone present but the workers and the managers. The Parliament can operate without citizens. But the university has to have students, and students cannot be made mute and compliant even in the most spoon-fed, lecture-driven, exam-assessed course.

The university has to have faculty, and even in the most neoliberal and managerial institution, it has to believe that faculty are its primary source of value, that their assent on some level to its operations is important. To undo that would require a new kind of institution: it is baked into the form as it appeared at the end of the 19th Century.

So the university is the soft spot, the place that can’t be hidden and can’t be behind walls. It is where those who are right to be furious at the poisoning of the commons are already gathered, the young whose inheritances are being stolen. It is the place that has to listen, however reluctantly and truculently, and it is the place that the powers-that-be will allow to be a site of turmoil, for a time. A march to the President’s farm is if nothing else a logistical nightmare even if one had tens of thousands ready to go, but it is also a place where there would be no hesitation before guns were fired and people died. The ministries are all behind high walls, and the guns would fire there too. The people ready to march and confront are already at university: it is readily at hand.

The problem is that the university, and all its possibilities for reform and transformation, is one of those inheritances. The problem is that the people behind the walls might be glad to be rid of it altogether. Ministers’ sons and daughters will still find their places at the LSE, the Sorbonne, Harvard.

The problem is that the university is fragile. The properties that make its managers at least hesitate to shoot, that at least act willing to consider negotiating, that allow it to be paralyzed for a time, that permit harsh critics to remain on staff or enrolled, are fragile. This is not the first time since 1950 that universities in the world have been pushed to breaking by an insistent politics of martyrdom, or used as the first target in a long struggle. When the furrows are salted enough, little will grow for generations to come. When the soft place becomes a hard one, that’s usually involved bringing academia inside the fortress: expelling students, firing staff, enforcing hierarchies, defining some knowledge and some ideas as forbidden. Think of universities in authoritarian states: they are there for show, not to fulfill their real mission. They are mausoleums. Maybe in this neoliberal moment, even hardening the university will be little more than a haphazard gesture of indifferent violence from an order that is increasingly without shame, and the real move will be to treat the university like Biafra: surround it and starve it. Dispense with it.

Struggle often uses at least the metaphors associated with military conflict. So think about wars and ask yourself what kind of war you’re in when a side that has an entirely just cause but that lacks the force to attack a well-defended enemy decides to attack the least-defended targets because it’s the only thing they can get at. Ask yourself what comes next in a war like that, and how often a war like that ends up achieving the aims of the just.

Posted in Academia, Africa, Politics | Leave a comment

One of Those Years

1848, 1914-17, 1929, 1968, 1989, in some years, a break or rupture in the sociopolitical landscape of particular places has so much resemblance to events unfolding in other places with near-simultaneity that a perception of a momentous and widespread crisis in the order of things grips and takes hold, intensifying the unfolding rupture.

2016 is now that kind of year. Maybe Brexit, the recent vote in Colombia, the extrajudicial killings openly sanctioned by the new elected president of the Philippines, the war in Syria, student unrest in South Africa and the presidential election in the United States don’t seem to have the strong resemblances that events in other momentous years of rupture and transformation did. But they all seem to me to have a strong connection: they feel to me like the dying thrashing of the post-1945 nation-state and the liberal-bureaucratic order it created. Neoliberalism laid parasitic eggs inside of it in the 1980s, and I think now even neoliberalism’s architects are watching with uneasy discomfort at their progeny worming their way out of the host.

The striking thing to me is that all of those other crisis moments had a spirit of possibility lurking beside them. Somewhere there was a vision of progress, a description of a future which might arise out of the fading or death of an older order. Even 1929, which gave a new form of social democracy a strong push forward. All of them also had their demons and dangers: reactionary vengeance, world war, anarchy, fascism.

Where’s the hope and progress in this rupture, the new vision of another future? So far I don’t see it. If we are not feasting on the corpse of the old order, then most of us cling to the best of meritocracy before neoliberalism or the best of social democracy as alternative hopes. We do it half-heartedly or in a defensive crouch. We pick at each other’s scabs. We are going to need a new idea. Or many new ideas. Something to believe in. A re-enchantment of the world. Otherwise this feels like we have entered a tunnel so long and so dark that we might come to regard it as the only world there is or could be.

Posted in Politics | 8 Comments

Experts Say

It’s a small thing, but for me it sums up why I find the mainstream press wearisome, why I find the circle jerk between the conventional wisdom of reporters and the infrastructure of expertise to be another wretched exhibit in the case against the powers that be. The New York Times has a little companion piece today on police shootings. The headline: Why First Aid Is Often Lacking in Critical Moments After a Police Shooting.

The headline promises an explanation, a look into causality, an analysis. The first two paragraphs describe why people might be asking this question: because videos have shown police seemingly indifferent to the ultimately fatal injuries they have inflicted on black men. So we’re already two paragraphs in, hunting a lede that will respond to the headline.

Third paragraph: “Experts in policing have agreed that the way officers respond–or fail to–is often a problem, but they say such failures are not necessarily the fault of the officers, and that law enforcement agencies are starting to address them.”

Fourth paragraph: Quotation from a former police chief who is also the head of a foundation that advises police. Upshot of the quotation: police don’t have a policy on rendering first aid to people they’ve shot. But they’re getting around to it!


This is not an explanation. This does not fulfill the headline. This is not an analysis. At best one could say that a legitimate headline might be, “Why Police Claim First Aid Is Often Lacking After a Shooting”. You have to get very nearly to the bottom of the inverse pyramid of the story, where reporters are told to bury the least important information, to find another expert questioning whether policy is why people are left to die without even an effort at rendering aid, and suggesting instead that it’s due to the distance between officers and the communities they serve–a polite way to suggest it’s racism. This assertion receives an immediate two-paragraph refutation from the reporter himself, attributed vaguely to more “experts”. It’s human nature! Adrenaline keeps you from helping a person you just shot! The shooter feels traumatized! Oh, and it’s training–you’re looking at the scene as evidence. So, more policy. If only we could get the right policy.

This is a story intended to frame a consensus, to provide nice white people a nice white person thing to say, to curry favor with police, to be part of the establishment. This is putting clothes on the Emperor. This is not analysis. It is not a fulfillment of the headline that sells the story. It’s not even “Some people say and other people say”. It’s “The experts say and say and say and one person says something else and the experts say and say and say that one person is wrong. And so too, you the video-watching public, you are wrong. The experts (who happen to be the people in the videos) say you are wrong.”

But what the experts say is immediately something that can be challenged with common sense. Are police officers robots, who do nothing but what policy commands? Doesn’t that mean, among other things, that policy commands the shooting of black men who have committed no crime, based on nothing more than a feeling of ‘threat’? So here we have policy that says: do what you feel. Because the feeling you have outweighs the need to have evidence that the feeling is justified. But on first aid and its rendering? Don’t do anything unless you’re told to do it. You are a policy robot. And we’re only just now getting around to having a policy, fifty years or more into the era of legal rulings and formal police policies governing the use of deadly force. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know: policies take time.

It would be laughable if it weren’t unspeakable. The reporter for the NYT should say, “No, really, Mr. Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, what do you really think is the explanation? Because we both know ‘there is no policy’ is a weak and contemptible answer.” Police, like every other group of working professionals, do many things in their working lives which are not precisely and specifically informed by the writ of policy. They have important formal constraints and important precise procedures, more than most. But at least some of what they have to do is about general training, general outlook, intuition and improvisation. To say that nothing happens in policing but that which policy instructs or forbids is at best the cluelessness of a practiced bureaucrat deep in the bowels of some dank cubicle farm. At worst–and most likely–it is a conscious public relations strategy intended to defer, to divert, to doublespeak and occlude past the plain evidence.

If journalists are going to explain, let them explain, with all their powers of observation and clarity at their command. If they are going to quote and mouthpiece, let them mouthpiece more than just the most favorable view of an unfavorable thing. Say the truths, all of them, hard or unsettling. If you can’t do that, don’t just dump the least establishment-friendly voice down there at the bottom, a buried lede left to bleed out alongside dying men on roadways.

Posted in Oath for Experts, Politics | 1 Comment

Enrollment Management: The Stoic’s Version

I have had a few interesting conversations with colleagues online about recent news of falling enrollments in college history courses nationwide, conversations which broadly echo similar discussions among faculty in other disciplines about the same phenomenon in their classes.

Speaking generally, two things tend to strike me about these recurrent discussions. The first is that many faculty make extremely confident assertions about the underlying causes of shifting enrollments that are (at best) based on intuitions, and moreover, these causal theories tend to be bleakly monocausal. Meaning that many faculty fixate on a single factor that they believe is principally responsible for a decline and dig in hard.

The second is that the vast majority of these causal assertions are focused on something well beyond the power of individual history professors or even departments of history (or associations of historians!) to remedy.

Just to review a range of some of the theories I’ve encountered over the last two years of discussion, including recently:

a) It’s a result of parental and social pressure for utility and direct application to viable careers.
b) It’s a result of admitting too many students who are interested in STEM disciplines. (Which is sometimes just relocating the agency of point #a.)
c) It’s a result of badly designed general education requirements that give students too much latitude and don’t compel them to take more history or humanities.
d) It’s a result of too many AP classes in high school, which gives students the idea that they’ve done all the history they might need.
e) It’s a result of bad or malicious advising by colleagues in other departments or in administration who are telling students to take other subjects.

At best, if these are offered as explanations which are meant to catalyze direct opposition to this hypothesized cause, they lead professors far away from their own courses, their own pedagogy, their own department, their own scholarship, all of which are vastly easier to directly affect and change. At worst, these are forms of resignation and helplessness, of not going gentle into that good night.

It might not be completely useless to engage in public argument about why history actually is useful in professional life or in the everyday lives of citizens. Or to argue against the notion that we measure subjects in higher education according to their immediate vocational payoffs. All faculty at liberal-arts institutions should be contributing to making that kind of case to the widest possible publics. However, argument in the general public sphere about these thoughts is less immediately productive in engaging enrollments than similar arguments made to actual students already matriculating at the home institutions of historians. Those students are knowable and are available for immediate consultation and dialogue. What they think about history or other humanities may not be what a far more abstract public thinks. They may be seeking very particular kinds of imagined utility which a historian could offer, or simply need to have some ideas about how to narrate the application of historical inquiry to other spheres and activities.

Complaining about requirements, about advising, or about AP classes is similarly distracting. Changing general-education requirements is a particularly dangerous answer to an enrollment problem for a variety of reasons. Compelling students to take a course they not only do not want to take but actively oppose taking is very likely to contribute to even greater alienation from the subject matter and the discipline overall, unless the subject matter and the pedagogy are of such overwhelming value that they singlehandedly reverse the initial negative perception. Moreover, there’s a game-theoretic problem with using requirements as an instrumental answer to enrollment shifts, which is that in a faculty organized around departments, this leads to every department with declining enrollments demanding new requirements specifically tailored to enrollment capture, which in turn forces departments which are the beneficiaries of stronger enrollment trends to weaponize their own participation in curricular governance and defend against a structure of requirements that takes students away from them. Like it or not–and I think we ought to like it–student agency is an important part of most of higher education, and indispensible in liberal-arts curricula especially. The only coherent alternative to a curriculum predicated on student choice is either an intellectually coherent and philosophically particular approach like that of St. John’s College or a core curriculum that is not departmentally based but is instead designed and taught outside of a departmental framework. Asking for new requirements is a way to avoid self-examination.

That’s generally the problem I have with these kinds of explanations. They take us away from what we can meaningfully implement through our own labor, but also they allow us to defer introspection and self-examination. If current students find the traditional sequencing of many college history majors to be uncompelling, whether that’s because of having taken AP courses or not finding the typical geographic and temporal structures compelling or useful, there is nothing about that sequence which is sacred or necessary. History is not chemistry: one does not have to learn to use Avogadro’s number and basic laboratory techniques in order to progress further in the subject. Maybe courses that are thematic which are taught across broad ranges of time and space are more appealing. Maybe courses that connect understanding history to contemporary life or issues in explicit ways are more appealing. Maybe courses that emphasize research methods and digital technologies are more appealing. Maybe none of the above. But those should be the only things that historians in higher education are concerned with when they worry about enrollments: what are we doing that’s not working for our actually-existing students? Could we or should we do other things? If we refuse to do other things because we believe that what we have been doing is necessary, what is it that we have been doing that’s necessary, and why is it important to defend regardless?

Historians should be (but generally aren’t) especially good at thinking in this way because of our own methodological know-how and epistemological leanings. If it turns out that what we are inclined to treat as natural and necessary in our current curricular structures and offerings is in fact mutable and contingent simply by comparison with past historical curricula, then when is it exactly that we became convinced of the necessity of those practices? And what was the cause of our certainty? If it turns out that what we defend as principle is in fact just a defense of the immediate self-interest of presently-laboring historians, then our discipline should itself help us gain some necessary distance and perspective about our interests.

Especially if it turns out that our perception of our interests is in fact harming our actual self-interest in remaining a viable part of a liberal-arts education. Perhaps the first, best way historians could demonstrate the usefulness of our modes of inquiry is by using them to understand our present circumstances better and imagine our possible futures more clearly. Even if we want to insist that lower enrollments should not by themselves resolve questions about the allocation of resources within academia (a position I agree with), we might find that there are new ways to articulate and explain that view which are more persuasive in the present rather than simply invoked as an invented tradition.

Posted in Academia, Defining "Liberal Arts", Production of History | 6 Comments

The New Machine

I know my anxiety about this political season won’t end until November. And really not then, because I don’t want this ever to happen again. And that depends upon a Clinton Administration doing more than just maintaining the status quo.

But I am struck that the anxiety of the political class and their close partners and associates (which include academics, I think) is always operating on at least two levels. There’s the anxiety I and most everyone else I know is feeling about what a Trump victory could mean and even what it means that he has any measurable support of any kind from our fellow citizens.

However, I also think that in some sense Trump is something else, which is another form of the “disruption” that has become the ideology of 21st Century nouveau capitalism. He is a threat to their economic well-being in a very direct sense. Political consultants, pollsters, advertisers, policy wonks, career civil servants, are on edge because if Trump performs as well as or close to as well as Romney it throws out much of the conventional wisdom about the necessity of an expensive infrastructure for political victory or for carrying out policy initiatives. The countering proposition is that Trump is a unicorn, successful only because of a unique brand name that can’t be easily imitated, or successful only because he understood how to cheap out on the media by making himself the story every day. But what if instead Trump is revealing that you can’t do worse than 40-45% of the national vote no matter what you do, that underneath our voting is basically two major social coalitions that will pretty much do the same thing whether they know a candidate well or poorly, whether they’re worried about a candidate or not, etc.–that only about 10-20% of the voters will actually switch from one candidate or the other?

This fear is easier to see if you’ve studied the history of advertising. There are periodic waves of skepticism from clients about the actual value of advertising–that beyond some basic workaday advertising to create brand familiarity and some point-of-sale payments to get shelf space, the main thing that shifts consumers is just price. Advertisers in different eras have responded to that skepticism by trying to prove the value of their craft, by authenticating and detailing the expert skills that they have, whether that’s the methods of social science or the insights of “creatives”. They hold forth the successes and make ominous remarks about the failures. And of course advertising is today also facing its own forms of “disruption”–the possibility among other things that completely free forms of many-to-many communication will intrisically help to promote commodities that are well-liked by their buyers, and doom commodities that are hated, regardless of the money spent to reverse that verdict.

As with advertising in general, I suspect the infrastructure of campaigning and political authority matters when the candidate or policy is a “marginal buy” for that small group that might go one way or the other. But maybe at least some of the time, all you need is that (R) or (D) after your name in a district or state that’s been built as a social machine intended to elect you.

Posted in Consumerism, Advertising, Commodities, Politics | 2 Comments

The Machine of Morbius

The nettle that I do not think we can grasp easily is that Trump is not Trump for some of his devoted voters. Meaning that his actual attributes, character, quality of leadership, integrity, history, matter almost not at all.

What Trump is for many of his closest supporters is someone that scares and horrifies their social enemies, and that’s all he needs to be. Trump is the leader of a social crusade: his meaning is the crusade itself. Trump is a sign, not a man.

Trump is vengeance for every teacher who made someone feel stupid, for every promotion that went to someone with a higher degree, for every younger boss who asked for your TPS reports or moved your cubicle, for every kid who lectured you about intersectionality and told you that you should call yourself ‘cisgendered’, for every tech-sector nouveau riche who bought up all the property in your formerly sleepy town and then relentlessly pressured the school board to put more money into gifted programs and get rid of the trade-school electives.

He’s payback for every memo that told the secretaries they’d have to learn a new software program by Monday or be fired, for every gay marriage the local clerk had to perform, for every corner store where suddenly it seemed one day the customers all spoke Spanish. Trump is punishment for every old blue blood who looked you up and down when you showed up at a social function bursting with pride about your new successful business. Trump is sticking it to the insurance agent who makes you fill out a thousand forms and then denies your claim, for the car inspection that tells you have to make a five-hundred dollar repair that you can’t afford just so the car doesn’t pollute so much, for the social worker who pokes into your life because you slapped your kid in the market once. For every kid that left home to go to the big city, for every sibling that became a meth addict. For every church that closed and every mortgage that went underwater. For every time you were told by someone who presumed to imply authority over you that things you thought were true were false. For the things that you thought would never change that have changed. For the regrets that you cannot bear to admit are your own fault and for the sorrows that come from things done to you by others.

Trump is all of that and more. I think for now we are even unequal to the task of separating out those grievances which with good and unhesitant conscience we could call bigotry or injustice from those which we might admit, possibly to our own shame or embarrassment, have some justice to them. I’ve been proud my own life of knowing a lot of things and of being pretty sure of myself in giving counsel based on knowing, but my memories can sift out many times when that’s been an intrusion or a presumption, when if I’m really serious about knowledge, I should have listened and learned instead.

But I think the time may be here when if we want to stop Trump, we first have to stop assuming that the next revelation about his gross unsuitability for the office will be sufficient. Maybe that will be enough for him to lose, in fact–but it will not get us very far past that loss.

Posted in Politics | 10 Comments

Change the Police

I often make an argument that we should be generous towards minor acts of professional misjudgment, particularly those caught on video, that no one deserves to have their professional future changed in an instant for a single miscalculation.

However, the more consequential the professional activity, the less we should extend that generosity. A brain surgeon who comes into the operating theater with two martinis in him is not saying the wrong thing to a student in a classroom or adding a sum incorrectly on a tax return. He’s holding another human life in the balance.

Of all the professions that came into their own in the 20th Century, none of them is as consequential as policing. A police officer is an agent of the state who is charged with using its most fearsome power: the power to take the freedom and life of individuals. If you believe in any sense that the state is enacting the collective will of its people, then the police are the people that we, all of us, have hired to do that work for us.

Even other professions with life-and-death responsibilities do not have that kind of authorization to take the freedom and life of people. Though we insist that most professions where a single error could cost the life or health of a person should involve extensive training and multiple systems of licensing and oversight, we do not consistently expect the same of police.

In the United States, black citizens stand in perpetual risk of being summarily executed by police officers who will rarely face criminal charges or even professional sanction for doing so. Anguish and anger and protest seem powerless to change that. What we need is a systematic change in policing itself, and we need a strong coalition of people in national, state and regional politics who will demand those changes. We need to treat policing like the most important, most dangerous, most sacred professional work in our society, work that needs more oversight and standards and consequences than anything else. More important than brain surgery by far. Because it’s not just that people die and justice fades. This is the heart of our freedom. None of us are free while some of us can be murdered with impunity for no reason other than race or sexuality.

Here’s some ideas about what we could demand to get us to something like genuinely professional policing.

1. Federal law should mandate that all police forces in this country must have a civilian review board that examines every incident of firearm discharge by police in the line of duty. Mandate that the review board’s business be 100% public and transparent. Failure to initiate public review of a discharge incident within seven days should be a prosecutable offense.

2. Disarm police who are on routine patrols, making traffic stops, and so on. Police should only carry firearms in response to specific, designated incident calls where firearms may be required. Firearms should be kept locked in the trunk of patrol cars.

3. Create stringent standards for appropriate use of firearms in police work that aim to limit firearm discharges to only the most extraordinary of circumstances. Violating standards should usually lead to immediate termination of employment.

4. Even a hint of evidence tampering of any kind by police officers, including losing body cameras or having missing dashcam footage during incidents involving firearm discharge, should immediately lead to being fired. Evidence tampering by police, district attorneys, judges or any other employees of the criminal justice system should be harshly criminalized and treated as one of the highest prosecutorial priorities at all levels of jurisdiction. Evidence tampering by officials with criminal justice responsibilities should be roughly as consequential as second-degree murder.

5. Law enforcement in communities with high crime rates or with histories of being racially harassed by police should be strictly focused on serious infractions. Arrests or interactions for minor offenses like “broken taillights” or selling untaxed cigarettes should lead to the arresting officer being disciplined for wasting precious resources.

6. Heads of police departments should review video of any shooting or alleged harassment involving their officers. If they are dissatisfied with the performance of their officers upon review in any way, all the way down to comportment or attitude, they should immediately make a public statement that specifically describes that dissatisfaction and begin disciplinary procedures or termination procedures in all but the most minor incidents. Police chiefs are leaders for the community, not leaders just for their employees, and they owe the community an acknowledgement of unprofessional misconduct first and foremost.

7. Being convicted of a criminal offense is not the standard that defines poor professionalism for police. Police departments should not wait for a conviction to decide whether an officer has engaged in unprofessional conduct. Termination and suspension for serious misconduct should be swift and should use an evidentiary standard that is far less stringent than criminal investigations.

8. Nothing should be private in the workings of the criminal justice system. There should be no private prisons, no private police officers. All services used at any level of the criminal justice system should be subject to continuous, unedited public disclosure, with all records freely accessible to all members of the public at the time of their creation. This includes footage from body cameras, DNA tests, etc. All technical or specialists services should be subject to regular audit by a neutral third party to ensure high standards of competency and functioning are being maintained.

9. No municipality, county, state or other government should depend upon revenue from fines, property seizures for its daily or routine operations. No official who is responsible for seizure of property or fee collection should ever have any direct access to such funds or property or benefit from the execution of those duties.

10. All police departments should undergo external review once every five years by teams of 20-30 randomly chosen community members (perhaps using the same mechanism as calling jury duty) who are embedded with officers on patrol, who spend time in stations and in holding facilities, and who conduct interviews with a random selection of officers and employees. At least five of the review team must be community members who have been arrested or cited by this department. The transcript of the review materials and the final summary report should be available to all members of the public.

11. Elected officials should routinely dismiss top-level police department appointees who make no progress in implementing these and other changes in policing. This is what executive hierarchy is good for: demanding change from the top and holding the next level of the hierarchy responsible for implementation.

Posted in Politics | 10 Comments

The Instrument of Future Mischief

A friend of mine has been quoting a few thoughts about the minor classic SF film Colossus: The Forbin Project, about an AI that seizes control of the world and establishes a thoroughly totalitarian if ostensibly “humane” governance. He asks how we would know what a “friendly” AI would look like, with the obvious trailing thought that Colossus in the film is arguably “friendly” to the intentions and interests of its creators.

This is a minor subgenre of reflections on AI, including the just-finishing series Person of Interest (no spoilers! I am still planning to power through the last two seasons at some point).

I think the thing that makes “friendly” AI in these contexts a horrifying or uncanny threat is not the power of the AI, though that’s what both stories and futurists often focus on, the capacities of the AI to exert networked control over systems and infrastructure that we regard as being under our authority. Instead, it is the shock of seeing the rules and assumptions already in place in global society put into algorithmic form. The “friendly” AI is not unnerving because it is alien, or because of its child-like misunderstandings and lack of an adult conscience. It is not Anthony Fremont, wishing people into the cornfield. It is that it is a mirror. If you made many of our present systems of political reason into an algorithm, they might act much the same as they do now, and so what we explain away as either an inexorable law of human life or as a regrettable accident would be revealed as exactly what it is: a thing that we do, that we do not have to do. The AI might be terrifying simply because it accelerates what we do, and does it more to everyone. It’s the compartmentalization that comforts us, the incompetence, the slowness, not the action or the reasoning.

Take drone warfare in the “global war on terror”. Write it as an algorithm.

1. If terrorist identity = verified, kill. Provide weighting for “verified”.
2. If non-terrorist in proximity to terrorist = still kill, if verified is strongly weighted.
3. If verification was identifiably inaccurate following kill = adjust weighting.
4. Repeat.

The only reason that Americans live with the current implementation of that algorithm is that the people being killed are out of sight and are racially and culturally coded as legitimate victims. One of the weightings of our real-world actual version of the algorithm is “do this only in certain places (Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan) and do this only to certain classes of the variable ‘terrorist'”. Americans also live with it because the pace of killings is sporadic and is largely unreported. A “friendly AI” might take the algorithm and seek to do it more often and in all possible locations. Even without that ending in a classically dystopian way with genocide, you could imagine that many of the AI’s creators would find the outcome horrifying. But that imaginary AI might wonder why, considering that it’s only implementing an accelerated and intensified version of the instructions that we ourselves created.

Imagine a “friendly AI” working with the algorithm for “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) or the updated version, “disruption” (Christensen).

1. Present industries and the jobs they support should be relentlessly disfavored in comparison to not-yet-fully realized future industries and jobs.
2. If some people employed in present jobs are left permanently unemployed or underemployed due to favoring not-yet-fully realized future industries and jobs, this validates that the algorithm is functioning correctly.
3. Preference should be given to not-yet-fully realized industries and jobs being located in a different place than present industries and jobs that are being disrupted.
4. Not-yet-fully realized future industries and jobs will themselves be replaced by still more futureward industries and jobs.

The “friendly AI” would certainly seek to accelerate and expand this algorithm, always favoring what might be over what actually is, possibly to the point that only notional or hypothetical industries would be acceptable, and that any actual material implementation of an industry would make it something to be replaced instantly. The artificial stop conditions that the tech sector, among others, put on disruption might be removed. Why buy any tech right now when there will be tech tomorrow that will displace it? Why in fact actually develop or make any tech considering that we can imagine the tech that will displace the tech we are developing? Apple will simply obsolete the next iPad in a few years for the sake of disruption, so the friendly AI might go ahead and pre-obsolete it all. Again, not what anybody really wants, but it’s a reasonable interpretation of what we are already doing, or at least what some people argue we are doing or ought to do.

Posted in Information Technology and Information Literacy | 6 Comments

Fix on Fail I: Everyday Arguments for Pluralism, Multiculturalism and Diversity

This is the first in a small series of essays about everyday forms of social reason behind commonly defended values or propositions, each of which will argue that those values are now profoundly at risk. Political elites, intellectuals, and civil society activists often assume that there is or ought to be broad acceptance of those values. They act as if breaches and challenges to those dominant beliefs are the result of ignorance and backwardness, and that these challenges will fade eventually over time if sufficient power is used to contain and suppress those challenges in the present. Instead, I believe that the arguments for these values are in serious crisis, that they no longer persuade many people in many societies (if they ever did), and that elites in many cases are stuck enforcing views that risk becoming parochial or local values held by their own social class. We must undertake the work of rethinking, refurbishing and revisiting these ideas in the real everyday experiences of 21st Century humanity.

First up: pluralism, multiculturalism and diversity.

Whatever happens in today’s Brexit vote, the fact that the vote to leave the European Union was strongly supported by many voters in the United Kingdom, largely in connection to antipathies towards immigration and unrestricted border control, is precisely the kind of graveyard that cosmopolitan elites, liberal policy-makers, self-satisfied activists and Hallmark-card level celebrators of multiculturalism have contrived to whistle past, louder and louder as the close calls have become razor-thin and the documented failures of actually-existing pluralism to achieve most of what it has congratulated itself for achieving have piled higher and higher.

I am a person of my own social class, and pluralism and diversity are values that I deeply support and aspire to practice in my decision-making and everyday life. So the following critique is very much intended to protect and strengthen these values with the ardent conviction that many people who are not part of my immediate social world should share these values. It has come to the point, however, that if we cannot investigate with an open mind why pluralism is at risk and with whom, and thus begin to understand how to renew what it might mean to cherish an ideal of pluralism across our society, I fear very much that in thirty years time some forms of performed and expressed fidelity to diversity will be drawing-room manners for an aging and sequestered elite.

Keep in mind that valuing self-conscious commitments to pluralism, valuing the idea of building communities that cherish a wide range of life experiences, cultural and expressive practices, convictions and beliefs, is not the same as living in necessarily pluralistic societies. Even if we lose an aspiration to intentional pluralism, we will still live alongside people who are different in many respects than we ourselves are. That’s a deeply human experience, in greater profusion and intensity over the last four centuries. So the alternative to cherishing and building pluralism is not homogeneity.

This is a good place to start with refurbishing the argument for intentional pluralism. It starts with thinking about what has been wrong with the sort of pluralism that grows out the accumulated relations between peoples and identities which have been thrown together by the accidental, organic or incidental movement of groups or through the forced or violent migration of one group under the oppression of another. Groups living next to one another or alongside each other within a single place have often reached practical understandings about the limits and rules of their relations, but they have not often had any principled or persistent view of those rules. In many cases in history, peaceful and mutually advantageous relations between relatively equal groups or societies hold for as long as the overall political economy of a region or place is stable (a rare enough circumstance) and as long as no one thinks they can gain a permanent advantage through violence or subordination directed at other groups. Or as long as a small minority group of residents have some particular skill or resource that the dominant majority find useful. Merchants who have access to long-distance trade networks, scholars from far away who have linguistic or interpretative competencies, artisans who keep some craft knowledge opaque to others, and so on.

Why try to build communities, societies, nations, or a world that set out to be pluralistic on purpose, and that enshrine pluralism as a central value or belief system? What many people today might support is the promise that this is a way to break the wheel of uncertainty about accidental neighbors, to escape from a cycle where violence, flight, compulsion and mistreatment are always the threatening possibility of every understanding or contract. But this then is the first place that we’re failing, badly. Intentional pluralism defended as a state ideology or a civic virtue in the early 21st Century does not feel to many people as if it is an alternative to being left to your own devices to work out as best you can an understanding with neighbors welcome and unwelcome, and if necessary, to violently resolve a bad understanding with whatever collective power your own communities can mobilize. There is no greater security or understanding for most people in most nation-states that arises out of an official or civic endorsement of pluralism. Nation-states rarely offer safety, protection or rights evenly to all identifiable groups and communities within their territories. Having neighbors who are different religiously, ethnically, or in terms of lifeways and everyday practices, is for many people not a source of strength but of danger, even if the overall society claims otherwise. The only people who consistently experience multiculturalism and pluralism as an empowering and affirming value system are those with the resources to take the best of what it offers materially and socially, who are associated with historically dominant groups, and who are in charge of civic and governmental institutions that take pluralism and multiculturalism as their authorizing principle.

Wider populations in nations or across transnational boundaries will never embrace pluralism as an official political and civic value system until it actually keeps people more secure in their bodies, their hearts and their material circumstances. More secure and consistent in outcomes than the unpredictable processes of negotiation and struggle that unfold between groups that have been thrown together by history. No matter what, groups will deal with other groups as they must–and struggle or fight when they judge that inevitable–unless official pluralism is a consistently and truthfully better alternative. Unless it’s safe to be different, unless the language of rights and the realities of power conventionally and commonly align.

What else do we need to know or need to rethink? Elites who delight in cosmopolitanism and diversity need to listen carefully to individuals and communities who tell us about the times that diversity exhausts, weakens or exasperates them. That’s not just in the case often described by social justice activists, who justifiably point out that having to explain your difference to majority or dominant groups largely for the educational benefit of those dominant elites is at the absolute minimum a tiring cost of co-existence and at the worst feels degrading and affirming of the power of those elites. It’s even true in situations where groups have some degree of parity in their social power and have substantial reservoirs of understanding about the other social worlds that exist alongside them. It’s true even for groups that are dominant over others: they do not need remedies or special consideration, but their emotional experience of difference matters in trying to make sure that diversity and pluralism thrive as real values that are actually held by consensus. In-group social life has all the affordances (and dangers) of intimacy: the possibility that you can simply exist without explanations, in comfortable fellowship. That you can have the inward discoveries that long shared experience allows. Much of our valedictory rhetoric about pluralism and diversity ignores, downplays or denigrates the value of exclusive social belonging, or justifies it only in an instrumental and functionalist sense that historically oppressed groups need such exclusivity in order to feel safe. But this feeling is not just practical or politically necessary: it is in some sense a necessary part of a good pluralism. Without groups that also have a sense of exclusive, inward belonging and intimacy, there is no pluralism. Without heterogeneity that is genuine, there is no diversity.

We are often blithe about just how hard it is to live in a continuously diverse or heterogenous situation, how abrading it can be to a sense of selfhood and autonomy to have to constantly defer to every other practice or lifeway in the name of being happily multicultural. We also forget how profoundly confusing it is in the context of everyday life to have to distinguish between the diversity that we are called to embrace and the divergence that we are called to oppose or condemn. Educated cosmopolitans sometimes act as if this is a simple matter (though others, thankfully, regard this as among the hardest kind of everyday work we do as human beings.) We have got to acknowledge how hard it is to do, and how many difficult cases there can be when we set out to distinguish between a way of life that we should embrace as part of the range of diversity and a way of life that we should condemn as a violation of basic democratic or moral principles. The current trend in a lot of left or liberal activism is the opposite, to mock and condemn some for their hesitation at that boundary and to see the distinction between the two as obvious and undebatable. When we act as if it’s easy to be pluralistic, as if it’s a simple and obvious moral imperative to embrace diversity at all times and in all places, we are again substituting a narrow, class-bound and institutionally privileged habitus for the values we hope to see our entire society adhere to. It’s not even easy, really, for highly educated professionals who live within communities that have a picture-perfect kind of visual diversity. Until we let people have back a kind of honesty about what’s hard about living with difference and hard about being labelled as different, we will see people quietly slip away from pluralism. More and more will come to see pluralism as the parochial view of a narrow elite, as the specific cultural belief of a specific kind of person who lives somewhere else.

We also have got to get real about when pluralism and diversity have at least some relationship to the zero-sum games that neoliberalism in particular but not neoliberalism alone or exclusively have established within the global economy. Here I do not mean the idea that racism is an ideology that the dominant elites encourage in some subordinate but favored group of proxies for the sake of social control. I mean instead simply this: that if there is a fixed pool of wealth and power with an upper bound, then a justly pluralistic society where diversity is protected and supported is also a society that is redistributive. Even in a situation where that redistribution was absolutely equitable, that means some people will have less than they did. A lot of elite liberal or left commenters who live in more privileged situations with mannered cosmopolitanism tend to either politely ignore objections about redistribution or to regard redistribution as a just outcome about which they are entitled to gloat–as long as it’s happening to someone else. Now the real answer to all of this has nothing to do with pluralism or diversity: it is really about the ghastly consequences of extreme concentration of wealth in very small groups, and about the need to find as many ways as possible for economic and material life to not be subject to strict zero-sum limitations. People who believe in pluralism and diversity as supreme social values are not doing their cause any favors when they mock or ignore fears among those who stand to lose some wealth or power, however modestly or justly, if we move towards a more just and equitable kind of pluralism.

All of this points the way to more listening, less telling. In particular, more listening about how people experience difference and pluralism. Maybe even the best parts of that experience are not what political and cultural elites in many nations expect. The 21st Century cannot become more securely pluralistic, more committed to diversity in all nations and across nations, unless the people and institutions that hold to those values stop lecturing and hectoring and condescending to those who have violated, condemned, or most worrisome of all, quietly and without fuss slipped away from those values. A better world will be, must be a pluralistic one. The desire to make that the world we live in has had and will continue to have real enemies who have to be fought. But it needs many more friends than it has, and that takes doing more work to keep the friends we have and seek out the ones we’ve lost.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments