Trumpism and Expertise

The conventional wisdom was that the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union fell and its satellite states became independent once again.

I think actually that the Cold War just ended right now in 2016. What is it that has ended? Basically an interstate system built to systematically offload volatility and risk onto Western Europe’s former colonies while reducing uncertainty and volatility in interstate relations within the core, whether that was within Europe, between the West and the East, or between the major economic hubs of the global system. In my own current research, I’m thinking about the way that interstate relations were ritualized and formalized to express this sort of predictability between the major Cold War powers and the new states of independent Africa. I recently heard a fantastic talk by the historian Nikhil Singh that added to my thinking on this point, in which he observed that another part of this infrastructure of relations involved assertions about global collaborations towards modernity and progress, that the new temporality of the world-system stressed the relative simultaneity of modernity between states and within states, that the developing world was only just “behind”, that systems of governance and management were all at once just now modernizing, rather than the indefinitely deferred maybe-someday modernity imagined by the architects of indirect rule in modern European empires.

That’s what is ending now, after a long sickly period of invalidism since 1992 or so. All over the world it’s ending. Some places never got to see that less-risk, less-uncertainty world, because they were always tagged as the sites where proxy war would happen or state failure would be tolerated. By the early 2000s, nowhere seemed to be the site of a managed, controlled form of methodical progress. But the elaborate protocols and hierarchies of the infrastructure of Cold War relationships, with their managerial certainties about the importance of expertise and experience, survived more or less intact past the fall of the Berlin Wall. The world that area studies was meant to service, a world where dominant states had to shepherd their flocks with well-trained men and women who spoke languages, knew histories and cultures, understood the particular protocols for each state, that’s the world that’s grinding to a halt. We are now fully in what Ziauddin Sardar calls a “post-normal” world, shaped by complex feedback loops of causality and outcomes that our traditional modes of management and expertise are ill-prepared to deal with or understand.


Do you actually need to be an expert to head an executive department of the United States government (or its counterparts)? It is plain that for the last three decades, you have not needed to be in the sense that a lack of direct expert knowledge of your area of responsibility would outright mean you would not be appointed or confirmed.

Have the executive departments of the United States government operated better when their top official is a well-trained subject specialist with direct prior experience in that area of administration? I’m not sure that this holds up either. In some cases, I think too much expertise for the Cabinet officer has been a problem, in fact: the policies that get put forward in that circumstance are sometimes too circumscribed, too technocratic, too narrowly conceptualized.

So where is the real domain of expertise? Two places, I think: the undersecretaries who do the real work of leading on particular policies and specific administration, and the “deep state” that executes the will of the appointees below the level of the Cabinet (who in turn are trying to follow the direction of the Cabinet appointees, the President, and to a lesser extent Congress).

I think it’s fair to say that the Administration now taking shape is showing an unprecedented degree of hostility towards the standard post-1945 relationship between expertise and executive administration in this respect. Many of the Cabinet and non-Cabinet heads proposed so far by Trump actively disdain their own department and argue that sources of information and policy insight are better found away from any system of authenticated or trained expertise, regardless of the ideological predisposition of said experts. Given the strength of this view so far, I think we can expect that Trump’s appointees will seek to have all their immediate subordinates align with this overall distaste for the standard markers and sources of expert knowledge.

The “deep state” is another matter. Not only are many civil servants legally protected and standard systems of appointment and seniority insulated from direct political control, many of them also do work where the expertise they possess is opaque to appointed-level authorities but also required by dense interlocking bodies of statute and regulation. Reaching into the worlds where visas are granted, borders are patrolled, inspections are conducted and so on is more than the work of four or eight years. I suspect much of this work, with the requisite expertise required to carry it out, will go significantly unperturbed unless or until it is subject to a strong and persistent directive from the top. (Say, for example, to massively restrict certain kinds of visas or to aggressively deport undocumented residents in new ways, and so on.)

So here’s the question: will an active hostility to expertise in the top three or four layers of executive authority produce bad outcomes at a novel and consistent scale in the coming years?

The answer, I think, is yes, but not all at once, and not as consistently as we might be inclined to presuppose. Let’s start with one of the first issues to arise out of Trump’s approach to government, namely, his disinterest in diplomatic protocols in calls to heads of state and in receiving his daily intelligence briefing. Here are two cases where he has announced as matter of policy that he will not be guided in the same way as past chief executives by expert advice. What will come of that?

Why, for example, does a head of state (or his immediate executive underlings) follow the advice of protocol experts and the diplomatic corps in speaking with counterparts? Three reasons, principally. First, as part of that Cold War system of reducing net uncertainty and risk, by making sure that no miscommunication of intent takes place. Second, as part of an overall system of standardization of communication that performs a certain kind of notional equality between states as a marker of progress towards global modernity. Third, as a persuasive strategy, wherein the rhetorical, cultural and political expertise of diplomatic staff allows the head of state to produce favored outcomes through a form of knowledge arbitrage or information asymmetry, wherein the most expertly informed leader most adroitly matches or confounds the agenda of his conversational partner.

1) On uncertainty and risk. Trump has already communicated his view that better deals are made by a negotiator who is unpredictable, and his general Cabinet seems to believe similarly that the United States should no longer be seen as a reliable, predictable partner with a persistent long-term agenda that favors shared interests and overall stability, but instead as a highly contingent actor who will seek maximum national advantage in all interactions, even if that destabilizes existing agreements and frameworks. He seems to believe this approach is best carried out with a minimum of prior expert knowledge, treating all negotiating partners as similarly pursuing maximum national advantage.

Is he right or wrong about expertise here? Well, first, this is not so much about expertise as it is about philosophy, ethics and morality. It’s a view of human life. But it is also about expertise: it’s a damn fool negotiator who spurns useful information about the person he’s bargaining with, and at least some of that information is not available to intuition, no matter how good the intuition might be. Trump reads the room intuitively in only three ways, though I’ll give him credit for some real skills in this respect: he knows what ramps or riles a crowd up and how to keep adjusting to changes in the crowd’s mood, he knows instinctively how to emasculate or frighten weak men like his primary rivals, and he knows how to bluster when he’s up against someone who isn’t going to back down. He is the equivalent of the poker player Phil Hellmuth. But that style can be beaten, and it can be beaten by someone with more information who also knows that the intuitive negotiator can’t turn his style off when necessary. (I suspect this is why a lot of Trump’s actual deals have been pretty bad for him in their specifics: he can be outplayed by someone who knows the specifics better and understands Trump’s personality well enough to play at him rather than be played. His supposed unpredictability is actually pretty predictable)

Trump may be right that the desire for stability and risk management, managed by conventional systems of academically-vetted expertise, has made the United States in particular a lumbering colossus that can be exploited, targeted, predicted, and manipulated. Much as I think academic disciplinarity in general often prefers predictability and incrementalism over idiosyncrasy and invention, despite much rhetoric to the contrary. But I suspect he will be wrong that expertise is of little importance to the negotiator, and I know that a more unpredictable and uncertain world is a more dangerous one by far. The plutocrats who make up a significant percentage of his Cabinet should be as scared of that as anyone else: “disruption” has a different meaning when there are no rules or limits on interstate relations and international institutions.

2) On the notional equality of states and the belief in progress. Experts were an important part of how we maintained both visions in the Cold War: the proposition that you had to recognize the equal-but-different character of each nation, its defining cultural practices, ways of thought, and so on, was the only equality that an unequal world could offer. Everybody got their own CIA Factbook listing, every country got its own briefing in the same format, every nation had its own scholarly literature. And every expert could produce an account–even a left-wing or dissenting account–of what progress in each notionally equal national unit might look like. Nations in this sense functioned as proxy individuals in a basically liberal framework; just as each individual was notionally entitled to have their distinctiveness recognized by psychologists, by teachers, by doctors, by civil servants, by colleagues, by law enforcement, so too was each nation attended to.

Do we need that? Well, there are other visions of progress, other possible worlds–and other discourses of equality and justice that do not rest on giving everyone their own seat at the United Nations. Some of those other visions require expertise, perhaps of a kind other than what most of the present infrastructure of expertise stands ready to supply.

The Trump Administration is not gearing up for an opposite vision of progress, however, but for its abandonment. Since the end of the Cold War, most leaders have become sheepish about progress-talk. It’s best saved for bland, vague ceremonial speeches or as part of an outraged denunciation of the enemies of progress, say, following a terrorist attack. The Trump Administration and its counterparts rising around the world aren’t interested in even that much, though I would expect a few muttered gestures of this sort at the usual times to persist.

Do we need progress and a system of notional equality between nations or societies? Hell yeah. Are experts important to it? Yes, but not as important as rethinking some of the vision underpinning progress, which experts have been strikingly bad at doing for the entire post-1945 era. Walt Rostow and his heirs, of varying ideologies, can go ahead and sit down and wait until the infrastructure gets rebuilt. The deep ideas and feelings that can sustain a vision of a better world need attention from ordinary people in their everyday lives, from philosophers and hermits, from novelists and dreamers, from tillers of the soil and computer programmers. What Trump is doing here is not first and foremost about a vulgarian assault on expertise, it’s far more fundamental and disastrous than that.

3) On the need for expertise to achieve known objectives and aims.

Here I think it’s unmistakeable: hostility to expertise is stupid. That’s not hypothetical. You did not have to be an expert on the Middle East to know that the American invasion of Iraq was a dumb idea: occupations are almost always dumb ideas, and the people who claimed otherwise in 2002 by citing the US occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II were obviously dumb and/or dishonest in making that point before we ever got to its lack of expert knowledge of history. But the Bush Administration made what was always going to be something of a mess into a catastrophe by insisting that people who had expert knowledge of the Middle East, about Iraq, or even about counterinsurgency, be kept out of the planning of the invasion and the occupation. They got played again and again by unreliable allies, they provoked and motivated Iraqi resistance largely through blundering and incompetence, they wasted both blood and treasure due to inexpert fecklessness.

There are innumerable examples like this in the last sixty years of international relations, and more in the larger swath of world history. It is true enough that expertise alone does not guarantee better outcomes. Left to their own devices, without common sense or wisdom, experts will do things that very nearly as catastrophic as what non-experts do. But the solution to the fallability of experts is not to rubbish them altogether.

Here I think it is safe to say: bad things are going to happen if the Trump Administration is as serious as it appears to be about doing without expert advice in international and domestic policy.


However, there is also this: experts of all kinds have some housecleaning to do in the wake of this election.

First, I’ll return to a point I’ve made many times on this blog. Professionals cannot claim that only they are capable of securing the quality of their services if they don’t actually self-police. Expertise lost some of its legitimacy as a force in public culture and governance through a long period of tolerance for ill-considered or badly supported guidance to policy makers and the public by some experts. I’m not talking here about research fraud, which I think we do well enough with given the difficulty of detecting it consistently, or about extremist outliers who provide patently unbalanced or unsupported advice, but instead the kind of mainstream social science and some natural science that makes overly strong claims about policy or action based on narrowly significant research findings, or is too constrained by over-specialization and so misses the forests for the trees. We have led a lot of people astray, or we have allowed poor-quality journalism or self-interested clients (like industries or particular ideologically-driven policy communities) to distort and misuse what we produce. We need to publish less and polish more, and to abandon narrow single-variable modes of explanation and intervention in dealing with genuinely complex problems. If we’re actually confident that expertise is necessary for governance and for institutional action more generally, then we should be thinking harder about how we make sure that what we deliver is of the highest quality (much as surgeons might generally see that they have a collective interest in preventing poorly-trained surgeons from killing or maiming patients). As much as possible, the dumb kind of cherrypicking favored by pundits like Ezra Klein or slick non-fiction writers like Malcolm Gladwell needs to be contested at every turn. If you buy expertise, we should force clients to buy the whole of it, and relentlessly challenge people who just cite the one thing from our work or guidance that they find flattering, sellable or instrumentally useful. We need to look at Philip Tetlock’s critique of expert political judgment and his accompanying analysis of “superforecasting” and take a lot of the diagnostic there to heart.

Second, in light of this, we have to see some portion of Trumpism’s vision of expertise as rooted in that history of exaggeration and misuse. And part of the problem is that our horrified reaction to Trumpism in turn at least can look like (and might actually be) another kind of “economic anxiety”, namely, a fear of losing one of our major markets for what we have trained to do, and thus a customer base of students looking to be trained similarly.

It would paradoxically help our shared reputation and perhaps rebuild public trust if we could acknowledge the degree of self-interest we have in the system operating as it has operated. Technocrats are as disliked as they are in part because they cast themselves as neutral arbiters who simply are providing information and knowledge without self-interest in either the service or the outcomes. The economies which support their work are frequently opaque even within insider circles, let alone to wider publics. Experts, whether they are pundits or staff members of large organizations or academics or public intellectuals, should have to disclose more clearly where they make their money, and how much the delivery of specific kinds of counsel or research outcomes to specific clients is required to get paid off.

Third, we should also be more confident in a sense that Trumpism is going to be a shitshow if it actually goes ahead and cuts expertise out of the loop as it is seeming to do thus far. I understand that it’s hard to watch bad things happen to our common, shared interests as a people and a world, but it is important in some sense that this horrific experiment be run without intervention. To whatever extent possible, real experts should withhold their guidance if the people now in charge show no respect for the entire idea of expert guidance, even if the consequences are serious, and document every case where the advice of experts was not sought or was superceded if provided. No one will thank us for confronting them with such an archive later on, any more than gravely ill patients welcome being scolded by a doctor who is exasperated by a patient’s systematic failure to follow medical advice, but this is precisely the kind of documentation we’re going to need in the future to re-establish the place of expertise in public life.

Posted in Academia, Oath for Experts, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics | Comments Off on Trumpism and Expertise

The Room Where It Happens

It would be in a way a comfort–and also a terror–to think, “Well, that’s those people, it’s the way they think, we cannot stop them and there is no way to engage them.”

It’s true, there is no way to engage them–that is what this article shows about Lenny Pozner’s efforts to confront conspiracy theorists who deny that his child died at Sandy Hook. And there is no way to stop them through some force or power that we can muster.

What I think could do is start to recognize our connections to conspiratorial readings as well as our alienation from them. I know some of my close colleagues are less enamored than I am with some recent scholarly writing about the dangers of the “hermeneutics of suspicion”, and I take some of their points seriously.

But I do think that we have for almost fifty years been walking ourselves into a series of practices of reading the textual and cultural worlds around us as a series of visible clues to invisible processes. In some measure because that is the truth of those cultural worlds, in multiple ways. Texts have meanings that they do not yield up to an initial reading. They affect us in ways that are deferred, delayed, or mysterious. So we are right to pursue interpretations that look for how what is visible both produces invisible outcomes and is a sign of invisible circulations in the world.

It is also the truth that we are not witness to many of the moments that control our lives, and some of those are found in “the room where it happens”: in the private chambers of political and social power. But many more are nowhere to be found, produced out of the operations of complex systems that no one controls, in the arcs that fire between sociocultural synapses. We want desperately to see into both kinds of invisibility, and so we pore over the visible as a map to them.

We know that things persist which our society says we no longer profess. Racism, sexism, bias of many kinds, are visible, but you can’t trace them easily back to the visible text of political structure or even to deliberate professions of ideology, to intentional statements made willfully by individuals about how they will dispense the powers at their command. Steve Bannon is not Bull Connor, even if they have inside of them the same awful invisible edifice.

What this leads to–leads *us* to, as well as alt-right conspiracy theorists–is an assertion from the visible of the inevitability of the invisible, of a description of invisible specificity. I have listened to colleagues tell me with a straight face what happened in the room that I was in and they were not in, and have told them that what they’ve said is not even a permissible interpretation, it’s just wrong. To no avail: the people in question just kept telling the story of non-events as fact. I have listened at full faculty meeting to one faculty member offer a description of what happened in a process of decision-making which she was not part of, only to be contradicted by five other faculty members who were part of it, and to the describer insisting that what she said was true while also insisting that she wasn’t saying that what her colleagues had said was untrue. What she said had happened while they were not in that room–but there was no room that they had not been in.

I think we could all compile examples, and we’re tempted to just say: that’s just that person being silly. Or it’s just minor. Or it’s an aberrant result of psychological imbalance.

This is letting ourselves off too lightly. It’s deep in our bones: we have battered ourselves against the shell that hides the invisible, we have produced an escalating tower of knowledge that stretches ever further into the sky without ever finding the heaven of truth, and we’re tired. We know still that there are rooms and entire worlds where it happens and we’re tired of being happened to. So we search for a crack, a clue, a fragment, a trail. We detect, we investigate. We deduce, believing in Holmesian fashion that the remaining impossibilities must be the truth. We describe things that never happened in the belief that they must have, and we attribute things that happened in immanence, in the air that surrounds us and chokes us, to specific agents and specific locations, to the devils we can name.

We, we, we. And them. Not all invisibilities are alike, and the work of inventing some of them is, as Pozner puts it beautifully in working through his own trauma, smothering everything human. It is the same paradox of witchcraft-finding in southern Africa: the quest to locate and confront evil becomes the evil it sets out to fight. But we are not homo evidentius, fighting an alien subspecies of homo conspiratorius. This is another strain of an illness that we also suffer from.

Posted in Academia, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics, Swarthmore | 1 Comment

The Definition of Madness

Why am I getting so irritated with people earnestly posting about eliminating the electoral college, reducing voter suppression, encouraging more mail-in voting, and so on? Or saying that losing is a result only one small variable (Comey’s dumbass meddling, successful voter suppression, etc.)?

I’m irritated because this is the opposite of organizing and fighting on. This is trying to find a simple, good post-facto story that makes us feel better and that services our need to feel as if we are still in charge, still in power and have some simple, useful thing that we can readily do that will change the situation the next time around. But it is the opposite of organizing at a time of extraordinary danger.

When I was still actively playing tennis, one of the people I played with had an interesting verbal tic where he would instantly reinterpret mistakes he made as properties of the physical universe that were affecting his game. If he was getting tired and missing his shots, the ball was “getting heavier”. If he missed his serve, “the lights were flickering”. It was harmless. (It probably tells you something that my inner, mostly unexpressed narrative was about how much I suck, about how stupid I am for not being more in shape, about the idiocy of thinking I could hit that shot like that.)

It is not harmless, on the other hand, if you have a friend who lights a match to see if there’s a gas leak, there’s an explosion that you both fortunately survive, and they say, “There must have been a spark somewhere down the line” and you realize, “This person might light that match again the next time this happens.” At that point, you can’t be patient: you have to say, “Dammit, that was because you lit a match! Don’t fucking do that again, ever!”

You cannot reform the voting system if you’re not in power. That’s basic. You cannot build a campaign that is 100% proof against a James Comey doing something unprofessional or inappropriate. That’s basic. If that’s what “organizing” means to you, you’re just lighting matches to find gas leaks. The precondition to reforming voting is winning elections without having voting reforms. The Republicans understood that back in the 1990s: that having won due to Clinton’s mid-term unpopularity, they could execute a plan that would make the terms of elections more favorable to them. They’ve gotten more desperate and transparent about that over the years, but they never forgot: you only get to to do this when you have a significant legislative majority, executive power, and some judicial support. (They’ve struggled sometimes with the latter.)

If you’re requiring campaigns that win only if they avoid a single misstep, not a single unpredictable tactical move by either an enemy or by an incompetent bureaucrat, that are less horse races than Swiss-built watches, you’re lighting matches to find gas leaks. You cannot have short, civil, intensely rule-constrained elections (which a few countries actually have!) without first winning elections in the system and culture you actually have.

This applies even to the argument gaining steam on progressive Twitter and FB and elsewhere right now, that it is “just” racism, that it is “just” white supremacy. I don’t think it’s “just” that–there’s useful data out already that complicates this story in many ways–but let’s suppose it is. Then ok: you are in a room with a gas leak. That’s it. That’s all.

It is cause for despair and anger, but it is also the environment we are in. If you are in a plane crash in the Antarctic, you are permitted a few moments of despair and fury at the desperate situation you are in. It’s cold, it’s bleak, it’s a long ways from anything. You can get up and swear if you like. But if I’m in the crash with you, when you start doing stuff like angrily throwing all the food in the wreck out into the snow because you’re frightened, or you start to stomp off in a random direction because you want to get started on the journey to an outpost, I am not just going to say, “Hey, I understand.” Our mutual survival is at stake. We need each other. We need everyone alive on the plane to work together and we need a plan that acknowledges that we are in a crash in the Antarctic.

If you want to win the next election and build a political system that is not every two or four years on the edge of being a plane crash, you have got to start understanding better that you are not in charge of making policies right now except in those lifeboats of blue. Talking constantly about the steak dinner you’re going to eat when the survivors get back to McMurdo Base is not helpful when everybody is eating dehydrated egg powder. What can you do with what you have, right now? What do you need to understand about the properties of cold, of snow, of shelter, of food, of signalling, of navigation? If you get back to McMurdo, then you start asking: how can I avoid ever being in a crash again. Right now you are crashed.

If it’s “just” racism, then that is the cold and the darkness and the barrenness that we are surviving. We figure out a plan that is laser-focused on staying alive–and we keep walking towards that base. That plan does not include “making it less cold in Antarctica” or “planting some seeds and waiting for the crops to grow”. But if it turns out it’s not just racism but many other things, then those are survival tools. We might even find there are other people lost in the wilderness who make our group bigger and stronger–they have supplies, they have a shack. We looked at them through the snowstorm and just thought they were ice or stones. They can help if only we’ll walk to them and ask.

Posted in Politics | 11 Comments

Physician Heal Thyself

In the summer of 2014, an American scholar named Steven Salaita who was a tenured member of the faculty at Virginia Tech was beginning the process of his move to a new position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He had given up his post at Virginia Tech, believing that his offer at Illinois was secure. He was wrong. A number of faculty, students and donors took note of a series of tweets he had written about 2014’s outbreak of conflict in the Gaza Strip and brought them to the attention of the then-Chancellor at Illinois, Phyllis Wise. Wise rescinded the job offer on the grounds that Salaita’s tweeting demonstrated that he would be unable to be professionally open to all students in his courses and that his messages were demeaning and abusive to opponents of his views. Wise and her supporters argued that this did not violate tenure protections as Salaita’s offer had not yet been formally affirmed by the Board of Trustees.

I thought then that this was a very bad decision by Wise and her administrative colleagues and I still think so. I think it’s important not to assume that what an intellectual writes is necessarily demonstrative of their professional conduct as a teacher. Folks who seem the essence of restraint and decorum in their scholarly writing can be the opposite as colleagues and teachers, and vice-versa. I think that social media is a different kind of public sphere, with a different set of local rhetorical norms, and there needs to be space to allow faculty who are active users of social media to explore those evolving norms.

Here’s what I didn’t say then, however, because you don’t want to kick a person when he’s down. I also thought that Salaita showed a lack of awareness of something that his scholarship professed a hyper-awareness of, namely, that he had enemies both because of what he had said and because of who he was. That Salaita could know as much as he did, as much as his work testified to, and yet not seem to think that the intensity of his tweets would draw a matching intensity of enmity to him, and that to tweet in that way at that moment of special professional vulnerability was to play with fire in a way that was woefully unstrategic? That was peculiar, not to understand that. The defense that he himself made was that the events in Gaza had overwhelmed him emotionally, and that’s important. Being an intellectual or a professional shouldn’t mean losing that kind of human vulnerability. However, speaking from an emotional place today, in the wake of the 2016 election, I still can’t help but think that he showed signs of a contradiction, one that I’ve come to think of as characteristic of progressive academics in the humanities and social sciences. That he demonstrated a belief both that he operated as an intellectual under conditions of profound threat from hostile sociopolitical power and that he had a kind of innocence about the actuality of that power. A trust that the system would actually protect him, an almost-privileged taking-for-granted that conventional representations of tenure and academic freedom would actually hold true.

I say this is characteristic, and perhaps of more than academics in the United States. I feel more than ever this morning as if this is one of several hugely consequential blindspots of college-educated, more-or-less liberal or progressive Americans, that were brutally revealed yesterday. I do not mean simply that oh-my-god-we-have-always-been-wrong, they really are out to get us, that any feeling of safety or security in institutions and rights that have ever been felt were nothing but illusions. Quite the contrary. I think Salaita was right to feel basically secure about tenure. That if he felt comfortable to say strong things in a public forum, that was a diagnostic sign of the actual security felt by fully employed professionals in the current economy. They may be surrounded by perimeters of specific precariousness. The lawyers sidelined by their profession’s specific form of recession, the tenurati surrounded by pervasive adjunctification, doctors finding themselves increasingly under the authority of non-doctors who dictate every discretionary decision involved in health care, journalists watching their industry fail, and so on. And regardless, professional work of all kinds is not what it once was: the pace, intensity and psychological unease has increased steadily with no end in sight. However, we still are better off by far than people with no specific professional credentials trying to keep their jobs and lives together. This is an economy that may work well for almost no one, but it works more poorly by far for some, including some who have felt in their own lives to have once had a better situation. We are not wrong if we think (but not admit, because we still want change) that we feel safer within some of our institutions and our social worlds. We are!

So some of us write and speak as if the power we anatomize and critique might only touch us specifically under unusual circumstances, whatever privilege or lack of privilege we hold in our racial and gender identities. We write of fearful power as if we have no reason to fear from writing about it. Even when we know we have special enemies who have a particular lack of regard for the professional scruples of academia or of the fashionably progressive middle-classes. We expect that power to produce a kind of diffuse, distributed injustice that might strike us arbitrarily rather that a specific threat that bears us an intimate, purposeful malice.

More importantly by far in terms of understanding what just happened in the United States, we demonstrate flashes of startling ineptitude in terms of understanding how what we say or write or do will be seen by others, how it will circulate and disseminate, how it can be used and misused. Humanist intellectuals ought to excel at that kind of understanding: it should be the essential proof of their expertise. We should both have the craft to say what we mean and mean what we say, and to understand precisely how our own social positionality, our own economic status, our own histories and identities, will inflect what we say and do. Not perfectly, never so: action and representation have an inevitable and often beautiful contingency to them. But we should not be as tin-eared as we sometimes seem to be, as frequently surprised and stunned at how we sound, or are made to sound, in social worlds other than our own. So many of the claims we make for liberal arts education are at stake here, and so much of its value potentially (I’m sorry to say, not so potentially this morning) cast into doubt. We should be beautifully multilingual in a range of nested, situated ways of talking and being–a good humanist should be able to walk into a room of advertisers, a room of Hell’s Angels, a room of soldiers, a room of drag performers, a room of hiphop artists, a room of soybean farmers, a room of car salesmen, and adapt to the conversation given time and opportunity. Not master it, not own it, not remake it as a knowledge product–but to understand what flies and what doesn’t, what’s being said and unsaid, what’s sayable and unsayable. We’re plainly not able. Perhaps less able than an advertiser, a Hell’s Angel, a soldier, a hiphop artist. The kind of understanding that is possible if we’re far from home, in Bali or Botswana, or deep in the past, in the Civil War or the Punic War, closes sharply the closer we are to where we live.

Not just academics, but well-meaning liberals of many kinds in many jobs. People who could make you a wonderfully authentic taco or show you how to kill your own urban artisanal chicken, people who volunteer in the soup kitchen or minister to the sick, people who could explain the finest details of Game of Thrones or do a great play-by-play of the last drive in a football game. We are or have been a lot of kinds of people with a lot of complicated social histories, but we’re also increasingly made over into the same kinds of people, with an increasingly predictable relationship to the economy, living in an increasingly small (if densely populated) number of places, holding to an increasingly constrained range of conventional sentiments. We are locked into who we are, and yet understand so little of what that is relative to others, despite our liberal arts educations and our unworldly worldliness. We have a long list of things we believe in and fight for and yet it’s not a list we can explain well in any deep sense, much of the time. We decry “neoliberalism” (often not knowing quite what we mean by that) and yet perform many of its operations as if they are the sun rising in the east. We explain things to each other as an affirmation of our mutual virtue and signal our virtue in the face of wickedness, in coded language and shorthand. We didactically explain our politics with the lonely desperate intensity of a missionary any time we think we’re in a crowd of heathens. We lecture about allyship without having an even minimally fleshed out conception of the social structure of possible alliances that we might be making. As our social worlds have become smaller and more specific, our lived sense of our own sociality has been fading into abstraction and vagueness, into us-and-them.

Which has become, perhaps, self-fulfilling prophecy: we may have been dialectically producing the generalized social antagonism we have so long invoked. 2016 may be the last stop on a journey that began in 1968, when any number of legitimately righteous crusades to change the world for the better, to make good on the promise of American freedom, began almost from their beginnings to curdle ever-so-slightly (and then faster and deeper for a few) into messianism. When the laws changed, that didn’t save everyone. The American promise went unfulfilled, injustice still sat on its throne. So policy–because it wasn’t enough to think that in the fullness of time, a change in the laws might produce a change in the society. When policy didn’t do it, civil society, culture, consciousness, speech. And each of those moves mobilized a countering constituency, often people who might have let the last move slide but who felt intruded upon by the next one. They learned the same routes for social change: law, policy, civil society, culture, consciousness, speech. But the more messianic the sentiment among those who felt born to change the world for the better, the less able they were to comprehend where they might have trespassed, where they were accidentally recruiting their own opposition. If I tell that story about something else–say, American military and diplomatic action in the world during the Cold War and after–progressives are well able to understand the basic sociopolitical engine involved. When you even tentatively tell that story here, about us, it’s hard even to get to a point where you might have an actual disagreement about the specific facts involved in that account. We absolve ourselves both of actually having social power and of aspiring to have it.

I have for over a decade been forecasting a genuine crisis if we could not change some of these directions. It has unmistakeably arrived. I have no more forecasts. The question is no longer, “Is there a different future that we could find our way to?” The question is now only, “How will we live in this crisis, with this crisis, through this crisis?” Not as prediction but advice I suggest the first answer is that we at last need to start using what we know in our professions and our divergent histories of life. We need to understand ourselves and the histories of our becoming without assuming that this inquiry will always and inevitably vindicate us as the agents and inheritors of progress.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 6 Comments

Trumped Up

I’m going to assume for the purposes of this essay that Clinton will win the election tomorrow. If Trump wins, a very different kind of political future stretches ahead, both for his supporters and his opponents.

So, if Clinton wins, what then? Many progressives promise to pressure her relentlessly, and they should do so. President Obama demonstrated in his last two years in office that there are many useful initiatives possible with executive authority alone. He also demonstrated in his first six years that there are many ways to squander executive power, as he did at Treasury and Education. Pressure on Clinton from the faction of her party that wants to see many things changed in our national policies can encourage creative use of executive power and discourage simply handing it to the usual suspects to craft the sort of rudderless, bloodless wonkery that only Ezra Klein could love.

It is nearly impossible to guess what kind of legislature she will be grappling with. That’s not merely about the distribution of seats to parties, but also about whether the Republican leadership will see Congressional leadership as an important part of climbing out of the abyss that Trump led them into. If they decide to stubbornly stay in the pit and wait for the next monster to escort them around its darkness, then Clinton will need a strategy that presumes nothing will come from Congress. If Paul Ryan and others recognize that to climb out takes delivering something more than endless, purposeless obstruction, then she may be able to rely on some form of legislative cooperation on big, likely rather formless, legislation to shift economic policy.

I don’t have much hope about a Clinton Administration, by and large. It’s not a Trump Administration, and that’s important enough. But 2020 and 2024 may deliver something like a Trump Administration if things don’t change. I still read far too many progressives in my social media feeds who see Trump’s coalition as a demographic cul-de-sac, as something which can get no larger. Trump is not teleology; Trump is contingency. He is an episode that did not have to happen, and he is an event that has changed the shape of the future. That alone is cause for the deepest fury with the Republican leadership of the last twenty years: they gleefully cast matches onto dry underbrush and then were surprised when they set the entire neighborhood ablaze.

Trump’s voters are a renewable resource, and it might only take someone other than Trump to grow them into something far more. Imagine Trump without grab-them-by-the-pussy, without unhinged tweeting, without dubious financial scumbuggery. Imagine a fire-breather without the liabilities who stayed laser-focused on a kind of populist nihilism, a tear-it-all-down attitude, coupled with a smarter, more circumspect nativism that kept away from indiscriminate racism. General disaffection with the system is real and widespread; against a career member of the political class, that revised Trump could win. Would have won this time, very likely.

So if nothing else for reasons of self-interest, the political class, of all parties, would be well-advised to build some reformist firebreaks urgently. They likely won’t. So let’s leave that for a moment and ask what the rest of us might do in their stead. Perhaps tearing down much of the existing system would or could be beneficial depending on who is doing the demolition and the reconstruction, and with what aims. We’re not getting to the good version, a new birth of American freedom, without a very different kind of social support for that transformation than is presently available.

I have been persistently frustrated with progressives who misunderstand, with varying degrees of egregiousness, two key issues. First with persistent attempts to use one fragmentary bit of data, namely 538’s claim that exit polls of Trump voters in the primaries showed that they had a higher median income than Democratic primary voters and higher than their state as a whole, to argue that Trump’s support is not “working-class”. First because at least some of the people who have seized on that point should know just how weak that data is for making any assertion about the social identities of a group of voters. Second because just about everyone should know better than to see income and social class as equivalent, and to reductively assume there’s a working-class, a middle-class, and the wealthy, end of story. Two households with an income of $72,000 can be massively different in class terms. The household where the income is $72,000 in a small city in Ohio with one 55-year old earner who has a B.A., works as a sales manager in an auto dealership and does part-time weekend work at Wal-Mart and is in a house with no resale value is almost incomparable with the household of a 35-year old biology Ph.D who has just been hired at a California liberal arts college on the tenure-track and is renting an apartment from his employer. They’re both “middle-class” in some broad sense, but the relationship of the two people to the political economy is hugely different, and their pathways into the future are equally divergent. The first person has a ton of reasons to worry–or feel anger–about the direction of the economy in comparison to the second person. (Not that anyone except the 1% can afford to regard the future as a sure thing.)

This is what we the people, at least the coalition of people voting for Clinton, will have to understand even if our political class, including probable-President Clinton, cannot. We will have to understand it through evidence and social connection. Progressives should not ever engage in sorting people into the deserving and undeserving, to decide whose precarity is authentic enough. Left politics depends on at least the appearance of an interest in fighting for workers, hence to desperation of some to cleanse the category of Trump voters so that it’s safe to disparage them as nothing but racists.

Mind you, many of them are just that. But never “nothing but”: to be precarious members of a lower middle-class that has genuinely suffered relative decline in the structural transformations of the global and national economy in the last thirty years is not in any sense incompatible with being racists, with sexism, and so on. Which is where the second issue that frustrates me comes up. There have been a number of essays published in the last month by progressive authors who say, “Don’t ask me to have empathy for Trump voters”. This misunderstands what it means to understand. The reason to think about and engage Trump voters is not saintly altruism. It is pure, desperate pragmatism.

The social and cultural distance between me and most Trump voters is vast. I don’t even have a member of my extended family that I know might vote for Trump. I only come across clusters of Trump voters in my social media feeds on occasion. I am frightened by most vocal Trump voters, and I’m repelled by a lot of what they support. The racism and sexism are only the first part of it. I’m disgusted with their indifference to truth and evidence. I’m dizzy with rage at their mockery of qualifications. I can’t believe they care so little about the consequences of a Trump Administration for the world or the country.

I have no sainthood to uphold, just a lot of bleak feelings of despair, anger and alienation about the entirety of where we find ourselves. I do have a religion that is just as sacred to me as anyone’s might be to them: I believe in evidence, I believe in knowledge, I believe in the elegance and beauty of words, I believe in fairness and equality, I believe in the possibilities of social justice. Trump is the Piss Christ of my religion: a sacrilege that enrages and sickens me.

And yet that is why I know pragmatically that this cannot go on. It doesn’t matter if the Trump coalition loses every four years by 10 or 15 electoral votes, by 45-55 in the popular vote. Especially not if they continue to hold many state legislatures and the House of Representatives. That’s enough to hold the future hostage, to drag us all down, and to make the neoliberal trend lines of the economy even worse for more and more people, potentially accelerating the move of other voters into a Trump-like space of nihilism and rejection. Something has got to change, and we cannot change it just with a basket of admirables.

We have to have justice even for people we dislike, even for people who threaten others. That’s the price of peace. Every society that’s gone through something like a civil war learns this in the end. Progressives like to point out that you cannot kill all the terrorists, because trying to do so makes more terrorists. This is what happens with all strategies of infinite enmity, of holding power as a shield and weapon against enemies, in the end. This ensures the social reproduction of enmity itself.

So the first thing that we can do with our civic lives, even if the President and Congress drag their feet making the really big changes in their management of the economy, is to try and poke holes in the coffee can, to let some air in, to change the circulation of meritocratic privilege and economic access even more than it has been changed so far. To figure out who is with Trump only because of one issue or one experience, who could move.

Where we can build a bridge to that someone, we should. Where we can stand to be in conversation, we should. Trying to understand people never depends on whether they’re assholes or not. It’s not empathy because you’re a good person. As a historian and ethnographer, I’ve often had to understand people that I personally or politically dislike very much, without any implications for my own likeability or goodsness. I shouldn’t undertake that effort just when it’s a Shona-speaking rural patriarch that I’m speaking to. Not because I’m a saint, not because I have to have “empathy” for some fuzzy reason, but because I have the skill to do it and because if I use that skill I gain productive knowledge about the world, how it came to be, and what it might mean to change it.

Equally, we have to start figuring out what we might offer as a new social contract between communities with very different visions of the future. If I were in a conversation today where I thought there was a fair, genuine offer on the table to allow a rural school in a region where 95% of the students identified as evangelicals to have a school prayer in the morning in return for acceptance without complaint of non-gender-specific bathrooms in schools throughout that state, I might advise acceptance of the deal. Maybe we need strategic arms limitation talks in the culture wars, maybe we need to refocus the conversation on what kinds of essential baseline universal rights need strong defense by the federal government and which kinds of rights-talk can be allowed some form of local devolution. I’d settle for a strong federal intervention in the rules of engagement by police all across this country to stop the deaths of African-Americans if that meant a studied indifference among coastal elites about people flying the Confederate flag over a state legislature. Now, none of this is worth talking about until it’s a real negotiation, with real concessions being made. Again, though, safety and peace don’t come just through holding power long enough to win forever. There is no end to history. We won’t know what’s possible unless we spend the time figuring out what at least some of our enemies really want.

Not all of Trump’s voters need to be brought back into some larger possible coalition. But we need a bigger tent, a bigger alliance, a broader consensus on the absolute fundamentals of American and global life. We need something less fragile, less perpetually imperiled, and we will not get it just by endless war. We will not get it through some magic demography that we believe has anointed us the majority of the future. We will not get it by holding fast to every single thing we are, we want, we do.

Posted in Politics | 13 Comments

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 | 1 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 | 2 Comments

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