Good-Bye New York Times

The letter my wife and I sent to the New York Times this morning after we cancelled our very long-term subscription.


Dear Mr. Dean Baquet, Ms. Liz Spayd, Mr. James Bennet:

We have been reading the New York Times for most of our lives. Both of us read you when we were children, teenagers, college students together. We subscribed as one of our first acts as a married couple in the late 1980s and we have carried that subscription ever since, with a few minor interruptions on various moves. It is a 40-year plus fixture in our lives.

We’re kicking you out. And it’s not us, it’s you. Yes, we’ll probably still read you here and there, likely at our place of work. But we’re tired of the relationship. We’re tired of your bad decisions, which have accumulated steadily over the years. We’re tired of you making bad decisions right now when so much is at stake, not just politically, but for the survival of journalism in the face of digitization.

The New York Times has always been more enamored of its relationship to power than it ought to be. Yes, you published the Pentagon Papers (and then floated on those reluctantly-decided laurels for decades). But you also let your editors variously become handmaidens to various ideological fads. One pursued anti-Communism to the point of removing a reporter who dared report honestly from El Salvador (his reportage later upheld by other investigators). Later your editor-in-chief Bill Keller became so desperate to prove the paper’s patriotism that he became a servant to the cause of an unnecessary war founded on lies. Occasionally you’ve apologized, as Keller did. Mostly you haven’t.

We forgave. To err is human. There is no simple objectivity. We would rather have a strong sense of committed vision, even one we don’t entirely agree with, than bland faux-objectivity. But still, that kind of dishonesty—altering coverage, suppressing reportage—is hard to forgive. We want honesty, aggression in the pursuit of truth, the willingness to say something dangerous or unpopular. If it’s true. If it’s compelling. If it’s complex and thoughtfully observed.

We want something interesting. In some ways the Times has been adroit in its adaptation to an era of ubiquitous free content. You’re thinking hard about how to provide in-depth coverage that no one else has. We appreciate that. We’ll miss it. You’re thinking hard about how to explain how your coverage works, how stories were made, to provide perspective. We’ll miss it.

In other ways, you have been poor at adapting. Your cultural coverage is still mostly slow, dull and timid. You still have laughably weird attention to the real estate dilemmas of 28-year old recent college graduates who have $50 million trust funds.

These are minor issues.

What is not minor is the continuing catastrophic misjudgments in your news coverage of American politics. You were not alone in underestimating and misreporting the rise of Donald Trump, nor were you alone in paying bizarrely intense attention to Hillary Clinton’s emails. We say that as people who didn’t even particularly care for Clinton. You just missed the story, badly, because someone in your chain of command had some white whales to catch and you missed what was really going on. You’re still missing a lot, almost every other day, with news coverage and analysis that seems almost desperate to find a reason to compliment the President.

What is not minor is your continuing timidity of your coverage of foreign affairs, your compliant reproduction of conventional wisdom and diplomatic gossip—we hear and read coverage a thousand times more interesting and detailed and daring and observant and on-the-ground real than yours from the BBC, from various European newspapers, from freelance columnists, from bloggers, from many sources. Trying to follow the world just from reading the New York Times is difficult at best.

Even that is minor compared to your opinion columnists. That’s where the New York Times’ historical weaknesses meet up with the failures of our present-day public sphere and create an inexcusable disaster. There are a thousand writers online of all ideologies that we would rather read than any of your columnists. Your columnists are largely boring, predictable, incurious, and stylistically inert at best. Almost none of them bother to talk to anyone outside their own circles, research beyond what they already know (or think they know), think in unexpected ways, or engage the public culture as it stands. They are not even clickbait in the ordinary sense: they mostly get linked in social media by readers exasperated with the timidity, inaccuracy and dullness of what they say. You have vastly better opinion and analysis writers associated with the digital version of the paper, like Natalie Angier, so it is not as if your editors are unaware of what’s out there in the wider public sphere.

Now you’ve hired a columnist who thinks the height of thinking outside the box is to question whether climate change is real and whose idea of argument is to shadowbox every strawman caricature that he can hastily erect. (His interview with Vox is jaw-dropping in that respect, so much so that his interviewer actually calls him on it mid-way through.) That’s the best you can do in adding a new voice: hollow sophistry of an utterly familiar kind from yet another white male.

That’s what “defending free speech” in the sense of finding an unorthodox opinion means to you, in an era where the culture overflows with unorthodox thinkers who have honed their craft through online writing. Both in terms of how you use the influence that your long history and reputation still retain and about how we are entertained and engaged as readers, we demand something better. We demand something that is at least equal to what we presently read online through a variety of blogs, microblogs, Twitter streams, Facebook feeds and the like. Something more imaginative, more surprising, more diverse, more honest. More introspective and self-doubting. More factual. More thoughtful. We don’t want to read any more columns where we could write the rest of the column ourselves after reading the first two sentences. Where an algorithm could write the column with a few simple lines of code. Where the argument consists of lazy exaggerations and strawmen. We want you to demand more of the writers you hire and to hire writers who are more demanding of us.

We don’t even know who exactly you’re trying to kiss up to by hiring Mr. Stephens. Whomever it is, it’s not us, your formerly patient and forgiving readers.

We believe in journalism. We believe in insightful public opinion. We believe in free speech, and in diversity of viewpoints. We wish you did more than you do. Good-bye. We wish you the best.

Posted in Miscellany, Politics | 4 Comments

We Have Been Here Before

“Controversial speakers on campus” is one of those stories that generates a kind of perpetual discovery of just-now-imminent threat.

That sort of discourse tends to drive historians nuts, because we look back and see that people have been saying something of the sort for decades, and yet seem unaware that they are perpetually foretelling a crisis that never arrives. That controversial speakers come and go on colleges–and sometimes do not get to speak because a college president or a faculty or student activists disinvite or impede their appearance–but for the most part academic institutions go on just as they have and the wider world of free speech and public discourse also endure.

And yet historians also hate the idea of an unchanging, perpetual phenomenon, because that is when ahistorical explanations start to take hold–that these controversies are the product of some eternal psychological need or of millennia of intergenerational struggle or something of that sort. That’s not right either, if for no other reason that the ubiquity and diversity of institutions of higher learning in the United States is distinctive to that country and is a development of the last 175 years, for the most part.

Speakers on college campuses (and also college professors speaking in other civic institutions) have been banned or disinvited or protested continuously since the late 1940s. Great historical work by scholars like Andrew Hartman and L.D. Burnett, among others, detail the way higher education has been a part of “culture wars” around speakers, curriculum and other issues.

It happened because of McCarthyism. The trustees at Ohio State University in 1951 instructed the president of the university to personally review all invitations to appear on campus to eliminate appearances by “subversives” or those “whose views do not contribute to the university’s educational program”. In 1951, the New York Times conducted a survey in which college students were found to be suffering from “various degrees of inhibition about speaking out on controversial issues” because of the pressures of McCarthyism. Clark Kerr in 1958 specifically revoked a ban on Communist speakers at the University of California and was immediately assaulted by legislators, including the House Un-American Activities Committee.

It happened because of pressure brought by Southern states against the civil rights movement and against leftists of any kind. In 1956, the University of Mississippi’s administration banned a white NAACP minister from speaking in a program about religion because he refused to promise to not discuss segregation. In 1963, the state legislature of North Carolina tried to compel the University of North Carolina to ban leftist speakers by passing a law that made administrators criminally liable if a Communist or person who had taken the Fifth about Communism spoke on campus–a rule that was relaxed in 1966, though Herbert Aptheker and Frank Wilkinson were still kept from speaking at UNC that year. It happened because social conservatives on campuses tried to block or impede speakers they perceived to be counter-cultural or leftist even after McCarthyism. The unorthodox Episcopal minister James A. Pike was the target of some who objected to his talk at UCLA in 1959. The UC regents tried to limit Eldridge Cleaver to a single appearance in 1968 rather than the ten lectures in an experimental student-run course that he had promised to give. It happened because straight faculty and administrators, or alumni and legislators, opposed allowing known homosexuals to speak on campus. And yes, as Ulrich Baer points out, it happened because left-wing students opposed speakers they believed to be reactionary or racist, all the way back into the 1960s–protests in the 1970s against William Shockley, for example, almost directly echo current protests against Charles Murray; Yale’s rescinding and then reinviting of George Wallace in 1963 almost exactly resembled Berkeley’s maneuvers with Coulter.

Even the wording of administrative statements about many controversies in the past seventy-odd years has been pretty invariant. The chancellor at UCLA who upheld Pike’s speech said it was in the “tradition of great universities for students to hear as many points of view as possible”. The president of Bucknell University in 1952 defended having controversial material in campus libraries, saying they need to have the “courage, honesty and intelligence to provide source material on both sides of conflicting arguments”, but also said that colleges should refuse to invite speakers who would “use the university’s good name…for advocating doctrines completely out of sympathy with the ideals and objectives of the university”. Conservatives in North Carolina who supported the 1963 legislation said, when told that UNC might lose accreditation, “then let accreditation go”. The philosopher Sidney Hook complained in 1965 about student activists and said, “Students, sometimes unfortunately abetted by junior faculty personnel, will occasionally try to break up meetings with speakers with whom they disagree. A self-respecting faculty cannot tolerate such activities.” He went on, “Small groups of students, zealots in some cause, will occasionally violate the rules of fair discussion and honest advocacy…A few students, for example, will organize a ‘Free Speech Forum’ or something else with a libertarian flavor. Their first speaker will be Lincoln Rockwell or someone of his kidney. Thereafter, as a ‘reply’ to Fascism will come a succession of Communist speakers, sometimes paid from general student or educational funds. The ‘educational point’ of the forum is to build up Communism in its various disguises”. Columbia President Grayson Kirk, after taking a dig in 1965 at student activists for their “eccentric personal hygiene”, said that while any speakers should be welcome on a college campus, neither should the university be regarded as an “ivy-festooned soapbox”. In 1964, Andrew Hacker defended academic freedom by arguing that there need be little fear that students would simplistically fall prey to any “siren song” of an outside speaker, and that administrators were mostly worried about their institutional image or about pressure from alumni donors and state legislators.

It’s actually kind of astonishing how little the basic structures of argument, the tropes and figures of speech, the particular positions, have changed. Aaron Hanlon’s New Republic essay in the last week could have the names and some of the lingo replaced by 1960s-1970s era references and it might well pass for something from that era. I don’t mean that as a knock. As I skimmed quickly through past debates about speakers on campus, I recognized many sentiments that I’ve voiced myself, sometimes from speakers that I’m not altogether that eager to resemble. I’ve also made the point that the university is a place with a limited and particular purpose that might properly make some speakers less appropriate than others. Like Hanlon, I’ve pointed out that an exclusion from a 14-week syllabus is not censorship, it’s just me making prudent decisions about how to use limited resources in the best way; similarly, why not insist that a campus is a place where invited speakers have to meet some kind of standard of usefulness? But I get uncomfortable seeing, as I look back, that those arguments were at times used to keep speakers off campus who were undeniably relevant, inspiring or interesting.

I’m also fascinated at how stable the architecture of these conflicts is: state legislators have been trying to force universities to ban speakers (sometimes the same kinds of speakers then as now!) since the 1950s. (And maybe before? I don’t know much about how this looks in the 1920s-1930s.) Alumni have been disappointed, threatening to withdraw donations, pressuring college presidents. Administrators have been playing a balancing game. Faculty have been reluctantly accepting of controversial speakers in public, privately engaging in vicious in-fighting against colleagues that they believe to have conspired to bring an unwanted speaker into the mix, or sometimes, for having disrupted the appearance of such a speaker. (Look at Hook knocking “junior faculty personnel” and tell me that a department meeting with him in 1965 wouldn’t be nearly identical to certain meetings today where a senior colleague with a strong ideological predisposition of varying kinds was exacting a price for an invitation–or for protesting an invitation.) Students have been alternatively enraged by speakers they believe should not have appeared and the denial of speakers they want to appear.


So what has changed? One of the primary shifts between the McCarthy and segregation era is that the political power of government over academia has changed to some degree, but that increasingly seems like a minor shift at best, given how aggressively state legislatures are trying to punish public and private universities for their decisions about speakers and curricula (and now the US President has gotten into the act with his threats to Berkeley).

The particular ideologies that are being contended over are different. Academic freedom is a more established principle, but in a profession that’s been badly damaged by changes in labor practices, that’s not as relevant as it was in the 1980s.

I think the big difference is something that happened at the end of the 1960s and then really took hold in the 1970s: students established a right to control their own associations and groups on campus, and gained access to some budgetary resources that were independent of the main budgetary authority of universities and colleges. In a 1968 article in the New York Times, an anonymous agent who used to book lecturers in higher education complained that students had become the primary people who booked more prominent speaker. He said, “These kids are sensation-mad. What’s worse, the university administration has abdicated.”

I feel as if I’ve been living with this particular aspect of the struggle over campus speakers most of my life. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, I served on the student budget committee. The year I was elected, 1984, the African-American student group Ujamaa invited Louis Farrakhan to speak. Many students on campus objected strongly to the invitation, particularly Jewish students. the position I took then–which lost in the initial vote of the budget committee–was that if Ujamaa wanted him, it was their choice to make, not ours, even though I personally would rather they didn’t invite him. That argument won out, begrudgingly, in a later compromise that forced Ujamaa to collect revenue to cover some of the cost.

The students of Ujamaa pointed out at the time that there had been other controversial speakers on campus who had been tolerated. They also echoed my point: that if they were to have their own group, then it was their choices that mattered, not the choices of a mostly-white group of student government representatives or of the college administration.

I still think this is basically true. That once you stop having faculty advisors and administrative control over student groups, that you have to leave them to make their own decisions. Yes, that’s been a gate into the university that wealthy right-wing groups have been using aggressively since the 1980s and that the AEI is using today in backing talks by Charles Murray. But the students in any of those groups aren’t paid provocateurs. They’re admitted students who have the same standing as any other student once they arrive.

The major difference in the last few years that affects this shift is that some faculty are moving back towards a more patrimonial view of student decision-making and and some students are encouraging them to do that. That is, if and when it suits those students, generally on an ideological basis. You can find some student activists wanting administrations and faculty to act to foreclose or forbid some kinds of agency by other students while also feeling that their own student demands or preferences should have authority over administrative or faculty governance.

In the end, I still feel much as I did at Wesleyan. I still feel it is my prerogative as a member of a community with governance responsibilities to express a critical view of what some student groups decide for themselves about speakers, or for that matter, what they decide to do as activists. I still feel it is my obligation as a member of a community to accept the right of a duly constituted group of students (or faculty or administrators or alumni) to make those kinds of decisions for themselves, without any whisper of a desire to use my authority as a faculty member to override them. I still feel that it is my pedagogical duty to try and advise students about the implications of the actions they are contemplating or undertaking–and my pedagogical duty to support them in the making of the choices they feel strongly committed to, whatever those are.

I am not that far from what Andrew Hacker said in 1964. The worst talk by the worst person on a campus can be endured, even by the people whom it hurts. In part because colleges are not bubbles or pocket utopias, any more than homes are castles or fortresses. If there is a bad person out there, then the call is already coming from inside the room. But it is also always worth saying to anyone who would think they wanted to hear the worst talk by the worst person that they should think again, for the exact same reason. That causing pain now in the belief that you need to do that in order to explore your own freedoms is a kind of gateway drug. That there’s almost always a way to hear and see and think about the things you’re interested in from someone more thoughtful, more genuine, more careful, more respectful. So I suppose in that sense that I sound even a bit like Hook or Kirk or any number of other stentorian establishment liberals who thought and said, “You could do better than inviting that person into a community that has higher and nobler aspirations”. The humbling thing about the history of controversies over speakers-on-campus is that sometimes we’ve shown that kind of disdain towards people whom we should have embraced, towards people who were in fact colleagues or peers, towards people who were more thoughtful or important than we knew, or towards people who were frankly kind of trivial and unworthy of any exertion by anybody.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we’ve given that withering advice about people who really had no business being on a university campus–or in being part of the life of a just and democratic society. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for the idea of giving William Shockley a fair hearing in the 1970s, and easy to feel sympathy for those at Yale who decided that they were essentially being concern trolled by people who had no interest in defending free speech per se but just in trying to provoke Yale into seeming to be against it. It’s also easy now–as it was then–to sympathize with the dissent of Kenneth J. Barnes in the 1974 “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale” in which he concludes, “that free expression is an important value, which we must cherish and protect. But it is not the only value which we uphold”. My only certainty in all this is that if students now have, as they ought, the agency to decide for themselves whom they want to hear from, then we cannot make them agree with that proposition. They have to come to it themselves, and that may sometimes require making their own mistakes in their own ways.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 5 Comments

Alternate Factions

You know how the pundits (and even some more scholarly political scientists) like to say that third parties in American politics never amount to much, that they get a lot of attention but never win, and all that?

I really wonder if the political history fifty or seventy-five years from now is going to see something quite different in that respect. Trump is in certain ways a third-party candidate. He is a Ross Perot who actually won the Presidency. But he’s also an Arnold Schwarzengger and a Jesse Ventura, men who actually won governorships. Meaning, the proposition that just last year a sufficient number of American voters were sufficiently sick of the existing political system or sufficiently desperate in their feelings or sufficiently provoked in their racist and sexist disdain for social change to choose someone like Trump is perhaps complicatedly ahistorical. Maybe we’ve been coming to this moment in a more steady way since George Wallace. Maybe we focus too much on the ephemerality of various named third parties and the specific candidates, and even on the small-ish percentages in many elections (2, 3, 6, 10) and thus underrate the persistence of the underlying desire. Or did until now.

Maybe some people have been trying to vote for this sort of person in a relatively non-ideological way for a while: a person they perceive to be non-systematic, not-a-usual-suspect. An outsider who has had nothing to do with politics up to this moment, or whose politics are imagined to be raw or outside of the conventional punditry and political expertise. The pundits assure us that when people register as independents, they’re really just Republicans of a sort, but that’s always struck me as a superficial reading of the outcomes of their voting rather than the meaningful intention of their statement of affiliation.

Maybe there’s a deeper history still that goes back through LaGuardia and T. Roosevelt? At least in the imagination of latter-day third-partiers if not in the reality of the politics that Roosevelt and LaGuardia were working with in their time and place.

Maybe even Sanders belongs somewhere in here in the sense that this impulse to have someone other than the technocratic political class (right and left) in power is part of (but not all of) his base of potential support.

In this view, suddenly third-partyism of a kind–we might call it instead a rejection of the existing political oligarchy–is not an oddball sideshow or a kind of strange distortion produced by unusual people, but a persistent faction of voters endlessly searching for figureheads who can express their alienation with the usual system. What’s interesting too is that they’re always disappointed: it turns out that amateurs are, well, amateurish, in particular at dealing with legislative and judicial authority. So sometimes you get the sequel of a highly skilled and imaginative insider like Jerry Brown (once an outsider in rhetoric if not in fact!) stepping in to clean up the amateur outsider’s mess.

But the lesson might really be that there’s also a fissure that a person who was both insider and outsider could really punch through–that someone who understood how the political system works and yet who also understood why it is failing–could punch through and make a strong majority feel satisfied. Brown is very nearly there; if you want to go back, I’d argue LaGuardia did it too.

We’d better hope it’s possible–and that someone steps forward from a progressive vector who sees that, not just for President but across the country. Because otherwise I think the desire will remain, and keep seeking and seeking. It cannot be overcome simply through a caretaker who keeps the lights on and the ordinary mechanisms churning.

Not that this is not a personal endorsement of voting third party, which in fact I’ve never personally done, though I have at times registered as an independent. I wouldn’t have ever voted for Stein or Nader, for example, because before we get into anything about the impact of that vote, I’d just personally say that I wouldn’t want either of them to be the leader of anything that mattered to me. But it is to say that trying to beat the *desire* for something new by yelling at people about how they must must must show fidelity to the old until the present crisis is past seems equally foolish, a progressive version of saying that it’s orange alert for terrorism and you have to write a blank check to the security state until we’ve won the battle against the endless insurgencies.

This is not a momentary impulse: it’s a fairly powerful current in postwar American history, gaining force decade by decade. The people we want as leaders and representatives will be the ones who see that motion, are properly fearful of its terrifying dark potential (or less potential and more reality at this awful moment) and manage to re-channel those currents in constructive directions.

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

Home to Roost

Formal argument in the classic style has real limits. Sometimes when we try to rule some sentiment or response in an argument or dialogue as “out of bounds” by classing it as a logical fallacy or as some other form of argumentative sin, we box out some important kinds of truth. Not all contentious discussion between two or more people is an exchange of if-then statements that draw upon bodies of standard empirical evidence. Sometimes, for example, it’s actually important to talk about matters marked off-limits by formalists as ad hominem: there are plenty of real-world moments where the motivations of the person you’re arguing with matter a great deal in terms of deciding whether the argument is worth having and whether it’s worth the labor time or emotional effort to assess what’s been said.

Equally, there is a sort of casual hand-waving manner of dismissing something that’s been said as an invalid “slippery slope argument” as if any argument that says, “A recent event might have long-term cumulative consequences that are more severe” is always invalid, always lacking in evidence. Typically the hand-waver says, “Come, come, this event is a minor thing, where’s the evidence that it will lead to something worse, that’s a fallacy because you can’t prove that it will.”

I find this especially frustrating as a historian, because often what I’m doing is comparing something in the present to a wide number of examples of change over time in the past. And in many cases, people in the past who have noted the incremental or cumulative dangers of an event or trend and been correct have had to endure finger-wagging galore from mainstream pundits who try to stay deeply buried in the vaults of consensus. When someone says, “Eventually this will undermine the legitimacy of something important”, that’s a slippery-slope argument of a kind, but it’s a completely legitimate one. Eventually it will. Now it has.

For almost the entire lifespan of this now more-than-a-decade-old blog, one of the things I’ve been warning about is the dangers posed by a failing sense of connection between citizens and the formal political institutions of many nation-states, including the United States–and that one of the foremost dangers would be that a kind of populist anger that might be potentially indeterminate or plastic in its ideological loyalties would be captured by reactionary nationalism. Well, here we are: the slide down that slope is nearly complete. One of the reasons I’m not sure what to blog about any longer is that I don’t think there’s any way back up that slope. There’s no do-overs. I don’t know what to do next, nor do I have any kind of clear insight about what may come of the moment we’re in.

The one thing I do know is that we cannot form anything like a coherent political or intellectual response if we refuse to understand how we got to this moment, and how the history of the present looks to the people who have registered their alienation from and unhappiness with conventional political elites and their favored institutions in a series of votes over the last five years in the United Kingdom, in Colombia, in Austria, in the United States, in India, in Turkey and elsewhere, including in the imminent French elections. Even when we are intensely critical of what they’ve done, and even when we say with complete accuracy that one of the major motivations for what they’ve done is deep-seated racism, xenophobia or other form of desire to discriminate against a class or group of their fellow citizens, we still have to see when and how some of what they think makes a kind of sense–and where people tried to warn long ago that if things kept going as they were going, the eventual consequence might be an indiscriminate feeling of popular cynicism or despair, a kind of blanket dismissal of the powers that be and an embrace of a kind of flat form of “fake news”.

Some examples.

First, let’s take the deranged fake stories about a pizza restaurant in Washington DC being a center of sex trafficking. What makes it possible to believe in obvious nonsense about this particular establishment? In short, this: that the last fifty years of global cultural life has revealed that public innocence and virtue are not infrequently a mask for sexual predation by powerful men. Bill Cosby. Jimmy Savile. Numerous Catholic priests. On and on the list goes. Add to that the fact that one form of feminist critique of Freud has long since been validated: that what Freud classed as hysteria or imagination was in many cases straightforward testimony by women about what went on within domestic life as well as within the workplace lives of women. Add to that the other sins that we now know economic and political power have concealed and forgiven: financial misdoings. Murder. Violence. We may argue about how much, how often, how many. We may argue about typicality and aberration. But whether you’re working at it from memorable anecdotal testimony or systematic inquiry, it’s easy to see how people who came to adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s all over the world might feel as if we live on after the fall, even if they know in their hearts that it was always thus. Just as we fear crime far more than we ought to, we may overestimate dramatically how much corruption is hidden behind a facade of innocence. We should understand why it is easy to believe that anybody powerful, especially any powerful man, might be engaged in sexual misconduct. Think of how many male celebrities and political figures marketed as dedicated to “family values” have turned out to be serial philanders. Cultural conservatives sometimes try to blame this series of revelations on the permissiveness of post-1970 popular culture, but the problem is with the gap between what people pretend to be doing and what they are doing–and it is the kind of gap that readily appears in the rear-view mirror of the past once you see it clearly in the present, as a persistent consequence of male power. The slippery slope here is this: that at some point, people come to accept that this is what all powerful men do, and that any powerful man–or perhaps even powerful woman–who professes innocence is lying. All accusations sound credible, all power comes pre-accused, because at some point, all the Cosbys and teachers at Choate Rosemary Hall and Catholic priests have made it plausible to see rape, assault, molestation everywhere. And by making all of that into that kind of banality, we make it harder to accuse any given individual, like our current President, of some distinctively awful behavior, even though he’s plainly guilty of that. We have to reckon with where we’re at. There’s no way out of where we are without some change in the entanglement of gender, power and sex. Yes, of course it doesn’t mean that every accusation is by definition true, but we should understand why any accusation can make a kind of sense, no matter what other ideological overtones come along with it.

Second, let’s talk about wiretapping. Again, mainstream punditry complains of how President Trump accuses the Obama White House of having him tapped, and they ask: where’s the evidence? And they’re right: the evidence is laughably absent. What they don’t reckon with is that once again, we’re on the bottom of a long-since-slid slope. How many times did Americans and other citizens in other countries have to warn of the consequences of ubiquitous surveillance by intelligence services in terms of the faith and trust that democratic citizens might put in their institutions–and in the degree to which those citizens might believe their own privacy to be safely respected? With each revelation, with each disclosure, with each accusation, sensible liberals and conservatives alike have insisted that this case was necessary, that that practice was prudent, that this example was a minor misstep or judgmental error. That the world is a dangerous place. That the safeguards were in place: secret courts, hidden judges, prudent spies, classified oversight. That citizens just had to trust in the prerogatives of the executive branch, or the prudence of the legislators, or the professionalism of the generals and spies. And so many times that trust has been breached: we have heard, many years later, that surveillance that was crudely political was approved, that signals were intercepted without a care in the world for restraint or rights, and that what intelligence was gathered was ignored, distorted or misused. So are we surprised that today, the current occupant of the White House, can indulge in bad conspiracy theory and evidence-less speculation and strike a chord with some listeners? We shouldn’t be surprised–and we should recognize that this is what happens when you misuse surveillance decade after decade.

I could go on. Corruption: despite a brief spasm of reform after Nixon, pretty soon we were back to numerous elected officials who thought little of lying and covering up, or saying one thing while grossly doing another behind closed doors. Crony capitalism–having another law for the rich than the poor–all the current material that Trump likes to preach to his favored audiences. People were warned that if something didn’t change, if some acts weren’t cleaned up, if folks didn’t think about what happens when mistrust grows to an epidemic, if there wasn’t some urgency about a more transparent and honest government, then the public would grow accustomed to it all, would come to believe in the ubiquity of those sins. They would stop listening to cries of wolf, because they would falsely believe all the world to be a world of wolves. Some of what Trump throws at the wall sticks because there’s a truth to it, however woefully he may stink of the worst of what he hurls.

Undoing that will take something like a revolution, or at least a cleansing. If we still hope to avoid that being Steve Bannon’s “unravelling of the administrative state”, then it will take something quite the opposite of what Bannon has in mind. It will take a new generation of public officials, political leaders, and prominent citizens who understand that even small ditches will increment eventually into bottomless pits. Who live up to what they profess, who build something new. So far I see almost no sign that the mainstream of the Democratic Party understands this at all.

Posted in Academia, Generalist's Work, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics | 12 Comments

Slow Poisons

A prologue first to what I’m going to say about “academic bullying”.

Considering that the word is used so broadly to discuss a wide range of procedures, practices, attitudes, and ideological positions, maybe we need a better term than “neoliberalism”. And yet, there’s often a real connection between everything referred to in that wide range, so perhaps no other word will serve us better.

I understand perfectly well, for example, how a whole series of workplace rules, practices and norms that have become common across the economy, including in academia, are connected by some common propositions or principles even when they seem ostensibly to be concerned with different issues. Among the connections are:

1) Get as much labor from workers as you can, in part by decomposing some of the barriers between civic life, home life and work life.
2) Get as much labor for free from workers as you can, in part by taking advantage of older cultures of professionalism and civic obligation.
3) Make transparency a one-way street: encourage (or compel) workers to make as much of their working lives as can be imagined visible to and recorded by management or administration, but strongly restrict the ability of workers to get a transparent accounting of what happens with the information they share or give.
4) Shift workers into contractor positions or other workplace forms that reduce or eliminate the responsibility of employers to provide benefits or any long-term commitments to those workers.
5) Treat employees as psychological/economic models or objects rather than as reasoning citizens; privilege managerial approaches that nudge, manipulate, incentivize, and placate employees rather than engage with them in complex, honest terms.

I could go on, and I have in past blog entries.

Another thing I’ve said before, however, is that the answer to neoliberal reworkings of work practices is not to fight back by reducing professional or other labor participation to the market terms that neoliberalism exalts. Meaning if we think there is such a thing as professionalism, and that we want to defend it (or restore it) in the face of neoliberal reworkings, we shouldn’t get involved in just trying to get neoliberalism to pay people off to a greater degree. It’s ridiculous, for example, that current for-profit academic publishers continue to not only rely on a massive amount of free labor that is not only provided by academics but is very nearly required of them in order to have a hope of accessing a tenure-track position and then retaining it. But the answer is not to compel those publishers to pay us some small share of the value we’re producing. It is to take all the value we produce and shift it to a non-profit consortial structure that resides within our professional worlds.

I ache sometimes in academic life because this should be joyous work, and for all that we could fulminate about administrations and neoliberalism and public funding, the possibility of passion and joy, of mission and meaning, still seem graspable. Those possibilities still seem something that could suffuse academic labor everywhere: there is nothing inevitable or required about the spread of grossly exploitative adjunct teaching in most of academia.

So here we come to the problem: neoliberalism sometimes takes hold because we ourselves, with at least some power over our world, can’t manage to imaginatively and fulsomely inhabit the alternative cultures and processes of academic labor that are at least possible. Our own sociality in faculty communities often compresses that space of better possibility from the other direction of neoliberal rules and procedures, and almost nothing humane is left in between.

Yes, we can adopt a kind of neo-Stoical response and control what we individually can control: ourselves. To be passionate and joyful and encouraging and supportive ourselves, and let the rest fall as it must. To demonstrate rather than remonstrate. This is the weakness of some calls to get away from the negativity of “critique”–they end up an example of what they hope to proscribe, a critique of critique. We would be better off showing rather than telling, better off doing than complaining about what other people do. The problem is that all professions are very much defined by their shared ethos, their common structures of collaboration and governance. A novelist or artist or entrepreneur or political consultant often operates in a workplace structure that translates individual sensibility into the surrounding environment. An academic who just does their own thing, on the other hand, is likely to feel the strong tug of faculty governance or administrative oversight in formal terms. More importantly, that kind of neo-Stoicism takes a kind of masterful psychological disposition of some kind: a mind armored against the world, a mind with a detached openness to it all, or a kind of blithe self-regard that is undented by any negativity. (In which case, is probably part of the problem rather than the solution.) Some of us can’t manage it at all, and some of us lose the discipline required over time. Some of us have had the possibility of that insulation stripped from us before we ever started by racial discrimination, by gender discrimination, by other forms of structured bias.


So, prologue over: this is where academic bullying comes in. This research on academic bullying described in the Chronicle of Higher Education will probably surprise no one, but it’s valuable. Bullying may in some sense be almost the wrong word for what I suspect most of the respondents in the study were thinking about. That conjures up imagines of a tough kid demanding lunch money, or a crowd yelling mockery at a crying child. That may be how it feels at times in academia, but the circumstances and content are different. Incivility is another word the researchers used, for a slightly different range of interactions, and that too may not entirely get at what I suspect people were reporting. This is more about pervasive negativity, about how every process and decision, however minor, is mysteriously made difficult and contentious, about how and when ‘standards’ are enforced or demanded, about how blame gets assigned. About how people get trivialized and discouraged, often through indirect, unreportable interactions. Perhaps not even by things said directly to them, but by an invisible network of statements in the social infrastructure around them.

The research described in the article notes that the most common category of reports involve faculty who are tenured (both victim and perpetrator), usually between a very senior faculty member and an associate or younger full professor. The perpetrators are evenly men and women; so are the victims.

We saw some of this at Swarthmore in the faculty-specific results of a campus-climate survey from a while back. Largely the response to the results has focused on student life and on the domain of harm that in some sense we know the most about and understand the best, along lines of race, gender and sexuality. But this wider universe is genuinely harder to grapple with. I don’t have any particularly good ideas myself about it.

Still, it sticks with me. I continue to be troubled by what the faculty respondents showed (I think we had about a 40-45% response rate, if I remember correctly, so there’s a small numbers problem here), which is that a very significant number of people said that they had been bullied or treated poorly by faculty colleagues, that politics, scholarship and faculty governance issues were one of the major instigating reasons. But also very strongly–nearly unanimously, if I’m remembering the results–the faculty respondents also said that there’s nothing that can be done about it and that they especially did not want administrative intervention. That we’re resigned to it.

That feels really screwed up to me. But the research reported in the Chronicle suggests we may be typical. I’ve been struck in both formal assessments and informal visits and conversations on social media where I’ve looked into other campus cultures that this is what a lot of faculty experience–that sense that there’s a small number of people who are cunningly abusive, who understand perfectly well what the red lines are and avoid them carefully, but who are constantly picking away at colleagues, who make most collective work difficult, who passive-aggress others, and who know how to mobilize a defensive screen if anyone gets upset with it.

I keep coming back myself to a moment from a few years back. It was hearing a senior colleague in another department disparage a tenured but more junior colleague about that person’s scholarly productivity. I realized that if this was being said to me, casually, it was likely being said by this person regularly: I am not particularly a confidant of the disparager, and the remark was as conversational as “hey, nice weather today”. I also realized that not many people would know what I know: that the person doing the disparaging is less productive as a scholar than the person being disparaged; that the person being disparaged does amazing teaching and service work; that the person doing the disparaging has not read nor is actually interested in the work of the disparaged person despite the fact that they’re in the same discipline. So here you have someone trying to knock down another person’s reputation over something that they don’t even care about–it’s not as if the complaining person just can’t wait to read more scholarship by the targeted person, or values what that colleague says as a scholar and intellectual.

The longer I’m in academia, the more I am aware of how much of this kind of activity is swirling around me, generated by a small number of people who know they’re never in danger of being confronted about it. It’s never worth picking a fight over in the sense that you can’t stop it–it’s legitimate expression, in some sense–and all you’ll do is become a target of the same sabotage, if you aren’t already. But it kills the joy and excitement that should crackle through our halls, the delight we should be taking in the thinking and teaching of others. That’s the issue, in the end: that we need some signs of that better world in order to stand against the onset of worse and worse ones.

Posted in Academia, Swarthmore | 13 Comments

Back At It

Sorry, I’ve been very focused lately on long-form writing, and I recognize that the more I think about blogging, the less likely I am to keep that focus. But I feel ready to blog some now, and so if you still have an RSS or some other notification pointed at this site, you’ll see some activity shortly.

Posted in Blogging | Comments Off on Back At It

Style and Substance

One of the complicated underterrains of struggle within the contemporary academy involves the use of language and representation. Many scholars in all disciplines have a sophisticated and subtle understanding of how we speak in our disciplines and across our disciplines, certainly. But I think it’s fair to say that a significant number of scholars in the sciences and in the “hard” social sciences view language as a kind of filter or form of noise that interferes with or distorts the underlying signal of knowledge, and look for ways to communicate that strip away as much unneeded rhetoric as possible. Many humanists in turn find this quest naive and reductionist, viewing rhetoric as inescapable but also desirable, that rhetoric is also signal, also knowledge, that there is no knowledge without it.

This is an old argument, and most academics know it. We’re not the only ones who have the argument. Most of the terrible data-creating practices associated with neoliberal institutions are ultimately justified by a suspicion of rhetoric–that there is nothing useful to be known, for example, from someone writing a narrative assessment of teaching, because everyone reading the narrative can interpret it differently, because the narrative can be crafted by a skillful writer or speaker to hide or excuse flaws. Hence the need for the supposedly objective, real, non-rhetorical collection of quantitative data: how many students improved their grades, how many students got better jobs, how many students passed a competency test. Which produces howls from a more humanistic perspective: why are those “real”? How can we explain why they matter (or don’t matter) without some kind of philosophical argument? Aren’t we just saying that whatever we can measure is what we value, and what we value is what we measure? What about all the other consequences of teaching that can’t be measured in that way?

I mention all this to acknowledge that there’s a complicated needle to thread in talking about reactions to Trump’s State of the Union Address, which actually put some of these usual shoes on other feet. Meaning, a lot of more humanistic speakers on the left reacted with great annoyance to praise for Trump by arguing that it’s the content or substance of his speech that matters, not the rhetoric or tone, and that the content hasn’t changed at all. Whereas others who might dismiss rhetoric or tone in some circumstances to focus on what’s “really” going on insisted that in this case, rhetoric was substance, and that the substance had changed.

I’m largely in the first camp, though partly because a single somewhat conciliatory speech does not cancel out years of unhinged word salad. Meaning, even sticking with questions of tone and rhetoric, there are questions of representativeness that matter. Just as I wouldn’t announce that a previously calm, collected, cerebral speaker had turned into a fiery off-the-cuff stump speaker because of a single speech, I wouldn’t do it here either. But also because the content of Trump’s proposals remains profoundly objectionable, if in some cases objectionable in familiar ways–e.g., not unlike federal policy under George W. Bush and even under Barack Obama.

What I am struck by in looking at the rapturous responses of some pundits is that they curiously enough end up partially validating the hostility of Trump and some of his supporters to the mainstream political elite. Meaning this: that the pundits in some cases are not welcoming a changed tone because they have a deep ethical or philosophical regard for how rhetoric shapes communities, connects national citizenries, offers a ethical model of compromise and consensus. The pundits and press who welcomed the perceived shift in tone are correct that tone is substance, that rhetoric is part of truth and knowledge. It’s naive to simply say, “Ignore the tone, focus on the content”, just as it it deeply annoying when people complain about “tone police” in social media as if rhetoric is irrelevant. But the thing is, the pundits like the tone of the State of the Union speech not because of the philosophical substance embedded in its rhetoric, but because the tone of the speech restored, if only for a few hours, a familiar, welcome relationship between the punditry and the Presidency.

What Trump’s speech did in its rhetoric is provide a familiar widget to set down on the conveyor belts of the 24/7 media apparatus and so for one night it ran smoothly. The President did what was predicted, he did what he was told, he read his teleprompter, he stuck to his script. He nailed his set pieces. Up to this point, Trump has been putting strange hand-built, jerryrigged heaps of awkwardly shaped garbage down on those oiled, smooth-running machines. The factory has been clogging, breaking down, smelling of possible fires. Up to this point, Trump has been for the media a bit like Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, singing the wrong arias while her music instructor watches exasperated from the pit. But all along Trump has been clear: that’s on purpose, that he’s sabotaging the machinery.

Which has been a popular message for reasons that the press both sort of understand and yet also doggedly refuse to understand. They understand that they’re not popular, but they flatter themselves that this is because they’re truthful messengers bringing unpopular news to unhappy recipients. What they don’t want to understand is that they’re also unpopular because they’re seen as a part of the machinery of power. Not town criers carrying woeful news but courtiers and jesters fawning over a succession of kings and dukes. So Trump gets exalted for a night because he gave them something normal to fawn over again. Even some of the usual criticism is a kind of money shot: it lets two or more commenters get paid off for scheduled work on a play-by-play from a game they understand, rather than leaving them confused and speechless at the spectacle of anarchic improvisation.

The thing is that they’re right: tone and rhetoric are substance. We do not get to look through it to some underlying reality and engage only that instead. If Trump sounded like this henceforth, every day, that would be meaningful. To some degree, it would be better, because one of the substantively awful things about Trump up to this moment has been his volatility, his unpredictability, his indignity, his expressed disregard for any facts that annoy him, his contempt for all others, his desire to break all the machinery of the status quo no matter what its functions or uses might be. Those are not merely quirks of personality, they are governance, and both terrible and terrifying as such. But not only is the desire to sabotage everything still visible in abundance throughout his Administration and abroad in the land, not only is Trump essentially leading a mob of rioters who are breaking windows and setting fires, if what we want is a different substance in his rhetoric, we should not be looking simply for it to return to the comfortable familiarity of a product for the political classes to run through their factories of meaning-making. If, for example, the press is alarmed by being named “enemy of the people”, they should not simply relax the moment that a President stops using that phrase. They should ask instead whether they need to do something fundamentally differently in order to make that phrase irrelevant or immaterial. What might they do, for example, if they didn’t have the familiar widgets to lay down on the expected machinery? Perhaps they need to be making something completely different than what they’ve been making.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 5 Comments

Remain in Light

I don’t know what there is to say when you “read the comments” as it were. It feels hopeless.

My colleague Sa’ed Atshan is profoundly committed to trying to get out of the standard confinements of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the least if one were going to disagree with him–or accuse him–you would want to contend with the ethical biography he sets out in his Feb. 14 piece for the American Friends Service Committee. Contend with it in its particulars: that’s what he says he believes.

Instead, here’s what we have: anonymous sites that use innuendo and arguments-by-association assembled by cowards then being used by parents at Friends Central School to manipulate its principal into declaring, “This person shouldn’t be giving a talk at our school”.

And before you say a damn thing, I don’t like it when similar conduct is used by someone that’s “on my side”. I didn’t like it one bit when one of our students used the same kind of soft lies and pollution-by-contagion to argue against a possible graduation speaker at Swarthmore. I don’t like it period.

I am ambivalent at best about the BDS campaign, and frankly, in the conventional terms that many arguments on all sides often take, about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole. At times, I dislike the bullshit that strident partisans in that conflict on any side pull more than anything else, and find that a reason to keep my distance. Which is what I think strident partisans on any side intend: to make their conflict so poisonous that none but the poisoned dare speak with any intensity about it, and none bother to learn more.

That is not my colleague. The people, anonymous or otherwise, who imply that he is such are drinking deeply from the cup of “alternative facts”, and dividing all the world into complete enemies and pure friends. My colleague is a thoughtful, subtle person reaching for complicated truths and for hope. If you want to argue honestly against him, you can–and he would welcome a conversation with you if so. If you want to learn from him, you’ll invite him to speak, or take a course with him. A Quaker school in particular has no business refusing that opportunity. A thoughtful person has no business refusing that opportunity.

If you want to argue against someone, argue against what they’ve actually said, actually done, to their face. Read what they say, take the effort to engage. Don’t rely on third-hand reports, fake news and deliberate misrepresentation. Mere advocacy of any particular sanctions against Israel or any particular actions against militancy is no reason to regard someone as beyond the pale. (A view that Professor Atshan shares: he has supported talks at Swarthmore by individuals like the current ambassador of Israel.) Someone can argue for BDS or for the legitimacy of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, and I will in neither case regard that person as someone I must not hear nor speak to. If you want to argue someone’s anathema, you’d better have more than an argument that’s just “they’re wrong” or “I disagree”. Some people might be anathema in an educational institution but that ought to hard to achieve; it should take a rare combination of bloody-minded stupidity, malice, insincerity and all-around worthlessness to achieve. Some people in our public culture, maybe more people now than ever, manage to scale those heights. But if you can’t keep clear the distance between the few awful climbers gulping for oxygen at the peaks and those of us milling around the valleys and lower slopes, you’re no friend to knowledge, freedom, fellowship–or peace.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 7 Comments

Fighting for the Ancien Regime

Among the many things that educated progressives failed to understand about the world around them over the last twenty years–and this is not just an American story, but a global one–is that we were not marginal, not since the 1970s. Neither were we the rulers of our societies, the top of the pyramid, the dominant, the 1%. We were not marginal, not dominant. We were somewhere, however, in the center of the infrastructures that sustained our national and local systems of governance, of cultural production, of civil society. We were, and perhaps still are, part of the system. The Establishment. And that has not been a bad or shameful thing, but instead a very good thing that is now threatened.

There are many professionals with progressive, liberal, centrist or even mainstream conservative political affiliations who understood this perfectly well. There were many who didn’t. Career diplomats at the State Department, lawyers working for large urban firms, surgeons working in major hospitals, financial executives working for banks, understood it. Many professors, non-profit community organization managers, actors, and others understood it poorly. Some thought that you were only the Establishment if you were wealthy, or white, or male, or held a certain set of specific political ideologies and affiliations. But you can trace the existence and continuation of a great many jobs–and life situations–to a political economy that depended on the civic, governmental and business institutions built up in the United States and around the world after 1945. The manager of a local dance company in a Midwestern city who only makes $40,000 a year and is an African-American vegan lesbian with a BA from Reed is still linked to the Establishment. That dance company doesn’t exist without the infrastructure where small trickles of revenue flow from cities, states, and nations into such organizations, without the educated professionals who donate because they believe in the arts, without the dancers themselves who chase a life of meaning through art but who also want to get paid. It’s not that there wasn’t art–or patronage of art–in the 19th Century or the early 20th Century–but there was less of it, and it was less systemically supported, and less tied to a broad consensus at the civic and social center about the value of art and education everywhere. Some of us are very powerful in the Establishment, some of us grossly misuse and abuse the power of the Establishment, some of us are the wealthy beneficiaries of its operations and others poorer and less powerful at its edges. But even out at the edges, still linked, still reliant on the system, and still in some sense believers in much of what the Establishment entails. The Establishment has had its etiquette, its manners, its protocol, its ways of being and doing, that were as known and familiar and accessible to the progressives who fancied themselves to be marginal and excluded from power as those who accepted that they were part of the Establishment.

This all sounds like I’m working up a big egalitarian spanking about how we needed to be less arrogant and all that. Relax. Maybe we did need to be less arrogant, but we also should have known we were defending institutions that we believed in against those who for some reason or another are dead set on destroying those institutions. That speaking from the center was not a sin or a crime. One of our great weaknesses at times has been how some of us have adopted an insistence that virtue can only derive from marginality, a view that speaking from power is always a fallen and regrettable position. Because we didn’t see our ties to the establishment as virtue and we didn’t understand that our forms of power were important for defending what we had already achieved, because we had a reflexive and attachment to the idea that we were in no way powerful, that our share of the status quo could only be found in some future progress, never even partially achieved, we were unready to wake up in the year 2016 and discover that we were not only a part of an ancien regime threatened by a mob, but that we actually wanted to defend that regime rather than rush to join the mob at the barricades. It would have been better if we’d defended it that way long before this moment. But it will help even now if we recognize that this is part of what we’re doing: defending a structure of manners, of virtues, of practices, of expectations, of constraints and outcomes, against people who either don’t recognize that this structure is important for them or from people who genuinely do not benefit from that structure. That we should not be ashamed to defend our loosely shared habitus, because it really is better for the general welfare than the brutalist, arbitrary, impoverishing alternative that the populist right is pushing forward in many nations.

The first thing we do to defend the minimum necessary infrastructure of our center is simply accept that we are the center, we are the norm, we are the majority. They are the margins, the minority, the outsiders, the threat. Meaning, we retrain ourselves rhetorically and imaginatively to stop seeing marginality as a state which necessarily confers virtue on those in it, and centrality as a morally depraved state that we should always seek to move away from. That’s a non-trivial shift in consciousness and rhetoric but it’s important. Even people mistreated or excluded in relative terms by the systems which are now under attack have a better chance to make those systems function more inclusively and with greater justice than they would under the new order that is seeking to seize the high ground of the government, economy and civil society.

The second thing we do is figure out which of the grievances that is bringing some people to the barricades require some response from us other than an obdurate defense of the way things have been. Where must our ancien regime bend and change if it is not to break? That work is as important fighting to preserve what’s worth preserving. I would suggest the following as starters:

a) We need new or at least refurbished underlying narratives about pluralism, difference, diversity which forcefully explain why they’re important and what we need to do to respect that importance.
b) We need a new vision of what we want existing systems and institutions to do about violence by loosely connected small groups against the rest of us. This includes both white male mass shooters in the United States and ISIS insurgents in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and for that matter rogue cops who can’t seem to get behind the mission of “serve and protect”. We should start seeing these cases as related and we need to go beyond the usual conceptual frames we use (enduring, enforcing, military attack, controlling access to weaponry).
c) We need to acknowledge why the people on the barricades, some of them at least, might still be excited and pleased by the spectacle of Trump’s first days in office despite the crude brutalism of much of it, because they feel that at least something is happening, something is changing. If we’re going to defend the establishment, it needs to be an establishment that has the potential to do something, to change things, to be sudden and decisive. If we insist that the proper way to do things is always incremental, gradual, partial, procedural, the ancien regime will likely crumble under its own weight no matter what we do to shore it up.
d) We need to identify the necessary heart of our established systems and practices, whether it’s in a small non-profit, a government office, a university, or a corporate department, and be ready to mercilessly abandon the unnecessary procedures, processes and rules that have encrusted all of our lives like so many barnacles. Those of us who are in some sense part of the larger networks of the Establishment world, even at its edges, can endure the irrelevance of pointless training sessions, can patiently work through needless processes of measurement and assessment, can parse boring or generic forms of managerial prose to find the real message inside. We’ve let this kind of baroque apparatus grow up around the genuinely meaningful institutional systems and structures that we value because it seems like too much effort in most cases to object against it, and because much of this excess is a kind of stealthy job creation program that also magnifies the patronage opportunities for some individuals. But this spreading crud extends into the lives of people who are not primed to endure it, and who often end up victimized by it, and even for those of us who know our way around the system, there are serious costs to the core missions of our institutions, to clarity and transparency, and to goodwill. It’s time to make this simpler, more streamlined, more focused, without using austerity regimes or “disruption” as the primary way we accomplish that streamlining. We don’t need to get rid of people, we just need to get rid of the myriad ways we acquiese to the collection of more and more tolls on the roads we traverse in our lives and work.
e) We need to come up with heuristics that let us continue to stay connected online but that help us sort signal from noise in new ways.

Posted in Academia, Information Technology and Information Literacy, Politics | 6 Comments

You Will Never Be Good Enough For David Brooks

I think the thing I hate most about most mainstream punditry, liberal and conservative, but especially David Brooks, is a brutal combination of two connected syndromes: complete lack of self-reflection and a relentless moving of goalposts to conform to the conventional wisdom of the week. It is what betrays most of them as being people without abiding values, and it is what underscores how little they talk with people outside a protected world. When I say “hate”, in a few cases I really mean it. David Brooks most of all: I think he now belongs in a select rank of the most noxiously sanctimonious American essayists in the country’s history. A group of people whose names are are hard for anyone but historians and literary specialists to recite, because they are so forgettable once their era passes.

The commentary is never about the “I” that is writing. So today Brooks is his usual self: the marches were very nice, you see, but they’re about the wrong thing. And also it’s the wrong time–it’s always the wrong time, strangely enough, for this kind of politics, according to Brooks, except at some point in the past that Brooks usually knows almost nothing about. (Protip hint, should he ever grow curious: there has never been a social movement in this country or any other which included everyone in all segments of society. Every “success”, like the civil rights movement, the favorite of sanctimonious pundits, had numerous enemies and was socially divisive.)

Brooks never, ever reflectively considers that if the marches are about a wrong thing, he’s been just as wrong in related ways for twice as long. Brooks is always about other people doing the wrong thing, usually in trivial ways. Which is whatever they’re doing at the moment he’s writing: there’s the goalposts moving. A modern pluralistic, dynamic, equality-seeking red white and blue nationalism? See, that’s not the marches this last weekend because, I dunno, women were wearing pink hats and had signage with the wrong message, and also, people felt good afterwards, which means it was just therapeutic. Presumably the right kind of marching leaves you feeling objective and detached but rationally confirmed in your analysis. He never anticipates what he thinks the right story is in any detail. He just sees it after the conventional wisdom has anointed it and then acts as if he saw it all along–and it is always not what the people he’s scolding did, as he sees it. There is never any concrete possibility about Brooks’ counsel, never any “here is something specific that could have happened, involving the following real people who really did or could have done something”.

There is never anything searchingly inward about Brooks: it is all, always, outward sanctimony. Which is what makes his arrogant promotion of “humility” so galling: he’s a person who may accurately understand what would be a good goal, if in the most general terms, but who absolutely violates his prescription without even sheepishly acknowledging his own shortcomings. It’s like seeing a doctor who chain-smokes his way through yelling at you about lung cancer and never once admits to the irony of his own behavior.

I guess I get annoyed by Brooks because some of what he’s saying is close enough to things I’d say that he makes me wonder if I’m just as completely wrong, or if I’m just as sanctimonious. Both are possible and deeply mortifying to me if so. If he were only more modest, more self-aware and more complicated–and I think all three are possible within the brevity of an op-ed–he might actually be worth something.

But the real kicker to today’s garbage column is this: you cannot call for a “binding idea” that calls Americans to come together and think that Trump’s “coherence” is closer to the mark than the marches. What Brooks and similar liberal and conservative pundits who are seeing the need for unity, for connection, for togetherness just can’t see is that anything which excludes pluralism, which rejects diversity, which ignores identity, which denies difference, is not going to serve as a unifying, coherent, rallying force. The marches got millions out into the streets all across this country, in many of its cities. A majority of the electorate voted against the man in the White House. Any “functioning polity” has to appeal as much to all those people as a handful of women interviewed in Niles, Michigan.

It cuts both ways, David Brooks. You can’t accomplish what you claim to want if you insist that the marches and the marchers aren’t offering the unifying rallying cry you believe must happen. And stop subcontracting what you call for to other people, like it’s their job.

You’re the guy with the ball, you’re the columnist with a valuable soapbox. There’s the goalpost: call the play, in detail. Be predictive for once, and stick to it when people do, in detail, something of what you want. Don’t wave more than half your players off the field and tell them to come back when they’ve diagrammed a play that will move the ball all the way to the endzone in a single down. What’s the call right now, David, that uses all the players on the field with their talents and inclinations? What’s the rallying cry that calls a sixty-year old conservative woman from Niles, Michigan and a lesbian Latina millennial in New York City home to an America that can stand against “brutalistic nationalism”? If you answer, “Whatever makes the woman from Niles happy, no matter what that is”, you’re not in the game with us. If you answer, “Well, actually, I guess it’s brutalistic nationalism only slightly less Trumpy”, you’re not in the game with us. You’re a drunk asshole sitting outside the stadium at a tailgate, watching on a bad-reception TV, yelling loudly after every play about how it was the wrong thing to do. The rallying cry you want has to start with the marches and add to them. It has to bring everyone who marched and everyone who cheered the marches along for the ride, not subtract them to look for someone else. Your perfectly rallied and unified American princess is not in another castle: she was out there in the streets this weekend.

Posted in Politics | 12 Comments