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


In the past, one of the sources of strength for progressives rested in reading the laughably incorrect past predictions of conservatives or traditionalists about the likely consequences of progressive reforms to their institutions. It’s a tremendous hoot, for example, to go back to the 1960s to read the alarmed predictions of opponents of admitting women to formerly all-male institutions about the consequences to those institutions.

This goes for a certain kind of liberal prediction too, mind you: I’m fond of pointing out that many long-standing claims about the impact of violent media on children were essentially predictions that were fundamentally wrong. If you argue that violent media create a strong causal predisposition to violent actions, and you document that the amount and variety of violence represented in media is rising dramatically, you have just predicted a dramatic rise in violent actions. Which never happened: quite the opposite.

There are other less comforting histories of prediction and consequence for liberals as well. I think it’s not unreasonable to argue that a certain kind of high modernist liberal hubris about some forms of planning and state intervention turned out pretty poorly, and that some conservatives may have had a prophetic insight into why they would.

The problem right now is that if we are right in our predictions about the changes being ushered in by a President selected by a minority of our voting citizens, things will turn out very badly. Depressingly enough, this has to be what we are in some sense hoping for. It is why anyone who is not one of Trump’s bootlicking supporters needs to hang back and let him and his people have complete ownership over what they are doing. What they do now is all them. No one else has any responsibility for it. That goes for his voters, too: whatever complexities went into the choice they made, whatever circumstances shaped them, the next chapter is one they chose to write.

Yes, we should fight and resist and expose, but no one should be drawn in to bogus attempts at “compromise” with the people in power, because none of them would offer any such thing except as a trap. Even if they take hostages, in effect: no deals with hostage-takers. If the people in power want a compromise at some point for some real and urgent reason, they should have to crawl on bended knees in the sight of all, under the most desperate of circumstances, before anyone even considers such a thing.

Everything that happens next needs to be on them.

In a tragic way, we need to hold fast to our belief that what happens next will be very bad. Because that is what will allow us to step back into the picture afterwards to try and fix what has been broken. Our job now is to keep using whatever powers remain to force the disclosure of information, to compel the people in power to answer for what they’re doing, to keep attention focused on the consequences.

Our other job is to retool, rethink, reimagine our own fractured and exhausted visions. We need to stop being distracted by trivial in-fighting, to stop focusing on demands that already-progressive institutions enact a yet more brittle and overly precise etiquette of perfected gestures, to stop pushing some divisive ad hoc issue to the fore every time something like a general consensus among progressives threatens to break out. When we sense that we are risking accord among people who basically agree on most things over some minor tactic or gesture, we have to push it aside for another day, to stop the vain and lazy attention to instruments and institutions that are readily at hand because of the difficulty of opposing those that are far away and well-protected. We need a clearer idea of the foundations on which our own values and priorities rest, to find our way to an enduring sense of common cause, away from a politics that runs frantically this way and that every time a hashtag calls us out to some scene of individual drama and narcissism.

Because sooner or later, we will be called back to a scene of woeful failure and asked to make it better. By the time that happens, we need to be ready to do just that. To be better than we were, to have a clearer sense of our own values, to not be helpless accomplices to the systems that brought us to this sorry moment. By the time that moment comes, we should be looking ahead to a better, different world that we can once again describe with charity, hope and authenticity to those who have yet to imagine it.

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The Anatomy of Anti-Trumpism: Ten Thoughts and Reconsiderations

1. “Trump is liar; how could anyone think he’s honest”

What progressives didn’t or wouldn’t understand is what at least some Trump supporters meant when they called him honest. At least some of them understand perfectly well that he is personally dishonest about most of his business dealings; that he claims to have not done things that he very likely did, sexual and otherwise; that he often says that he didn’t say something that he is recorded as having said. Or at least they regard all of this as unimportant in relationship to the honesty that they prize in him. What is that? That Trump doesn’t sound as if his speech has been heavily managed by interlocutors and consultants, that whatever he says is from him. Perhaps honesty here is better translated as “authenticity”. Some progressives understand that Trump is regarded as authentic, but they don’t seem to understand why that’s valued by his supporters, and why the inauthenticity of most other politicians, including Trump’s primary rivals, is scorned. It is not that Trump’s authenticity is perfectly aligned with the sociocultural lives of his supporters. Most of them don’t live in a gilded penthouse atop a Manhattan skyscraper that they own. But even that’s part of what makes him honest. Many of us laugh at Trump’s tastes (“the poor man’s idea of a rich man”) and call them vulgar, but it is that laugh that anoints him an honest man. He doesn’t even follow what the hoi polloi deem fashionable or appropriate. He does it his way. What you see is what you get–even down to the personal dishonesty, the sexual harassment, the vulgarity.

The contrast is with the political class and their associated coterie of professional supporters, who usher politicians through a Goffmanesque universe of varied performances. If it is Tuesday and Iowa, then it’s farm subsidies and corn dogs. If it’s Thursday and the Cato Institute, then it’s the free market and cocktail shrimp. If it’s Saturday and Houston, it’s oil and barbecue. People in my universe were laughing at Trump right up to November 7 for the amateurish campaign, for the lack of research, for the missing ground game, for not having a sophisticated apparatus, for sounding in interviews with television journalists the same way he sounded in rallies in Scranton. Which just raises a sharp question about who the amateurs really are. You don’t need a massively complicated ground game and zip-code precise marketing technology if you motivate people strongly enough simply because of who you are and because you seem like something different in a time where people are longing for something different. (Even people who hate Trump were longing for something different: isn’t that what we all thought we’d got in 2008, far beyond “first black President”?)

I was struck in a recent social media conversation at the ardent defense that some people were making of the necessity of performative lying in international relations. That, for example, everyone “in the know” understood that allies spy on each other and intercept communications whenever possible, but that it was an act of Russian-sponsored political sabotage for Edward Snowden to have revealed in public that the National Security Agency was taking messages from Angela Merkel’s cellphone, intended to damage German-American relations. How could it, if everyone’s in on the secret? The answer is: everyone who is an insider is in on the secret, but not the German or American public beyond the corridors of power and elite knowledge. They, poor rubes, still think it unseemly for allies to spy on one another, and hence, their rulers are obliged to pretend as it were so.

People know too much now about the Goffmanesque performances elsewhere. Just like amateur poker players, weaned on a decade of televised looks at the hole cards of professionals, now understand systematically how people who knew the game played the game back when the pros routinely beat amateurs. In that case, knowledge is power. In the case of national politics, it’s further alienation. How to know when someone is telling you the truth of what they mean to do as a leader or a representative? You know they’ve told other people in other rooms something different, and that they talk in still another way when there are no mikes or reporters or donors around. The only way to know someone is telling you the truth is when they have persistent values or a persistent ethos and they’ll talk that way whether it’s strategic or not, whether the consultants want them to or not. Every time Trump took back his Twitter account from his consultants and fired off another unbalanced tweet, he verified his honesty. Every time he was attacked for lying, it was from people who live in a professional world of cultivated, performative, mannerly lying.

Until progressives start to understand this point, they’ll lose except in places where Goffmanesque performativity is a culturally and economically valued practice. A candidate who says what he or she means and is guided by deep-set values that he or she expresses regardless of whether it’s situationally wise to say it, is going to seem like a kind of middle-American Lenny Bruce, ripping up phony bourgeois manners, being the bull in someone else’s china shop. Yes, he’s a liar; yes, he is honest.

2. “Trump voters are stupid; Trump is stupid”

First, let’s get this out of the way: Trump is not stupid. Not like George W. Bush, who seemed indolent about understanding the basics and was readily manipulated or ignored by his ostensible subordinates. Trump is not at all knowledgeable in an expert sense, but he is clearly is extremely canny and quick to grasp the basic truths about a situation he’s confronting. We should not be mocking out of hand his assertion that given a basic read-in on a complex situation that he will in many cases arrive at a reasonable fascimile of a position that a more sophisticated and knowledgeable expert would take on the issue. Trump’s nakedness as an emperor is profound, but there are other forms of deshabille to be found at the top of our political hierarchies. There are experts who know so much that they effectively know nothing, or have no ability to decide what of the things they know is most consequentially useful in a real-world decision.

Are Trump voters stupid? We use the word in a lot of ways. When I’m blaming myself for something I did that I should have known better than to do, say if a power tool almost hurts me because I put too much pressure on it, I’ll often say, “That was stupid”. If I make a bad decision where I should have known more about what I was doing (or did know more and ignored what I knew), I say, “That was stupid”. So in the sense of, “You shouldn’t have done that, you had enough information to know better than to do that, but you did it anyway” stupid? A contingent stupid? Yes, they’re stupid. Yes, they did a stupid thing that is going to hurt the rest of us, already has hurt the rest of us. In the sense of, essentially unable to think well, uneducated, dumb about everything? It may help to vent anger to say so. But in almost any other comparative context, people with more education and more economic possibility regarding people with less education and economic possibility as stupid in this sense would look like class ideology, not empirical observation.

Yes, I know that you know a Trump voter who is actually a bona-fide idiot. I know a couple too. But I know Clinton and Sanders and Stein voters who are bona-fide idiots. I know professors who are bona-fide idiots. I also know that I’d never conclude that large groups of people whom I don’t know personally are, in some generalized fashion that applies to the entirety of their lives, “stupid”.

3. “Trump is completely incompetent and will screw up because he knows nothing.”

Here I already have largely said my piece. If there is a problem here, it may be with our entire model of executive leadership. Perhaps we pay too much attention to titular, symbolic executives whose role is largely to act as the symbolic representative of their organization, and not enough to the people with specific executive responsibilities who govern in their domains of responsibility. Most of those people–Cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries; vice-presidents in corporations; heads of institutes and provosts in academia–are where knowledge or lack of knowledge has its most meaningful impact. On this score, yes, Trump’s Administration is a fairly terrifying prospect to behold, but not because of incompetence born of ignorance in many cases, but instead because his Cabinet and likely his undersecretaries in turn seem to be people who know a good deal about their areas of responsibility but whose knowledge is wholly antagonistic to the administrative and regulatory responsibilities they will inherit. Many of them are not “make government small” people, they’re “destroy everything that government has done in this domain for the last century”. That should not be mistaken for incompetence.

4. “Trump is an unbalanced, rude, cruel narcissist without impulse control, that’s scary.”

Yes. He certainly seems to have impulse control problems, as well as exhibiting a streak of unabashed cruelty which hasn’t been seen in American political life for a very long time. Which I agree is scary for a variety of reasons.

But at the same time, we have to step back and look at ourselves from outside to understand why Trump’s rhetoric and behavior provokes such strong responses in many of us and a seeming indifference among many Trump voters or passive-non-voters. First, we have to ask where it is that people routinely encounter individuals whose uninhibited personal failings and tyrannous behavior towards others go unpunished and perhaps even rewarded. Basically, the average lower middle-class or non-union industrial workplace. Educated professional elites mostly work in organizations with strong cultural and formal constraints against this sort of raw, florid abusiveness, or if they do come up against this sort of behavior, they often feel it is possible to switch jobs. Professional life and high-energy start-up businesses have other kinds of abusiveness, of course, either more subtle forms of bullying or pervasive institutional pressures. But Trump in this way is a familiar kind of boss character whose existence is accepted and sometimes even celebrated in other working lives–mercurial, dictatorial, preening, self-involved, capricious. We are horrified by him in ways that rhetorically mark off how unfamiliar we are with Trumpish behavior, how much we have built working cultures that mark off that kind of behavior as unmannerly.

Which is the second part of the problem. I’m not sure how conscious Trump is about the buttons he is pressing with his tweets and remarks. Like any halfway competent class clown, he’s looking for attention, and he seems to have an intuitive grasp of how to remember and intensify the kinds of statements and rhetoric that most provoke a response. But this is the same thing that other right-wing figures have been consciously, programmatically doing for the last two decades. At least half the time, the outrageousness of what has been said in some forms of conservative media is intended for liberal ears. A comment that provokes liberal outrage is money in the bank, a confirmation that the commenter is legitimate. What provokes is not the content of the sentiment but the ways in which it violates mannerly civility. If Rush Limbaugh had said that he objected to activists like Sandra Fluke demanding insurance coverage for contraceptives because he worried that ease of access to contraceptives played a complicated role in encouraging promiscuity, the content of his remarks would still have been objectionable, but if he was careful to say it in a mannerly way, he would have gotten little attention for it.

Trump seems to have taken this to a new level, as his incivility doesn’t even feel particularly ideological. It’s not about policy positions, it is about generalized transgression of manners. Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack, Delta House in Animal House, and so on: everything and anything that offends against the club which he’s just joined. The thing is, manners become something to offend against primarily when they seem to be less about locality and more about controlling social mobility. Nobody objects to being told how to eat an unfamiliar food when they sit down to dinner with folks whose lives are built around that food. But our own culture is full of tales of folk heroism about offending against snobbery, or about rejecting seemingly arbitrary but ubiquitious manners (say, in men letting their hair grow longer).

We have to learn to reinitialize the parts of our discursive manners that reflect deeper ethical principles and then to live up to those principles more consistently. If it’s wrong to be cruel, it’s always wrong. If it’s wrong to be self-involved and self-promoting, it’s always wrong. If it’s wrong to get obsessed by criticism, it’s always wrong. Or if it is wrong for a President but not wrong for ordinary people, we need to explain exactly why it is that a President must be different–and if it is because a President must be a moral exemplar, then we’re right back to needing to explain in fresh and more convincing ways the difference between our manners and our morals.

5. “Trump voters will never get what they want, nobody can bring back jobs.”

Very likely this is true, but it is one of the things that we should not assume that his voters (or voters who abstained this election) are being stupid about.

I’ve written about this particular issue many times in the last ten years, and I’m not alone on this point. The first problem here is that many progressives, even people ostensibly far to the left, can be disturbingly sanguine about jobs lost to globalization and automation. (These are frequently treated as completely separable, when I think they are part of a connected reorganization of capital, labor and society.) That these are losses that no one could have prevented and that no one can remedy. At best, progressives talk about job retraining and about worker relocation as solutions.

The second problem is that anyone thinks that those policy suggestions are either philosophically or pragmatically adequate as answers to these changes. It’s like suggesting to early modern high-ranking guild-based textile producers that they think of taking up a starter position in a putting-out system for woolens or moving to one of the new urban slums and looking for wage labor as if that’s an answer rather than an ultimatum in the face of the Industrial Revolution. Anybody who is in a line of work that is losing jobs permanently due to these structural changes wants to first hear that someone actually understands what is happening, and understands what it means to say, “Retrain and relocate”. Even when people engage in labor migration in a more or less voluntary way, it is often a momentous decision, and something that many of them would just as soon not do.

This relates to the third problem: people who are at the ground zero of structural change in the economy (which is different, remember, from places that have been mired in structural poverty continuously since the 1950s or earlier) often don’t really believe that there are or could be government-based solutions that match the scale and character of that change. To some extent, they buy into the naturalization of economic transformation projected by neoliberalism: that this is just what economies do. So even more so, what many of them want is less a ten-point plan with specifics and more a full-throated acknowledgement of what has happened. In a paradoxical sense, a vague authoritarian promise to change everything is more believable than a specific policy initiative. Not just because the specific policies in such initiatives are so inadequate to the experience of change, but because we’ve all watched the endless, hopeless unleashing of policies on other communities and societies that liberals and technocrats believe should be “developed” or changed. One more for the people aren’t stupid column: almost everywhere in the world that has become the subject of technocratic policy interventions is a site of perpetual non-transformation. Economic and social change for the better mostly happens to places that are untargeted by “development policies”. (Though also, when it happens for the better, it often forces people already living there to leave: none of this is to celebrate the wonders of unfettered capitalism.)

Trump is the only person who spoke about social transformations of economic life in a way that matched the emotional magnitude of change in communities that feel (correctly, by and large) that they have lost ground, that possibility is now vested elsewhere. He malevolently linked his address to race and immigration in a terrifyingly consequential way, but the counter to this is not technocratic policy. (Nor is it silent complicity in the racism that Trump has so devastatingly mobilized and strengthened.)

6. “Trump won only on a technicality.”

I’ve talked about this kind of claim before, but it’s a terrible argument for the same reason that most of us teach our kids that good sportsmanship means shaking hands even with cheaters and then figuring out a way to beat them next time–or get the rules enforced next time. Look forward to how the next contest will go, and advocate changes when they don’t seem like narrowly targeted, short-term alterations of the rules intended to deliver you a one-time victory. The time to fix competitive systems that have the potential to deliver bad outcomes is when you win. The Democrats and their progressive backers have had no interest in fixing the Electoral College in years when they have either been the beneficiaries of it or have believed that would favor them in the future. A pure popular vote that required a majority rather than a plurality would have thrown the 1960, 1968, 1992 and 1996 elections to the House, or to a run-off system; a popular vote that allowed the largest plurality winner to take office would be subject to a very different set of complaints about how undemocratic it was. The Electoral College is not an obscure rule, and it’s not just something that applies to the presidential race. It’s only one of a number of ways that federalism is the basis of American political authority. It may be that there are good arguments against federalism–some of them going all the way back to the 1780s and before–but you have to treat those arguments seriously rather than as a self-evident principle. Any systems for competing for political authority in a society where there are at least two fractions of the population that are bitterly opposed to one another are going to be subject to complaints that they privilege one fraction over another. We’re going to be living with close contests for a while. Building a system that is consciously intended to solve that problem by permanently disenfranchising one group or another is never a valid answer for anyone who believes in democracy, especially not when there is such a sharp political divide. (Indeed, that’s why Republican efforts to disenfranchise people are so objectionable.) It’s true that Trump should have little mandate, given that he lost the popular vote and that an even larger majority of Americans disdain and fear him. But “mandates” are less essential to the uninhibited exercise of power than we think, and we shouldn’t expect this to slow him down one iota.

7. “Trump only won because Clinton was a bad candidate.”

This has been the subject of more bloodletting discussion among progressives than any other point. Despite the fact that I think Clinton was a bad candidate (both for reasons not of her making and reasons that are) I think it’s foolish to regard this as a sufficient explanation of the loss. It’s appealing to some people precisely because they think that nothing else would need fixing besides the candidate, and that the candidate was only selected by conspiratorial action. But Clinton’s weaknesses are John Kerry’s weaknesses and Al Gore’s weaknesses and Michael Dukakis’ weaknesses and even to an extent Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s weaknesses, give or take some individual quirks and qualities of each person. These are structural flaws in the Democratic Party and its contemporary infrastructure. To some extent, I think they go back to the Carter Administration, where being “clean” in the context of Watergate meant less Carter’s own admirable personal morality and more the replacement of local politicians by technocrats within the leadership of the party. If you want better candidates, you need a different pipeline. You also need to stop thinking about the Presidency as the alpha and omega of electoral politics. Even if Clinton had won by a squeaker, she would have won an election where the Republicans held the House and Senate and controlled a solid majority of state legislatures and governorships. Meaning, she would have won in a context where the only power she had was executive power–and the more that the Democrats build up executive power as something that can be used without oversight, the more that they are creating the precedent structures that a future authoritarian–or a present one–may use advantageously. I fear very much that we’re about to see just that in the next four years, that Trump will be the beneficiary of the uses of executive authority by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. (At the very least, he has already signalled his intent to use the authority that Obama used in order to reverse every single thing Obama accomplished without legislative confirmation.) Clinton was a bad candidate, but that is far from the only reason that Trump won.

8. “Why don’t evangelicals care about Trump’s immorality?”

I admit that this issue sticks with me personally more than these others. I have a hard time seeing how people who have in other times and contexts made a great deal out of the godliness or lack thereof of public figures can even for one second tolerate Trump, who is very nearly a poster child for the Seven Deadly Sins. I’m not sure there’s been as palpably un-Christian a President for decades. Even devotees of the prosperity gospel should feel uncomfortable, since the point in that preaching is that wealth comes as a reward for pursuing it but also for living a godly life. But when you look at authoritarians, the odd thing is often that they do not actually exemplify the traditionalist or conservative values that they often rule in the name of. Hitler was not a strapping, muscular, blond Aryan warrior. The question this leaves is often, “Do the people who claim that they value those ideals actually do so, or are those values just a thin ideological veneer over some deeper social mobilization?” That is not a question to answer lightly or casually: it takes genuine investigation. I would at least be curious as Trump’s presidency develops to see how evangelical justification for supporting him develops. It is not just his grabbing-the-pussy misogyny, it is also his cruelty and rudeness, his profane bearing, that I would think ought to be an issue. But if “evangelical” is not really at all a body of doctrine but instead simply “being from particular places, being part of particular communities”, if it has nothing to do with church-going, nothing to do with scripture, nothing to do with a specified set of moral values or obligations, even then there is a puzzle: because Trump is palpably also not from those places or communities. His appeal in this sense to the ex-industrial working class of the Atlantic coast I completely understand–even though he was someone born with money, he feels in some ways like a guy who came from those roots and did with his money what a lot of folks in those places would do with it. But the evangelical South and Midwest, not so much.

9. “What is uniquely wrong with America?”

There’s some elements of legitimate American exceptionalism littered in the last year’s events, but American progressives are not going to really understand what’s going on nor effectively react to it unless or until they grasp how much of this is a global story. The deeper story is that the nation-state is a failing institution. It cannot deliver what people all around the planet believe it has promised to deliver, not in its present form. Progressive or liberal political parties all around the globe gave up on delivering social democracy in a sustained way except in a handful of northern European nation-states during the 1980s and 1990s, and generally now run on the premise that they would be better-trained managers of systems that they have no desire to fundamentally reform or change. All over the globe that has become an unconvincing, pallid electoral strategy that generally appeals only to people who see themselves as better-trained managers of their own institutions, and to the people who are their social clients and dependents. Conservative or reactionary parties have gained ground because they offer some grander vision, because they promise (however transparently falsely) to radically reform or abolish failed systems, because they cross social boundaries that progressives no longer cross. I think this is very similar to how Islamist parties made inroads in cases like the coup-cancelled 1992 election in Algeria–not necessarily because people were drawn in positive terms to their message, but because they were the only viable reformist alternatives to business as usual.

A global perspective could help progressives to understand why they are losing ground everywhere. It is not, a la Jonathan Haidt, because conservatism is cognitively natural to human beings. It is that late 19th Century institutions are not working well for 21st Century humanity. If you want to gain political ground, you have to stop incrementalist tinkering around the edges of those institutions. Progressives everywhere stick to that, even people fairly far to the left, because they are the major remaining beneficiaries of those poorly functioning institutions. We need a new set of political aspirations that take us beyond our limitations.

10. “Now terrible things are going to happen to innocent people.”

Welcome to the world after 9/11. A world that the Obama Administration did relatively little to modify. I’m perfectly willing to concede that he tried in some cases, as with Guantanamo, and was blocked. This is precisely what made the administration of George W. Bush and his allies, like Tony Blair, so horrific: that they insisted in rewriting the procedural life of the “deep state” on military, security and intelligence practices to legitimize a state of permanent emergency and all the things that go along with it. Much is now thinkable and doable under the Trump Administration that was not so easily thought or done in 1995. So yes, more terrible things to more kinds of innocent people. Changing that will, once again, take more than a sensible professorial temperament placed into executive leadership. It will take a bigger, deeper change in global institutions. And it will take also a different way of responding to terrible things happening to innocent people at the hands of organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram. We have to find something to think and do about their outrages that is more than just invocations of local or particularist “root causes” and more than just treating them as natural or inevitable features of late modernity. What that something else is, I have no idea–but until we think through it, we have no answer to the authoritarians who promise more terrible things and an indifference to the consequences for innocent people.

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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