Enrollment Management: The Stoic’s Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Machine of Morbius

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Politics | 10 Comments

Change the Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Politics | 10 Comments

The Instrument of Future Mischief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Information Technology and Information Literacy | 6 Comments

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

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

First up: pluralism, multiculturalism and diversity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

Welcome to the Skinnerdome

I think a tremendous amount of writing so far this election season about the Presidential race shows primarily that the effect of social media on public discourse is increasingly dire. Here’s the thing: I would characterize the majority of what I have read as arguing that the convictions people have declared are only held by them because of some form of prior social ideology or consciousness, that they are not based on anything “real” in terms of a particular candidate’s likely policies, rhetoric or record.

When we’re dealing with large-scale voting patterns, a certain amount of sociological musing is completely appropriate, because that’s what the patterns make visible–that this group of people likes a certain person more or less, etc. At that level, sociological thinking is explanatory and it is also an important part of arguing for or against particular candidates in terms of reading what they mean and what they will do.

But when we bring that into an address that’s meant to speak to particular individuals to whom we are connected via social media, it feels, first of all, reductive: as if those individuals whom we have chosen to be connected to are no more than their sociologies. More importantly, the arguments we have at this point feel straight out of B.F. Skinner: many writers in social media treat other people as if they are something to be conditioned–to be pushed this way or that way with the proper framing. With the punishment of scolding and call outs if they’re being sociologically bad, with praise and attention if they’re expressing the proper selfhood. We begin to be the master of our own little Skinner boxes rather than as human beings in rich conversation with other human beings. We begin to think of each other person in our feeds as a person to be punished and rewarded, conditioned and shaped. We stop thinking of our own reasons why we believe in a particular candidate, why we think *or* feel what we think or feel. More importantly, we stop thinking of the reasons why someone else feels or thinks that way, and stop being curious about those reasons if they’re not being shared or enunciated. The difference in their views starts to be merely exasperating, the manifestation of an enemy sociality. Disagreement starts to be like an untrained puppy making messes in our space: we give treats, we hit noses with rolled-up newspaper. If the puppy doesn’t learn, we euthanize. We start thinking of “frames”, of rhetoric as the way to run our Skinner box. We don’t persuade or explain, we push and pull.

I think there’s a reason why formal debate named “ad hominem” as a logical fallacy. It’s not that arguments are not in fact a result of the personalities or sociologies of the people making them. We’ve all had to argue with people whose arguments are motivated by spite or some other emotional defect or are defenses of their social privileges. But it is that allowing ourselves the luxury of saying so during the discussion short-circuits our capacity to engage in future conversation–it becomes the default move we make. We start to have conversations only when someone who is a shining paragon of virtue in our eyes steps forward. (And that person increasingly may become someone who is emotionally and sociologically identical to ourselves.) One by one human beings around us vanish, and so too does evidence, inquiry, curiosity. We end up in a landscape of affirmation and disgust, of reaction to stimuli–e.g., as we Skinner box others, so too are we Skinner boxed.

Posted in Blogging, Information Technology and Information Literacy, Politics | 3 Comments

Three Thoughts on the Nomination of Hillary Clinton

1. This is simple. If Hillary Clinton loses the election to the possibly the most unpopular, polarizing and vulnerable Presidential candidate in American history, I will not blame her. I will, however, blame her supporters, aides and the Democratic party leadership. If she were to lose, it would not be because of her gender or even because of her own relative personal unpopularity. If she were to lose–and I hope very much and believe that she is going to win–it will be because her party is structurally hamstrung and continues to nominate uninspiring technocrats whose main electoral virtues are that they are not the Republican candidate and that they are competent and well-trained. In this sense, gender notwithstanding, Clinton is pretty much the same as Kerry, Gore and Dukakis. (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are somewhat similar in their actual governance but at least have a more charismatic style of leadership.) If Clinton were to lose, then it is not the Republican Party that is over, but the Democratic Party: that would be a sign that the one major usefulness of the party is finally exhausted. If she loses, we all have a nightmare on our hands, but I for one intend to pause just long enough to remind her supporters that just about the only thing they had to offer was her alleged electability.

2. It is not the loss of Clinton that I fear most, though that prospect is so terrifying that it barely bears thinking of, because I don’t think she’s going to lose. It is her victory that worries me.

Let’s imagine a best-case scenario in which Clinton wins in a landslide, the Democrats regain the Senate, and the House shifts to a near 50-50 balance. A situation not that far off from 2008. What do I think we can anticipate as positive outcomes in that situation?

First, the leaders of the Republican Party will have finally gone off the cliff in their three decades-long game of chicken with populist anger. That might well interfere with their ability to block or constrain the kinds of useful policy leadership that Clinton is capable of providing. The logjam at the Supreme Court and in other appointments might be broken. Some modest and incremental attempts to address income inequality might be in the offing.

Second, Clinton will continue the use of the executive branch as a kind of spoils system for the political class, meaning that she primarily will not look all across the country for appointees who bring a mixture of fresh thinking and meritocratic skills to executive leadership but instead pull from the same pool of Democratic stalwarts who already know to pitch their ideas within the confines of what the party leadership and its chief pool of financial backers are prepared to consider. That approach often gets competent and admirable people for government, but it also prevents the White House or the Congressional leadership from considering both new specific policy ideas and more fundamental challenges to their entire way of thinking about the nation’s (and the world’s) problems.

Third, this lack of freshness will be particularly evident in national security policy. America’s unending war will continue uninterrupted, and our intelligence and law enforcement agencies will largely have carte blanche to do as they see fit with little to no meaningful oversight.

So that’s not that bad compared to the alternative, certainly. Some good things will happen, some bad things, but none of the upper bound of the bad is anything approaching Trump’s possible upper bound of transformative disaster. Why am I so worried about four years of Clinton?

It is not enough. Because I think Clinton and all the people surrounding her are very nearly incapable of recognizing, let alone responding to, the actual crisis they will be facing. That crisis is not Islamic militants. It is not political stalemate or Republican obstructionism. It is not police brutality and the scourge of racism. It is not income inequality or a lack of financial regulation. It is not even or only the structural transformation of the global political economy through technological change and social reorganization. All of those seemingly disparate things are only symptoms of a general problem.

The general problem is that the modern liberal nation-state and its characteristic institutions are simply no longer capable of delivering on their baseline promises and possibilities to any national population anywhere. Even in nations that appear by most measures to be successful, the state withers due its lack of vision. Liberalism cannot handle the extension of its rights to all who are entitled, and its major alleged champions increasingly endorse depraved forms of military and economic illiberalism in the name of its defense. The brief moment of reform in which capital seemed to be harnessed to social democracy is very nearly over, and the difference between illicit and licit economies now seems paper-thin at best. Very little policy gets made because it’s the right thing to do; most policy is about transfer-seeking. Every dollar is spoken for. Every play is a scrum in the middle that moves the ball inches, never yards. Political elites around the world either speak in laughably dishonest ways about hope and aspiration or stick to grey, cramped horizons of plausibly incremental managerialism. Young people all around the world recognize that there is little hope of living in a better or more comfortable or more just world than their parents did, and their grandparents must often live every day with the possibility of losing whatever they’ve gained, that they are one lost job or sickness away from falling without a safety net.

In the United States, what this all means in a more immediate sense is that Donald J. Trump is only the beginning. He may have a peculiarly American cast to his authoritarian populism, but he has his counterparts elsewhere in the world, many of whom have enjoyed or threaten to enjoy similar electoral success or other access to power. We reach out for analogies, fascism most prominently, but those are useful only in suggesting the dangerousness of our moment.

So I worry about a Clinton Presidency because it is at best likely to be a stalling action in the face of this gathering storm, and at worst may well accelerate and aggravate its arrival. Trump is only the herald; his successor will likely be a more fearsome, skillful and dangerously plausible version who will speak directly to the spirit of desperation in the hearts of many. Clinton doesn’t understand what’s out there in the world. She will allow herself to be lulled by the notion that the election of a woman on the heels of the election of an African-American is progress and that all opposition to them is just the dead-end reactionary impulses of a dying order. Her vision will be clouded by a swarm of blandishing pundits whose understanding of social change and political challenge is confined to horse-race predictions and the delivery of favors and services to various clients.

3) Let’s be optimistic and suppose that Clinton turns out to have depths I don’t suspect, or that the leadership of the Democratic Party and various liberal supporters don’t just spend two years schadenfreuding themselves about the Republicans and then start to panic when it becomes clear that Trump and Sanders voters were the canaries in the coal mine, a sign of profound alienation from the way things are. What could she actually do if my description of the scale and character of crisis were real?

The first thing she or other leaders could do is simply start talking honestly and straightforwardly about these problems–with a bit of real passion and anger mixed in. No more polling. No more Bill Clinton-style searching for small but popular initiatives that can get a favorable day or two in the news cycle. Only connect. That would be the first revolution. It’s what they don’t do at Davos or G8 meetings. It’s what they don’t do in Brussels or inside the Beltway. Start talking about what’s really going on out there and start talking to people in ways that are about what’s really going on.

The second thing she could do is talk about and explore, again with passion, anger and fearlessness, how a system of checks and balances has turned into a system of chokepoints and barriers. It’s not just Republican obstructionism, though that has contributed mightily. What we need is a genuine investigation of and national conversation about how thinking about the future turned so small and cramped, unless it’s jackass billionaires who want to be immortal and live on Mars. When people voice their frustration with the political system and register low approval ratings for almost the entirety of the political class, that’s what they’re responding to: that everything that requires a mixture of vision, will and competency gets sandbagged and obfuscated by people who either have something to gain from inaction or who are hoping to capture any action to their own exclusive advantage, whether that’s crafting a response to the Zika virus, dealing with crumbling infrastructure, or rebuilding an economy that works for most people. Most of us can see plainly what needs to be done on a variety of fundamental challenges in front of us–only a few of them are genuinely and irresolvably difficult in both moral and technical terms. The mystery, which a real leader might explore and confront, is what stands in the way of the doing. In many cases, it is the very systems that we presently believe exist to solve problems.

That’s all. I don’t expect magic solutions from anyone, especially Clinton. But I think visionary leadership now might simply be speaking to the scale and nature of the human crisis of the 21st Century, rather than trying to beat a few more years out of a queasy admixture of technocratic managerialism and a sort of insincere, half-hearted invocation of New Deal liberalism shorn of all passion or promises. It’s enough to recognize the crisis and speak to it. That alone is startling, and accounts in some measure for both Trump and Sanders having the success that they’ve had.

Just being in charge for the next four years? That’s enough to guarantee losing control of the future entirely, I fear.

Posted in Politics | 26 Comments

On the Arrival of Rough Beasts

One of the things I find most interesting about the history of advertising is the long-running conflict between the “creatives” and their more quantitative, data-driven opponents within ad agencies. It’s a long-running, widespread opposition between a more humanistic, intuitive, interpretative style of decision-making and professional practice and a more rules-driven, empirical, formalistic approach.

The methodical researchers are generally always going to have to create advertisements and construct marketing campaigns by looking at the recent past and assuming that the near-term future will be the same. In an odd way, I think their practices have been the analog equivalent to much of the algorithmic operations of digital culture, trained through the methodical tracking of observable behavior and the collection of very large amounts of sociological data. If you know enough about what people in particular social structures have done in response to similar opportunities, stimuli or messages, the idea goes, you’ll know what they will do the next time.

My natural sympathies, however, are with the creatives. The creatives are able to do two things that the social science-driven researchers can’t. They can see the presence of change, novelty and possibility, even from very fragmentary or implied signs. And they can produce change, novelty and possibility. The creatives understand how meaning works, and how to make meaning. They’re much more fallible than the researchers: they can miss a clue or become intoxicated with a beautiful interpretation that’s wrong-headed. They’re either restricted by their personal cultural literacy in a way that the methodical researchers aren’t, and absolutely crippled when they become too addicted to telling the story about the audience that they wish was true. Creatives usually try to cover mistakes with clever rhetoric, so they can be credited for their successes while their failures are forgotten. However, when there’s a change in the air, only a creative will see it in time to profit from it. And when the wind is blowing in a stupendously unfavorable direction, only a creative has a chance to ride out the storm. Moreover, creatives know that the data that the researchers hold is often a bluff, a cover story, a performance: poke it hard enough and its authoritative veneer collapses, revealing a huge hollow space of uncertainty and speculation hiding inside of the confident empiricism. Parse it hard enough and you’ll see the ways in which small effect sizes and selective models are being used to tell a story, just as the creatives do. But the creative knows it’s about storytelling and interpretation. The researchers are often even fooling themselves, acting as if their leaps of faith are simply walking down a flight of stairs.

This is only one manifestation of a division that stretches through academia and society. I think it’s a much more momentous case of “two cultures” than an opposition between the natural sciences and everything else. If you want to see this fault line somewhere else besides advertising, how about in media-published social analysis of this year’s presidential election in the United States? Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani are absolutely right that not only have the vast majority of analysts palpably misunderstood what was happening and what was going to happen, but that most of them are now unconvincingly trying to bluff once again at how the data makes sense, the models are still working, and the predictions are once again reliable.

The campaign analysts and political scientists who claim to be working from rock-solid empirical data will never see a change coming until it is well behind them. Up to the point of its arrival, it will always be impossible, because their models and information are all retrospective. Even the equivalent of the creatives in this arena are usually wrong, because most of them are not really trying to understand what’s out there in the world. They’re trying to make the world behave the way they want it to behave, and they’re trying to do that by convincing the world that it’s already doing exactly what the pundit wants to the world to do.

The rise of Donald Trump is only the most visible sign of the things that pundits and professors alike do not understand about which way the wind is blowing. For one, Trump’s rise has frequently been predicted by one set of intuitive readers of American political life. Trump is consequence given flesh, the consequence that some observers have said would inevitably follow from a relentless disregard for truth and evidence that’s been thirty years on the making, from a reckless embrace of avowedly instrumental and short-term pursuit of self-interest, from a sneering contempt for consensus and shared interests. He’s the consequence of engineering districts where swing votes don’t matter and of allowing big money to flood the system without restraint. He’s what many intuitive and data-driven commenters have warned might happen if all that continued. But the election analysts can’t think in these terms: the formal and understood rules of the game are taken to be unchanging. The analysts know what they know. The warning barks from the guard-dogs are just an overreaction to a rustle in the leaves or a cloud over the moon.

But it’s more than that. The pundits and professors who got it wrong on Trump (and who are I think still wrong in understanding what might yet happen) get it wrong because the vote for Trump is a vote against the pundits and professors. The political class, including most of the Republican Party but also a great many progressives, have gotten too used to the idea that they know how to frame the narrative, how to spin the story, how to massage the polls, how to astroturf or hashtag. So many mainstream press commenters are now trying to understand why Trump’s alleged gaffes weren’t fatal to his candidacy, and they’re stupidly attributing that to some kind of unique genius on Trump’s part. The only genius that Trump has in this respect is understanding what was going on when his poll numbers grew rather than dropped after those putative gaffes. The content of those remarks was and remains secondary to his appeal. The real appeal is that he doesn’t give a shit what the media says, what the educated elite say, what the political class says. This is a revolt against us–against both conservative and progressive members of the political class. So of course most of the political class can’t understand what’s going on and keep trying to massage this all back into a familiar shape that allows them to once again imagine being in control.

Even if Trump loses, and I am willing to think he likely will by a huge margin, that will happen only because the insurgency against being polled, predicted, dog-whistled, manipulated and managed into the kill-chutes that suit the interests of various powers-that-be is not yet coalesced into a majority, and moreover, is riven internally by its own sociological divisions and divergences. But even as Trump was in some sense long predicted by the gifted creatives who sift the tea leaves of American life, let me also predict another thing: that if the political class remains unable to understand the circumstances of its own being, and if it is not able to abandon its fortresses and silos, the next revolt will not be so easily contained.

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

Dramatic Arc

Me at the beginning of a class meeting where I’ve assigned one of my favorite books.

Me realizing that maybe a quarter of the class read it with any real attention despite the fact that I already said it’s going to be an essay question on the final.

Me inside as we wind down the class.

Posted in Academia, Swarthmore | 6 Comments