An Actual Trolley Problem

I’ve always seen a certain style of thought experiment in analytic philosophy and psychology as having limited value–say for example the famous “trolley problem” that asks participants to make an ethical choice about whose life to save in a situation where an observer can make a single intervention in an ongoing event that directs inevitable harm in one of two directions.

The problem with thought experiments (and associated attempts to make them into actual psychological experiments) is that to some extent all they do is clarify what our post-facto ethical narrative will be about an action that was not genuinely controlled by that ethical reasoning. Life almost never presents us these kinds of simultaneous, near-equal choices, and we almost never have the opportunity to reason clearly in advance of a decision about such choices. Drama and fiction as well as philosophy sometimes hope to stage or present us these scenarios either to help us understand something we did (or was done to us) in the confusion of events, or perhaps to re-engineer our intuitions for the next time. What this sometimes leads to is a post-facto phony ideological grandiloquence about decisions that were never considered in their actual practice and conception as difficult, competing ethical problems. Arthur Harris wasn’t weighing difficult principles about just war and civilian deaths in firebombing Dresden, he was wreaking vengeance plain and simple. Neoliberal institutions today frequently act as if they’re trying to balance competing ethical imperatives in purely performative way en route to decisions that they were always going to make, that were always going to deliver predictable harms to pre-ordained targets.

But at this moment in late March 2020, humanity and its various leaders and institutions are in fact looking at an honest-to-god trolley problem, and it is crucial that we have a global and democratic discussion about how to resolve it. This is too important to leave to the meritocratic leaders of civil institutions and businesses, too important to be left to the various elected officials and authoritarian bureaucracies, too important to be deferred to just one kind of expertise.

The terms of the problem are as follows:

Strong national quarantines, lockdowns, and closure of nonessential businesses and potential gathering places in order to inhibit the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 will save lives in all countries, whether they have poorly developed health infrastructures, a hodgepodge of privately-insured health networks of varying quality and coherence or high-quality national health systems. These measures will save lives not by containing the coronavirus entirely but simply by slowing the rapidity of its spread and distributing its impact on health care systems which would be overloaded even if they had large amounts of surplus capacity. The overloading of health care facilities is deadly not just to people with severe symptomatic coronavirus infections but to many others who require urgent intensive care: at this same moment, there are still people having heart attacks, life-threatening accidental injuries, poisonings, overdoses, burns from fires, flare-ups of serious chronic conditions, and so on. There are still patients with new diagnoses of cancer or undergoing therapy for cancer. There are still people with non-COVID-19 pneumonias and influenza, still people with malaria and yellow fever and a host of other dangerous illnesses. When a sudden new pandemic overwhelms the global medical infrastructure, some of the people who die or are badly disabled who could have been saved are not people with the new disease. Make no mistake: by the time this is all said and done, perhaps seventy percent of the present population of the planet or more will likely have been exposed to and been carriers of the virus, and it’s clear that some percentage of that number will die regardless of whether there was advanced technology and expertise available to care for them. Let’s say it’s two percent if we can space out the rate of infection: that is still a lot of people. But let’s say it’s eight percent, including non-COVID 19 people who were denied access to medical intervention, if we don’t have strong enforced quarantines at least through the first three months where the rate of infection in any given locale starts to rise rapidly. That’s a lot more people. Let’s say that a relatively short period of quarantine at that level–three months–followed by moderate social distancing–splits the difference. A lot of people, but fewer than in a totally laissez-faire approach.

Against that, there is this: in the present global economy, with all its manifest injustices and contradictions, the longer the period of strongly enforced quarantine, the more that another catastrophe will intensify that will destroy and deform even more lives. There are jobs that must continue to be done through any quarantine. Police, fire and emergency medical technicians must work. Most medical personnel in emergency care or hospitals must work. Critical infrastructure maintenance, all the way down to individual homes and dwellings, still has to be done–you can’t leave a leaking pipe in the basement alone for four months. Banks must still dispense money to account holders, collect interest on loans, and so on. And, as we’re all discovering, there are jobs which can be done remotely in a way that was impossible in 1965 or 1985. Not optimally from anyone’s perspective, but a good deal of work can go on in that way for some months. But there are many jobs which require physical presence and yet are not regarded as essential and quarantine proof. No one is getting routine tooth cleaning. The barber shops are closed. Restaurants and bars are closed. Ordinary retail is closed. Amusement parks and concert halls are closed. All the people whose lives depend on those businesses will have no money coming in the door. Three months of that might be barely survivable. Ten months of that are not. Countries with strong social-democratic safety nets have some insulation against the damage that this sudden enforced unemployment of a quarter to a half of the population. Countries like the United States with almost no safety nets are especially exposed to that damage. But the world can’t go on that way for the full length of time it might take to save the most lives from the coronavirus pandemic. And make no mistake, this will cost lives as well. Quite literally from suicide, from sudden loss of access to shelter and health care, from sudden inability to afford the basic necessities of everyday life. But also from the loss of any future: the spiralling catastrophe of an economic downturn as grave as the Great Depression will deform and destroy a great deal, and throw the world into terrifying new disequilibrium.

It cannot be that saving the most lives imaginable from the impact of the pandemic is of such ethical importance that the destructiveness of the sudden collapse of the world economy is unimportant. It cannot be that business as usual–already deformed by inequality and injustice–must march forward over the deaths caused by the unconstrained, unmanaged spread of COVID-19. Like many people, this problem is not at all abstract for me. I’m 55, I have high blood pressure, I have a history of asthma, I’m severely overweight and when I contract the disease, I may well die. I have a mother that I love who is almost 80, aunts and uncles whom I love who are vulnerable, I have valued colleagues and friends who are vulnerable, and of course some who may die in this have no pre-existing vulnerabilities but just draw a bad card for whatever reason. But there has to be a point where protecting us to the maximum degree possible does more harm to others in a longer-lasting and more devastating way.

And this trolley problem cannot be left to the civic institutions and businesses that in the US were the first to act forcefully in the face of an ineffective and diffident national leadership. Because they will decide it on the wrong basis and they will decide it in a way that leaves all of us out of the decision. They will decide it with lawyers in closed rooms, with liability and insurance as their first concerns. They will decide it following neoliberal principles that let them use the decision as a pretext to accomplish other long-standing objectives–streamlining workforces, establishing efficiencies, strengthening centralized control.

It cannot be left to political authorities alone. Even in the best-case scenario, they will decide it in closed rooms, following the technocratic advice of experts who will themselves stick to their specialized epistemic networks in offering counsel: the epidemiologists will see an epidemic to be managed, the economists will see a depression to be prevented. In the worst-case scenario, as in the United States, corrupt leaders will favor their self-interest, and likely split differences not out of some transparent democratic reasoning but as a way to avoid responsibility.

This has to be something that people decide, and that people are part of deciding. For myself, I think that we will have to put a limit on lockdowns and quarantines and that limit is likely to be something like June or July in many parts of the United States and Europe. We can’t do this through December, and that is not about any personal frustration with having to stay at home for that length of time. It’s about the consequences that duration will wreak on the entirety of our social and economic systems. But it is not anything that any one of us can decide for ourselves as a matter of personal conscience. We the people have to decide this now, clearly, and not leave it to CEOs and administrators and epidemiologists and Congressional representatives and well-meaning governors and untrustworthy Presidents. This needs not to be a stampede led by risk-averse technocrats and managers towards the path of least resistance, because there’s a cliff at the end of all such paths. This is, for once, an actual trolley problem: no matter what we do, some people are going to die as a result of what we decided.

Posted in Academia, Grasping the Nettle, Politics, Swarthmore | 1 Comment

Free College: Not So Extreme

I’ve complained that for the most part, self-identified centrists and moderates prefer not to engage in direct arguments about their policy preferences in this election, but instead to argue about “electability”–essentially laundering their preferences through mute off-stage proxies, some other group of voters who won’t accept an “extremist” policy proposal simply because it’s extreme.

It’s not as if any given proposal is intrinsically extreme. (Well, up to a point: there are ideas that might be in some absolute sense be deemed to be fringe–say, banning any policy that accepts that the Earth is round and that the solar system is heliocentric.) “Extreme”, for the most part, is a judgment about how far a given idea is from some perceived stable consensus or status quo. As such, it’s more a marketing term than an empirical description: you make something extreme by describing it as such, over and over again, much the same way that you remind people that Colgate has new whitening agents and an improved fluoride formula.

Let’s take by way of an example the proposition that making public higher education free to all citizens and residents is a really extreme proposal. So extreme that it has been the normal public policy of many other liberal democracies (and a few non-democracies). So extreme that up to 1980 or so, it was in effect the policy of most states in the United States, in that there was a sufficient level of public funding for universities and community colleges that most could, if they chose, attend college for very little.

How did that become “extreme”? Through a steady thirty year effort to defund public higher education, which simultaneously raised the cost to prospective students while degrading the quality of the service it provided. Why exactly did we do that? Largely because we had thirty years of both Republican and Democratic administrations that turned away from public goods in general while cutting taxes, thirty years of austerity talk about inefficiencies and the need for private competition, and thirty years of educated elites trying to slow increasing access to higher education as union-protected high-wage manufacturing was transferred overseas and high-paying professional work that required educational credentials became the only alternative to low-paying service jobs. Thirty years of using higher education as the false whipping boy explanation for a major structural realignment of the economy (there aren’t enough engineers! There are too many poets and anthropologists!) while starving higher education in the process.

That’s how “public higher education should be free or nearly so to citizens and residents” became an extreme idea. It isn’t that way naturally: it was made extreme, a parting gift from the boomers and their parents who benefited from the idea back when it wasn’t extreme. It’s as if a thief broke into your house, stole something valuable, and then claimed you shouldn’t have it back because you never could have afforded it in the first place.

Inasmuch as any moderates care to actually engage the proposal on its merits, they have complained that it is regressive. Meaning that free access to public higher education should be means-tested, and the wealthy should have to pay. That sounds reasonable enough, but in fact, this is the torturous logic that has brutalized liberal democracy for the last three decades.

Before we get to the practicalities of it, at a more philosophical level, what looks like a gesture that targets income inequality in fact sanctifies it as foundational. When you prorate access to public goods, you establish that there are and must always be tiers of citizens–that inequality is fundamental. Platinum-tier citizenship, Gold-tier citizenship, etc. It effectively amends the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created unequal. What is public should be public to all: it is the baseline of equality.

That the wealthy can buy more on top of that is true–but don’t write that into the baseline. The rich can buy more legal representation than the state can provide, they can buy concierge health care on top of a public provision, they can buy an expensive private education. Yes. Figuring how to keep that from cancelling out equality of opportunity is a difficult, challenging problem. But you do not acknowledge that fact by writing it in at the deepest level of provision.

The wealthy already legitimately pay their fair share in a progressive tax system–if it’s actually used effectively as a way to redistribute excessive wealth and check run-away inequality.

The complaint that “free college” is regressive, moreover, feels jury-rigged to this political moment. The people who raise this argument against Sanders and Warren curiously seem to think this is the one ad hoc case where this concern is important. They are not arguing in favor of universal means-testing in the provision of public goods. Should we start charging wealthy people more to enter national parks? To send their children to public secondary schools? Should their EZ Passes charge them twice as much to drive on an interstate highway? Should they have to pay a fee to use the Library of Congress website? Be charged a fee in order to send a letter to their representative in Congress? Why not? They can afford it, after all. Isn’t it regressive to allow them to generally access public goods on the same basis as everyone else?

The idea that free public college should only be for those who really need it, moreover, is in practical terms the same kind of terrible idea that Democratic moderates have been peculiarly in love with since Johnson’s Great Society programs. When you set out to create elaborate tiers that segregate the deserving poor from the comfortable middle-class and the truly wealthy, you create a system that requires a massive bureaucracy to administer and a process that forces people into petitionary humiliation in order to verify their eligibility. You create byzantine cutoff points that become business opportunities for predatory rentiers. “Ah! I see you earn just $1,000 too much to qualify for free public college, and so will have to pay $5,000 a semester. Why don’t you consider taking on debt to attend my for-profit online school and we’ll spread that out for you? How about you hide that $1,000 in income using my $500/year accounting service? Try using your employer-offered system for tax-deferred payments into a special fund rather than receiving raises for the next four year!” Simplicity isn’t just about a basic idea of citizenship: it is also about efficiency, the very thing that neoliberal policy-makers supposedly revere so greatly and yet will so very often go to great pains to avoid.

Perhaps it is no great surprise that eye-rolling dismissals at supposedly utopian improvidence and hand-waving at proxies who are afraid of extremism is the preferred way to engage proposals like “free public higher education”. Who would want to undo thirty years of rigging the conversation, after all? Or for that matter twenty or so years of close ties between some of the economic interests that have benefitted from the defunding of public higher education and centrist policy makers.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 2 Comments

Harvest Time on the Whirlwind Farm

To some extent, people turn to omnicompetent forms of conspiracy theory when they cannot believe that anybody could be THAT incompetent.

People who are always and invariably against conspiracy theories tend to be that way first and foremost because omnicompetent conspiracy seems both impossibly improbable and because it is a futile theory (you can’t oppose omnicompetence by definition; in fact, if omnicompetence is real, then being allowed to voice the conspiracy theory is part of the conspiracy).

In some cases, the two kinds of theories of improbability and futility cross. It is truly hard to believe that four years after a deeply contested election that featured credible accusations about malign interference (including hacking attempts) in election security and four years after an election revealed bitter divides within the Democratic Party that threaten the stability of a coalition required to defeat a man who is endangering democracy itself, the Democratic Party would turn to a small tech company called Shadow, a company with no real track record, to hastily build an app of questionable usefulness even IF it actually worked as planned, to be used in the first primary elections of the 2020 campaign–and given reports that the app wasn’t working well and hadn’t been stress tested a month ago, would fail to build an alternative procedure should the app fail. The chain of miscalculations involved does seem almost impossible to believe in.

And yet so too is believing that any candidate actually running for the nomination could be so omnicompetently operating as a Manchurian candidate so as to make that chain of miscalculations occur as part of a plan, or that the DNC leadership has suddenly achieved this kind of omnicompetence after decades of evident managerial fecklessness and gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight mistakes. I mean, if you’re really omnicompetent conspirators, aim high–just steal the election seamlessly, plant evidence to discredit them that you wants discredited, etc.

Somewhere in that intersection there may be improvident forms of hidden coordination, self-interested incompetence that might be called cronyism, perfectly innocent misplaced trust in technology, and a kind of structured helplessness that the tech industry has sought to produce in all of us. That may deserve to be called something other than conspiracy or incompetence. It is, unfortunately, gravely consequential, in a way that demands both heads should roll and that reforms should be made, some of them far-reaching and substantial.

——————

Ilana Gershon’s excellent book Down and Out in the New Economy offers an analysis of the “gig economy” that is both subtle in its grasp of our historical moment and hugely consequential in its implications. Among other things, it gives me an unexpected window into understanding what may have happened in Iowa as the caucus officials turned to the app developed by Shadow.

When faculty talk about the damage done to our institutions and our profession by the rise of contingent labor in academia, we sometimes overlook that we are here, as in many things, only one piece in a larger puzzle. Two things have happened to most of the major professional workplaces that were a centerpiece of mid-20th Century life around the world (the university, the secondary school, the hospital, the law firm, the advertising agency, the major corporation, the governmental bureau or civil office). On one hand, governance and authority over the mission and operations of the institution and its employed professionals have been increasingly transferred to a series of dislocated, dispersed administrative organizations devoted to particular kinds of compliance. Some of those are statutory, some are a consequence of institutional membership in associational networks, and some are effectively from off-site or absentee owners of some of the operations of the institution. The authority of these external organizations over the institution is often projected into the institution via specific professionals on the institutional payroll whose work is largely the maintenance of compliance. The organizational chart shows those individuals working within the institution’s hierarchy and procedures, but in many ways they are equally subject to and solicitious of the separate external organization. The hospital manager who is the primary point of contact with insurance networks, the corporate executive who represents the private equity firm that recently bought the business, the academic dean charged with meeting the demands of an assessment organization, the investment manager who works as much for a hedge fund partner as he or she does for the institutional portfolio, the government official who is charged with managing procurement or who is the liason to a PAC or other source of extra-governmental influence on policy-making.

At the same time, most those professional institutions are off-loading much of the labor they once did and could still plausibly do out of their own staff and payroll onto outside consultants, facilitators, software developers, contract workers, and so on. In its early crude forms, this was “outsourcing”, the segmentation of the organization into geographically dispersed subsidiaries who could produce some labor very cheaply outside of the US or EU. I think now this wave has moved on to something more dispersed, less transparent, and more punctuated and uneven. This is the classic “gig economy” that Gershon has set out to investigate. From inside the institution, part of the logic of the gig is financial efficiency (the shedding of staff off the payroll) but I think it is more than that. I think it is also the management of risk, often by lawyers or legal professionals: necessary operations that entail risk if done incompetently or imprecisely are protected from claims of liability to some extent if they are devolved onto individuals and firms whose inner workings are private and to whom legal responsibility can possibly be redirected, along with less financially tangible forms of blame.

Gershon’s analysis is that as people transition into the gig economy, their relation with employing institutions changes. They no longer are offering their distinctive mix of intrinsic skills and human insight to the employer via a long-term contract. The gig workers are, Gershon observes, increasingly narrating their economic relations as if the gig worker were a business who is engaged in a business deal with another business. The worker is no longer identifying with the purposes and mission of the institution while employed by it, but is instead always thinking about the interests of their own “gig” brand, which align for as long (or short) as they may with the other business that pays them for services rendered.

There are ways in which this is neither bad nor good but simply different. But it has implications for the outcomes that institutions seek (or claim to seek), whether that is educating the next generation, healing the sick or injured, or delivering profit to shareholders. As an institution increasingly employs people who are essentially the intrusion of some other institution into its framework (the compliance professionals) and expels functions and tasks to be served by networks of consultants and subcontractors, it loses most or all control over the outcomes of its operations. It is subject to extra-institutional dictate in a way it is almost helpless to resist–“the call is coming from inside the house!”–while it has protected itself from both the expense and the risk of directly supervising (or being shaped by) people who carry out many functions that its mission or purpose require.

In fact, many institutions end up pairing another class of internal worker with the intruding compliance managers: the contact point for networks of consultants, facilitators and subcontractors. Much like the compliance worker, this person is not responsible to the institution. They’re responsible to the network that they manage. This has huge implications. It is not in the interest of the “internal gig manager” to put the institution’s needs or functions first, not the least because the internal gig worker knows that tomorrow they could be back out in the network again, and it is the network that matters, the network that secures the next gigs. But more potently, if the internal gig worker wants the gig to continue, they actually have to actively degrade the capacity of their employing institution to carry out some functions. Because that’s what makes consultants and subcontractors necessary: the institution has failed, is failing, will fail to do this work on its own–it lacks some form of expensive expertise or some form of knowledge about the nature of the labor function that it formerly handled on its own.

—————

And here we return to the catastrophe of the Iowa caucuses. Whatever the specificity of the ways in which Shadow was employed to build an app that was designed to report the results of the caucuses–specifics that hopefully we will learn more about in the days and weeks to come–the ways in which both the national and state Democratic Party and an associated electoral administration has lost control of a vital function that once resided entirely within its organizational purview is familiar and haunting. And here I am no longer in equanimity about the implications: this is an actively commissioned outcome deriving from a web of systemic shifts in political, economic and social life over the last forty years. Call it neoliberalism, or find a better name. Argue it’s three things, not one thing. Argue it’s intentional or incidental, interested or unexpected. That’s all fine. One thing it is not is good.

All over this country (and the world) for the last twenty years, tech companies have worked with increasing intensity and sometimes desperation to actively produce in other institutions a state of learned, professed helplessness, a proposition that everything they do must be transformed (or “disrupted”) by tech in the name of some underspecified (or wholly unspecified) better end. Along the way, tech companies and the managerial clouds that swirl around them like courtiers have appropriated languages of fairness, of equity, of objectivity, of efficiency, of empowerment and attached them to cycles of tech adoption and to endless, vague ideas about process and ‘best practice’. If you understand tech as being more than just an app or a digital tool or a computer, you can even see that some of these processes and adoptions are of rules, procedures, codes that are themselves a kind of organizational technology.

And it is the change in institutions overall that make this ubiquity possible while amplifying the disastrous forms and modes of helplessness and surrender that comes with that ubiquity. The tech to worry about here is not really first or only the big companies we all love to hate (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft). It is the tech of the gig economy: the small firms (who are often using, in ways acknowledged and obscured, the product of the big companies). This is the tech that we subcontract for and assemble. What it does and how it is put together is a black box–a Shadow indeed–and that is often part of its value, as Cathy O’Neill observes in her book Weapons of Math Destruction. Bias, unfairness–or a miscounting of electoral outcomes–that happens algorithmically in a product developed by a small firm using the proprietary technologies of three big firms is protected by multiple layers of secrecy and obscuration, even from the subcontractors who delivered the product. All of us in institutions hire the consultants and facilitators and subcontractors because they’re former students, former associates, former (or present) parts of our gig networks. As we all become gig workers, we all think about the gig, not the mission or the purpose.

If that means a food company loses the ability to know why the romaine lettuce it buys is frequently infected by e-coli, bad for its customers and likely bad for the company. If that means all food companies sell a product that is composed of ten different layers of subcontraction, bad for everyone who eats commodified food. The compliance officers inside the company aren’t truly protecting the public interest–they’re hidden inside the institution and yet not answerable to it. The gig contact points inside the company aren’t really responsible to the company, and neither are the contractors they’ve hired. Nobody’s really responsible. Maybe some individual will be unlucky enough to be identified in a viral video and hashtagged into temporary oblivion, but the structures live on.

Iowa is all of this made truly and horrifingly manifest. At the beginning of a national election that many citizens plainly feel is the most important election in their lifetime–and possibly one of the three or four most important in the history of this nation-state–a party organization lost control of one of its most important functions. It will be tempting to say that this must be a cunning, purposeful, self-interested conspiracy by a few, or a punishable kind of professional incompetence that was contingent, e.g., that could have been avoided. I strongly suspect instead that the Shadow we will uncover has fallen on us all, that all of us are involved in forms of labor towards valuable, important ends that our institutions have lost control over, and that none of us know quite how to walk back into the light of sovereignty and authority over the missions we value, the purposes we are called to, the responsibilities we revere.

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Dershowitz Matters (Unfortunately)

The terrible thing about what has happened in the Senate is this: the intellectual and institutional infrastructure of legal and political systems can confer a kind of revenant legitimacy even on claims and verdicts that destroy those systems. You can murder a democracy with democratic institutions. The Nazi Party did not come to power in a coup; it came to power in an election. When the Nazi Party finally did suspend German democracy, it did so using the institutional language of the state that the Nazis were destroying.

So while we can all see the plain insanity of Alan Dershowitz’ proposition that if a President of the United States believes his own election is in the national interest, no action that he takes to secure his own election is therefore impeachable, it still matters that it was said on the floor of the Senate with the blessing of the current Administration and that it will be incorporated into the logic of the foregone acquittal that the Republican Senators will shortly be delivering.

Institutions are a kind of railroad track into the near-term future, laid down in haste as the train approaches. If the track is laid down pointing to a yawning canyon with no bridge over it, the engineers of the train do not have the option to swerve or evade the abyss ahead.

Dershowitz–and thus the GOP–are now fully committed to single-party rule, to an assertion that if they believe themselves the only legitimate rulers of the United States then it is so and they need fear no law nor principle as a barrier to their continued hold on power. As Dershowitz renders it, Trump would be doing nothing against his oath of office if he ordered a Democratic candidate investigated by the Justice Department or detained by the FBI for no other reason than to damage their candidacy. He could legitimately order federal money withheld from the home state of a political rival or for that matter legitimately impede or interfere with elections in jurisdictions likely to vote for any opponent. It’s not hard to think of quite real actions that will shortly be given political blessing (with the likely blessing of the Roberts Court to follow), because many of them are employed in authoritarian states that hold sham elections–tampering with the vote count, intimidation of opposition voters, arrests or detention of opposition candidates, refusal of legal supervision or eyewitnessing of election procedures, and so on. Dershowitz has sanctified all of that.

It doesn’t matter if 99% of the law professors in the nation think him wrong and craven. If his views stand as the prologue to an acquittal, they will be in some sense laying down the tracks that the train cannot help but follow.

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No One Is Prepared

In the last two weeks, it’s been hard to miss the sudden turn among centrist punditry–the kind of people who presume to be kingmakers and political tastemakers, the viziers of the voters–towards trying to knock Bernie Sanders down before he surges his way into the nomination.

One of the most common themes in this turn (for example, in David Frum’s well-argued essay in the Atlantic) is that Sanders has yet to be tested politically, that no one has really attacked him yet in the way that the Republicans will attack him, that he is not electable because he has so many skeletons of some kind in his closet.

I think there are many assertions in these kinds of arguments that are questionable. For the most part, they seem to me to be a kind of zombie discourse rising out of the graveyard of the Cold War, that all a liberal or centrist politician needed to do to undercut a more progressive rival once was to hint darkly that the rival had ties to Communism–that they’d met approvingly with Fidel Castro or that they had said something nice once about the work of Marx or that they’d shown up to a meeting of socialists. Frequently this worked in concert with tying the candidate to some form of non-Marxist radical militancy–they’d been in a march with the Black Panthers! etc.–or to the antiwar movement (Hanoi Jane!).

It feels like a pretty OK, Boomer move now. I don’t think a lot of voters even recognize the allusive suggestions or have any real reflexive responses to the implications and nudges involved. Or even care much if someone comes right out and says, “Dude’s a Communist!” In part, as Frum notes (and most other hand-wringing centrists do not), even being a Communist affirms the degree to which Sanders seems to be about something other than just a career trajectory for a well-trained technocrat, that he is committed to an actual cause.

Let me not go too far into a tit-for-tat argument on these points, however. Let us just presume for the sake of argument that the Republican attack machine is going to go at Sanders full throttle and that he has yet to face any of the force of that assault, and that until he is thus attacked, we can say little about how well he will fare.

The more important observation at this point is that none of the Democrats have faced the full force of the contemporary Republican attack machine and none of them have demonstrated their capacity to survive it. I would argue that if Sanders seems unready, then all of his Democratic rivals are vastly more unready. And that all Democrats are now equally vulnerable to the way that the Republican Party now conducts itself politically, because the Republican Party no longer has any constraints on its behavior. Neither accuracy nor probity matters any longer. Legality is unimportant to a lawless party. The preservation of democratic norms and structures doesn’t matter to a party that no longer believes that the opposition has a right to govern if elected. The contemporary GOP and its base believe that by definition, only they have political legitmacy.

The Democrats are still preparing to run in an election, while their opponents are preparing to go to war.

To get some sense of what is now involved, look at what’s happening to John Bolton. He has gone from someone who was appointed by the President and trusted to provide counsel and make policy, who was a darling of conservatives and a frequent visitor to Fox News, to “Book Deal Bolton”, trailed by viral falsehoods about his financial motivations, his conspiratorial loyalty to the “deep state”, and so on. That the President chose such a person (as he did so many others who have now left his service) casts no negative light on him among his followers, nor does their former estimation of Bolton have any remnant force in their minds. Conservatives who loved and admired John Bolton two or four or eight years ago now profess to have always hated him and regarded him as a dangerous, even treasonous, figure.

Look at Biden. Twenty years ago, if you were the President and you knew that a potential rival in the upcoming election had a ne’er-do-well son who had gotten a job that smelled like nepotism and influence, you would have held on to that until after he was nominated and then found operatives far enough away from you to leak and rumor that into national news coverage. (Of course, twenty years ago, if you’d had a swarm of nepotistic trash trailing at your heels and had been the product of nepotism, you might have thought twice about making it an issue at all.) But this President and his goons decided to go ahead and start a Constitutional crisis just to play out a single rumor.

None of the Democrats have really faced anything like this at a national scale. What is about to happen will make the treatment of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton look comparatively restrained. Our mass communications are essentially completely porous to malicious falsehoods from a wide variety of interested parties with money–I fully expect that this will be the first election where deepfake images are used in a sustained way, among many other things. Our mainstream media are mostly still easily manipulated or fooled by (or authorially involved in) the circulation of information intended to “change the frame” on candidates and issues. Almost a third of the citizenry are epistemologically barricaded against evidence that contradicts their current political commitments.

People who grew up in earlier political dispensations where “dirty tricks” meant things as quaint as getting Muskie to cry on camera or sending out anonymous circulars alleging that John McCain had a black child out of wedlock think that certain political candidates have certain kinds of vulnerabilities that they have to prepare for tactically and strategically, and that some candidates have too many vulnerabilities based on some actual past conduct and thus are “unelectable”. Wake up. We are in a new era. Against the hate machine that has been forged over the last two decades and now is armed and fully operational, all candidates have all vulnerabilities at all times. And all candidates have the potential to soar over the grinding, indiscriminate brutalization on offer: the US did elect, after all, a black President whose middle name was “Hussein”, something that the same centrist punditry that today says Sanders is unelectable then said made Obama unelectable. Much as they said Trump was unelectable.

There are two ways to cope, I think. One of them is Obama’s: to be above it all. I don’t think any of the current candidates have that available to them. It’s what O’Rourke and Booker, among others, tried.

The alternative is to go to war too. As Frum notes, that takes some of what Sanders has: advocating simple, elemental and dramatic policy ideas. It also takes not putting up with any bullshit, whether it’s media bullshit or the bullshit of the hate machine. It takes authenticity–meaning, something that comes from the candidate directly, not from a bunch of consultants and pollsters. It takes being raw rather than cooked.

If Sanders is untested in his ability to do that well against the ferocity and intensity of what’s coming, his rivals are vastly more untested. Or they’ve already failed: Biden’s meandering, vacillating confusion about what to do in the face of the attack from the White House and his clueless nostalgia for a consensus politics that was jointly murdered by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s is a vastly greater sign of unreadiness. Is there any sign that Pete Buttigieg is remotely prepared for the homophobia that will come his way? Or probably more potently, for the absolutely brutal and sick attacks that will come on his education and career trajectory? He can barely cope with relatively polite criticism about that from the left of the Democratic Party. Is Amy Klobuchar ready for open misogyny, for a reprise of the “unlikeability” attacks on Clinton? Warren already dropped the ball on the “Pocahontas” attack; she’s been a bit more deft since on other fronts, but still.

And these are all predictable vectors of attack, in that older political sense of ‘vulnerability’ and electability. But I don’t think any of them are ready for open falsehoods to be circulating straight from the President and elected members of the House and Senate, for the floodgates of hate unrestrained by shame or truth. The only way to be ready is to show that you understand that this is how politics is now, and to show the determination to win in order to save democracy itself. That urgency and intensity of purpose has yet to show itself on the Democratic side, for the most part–and if anyone has shown it, it’s Sanders and Warren, the candidates that the conventional wisdoms holds to be most unelectably unready.

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A Declaration of Dependence

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one orange-faced man to dissolve the legal restrictions which he finds incovenient and to assume among the powers of the earth, the permanently dominant station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitles the orange-faced man and his political party, an indecent indifference to the opinions of mankind requires that they should incoherently tweet the causes which impel them to ignore, trifle with or mock the law.

We hold these lies to be self-evident, that billionaires are entitled to pay no taxes and the Russians are good guys who the United States should generally obey, that MAGA-hat wearing white men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are protection of Mediocrity, Things Being Just the Way They Want Them and A Life Free From Dealing With Brown People, Women and Others They Do Not Like. That to secure these rights, Governments are corrupt among Men, deriving their unjust powers from the inattention of a tweeting scumbag, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes threatening of these ends, it is the Right of the MAGAs and billionaires to ignore it or corrupt it, and to let Government wheeze out its last breaths in some miserable alleyway, undercutting its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Downfall and Misery along with everyone else even though they don’t think it’s going to be a problem for them.

A lack of prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should be let decay and degenerate for short-term greed and fear; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are less disposed to suffer when they take the trouble to have good governments, while evils are accumulable by abolishing the governments which have suppressed them. But when a long train of reasonable regulations and social reforms, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to actually make the world better, it is their right, it is their duty, to sabotage and derogate such Government, and to remove all Guards for their future security.

Such has been the patient sufferance of this independent Nation; and such is now the necessity which constrains the MAGA and billionaires to shit all over their former Systems of Government. The history of the first black President is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations due to his highly moral character, generally intelligent approach to governance and centrist moderation, all having in direct object the maintenance of incremental social reform and some degree of constitutional liberty. To mock this, let fake bullshit be submitted to a simultaneously horrified and bemused world.

The former black president has given his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has urged his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, but has also negotiated and offered deals till his Assent should be obtained; and when ignored by do-nothing Republicans, he has mostly accepted the impasse with mild frustration and hope for eventual agreement.

The former black president has refused to pass other Laws for the exclusive accommodation of white men and billionaires, unless those people would accept the right of Representation in the Legislature of everyone else, a right inestimable to them because it is common to tyrants and white supremacists only.

The former black president has called together legislative bodies at places normal and close to the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of reluctantly accepting their lack of compliance with his recommendations and plans.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most arrogant and obstructionist terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated patience and attempts to understand what is motivating us to be such assholes. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Democratic ruler of a constitutional republic, is unfit to be the ruler of MAGA-hat wearing white men and billionaires.

Nor have We been wanting in attention to our Russian brethren. We have welcomed from time to time in attempts by their dictator to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us and our elections. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our desire to build hotels there and of moving on her like a bitch. We have appealed to their kindred greed and lack of interest in freedom or human rights, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common intolerances to totally encourage these usurpations, which would inevitably strengthen our connections and correspondence. They have been totally delighted hear to the voice of injustice and of consanguinity, partly because they used a bunch of trolling operations to make it speak out. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which announces our Subjugation, and hold them, as we hold other countries with dictators, Totally Great Friends With Whom We Have Perfect Conversations, and Hereby Abandon All That Shit About Having Our Own Country with a Constitution.

We hearby unseriously and incoherently tweet and ramble that these United States of America are basically over and Committed to Doing Whatever Putin Wants and Hey Whatever Other Dictators Ask For During Phone Calls.

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The Concern Troll In Everyone

What we commonly call “concern trolling” in online discussion has far deeper rhetorical roots in the public sphere. In many ways, it’s a style that was honed to near-perfection by centrist liberal intellectuals and academics in the 1960s, the sort that were brilliantly vivisected by Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes. These were the men and women (mostly men) who were in their own view outside of and beyond ideology. They might favor a particular policy or course of action, but most of them claimed to be making a series of serially independent reasoned judgments, taking each issue on its merits, according to its facts. This was not just a personal preference. They argued that this approach was the essence of academic professionalism, of expert participation in public debate, and even the only right way to be a proper citizen in democratic and community deliberation. Journalists (in the U.S., not so much elsewhere) also commonly adopted this basic posture, that they were obliged to have no priors or assumptions, to treat everything they covered in a neutral, dispassionate manner that deferred to the facts of a given event or issue.

Intellectuals, scholars, experts, pundits or journalists who had strong or distinctive points of view were either bracketed off as a splinter movement (“New Journalism”) or disparaged as ideologues who approached issues and problems with a prior politics that led to a selective, biased understanding of the issues at hand and the facts of the matter. Intellectual and cultural historians, literary scholars and others who study the history of public debate in the United States with a long view are aware of just how different the resulting structure of public discourse in American life was after 1960 from the period between 1880 and 1950. It really was a shift: in the prior era of high modernism, intellectuals and experts didn’t hesitate to advocate policies and programs directly, for the most part–for good and ill.

Despite the supposed rejection of “objectivity” as a goal or evaluative marker in the social sciences, many experts and scholars have held on to the performative affect of the no-ideology intellectual continuously since the 1970s. In public writing, that increasingly meant that intellectuals and pundits only advocated ideas and proposals that came from someone else, from research or data or pilot programs etc. that resulted from the direct agency of some other expert, some other civic or institutional leader. Somewhere else and someone else. The pundit became a window to some distant light, transparent to its illumination but having no direct responsibility for incandescence. And increasingly, the light was directed towards those the pundit considered in darkness, in a gesture of olympian magnaminity. “Were I you,” he (almost always a he, almost always white) says, “I would look seriously at this finding, this study, this other expert, this situation. For were I you, I would act differently than you do, once I saw this finding, this study, this other expertise. Indeed, if you only will live in the light I cast in your direction, you might in fact be lucky enough to be me. That’s what I would be, were I you: I’d be me. Unbiased, generous, unhampered by ideology, just making up my own mind about everything rationally and without any priors right until the moment I come across it.”

Once upon a time, that noxious, phony performance was substantially confined to the op-ed pages of the New York Times and other major dailies, to the televisual punditry, to a small sector of public-facing academic social science, to a very particular subset of civic organizations. Bit by bit, however, it slipped into the wild, and now it infects our everyday public discourse across social media, public culture, civic institutions and conventional mainstream journalism.

In practice? Some examples of what this dissemination of deferral means:

1) Most of the public conversation between educated elites about electoral preferences studiously avoids the responsibility of actually having electoral preferences of one’s own that arise out of one’s own values and commitments. Instead, arguments about various candidates and issues are deferred onto some other “them” who have actual preferences who need to be appeased, mobilized or enlisted. So, for example, few people in these public conversations directly advocate for Joe Biden’s candidacy because they really like his positions or his specific qualities as a leader, but instead argue that Biden must be favored because he is the favored candidate of social groups who are not present in the conversation. Their (alleged) reasons for favoring him cannot be debated or discussed, only described, because they are not there to speak to them, and even if they were there, are presumed to not be willing to discuss their reasoning.

2) Much of the leadership within civic and academic institutions and often businesses as well advocates for particular policies or changes not because the leadership directly believe in or support such policies, but because the policies are “best practices” or “shared norms” that originated somewhere else. There is a quality of immaculate conception in these kinds of explanations, in fact: the policies adopted often have no specific place of birth and no initial author, but seem instead to have been adopted everywhere at once but nowhere also, with no sense that they are rivalrous to or critical of the norms they are set to displace.

3) Technocratic politicians and Silicon Valley companies (mostly) cleave to policies and products that have been produced almost through a competitive bidding process: they describe a problem they have identified and that they seek to provide some some of ameliorating solution for. The advocated solution doesn’t arise out of the political values or philosophy of the leader and their staff: the root value is to solve problems, what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”. The solution is framed as neutral, as containing no values or agenda. (And hence, opposing the solution is held to be a corrupt investment in the continuation of the initial problem, because why else would you stand in the way of fixing a problem?) Once again, the people responsible for implementing or selling solutions are placed a sanitary step away from the conceptualization of and advocacy for a solution.

I think this is all tied to the much more abstract, multivalent erosion of 19th and 20th Century conceptions of publics and citizenship in the direction of the constellation of ideas and practices that we often call “neoliberalism”. The advantages of this deferral of direct responsibility for advocacy are obvious for individuals and institutions. David Brooks or Bret Stephens can throw up their hands and say that they’re not responsible for gross errors of fact or tendentious constructions of argument, because they’re only serving as a messenger for what is said and claimed by others that they believe their readers should know about. Institutions can shield themselves against risk and liability if they are only conforming to or compliant with decisions and practices adopted elsewhere. The failure of solutions can be blamed on the subcontractor that supplied them or simply on the intractability of the problem itself without putting any values or beliefs in danger.

The costs I think are also plain. Chief among them is that this deepens the isolation of elites from a wider civic culture, because all of these moves position elites and their institutions as the chess players on a board populated by other groups, other people, other communities but bearing no responsibility for either setting the rules of the game nor for the outcomes of play. We can scarcely begin to think successfully about what other worlds are possible when we absent ourselves and the direct power we actually have from the world we actually inhabit.

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Homeland Insecurity and American Terrorism

Let’s stop talking about guns and gun control.

Guns and gun control in America function as an intensifying signifier of cultural division. They amplify the idea that this historical moment is a division of rural white ‘traditional’ communities vs. urban diverse educated communities. For every responsible rural gun owner who has a rifle as a tool, for every home owner who keeps a gun out of a belief in self-protection, for every collector who is just interested in guns, using the gun itself as the totemic object that we believe is causing these shootings is a confirmation of an antagonism, of a sociocultural distance, of an us and them. The more we understand, accurately, the cultural depth of America’s attraction to guns, the more helpless we feel–because deep cultural formations are exceptionally hard to instrumentally change from above.

Yes, gun ownership in this country is a fetish; yes, strictly controlling the availability of weapons that are intended to kill many people as fast as possible would be transformative. Yes, guns in the home lead to many tragedies, from toddlers shooting family members by accident to depressed men committing suicide because of the availability of a convenient means for doing it. Yes, we need sane gun laws–licensing and permits, mandatory training, restrictions on manufacture, sale and ownership, and so on.
But guns are a distraction from what’s really going on.

What’s really going on is a slow-motion uprising by white men who feel lost, enraged and confused by the gradual ebbing of their unchallenged social, political and economic power. Most of the men who’ve joined this uprising and committed terrorist acts in its name don’t even quite know or reflexively understand their deeper sources of their rage and alienation. They’ve nearly invariably beaten or hurt women in their lives, they’ve felt confused or wounded by the world around them. They’ve sometimes understood themselves to be mentally unhealthy or lost. They’ve cut themselves off from social ties or never been able to make them in the first place.

But most of them are not mentally ill as we commonly understand it, any more than an alienated young man from London or Berlin or Detroit or Istanbul or Kano who goes to join ISIS or Boko Haram. Those insurgents are leaving because they feel there is nothing for them where they are, because they feel powerless or lost, because they want to make a new world that is also somehow an old and sanctified world where they are the powerful ones. They often know almost nothing about the Qu’ran or Islam.

So it is with America’s mass shooters: virtually all of them white and male, sensing that the safety of a world where mediocre, ordinary white men could still count on being bosses, on being in charge, is fading away.

This goes all the way back to James Huberty in San Ysidro in 1984. We are not in a fight with guns, any more than other societies trying to cope with insurgencies are in a fight with guns. The guns are a necessary but not sufficient condition of those insurgencies, but ordinary people don’t get blown up by an IED while travelling by bus because there are IEDs. They get blown up because insurgents and terrorists are mining the roadways. The IEDs are what allow buses to be blown up and many people to die: if insurgents just had butter knives, they’d kill very few people. But here, in some sense, the mantra of the gun owner is almost right: without the terrorist, the gun sits on the shelf, the IED never gets made.

Ordinary Americans don’t get shot because there are guns, and they don’t get shot because somehow we have the world’s worst mental health crisis. They get shot because there is a decentralized, distributed movement of white men who want their supremacy back. It’s always been visible to us but it is more apparent than ever now because there are open terrorist sympathizers in the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, in governors’ mansions and state legislatures. It is time to call them what they are and to understand truthfully that we the people are under attack.

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Dialogue and Demand

Why is a call for conversation or dialogue met so often with indifference or hostility?

That I am thinking about this question might feel peculiar to Swarthmore, but I could just as readily be addressing Johns Hopkins (the scene of protest against the creation of a private police force on campus this past spring), Wesleyan when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, really higher education all the way back to the mid-1960s. It may seem that I’m talking about a challenge that is peculiar to academia, but in fact I think this is an issue for most contemporary civic and corporate institutions.

So what am I thinking about? Roughly speaking, the kind of impasse in the life of an institution where some group of people within the institution or reliant upon it are demanding concrete, specific changes in how the institution operates and the people with authority over the institution respond to that demand by calling for dialogue and conversation. This usually in turn infuriates or provokes the constituencies demanding changes and leads them to escalate or amplify their demands, which then in turn antagonizes, alienates or worries other groups who might have supported the initial demands but not the intensified or more militant requests, which leads to more people calling for some form of dialogue or deliberation, which then intensifies the us-or-them divide within the institution about the way forward.

I think this general dynamic has been described very well by Moises Naim in his book The End of Power. Naim starts by asking why people who are at the top of the hierarchy in many organizations and institutions–CEOs, college and university presidents, heads of executive agencies in government, leaders of non-profit community groups, and so on, frequently report that they feel powerless to act within their organizations beyond vague, broad or gestural kinds of leadership. The former president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, described this view well in the midst of a controversial attempt by her board to displace her when she said that she and her peers invariably had to lead towards change slowly, through “incremental buy-in”. Even that is more active than many leaders of institutions, academic and otherwise, might put it–more typical perhaps is a description of leadership as custodial, as stewardship, on behalf of collectively-determined values or a mission that derives from the inchoate massing of all ‘stakeholders’ in the institution.

Naim observes that in private, leaders and their closest advisors are often not so sanguine. Instead, they express intense frustration about what they feel they can’t do. They can’t admonish or discipline people who are technically subordinate to them but too far away in the hierarchy for that admonishment to feel proportionate or fair. They can’t instruct a division or office within their organization to straightforwardly execute a policy that the leadership wants but the division opposes. They cannot quickly dispense with rules, regulations or even “traditions” that the leader and their close associates deem to be impediments to their vision of progress. They cannot undertake new initiatives unilaterally, no matter how sound they believe their own judgment to be. They can’t reveal the truth as they understand it from facts that are private or confidential.

Naim argues that the contemporary world is being compressed between two simultaneous developments. The first is that power has gotten “big”: that it is increasingly attached to large-scale, centralized and increasingly hierarchical institutions. The second is that power is “decaying”: that it is harder and harder to wield at scale, through a centralized apparatus, and from the top of hierarchies downward as a command exercise. It is harder in part because organizations now have internal structures as well as external constraints that cause this decay. What Naim observes is that people within institutions or dependent upon their actions are simultaneously being consulted or included or brought into dialogue and deliberation at the same time that they feel it is increasingly impossible for their suggestions, advice or observations to actually inform what their institutions do with power.

People know that these institutions are “big”: that the institutions do in fact routinely wield power. A college like Swarthmore year in and year out determines the academic outcomes of 1600 students; it hires, disciplines, tenures (or not) employees; it undertakes expensive construction projects with substantial economic implications; it participates in numerous collective or shared decisions across academia; it buys services and commodities; it invests and accumulates. But if you ask, it’s very hard to find anyone within the institution who ascribes the power to do any of those things directly and unilaterally to themselves or to their offices. The “big” capacity of an institution’s power comes from everywhere and nowhere. As a result, Naim suggests, there is only one form of actual influence over institutional action that most stakeholders, community members or citizens have left, what he calls “the veto”–that people can block or impede or frustrate institutional action. Not necessarily because they actually object that intensely to what is being proposed, but because it is the only action they can actually take in which their own agency is visible, important and has actual impact. In every other deliberative or active moment that people are supposedly included in and consulted about, there is no accountable tracing of whether or how their advocacy and their evidence has weighed on institutional power, and there are repeated encounters with decision-making processes that are either occluded or exclusive, and with accounts of decisions that are in no one’s hands, that are made but made from nowhere in particular. Even when you’ve been in “the room where it happens”, present at the scene where a decision was concretely made by people who have the power to decide, you often leave uncertain of what exactly happened and whether it’s going to be done as it was decided. You will also often not be allowed to speak at all about what was said, what was decided, or by whom. When people rise to block or impede decisions–to exercise the veto out of frustration–that further decays power while doing nothing to change its concentrated ‘bigness’.

———

I think the descriptive usefulness of Naim’s analysis is all around us now. The 2019 American discourse about the “deep state” and desires for various forms of authoritarian or direct-rule escape from its supposed clutches seems entirely consistent with the picture that Naim laid out in 2013. The prevalence of what is now being called “cancel culture” across social media is another manifestation of Naim’s veto, arising from people who feels that in some fashion they are being told that they are included in processes that select or identify cultural and political prominence and authority, if only through access to algorithms that rank and rate, but feeling as if the only real power they have is to reject a selection that has been made without real, transparent and accountable structures of representation and consultation.

I suspect that every working professional across several generations both feels this sense of exclusion and is aware of how they have excluded other people within their own institutional worlds. After twenty-five years of working at my present institution, I can cite innumerable examples of processes in which I have been formally included, cases where my opinion has been solicited, and cases where I’ve taken advantage of what are supposed to be always-open channels for communication to offer feedback in which the difference between my participation and my absence is impossible to discern. Sometimes I’ve seen a point I raised emerge almost entirely verbatim from one of the people involved in the earlier consultation two, five or ten years later with no perceptible connection to that earlier process. Mostly, my participation–sometimes about issues or decisions that I think are highly consequential or urgent–disappears without a trace (often simultaneously with confirmation that what I believed to be urgent was in fact urgent). Committees spent a year (or more) working on a policy that disappears into trackless invisibility afterwards–where it’s not clear even whether administrative leadership thought the policy impossible or risible, whether they earnestly meant to implement it but then the person who would have had responsibility left, or whether it was simply forgotten.

This isn’t distinctive to me. We all feel this way. Women feel this way even more. People of color feel this way even more. We all have had the experience of sounding an alarm that no one hears. Of providing advice that rests on decades of experience that seems to be ignored. Of trying to push towards an outcome that would satisfy many only to watch dismayed as an outcome that satisfies almost no one is chosen instead.

If we have power or responsibility within an institution, many of us have been on the other end. We’ve been the void that doesn’t answer, the soothing managerial assurance that all opinions are helpful, the person who absorbs and later appropriates a solution or idea that someone else advocated. And thus most of us know well why participation in a process doesn’t scale smoothly into an impact on a process. Think of job searches where you have been on the inside of the final decision but where many people provided feedback on a candidate. Some of that feedback you ignore because the person providing it didn’t see all the candidates or is missing some critical piece of information (that probably wasn’t available). Some of that you consider very carefully and respectfully but end up simply disagreeing with. Some of that you dismiss out of hand because the person consulted is someone who had to be consulted but who is widely regarded as wrong or irresponsible. Some of it you ignore because it’s expressed in a cryptic or confusing way. Some of it you ignore because you’re just really busy and the decision is already robustly confirmed by other information, so why keep discussing it?

None of which you can tell someone about. The people who made the decision can’t say:

a. You didn’t work hard enough for us to value your input equally.
b. We really did consider what you said, but here’s why we disagreed with you, specifically.
c. We asked your feedback because you’d be insulted if we didn’t but we don’t respect your views at all.
d. We had no idea what you meant and we didn’t have time to sort it out.
e. Our cup overfloweth: thank you for the advice but we turned to have as much as we needed before we even got to you.

You can’t even say the one thing that would be comforting (we considered your advice, and disagreed) because then you have to provide an external, visible transcript of a conversation that it is unethical (or illegal, even) to transcribe and circulate.

——————-

The number of decisions that power considers impossible to transcribe or even describe has grown along with power itself. Here I think we arrive at the heart of the problem with “conversation” as an alternative to “demands”.

Take my previous example of a job search in academia. Most of the people solicited for opinions understand why there is no account of whether or how their opinion mattered, except perhaps students. Why there will be no “conversation” about the decision after it is made, and why the parties to the conversation will be limited and sequestered. But even in this fairly clear case, academic departments could probably do a better job with students. In one hiring process in the last six years, we chose a candidate who was not consistently the number #1 preference of the students that we asked to participate. So I met as department chair with them afterwards to talk about how a decision like this gets made, and to give them a carefully limited version of our reasoning. I knew there was a risk involved that one or more students would indiscreetly repeat what I’d said so that it would get back to the candidate, so I didn’t share anything too private. The important thing for me was to talk frankly about how and why hiring decisions unfold as they do, including pointing out that these are decisions where typically ten to twenty candidates are very nearly evaluatively equal–if nothing else because the students who may be considering academia need to understand that about the labor market at the other end.

I also explained the legal constraints on anything connected to personnel decisions and then why most of us also find it unprofessional to talk about a colleague directly with students, most of the time. And we talked a bit more beyond that about why student impressions of faculty are sometimes perceptive and useful and sometimes simply wrong. I pointed out that I once proudly asserted decades ago that a graduate professor I knew was reticent because of the lingering effects of McCarthyism on older academics, which turned out to be the kind of thing that was ever so vaguely right as a generic guess and ever so completely wrong about the actual person, as I learned on longer acquaintance.

This is what I think a “conversation” as an alternative to a “demand” might look like. It may be many people have conversations of the kind I just described, as ad hoc, one-off, personal and effectively private conversations that do not become a public fact about power and authority within the institution. The public or shared or visible spaces within an institution are not routinely alive with this sort of conversation. It isn’t shared.

You could suggest that my approach in this case was managerial: that I chose to talk with the students in order to manage the possibility of their unhappiness in response to a perceived exclusion from decision-making. I think you’d be right that this is how offers of dialogue or conversation are often perceived by stakeholders who want to change the policies or culture of their institutions.

What is missing from these offers, what makes them not-really-conversations that only fuel the movement towards what Naim calls the veto, are three major attributes:

a) Too much of the subject of the conversation is veiled or off-limits.
b) The powerful do not fully disclose or describe both the constraints on their actions AND their own strong philosophical or ethical commitments.
c) When disclosed, the constraints are not up for debate; there is nothing contingent in the conversation.

In effect, what is missing is what defines a democratic public sphere. Which is an absence that nullifies the offer of a conversation or a dialogue as a part of decision-making or life in community. You can’t have a conversation that’s meaningful, trustworthy and part of a process of deliberation and decision-making in the weird kind of fractured “public” that academic institutions, civic institutions and businesses maintain, where information flows in trickles or pools in hidden grottos, in which most of the participants can’t discuss even a small proportion of what they know or disclose the tangible reality behind most decisions that have been made or are being contemplated.

———-

Title IX/sexual assault conversations in higher education are a major example of this issue, not just at Swarthmore but almost everywhere. In the case of Title IX, I am for the most part neither a petitioner nor the powerful, so I can see to some extent both why so many institutions trend towards Naim’s veto and why it is hard to have the conversations that might approach power differently.

Let’s start with what is off-limits. The specifics of the last decade of actual cases can’t be discussed in any kind of public or even private conversation within institutions. That would usually be illegal (several kinds of illegal), it would usually be an invitation to a lawsuit (several kinds of lawsuit), and it would broadly be considered to be unethical by almost everyone with an interest in the issue. And yet the generalities of those specifics are precisely what is at stake. What can the forms of centralized, hierarchical, ‘big’ power within academic institutions plausibly do about what’s in those specifics? How can anybody talk about that question without granular, particular attention to how it would work in specific cases, at the moment of the incident and its aftermaths?

That’s not all that is off-limits. Mostly the people with power over the disposition of cases or the setting of policy cannot fully disclose or discuss what they’re being told within one set of meetings: what the lawyers say about what can or cannot be said. Within another set of meetings: what trustees say about what they think should or should not be done. Within another set of meetings: what the specific managers of specific cases believe or think about those cases at various stages of investigation or judgment or therapy. Again, mostly because they can’t. In most of these cases, the legal constraints are real and specific. But all of those off-limits deliberations and conversations erupt into the public space, sometimes even as quotations that can’t be attributed or even acknowledged as quotations. So legal advice, even if it might be questionable or flawed, can’t be examined or questioned directly–it often can’t even be labeled as such. Practicioner beliefs about best practices in counselling or therapy can only be described in the vaguest ways, shorn of all the specifics that would make them valid or invalid, helpful or questionable.

The fracturing of this not-public runs all the way down to the bottom of this hoped-for conversation. No one–including student advocates–gets to a point of disclosure about the deeper fundamentals of their views on any of the issues at stake–about sexuality, about justice, about gender, about equity, about safety and freedom, about the rights and responsibilities of institutions and of those who work for and study within institutions. There is no incentive or reward to disclose if there is no real possibility of tracing how a dialogue will or will not inform decisions and policies. Nobody wants to start a conversation in which they will lay their deepest convictions out on the table if they have no sense at all of what will be done with or to those exposed beliefs and narratives after everyone leaves the table. Conversation is an intimate word, but the familiarity that even small colleges allow between students, faculty and administration is not intimate familiarity between equals who have consented to mutual exposure. What adminstrator would ever want to say clearly what they think and know to students who might turn around and demand the termination of that employee? What student would ever want to have a genuinely informing, richly descriptive and philosophically open conversation about sexuality, violence and justice with an administrator if the student is the only person obliged to participate in the conversation in that spirit?

The only hope for those kinds of dialogues is the classroom, precisely because the instrumental character of any given discussion is not directly fed back into institutional governance and because classrooms are semi-private and leave little visible trace to anyone who was not a direct participant. When we otherwise offer dialogue as an alternative to demands, we dramatically underimagine what it would take for dialogue to be a meaningful substitute, which is nothing short of redesigning the visibility of decisions and the flow of information in a way that no one is really ready for and perhaps that no one really wants.

Posted in Academia, Swarthmore | 6 Comments

College of Theseus

Most of us know to be skeptical about the public statements of a person paid to defend a particular organization or corporation. For the same reason, we tend to look askance on a pundit or expert who will derive some particular financial benefit if people heed his or her advice–a biochemist who is supposed to test a drug who owns shares in the company that will produce it, for example. There are often legal and ethical restrictions that apply in such cases.

You can’t so easily constrain a conventionalized narrative that mainstream reportage and experts collaboratively disseminate that just so happens to advance a strongly vested financial interest that is diffused across a particular business sector or range of organizations. Even if that story leaves out vitally important details, or is simply wrong in some crucial respect.

For example, almost every mainstream story I’ve read or heard about the financial struggles of Sears, Toys R Us, and other brick-and-mortar retailers leaves out the role of private equity, debt and cult-like management strategies employed by neophyte CEOs (often installed by private equity firms). The shorthand instead is always: couldn’t compete with Amazon. Which is a story that benefits Amazon and its shareholders: it is how Amazon survived years and years of continuous losses, because reporters and experts kept describing it as the inevitable future, kept using it as the singular causal explanation for every other event in retail.

Another example: autonomous cars. A ton of big players have a huge bet down on the table on autonomous cars, and virtually everyone writing about the issue is compliantly doing their best to make that bet pay off by describing autonomous cars as inevitable no matter what technical, political and economic challenges might remain in their implementation. Just saying something is inevitable doesn’t overcome fundamental material limitations: flying cars, jetpacks and moonbases were also once represented as inevitable in a near-term future, but all three turned out to be basically impossible within present circumstances. But in a sense the actual money knew that: no one but fringe visionaries put serious investment into those projects. With autonomous cars, there’s real money involved, and so every time an expert or a reporter casually and thoughtlessly treats them as a certainty, they are creating the certainty that they only claim to predict. If it turns out that you can’t simply unleash tens of thousands of perfectly working autonomous vehicles onto the current road network, it will be made to happen by changing the infrastructure. The autonomous car makers will buy out HOV lanes and put guides on them and get manually driven cars banned from them, in the name of safety or experimentation or innovation. Then they’ll argue that any accidents on non-guided roadways are actually human error, not autonomous car error, and push for eliminating manual drivers from all high-speed highways. Inch by inch it will happen–and “prediction” will have played its role.

The example that’s really got my goat this week, however, is the way that much of the press and a particular group of experts report on the closure or threatened closure of colleges and universities. Let’s take three examples that have been reported recently: Newbury College, Green Mountain College, and Hampshire College.

The reporting and prognostication tends to lump these closures together as a single phenomenon, stemming from a singular cause, interpreted within a conventionalized story. That’s usually something like, “College is too expensive, families are no longer certain of the value of traditional higher education, and this is just going to accelerate as we hit the edge of a demographic drop-off”. All of this is true enough in terms of pressures on the entire sector: college is expensive, its consumers are feeling doubtful about its value, and there’s a demographic drop-off coming. But it’s also a story that has a client behind it: various “disruptors” who have a huge bet down on the table that various kinds of for-profit online education will and must replace expensive, inefficient, “traditional” brick-and-mortar education. Those folks are getting impatient–or are starting to worry they’re going to lose their money. They’ve been moving fast but so far not that much has been broken. They’ve been angling to do the usual smash-and-grab theft of public goods but so far all they’ve been able to do is sneak a few bits of bric a brac into their pockets. So the story that all colleges are near to failing, about a kind of institutional singularity, is especially important for them to tell–and to urge others to tell for them.

The problem with that story is two-fold. First, even if we’re talking about “all of American higher education”, this is not the first time that the entire sector has been faced with severe economic and sociopolitical pressures and not the first time that these pressures have produced new institutional forms and marketing hooks–and waves of consolidation and failure. It’s not even the first time that people enamored of a new mass medium have specifically sought to use it to replace colleges and universities–it happened with television, it happened with radio, it happened with the postal service. And yet for the most part, the variety and richness of physical institutions of higher learning has remained intact in the United States through all those failures and consolidations and transformations. The current storyline forgets all of that. There is an unbroken clumpy mass of “traditional higher education” and then there is the disrupted, innovated future. Only occasionally does an expert or prognosticator go a bit deeper into the history before breaking out the shill for the brave new innovated future–Kevin Carey, for example, does an actually fair and responsible job of recounting how contemporary research universities in the US took on the shape they now have and understands that this doesn’t extend all that far back.

But it’s at the individual level of institutional closures that the conventionalized narrative is just plain misleading or even false. Because many of the places that have announced closures or crises recently have never been stable or successful institutions in the first place, or have always been outliers in certain respects.

Let’s take Newbury to start.

The United States is known, correctly, for a unique variety and quantity of institutions of higher education. This was primarily generated in the 19th Century between 1830 and 1890. Every institution created subsequently in the 20th Century was to some extent building on this unique earlier history, trying to fit into the infrastructure created in that era, but there were at least two significant waves of later institutional creation, one in the 1920s that capitalized on the new centrality of higher education to the training of professionals and specialists, one in the 1960s that was a response both to a massive new investment in public education and to the demographic bulge known as the “Baby Boomer generation”.

A lot of those 1960s institutions have lived on the edge of failure for their entire existence. They were responding to a temporary surge in demand. They did not have the benefit of a century or more of alumni who would contribute donations, or an endowment built up over decades. They did not have names to conjure with. They were often founded (like many non-profits) by single strong personalities with a narrow vision or obsession that only held while the strong personality was holding on to the steering wheel. Newbury is a great example of this. It wasn’t founded until 1962, as a college of business, by a local Boston entrepreneur. It relocated multiple times, once into a vacated property identified formerly with a different university. It changed its name and focus multiple times. It acquired other educational institutions and merged them with its main operations, again creating some brand confusion. It started branch campuses. It’s only been something like a standardized liberal-arts institution since 1994. In 2015 it chased yet another trend via expensive construction projects, trying to promise students a new commitment to their economic success.

This is not a college going under suddenly and unexpectedly after a century of stately and “traditional” operations. This is not Coca-Cola suddenly going under because now everyone wants kombucha made by a Juicero. This is Cactus Cooler or Mr. Pibb being discontinued.

Let’s take Hampshire College. It’s a cool place. I’ve always admired it; I considered attending it when I was graduating high school. But it’s also not a venerable traditional liberal arts college. It’s an experiment that was started as a response to an exceptionally 60s-era deliberative process shared between Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and UMass Amherst. It’s always had to work hard to find students who responded to its very distinctive curricular design and identity, especially once the era that led to its founding began to lose some of its moral and political influence. You can think about Hampshire’s struggle to survive in relationship to that very particular history. You should think about it that way in preference to just making it a single data point on a generalized grid.

Let’s take Green Mountain College. “The latest to close”, as Inside Higher Education says–again fitting into a trend as a single data point. At least this time it is actually old, right? Founded in 1834, part of that huge first wave of educational genesis. But hang on. It wasn’t Green Mountain College at the start. It was Troy Conference Academy. Originally coed, then it changed its name to Ripley Female Academy and went single-sex. Then it was back to Troy Conference. Then during the Great Depression it was Green Mountain Junior College, a 2-year preparatory school. Only in 1974 did it become Green Mountain College, with a 4-year liberal arts degree, and only in the 1990s did it decide to emphasize environmental studies.

Is that the same institution, with a single continuous history? Or is it a kind of constellation of semi-related institutions, all of which basically ‘closed’ and were replaced by something completely different?

If you set out to create a list of all the colleges and universities by name which have ever existed in the United States, all the alternate names and curricular structures and admissions approaches of institutions which sometimes have existed on the same site but often have moved, you couldn’t help but see that closures are an utterly normal part of the story of American higher education. Moreover, that they are often just a phase–a place closes, another institution moves in or buys the name or uses the facilities. Sure, sometimes a college or university or prep school or boarding school gets abandoned for good, becomes a ruin, is forgotten. That happens too. We are not in the middle of a singular rupture, a thing which has never happened before, an unbroken tradition at last subject to disruption and innovation.

This doesn’t mean that we should be happy when a college or university closes. That’s the livelihood of the people who work there, it’s the life of the students who are still there, it’s a broken tie for its alumni (however short or long its life has been), the loss of all the interesting things that were done there in its time. But when you look at the story of any particular closure, they all have some important particulars. The story being told that flatters the disruptors and innovators would have us thinking that there are these venerable, traditional, basically successful institutions going about their business and then suddenly, ZANG, the future lands on them and they can’t survive. At least some of the institutions closing have been hustling or struggling or rebranding for their entire existence.

Posted in Academia, I'm Annoyed | 4 Comments