Helpful Hints for Skeptics

I suppose I knew in some way that there were people whose primary self-identification was “skeptic”, and even that there were people who saw themselves as part of the “skeptic community”. But it’s been interesting to encounter the kinds of conversations that self-identified members of the skeptic community have been having with one another, and especially the self-congratulatory chortling of some such over something like the lame “hoax” of gender studies.

Skepticism is really just a broad property of many forms of intellectual inquiry and a generalized way to be in the world. Most scholars are in some respect or another skeptics, or they employ skepticism as a rhetorical mode and as a motivation for their research. Lots of writers, public figures, and so on at least partake of skepticism in some fashion. I’m a bit depressed that people who identify so thoroughly with skepticism that they see that as their primary community and regard the word as a personal identifier don’t seem to be very good at being skeptical.

So a bit of advice for anyone who aspires to not just use skepticism as a tool but to be a skeptic through-and-through.

1) Read Montaigne. Be Montaigne. He’s the role model for skepticism. And take note of his defining statement: What do I know? If you haven’t read Montaigne, you’re missing out.

2) Regard everything you think you know as provisional. Be sure of nothing. When you wake up in the morning, decide to argue that what you were sure of yesterday must be wrong. Just to see what shakes loose when you do it.

3) Never, ever, think your shit doesn’t stink. If you’re spending most of your time attacking others, regarding other people as untrue or unscientific or unrational who need to have your withering skeptical gaze upon them, you’re not a skeptic. Skepticism is first and last introspective. You are the best focus of your own skepticism. Skepticism that is relentlessly other-directed is just assholery with a self-flattering label. Skepticism requires humility.

4) Always doubt your first impulses. Always regard your initial feelings as suspect.

5) Always read past the headline. Always read the fine print. Always read the details. Never be easy to manipulate.

6) Never subcontract your skepticism. “Skeptical community” is in that sense already a mistake. No one else’s skepticism can substitute for your own. Yes, no person is an island, and yes, you too stand on the shoulders of giants. But when it comes to thinking a problem through from as many perspectives as possible, when it comes to asking the unasked questions, every skeptic has to stand on their own two feet.

7) Never give yourself excuses. If you don’t have the time to think something through, to explore it, to look at all the perspectives possible, to ask the counter-intuitive questions, then fine: you don’t have the time. Don’t decide that you already know all the answers without having to do any of the work. Don’t start flapping your gums about the results of your skepticism if you never did the work of thinking skeptically about something.

8) Never be obsessive in your interest in a single domain or argument. If you have something that is so precious to you that you can’t afford to subject it to skepticism, if you have an idee fixe, if you’re on a crusade, you’re not a skeptic.

9) Never resist changing sides. Always be willing to walk a mile in other shoes. Skepticism should be mobile. If you have a white whale you’re chasing, you’re not a good skeptic. A good skeptic should be chasing Ahab as often as the other way round–and sometimes should just be carving scrimshaw and watching while the whale and the captain chase each other.

10) Be curious. A skeptic is a wanderer. If you’re using skepticism as a reason not to read something, not to think about something, not to learn something new, you’re not a good skeptic.

Posted in Academia, Generalist's Work, Oath for Experts | 5 Comments

Some Work Is Hard

Dear friends, have you ever felt after reading an academic article that annoyed you, hearing a scholarly talk that seemed like nonsense to you, enduring a grant proposal that seemed like a waste of money to you, that you’d like to expose that entire field or discipline as a load of worthless gibberish and see it kicked out of the academy?

You probably didn’t do anything about it, because you’re not an asshole. You realized that a single data point doesn’t mean anything, and besides, you realized that your own tastes and preferences aren’t really defensible as a rigorous basis for constructing hierarchies of value within academia. You probably realized that you don’t really know that much about the field that you disdain, that you couldn’t seriously defend your irritation as an actual proposition in a room full of your colleagues. You realized that if lots of people do that kind of work, there must be something important about it.

Or maybe you are an asshole, and you decided to do something about your feelings. Maybe you even convinced yourself that you’re some kind of heroic crusader trying to save academia from an insidious menace to its professionalism. So what do you have to do next?

Here’s what you don’t do: generate a “hoax” that you think shows that the field or discipline that you loathe is without value and then publish it in a near-vanity open-access press that isn’t even connected to the discipline or field you disdain. This in fact proves nothing except that you are in fact an asshole. It actually proves more: that you’re a lazy asshole. At a minimum, if you think a “hoax” paper shows low standards in an entire field of study, standards that are lower than other disciplines or fields of study, you need to publish your hoax in what that field regards as its most prestigious, carefully-reviewed, field-defining journal. If, for example, you can write an entire article that is not only dependent upon fraudulent citations but is deliberate word salad gibberish (and you carefully indicate your intentions as such to an objective third party prior to beginning the effort) and publish it in Nature or the Journal of the American Medical Association or the American Historical Review or American Ethnologist, etcetera etcetera, you may have demonstrated something, though most likely it would be that something’s gone wrong with the editors or editorial board of that prestigious, discipline-defining journal. If you publish it in a three-year old open-access journal with no reputation that publishes an indifferent array of interdisciplinary work across a huge range of subjects and disciplines, you’ve demonstrated that your check cleared. That’s it. Oh, also that you’re an asshole. And lazy.

Let me put it this way: if there are a lot of people in your profession who have undergone the same basic tests of professional capability that you have–they have the same degree, they have functioned as teachers and as scholars in their home institutions, they have undergone tenure review and promotion review (which includes an institution-wide evaluation), they sit alongside you in committees, and so on, then if you want to deem everything they do as completely lacking in value, as programmatically valueless, you have a hard job ahead of you. Because you’re not just arguing against one or two practicioners whose ethics or capabilities you question, you’re not even just arguing against a whole field, you’re arguing that there is something deeply systematically wrong with the entirety of your profession, with all of academia.

That hard job entails being deeply and systematically informed about the field you are attacking. You have to show an expertise that qualifies you to understand what that field is and to show how and when it established its (to you, illegitimate) place in the profession. This is important both because it is a demonstration of the profession you are trying to preserve and it is a sign of your ethical relationship to other professionals. You don’t just trash people because you have a flip opinion or you always do an eyeroll when that guy down the hall says something that you personally think is silly or risible. You don’t just trash an entire field because you read a bad article once or heard a dumb talk once. You don’t cherry-pick, especially if you’re allegedly a scientist or otherwise committed to rigorous standards of proof. You read and think about the most highly-cited, most field-defining, most respected and assigned, work in the field you dislike. If you’re going to do something like this, you have to do it right.

I’m not wild about evolutionary psychology as a field, for example. I’ve heard some work presented in that field that seems horribly weak by common social science standards. I have serious questions about the work of many of its most prominent representatives. I worry a lot about the bad uses that evolutionary psychological arguments are put to by activists, politicians and the general public. But if I set out to argue that the field should be in no way represented in academia, or that it is a fraud? I would spend a year or more reading evolutionary psychology carefully, I would think hard about the history and development of the field, I would examine its connections and affinities within its own discipline and other disciplines, I’d assure myself that there is almost no one who calls himself or herself an evolutionary psychologist who would pass muster for me, and then and only then would I go after the field as a scholarly act. Otherwise, I’d confine myself to some mild sniping and some targeted critique of specific published works that are relevant to some other claim I’m making. Because I can tell you already, knowing something about the field, that it’s got plenty of legitimacy inside of it. I may be critical of it, but it deserves its place at the table. It exists as a real and serious attempt to answer a series of important questions using a series of legitimate methods. It connects to many other subdisciplines like behaviorial economics. If I did all that work, I’d find that at best I have a critical engagement with evolutionary psychology, not the right to argue for its expulsion from the profession. Because I know this, I value its presence and I’m content if my colleagues in psychology decide that it is a field they would like to invest resources in. If I worry sufficiently about it, I will do more work so that I earn the right to have that worry become a constitutive force in arguments about legitimacy and about resources.

That’s what being a scholar is about: knowing your shit, and treating knowledge responsibly. What’s that? It’s hard to do, and you’re busy? Then shut the fuck up and get back to work. Save it for beer talk at your next professional association meeting. If you’re going to step into the public sphere, if you’re going to make judgments of value in a faculty meeting, then it’s work. It has to be done with rigor and craft like any other scholarly work, in direct proportion to how seriously you want to be taken and how serious the critique you’re offering might be.

Posted in Academia, Oath for Experts | 26 Comments

There’s No Hope For Him Now, Travis

We are at the moment.

Oh, it might take a few more crises and outrages, but the institutions of established political power in Washington–and in the interstate systems that bind Washington to the world–have arrived at their reckoning with Trump.

David Brooks, of all people, finally has an acute insight: that the entire world is obsessed with trying to figure out a man whose thoughts are just “six fireflies, beeping around in a jar”. Brooks calls Trump a child. I’m going to go with the frequent speculation that Trump is actually cognitively impaired in some serious way, that he has no real filters left and cannot control his impulses. I don’t think he or the people around him are playing ten-dimensional chess.

The moment is dangerous. Three things can happen, and only one of them is good. Two of them risk the end of everything possible and good in the American experiment.

1. The institutions of the national security state, and very possibly following that domestic justice, land management, economic authority and so on, will effectively pursue a soft coup d’etat. They will keep Trump as a figurehead, but he will be a palace captive. He will receive fake news briefings that are intended to provoke predictable tweets from him, he will be allowed to have televisions that only turn to certain channels, and so on. Visiting dignitaries will be shown to him for a handshake, and nothing more. He won’t do press conferences ever again. He’ll be photographed occasionally sitting in the Oval Office or at a Cabinet meeting. The standard recipe for an ailing dictator who needs to be visualized as still being in charge, but who is really not actually running anything. And all of the decisions that are supposed to rest on a President will in fact reside in very real terms with Cabinet officers, with White House staff, with Congress, with anyone bold enough to play the game and seize some authority. Cabinet officers will or will not work out covenants with one another to not step on each other’s toes. Palace intrigues will swirl around who is speaking with the “voice of Trump” at any given moment. These are always unstable situations with considerable potential to explode into conflict and incoherence, but the real danger is this: once this kind of soft coup is fully operationalized, it will not be easily undone later on by the election of a person who is capable of doing the Constitutionally-prescribed duties of the President. A good ruler will find it very difficult to get rid of regents who have gotten a taste for power while ruling on behalf of a previous child-king.

2. Trump himself or the people around him or his loyal base of supporters continue to insist on his retention of authority despite the fact that he’s impaired. We lurch from crisis to crisis, descending every day deeper into shared delirium. That happens too in history, is happening right now here and there around the world: people closest to the void at the heart of political power decide that they themselves are safest if they embrace that void, and amplify its capricious, random perturbations in all directions. We the People, already both mad and slightly maddened ourselves, become caregivers and captives of a mad king. We hope that all we get out of that are follies and whims to amuse later generations, and not catastrophes either caused or compounded by a mind that is vanishing down the event horizon of an imploding ego with the mass of a thousand suns. We hope to endure, to survive.

3. Or we get him out. And I no longer think that impeachment is the way to go, and not merely because the House of Representatives will never permit it under their present disposition. It’s also that at least some of the dangerous or erratic things Trump has done and will continue to do are not “high crimes and misdemeanors”. It’s not a crime for the President to violate classification: he can do it legally any time he pleases. No, I think what’s going to be needed is Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. We are going to need people in the White House, in the Cabinet, and in Congress who are willing to say that the President is mentally impaired and cannot fulfill the duties of his office. That also has some gravity to it. It is, in a way, a soft coup as well. But it preserves some semblance of Constitutional order–it does not construct an elaborate system of oligarchic bypass around a President that might endure after that President leaves office. Some Trump supporters may howl in fury at such a move, but I’m beginning to wonder whether others might not be quietly or privately relieved: they would still have sent a strong message about wanting to see dramatic changes in how the government operates, they would have proved their political strength, and they’d have a basically conservative President with a conservative Congress, very likely through 2020. It would even allow them to continue a sympathetic feeling for Trump himself: they could console themselves, believing that he’d been the right man but just at the wrong time of his life, when he was no longer able to do the job. Travis Coates becomes a man when he accepts that it’s his responsibility to kill Old Yeller, after all.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

No One Is Available To Take Your Call

So let’s think about it this way.

In a democratic society (which we increasingly are not), should an electorate be allowed to choose a sleazy, corrupt, volatile, sexually abusive, contemptuous-of-duty, lying, incompetent scumbag if the candidate embraces all of that about himself/herself, if there is nothing in any of that which is a surprise, if it’s all there in plain sight before the election? If in fact the candidate is preferred by some for those attributes, because they are expressing their feelings of contempt for the institution or government that is staging the election?

This not a novel problem in democracies, classical or modern. There are Congressional districts in the United States where voters have routinely re-elected Representatives who had most or all of these characteristics, knowing full well that this is what they were choosing. There are Presidents that came pretty close too. (With Warren Harding, voters didn’t know about his sex life or his financial sleaziness in advance.) Berlusconi in Italy fits the bill, and there are other examples all around.

The important thing is not: can people select such a person to lead, with their eyes wide open about what they are doing? Yes, they can, and we shouldn’t be able to simply re-stage the election in a non-elective manner in order to thwart them. That’s the logic of a coup d’etat.

So what makes us a government of laws and principles, then, if it’s possible to elect a person knowing them to be grossly unprincipled and approving of that? In the end, it is this: that there could be or should be some security that the enforcement of the law runs on a separate track from the choice of representatives or leaders.

If there is some reason to think that there is an independent system for holding the elected leadership accountable for actually breaking the law or for violating clearly stated rules, then there is no problem with an electorate voting for someone who has a propensity towards such violations. They’re essentially taking a risk that they will lose their preferred choice at a later date. Yes, the laws being violated or the rules broken may be exceptionally consequential (that’s why there are laws and rules!) but so be it.

The heart of our present dilemma is that there is presently no one who will hold the current elected leader accountable, or there will be no one soon. This is what I’m not sure folks are fully thinking through: there remains a kind of remnant expectation of procedural and cultural norms that functioned reasonably well in Watergate still functioning, but almost every single one of them is gone, most of them deliberately sabotaged. There are no more Barry Goldwaters who, when presented with smoking guns, will recognize an honorable obligation.

The current House of Representatives will under no circumstances of any kind initiate an impeachment proceeding, let alone actually impeach the President. He could murder a baby live on television and they would not. The majority in the House no longer respects the institution they serve or the government they represent. The Senate is unlikely to bring meaningful pressure for accountability of any kind. The Supreme Court might still have a whisper-thin majority that would make a ruling against Trump, but that ends with the next retirement or death. The Justice Department will not only be inactive, it will actively sabotage any inquiry. The Cabinet have been leashed. The press is unaccustomed to being outside the circuit of power and scarcely knows how to use what is left of its fading dominion over the public sphere.

There is no one to send a demand to. We are now alone. We, More than Half the People. The institutions, it turns out, are no better than the human beings who inhabit them, and the sun is setting on the day of people who might have upheld the institutions against their own naked self-interest or their party’s hold on political power. In a way, the only people left to send a demand to are Them, Less than Half the People, and they’re not in a mood to receive it.

Posted in Politics | 8 Comments

Legitimate Versions of Bret Stephens’ Column

There’s really two things that tipped me into cancellation, actually. One is Liz Spayd, the Public Editor of the New York Times, implying that it’s only rigid leftists who were upset with the hiring of Stephens, and that we weren’t really going to cancel for real anyway. That’s some special condescension right there, and it’s also tactically about the dumbest thing you could say to people who are pissed off. It says, in effect: go away then, we didn’t want you as readers anyway. The second was James Bennet, the editor responsible for hiring Stephens, implying that it’s liberal orthodoxy and close-mindedness to not at least listen to Stephens, and that was Stephens said is within the range of legitimate opinion. Bennet here is acting as if this is a single column rather than the hiring of a writer to fulfill a regular role on his pages. He’s also defending the content of Stephens’ content-less column and doing nothing to acknowledge that the worst offense of this column (and his past editorial writing) is the cheap sophistry of his work. I don’t dislike Stephens’ NYT column because I’m rigidly unwilling to talk about issues and problems with standard climate change science or climate change activism. I taught an entire course that compelled students to read several prominent critics of climate change science and activism, and I regularly pipe up with my own criticisms of climate change activism. There is nothing that pisses me off more than someone who just hand-waves criticism away by implying that the critics are ideologically rigid and inattentive to what was actually said. That too shows a kind of casual condescension for a readership.

So let me be clear: there are several versions of what Stephens seemed to want to say that would be completely acceptable, interesting, legitimate, as far as I’m concerned. As it stands, the column says the following:

1. We’re too certain of too many things
2. We’re too certain of too many things, especially science, because we trust in the data we have and the methods we have for collecting it, like Hillary Clinton’s campaign was
3. Because you see, some things are only about probabilities, unlike other things that aren’t
4. Climate science is only about probabilities, not certainties
5. If climate science is only about probability, not certainty, maybe we shouldn’t act on it
6. After all, we have made many mistakes in the past based on probabilities and science

Folks who read this blog regularly have certainly heard me say some similar things, though often in a very different manner and in different, more specific, contexts. And, I hope in my own case, in an actually searching and open-minded way, rather than as sophistry intended to endorse a particular political orthodoxy. The problem here with Stephens is that all science is probabilistic on some level. I could just as easily say, “There is a probability that the aspirin I take in the morning will suddenly cause an unexpected allergic reaction and I will die within 30 minutes, despite having no prior allergy to it.” It’s true! It doesn’t mean I should never take aspirin again. He makes a big move towards epistemological skepticism to open his column and then applies that skepticism in a highly limited way that doesn’t match the opening.

The column is, as Will Bunch noted, a fact-free nothingburger, intended largely to troll and annoy liberals and then to complain that they’re intolerant of alternative opinions when they get annoyed. What annoys me is a newspaper that’s marketing itself as a vehicle for truth, for ambitious attempts to understand the world, for challenging thinking, playing along with the smack-the-imaginary-intolerant-liberal game. Fuck that noise.

I want to prove that there are alternative versions of Stephens’ column that would be perfectly respectable–where I would readily concede the legitimacy of the opinion and would also regard Stephens (or any other writer) as legitimately expanding the range of what we can argue, and I would submit, most of these would be read in a similarly open-minded or appreciative (if perhaps in some cases puzzled) spirit by many “liberals”.

Epistemological Rebel

1. Do we really know anything?
2. Maybe formal knowledge doesn’t tell us what’s really true about the world and the universe.
3a. Maybe we should trust our feelings and intuitions more and act impulsively on them. (Basically, this is Romanticism and its various 20th Century descendants).
3b. Or maybe we should look for forms of faith and detachment from this world. (Basically, some forms of spirituality.)
3c. Maybe all knowledge is too entangled in the reproduction of institutional and political power. (Basically, some forms of anti-foundationalist philosophy.)
4. This applies to everything, not just climate action or climate science. What does that look like?

Hey, I grant you: this would not be popular with most readers, liberal and conservative. And it would lead in a really different kind of direction for a weekly or regular column. But all of these exist in the world, they’re possible directions for commentary. The point is that this branch recognizes that a general epistemological or philosophical complaint has to be applied generally.

Risk and the Precautionary Principle

1. A vast amount of our collective and individual action involves projections, hypothetical, models, probabilities, intuitions of risk. Not just conservative AND liberal politics, but businesses, families, etc.
2. How do we know how to map our thinking about what might happen to the costs and challenges of acting because of that thinking?
3. Case Studies guided by some consistent clearly-stated principles

E.g., a column that does this every single week, where that’s the entire focus: how do we reconcile what might happen with what we should do about it? Think of the Ethicist column in the NY Times Magazine or maybe the NPR show modelled on Freakonomics as models here. It’s completely plausible–there are a zillion things to talk about under this heading. This solves the problem of Stephens just applying this entire way of thinking once to question a single political plan, and it makes him set down some kind of consistent logic that could gore his own ox. You want to say someone’s an independent thinker, that’s what he’s got to do. This takes understanding probability, of course, and engaging directly with actual projections by climate scientists rather than hand-waving about how they use probability and so it’s not completely certain. One thing that might lead out from that engagement is that the possibility that things won’t be as bad as the mainstream projections would have it is mirrored by a possibility that things will be vastly worse.

Why Don’t People Trust Science? Or Probability? Historical Explorations

1. Science or social science have often been used in the past to justify public initiatives and governmental programs
2. Sometimes they’ve been badly wrong; sometimes they’ve been wrong in smaller and less damaging ways; sometimes they’ve been right
3. Is there anything about the cases of being wrong that we can learn from, if we review them with an open mind?
4. Do scientists need to engage publics differently with an awareness that at least some of these historical errors (or perceived but misremembered errors) are remembered in various ways?
5. Is this specifically one of the issues hampering attempts to move from climate science to climate action?

This is pretty much a kind of column theme close to my own thinking at times on this blog. I think it’s a useful approach. Maybe this isn’t quite a week-after-week theme, but it surely could support a series of 5-10 columns. The point here is to think deeply about what kinds of mistakes have been made, and what the causality of those mistakes might have been. I think there’s a range of examples and underlying causes–and probably to the discomfort of Stephens’ ideology, at least some of them have to do with the intersection of business interests, the economics of higher education, and science. E.g., they’re not “liberal hubris”, but something grubbier and more tied to the ideology of market conservatism and to governmental authority of all types and ideologies. It wasn’t “liberals” who thought it was a great idea to introduce cane toads to control agricultural pests. But this isn’t exclusively so–I’m just as willing to pile scorn on Paul Ehrlich as any Austrian economist might be.

Again, the saving grace is for Stephens or someone like him would involve not chopping off feet and hands to fit a body onto the bed of Procrustes. If a hypothetical columnist wants to argue that climate action plans and policies closely resemble past mistakes in fitting science to policy, some rich and well-chosen examples have to come into play first. Protip hint: polling during the Clinton campaign is not a rich or well-chosen example.

What’s the Debate About Probability and Projection Within Climate Science?

1. Here’s what climate scientists actually say and disagree about when it comes to making projections
2. Here’s what climate scientists actually say and disagree about when it comes to suggesting strategies for mitigation
3. How are we who are not climate scientists to decide which ideas or research to favor? How literate do we have to be to make those judgments?

If Stephens wants to really think about this just with climate science, he could learn a bit about the rather vigorous debate between climate scientists about what kinds of projections and estimations are responsible and which aren’t. And about the caution that many of them demonstrate when they try to match up their most certain projection ranges with possible strategies for mitigation. There’s a fine column or series of columns in that somewhere. But it takes actually knowing something, which doesn’t seem to be a big thing with most of the New York Times‘ regular columnists.

Is It Actually Possible To Care About the Far Future in a Real Way?
Screw It: I’m Alive Right Now and I Want What I Want

1. Nobody has really ever given up what matters to them right now for the benefit of people who aren’t even born yet
2. Seeming examples of that are deceptive (e.g., people who seem to be sacrificing for their kids and grandkids are just hoping that there will be a reciprocal benefit to them and they’ll be cared for in turn; or they are just making a big deal out of a ‘sacrifice’ they had to make no matter what anyway; or it’s about the real actual emotional relationship they have with a real actual person rather than a hypothetical future person). Etc.
3. What would it take to actually have an ethics that was more about the lives of people (and environments) that are two or three centuries ahead? What would we be like if we lived that way?


1. Who cares about a century from now? Let those people solve their own problems.
2. Look at what Americans a century ago left in our laps to solve: a ruinous war that fueled an even worse one, an unregulated and amateurish financial system that caused a global economic disaster that afflicted people for decades, resurgent racism and lynching that still haunts us today, an incoherent distinction between alcohol and other controlled substances that fueled mass imprisonment on one hand and the ravages of alcoholism on the other, etc. Were they thinking about us? No.
3. People can cope with anything, we’ll figure out a way to live with big changes and nobody will really know the difference.
4. Or we won’t, and so what? The dinosaurs didn’t figure out how to stop volcanoes erupting or how to keep comets away. This is just where our evolution led us. That’s the way it goes.

I am completely ok with either of these approaches as something to read if they’re argued in an interesting, stylistically alive fashion. The first is basically what Roy Scranton does in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene; there are other ways to work this terrain than Scranton’s. I have some sympathy for the approach that says: this is actually a really hard problem that most climate scientists and climate activists underestimate because most of them don’t really think a lot about how other people think or feel. I’m not at all sympathetic to the second approach, but I recognize its hard coherence. It’s a legitimate point of view–though its bleakness applies to way, way more than climate action. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t lend itself to having a political opinion about specific policies–it’s a kind of nihilism that works better as a literary sensibility. But I dunno, a hard nihilist who was brutal and vicious in his/her assessment of EVERYONE would be a breath of fresh air on an opinion page, a kind of 21st Century Mencken.


The major thrust here is to say: do NOT give me this guff about how sensitive snowflakes don’t want to hear unconventional thoughts or diversity of opinion. It is the laziness and conventionality of Stephens’ column that indicts it. If James Bennet is on a mission to broaden the range and form of opinions on his page, Stephens is very nearly the worst possible vehicle to accomplish that. It is as if someone said they were tired of vanilla ice cream and decided to go wild by ordering FRENCH vanilla ice cream.

Posted in Miscellany, Politics | 25 Comments

Good-Bye New York Times

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are minor issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Miscellany, Politics | 4 Comments

We Have Been Here Before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Academia, Politics | 5 Comments

Alternate Factions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

Home to Roost

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples.

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Poisons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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