The Kid With the Hammer

A certain kind of application of social science and social science methods continues to be a really basic limit to our shared ability in modern societies to grapple with and potentially resolve serious problems. For more than a century, a certain conception of policy, government and the public sphere has been determined to banish the need for interpretation, for difficult arguments about values, for attention to questions of meaning, in understanding and addressing anything imagined as a “social problem”. This banishment is performed in order to move a social scientistic mode of thinking into place, to use methods and tools that allow singular causes or variables to be given weight in relation to a named social problem and then to be solved in order of their casual magnitude.

Certainly sometimes that analysis is multivariable. It may even occasionally draw upon systems thinking and resist isolating individual variables as something to resolve individually. But what is left outside the circle always are questions of meaning that require interpretation, that require philosophical or value-driven understanding, that can’t be weighted or measured with precision. Which is why in some sense technocratic governance, whether in liberal societies or more authoritarian ones, feels so emotionally hollow, so unpersuasive to many people, so clumsy. It knocks down the variables as they are identified, often causing new problems that were not predicted or anticipated. But it doesn’t understand in any deeper way what it is trying to grapple with.

I’ve suggested in the past that this is an unappreciated aspect of military suicides since 2001, that the actual content of American wars, the specific experiences of American soldiers, might be different than other wars, other experiences, and that difference in meaning, feeling, values might be a sufficient (and certainly necessary) explanation of suicide. But that conversation never floats up to the level of official engagement with the problem, and not merely because to engage it requires an official acknowledgement of moral problems, problems in meaning and values, with the unending wars that began in 2001. It’s because even if military and political leaders might have a willingness to consider it, they don’t have the tools. It’s not in the PowerPoints, in the graphs, in the charts. It’s in the hearts, the feelings, the things spoken and unspoken in the barracks and the bedrooms. It’s in the gap between the sermons and the town meetings on one hand and the memories of things done and said in the battlefield. No one has to say anything for that gap to yawn wide for a veteran or veteran’s family–it is there nevertheless.

Here’s another example: a report on “teen mental health deteriorating”. It’s a classic bit of social scientistic reason. Show the evidence that there is something happening. That’s fine! It’s useful and true. You cannot use interpretation or philosophy to determine that truth. But then, sort the explanations, weigh the variables, identify the most significant culprit. It’s the smartphones! It’s social media!

Even this is plausible enough and not without its uses. But the smartphone here is treated as causal in and of itself, with some hand-waving at social psychology and cognitive science. Something about screen time and sociality, about what we’re evolved to do and about what we do when our evolution drives us towards too much of something. What’s left out is the hermeneutics of social media, the meaning of what we say on it and in it. Because that’s too hard to understand, to package and graph, to proscribe and make policy about.

And yet, I think that’s a big part of what’s going on. It is not that we can say things to each other, so many others, so easily and so constantly. It is the content and meaning of what we say. The structures of feeling that follow from reading a stranger with no standing in your own life pronouncing authoritatively in the genre of a social-justice-oriented “explainer” that you are commanded to do something, feel something, compared to a person with great standing in your own life providing delicately threaded advice about a recent experience that you’ve had? Those are hugely divergent emotional and social experiences, they produce loops and architectures of sentiment. Reading people who hate you, threaten you, express a false intimacy with you, who decide to amplify or redirect something you’ve said? Those experiences have an impact on a reader (and on the capacity to speak) that rests on how their content (and authors) have meaning to the reader, often in minutely divergent and rapidly shifting ways.

We blunder not in our diagnosis of a problem (teen mental health is more fragile) or even in roughly understanding an important cause. We blunder in our proposed solution: take away the smartphones! (Or restrict their use.) Because that shows how little we understand of what exactly is making people feel that their online sociality is a source of vulnerability and fragility and yet precious and important all the same. It’s not the device, it’s the content. Or in a more well-known formulation, not the medium but the message. That requires semantic understanding, it requires literary interpretation, it requires history and ethnography, to understand and engage. And perhaps change–but that takes also a different set of instruments for coordinating shared or collective action than the conventional apparatus of government and policy.

Posted in Academia, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics | 3 Comments

A Place at the Table, or the Whole Damn Dining Room?

What kind of problem is it if a substantial minority of a community’s citizens are deeply and persistently opposed to a policy that the majority support? It is, among other things, a political problem. I found myself in an argument on Twitter with Damon Linker in which he cast himself as defending that proposition against critics like myself or Daniel Drezner, whom he suggested are content to ignore this kind of political problem.

Quite the contrary: worrying about this exact problem is a persistent theme for me at this blog. Which is why I don’t think Damon Linker or Ross Douthat or Rod Dreher are in fact being honest in their professed concern with this problem. I think they’re using that concern as a form of opinion-laundering, as a vicarious way to advocate positions that they’d rather not attribute to themselves.

Why should anyone worry when a democratically-constituted body of any size finds that there is a substantial minority opinion that is persistently excluded from decision-making or policy formation? At what point is that a concern?

It is not, for example, a concern immediately after when two or more factions disagree with one another on the cusp of an important decision and ultimately, one faction loses out in a vote. It is not a concern because the concerns of the losing faction may disappear or erode over time if the majority’s preferences are enacted and produce good outcomes. In many all-male colleges in the United States that shifted over to co-ed admissions between 1955 and 1975, there was considerable opposition from some faculty and alumni, almost all of which evaporated rapidly after their various predictions of negative consequences turned out to be absurdly untrue or out of touch with the wider society.

It is only a concern when that strong disagreement turns out to be persistent and when it conditions the relationships between different factions across the totality of their political participation and social interactions. People persistently disagree about whether cilantro is delicious, but unless you’re a maniac who puts it on everything you serve to other people or a person who throws a cilantro-covered taco back at your host’s face, it’s a divide that has little meaning.

When there is a strong, persistent and meaningful division of this kind, what does the majority owe to the minority faction? And what is the minority faction entitled to do about it?

This is the juncture where I think there’s bad faith—or at least wild inconsistency—involved in a certain kind of performative swoon about the alienation of white voters who want dramatic restrictions on immigration. Bad faith of several different kinds, in fact. First, because the question of why one should be concerned has both a practical component and an ethical component that should need some degree of consistent attention. Second, because the solution to this concern is by no means, “Give the minority what they want or else”.

Why is this a practical problem? Basically, because we assume that convictions held by a substantial minority that are wholly unrepresented in the policies or decisions of a body politic eventually lead to that minority leaving if they can or an uprising if they can’t.

There are a few cases where schism is a fine if still often upsetting outcome, say, in a church or non-profit organization where both groups will be happier under their own banner. There are cases where schism is something no one has ever found a way to do easily: nations and states don’t fission easily. If they can’t leave, then an uprising or civil war is bad for everyone.

But note that in both cases, the commitment of the minority group to their convictions has to be sufficient that they simply cannot abide life under the policies of the majority, and that they are potentially happy to get their way in their own organization, community or country. They can’t have their cake and eat it too—they can’t insist that not only do they have to have their own way, they have to have it over the majority. Because at that point, the practical problem doesn’t abate. It gets worse, in fact: there is nothing more explosive in practical terms than a minority faction that controls the policies that a majority strongly oppose. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to perturb Damon Linker or Ross Douthat or any of the other people wringing their hands in public right now about immigration policy. If they’re worried about what a minority frustrated by not getting their way might do, they ought to worry doubly about what a majority that doesn’t have their views proportionately represented in policy might do. In practical terms, that’s much more threatening and dangerous.

In ethical terms, what does a majority owe to a minority? Consideration and engagement, at least. Where it is possible to devolve or schism authority to allow a minority faction to do as it wills in some limited or bounded space of authority, that might be an ethical as well as practical gesture. There are also structures for deliberation in democratic communities that do a better job at checking or modifying majoritarian authority than simple decision rules that give 50.01 percent unlimited authority to determine all outcomes. The United States has federalism and it also has a government where authority is divided on purpose between different branches as a gesture in that direction, and that’s by no means the only way to erode majoritarian power. The reason this is an ethical obligation as well as a practical one is pretty easy to come by. If you’ve ever been outvoted persistently in a group to which you belong, you recognize that your membership in that group very quickly stops feeling like a fair, equal and human relationship. At some point that stops feeling like democracy and starts feeling more like domination. It matters little if you get to cast a vote if there is never any chance whatsoever of the majority respecting your views. I actually agree that we’re not making a good and patient case for pluralism to many people around the world now. There is some obligation to make this conversation a better conversation, and to not simply shout people down: that’s another thing I’ve been saying for more than a decade through this blog.

Just as in practice, though, this is a two-edged sword. A minority view that fails to understand itself as a minority view, that thinks of itself as a majority view that has fallen on temporary hard times, is prone to demand consideration beyond what it has any right to. If I show up as an atheist in a church congregation in my small village, and I ask people to consider me as a human being who has arrived at my own spiritual views with great care, I might be entitled to that consideration. I might even ask for an opportunity to address the group once in a while. But if I demand the pulpit for five minutes every Sunday because otherwise I’m not represented in any of the proceedings, I’m asking for something I have no right to have. I’m not even entitled to some fixed share of the decisions that are made in a democracy, because that undercuts the whole idea of the body politic deliberating together. If we make decisions according to a pie chart in which everyone gets a designated percentage of the decision, we’re not one organization or country, we’re loose association of separate organizations or countries with no right to make demands of one another in the first place. Whether I’m in the majority or minority, I have to be prepared to not have my will enacted sometimes if I’m even remotely serious about democratic decision-making.

This is where I really think Linker and Douthat and others show how little they actually believe in the line they’re slinging about immigration and the views of a faction of white voters. Because the answer to the problem of a persistent minority view is not to always make sure that some aspect of that view is encoded into the end decisions, to ensure that all decisions have something for everyone built into them. The first duty is to ask: who are we dealing with here, and why is it that they’re outvoted? It’s to investigate, and witness. So, let’s say, a population who’ve been systematically excluded from power for profoundly illiberal reasons, because of their ethnicity or race or religion or gender, not because of the content of their views? That requires taking what they say seriously in new ways. A minority who’ve been excluded because they were once the shapers of policy and the majority decided they shouldn’t be? That’s a different consideration. If you’ve actually made policy and you failed or were rejected, then you’re not entitled to the same consideration. If you made policy and you just make it somewhat less—-rather than being excluded completely—-you’re not entitled to the same consideration. If you’re excluded because what you advocate is the destruction of the existing order in its entirety—-you’re not entitled to the same consideration.

Moreover, what on earth do Linker and Douthat and similar writers think is “exclusion”? Even before Donald Trump took office, it was not the case that people who wanted limits on immigration were excluded from the making of immigration policy. The Obama Administration was in fact more aggressive than its predecessors at deporting illegal immigrants. Border controls have been enforced fairly stringently for the last twenty years, and they weren’t exactly porous before that. If you push through, it turns out that what Linker and Douthat really mean is that people who want tight limits on immigration in order to maintain racial and ethnic purity feel as if they’re not welcome to say so in mainstream public discourse. Meaning, it’s not the lack of actual controls on immigration that’s at issue here, it’s the idea that there should be a “place at the table” for the underlying racial and ethnic rationale behind particular limits on particular kinds of immigrants—and that anyone who disagrees should be obligated to be polite in their disagreement.

In a democracy, not every excluded constituency with an opinion has equal status. It’s not a damn equation, it’s a history. Former slaveowners in 1875 still had opinions about slavery that were unreconciled to the new birth of freedom envisioned by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. They were owed nothing, and it is the everlasting shame of the United States that they were given so much they were as Reconstruction crumbled and failed. It doesn’t matter what their percentages were: the point was that the Republic was or should have been on that point committed to a new understanding of its foundations.

This is where the special pleading that Linker and Douthat and Dreher and others are indulging is laid bare. Because they are not equally concerned for every 25% of opinion that is left unfulfilled by majority opinion. They’re not concerned for the many desires of the American majority, let alone various minority factions, that have gone thwarted for forty years and have “no place at the table” in the making of national policy: for campaign finance reform, for gun control, for reproductive rights, for generous funding of public education. They’re not as concerned for making sure that Black Lives Matter or the Green Party has a place at the table and a share of policy. This is not a generalized practical or ethical position that they are taking, in which every thwarted minority faction that has strong, persistent views needs to be incorporated generously into the making and discussing of national policy. It’s only one group that counts: aggrieved white conservatives who want to control the future demography of the United States so that it remains majority white.

Linker has been beating this drum for a few years: that it ought to be possible and legitimate to have a “particularist” preference—to want to live in homogeneous communities. He likes to attribute this view to those other people whom he just wants to have a place at the table rather than advocate that particularism himself. But he doesn’t really mean all kinds of particularism, just this one particular particularism. What goes uninvestigated is whether that is in fact what whites who want strong restrictions on legal and illegal immigration are in fact seeking. Because it’s actually fairly easy within the present United States to move into racially homogenous communities if that’s all you’re after. Pack your bags and head to Idaho or Oregon or Vermont, they’re very white. Why is that not good enough? Because what we’re talking about aren’t genuinely particularist aspirations for cultural homogeneity. They’re not genuine separatism. They don’t want to build something that expresses some distinctive or special culture and requires discipline to do so. That’s what the Amish do. That choice is already available to any group of people in the United States who feel strongly enough about the maintenance of a distinctive way of life. There is already a “place at the table” for that kind of particularism. What the people that Linker and Douthat are pleading for want is heterogeneity, but where they hold a structurally-guaranteed upper hand. They don’t want an end to Latinos cleaning the toilets and washing the dishes in the towns and places they live.W hat Linker’s objects of sympathy want is the ad hoc power to exclude, expel, and control people that they arbitrarily decide are a threat to their own status. To have a few Mexicans or Laotians or blacks, but not too many. To have people who are racially or culturally different around as long as they keep it quiet and out of sight, or as long as that difference is something that the whites like: a restaurant, say. There isn’t a philosophically coherent or consistent argument about a desired way of life that can be given a place at the table behind all of this, beyond the desire to maintain a form of power over racially defined others, to seek a permanent guarantee of their second-class citizenship.

Which once again casts this all in a different light. Perhaps one thing a democracy shouldn’t make a place at the table for is a desire for something other than democracy. Perhaps one thing a free society shouldn’t make a place for at the table is a desire to impose unequal restrictions on the freedom of some subset of its citizens.

Posted in I'm Annoyed, Politics | 10 Comments

A New Year

This is not the first time I’ve gone quiet on this blog simply because I was busy. Fall 2017 was in many ways the busiest semester I’ve ever had at Swarthmore: I taught two courses, I chaired my department, I became the co-director of the Aydelotte Foundation, and I sold my house and moved.

But I have gone quiet for other reasons as well. I am struggling to understand what the good of writing in public is at a time when I’m prepared to encourage others to do so.

When I began blogging in a pre-WordPress era, I was already a long-time participant in online conversation, all the way back to pre-Usenet BBSs, including the pay service GEnie. So I think I held no illusions about what were already problems of long-standing in online culture: trolling, harassment, mobbing, deception, anonymity, and so on.

Nevertheless, I started a blog for two major reasons. First, to have an outlet for my own thinking, as a kind of public diary that would let me express my thinking about professional life, politics, popular culture and other issues as I saw fit, and perhaps in so doing keep myself from talking too much among friends and colleagues. I don’t think I’ve succeeded in that, because I still overwhelm conversations around me if I’m not thoughtful about restraining myself.

The second was to see if I could participate usefully in what I hoped would grow into a new and more democratic public sphere, one that escaped the exclusivity of postwar American public discussion. I think I did a good job at evolving an ethic for myself and then inhabiting it consistently. That had a cost to the quality of my prose, because being more respectful, cautious and responsible in my blogging usually meant being duller and longer in the style of my writing.

In the end, I feel as if both goals have ended up being somewhat pointless. It’s not clear to me any longer what good I can contribute as a public diarist. Much of what I think gets thought and expressed by someone else at a quicker pace, in a faster social media platform. More importantly, the value of my observations, whatever that might be, was secured through combining frankness and introspection, through raising rather than brutally disposing of open questions. This more than anything now seems quaintly out of place in social media. I feel as if it takes extreme curation to find pockets of social media commentary given over to skepticism and exploration, through collectively playful or passionate engagement with uncertainty and ambiguity.

More complicatedly, the more I am tied to my institutional histories and imagined as being a “responsible agent” within them, the harder it gets to talk frankly about what I see. It was comforting to think that almost no one read my blog and almost no one cared about it, in some sense. Now I’m only too aware that if I speak, even if I’m careful to abstract and synthesize what I’m observing, I can’t help but seem as if I am testifying about the much larger archive of real experiences and painful confidences I have been entrusted with. If I abstract too much, I find that friends and colleagues politely gaslight me: I can’t have seen what I think I’ve seen. But I can’t be more direct, and I don’t want to be. Trying to observe real stories and real problems with some degree of honesty can curdle into the settling of scores, and can tempt people–older white men especially–into a narrative of institutional life in which they are always the heroes of the story. Some stories and experiences explored honestly end up with everyone muddling through with good intent; others end up implicating everyone in certain kinds of bad faith or short-sightedness, including the people doing the exploring.

This brings me to the second goal: to be part of a new and more democratic public sphere. I have been for thirty years a person enthusiastic about the possibilities and often the realities of online culture. I am losing that enthusiasm rapidly. It’s not just that all the old problems are now vastly greater in scope and more ominous by far in the threat they can pose to participants in digital culture, but that there are new problems too. The threat to women, to people of color, to GLBQT people, is bigger by far, but even as someone who has all sorts of protections, I find myself unnerved by online discussion, by its volatility and speed, by the ways that groups settle on intense and combative interpretations and then amplify both. I remember only dimly that for a long time I saw myself as trying to create bridges in conversations to online conservatives. With a blessed few exceptions, those conversations mostly felt like agreeing to trust Lucy to hold the football steady one more time, like being the mark in a long confidence game whose goal was to move the Overton window. What did I think I was doing talking to David Horowitz, for example? Or writing critiques of ACTA reports as if anyone writing them cared remotely about evidence or accuracy? And yet I’m not feeling that much more comfortable about online conversation with people with whom I ostensibly agree or among whom I have allegedly built up long reservoirs of trust. That sense of trust and social groundedness felt very real as recently as five years ago, but now it feels as if the infrastructures of online life could pull any foundation into wreckage in an instant without any individual human beings meaning or wanting to have that happen.

I almost thought to critically engage a recent wave of online attacks on a course being taught by my colleague here at Swarthmore. I even tried one engagement with a real person on Twitter and for a brief moment, I thought at least the points I was making were being read and understood. But the iron curtain of a new kind of cultural formation snapped down hard within three tweets, and it was difficult for me to even grasp who I had been talking to: a provocateur? an eccentric? a true believer? The rest of the social media traffic about the issue was rank with the stink of bots and 8chan-style troublemaking. Even when it was real people talking, even if I might be able to have a meaningful conversation with them in person if I happened to be in their physical presence, nothing good could come of online engagement, and many bad things could instead happen.

So I need to think anew: what is this space for? What’s left to say? Public debate, per se, is dead. Being a diarist might not be, but I will need to find ways to undam the river of my own voice.

Posted in Academia, Blogging, Politics, Swarthmore | 12 Comments


Gun control has long been one of the things I feel least intensely about in terms of issues. The reason is both that I don’t see the point of pushing it in a country where there is sufficient electoral math against it and because I understand why at least some of the gun-affectionate react so strongly when the rest of us demand sensible restrictions. It’s not that the restrictions (licensing, registration, mandatory training, constraint to hunting weapons) are unreasonable outright, but that guns signify culture, and those of us who want guns restrained tend to surround our demands with surplus amounts of performative contempt for the cultural worlds of the people who own guns.

But enough. Enough.

Who are the “special snowflakes” of early 21st Century America, the people whose underwear is too tight, who are too sensitive about everything, who can’t take even the least criticism? No, it’s not some exquisitely tuned 20-year old leftist at a selective private college. It’s the cultural right, the people who curl up into a Rush Limbaugh-endorsed fetal position every time anyone says even the slightest thing that perturbs the preciousness of their world. I get that everyone in all the wide world feels entitled to the integrity of the lifeworld in which they have grown and thrived as human beings. But that entitlement has its limits, and they are at a minimum the classic limits of liberalism: swing your fist if you must, but stop at my nose. In fact, stop well short of it. Right now we have a minority of people in the United States who insist that they can still flail wildly long after they have pummeled everyone else bloody.

If America is not great, it is not for a lack of attention to our sensitive right-wing snowflakes. They said: hands off our guns. Well, we stand now at the moment of the most intense judicial restraint on any attempt to restrict gun ownership and use in the history of this republic. They said: lower our taxes! We are the least taxed liberal democracy on the planet, we are 37 years into a national regime of ceaseless tax reduction. They said: cut the welfare state, get rid of the safety net! The safety net has been cut, the great revolution of the late 19th and early 20th Century in favor of public goods is nearly totally undone. They said: stop teaching our children what we don’t want them to know. Creationism is back in schools, the government is actively hostile to science, it’s ok for the top leaders of this country to endorse historical falsehoods and insist they be taught to the nation’s children. They said: we’re too free to see pornography and get divorced and live together outside of marriage and take drugs. And where is it that pornography is most popular and adultery flourishes and opoids and meth take hold? In Trumplandia, where people apparently need the Nanny State to stop them from doing what they blame on others who do it far less. They said: stop crime at all costs! And thirty years later, they’re still afraid in a country that locks up more of its own people than any other comparable nation, that allows cops to kill black men with impunity.

Basta! Enough! If America needs to be great again, it first needs to stop letting the people who love that slogan have their own way. They’ve been almost entirely in charge during a thirty-year project of degradation and loss. They’ve had their own way most of the time. I remain sensitive to how it feels to think that the world is changing and you didn’t decide to change it. I remain aware that liberals, broadly speaking, might be said to have spoken a language of unseemly triumphalism in the late 1970s and 1980s–often on behalf of and alongside people who had been victimized profoundly by this nation for the previous three centuries, mind you–but seriously, this is small beer.

What is not small is the catastrophe of this historical moment. That a nation with so much possibility, so much hope, so much to give to the future, should be now gripped so tightly by cruelty, fear and triumphal malice is one of the great tragedies of human history to this point. The President exemplifies it, but he is not where it all comes to rest. It comes to rest with the people who at every turn and at every moment bare their lightly bruised flesh and insist, against all common sense, that they bleed from stigmata. Who look to every pointless massacre that they wish to excuse and call for prayer, but turn to every other pointless massacre that they wish to curse and call for suffering.

Peace! Let us turn to all the killing and say enough! Let us turn to all the corruption and say let us demand more of all our leaders, and of ourselves! Let us say of all our riches, surely we can share some larger portion of them and re-knit our safety nets, remake our publics! Let us say to all our trespasses that we forgive them–but in expectation of forgiveness, urgently expected. For the time is very nearly here when all hearts will be hardened, because no forbearance is forever.

Posted in Politics | 10 Comments

Chasing Tails

I appreciate the need to feel optimism, to think this is all coming to an end soon, a good end secured by the remorseless force of law or by the rising of a core of American decency or by radical resistance. I rocket in circles, passing that same point of optimism in my own thoughts every circuit. But I pass other points, too.

One is a point of profound despair. That Trump and all that comes with him is not a momentary slip out of history but instead as much a culmination of the worst of American and global history over the last two centuries, the vengeful sequel to the seeming accomplishments of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This is why I get irritated with radical potshots at pessimistic writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. To be unwilling to credit the possibility that there *is* no politics that can make permanent some kind of justice and change is to give way to a left-wing version of the Green Lantern Theory of Politics, that it’s only about will, that all we need to do is clap our hands and say that we do believe in progress, we do. Now maybe it’s not so. Maybe this is just a bad moment, or one more barricade to climb, one more movement to organize. But you can’t refuse to face the worst thoughts. They are hauntingly possible.

And one other point in the whirling spiral of my own thoughts is less about where this is going and how it will all turn out in the end. All I feel on opening up the news or social media is just humiliation, pure and simple. I’ve said before that Trump is a kind of desecration of everything I’ve valued and everything I do at work and in life. I don’t feel disagreement with him, which is what I would have said about almost any conservative (or liberal or leftist) with whom I have disagreed up to this moment. It’s not merely that it is pointless to imagine a “debate” with what Trump says. What he says is not even an idea or belief with which I must reckon and answer. It’s just a rude violence, a kind of pissing on the face of the country. That he speaks for my country, my people, my culture, that he dares to claim that he’s representing a country whose history he soils with every filthy tweet, is something I abominate in my deepest heart.

When my own mental circuit comes round another quarter of its rotation, I know again that there’s an America out there that stands behind him–easily or uneasily, proudly or with inner shame, I don’t know–and I know I need to find my way to understanding them and living with them and thinking about what might make for peace between us all. But somewhere on the way, I’m going to need at least some of them to recognize what they did to all of us in 2016. They didn’t elect a leader of a nation. They elected vengeance and cruelty, they elected bullying and cowardice. They broke faith with democracy and justice and fairness. They stopped believing they had any responsibility to anyone and anything besides personal gratification. They stopped doing the work of citizens and neighbors. I don’t care what you think has been done to you, or what you fear. I don’t care what you think you’re losing or have lost. In any human vision of moral life, in all of them, to answer insult or loss thus is to commit evil. The burden on us, whenever–if ever–this comes to an end, will be not to respond in kind. And yet, if power passes around again, all I know is I want an end to this accursed cycle, whatever it takes.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

On Harvard and Admission

Longer comment tomorrow, if I have time; and maybe also on the debate over the essay “The Case of Colonialism”. But in the interim, a quick thought on Harvard not admitting a promising student.


Considering that Harvard is in extremely dire financial circumstances, and that none of its faculty have the protection of tenure, I can well understand the fear of what Fox News, an outlet well-respected and beloved of professors and educated people everywhere, might say. Courage to do the right thing is a luxury when you’re really up against those kinds of very difficult constraints. Now if I had tenure and was working for the wealthiest university on the planet and none of my colleagues gave a fig what Fox News thinks and I worked on African-American history and specifically extolled the courage of abolitionists, well then, I might think differently! But let’s be fair.

Posted in Academia | 1 Comment

Game of Rewrites

As we arrive at the end of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, much of the credit given to its showrunners for significant improvements to Martin’s original draft of the story has to be qualified by the revelation that when they’re not working from his rewrites, they do a terrible job. With the one exception of the “Loot Train Battle”, this season has been about as much fun as watching slides from a good friend’s vacation. Sure, there’s some pretty locations, sure there’s some gifted images here and there in the show and sure, it’s great to see our friends having a great time in an interesting place. There is, however, no actual story. We, the slide watchers, have very little context for some of what we’re seeing. “Hey, that’s where Jenny almost fell off the cliff! Too bad I didn’t get a picture of that.” “Hey, that’s the restaurant we ate at that had the most amazing tuna crudo, but I didn’t get a picture of it.”

Aaron Bady brilliantly sums up how bleakly bad the direction of this season has become.

You might say: but they have to finish it up! They can’t possibly go for another six seasons at the same pace! Or you could be like the director of episode six, Alan Taylor, and say “Oh, who cares about distance and plausibility, you guys all love the show no matter what.”

I felt compelled after watching episode six to draft a completely plausible rewrite that would: a) fit in the same number of episodes; b) be no more expensive than what was on screen; c) require no one to act like an idiot or to do things that are wildly implausible.

So here we go.

This is to me the most important kind of “textual poaching”, basically how fans demonstrate a kind of ghostwriting of the main text. Not the extensions of fan-fiction or shipping, but a sober critical re-examination of how another text was possible even given the material limitations on its production.


Last season: After the Battle of the Bastards, Sansa flat out tells Jon Snow that she thinks she should be the Lady of Winterfell and he should be her general. The bannermen unfortunately screw it up and proclaim Jon Snow King of the North. He tries to appoint Sansa instead but they won’t have it. Sansa begins to brood and plot on how to become Queen, believing Jon is simply too much of a fuck up as a political leader. (Davos tells her about the events at Castle Black.) A minor adjustment, but an important one.

Episodes 1-3:

Arya kills the Freys. She visits Hot Pie while trying to decide what she’s going to do next, and hears about the current events at Winterfell, resolves to go there.

Daenerys lands at Dragonstone. She very sensibly moves her Dothraki and Unsullied primarily to the mainland and has them range threateningly towards the southeastern edges of King’s Landing. Her Tyrell and Dornish allies insist she immediately assault King’s Landing. Tyrion and Varys point out casualties and genocide and all that. The Tyrells and Dornish, annoyed, say that they’ll siege KL from the west, and when they’re in place, she’ll close the trap to the east.

They question Tyrion’s reliability and loyalty and demand that he prove he’s safe by sacking Casterly Rock. He agrees rather enthusiastically–he’s always hated the place anyway. DT and Tyrion agree to send some Unsullied fast march. Tyrion cautions against sending Tyrell and Dornish forces via ship, because “there’s an enemy fleet out there, we think”. Ellaria and Yara ignore him–what a twerp.

Euron ambushes them. The Unsullied take Casterly but they’re under attack from the sea–and they’ve got no artillery because the castle’s been stripped. Cersei and Jamie wipe out the Tyrells. DT despairs–are there no good allies for her in this shitty place?

Jon Snow, meantime, broods about zombies and sends *Davos* south to beg for the Dragon Queen’s help. To Sansa’s frustration, Jon Snow won’t talk much with his bannermen or give inspirational speeches–she has to do all the politicking. There are bannermen who are beginning to doubt–they don’t believe in the zombie thing, they think somebody’s got to solve the food thing.

Arya returns. She’s a bit disconcerted to find Sansa more or less in charge. Jon welcomes her but is plainly distracted and disconnected.

Sam’s plot as-is, including the magical Mormont cure, which is delivered by the end of Ep 3.

Episode 4:

Loot Train. Mormont arrives at Dragonstone and there is much rejoicing. Davos arrives and DT and Tyrion wonder if they have a two-front battle on their hands or an even better alliance than they had before. But he wants help with zombies! This is stupid! Daenerys finally agrees: she won’t go herself with her dragons, because who knows what the dangerous Cersei Lannister might do. She says: ok, I will send my very best friendzone Jorah Mormont north to investigate. If he says: there are zombies! Yow! Then I come with dragons.

Davos says: ok, I will come back too–but first I want to go fetch a kid from KL that I know, and I’ll smuggle a message to Jamie Lannister written by Tyrion telling them to surrender, put ’em off guard, right? Jamie Lannister receives the letter. Qyburn later steals it from him and shows it to Cersei.

Sam leaves the Citadel.

Sansa decides to have a disloyal bannerman punished harshly when he is heard openly speaking against the Starks. (Littlefinger put him up to it.) Arya witnesses the punishment without seeing the original provocation and becomes convinced that Sansa is damaged and is endangering the Starks.

Episode 5

Guess who’s coming to dinner? The Hound, Beric and Thoros show up at Winterfell. Sansa and Brienne do not trust them, throw them in jail. Arya is conflicted. But spying around she begins to discover what is making the bannermen restless: it’s Littlefinger. She consults with Sansa and hears the truth about what happened in Episode 4. She and Sansa ponder what to do–they can’t displace Jon or act completely independently of his nominal authority! But Jon won’t talk, he’s still obsessing about the zombies.

Davos, Jorah and Gendry show up. They decide to go to Castle Black with Hound, Beric, Thoros to show Jorah some zombies. Jon insists he has to come. Sansa is worried–does she have the authority to hold off the restlessness, esp. if Littlefinger is up to no good? But the Knights of the Vale are especially uncertain in their loyalty, and she needs them.

Jon and Company leave for Castle Black.

Bran returns about two hours after they leave and does all the weird stuff about seeing his sister’s trauma, etc. Littlefinger gives him the dagger and gets freaked out.

In meantime, Dany roasts the Tarlys and Tyrion is of many minds.

Cersei and Jamie have a conversation about a baby and loyalty.

Episode 6

They get to Castle Black. There’s a guy dying of cholera. Dolorous Edd says, wait a day to see a zombie. Jorah sees a zombie and says, fine, let’s send the raven to DT. The horn blows. There’s a giant army of a million zombies at the gate. They change the message to the raven, HELP NOW.

DT comes north with three dragons–Jorah says! And yeah, zombies are real, she roasts them, and then, bam! the Night King wounds but doesn’t kill Viserion.

The Magnificent Seven go out the gate in a doomed attempt to save the wounded dragon by keeping the zombies off of it. Much battle, DT is freaked out and just stays perched on the wall in terror. But after Thoros dies and some redshirts she sees that Viserion is going to die no matter what. She risks it and goes in with Drogon to choppa them out. They all get on the dragon–including dumbfuck Jon Snow–and the Night King gets ready for his second kill of the day. Then Benjen shows up and does the heroic last stand thing and distracts him. DT and the Magnificent Six escape intact on Drogon. They fly to Winterfell to confer.

When they arrive, the castle has erupted into unrest because Littlefinger has made his big play–he’s trying to force Sansa to marry him and to overthrow Jon. Littlefinger didn’t really plan on two dragons arriving, though.

Episode 7

Cold open: Arya takes out Littlefinger. Sansa and Li’l Mormont talk the bannermen down. Jon bends the knee to DT, DT appoints Sansa Queen of the North and asks Jon to come with her south as her chief general. They do goo-goo eyes at each other and then sneak away that night to consummate their relationship.

Ravens arrive: Euron has landed Iron Islanders at Casterly Rock to kill the Unsullied, Cersei is burning all the crops of the Reach and the Riverlands to force everyone to surrender. DT decides she has to go south and try to convince Cersei to sign a truce, and to bring Jon Snow with her. Jon surprises everyone when he leaps on Rhaegon and is able to ride him. Suddenly, Bran rolls into the courtyard to explain the real story and suddenly Sam and Gilly show up to say, “Yeah, that’s it man, it turns out Jon is a Targ.” Jon and DT look at each other and realize that they are nephew and aunt.

Just then, everyone senses that something strange has just happened–the winter wind blows insanely, there’s a bizarre light in the skies, and an odd howling noise. Turns out the Night King just used zombie Viserion to destroy the Wall. Castle Black is a ruin.

Jon and DT tell Sansa: you hold out as long as you can. We’ll be back with the biggest army we can get and two dragons. Sansa, Arya, Sam, Beric, etc., get ready for a big last stand. The Hound asks to go south–“I hear my brother is still around, the cunt.”


Posted in Popular Culture, Sheer Raw Geekery | 1 Comment

When In Truth Did We Win Anything?

Progress is dead.

In the same sense that Nietzsche spoke of the death of God, only to be habitually misunderstood by the same kinds of people that misunderstand Einstein saying that God does not play dice with the universe. The question Nietzsche had was how it might be possible to retain some consistent vision of values or ethics in the absence of a belief in God as the unquestioned authority over such values. The whole point was to find some deeper, more robust way to sustain those values.

So what “progress” is it that has died? The kind that people–primarily white, educated and liberal people–told themselves had already been accomplished and would inevitably continue to be accomplished. Progress as slightly smug self-congratulation is dead. Progress as the accomplished work of an earlier generation of almost mythical heroes is dead. Progress as irreversible is dead.

The aspirational content of progress is not, any more than ethics and morality were dead with “God”. We just have to find a deeper way to work for those aspirations and to never assume that they are final, finished work if they appear, however briefly, to be an animating part of our public institutions and civic lives.

So what does this mean as a revision of the more smug style of telling the history of the modern world? It does not mean that we must tell the opposite history: that the last two centuries have been a never-ending catastrophe of anti-progress, that nothing has ever changed, that a nightmare that began in 1492 has continued uninterrupted and undifferentiated ever since. That is the same kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was desperate to avoid as the concept of God lost its status as the secure guarantor of moral claims.

We have no grounds for complaining about the failures of our present if we did not somewhere develop an understanding of what a better world would be like. That understanding has risen out of experience and experiment, out of actions taken and institutions remade. It has been and remains real. If we tell ourselves that nothing has ever changed, we are also telling ourselves, whether we mean to or not, that nothing ever can change.

The weariness that is settling over most of us–even people who long have been bowed under by the weary awareness that the promise of progress has never been fulfilled–is because we now know that anything that does change can be changed back again. Slavery was abolished, but it can be resurrected. In corners and shadows in our world, it has been. One form or another of legal racism has been edited out of the laws, but it either marches on regardless of the law or the law falls into the hands of people who would perpetuate racism. One group of people arises who reject injustice, but another group finds their way to injustice and they baptize themselves in its foul pools. There are no procedures or rules or systems that prevent the renewal of social evil. There is no philosophy or belief which is self-proving and secure against its half-hearted adoption by insincere and doubtful adherents.

Trying to figure out what in the human past is so thoroughly past that it will never come again is a fool’s errand. Trying to think of the past as an atavism that erupts somehow into a present full of progress is equally foolish. We don’t carry a terrible past inside of us like a parasite. We make new futures of terror and beauty from what we have been, but also from what we are. There’s always a new way to be terrible. The torch-bearers of Charlottesville are not mocking ghosts who can only briefly haunt the living. They are terrible children, familiar fathers, the man next door, the face behind the counter or the voice on the phone. New and urgent, but also known burdens, the rock that we sisyphi push up the hill and that veers to crush some of us–always the same some–reliably and repeatedly on its way back down.

Progress is not a machine programmed to arrive at a predestined utopia. It is not an arc that bends towards justice like the rain falling to the force of gravity. It is a twisting road we must walk in a never-ending maze of twisting roads. We walk it because we ought to, not because we’ve been given assurances of getting to the other side.

Posted in Politics, Production of History | 10 Comments

Recipe for Coalition: 1. Add Recognition, At Least Half a Cup.

David Atkins at Washington Monthly has a point about what progressives, Democrats and anyone else who is dismayed by the current political situation in the United States has to do.

It’s entirely possible that at a grassroots level in many parts of the country, the advice is unnecessary because it’s long since been taken. It’s hard for me and maybe many to tell whether online sniping between pundits, Twitter feeds, Tumblr blogs and so on has anything at all to do with how most people live and inhabit their political choices.

Assuming for a moment that there’s either some resemblance between the tensions expressed in the public sphere and those felt on the ground, or that the public sphere has the potential to eventually impose its discourse on others, then there is a basic understanding of coalition politics that is being entirely sidestepped by many people. I’ve complained before about a version of this point, that the discourse about “allies” in identity politics doesn’t really recognize what an alliance is. You don’t expect allies to be identical to your own party or movement–and you only are interested in allies when you have to be, because there’s no other way to realize your own political aspirations.

In the context of the current debate, if we can call it that, between mainstream Democrats and left progressives, well, the problem is that both sides (or maybe there’s more than two) tend to think that “alliance” or “coalition” means, “I’m going to tell the other guys all the ways in which they suck, I’m going to accuse them of being racists/sexists/corporate shills/almost Republicans/cowards/delusional and then I’m going to demand that they join the coalition, which means shutting up and obeying everything we tell them to do.”

If anyone wants to make the point about working together in a helpful way that actually leads to a coalition, here’s how to start: through a generous acknowledgement of the legitimate grievances and helpful contributions of the faction or group that you do not identify with. You outline the sustaining terms and common ground for a coalition. You bracket off the issues that your side is prepared to push off to the margins and identify some of the issues that you believe the other factions will have to push off to the margins. You figure out strategically which seats or offices the other side(s) has the best chance to win, and which seats and offices your side has the best chance to win, and you offer to support all of those races equally. You acknowledge the cases where the other faction has a far better candidate in basic terms (say, in the last Pennsylvania Senate race, John Fetterman was simply a more charismatic, engaging, interesting candidate by far than Katie McGinty, period–she had no chance to beat a very beatable opponent) and you agree that you’ll try to acknowledge that kind of difference when you see it and go with the winning chance regardless.

You parsimoniously identify the two or three essential issues where candidates and spokespeople from any faction just have to satisfy you; you hope the other guys do the same.

And so on. It’s time to stop saying, “We have to work together, you whiny BernieBro crazy purist impractical nonsense faux-socialist millennial brats!” and “We have to work together, you corporate stooge neoliberal basically-Republican money-chasing scumbags!” In those cases, just skip the “have to work together” part, since it really means, “You must bend the knee to us and submit in every way”.

That, by the way, is the privilege of every political actor, from individuals all the way up to movements: to insist that they want it all, exactly as they want it. But you know what, that means one more thing: you have the power, or a plan for having the power, to make those unyielding demands meaningful. If you have the power or a plan for having the power, stop talking *to* the political factions you intend to compel or coerce into submission to your own agenda. If that’s the way it is, stop whining about Kamala Harris or Cory Booker to the mainstream Democratic Party, because you do not expect them to care. If that’s the way it is, stop whining to Sanders supporters about how they’re sexist or immature or unrealistic, because you do not expect them to listen.

Right now I don’t think that either mainstream Democrats or Sanders-aligned progressives have a plan for compelling or coercing their opposing faction, and neither do they have an awareness of the necessity of coalition and the necessary requirements for coalition. As far as I can tell, the plan on both sides is “We’ll lose again! And lose even more seats in state legislatures and Congress! And then you’ll be sorry! Then you’ll listen!”

The Tea Party had a plan that actually worked for compelling the mainstream Republican Party to obey them. I think maybe even some in the Tea Party are now regretting that. In an earlier era, the mainstream Republican Party from 1968-2000 had a plan for giving the ancestors of the Tea Party enough of what they wanted to keep them happy and in coalition. Thinking of that kind is more or less absent among Democrats, progressives and radicals. More’s the pity.

Posted in Politics | 13 Comments

On Confederate Counterfactuals

For some years, I’ve taught a course on counterfactual history. Unlike many scholarly historians, I find counterfactual history useful for a variety of reasons.

For one, I accept the argument that a number of its proponents have made that all arguments about historical causality are at least implicitly counterfactual, and that those claims can often be made more effectively if the counterfactuals are explored more explicitly. For the same reason, I think all claims about the contingent nature of historical events and about human agency in history require at least some acknowledgement of counterfactual possibilities.

I also think there are some humanists who’ve done an important job of asking about the emotional and philosophical meanings of certainty in history, about why we’re sure that certain key events or long-term narratives are inevitable or necessary. Often our need to see certain things as highly deterministic is less derived from evidence or analysis and more by a sense of our contemporary politics or values, that to acknowledge certain contingencies or uncertainties in the past is to make something in the present more fragile than we wish it to be.

I also just think counterfactuals are interesting and enjoyable and that is sufficient justification for pursuing them. I’m glad to turn E.H. Carr’s famous denunciation of the counterfactual as a “parlour game” on its head and see that as an endorsement. Counterfactuals and historical fiction both challenge the limits of historical scholarship and force historians to recognize that there are other ways of knowing, imagining and making use of the past that may require other practices of imagination and interpretation than the traditional approach favored by historians since the late 19th Century.

That said, the striking thing about actual counterfactual writing is not its imaginative character but instead how cramped and fetishized much of it is. A vast percentage of it, both by fiction writers and by scholars who’ve taken a stab at it, concerns a small handful of famous battles, a small handful of famous white male leaders, and a smattering of familiar and very Eurocentric events. Niall Ferguson, in his introduction to the anthology Virtual History, seems to think that this narrowness of focus is one of the things that recommends counterfactuals as a scholarly exercise. (He makes a fairly tortured argument that counterfactual writing is a salutary poke in the eye to Marxist-inflected social history and must concentrate on a small subset of historical actors where we have explicit evidence that they consciously contemplated several courses of action before undertaking one of them.)

One reason I think it’s worth pushing counterfactuals more generally is to ask what counterfactuals written outside of that cramped space might look like, and why we might be reluctant in some cases to undertake them. If I try to write a counterfactual analysis of the “scramble for Africa” of the late 19th Century, I immediately confront some pretty serious conceptual, political and intellectual challenges. If I confine my counterfactual to Bismarck or Cecil Rhodes or Joseph Chamberlain or David Livingstone, I’m just reproducing the old Eurocentric narratives that claim that the conquest of sub-Saharan Africa was just a kind of epiphenomenal side-effect of European history decided upon by famous male leaders. If I try to write a counterfactual where African agency produces a different substantive overall outcome, I’m in danger of “blaming the victims”, of imagining that Africans could have stopped colonialism if they’d only done something other than what they did. (And if I try to do that, I’m also up against serious limits to plausibility and accuracy, since there really doesn’t seem to have been an overall possibility of a different outcome from collective or sustained action by Africans, just variations in local outcomes.) If I argue that colonialism was completely deterministic and inevitable and no counterfactuals are possible, I put in jeopardy a whole series of nested assumptions about the moral responsibility of imperial leaders and European nations. But these all seem like valuable conversations to have, and if asking about counterfactuals as a possibility helps push them forward, good.

The other way to think about the cramped space that most counterfactuals live in is to ask why they’re so uncreatively confined to a narrow range of conjectures about what-might-have-been. So let’s take one of the two stock counterfactuals, namely, “What if the South had won the Civil War?”, which the producers of Game of Thrones have announced will be the basis of the next series they will produce. This has not surprisingly and to my mind completely justifiably produced a lot of dismayed chatter on social media.

Partly it’s because Benioff and Weiss don’t by their own admission have much knowledge about this extremely crowded field of counterfactual writing. “I read a book by Shelby Foote” does not inspire confidence. If nothing else, I’d tell them to hire some researchers stat so that they don’t end up being sued by one of about thirty authors for pretty much rehashing an existing might-have-been story. Maybe they should even option one or more of those stories: Bring the Jubilee might work pretty well. (But please god, not that awful goddamn Harry Turtledove book.)

The deeper problem is that for a subject that receives this much attention, the range of counterfactuals is narrowly confined to essentially nostalgic takes on the antebellum South, to the point of being a kind of odd side branch of Lost Cause thinking. There are exceptions, but not many. They’re also generally obsessed with battlefield analysis, Gettsyburg in particular, and Pickett’s Charge even more particularly.

If you really thought about it, here’s some other counterfactuals about the Civil War that are at least as plausible as the more typical, “The South wins and either becomes a racist nightmare dystopia that dominates the North or it becomes a genteel civilization that eventually slowly emancipates the slaves and makes racial peace”.

1. The North imposes a genuinely tough and unforgiving form of military occupation and sees Reconstruction through more thoroughly until it’s finished, resulting in an America with more racial justice and with a South that is fully reintegrated into the Union, more along the lines of post-1950 Germany or Japan. Nobody writes that one up, but it’s not completely without plausibility, nor is it without appeal. (Counterfactual fiction has a somewhat understandable aversion to writing about outcomes that were far better than the real world because of the loss of dramatic potential, but there are good examples of engaging stories that follow that path.)

2. A US where slave revolts became widespread after Harper’s Ferry (or at some earlier moment), leading to an overall collapse of public order in some slave states and subsequent federal intervention, eventually leading to emancipation without a Civil War.

3. A US where the South secedes and the North decides to let them secede but also overthrows Dred Scott, encourages fugitive slaves, and closes the border to the South and prevents westward movement. The South becomes an impoverished shithole banana republic and in the early 20th Century begs for readmission to the Union.

4. A South that is permitted to secede that then wages war on Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America and Mexico to try and secure more territory for slavery and eventually loses in a series of border conflicts, including the re-annexation of most of Texas.

5. A South which successfully sues for favorable peace after Gettysburg only to fall to a socialist revolution in the early 20th Century due to an alliance between slaves, freedmen, small landholders and industrial laborers against the old plantation class.

See, the thing you discover is that whether you’re doing fiction or you’re trying to make a careful counterfactual argument that is somewhat scholarly in nature, almost all “The South and the Civil War” counterfactuals are captive to the Lost Cause and are deeply solicitious of Southern white manhood–of the need to compliment the honor and dignity of Confederate soldiers, the legitimacy of the Confederate cause, to treat the Civil War as a noble conflict between brothers, and so on. But there are so many other stories that could be told–or conjectures that could be made. (And have been made, at least by some scholars of Reconstruction.)

So if Benioff and Weiss keep going with this, I really urge them to leave Shelby Foote behind. If they really must do this, try something else that’s really provocative for a change. I think a series where an independent South is a horrific failed state or a series where Reconstruction is genuinely harsh to good ends also would get people talking, and for once, the provocations would be aimed in a different direction than they habitually are.

Posted in Academia, Production of History | 25 Comments