Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Helen Frankenthaler, RIP

One of my all-time favorites.

still searching for an IP reform movement made up of grown ups

Julian Sanchez becomes approximately the 9 millionth Internet denizen to point out that various IP frauds aren't "stealing" in the conventional sense. He's right, there.

If you feel like you've read it before, it's because you have, dozens of times. Unfortunately, you likely haven't learned much. There's just way too much focus on this petty semantic issue. No, downloading something you didn't pay for isn't the same thing as stealing a jacket. But that doesn't mean that it has no negative impact, or that a free society doesn't have a legitimate interest in regulating it. Two things can be different, and yet each can be problematic, wrong, or contrary to the public's interest. I think the focus on the semantic issue has a simple motive: because the "downloading an MP3=stealing a CD" argument is so easily dismissed, it is tempting to keep prosecuting it and acting like one has really achieved something. It's weak manning, something Sanchez knows about.

As for disliking the term "piracy"-- well, tough. That's language. Communities adopt terms, and they don't always make sense, they aren't always fair, and we don't always like them. The very fact that "stealing" is not a term conventionally used to refer to downloading and "pirating" is tells you something about organic etymology.

I would really like it if Sanchez would expand on the point that, yes, copyright fraud is problematic. I think that, rather than telling the same story that has been told over and over again, and always to the same sympathetic audience that accepts the premises in the first place, Sanchez could carve out something new and useful. I am someone who is temperamentally and intellectually predisposed to support reform of copyright and patent laws. I think that there are many problems with copyright, patents, and trademarks. But at times I feel almost physically ejected from solidarity with others who do, because the majority of people who argue against IP online do so in such a willfully immature and unrealistic way. I can't tell you how many people I meet who say that there should be in effect no check on digital copying at all-- that everyone should have unlimited rights to copy all media and distribute it to anyone, for free and without compensation or consequence. You might imagine that I'm exaggerating, but years of experience online tell me otherwise.

When I try to point out that this would swiftly mean the end of much of the media they enjoy, they have no real response; they are stuck in the present world and can't imagine how radical a change that would be. But with perfect digital copying and no impediment to that copying, there's no profit motive to be found in producing these expensive and resource-intensive works.

And, I'm sorry, but dedicated amateurs can't produce Call of Duty; they can't produce Lawrence of Arabia; they can't produce Sgt. Pepper. The dreams of people like Chris Andersen are utopian and false. As Doug Rushkoff has pointed out, they have a lot of schemes for content generators to be paid as public speakers or "personal brand builders," but no compelling mechanism for content generators to be paid as content generators when they give everything away for free. And there's lots of negative consequences from asking every writer or musician to not be a writer of musician but a "brand." Yes, Jay-Z can get by on selling Vitamin Water and t-shirts, but the guy who actually has a new sound and not much else can't survive on free.

Also from Rushkoff: it's never actually free. If you're using Google and your ISP and your power company and your HP laptop to get this content, they're all getting paid. The fact that the costs are so small isn't the same as free, and repeated across millions of users millions of times, that means lots and lots of money... just not for the person who actually created the content you enjoy. You can check out Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, for necessary pessimism on Linux and Wikipedia; for a description of how music piracy has devastated the musical middle class; and for an analysis and a lament about the death of the artist as a profession.

So many of the grand and self-aggrandizing claims of the pro-piracy crowd have fallen away, I can't even recount all of them. I've often heard that people who pirate something and like it will later pay for it, out of a sense of gratitude and obligation. Does that seem like an accurate portrayal of reality to you? How many people, honestly, do this? I was told for years that people who stop pirating music when there were cheap and reliable ways to access music online. Well, there are now literally dozens of ways to get music online, legitimately, in a way that gives at least a little bit of money to the artist who created it, and usually quite cheaply. Hasn't stopped piracy. People insisted that people only pirate from faceless corporate behemoths. Here's someone involved with the creation of the Humble Indie Bundle, an independent game pack produced for charity and available at whatever price the purchaser determines, showing that 25% of the people who downloaded the pack did so by pirating.

You also get hit over the head with studies that show, or purport to show, the limited effects of piracy, but they are either of dubious methodology or are wielded illogically. For example, a notorious study showed that people who pirate also spend more money on music than people who don't. OK, cool. It does not logically follow that the same amount of money is being captured by the music industry to cover what is lost in piracy. Pirates can spend more on music than their non-pirating counterparts and piracy can still be a net loss for the industry. I don't doubt that many interested parties often oversell the dangers or damages of piracy, and as I said, I support some very broad reforms of intellectual property law. But the loudest voices seem to want it both ways; they make a prescriptive claim that it should be legal to take what you want for free, and then do an end run around it by making the descriptive claim, with dubious evidence, that in fact taking everything for free doesn't hurt the profit motive.

More than anything, I'm weary of the historionics and self-aggrandizement of the pro-piracy set. To read about IP online, everyone who ever downloaded "Who Let the Dogs Out?" from Limewire is a truth-telling revolutionary, smashing a decrepit corporate structure and ushering us into a golden age of free culture, where movies and games and albums descend from heaven in a celestial ball of light into the waiting arms of the IP warriors, who send the love out through the tubes to all who desire them. Any notion of a "pirates code," the old scene ideas about rules and codes that you follow in pirating, has not been disseminated to the broader groups that download media now, apart from that specific cultural moment. Here's what I think: lots of people just want the stuff for free, and don't care about the consequences.

Well, I'll come out and say it: I think that's wrong. I think that it's wrong to make a digital copy of a piece of media that someone else has made and has offered up for compensation under the explicit condition that he or she be paid for it. I don't think that this makes me (or Doug Rushkoff or Jaron Lanier or anybody) some retrograde corporate stooge. And the constant effort to wrap this discussion up in revolutionary terms is just a distraction. I also think that the constant extension of copyright lengths is shameful, that DRM is almost always a useless annoyance and waste, that patents and patent trolling are totally out of control, that there has to be considerable reworking of conventions and statutes regarding fair use and appropriation, and so on. And I think that efforts like Steam and Amazon Music offer reasons for hope. I just think if someone works hard to produce intellectual content that other people want to consume, that person is entitled to reasonable compensation for that content. Call me old-fashioned. That attitude is less broadly assumed than you might think.

In the admirably level-headed and fair post I linked above about the Humble Indie Bundle, the blogger points out that they aren't going to slap lots of annoying DRM on the games, which I fully support. But he also says this: "No -- we will just focus on making cool games, having great customer service, and hope for the best. It sure seems to be working right now!" That's great, and I'm glad. But the fact that it is largely working for them doesn't mean that it will always work out for every producer. At some point, there's going to be (and have been) content producers who run the math and find that continuing to produce a given piece of media no longer makes economic sense, due to the erosion of revenues from piracy. Then everybody loses the product that would have come next. What I want to challenge is the pleasant fiction that such a decision could never be reached, or that our broader feelings about intellectual property and piracy don't make a difference in that regard.

I'd love to see Sanchez attack this issue not from a stance of aggravation, but from a devil's advocate or self-examination position. Take the hardest line possible against his own thinking and his own preferences and see how things hold up. It doesn't hurt to kick the tires. The argument about stealing just doesn't need to be made again.

Update: The inevitable whinge, with bonus retweeting by other paid-up members of the DC politico koffee klatsch. I was unaware that saying "I wish this person would write a bit about this other facet of an issue" is beyond the pale, but as time goes on, the DC social circle only gets more dedicated to circling the wagons.

Honestly, at this point, I really consider the DC blogging corp a pathetic environment. They are so enormously sensitive to any criticism (and this wasn't even really criticism!) that doesn't come from members of their own coterie and that doesn't meet preapproved standards of ass-kissing. I genuinely cannot fathom the mind that wants to be a writer but is afraid of argument that doesn't come wrapped in praise. Then again, I'm not living it up in the DC-area fiefdom, secure in the knowledge that social connections to my purported political antagonists will blunt any criticism. The whole edifice is designed to protect its members and quiet dissent; that is its first and last purpose. What a pack of pearl-clutching cowards.

Update: Since this has come up: SOPA is total, unequivocal bullshit.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

the trouble with "progressive" (slight return)

An emailer asks
What's your beef with the term progressive? I prefer liberal myself, too, but I feel like that ship has sailed, and it is only semantics, after all. I feel that, since you're already coming from a marginal place (as you say all the time), it doesn't make much sense to look for fights to pick that don't mean anything. I don't mean to scold but I alternatively love your work and hate your self-marginalizing thing.
Well, to the broader point about my self-marginalization, you know, it's complicated, and I have little to say in my own defense. But for the subject at hand, there's two major things.

First, I tend to see the use of progressive as a capitulation. Conservatives notoriously made liberal into a bad word in the 90s. (I know this because I got a Doonesbury collection when I was 12 and read it religiously, despite knowing essentially nothing else about partisan politics at the time.) To run from the term because conservatives tried to stigmatize it is emblematic of all that was wrong with 90s-era liberal politics. I don't say that in some martyring sense, either. I'm not saying that we should have accepted the term liberal and confined ourselves to irrelevance, but rather that the refusal to fight essentially did the work for the conservatives, which again was a running theme of the Clintonite 90s. You triangulate and triangulate and before you know it you've given away the store. I have a theory of political change (which could be right or wrong) that says that people don't get inspired by political movements that don't appear inspired themselves, that people don't sign up for causes when the people espousing that cause seem embarrassed or unwilling to stand up for itself.

Second, I care because language matters. I actually disagree that the difference is entirely semantic, actually; I think that progressive has come to refer to slightly different things than liberal, in both disposition and policy stances, in a way that reflects that legacy of capitulation. And remember the etymology of progressive, with its confused relationship towards the early 20th century Progressive movement, which had some good and a lot of bad. Matt Yglesias put this beautifully in a post from several years ago (inspired by some geek commenter):

while the historically Progressives did stand for some good things, and are a part of the backstory of contemporary American liberalism, they also stood for some very bad things. Certainly, whatever sins liberalism may have committed in the 1970s as it fell into disrepute were distinctly minor compared to the problems with the Progressives.  
"Liberal," by contrast, is an important term with a noble history and a contested legacy. I think the notion that something like contemporary American liberalism is, in fact, the correct instantiation of the historic liberal project for our times is a proposition that's worth fighting for.
Words to live by.

there's just no sense in being halfway radical

Over time I've really come to see Kevin Drum as a symbol for modern American liberalism-- he's increasingly despondent and incredibly stuck. Modern American liberalism is filled with people who have righteous moral convictions that they have made totally irrelevant due to their dogged adherence to a broken system.

Take this post. It's called "How 2008 Radicalized Me," and it describes how the truly unbelievable events of 2008 (rightly, reasonably) caused Drum to become more radical. That's as natural a story as one can get; a small group of fantastically well-compensated people drove the entire worldwide economy to the brink of total collapse through their greed and incompetence. To not be radicalized in the face of such events is intellectual death. Of course, despite these events, and despite their being the inevitable consequence of our current macroeconomic policy, most people have not changed, and neither has that policy

The question is what this has actually meant for Kevin Drum in any substantive sense.

To be clear, I'm not at all a "where's the policy angle?" kind of guy. When people dismiss an argument by sniffing about "policy options," it's just about always a way to shrink the realm of the possible and discredit alternative opinion. But you'd like to get a sense of what radicalism means for Drum in context here. His post doesn't offer much to indicate what kind of radical change he'd pursue.
Maybe more executives should have been fired, maybe the Department of Justice should have tossed more Wall Street traders in jail, and maybe a couple of big money center banks should have been placed in temporary receivership.
In  other words, the things that maybe should have been done in response to one of the greatest crises in the history of capitalism-- a systematic failure that resulted in incredible human suffering for those who were least responsible for it-- are exactly the things that wouldn't have created any lasting or fundamental change. A few of the actors would have been punished, but there would have been no systematic change that could have prevented the next crisis. More, there would be no challenge to the fundamental problem: that great economic resources give these corporations and individuals nearly limitless political clout, which prevents any real change or accountability. Just as the 20008 crisis resulted in essentially no reform or accountability of genuine impact.

Drum continues:
But hoo boy, what a contrast with how the rest of us were treated. Things like principal write-downs, second waves of stimulus, aid to states, and mortgage cramdown all got a bit of idle chatter but were then left to die. For some reason, it would have been unfair to hand out money to profligate homeowners, state and local workers, and the millions who have been unemployed for more than a year.
My endless frustration with this position is the notion that we our failure enact all these "regular person" programs is some preventable error, like it just sort of happened that way. I have no objection to the standard Keynesian case made by Drum and Krugman and Yglesias et al, that we could spend some government cash, loosen up our money, drum up aggregate demand, decrease unemployment, and do some limited good for a lot of people out there. I'd vote for such a thing in a heartbeat. But there's this bizarre failure to understand that these measures are not happening for precisely the same reason that no adequate regulatory power has been exercised over the banks, for the same reason that there's been no accountability for those responsible, for the same reason nothing has meaningfully changed: because moneyed interests control our system. To point out that those with vast financial assets control the Congress, the Fed, and our entire economic policy is at once to invite claims of crankery and conspiracy theorizing, and to state the painfully obvious.

Drum gets to the nut of it:
This is how 2008 radicalized me. It's one thing to know that the rich and powerful basically control things. That's the nature of being rich and powerful, after all. But in 2008 and the years since, they've really rubbed our noses in it. It's frankly hard to think of America as much of a true democracy these days.
So here's my question: what do you want to do about it? How do you rescue true democracy in the face of ever-greater capture of our political process by the rich and powerful? I've followed Drum's blog for years, but before or in the month since this post, he's offered little in the way of suggestions. He's got a lot of small-bore, CAP and WaPo-approved triangulating policy shifts, but nothing that can address complaints of this size. To me, all of this-- not just the financial crisis, but the continuing inability of our society to live up to its basic social contract-- suggests that we need actually radical reform. Moving the deck chairs simply is not sufficient anymore. You cannot overstate how close we all came to total economic collapse, yet in the face of that we have adopted terribly weak reforms.

Here's an idea: nationalize the investment banking industry. Eliminate the profit motive, removing the incentive to find ever-more-risky investment vehicles. Stop them from accruing enormous financial assets during boom times, which gives them the political power to ensure that the government will bail them out in bust times. (If you think that we wouldn't bail out BofA or Citi or any of the big ones should they start to fail tomorrow, or that they aren't busily building the next disastrous bubble, you're very naive.) Keep savings banks local, support cooperative credit unions, go the full "Sweden in 1992" on the big banks, but make it permanent. It's a start.

Of course, if Drum wanted to look in this kind of direction for real reform, he'd have to be willing to do what so many of them are unwilling to do: give up a seat at the table. The gatekeepers of liberal political discourse don't permit this kind of radicalism, and Drum would have to make a very direct trade between articulating reforms that can actually counter the problems he sees and being taken seriously by the liberal intelligentsia. (You'll note that this dynamic doesn't hold in the other direction-- Drum could advocate some radical conservative reform, like the gold standard or something, and perfectly mainstream conservatives and libertarians would stroke their chin and talk about what a bold iconoclast he is.) Drum isn't a "cocktail party at Nick Gillespie's house" kind of a blogger, but professional regard and reputation affect everybody. He is also not one of those common politicos who views politics as a kind of game or sport; he's always struck me as genuinely committed. But to be taken seriously, he can't advocate what it would take to create genuine change. So he's stuck.

In this sense he strikes me as emblematic of American liberals, or progressives, if we must use a term of defeat. Drum has articulated a radical's passion, and is hemmed in by decidedly anti-radical peers. Like many liberals, he can poignantly articulate our moral duty but can present no compelling argument for how to accomplish it.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Kevin Drum will continue to do what they all do-- chase merrily after the center as the conservatives drag it further and further to the right. I can't quite blame him. As someone who has never enjoyed influence, it's too easy for me to tell someone who does to abandon it. But over time, the gulf between the principles and goals which animates him, and the ability of establishment reforms to deliver them, will only grow. For people facing that kind of a divide, I'd say that there's three choices. Grow more despondent. Grow more compromised, and make the work of the nominally liberal the work of complaining about regulation, taxes, and impediments to "free markets." Or let your mind get blown.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

why would the AV Club review a Korn album?

That's what I wondered the minute I saw the review, by Jason Heller. Are there a lot of AV Club readers who are on the fence about buying the new Korn album?

The "F" was about as inevitable as such a thing could be. That's not even my complaint, though. It's just that I can't see any purpose for a Korn review on the AV Club beyond inviting the kind of hooting and condescension that the review and many of its comments contain. (I should point out that a commenter or two makes essentially the same point I'm making.) To me, it points to my recurring suspicion that a lot of our analysis of pop culture exists more to help people position themselves above (what they presume to be) culturally and socially undesirable groups, such as Korn fans. And that is happening with the large majority of the comments, people jockeying to see who can be more clever in declaring their superiority to those who like different media. (I tend to find that's true in any AV Club comment thread, but here it's a little more naked than usual.)

I remember being struck by the fact that Steven Hyden, in a piece explicitly worrying over this dynamic, couldn't resist saying that he "wouldn't know many of the newer bands lodged on Billboard’s top rock songs chart—Cage The ElephantAWOLNATIONFive Finger Death PunchYoung The Giant—if they walked up to me in an Ed Hardy shirt and white baseball cap and handed me a lukewarm can of Coors." Ha! Ed Hardy! White baseball caps! Coors! And all of that while ostensibly writing about the legitimacy of the popularity of those bands. It's like he can't help himself. I've always been frustrated by the idea of coastal elites who look down their noses at their middle American counterparts, in large measure because I think that phenomenon is vanishingly rare.  In contrast, cultural condescension (which has no convenient geographic or political groupings) is totally real and almost inescapable online.

sparkle motion

For awhile now I've wanted to divert my online writing energy into different directions. It would be nice to fight less. Generally at this point I have a policy where I only post something critical of someone else if it passes the "can't sleep" test. If I have something critical to say, oftentimes I can't sleep well until I post it. If I'm not moved to that degree lately I just drop it.

I would like to write a blog called Interfaces of the Word, after Father Ong, and make it a blog about writing. I find people are very dismissive of what I do academically until they actually hear what it is beyond the field's name. I would love to talk a bit about the empirical research that is ongoing, both in terms of the large, traditional educational research about broad policies, but also recent scholarship in eye-tracking and brain scans. The exploration of the unique neurocognitive processes that go into the use of specifically written language is, for me, very interesting. More often, I could write about style, and what I perceive in the trends in Internet and blog discourse, highlight writing I like, point out bad writing, do a technical discourse analysis of a specific blogger, etc. There's a lot of research out there that people don't even know exists and I think a lot of it would be of interest to the broad blogging audience.

The question is always in what form and what forum. I don't know, it never seems natural to just take this here blog and change its focus. And starting a new thing seems alternatively invigorating and exhausting. I would like to stop fighting.

Perhaps the ultimate issue is that I just don't know if anybody would be interested. That's funny, because I've never cared much about that in the past; independence tends to trump traffic. But I wouldn't want to invest myself in something new if no one was interested. This blog has always been a service to myself. I would like to change that somewhat. Another issue is that, like a lot of academics, I am fearful of writing about topics related to my research interests online, for a variety of professional and social reasons.

I don't know, we'll see.

Friday, December 9, 2011


A beautiful summation of your interactive scholarship of the past few months. I'm glad I was able to sit in and learn from your quest. -- a comment on Ta-Nehisi Coates's latest article for the Atlantic, arguing that the Civil War was not tragic.

For me, it's the same as always: the absolute refusal to consider the difference between sympathy for the South and principled opposition to war and killing makes the conversation useless. The essay is of a piece with everything Coates writes on the subject; again and again, I want to see a stance proffered on moral resistance to the act of intentionally taking human life, and instead it's a constant return to the old refrains against romanticizing the antebellum South. Well: yes, every facet of romanticizing the Confederacy is wrong and offensive. And there are many versions. But the refusal to condone killing out of a conviction that killing is always wrong is an entirely separate issue than supporting the "Lost Cause" or any other ugly trope about the South. Are Quakers allowed to oppose the killing that occurred in the Civil War? Are pacifists? Is there a moral difference between that kind of opposition and the kind that laments the loss of the Confederate way of life? I don't know, even though I've read thousands of words from Coates on the subject.

"But our general sense of the war was that a horrible tragedy somehow had the magical effect of getting us free. Its legacy belonged not to us, but to those who reveled in the costume and technology of a time when we were property."

And what of those who revel in precisely nothing about it? What of those who find the condition of slavery tragic, and any and all consequences of it necessarily tragic, including the war that ended that condition? What of those who are invested in the Greek meaning of "tragic," the sense in which unhappy events are played out inevitably as a result of a flaw in character? What about those who simply do not confuse a moral conviction about killing with attitudes towards "costume and technology?"

"But we have stories too, ones that do not hinge on erasing other people, or coloring over disrepute." 

This, is so powerful to me. Yeah, I want to be a part of this team.

Coates and his supporters are free to argue on whatever terms they want, but they also have to live within the confines of conventional language. And when they say that he has proven that "the Civil War was not tragic," I have to say, no, he hasn't. He has in fact refused even to consider the question beyond the narrow scope that he has defined, which is common to much of his work. And he and his supporters have shut down any proposed broadening of the discussion while basking in praise for having undertaken it. Whatever success in argument he's achieved has happened with distortion and sleight-of-hand, by insisting that principled opposition to war is the same as regard for the South when it isn't, or saying that tragic means "really sad" when it doesn't, or by acting as if proving one thing is the same as proving another. The more that a question is insisted away, the more pressing it seems.

I wish that I could articulate how this article reverberated in my soul. Better, I wish that you, TNC could feel that reverberation, and I could read how you described it. 

Now there are a whole host of ways that Coates or anybody could attack the pacifist's position. Opposition to violence, after all, is far, far less popular than support for violence, particularly in politics and particularly online. I am perfectly used to mockery, dismissal, and invective for what I think, and anyone antagonistic to my views can rest assured that the vast majority of people out there will belittle my beliefs. (Hey, there's one in the comments now.) But the issue remains separate from antebellum romanticism.

Figuring out how to say what you're saying, without sounding whiney and petulant is a testament to your strong intellect and to your solid commitment to following the truth wherever it leads.  Nice job.

BTW: Just for myself; for my part in any of it; knowingly or otherwise - and not because I think it's what you wanna hear, but for what it's worth, TNC - I'm sorry.

I have said before that I find the cult of personality he's created at the Atlantic a self-congratulatory creep show. If it were merely a case of someone on the Internet residing in a bubble of affection, hey, who cares. That's perfectly common. What disturbs me is that his defenders, largely white, express their support in terms so close to condescension, or offer praise so wild that it can't meaningfully regard the work at all. When I argue about this subject, his coterie inevitable says "for him, this is personal." That, to me, is a slap in the face, the kind of thing you say about someone who you think is incapable of defending himself. And it has everything to do with race, with a set of guilty white readers who are eager to be absolved of that guilt, and so seek really to deny any responsibility for their role in a racist society.

"For that particular community, for my community, the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props."

I suspect that a substantial minority of Coates's considerable following is made up of people who do not, actually, think highly of him, though they suppose they do. I suspect that he attracts admiring white people who experience discussion of race as a kind of panic. I suspect that he fulfills for them the role of a racial avatar, someone to hold opinions on race for them, so that they neither have to engage in the hard work of fixing our racial inequalities nor feel indicted by his own observations on race in America. I suspect that for them Coates is not fully human, that he is another in a parade of black symbols who assuage their guilt and massage their egos, that he is a stock character, a prop, but never a human being to be evaluated and thus capable of being truly valued.

The world is a strange place. In the last couple weeks I saw bloggers who Coates will break bread with arguing in support of The Bell Curve, a text which argues (if one bothers to actually check) that the large majority of black people are significantly less intelligent than the large majority of white people. As was inevitable, apologies were offered and friendships maintained, all without the repudiation of the text itself. Historical inquiry is important and I value it, but surely the opinion that black Americans today are inherently inferior is of greater meaning for the future of justice. And yet there is a regard for race science that people can live with, in a way that they can't live with the idea that war is universally tragic. It's no wonder that so many white people find solace in arguments about the Civil War; in them, they find the opportunity to take stands on race that cannot possibly harm them in their day-to-day. They enjoy conviction without consequence, much as they enjoy the promise of the exoticized object, which is to be understood without being judged.

TNC says what he thinks and it is a great pleasure to hear what he says.  This essay ties up loose ends in my understanding of the Civil War like nothing else has.  Not that there is any end to it.  Slavery is the original sin in the New World.  The Civil War was a step in the direction of obviating that sin.  But we are still in process and always will be.  I suspect that TNC has some well thought out views of Abraham Lincoln and look forward to hearing of them.  He embodies all of the conflict and yet is above all of it.

I wonder about Coates. When he reads this endless commentary from white people trying to outdo each other in praising him, as the reach deeper and deeper for hyperbole, as they stretch their vocabularies to bless him with their benevolent white approval-- does he get embarrassed, at all? Does it become unseemly to him? Does he question where this all comes from? I imagine he must. Something is off, here. No one needs to have any sympathy for my convictions to say so. I find no value in universal assent, and beyond the poor optics of a bunch of people agreeing, I fear that it's exactly in those times-- in the deadening warmth of proud unanimity-- that something corrosive slips in the back door.

Update: I'm appending a link to this post by Tedra Osell, with bonus condescension from Belle Waring.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

giveth, taketh away, etc

This essay, from a Dr. Zachary Ernst of the University of Missouri, has been making the rounds, or a certain kind of the rounds. I have some things to say about it, and you should read it. Start, though, from this: this is someone using the protection of tenure to whine about tenure. It is the argument of someone who is criticizing the way in which institutional protection is distributed while clad in that protection, without any consideration that this tension is worth exploring, or that it perhaps undermines his position. Coming from my position as an impoverished graduate student, without the benefit of tenure or institutional protection or permanent employment or the middle class income it brings, this strikes me as a special kind of cowardice, a preening, proud kind. Take that, first, for context.

Dr. Ernst has complaints. They are, in my estimation, not quite minimally convincing, but then there's little indication that convincing others is the purpose of this kind of argument. Dr. Ernst's relationship to tenure is complicated; he pays lip service to its intellectual benefits, but he seems deeply antagonistic to the elementary notions that undergird the institution. He mutters darkly about the "worst politics" that one encounters in the university, apparently among those who feel that left-wing politics should be permissible in exactly no professions. (I have never yet met a conservative or libertarian who complained about bias in academia who wasn't, in the end, equating bias with "you aren't flattering my preconceptions.") He additionally has nothing but showy contempt for the fact that his peers have different ideas about what should be valued in scholarship, not seeming to care or understand that differences of opinion in what is best for the pursuit of human knowledge are precisely the reason for tenure. He is endlessly proud of his pugnacity but decries the "bullying" of others. In every respect he appears to be a man who loves to swing but not to be hit.

Indeed, you can search the piece all you want, but you won't find anything resembling self-criticism, or the notion that, when considering why his career is perhaps not what or where he intended, he should first ask whether there is something lacking in his body of work. The notion that in fact the beginning of responsible inquiry of this kind should require an examination of the self, waged as publicly and unsentimentally as the essay in question, has apparently not been considered. In any event, Dr. Ernst is unhappy with the systems of professional advancement within the university. He feels that the disciplinary promiscuity of his work is not valued in the university and that this is self-evidently antithetical to the academy's purpose. (That he sailed through his tenure review, by his own admission, somewhat blunts this criticism.) As is typical of polemicists, Dr. Ernst believes that as he is, so is the world. Coming from outside his field, the notion that across the university writ large is not friendly to interdisciplinarity appears unlikely, but I'm qualified to say. As someone with wide-ranging interests myself, I am inclined to value interdisciplinarity, but I also know that the fadishness and grand claims of working across departments often produces poor research. It is perfectly possible, after all, that interdisciplinarity is not properly valued in his field and that this has little or nothing to do with what is making him unhappy.

As for his unhappiness with the professional academic life... take a number. Here is what it means to be an adult: you have to eat shit. Repeatedly. You do things you don't want to do. You are forced to endure indignities. Your rewards have very little to do with your talents or effort. People who are less deserving are promoted while people who are more deserving are ignored. Life isn't fair, not in the academy or anywhere else. Yet Dr. Ernst is deeply unhappy with the way that professional laurels are distributed within the university (understandable) and also of the conviction that his unhappiness matters (absurd). Let me ask: in what professional field is there a perfect system of reward? What job is not riven with petty corruptions of "meritocracy"? Which jobs, I'd like to know, promise and deliver a fair system of review and promotion, free of politics and patronage and fashion?

I can tell you this: the vast majority of professions offer not even the minimally transparent or fair system of advancement that the university affords. And what almost no professions offer is the ability to openly and publicly complain about their systems of advancement. If Dr. Ernst were to undertake his criticisms in almost any other field, he would be on the unemployment line. Like all of his many privileges-- privileges that stem from the same institutions he deplores-- this goes unexamined. Dr. Ernst is a good example of a dynamic I have observed again and again in academics: he flagrantly romanticizes the university, and then tears down the university for failing to live up to that romantic vision.

Dr. Ernst says repeatedly that his argument stems from a simple assumption: that the university is resistant to change. I don't know that, in fact, his arguments follow. I'm no philosopher. But in any event, I reject it. Yes, I know; the Internet is rife with complaints about higher education, a few legitimate, most not. But I find the idea that university has not evolved and grown in great measure given enormous change to simply not be credible. I can only offer anecdote in response to his own. I will say this: there are 80 human institutions that have existed in the same form for at least 500 years. 65 of them are universities. Those human institutions that do not evolve wither and die. I do not believe that the university writ large would still exist if it were of the character that Dr. Ernst has described. You won't find this a popular position.

Here is not an assumption but merely an observation. The university has always been the target of a particular kind of resentment, from both within and without. It is the resentment of those who believe themselves to be unappreciated geniuses. I became aware very early on that the Internet is filled with people who resent and distrust the university because they became convinced, at an early age, that they were gifted, and that the failure of higher education to recognize the full flower of their genius was a great crime. So convinced of their own brilliance, they can't fathom any reason that they might go unrecognized other than the systematic failure of the institution of scholarship. When Dr. Ernst speaks about how philosophers believe "that entrenched belief systems may be overthrown by a single person," I hear the curdling exasperation of so many who felt that they were that single person, and that the university was obliged.

I'm not saying that Dr. Ernst is such a person; I don't know the man. But I know that they litter the Internet like flotsam. And I often encounter, in the world of academics, a group of people (both women and men) who walk around in a kind of daze, unable to understand why their work isn't being celebrated. They seem to believe that they were entitled to recognition before they arrived. Dr. Ernst is not in the position of these people; he is employed and tenured at a major university, in a field where the brutal competition for jobs ensures that anyone so employed and so tenured has been greeted with profound success again and again. His publishing history is the type most of us can only envy. (You would be amazed at how complaints about which research is valued evaporate, when one is defending one's own published, recognized work.) Looking at his CV, I can only hope to achieve what he has achieved, is achieving. Yet despite his considerable reason to give thanks, his essay is soggy with entitlement. That's ultimately what's at issue here. I don't question Dr. Ernst's right to complain about his department, the field of philosophy, or the many pathologies of academia. But what he says is riven with entitlement and defined by a strange incuriosity. Neither is conducive to the pursuit of human inquiry.

Dr. Ernst's essay concludes with a complaint about the difficulty his wife has encountered in obtaining tenure in his department. I don't have the evidence to evaluate his case, but I know enough about the world and sexism to not doubt for a second that a a self-confident women would have faced hardship in employment and promotion, regardless of her profession. It seems beyond probable to me that his wife has face these hurdles, and I'm very sorry for them. The fact that her university has disassembled its system of internal review is a major failure, and if Dr. Ernst is faithfully and accurately reporting the way that his wife has been treated, the conduct of those responsible is deplorable. I am just crude enough to point out that it is precisely the people with the "worst politics" who have insisted for decades that this kind of corrosive sexism has to be opposed.

It seems clear to me: Dr. Ernst should resign. He feels, after all, that the system of professional advancement and recognition in his department is deeply broken, that the wrong types of work are being recognized, that he is not receiving high enough raises, and that his wife has been wronged and insulted. Clearly, he should terminate his own employment there. Of course, that would involve material hardship for him and his family. But that's the thing about principles. They come at a cost or are worth nothing.

Whether he actually quits will tell you everything you need to know.

Update: My commenters are deeply critical of this post, and rather convincingly so.