Thursday, February 28, 2013

no reasons for pride

This Jamelle Bouie piece on the sickening wealth gap between black and white Americans demonstrates plainly: our race problems are structural and material and are not problems of mind. Yet our discourse on race suggests the opposite. An offensive Tweet got vastly more attention that a sitting federal prosecutor asserting in court that the mere presence of racial minorities and money is indicative of illegality. That's exactly the problem.

People say to me, hey, you can do both. You can complain about unfunny jokes at the Oscars and complain about the host of hideous racial inequalities in our country. And, yeah. You can complain about both. My point is not that one thing is not important or that only one can be addressed. My point is that the way in which we address demonstrations of racist or sexist ideas makes addressing racism and sexism harder, not easier. When the biggest racial controversy of a given year is, for example, Michael Richards shouting a racial slur in a crowded theater, rather than the racial income or unemployment gaps, structural change becomes less likely. And because the way we prosecute the case against racism in situations like that of Michael Richards is to ascribe failures in thoughts or emotions, too many people come to imagine that racism can be solved through possessing pure thoughts and emotions. As Bouie's piece ably demonstrates, the structural economic conditions of our country have created a white-black wealth gap. Every American could be in possession of pure hearts and pure thoughts and that wouldn't change. This is why I have so little use for the ritualistic purity displays like those we witness for the past few days. They aren't just unable to contribute to positive change; they suck all of the energy and the attention into those issues which are least material and thus least useful. I care that Bloomberg Business Week published a racist cover. But I care far more about the predatory practices that systematically exposed minority families to massive risk, which that racist cover references.

Besides.... can you address both? I dunno. More and more often I believe that there is a phenomenon of outrage fatigue in the American people. As Bouie suggests, as much as we continue to have a problem with outright (if quiet) bigotry, generally our problem is the people who don't possess outright racial animus but who drag their feet, or want to change the subject, or think that we've already adequately addressed race. What I hear when I try to engage with those resistant to anti-racist efforts is not that they don't think racism is bad but that they are "tired of race." Is that a fair position? It's not. Should they feel differently? They should. But should is irrelevant. Those are the people who must be moved. They are the people who must be reached, in order to make practical change possible. And as long as those self-same rituals of racial purity are expressed in an idiom that is emotional and mental in nature, the resistant can say to themselves, "I personally lack racist thoughts, so therefore I am contributing to fighting racism." Functionally, the consequences of controversies like that of this weekend are regressive, not progressive.

If the way we've been doing things worked, it would have worked a long time ago. If generating personal outrage at bad feelings and bad thoughts worked, things would be far better than they are now. This way is not working. Which is why the evident pride with which people participated in the controversy this weekend bothered me. The Civil Rights Act turns 50 next year. The conditions are what they are. What does anyone have to feel proud about?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

getting epistolary

Had to dig up this old email chain.




It should almost go without saying, but: at the heart of most of the white liberal agonizing from the last several days is absolute terror in the face of blackness. Often, at the core of those who demand materially useless rituals such as privilege checking is pure racial panic. They work to position themselves as obsequious reflections of black agency not out of respect but out of the opposite of respect; to grant that they might have a racialized conscience that must by duty interact with the racialized conscience of the nonwhite, they would risk being interpreted by same. They arrange their opinions not to work to the benefit of the essential category of blackness they've created but to be protected themselves from that blackness, from the potential of its judgment. To see nonwhite people as fully-realized actors with whom one might disagree on topics of race would be to risk being regarded as racist by any one of them, and for many or most of the white people who write about race, avoiding that accusation is a higher priority than working against racism as such. They therefore create a mental world in which the act of ceding all personal responsibility for issues of race to the nonwhite is an act of charity, when in fact it operates on the assumption that the nonwhite are inhuman. They are in bad faith.

This is why they only engage on issues of race in mediums where they can encourage and expect immediate assent, amplification, agreement, and support. It's why you never, ever read social liberals writing on such topics in a way that does not immediately receive social approval which confirms their blamelessness, any individual intellectual responsibility dissolving into a haze of attaboys, #realtalks, THANK YOUs, and the like. Even acts of self-implication are rendered toothless through the inevitable flurry of approval which ignores the sin for which the writer was self-implicating and preserves only the end state of racial blamelessness. Like I said last night: social liberals' writing on race and sex engenders no demonstrable productive effect on the world, but is more likely than any other kind of writing to win fulsome praise. Is it really unfair of me to assume that the purpose is then not to achieve that productive effect but rather to win the praise?

I never asked anybody's permission; not on the theory that I know everything, but on the conviction that only I am responsible for the content of my conscience and the morality of how I express it. I want nowhere to hide. The advantage of avoiding the inevitable reduction of nonwhite people into a set of social cues and essentialized political traits, I consider a bonus.

Monday, February 25, 2013

bullshit social climber faux-antiracism

When I saw, in this Atlantic Wire piece, that Internet personality "Jay Smooth" was lecturing Radley Balko on his attitude towards people of color, I laughed out loud. It's like God decided, "I'm going to create the perfect possible example of cultural liberalism's preference for feelings over material conditions."

Jay Smooth makes videos on the Internet. So he's got that going for him. Radley Balko, meanwhile, has gotten actual black people out of actual jail. He has worked tirelessly against police abuse and corruption, the drug war, and mass incarceration, and specifically the mass incarceration of young black men. He's been cited in court cases where innocent people were freed. His journalism-- you know, the kind where you go out into the world and find out facts in order to create change, rather than sit in front of a webcam and use tired slang-- has helped to create material change in the world. That matters. You know what doesn't matter? Tweets about how offended you are by something. Your tweets do nothing. They accomplish nothing, make nothing happen. They do less than nothing: they are nothing that you mistake for something, and thus make it harder to actual apprise the actual situation. Let's check the percentages, please.

If you're a white person who thinks that "Jay Smooth" has the right to lecture Radley Balko about race in America, you care more about your social positioning than about the material conditions of the nonwhite people you claim to be speaking for. Period. But then that's true of white, web-enabled social liberalism in general: it is fodder for the endless cultural and social status competitions of the people undertaking it, and not for the productive purpose of ending racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or other ills. Online social liberalism is a cul de sac.

The joke here is that I think Balko is an asshole, and his economic politics a horror show. And while I doubt he's ever spent a spare moment thinking about me, I'm certain he'd find me an even bigger asshole than I find him. I hope he never gets what he wants economically. But none of that that matters in this context. You know why? Because getting people out of fucking jail transcends petty personal bullshit. Challenging racist laws and exposing police corruption and contributing to appeals of unjust verdicts is about something bigger than deciding who's cool. One day of Corey Maye's life as a free man is worth more than every scolding tweet that's ever been sent. If you think otherwise, please, never speak about racism again.

Nothing could be more indicative of the state of American social liberalism than the divide between the graduate classes I take and the undergraduate classes I teach. The students in the graduate classes are endlessly careful to check their privilege. That's good. Privilege is real, it's better to think about it than not to. But the obsessive focus on privilege checking is the epitome of how people misunderstand social change. People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone's back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don't mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.

Meanwhile, my undergrads are mostly good kids. But they are absolutely repulsed by what they take organized social liberalism to be. I talk about politics with them and they seem generally to be on the side of the angels. But you mention the word feminism, and they recoil. It's visceral. And the young women are even worse than the men. They aren't racist, mostly. But in large majorities, they are skeptical to outright hostile towards organized antiracism. Why? In part, because of ignorance and privilege and apathy. But in part, because they have grown into a world where social liberals are more interested in demonstrating their superiority over them than in educating them. Because they perceive, correctly, that white antiracism is dominated by people who are more interested in being right than in doing right.

I like the grad student attitude and actions more than the undergrads. But the undergrads vastly outnumber the grad students. And it's the undergrads that go out and rule the world. Don't believe me? Read the Tweets that aren't written by a small group of self-selected fellow travelers. Read the comments on websites that are writing about this controversy. Look outside of the castle of sanctimony you've built. Extend your perspective outside of the orgy of self-congratulation that you took part in today. There are more of them than there are of us. The people with the microphones make fun of Seth McFarlane. But the masses love him, love his show, and loved him last night. And as long as you are more interested in excluding them than in actually undertaking the work of reaching out to them, they will always outnumber you. I know you feel good about yourself and how righteous you are. But you are losing. Who do you think the median American is? A commenter at Jezebel? Or at ESPN.com?

If feelings were what mattered, when it came to racism or sexism or homophobia, we would have solved these problems long ago. But social inequalities are not about feelings. It is the structure of our society that renders black manhood criminal. It is the structure of our society that keeps women underpaid. These problems can't be solved with feelings. These problems are not in people's minds. They can only be solved structurally, through actual material change. And yet it is the self-same social liberals who raise all this controversy who concern troll real change, who refuse to stand for a reorganization of human society that could actually address these problems. Meanwhile, they spend all of their attention on soliciting apologies that do not one tangible bit of good for any human being. It's useless, but there's just more social percentage in it.

The fundamental conditions on the ground are a social liberalism that speaks to and for a smaller and smaller group of self-selected people, utterly unable to create material change, but endlessly self-congratulatory and aggressive, in a way that expels precisely the people who need to be educated. Those are the facts. The question is whether this is merely a failure of the infinitely self-satisfied class of prominent social liberals, or in fact their preference. After all, an ever-shrinking circle of those deemed righteous only serves to further burnish the righteousness of those within. Will they ever notice how little they're accomplishing, how their obsession with the personal is self-defeating? I doubt it. Social liberals can continue on forever this way, nor do I doubt that those within it will furiously enforce the marginalization of criticisms like this one. Personally, I don't much care who listens or agrees.

Hey guys: black people have 6% higher unemployment than the country at large, they have an incarceration rate six times the national average, and they make up 13% of this country's population but suffer half of its homicides. But the Onion apologized for a vulgar tweet! Truly, you are all that stands between us and a fallen world. Keep living the dream.

actually, the Onion's Tweet and McFarlane's jokes were the opposite of each other

I'm disappointed to see a lot of smart people (like Alyssa Rosenberg, for one example) equating The Onion's controversial Tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis with Seth McFarlane's ugly (and lame) routine from the Oscar's telecast last night. In fact, the jokes work on completely different levels. The Onion Tweet was funny because its sentiment could not be mistaken for true. McFarlane's jokes weren't funny (and were troubling) because their sentiments frequently are mistaken for true, when in fact they're just offensive.

In other words, the Onion's Tweet was based on the fact that its premise was ridiculous and that nobody believes it. McFarlane's jokes were based on the idea that his premises-- that Jews run Hollywood, that women need to starve themselves to be attractive, that the violence against women in Django Unchained is similar to Chris Brown's violence against Rhianna, etc.-- are true, and that we know they are true but are too polite to agree with him publicly. The former works on the shock of disbelief, the latter on the shock of recognition. What makes The Onion's joke funny is that no one could reasonably believe its premise. What makes McFarlane's jokes unfunny is that he clearly thinks that he's being a slightly cheeky truth teller when he's just a clown; what makes them disturbing is that so many people in his audience agree with him. Many people do think Hollywood is a conspiracy run by Jews, many people do think that actresses are valuable only because of their tits, many people do think being smarmy is an excuse to be an oaf. That's not just lame, it's dangerous, as it lends credence to ugly ideas.

Meanwhile, nobody, I hope, thinks Wallis is a cunt. In fact, nobody possibly could think that a 9 year old who hasn't had the opportunity to speak out much on her own is a cunt. Otherwise there's no joke! Tell me: what is the joke, if not for the straightforwardly ridiculous nature of the idea? If they had Tweeted "Anne Hathaway is a cunt," people wouldn't have found it nearly as offensive, but they also would have said "they forgot to include the joke." Because some people actually think that. A 9 year old? Of course not.

People find funny what they find funny, and I expect and encourage people to complain about what they find offensive. But to so badly misunderstand the basic mechanism within these two very different kinds of humor, or to understand the difference but equate them and their attendant problems anyway, risks lending credence to the stupidest complaints about political correctness: that people scolding The Onion and McFarlane are doing so out of pure joylessness, or that they make no distinctions within their analysis, or that they complain only to assume a stance of righteousness. When we try to unpack and respond to these situations, it's imperative that we do so carefully, or we do the other side's work for them.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

pretty basic question re: Buzzfeed

Via the Dish, Kevin Drum makes the case that readers don't notice bylines
people who don't inhale news simply don't notice bylines. They're practically invisible. It's possible this is different at BuzzFeed, where reporters develop a loyal following, but I doubt it. I'll bet 90 percent of their readers never even notice their bylines. 
And I'm pretty certain the folks at BuzzFeed know this perfectly well. They do everything they can to make advertising look staff-written, including in tone, style, and format, but leave themselves an out by putting corporate bylines on the ads and pretending that everyone will notice them.
This is well said, but it leaves out what is to me the simplest case against Buzzfeed: if the point is not to fool people, why make the advertising look like Buzzfeed stories at all? If we're to believe that people are simply too savvy to notice the difference, then why go to the trouble at all? Why not just make the advertising completely different and separate from the editorial content? And why would advertisers be willing to pay more for Buzzfeed's type of advertising than the alternative?

The answer to these questions, of course, is that fooling people is the entire business model.

there's lots of production in the post-work economy

Ross Douthat considers the post-work economy. Being a conservative, he is not surprisingly far less sanguine than I am. I hear a lot of his general concern when I talk about this in my day-to-day life: what will I do all day? How will I feel fulfilled? I think those complaints come from a combination of sources, primarily the simple momentum of our conventional model of human society and the religiously-inspired Puritan work ethic that is still rattling around in the attic of the American consciousness. (I suppose that's more of a problem for Douthat than for me.)

If you're forgive me for quoting myself:
One thing that the Internet has shown me is not just the productive capacity of the human species, but the productive desire, the need to create, and also the need to share. And it's not just people writing blogs and recording podcasts, although I value that too. It's "how do I make my own cheese," "here's how you make a bookcase," "this is how to rebuild an engine," "let me help you with your taxes," "here's some schematics for this circuit board." We have so much desire to do things, and to share our knowledge of doing things, and I believe a desire to do things for other people, if the conditions are right. And we have so much need, so much want. When you look at what people are capable of making and sharing, and you look at how much material need there is, you can't help but conclude: something has gone wrong here.

I find the hoary old conservative fear that, if you provide for people's material needs, they'll stop working and sit around on the couch all day just fucking bonkers, man. I find it totally incompatible with my experience. If you give people what they need to survive, will some small number of people sit around and smoke weed all day? Sure. But I doubt many will, and the reality is that as technology continues to erode the amount of human labor needed to provide human society with goods, we can bear the cost of some people who don't work. And as I recognize no positive value in work that is independent from its contribution to human need-- in contrast with, say, the Puritan work ethic of the American mythology-- I see no failing at all in such a situation.

How do we harness that productive capacity and direct it towards the greater good, which people want to contribute to, if they can? By removing their fear of a loss of material security. You take away people's fear that they will lack shelter, food, clothing, transportation, education, and health care, and suddenly, they can spend their time doing those things that they enjoy and understand. Right now we've got a vast army of various trained construction workers-- educated in a particular craft-- who are out of work. Their productive capacity is going to waste, and those of them who have a productive desire are unable to implement it. Why can't they use their productive capacity to help people who have no homes? In large part, because they have to fear for their material security. They have to worry about feeding their families, about paying the rent. But you remove that fear of immediate material security, and suddenly, new doors open. 
You've got to resist the urge to extrapolate from what you or others do in their free time now to what they would do with their time when they don't need a full-time job. People say to me, "lots of people just sit in front of the television when they have free time." To which I say, some do-- but that's after having spent eight or nine hours of doing their wage-labor. It's no surprise that so many people zonk out after working at their desk job all day. People will have energy for their inspiration in a world where they don't sink all of it into securing their minimal material security.

This doesn't mean the end of commercial enterprise, at least not at first. There will still be unpleasant jobs that people only do for pay. And note that you can share your productive and creative capacity for money even if you aren't living primarily on it. A guy might want to spend his life giving guitar lessons right now, but he just can't make the math work. But you give him a UBI and let him know that he won't starve if he doesn't make enough on those lessons, and suddenly, the enterprise becomes practically viable. Want to make a magazine, but you know you can't live off of it? Make the magazine, sell it for what you can get, and know that your kids won't starve based on the fickle chance of the day-to-day.

If you're just worried about the fact that some people will exist without working, perhaps you should consider the fact that they already do. There are plenty of people in the world who receive an inheritance and sit on the interest for the rest of their lives. Trust fund babies exist. Some people get lucky on a stock deal and spend the rest of their  lives enjoying it. One of the weird tensions in conservatism is its zealous defense of the prospect of living off of rents combined with an endorsement of the necessity and righteousness of work. I'd like a society where a larger number of people can live modestly without toil and can supplement their incomes with light work, rather than our current system where a far smaller number of people can live lavishly without toil. And that's even before we consider all the people who want to provide for themselves in our current economy but can't.

 I don't believe in the perfectibility of human life, but I do believe in human progress. The question we have to ask is whether we want it to be spread to all people or to follow recent history and accrue disproportionately to those at the top. I don't know if we can achieve it right now. But I know that it will come far later than it should unless we work to achieve it, together.

What will you do with yourself in a post-work economy? You'll live! You'll be you. If you like making bookcases, you'll make them, and maybe you'll make them for others, when you're freed from a job that a computer can do better, faster, and cheaper. If you like to sing, you'll sing. If you like to wire circuit boards you'll do that. If you want to work a traditional job for a wage, doing unpopular labor, you can still do that. If you want to sit under the stars and ponder the ineffable, go for it. Right now I am sitting at my computer, writing a post that I will receive no money for and which is not part of any career plan. It's a little thing, obviously. But why do I do it? Because human beings aren't little efficiency machines. Human life is what you experience when you aren't busily accruing material resources. If I can have food to eat, a modest apartment, maybe raise a child-- give me a sunny spot and a chalkboard and I'll teach for free for the rest of my life. I have work to do that has nothing to do with enriching myself materially, and I bet you do, too.

Update: The biggest impediment here is not conservatism as such. The biggest impediment here is the inertia of "this is how it has always been." And that kind of inertia tends, in my experience, to be cross-ideological. You must always remember: change in the macroeconomy of the human species is the rule. Ancient Egyptians could not imagine a productive capacity without slavery; feudal lords could not imagine human society without vassalage; early industrialists could not imagine the abolition of child labor or the rise of the two-day weekend. The move has been and must be towards making people more free and less subject to the whims of the powerful. Wage labor comes next.

Update II: I imagine other people are out there writing blog posts and Tweets and Facebook comments and assorted about Douthat's post, and will receive no money for doing so. To the ones who are expressing skepticism: why are you participating in that labor if it accrues no material benefit to you? 

Skyfall

I quite liked Skyfall. I thought Javier Bardem's character was great. The movie demonstrated the power of a truly formidable villain. It's especially nice when a villain causes some sort of permanent hurt despite (spoiler alert!) losing to the hero; it pays to raise the stakes in action movies, where danger can seem frustratingly remote. I also thought that the way they brought back the elements of past Bonds was well-done, if inconsistently applied. (Why return to the old mythos in so many ways, while mocking exploding pens and deliberately having Bond prefer a shaken martini?) For me, I don't get making James Bond indistinguishable from Jason Bourne. If you strip out all of the silly elements, and the gentlemanly nature of the character, he loses anything that differentiates him from a dozen other remorseless spy characters in movies. Going back to the roots makes sense. And, yes, as everybody said, it's gorgeously shot.

So I definitely thought it was a success. Here are a few issues, though.

1. Boy, the politics of this movie! Hard to remember a more conservative movie. Reactionary, really. It's intelligently tied into the "return to the Bond roots" stuff which I mentioned as a strength, but everything in the movie seems to posit the preference for the old ways, in both the practical and the social spheres. The explicit text is about the preference for old-fashioned techniques of human intelligence over their digital intermediaries; the hotshot Q mostly mucks things up. More disturbingly, the movie is straightforwardly anti-civilian oversight, treating the politicians who question M and MI6 as ineffectual bureaucrats, despite the fact that M and MI6 very clearly did fuck up, fairly horrendously. (Honestly, the villain is pretty justified in his quest for vengeance, given what M admits to doing to him.) The less explicit politics are just as disturbing.


I mean, just look at what we've achieved by the end of the movie: the call by public officials for more oversight into an espionage organization has been rejected, and the autonomy of MI6 re-established. The emasculating bitch of a boss, having been demonstrated to be incompetent in physical combat, has been dispatched; in her place stands a rigid man, who proved his righteousness by showing that he knows how to shoot a gun, and was revealed (natch) to have worked against the revolutionary forces of the IRA. The woman who wanted to be a badass field agent has instead been relegated to the role of secretary. The mincing gay villain-- who has mommy issues, naturally-- has been defeated. In a church! I thought it was clever how Bond turned around Silva's attempt to induce gay panic, and in a different movie I wouldn't mind playing the villain as over-the-top queer. But when you combine it with the general retrograde urge, it's pretty off-putting. All in all, in both text and tone, the message of the movie is "go back to the past."

None of that is a comment on the movie's quality, and it didn't really bother me while I watched it. Certainly not in the way that, for example, Zero Dark Thirty did, for obvious reasons. I can safely ignore a Bond movie's politics. I'm just saying, when you break it down, it's kind of crazy.

2. The idea that you can narrow depleted uranium ammunition down to only three guys in the world = lulz.


3. Can we talk about the whole "the villain meant to get captured" trope in movies? I think this is a good example of why it doesn't really work. Bardem's character is one of those villains who plans everything down in absurd detail. His plan involves himself getting captured intentionally, which has become something of a well-worn plot point. But think about it. James Bond has to fend off the bodyguards at the casino, getting the help of a very timely Komodo dragon bite just to survive. If he hadn't gotten that lucky, Silva's incredibly complex plan would have been ruined. The dictates of action movies tells us that the hero(es) have to be in constant danger. But the intentional-capture trope requires that the villains let the hero(es) win, temporarily. That produces consistently implausible scenarios, where the hero just barely survives despite that survival being the key to the villain's plot.

I know that some people want to say that plot holes and inconsistencies just don't matter. But I'm afraid I can't go along. I don't think that praise for intricate and satisfying plotting can mean anything if it isn't balanced with criticism for bad. To value a movie like Chinatown for its incredible script, to me, requires taking plot holes seriously. There's of course plot holes that matter and those that don't. I mean, you wouldn't actually have Komodo dragons in a casino, right, but who cares? It's cool and funny. What I do care about, though, is inconsistency in character behavior. Bardem's character plans everything down to an incredible degree, to the point that he knows where to put explosives to force a train to fall on James Bond, which he must have done ages in advance. But then his initial plan to kill M involved shooting his way into a government building with a bunch of dudes and killing everyone with handguns.

Now that I'm thinking about it... why did Silva get himself captured at all? Like what does that accomplish for him? Is it just to have a conversation with M? There are doubtless easier ways! You might think it's to pull off the hacking job, but the only thing he does with that hacking is to escape... from the cell that he got himself thrown into on purpose. Then he just leaves and party crashes a public hearing that he very easily could have just shown up to anyway without getting captured or getting James Bond involved at all. Man. Now that's a plot hole.

4. I think the thing about doing an "edgy" Bond is that you should be consistent about it. Yes, jetpacks and such are pretty silly. That's kind of what I'm after with James Bond, but I don't mind that the movies have gone in a different direction. But is it really more adult to have the aforementioned Komodo dragon? Or, even worse, the casino chip which represents the payment for the hitman, which he conveniently packed in his murder briefcase, and which is actually labelled "Macau"? (My brother pointed out that it's like a Carmen Sandiego clue.) The problem with saying that you're going for a darker take is that it makes your sillier decisions seem more silly. Like having Bond grab onto the bottom of an elevator and go up a hundred stories, risking his life to chase after a villain, and then have him just watch and wait for ten minutes before actually attacking the guy. I mean he even lets a murder go down. (That was a definite "when keeping it real goes wrong" moment for me.) If you have the time to just wait, why not just grab the next elevator? My issue with the edginess is its inconsistency.

5. Everybody said that Adele and James Bond were a perfect match, and everybody was right. Great song, and a classic Bond abstract credit sequence.

6. The Bond continuity here is really weird. As others have mentioned, the notion that "James Bond" is a title that gets handed down from agent to agent over time is pretty much murdered in this movie. We learn that Bond is his real name, as we learn the names of his dead parents. (Silva is a codename, which is sensible, but James Bond is just James Bond.) That's fine as far as it goes. But introducing the classic car is kind of crazy. It's done up just like the car from Goldfinger. So did this Bond experience the events of that film? Why the hell else would he have a classic Aston Martin with built-in machine guns, especially since he so dislikes gadgets? But if that's true, and he lived through that movie... well, then it's a whole can of worms, isn't it? For example, wouldn't it be odd that there's a new secretary named Moneypenny that he bangs?

7. Do you think they made Ralph Fiennes look fat for this, or is Ralph Fiennes just fat now?

Hmmm. I may have talked myself out of this movie. I still like it! But it has tons of problems.

Update: With the continuity talk, I should point: I know that the Bond movies have never cared about continuity, which I dig. I'm just saying, when you introduce the old Bond car... where did it come from, exactly?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

ball's in your court, Erik

Falguni Sheth is at her considerable best when she points out the racism at the core of excuses for the murder of Muslims. It should go without saying, but: if we take privilege seriously, as a theory, and actually apply its precepts to better understand the world-- rather than to use it as a cudgel to enforce unthinking support of Obama, and to silence dissent-- well, there's no way it can do anything but compel us to excoriate supporters of drones. If privilege is what we say it is, almost no one in the world has less than poor children in Yemen or Pakistan.

I look forward to Erik Loomis lecturing Dr. Sheth about how she only feels this way because of her white male privilege.

Friday, February 22, 2013

good question

Andrew Sullivan pushes back against my take on Will Saletan and drones:
Yes, but Will has copped to his errors of judgment, which is by far the most important thing. Freddie should focus more on those like Charles Krauthammer who was the intellectual architect of the worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam and is still treated as a foreign policy and military expert in Washington.
That might move me more were it not for the fact that Saletan expresses his defense of drones with precisely the same condescending certitude he displayed when he insisted that those who wanted to minimize civilian casualties in Iraq had to shut up and support the war. And that points to the bigger problem: it's not just that he got it so wrong; it's that he seemingly took nothing from getting it so wrong, and that there are no professional consequences for him not evolving in response to getting it wrong. I pulled out that argument because it is nearly identical, in every respect, to the one he is making today about drones. The thinking is totally the same. Saying you're sorry for getting it wrong is important. But changing your thinking in reaction to getting it wrong is even more important. And not only has Saletan betrayed no evolution in his thinking, he's demonstrating literally the identical train of thought here that he did in 2003: stop complaining because our military is so skillful and so moral that innocent people aren't going to get hurt. Men like Saletan never, never stop believing in the inexhaustible goodness and proficiency of the American war machine, or in the lie of war without war. Not even after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead.

Were it just Saletan, it would be a small problem. But it is a problem that exists for our entire newsmedia: what systems of accountability are there at all? What forms of assessment? It's one of the most important jobs in the world, and yet no one can provide me with anything resembling a cogent answer. Indeed, when I asked, I am told that asking is an example of my bad behavior. Saletan, ludicrously, accused me of ad hominem, for a post in which I merely quote the entirety of a post, without elision. (A post, I might add, in which he asserts the complicity of antiwar activists in the killing of innocents.)

Today, the preference for those who get it wrong continues. When Glenn Greenwald or Jeremy Scahill speak out against American military operations, the burden of proof they face is still far higher than for those who advocate the use of military force. And, indeed, people like them are still considered on the fringes of polite political conversation. Why? Look at the people who publicly opposed the Iraq war before it started, back when it mattered. To a truly dispiriting degree, they tend to remain in less prominent and respected positions than those who supported the war. (Here's a depressing game: which New York Times columnists opposed the war before it began?) And those who have admitted wrongdoing tend to say that "those who got it right did so for the wrong reasons"-- a stance that ensures that the least useful lesson will be learned. What do you think the message of all this is, for people within our media? What does that incentive structure lead to?

Let's take two other examples that are dear to Sully's heart: Christopher Hitchens and Jeffrey Goldberg. Hitchens not only explicitly refused to say he had been wrong about Iraq, he continued to wage a maximally-aggressive argument against those who had opposed the war. There were no professional consequences for Hitchens; his stature only grew. And the Dish continues to give him a forum. (Posthumously!) Goldberg did not merely get Iraq wrong. He was directly complicit in credulous journalism that helped build the case for going to war in the first place. There were no professional consequences. On the contrary, he got a more prominent position and, apparently, a raise. He has since undergone a campaign to attack his critics and continue to make the thoroughly discredited case that Saddam was connected to Al Qaeda. Once ensconced at The Atlantic, he took to the cover to predict that an Israeli strike on Iran was imminent, staking the magazine's significant prestige in doing so. That was two and a half years ago. There have been no professional consequences of any kind.

If you're a writer at The Atlantic, what possible professional incentive do you feel to get it right? What fear do you have of getting it wrong? When people who get such specific questions so deeply wrong suffer no professional consequences whatsoever, how will the magazine ever get better? If you're Conor Friedersdorf or Garance Franke-Ruta or Derek Thompson or any other staffer there, what process internal to the magazine pushes you to get things right? It's bizarre that our chief neoliberal magazine seems to not believe in professional incentives. Please, somebody with access, ask James Bennet: does your magazine have standards?

I'm 31 years old. My country has considered itself to be at war-- and invoked all of the frightening powers that comes along with it-- for a third of my life. No one is naive enough to think that this will end soon. As a mere citizen, one who fights to stay informed, I am totally at the mercy of our media. And not only has that media not developed anything like a system of internal accountability or review, it rewards those who get it wrong and punishes those who ask for reform. What does Andrew want me to do?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

an open letter to my Democrat friends

Dear liberal Dems,

My friends! I'm cool with you arguing that liberalism has an inexorable demographic advantage that, coupled with conservatism's seemingly permanent lunacy, will guarantee you electoral victory and thus control of policy for decades to come. I can also tolerate, I guess, your learned helplessness, which compels you to play a defensive game where you concede 90% of what conservatives want before you even start arguing, and through which you excuse all kinds of failure and unhappy outcomes. What I dearly wish is that you would stop arguing both at the same fucking time.

All my best to Tish and the kids,

Freddie

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

no thinking person should ever listen to what Will Saletan says about war

Will Saletan does the "I support drones but I have a sadface about it" routine.

One thing people get frustrated about with our media is the way in which there is no accountability or consequences for past mistakes, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. But a lot of the self-same people who make that complaint continue to take seriously people who should have been renounced long ago. Saletan is one such person. He hasn't just gotten war wrong. He has gotten the specific question of humane warfare, collateral damage, and the technological capacity of our military spectacularly, incredibly, unimaginably wrong. People forget. But I don't.

See:
In the last 24 hours, we've all seen pictures of Iraqi soldiers surrendering without firing a shot. We've heard on-air eyewitness accounts of white sheets thrown over Iraqi tanks to signal soldiers' intention not to fight. We've seen no reports of a highway of death or of massive bombing on the scale of the Kosovo war. The humanitarian catastrophe predicted by anti-war politicians and protesters isn't happening.
This morning's Washington Post carries an intriguing report on the underlying military strategy. 
According to a senior Bush administration official, surrender negotiations were underway yesterday between U.S. officials and a number of Iraqi unit commanders. "What they're trying to do right now is to punish the regime and give forces a chance to capitulate," this insider said. "It's a selective use of force to see if you can separate the people from the regime." … Another defense official agreed with that description of the war plan, saying that the first day of strikes—which also have targeted some headquarters buildings of the Republican Guard, some of Hussein's most loyal troops—have been intended "to see if we can try to tip things, first." 
Maybe this strategy will fail. If it does, we'll have to go back to the usual strategy of killing people until the other side gives up. 
But if it succeeds, consider the ways in which it will change the nature of warfare. 
Today's technology enables us to hit targets more precisely and from greater distances. It allows us to put fewer soldiers in the field, where they're vulnerable to conventional as well as chemical or biological weapons. It gives us the ability to communicate more quickly and widely with the population of a target country, making clear that we're after their dictator, not them. We don't have to roll tanks into their towns to show them our firepower. They know about it from television, radio, or their neighbors. We can win by "tipping," not crushing. We spent centuries developing the ability to kill people. Now we're developing the ability not to. Regime change is no longer a euphemism. 
Better yet, this strategy works only against a repressive regime. If the people support the regime, it's much harder to separate the two. The nation's soldiers are more likely to fight, and the people are more likely to help them. Moral error produces military failure, forcing the politicians of the attacking country to worry as much about the former as about the latter. 
The theory has one flaw. Just because we have the ability to spare people's lives doesn't mean we have the will. Our military is so powerful that our generals could massacre the Iraqis if they wanted to. That's where restraining institutions are needed. 
If you're an anti-war protester or politician, this theory of warfare should change the way you think and act. Your efforts to generate resistance to the war before there is any evidence of killing, much less atrocities, contribute to the political strength of the enemy regime. You encourage uncertainty about the war's outcome, increasing the likelihood that the regime's soldiers will fight and die. You make it more difficult to separate the regime from its people. You frustrate the tipping and bring on the crushing. 
If you want to minimize the killing, stop resisting the war. Instead, do what you can to make the war transparent and to hold your government accountable for unnecessary deaths. Help the media and human rights organizations monitor the battlefield. Help them get reports and pictures to the people of your country and the world. Build an incentive system that will strengthen your government's will to spare lives. Its ability will do the rest.
It should go without saying: a person who got something of such importance so jaw-droppingly wrong should not still be getting paid to write about foreign policy, and certainly shouldn't be taken seriously on that subject by anyone ever again. Of course, it's Slate, a publication with neither standards nor shame. But people who think that there should be accountability in media will continue to treat Saletan as someone worth listening to. Why?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

why we can't fix anything

Business Insider reports that Wal-Mart is feeling the pinch, with workers running out of money before the can come and shop. The culprit, according to Business Insider, is the sunsetting of the payroll tax cuts, resulting in an increase in tax of "$60 a month for someone making $40,000 a year."

Now, you can examine this problem in two ways. The stupid, pointless way is to say, boy, it's too bad out payroll tax went up by $60 for so many people. The smart way is to wonder why wages are so low that $60 a month is such a burden on so many people.



Absolutely nothing can be done to address this country's problems until people are willing to admit that our economy has become a machine for siphoning more and more resources to those at the top. Nothing of value at all.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Is Jacobin a political magazine?

My older, more traditionally Marxist mentors from my activist days-- the genuine commies, I mean, the Troskyites, not the AFSC/Green/popular front types-- used to sometimes say, "Marxism is not a political movement." It was an admonishment, to me, as I was known as something of a squish. Their point was that, in traditional Marxism, the point is not to win elections. Indeed, the class conflict that Marx identified, they said, made conventional political victory impossible; the capitalist class (which is distinct from the rich) could not and would not join, as the division between them and workers was natural and disqualifying. Indeed: the very logic through which we would convince workers to unite precluded the possibility of the cross-class solidarity that would make it possible to win elections. Marxists naturally and necessarily could never get electoral votes or Senate seats.

What they could do, instead, was get enough workers together to violently seize the means of production. Not today, mind you, and that's a whole other ball of wax, the receding horizon. But someday, you seize control through force. I know some who would talk about nonviolent takeover, and I suppose there's that, too. But one way or another, you weren't interested in convincing most people. Trotsky was an intellectual. But he also led Lenin's army.

Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin, speaking at a Young Democratic Socialists conference, said recently

 I think these “warm-and-fuzzy” goals have to be rooted in class antagonism. 
Creating a society built around different values requires a revolutionary transformation of our socioeconomic order. These shifts, a radical extension of democracy into the social and economic realms, are not only desirable, but possible. The roadblocks to their implementation aren’t technical ones, like they’re often portrayed to be, but rather rooted in the political resistance of those who benefit from the exploitation and hierarchy inherent in class society. 
It’s important that the socialist message be wedded to moral and ethical appeals, but it can’t lose track of this antagonism against the class that makes even tepid social democratic reforms hard to envision in the 21st century. Yet there’s also the second half of that antagonism, the identification of the class and social forces capable of challenging capitalism and pushing us towards a better social order.
Well and good. I agree on all counts. What I wonder is how Bhaskar specifically, and a lot of the younger socialists I read, believe that antagonism will be materially articulated. In a less inflammatory way, I wonder if they think victory can be achieved politically, in the broader sense of convincing enough people, if not the narrower sense of winning elections. I don't mean to be too cute with this post title; I know that there's a lot of internal debate at Jacobin and that Bhaskar is not its mouthpiece. Nor do I expect Bhaskar to have a perfectly articulable set of anodyne prescriptions, in the way that the wonks would demand.

But I do think that whether the ultimate mechanism is political or direct is a very important question, an existential one. Because I happen to think that my old Troskyite friends were right: you can't, actually, convince people into working against their own class. Marxism's power lies in the fact of class conflict, not the potentiality for it. Personally, the interdiction against violence precedes my desires for social change, so I can't get on board with a violent capture of the means of production. (Like I said: a squish.) Yet I also don't doubt that justice and equality can't be achieved through a market economy, or that we will leave the market economy through our formal political system. So I'm at a loss, as usual.

Then again, I'm a pessimist, a defeatist. And when the new order comes, it won't be made up of men like me.

the Pet Gazette

Meet Suavecito (cat) and Miles (dog).



maybe everybody shouldn't abandon professionalism at the same time

So Gizmodo's Kyle Wagner wrote a review of the new Blackberry phone, a pretty scathing one. I have no idea if the review is accurate, given that I've never used that phone (or any Blackberry product, for that matter). But certainly, the review appears to be fair and thorough to me. It takes time to explain all of the phone's positives, puts the product in context with its competition, and is generally judicious in its take. So when it ends up being a quite negative piece, it is strengthened. Wagner seems to be aware of the basic fact that criticism is harshest when it is fairest, that cheap attacks actually cheapen the person making them, not their object. Criticism that is willful or predicated on distortion is totally useless to me.

So you can imagine my disappointment that Sam Biddle, a senior writer at Gizmodo, popped up in comments and said, "Everyone in the office who tried this thing out hated it, for what it's worth. A friend of mine from another publication was talking about how much he wished he could sell it without being UNETHICAL because he hated it so much and had zero desire to use it." In other words, hey, I know you've just written 2000 words about this phone, trying to go in depth with what works and what doesn't with this product, in a way that informs readers who might be thinking about buying it-- but I'm just gonna shit on that and tell people how it really is in a completely unsupported assertion about its quality. Never mind the fact that tons of readers are undoubtedly going to read the words of another Gizmodo writer ripping the phone in comments as someone on the inside "telling it like it is," thereby utterly undermining Wagner's review. It's just a childish, irresponsible way to argue for a professional writer, one who will likely review Blackberry's products and and their competitors in the future. I have no idea if Wagner has a problem with Biddle doing that; he might even like it. But I don't. (And I told Biddle so, in the comments. Because it's best to be direct.)

Biddle has written many long pieces for Gizmodo that clearly indicate that he is someone who wants to be taken seriously. The popular opinion, it seems, is that you get to do both, to be taken seriously as a fair and independent critic and writer when you want to be and to act like a clown when it suits you, all without any tension of problems. More and more often, my feelings is: no, you can't. You can't actually have both. When you act like a clown, it cuts against your later attempts to act like a grownup. It erodes your ethos and calls into question your professionalism, the integrity that you're supposed to possess as someone who gets paid money for what you write. The question for Sam Biddle is, do you want to be a grownup who gets taken seriously, or do you want to fling shit like a monkey? Flinging shit on the Internet can be fun-- I do it all the time-- but you shouldn't do it in your own house, in a way that undercuts your colleague, under your own name.

I don't pretend these issues are easy. But I'm frustrated that so many people seem to think that there's no issues at all here, that they can effortlessly move between "take me seriously as a serious journalist because my journalisms are seriously serious" and "look at this video of a cat dressed like George Plimpton" without any tension or problems. It's like Ben Smith "defiantly" claiming that there's no problem with Buzzfeed running both "12 Aardvarks Getting Blue Balled" and interviews with the Minority Whip at the same time. Actually, there is a problem, Ben. Buzzfeed is hot fucking garbage that peddles the worst kind of juvenile clickbait the Internet has to offer. When it simultaneously interviews the most powerful people in the world, it becomes difficult to assess the quality and credibility of the information offered. Character matters, when it comes to important news, credibility matters. Turns out reporters who give the journalistic equivalent of a handjob to politicians when they play touch football can't turn around and effectively condemn their review-free assassination programs. Crazy, right?

Take Gawker, part of Gizmodo's parent company. I still read Gawker because there are things there that you can't get anywhere else. They publish a lot of really smart, incisive media criticism, a point that was frequently lost in those think pieces (back when Gawker was the sort of site that got think pieces written about it). Now I don't mind that they also publish lame viral "Look at this giraffe who resembles Peter Tosh" stuff. They've got bills to pay. If that sort of thing can subsidize work like this Tom Scocca post on Esquire's OBL piece, I'm all for it. (It's a little weird to see Caity Weaver pieces about Obama and Michelle sneaking a secret smooch next to Mobutu pieces excoriating the drone program, but whatever.) But there are costs. Like I said at the time, I have a problem with a website that has an upskirts tag going after the Creepshots crew. I think that matters; I think it matters when a website generates revenue from similar behavior to that which it condemns. I like Adrian Chen and I thought did a good job, and the piece was accurate in its reporting. But you can very fairly wonder how well the "hey, we're just kids at a keyboard here" ethic of Gawker jibes with the "very serious reporting on very serious issues" efforts. Right?

It would be one thing if it was just Gawker or a handful of other sites like it. But nowadays, when you could read, like, the Beirut correspondent from the New York Times tweeting about how she's sure the person sitting next to her on the plane just sharted, I really fear for the very notion of adult reporting and serious journalism. I really do.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned and naive, I don't know. But to me, it has become more clear, not less, that it's actually necessary to have actual professionals, that there's a reason why we've had notions of adult public behavior in the past, and that everyone revealing to the whole world all the time that they are privately juvenile isn't actually good for our society. Everybody seems so sure that there is just no need for professionalism or responsibility anymore. If you're one of the ones getting paid to write for the Internet, why rock the boat? Nobody seems to want to think about it.

Certainly, the people who are going to hate-Tweet this post don't.

Update: Check out Josh in the comments for an opposite take.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

links and such


  • Their segment from today on the pointless cruelty of the no-fly list, and the treatment of Saadiq Long, is exactly why Up with Chris Hayes has been such a wonderful development in cable news.
  • Read Scott Lemieux for an excellent reminder on what a rumor-mongering troll Mickey Kaus has been in his career.
  • This is a good example of why Digby is a treasure. She's fair and harsh and angry about many instances in which the Obama administration has acted in a conservative manner for no demonstrable political gain. She's got a great strength for being a Democrat, advocating for Democrats in elections, and yet being an absolutely unsparing critic of Democrats, their leaders, and their pathologies. It's a talent I just don't have. Despite her minimal hype, I'd say that Digby is the best political blogger there is.
  • You should read Falguni Sheth on the truly frightening defense of drone strikes by Toure. (But then, you should always be reading Falguni Sheth.)
  • Jam on.

jobs is spending is jobs


In a good post about the unpredictability of the economy, Derek Thompson reveals that medical spending has recently slowed considerably. In a disconnected sense, that's a very good thing, considering that health care spending is one of the very few issues where deficit hawks have a point.

But remember: spending means jobs. For awhile now, the smart money has been on going to school for a bio or premed degree, and then going on to get specific training in a medical field, whether as a doctor or nurse or medical assistant or sundry other positions. After all, all of those frightening projections of ever-growing medical costs mean that money will be coming into that field, and maybe workers can claw themselves out a little shred of that for themselves. That's the basic logic of advocating that people go into medicine; the projections say that money is going in that direction. Speaking as someone who's been on college campuses for the last four years, the push to go into medical fields has been relentless. But if the new projections are right, there's going to be $200 billion less going into medicine than we previously thought.

I've been making the case (again and again and again) that the constantly-expressed notion that we'll have full employment if people are just smart and go into STEM fields is empirically indefensible. It's all bogus; there's no STEM  shortage, no indication that there's going to be a STEM shortage, the trend is towards more STEM majors, very few people take the "impractical" majors that politicians complain about.... Thompson's post demonstrates the folly of safe haven thinking, and the needless cruelty of mocking those who have graduated into a jobless field. Do you really think that there's no chance that, in four or five years, the self-same scolding pundits will be writing about the medical school bubble that's going to crush us all? That Hamilton Nolan (or his nonunion Mexican equivalent) will be writing yet another Gawker post brutally mocking the greedy rubes who chased the medical dollar and now deserve their unhappiness? It would not surprise me at all. I have no idea if that will happen. But neither does anybody else. In those conditions, blaming people for making the wrong gamble on what field to go into isn't just cruel, it's pointless.

The reality of a "all cuts, all the time" approach to governance is fewer jobs and worse conditions for those who do have them. It's inevitable. Short term, the effort must be to stop directly undermining whatever improving employment conditions we have by cutting government jobs. But long term, the effort must be to remove the material security of our people from the whims of a bubble-plagued economy.

Friday, February 15, 2013

real talk about real talk

When somebody says "real talk"-- or more likely, #realtalk-- what they mean is, "I'm going to use an inexplicably hip slang term to justify an assertion I can't actually defend."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

what people are made of



Look. It's not about who voted for who after complaining about who. It's not about chopping up the left into a thousand little slices, like you're writing an Audubon guide. And it's certainly not about the learned helplessness that compels people to declare the impotence of the party which holds the presidency and the Senate and that inexorable weight of demographics I keep reading about.

This is what it's about. Liberalism's most sacred belief-- the conviction that underpins it all-- is the belief in the equal value of all human life. It is the commitment to the notion that all human life is equally worthy of protection, that the interdiction against taking that life is equivalent between and among all people. That is not a radical idea or a socialist idea or a Marxist idea or a pacifist idea. It is the fundamental, elementary commitment of liberalism. People who call themselves liberals or progressives who defend drone strikes, and the broader campaign of aggression without due process against the law, are hypocrites because they profess a belief while violating its central tenet. That many conservatives see the brown peoples of the earth as sweaty wogs, eligible for murder without right or review, I take as a matter of course. That some of those who profess liberalism feel the same, I take as something even uglier.

Make no mistake: when you justify the killing of Muslims because of their aesthetic similarities to terrorists, you are asserting that they are less than human. You deny them and only them basic human rights not by denying that those rights are rights but by denying that Muslims are human and are thus ineligible. There is no other logic. You might refer to that as hypocrisy, or as total moral failure. Myself, I don't really care what you call it.

gating comments for awhile

Hey gang, the spam problem has gotten a little ridiculous, so I'm sadly removing the option to comment without any kind of registration for now. I believe very strongly in the right to remain anonymous (while also believing in the virtue of signing your real name), so I don't enjoy taking this step, but it's looking necessary. Hopefully you all have some dummy accounts to sign in with if you want to remain anonymous.

In the past the capcha has defeated people, so please do email me if that's a problem.

ethical concerns make it really, really hard to do good educational experimentation

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that Kevin Drum is banging the drum for universal pre-K, and good for him. I'm also glad to see that Drum is acknowledging that the earlier we intervene, the better. The metrics for students who start out disadvantaged are quite discouraging; typically, those who are behind grade level early stay behind throughout organized education. What Drum doesn't say, but what is glaringly obvious to me, is that parenting is the great unspoken factor in education reform. But it's a classic wag the dog situation; we lack a framework to intervene in parenting in all but the most extreme situations, so we don't talk about it in our policy debates.

Drum also calls for a lot more empirical experimentation in his post. And there, too, I'm with him in the abstract. I should point out, though, that there is already lots of educational experimentation going on. Like, lots and lots. If Drum is frustrated by the pace of change, I would point in the direction of what many tell me is the single biggest obstacle: ethical concerns. The simple dynamic is that, while standards vary depending on individual institutions, institutional review boards, and researchers, the ethical interdiction against research that might set back students relative to their peers makes a lot of controlled experimentation impossible. If you know, thanks to prior research, that certain conditions are correlated with poor educational performance, it's unethical to expose students to those conditions in a controlled experiment, even if you believe that the benefits of the research will be great in the long run. What's more, if you find in the commission of your research that one of your groups is significantly outperforming the other, many believe (including some professional groups that establish research protocols) that you have to change or end your experiment, in order to prevent leaving the underperforming group behind. And the younger the children involved, the more stringent these guidelines tend to be.

To take an extreme example, there's great debate about the degree to which a lack of exposure to a linguistically rich environment permanently disables a child's language ability. Obviously, you can't isolate a child from language in order to ascertain the degree of this sort of disadvantage; you'd be permanently disabling a living human life (or lives) in doing so. Researchers are therefore forced to rely on disparate, frequently obscure natural experiments, such as with so-called feral children. Similarly, there's a belief among some Chomskyian syntacticians that children who are not exposed to a fluently delivered or functional grammar (such as in efforts to reestablish a dead language) will spontaneously generate a grammar in order to structure the lexical information they are exposed to. Again, you can't perform an experiment to tell if this is true; you'd risk long-term harm to children.

As I said, those are extreme examples, but when I talk to my friends who do educational research on children, it's a constant frustration. They accept and support the ethical principles involved, but they feel that progress is also seriously retarded due to those principles. It's something to keep in mind when examining these issues.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

the "Paperman" problem



This short, "Paperman," which originally preceded Disney's summer feature Wreck It Ralph, has earned a lot of praise, including an Oscar nomination. It is, indeed, a lovely short. But it's also a problem.

It's interesting that Alyssa Rosenberg cites "Paperman" in contrast to most romantic comedies, because I see in "Paperman" a perfect example of a basic problem with the genre. This problem was defined perfectly by The Onion: "Romantic Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested." Think about the behavior here. The protagonist is very forward in pursuing a woman who he hasn't talked to at all. We know that there's mutual attraction, thanks to the nonverbal clues that we (as a disconnected audience) observe. In a Disney short, that's perfectly sufficient, and internal to the world of the movie, I find it sweet. In the real world, I think it's exactly the kind of behavior a lot of women are justifiably tired of. But our culture and media keep reinforcing it, and that contributes to unhappiness.

We are, I hope, slowly but surely moving out of a culture of routine street harassment and justification of rape. Part of that is redefining when it is and isn't okay to approach someone you're attracted to whom you don't know. At this point, I pretty much have a personal policy of not talking to any women who I don't know in some professional or social context. I wouldn't do what the guy from "Paperman" does, obviously, but I also wouldn't have asked for her number. Is that an overreaction to these changes? I don't know. I do know that I have read far too many women complaining about the obliviousness (and frequently, obnoxiousness) of men who approach them in public to want to risk being guilty of that sort of thing. So for me personally, it's out.

I'm not trying to speak for anyone else, and I recognize that this stance of mine is extreme. I'm too much of a romantic to say that a cold approach of this kind is always impermissible. What I want to point out is that the (I hope) increasing recognition that men are often far too aggressive and forward with women is necessarily going to lead to men being less likely to approach women who would actually like to be approached. Because we lack and will always lack perfect information about who is attracted to us. And as I will keep saying, it is precisely the awkwardness and lack of social graces that makes some men unattractive to some women that makes those self-same men incapable of correctly reading interest. Again, the manner in which we know, as the audience, that the female character is attracted to the guy is through a shared smile, a nervous laugh, a gaze-- all the sorts of things that socially awkward men have a very hard time reading, and can invent when it suits them. Indeed, what makes socially awkward men socially awkward-- and, in part, considered undesirable-- is exactly their inability to parse social cues and nonverbal messages. The notion that men who approach women who are "out of their league" or otherwise uninterested necessarily know that what they are doing is unappreciated is deeply wrongheaded in large part because it makes the problem seem easier than it is. If men always knew when women didn't want them to approach, we could at least speak about education and social norming against that behavior. But the problem is a bigger one because it stems from genuine ignorance.

And while we are of course responsible for our own behavior, and while there is a clear line between awkward or unfortunate approaches and outright harassment, I do have this sympathy for clueless men: our culture tells them incessantly that dogged pursuit is the key to romantic success. The importance of persistence as a key to romantic success as a heterosexual male is drilled into you by your culture pretty much constantly. Added to that is the common notion that what women want in a world of changing gender expectations is aggressive men-- a notion that can be hard to combat, because it is true of some women some of the time. The problem is that the sleazy, reductive world of sexual conquest advice speaks in universals and absolutes. Like any particular sexual or romantic preference, the desire to be pursued aggressively depends on the perceived attractiveness of the individual man. What we all want, at the end of the day, is to be approached by people we're attracted to and not by people we aren't. We also recognize this as an impossible request.

Moving towards a less sexually aggressive and more equitable social landscape is going to have consequences, and not all of them pleasant. That's adult life. For me, it seems as though the current reality of street harassment, the culture of rape, and assumed privilege of heterosexual men to approach any women makes it clear that we need to be far more careful about approaching strangers, and to require far more in the way of demonstrations of attraction before we decide to talk to women we don't know, particularly when they're alone. Perhaps that means that women who are interested in being approached will have to be somewhat more demonstrative of that in this future culture. I'm sure, though, that it will result in people not approaching and not being approached when they'd very much like that to happen. But like I said, progress always has difficult consequences.

I think I need the opinion of Phoebe Maltz Bovy on this.

always try to be the talent

A few people have sent along this exhausting profile of Ezra Klein from TNR-- sorry, from the new TNR-- on the theory that I would enjoy hate-reading it, on the related theory that I hate Ezra Klein. I find this odd. How could one hate Ezra Klein? Hating Ezra Klein would be like hating spearmint or navy blue. He's about as upsetting as an actuary.  He's wrong about a lot of things, but he's so resolutely inoffensive in his wrongness that I can't be bothered to get mad. Getting mad after reading an Ezra Klein column would be like running wind sprints after eating Thanksgiving dinner. Someone like, say, Will Saletan, who marries deep ignorance about what he writes on to a powerful hatred of women's autonomy and delivers it in a self-fellating grandiloquence-- that's worth hating. Klein? It's like picking Labrador for your least favorite dog breed.

Of course I don't read him, but judging by that profile, I get the impression that he doesn't particularly want people to read him, in the old-timey "move your gaze along lines of text to obtain propositional content" sense. Rather I think he wants everyone to kind of politely accept that there's blocks of print under those lovely graphs somebody else made and not look too deeply into it. You might find that profound emptiness in there. It's like that guy you know who wants to be a writer in the sense that he wants to do everything but write-- to have ink stains on his fingers and wear tweed and hang out at independent coffee shops and be known as a writer, but not to bother spending time at the keyboard. If Klein is a writer, he's a writer who hates words; I've never had much use for Ideas, myself. Klein has recently taken to showily eschewing the labels of liberal or progressive, but of course what he really wants is to be known as a progressive who doesn't want to be known as a progressive.

There are, to be sure, many things to object to both in the TNR profile and the general Klein phenomenon. He has that habit of believing entirely contradictory things that is common to the professionally bland. He claims that he is a stoic empiricist, yet lionizes David Brooks, a man who simply invents facts about the world around him and uses them to justify all manner of policies. (Pro tip: empiricists are people who undertake empiricism, not those who just read empirical reports, or read the abstracts, or have their younger, brighter researchers read them.) He claims to operate from a  pragmatic belief in the power of good governance, but famously brought Paul Ryan to manual release because of his intellectual bona fides; never mind that Ryan is a man who would like very much to defund government to the point that the average American city looks something like the Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket. Like all of those bright young things, he supported the Iraq war when it was polite to do so, then pivoted, effortlessly, to opposing it, once that became the fashion. Here is a man who has developed every conviction as if, well, as if he would one day have them presented in a profile for TNR. And he complains that we care too much about personality in politics while participating in a puff piece where he asserts the importance of wearing jeans to his personal brand. 28 is a little young to want to be the cool dad, Ezra.

Yet I am, in fact, quite like Klein in one sense: I too believe in the power of systems over the power of personality. For as much as you likely have heard that I dislike so-and-so personally, I have always (always) grounded my critiques of the DC koffee klatsch in the notion that social capture is systematic to elite media, and if I lived in a different age, I'd complain about reporters at press clubs instead. Let me be plain: all of the profound failings of what Ezra Klein is have very little to do with who Ezra Klein is. Klein is just a doofus with good enough looks to appear on cable. The profoundly ossified world of professional blogging is not the way it is because Ezra Klein lacks personal virtue. It is the way it is because of structural and material realities in the age of American decline, the combination of self-perpetuating familial success and the mythology of meritocracy and the inoffensiveness of whiteness and that peculiar notion of likability-- which always seems to attach to the people who already have everything going for them. They all congeal, until suddenly, you've got the President's ear. I'm saying: if I thought that the problem was that the boys on top weren't good enough dudes, the problems would be easy to fix. The dudes are just dudes. The system is failed. Ezra Klein? Ezra Klein is Zelig.

Ascending to the position of the Lord High Broder does not come without disapproval. Here's a scoop you won't have to dig very far to hear: Klein, "such a nice guy" reputation aside, is more feared than loved. Like all ambitious men, he must know that it's better for them to fear the consequences of disloyalty than desire the embrace of friendship. Bright young things who pile their gear into mom's SUV and arrive in DC with an internship and a dream-- they have a habit of ending up unsatisfied. In the five years I've been doing this, I've gotten dozens of emails from them, on the way up, or on the way out. And the overwhelming impression is that they are afraid of the Ezra Kleins of the world. I think that makes all the difference, though I know many disagree. But then, that's the problem with conceiving of yourself as still being the kid at the keyboard: you will always fail to understand your own power over people. The people who came up from the bottom in some shitty newsroom at some shitty paper in some shitty town, slitting throats all the way... they know the power they wield. When you've made your whole living by being known as a good guy, who's ever to tell you that you exercise power, that you have the ability to make and break the white-knuckled strivers of the world?

Would I feel any differently, myself? I'd like to think so. But then, I've known what gig I've wanted since I was 11 years old, and it has little to do with Ezra Klein. If what I wanted was to be in his world? I'm sure I would find him enchanting, or barring that, fear him enough to fake it.

Ultimately, there isn't much to worry about, when it comes to Klein, other than the miserable death of the American left-wing, that last betrayal of the egalitarian dream. If it isn't glaringly obvious, "Unkind writing is unthoughtful writing" is how social justice dies, how you strangle the child of equality in her crib. Nobody who ever materially suffered could be so luxurious in their disdain for anger; nobody who has ever been desperately afraid of the rent coming due could mistake bloodlessness for maturity. It turns out, in fact, that a chart tends to serve precisely its purpose, which is to express injustice in language quotidian enough that no one will ever be inspired by it. I started writing because there was no other way to deal with a world of human cruelty; if what I had to say made mothers want me to marry their daughters, I'd slit my wrists.

But then that, too, is one of my forbidden opinions, the type that get the patient explainers patiently explaining. That's why I want to take Klein's opinion that "we highly overstate the power of individuals and highly underrate seeing Washington as a system" and show it to him, and his admirers, and my own frequent critics, to ask if that system does not happen to include the lives of those who write about it. I'm only trying to play by the rules that he's dictated.

In that, I share a condition with many people I admire: playing by the rules of men (always men) who aren't quite sure how they got to dictate them. The depth of Klein's privilege is that he gets to decree that the system he wants examined stops at his door, as the throbbing, gendered power dynamics that seep from that profile make plain. Staring at the piece, from the newly rebranded TNR, owned by a Facebook millionaire who speaks in cliched aphorisms, in a profile of someone who has meticulously curated an image for just this moment-- there's some sort of perfection there. Such a profound monument to everything unimportant, such a preference for emptiness and the status quo, such a failure for the people whose lives are dictated by "policy." But oh, those eyes! And oh, that web design!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

real and virtual



So I've been having one of my little periods where I am choked by emotions I can't begin to express, so it's best I don't write a lot publicly right now. I do want to link to this piece on violence in video games by Kirk Mckeand, who interviewed me for it. He was a great interviewer, and the piece is thorough and fair. Hopefully I'll get my shit together psychologically over the weekend and be able to write something of greater substance about it then. In the meantime please do give it a read.

(video unrelated to text obviously)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

what I mean when I talk about empiricism and self-determination


In my Bloggingheads appearance, I mentioned to Conor my prediction that the empirical case against the notion that you are mostly responsible for your life will grow to be inarguable. In that, I was thinking largely of essentially the entire field of developmental psychology, which for several decades now has undermined the notion that the human brain is an endless mutable organ and established the great power of early-life conditioning to determine later-life educational and intellectual success. But there are certainly many other metrics of social mobility, genetic constraints, structural inequality, and the power of chance that contribute to this phenomenon. The point is never to claim that one's own decisions or actions has no impact on the outcome of his or her life. The point is to define how much of the variance is attributable to factors that are within the control of the individual. My belief is that the answer is not much, and that this will become more clearly the case as our research becomes more sophisticated. 

I am, of course, referring to an argument that actually has to be prosecuted. In large measure that argument will happen as it already is, through the steady accumulation of empirical research. I have at many points wanted to assemble and synthesize the extant research-- including, of course, the research that contradicts my thesis-- but I have come to the conclusion that in order to present the argument in a responsible way, the project would have to be book-length. Writing a book just isn't in the cards for me in the near future. Within the next few years? Maybe. So, for now, I can't make the argument. I'm not ready, and I don't have the opportunity to be ready. Yet.

What I do want to advance at this point, though, is that it is an empirical question. The degree to which an individual is responsible for the outcomes of his or her own life is a question that subject to empirical investigation. We have the tools to assess the impact of parentage, of inheritance, of demographics, of economic mobility.... In the future, if you want to talk about these issues responsibly, you'll have to recognize that they are not a matter of ideology or theory. They are subject to empirical review.

So take this essay by Jamelle Bouie, and the attendant pushback in the community he is critiquing. Bouie is saying that there are structural inequalities in play that limit the number of minority journalists covering technology. Jason Calacanis argues, with considerable certainty, that technology journalism is a "pure meritocracy," that anyone can succeed if they are smart and hardworking. Leaving aside the question of external factors that condition intelligence and work ethic, it's unclear whether Calacanis has considered the possibility that these questions are material and thus subject to empirical investigation. His argument will be familiar to anyone who has heard some version of bootstraps mythology. He says that outcomes are based on "the resolve of the individual." If that's true, it has to be proven, not asserted through reference to national character.

Calacanis, like so many others arguing for the meritocracy-- almost always those themselves that have been served by it-- seems to think that it's sufficient merely to address broad principles. The next stage of this conversation must be made through reference to evidence, and not through waxing on about abstruse philosophical commitments. I expect that the argument about the percentage of variance in an individual's material outcomes that are under that individual's control will be quite heated. I welcome that controversy, looking forward. But for them to be useful and responsible, they must be conducted through reference to evidence. That's the precondition for the argument that we have to get to first: an acknowledgement of what we're arguing about, and in what terms it must be argued.

I'm not feeling reassured here

Derek Thompson, one of my favorite journalists, has a post worth reading that pushes back against the job loss from automation-- but also read the comments, which make a lot of good rebuttal's to what Thompson is saying. Part of what I like best about Thompson is that he is a remarkably even-keeled guy, a rarity in a newsmedia that gravitates towards the euphoric and the apocalyptic. It's especially unusual in a guy who writes often about tech, and a guy with a generally neoliberal flavor, as they tend to be the ones in a rush to ignore human suffering. Optimism that doesn't degrade into absurd technoutopianism, or that doesn't discount the incredible hardships of the poor, is a rarity these days. I appreciate his sobriety, and I don't know, maybe he's right. But there seems to be a lot of wishful "hey, it's probably not gonna happen soon" going on there. Worth saying, too, is that Thompson focuses exclusively on employment rate, and doesn't consider job quality, which to my lights is equally important. As his colleague Matt O'Brien points out, automation doesn't have to lead to mass joblessness to severely undermine the conditions for workers.

Seriously, read the comments of Thompson's post. Tons of insight there.

One thing I'd like to point out is that even if we merely have a change in the skills or temperament needed for some jobs, rather than just the elimination of jobs, that essentially renders large swaths of people unemployable. Jobs that interface significantly with technology (which is to say, jobs) typically require significant retraining for people who have been laid off from other careers. People who can't adjust-- or, even worse, people who aren't given the opportunity to adjust because employers assume they can't-- are left behind, and fall into the precarious lives that so many are suffering through right now. As one of the commenters on the post points out, economists tend to think of jobs in net; if 5,000 people are laid off, and then 5,000 jobs added, hey, that's balance. But the original 5,000 people are very unlikely to be significantly represented within the 5,000 newly employed, and the longer a person is unemployed, the harder and harder it is for them to eventually find work.

Matt Yglesias continues a recent trend in writing a post on this issue that is, well, bizarre. His Slate blog has taken a turn for the odd in general lately. In the post-- which, in keeping with another recent trend of moving towards a positively Mickey Kaus-like brevity, runs all of two paragraphs-- simply says that technology that eliminates jobs has always been with us and that it's strange to talk about it now. Well, yeah-- it's a long term trend. But as is the case with global warming, the fact that the trend is old says nothing about whether it is accelerating or whether we are reaching an inflection point that will undermine our basic way of life. I'm not sure what Yglesias thought is saying here. The fact that the trend has been going on for a long time doesn't mean it isn't causing massive human suffering. But suffering hasn't really been Yglesias's beat lately.

There's plenty to read. If it isn't clear, I'm mostly interested in these issues because they seem like a useful frame to discuss the long-term trend of less and less income going to labor, and in broader strokes, the way in which our society has become a massive machine for generating wealth for those at the top. I find the "income inequality" conversation to be frustrating on a variety of levels, in large part because it is so well worn. I'm trying to address how we think our society is supposed to function, and what happens when one of the basic planks starts to degrade. Contrary to Thompson and Yglesias, I don't think it's too early to think things through, even if these problems don't start to affect us in mass in the near future. We have a habit of deciding problems are problems too late rather than too soon.