Saturday, April 22, 2017

My How the Pendulum Swings

A professor at Arizona State permitted his students to hold a protest on an issue of their choice as their final project. Students elect to do so. Conservative commenters view this as inappropriate. Said commenters then demanded that the university take official action against the students. Awaiting soul-searching think pieces from other conservative intellectuals about growing illiberalism in their community, how, even if one disagrees with the decision of the professor or the students, it clearly falls within the parameters of academic freedom and First Amendment protected activity, and how the way to respond to speech one dislikes is with more speech etc. etc. in 3 ... 2 ... forever ....

The thing is, conservative discourse about American academia swings, pendulum like, between "college is a cesspool of leftists indoctrination which must be stamped out" and "college is about encountering difficult ideas and if you don't like it, you hate freedom." Some people have the courage of their convictions. Most people are rather fair-weather.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Put Up or Shut Up

There are about a million and one things I dislike about Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly's recent speech on immigration policy. But there's one part that has a grain of truth to it:
[F]or members of Congress who don’t like the laws, Kelly said they “should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
Even this passage is mostly wrong. But I will say this: I'm sick and tired of members of Congress who somberly say that they don't necessarily support this or that Trump immigration policy, that we need to be humane, that we shouldn't be tearing apart families, that we should protect DREAMers and DACA recipients -- and then proceed to do nothing tangible about it. If you're in Congress, your value-added isn't what you say on a talk show. It's the bills you write, the hearings you hold, and the votes you cast. And while talk can matter as a means of rallying and crystallizing public support, ultimately, if your chatter isn't backed up along those metrics (bills/hearings/votes), it's meaningless to me.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Epidemiology of Antisemitism

The New York Times has hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens, lately of the Wall Street Journal, to provide an additional conservative perspective to the Grey Lady. Controversy immediately erupted, first over Stephens status as a climate-change denier, and then more recently over a 2016 column that characterized antisemitism as "the disease of  the Arab mind" (it came in the context of an Egyptian Olympian who refused to shake the hand of his Israeli competitor).

NYT Cairo Bureau chief kicked off the discussion with this tweet:


And his colleague Max Fisher succinctly articulating what I think is our legitimate squeamishness at hearing an entire group of people characterized as possessing a "disease of the mind."


Now, I've responded to a Bret Stephens column once, and it was not one I was impressed by -- a tiresome bit of neocolonialist claptrap seeking to establish which peoples are sufficiently civilized to deserve self-determination. So I don't have any particular interest in defending Stephens per se.

That said, this controversy did interest me because of an angle I don't think I've yet seen explored: the widespread literature on the "epidemiological" approach to racism. I first came across this view in an article by prominent Critical Race Theorist Charles Lawrence III, but it is hardly restricted to him. It is a perspective that is at least familiar to anyone who spends significant time in the literature on contemporary racism and prejudice.

The epidemiological view treats racism as, well, a disease -- a public health crisis that demands intervention. Among the motivations for articulating racism in this way is the belief that an epidemiological approach steps away from the focus on conscious choices (we don't choose to be infected) and with it, the politics of blame (we don't view cancer patients as being morally inferior because they have a disease). Rather, thinking of racism as a disease channels our focus onto (a) the devastating social consequences that can occur when racism is widespread and unchecked, and (b) what we can do to check the spread and, eventually, find a cure.

As it turns out, the use of the epidemiological approach for antisemitism has deep roots -- deeper, perhaps, than its use to analyze racism. Re-reading Lawrence's article while writing this post, I discovered that it actually contains a significant discussion of antisemitism as disease, as an epidemic -- and one that he investigates through the specific case of Black antisemitism right alongside the parallel case of Jewish racism.  Even more interestingly, a 1949 book by Carey McWilliams on "Anti-Semitism in America" claims to have found "hundreds" of examples of antisemitism being defined in epidemiological terms -- a "theme" that runs through descriptions of what antisemitism is. Among the statements he found was the claim that antisemitism is, simply, "a disease of Gentile peoples."

Under this view, then, the rhetoric of epidemiology and disease is meant to be gentler -- not stigmatizing to those it labels, not concerned with separating out the bad people from the good. But as Fisher observes, there is at the very least another set of tropes associated with "disease" rhetoric that is not so benign. Under the latter usage, "disease" connotes those groups which are dirty and mutated; those who need to be isolated, sequestered, or purged. Rhetoric of various outgroups -- including Jews, Arabs, immigrants of all backgrounds -- being "diseased" and therefore dangerous has a been a staple of racist fearmongering for generations. Again, it is not for nothing that we squirm when we hear talk of a group being "diseased".

I don't think that Stephens was intentionally referring to the literature on the epidemiology of racism. But leaving his particular case aside, here's my question: Do the concerns of Fisher et al mean that the epidemiological approach is inherently tainted and must be abandoned? If not, what interventions are necessary so as to use the method (and its necessarily attendant rhetoric of disease, infection, and so on) without triggering these problematic associations?

My familiarity with the epidemiological approach gives me some sympathy towards it -- I think it is at least a useful way of thinking through how racism and antisemitism operate, how they spread, and how they should be combatted. Yet at the same time, my familiarity with how rhetoric of disease is used to degrade and dehumanize means I am sympathetic to the concerns that it would do so here. The questions in the previous paragraph are those made entirely in earnest, and I in turn invite earnest replies.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The New Charles Murray, For Those Who Don't Know Him

A group of researchers decided to circulate a copy of Charles Murray's Middlebury College speech -- without saying who it was by -- in order to measure how readers gauged its political valence (did they think it was a liberal speech, a conservative speech, or a centrist speech?). They found that, without knowing who it was by, their sample of college professors viewed it as rather middle-of-the-road (5.05 on a 1-9 scale, where 1 is very conservative and 9 is very liberal). They also sent different portions of the speech to a random online sample group; averaging their responses together the speech got a 5.22 rating. Finally, they sent the speech to another group of college professors -- this time telling them Murray was the author. With that knowledge they rated the speech at 5.77 -- still basically "middle-of-the-road", albeit apparently more conservative by a statistically significant amount.

I'm actually not too surprised by this: my understanding is that Murray's recent work on American class divisions is not particularly conservative and certainly not as inflammatory as The Bell Curve's musings on race/IQ linkages. I would genuinely be curious about how readers would label the controversial portions of The Bell Curve under this methodology, mostly because I'm curious how most of us would "code" of that sort given contemporary political dynamics.

I do think there was some obscurantism -- sometimes deliberate -- regarding what Murray was going to be talking about at Middlebury and in other lectures. His challenged lectures were not going to be about The Bell Curve, which is widely discredited in the academic literature, but about this new class-related research, which has not been the subject of such scholarly disdain and which seems on face to fall well within the normal range of academic discourse. My initial instinct is that there's something off-putting about protesting a speaker not for what they will say, but for what they had said years ago that they will not be talking about in this lecture.

That said, I suspect part of what's going on is the idea that for a certain type of white conservative intellectual, it is impossible to discredit yourself such that you're no longer deemed a worthy entrant into public conversation; whereas for many outgroups there's a "one strike and you're out" standard where they are forever haunted by bad speeches, books, or ideas they propagated years ago (witness the treatment of Keith Ellison). The protests are an expression of the frustration that -- as Matt Yglesias put it -- "Charles Murray ... manages to be a best-selling author, in-demand speaker, have a think tank gig and be a free speech martyr."

None of this excuses illiberal modes of shutting down speech (see my endorsement of Jill Filopovic's column following the Middlebury event). But I think we can hold multiple thoughts at the same time:
  1. That Charles Murray's Bell Curve work is widely discredited and generally thought of as racist claptrap;
  2. That Charles Murray's present work -- what he currently lectures on -- is not particularly politically polarizing (and -- perhaps this is the more controversial point -- that someone who produces racist claptrap can also produce interesting arguments which fall entirely into the accepted range of ongoing political controversies);
  3. That many people are not like Charles Murray in that we have no interest in ever looking past bad statements, and it is not shall we say random who gets to make comebacks and who is permanently haunted by their past; and
  4. That, however we choose to manage the tensions elucidated by observations 1 through 3, certain types of remedies (like governmental censorship or censorial disruptions) are off the table as violations of free academic inquiry.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Goys Tell Jews How To Fix Passover

When I first started reading this story about a "Passover Against Apartheid" event at Canada's Concordia University, I figured it was about an anti-Zionist Jewish group doing an alternative seder that emphasized various left/liberatory themes and de-emphasizes/degrades Jewish connections to Israel (my understanding is that Jewish Voice for Peace publishes a haggadah for precisely this purpose). And while I'm obviously no fan of such activity on the substance, procedurally speaking I'd have no objection. Jews-not-me are allowed to practice Jewishness in ways I don't like or approve of; the fact that they take a message from Passover that I find distasteful is their prerogative.

But it turns out that the folks reinterpreting Passover as a critique of "Israel's apartheid state" and suggesting alternatives to "Next Year in Jerusalem" were not exactly who I thought:
“Passover Against Apartheid” - put together by the Concordia Student Union, the Fine Arts Student Alliance and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights groups - included sponsorship from no Jewish organizations.
So basically, this was a bunch of non-Jews coming in to explain Jews how to do Passover right. Indeed, the manner in which the flyers were distributed suggests that they wanted to avoid substantive Jewish presence at all.  And that I think I am justified in finding extra-special gross.

The term that's being used in a lot of the stuff I'm reading on this is "cultural appropriation", and while for me that concept has quite a bit of baggage (see here for a bit on why) I wouldn't necessarily object to its deployment here. That said, I'd rather just talk of it as part of a perceived entitlement by non-Jews to dictate to Jews the contours of our identity, culture, practices and beliefs. We saw similar behavior out of the Church of Scotland a few years ago, and from the UK's Methodist Church a few years before that. It is among the most central elements of what might be called global antisemitic patrimony: the authority, indeed the right, held by non-Jews to define the Jew. This entitlement, borne initially out of Christian and Muslim domination of Jewish bodies, is deeply embedded into modernity -- hence why it is seen as an entitlement, something non-Jews are simply owed, something that counts as an outrageous loss when it is challenged or stripped.
For thousands of years, for much of the world, part of the cultural patrimony enjoyed by all non-Jews—spiritual and secular, Church and Mosque, enlightenment and romantic, European and Middle Eastern—was the unquestionable right to stand superior over Jews. It was that right which the Holocaust took away, or at least called into question: the unthinking faith of knowing you were the more enlightened one, the spiritually purer one, the more rational one, the dispenser of morality rather than the object of it. To be sure, some people were better positioned to enjoy this right than others. And some people arrived onto the scene late in the game, only to discover that part of the bounty they were promised may no longer be on the table. Of course they’re aggrieved! The European immigrant who never owned a slave but was at least promised racial superiority is quite resentful when the wages of Whiteness stop being what they once were. Similarly, persons who lived far from the centers of Christian or Muslim power where Jewish subordination was forged are nonetheless well aware of what was supposed to be included in modernity’s gift basket. They recognize what they’ve “lost” as acutely as anyone else.
“The Germans,” the old saying goes, “will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” And not just the Germans. Many people deeply resent the Jews for what Auschwitz took away from them—the easy knowledge that their vantage point was elevated over and superior to that of the Jews, the entitlement to be able to talk about Jews without having to listen to Jews.
This is what is happening at Concordia. It is yet another manifestation of  the "willful refusal on the part of the global left to adopt any other position other than teacher/master to Jewish servant/children. To borrow from George Yancy, they 'admit[] of no ignorance vis-à-vis the [Jew]. Hence, there is no need for ... silence, a moment of quietude that encourages listening to the [Jew].'" It is a practice and behavior that is pervasive, is systemic, and is antisemitic root-to-branch. It needs to be rooted out.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Shoes Might Save You This Time

This is a very interesting article by McMillan Cottom explaining why poor people seem to "waste" money buying certain luxury goods (especially clothes). Cottom, whose family experienced multigenerational poverty, explains that such purchases can serve important signaling functions that -- sometimes -- facilitate successful navigation of institutions which might allow for upward mobility. The parent who "looks" middle-class (and therefore looks like she knows how to raise a stink) might be more successful at insuring her school doesn't overlook the needs of her child. The job applicant who "looks" professional (and how often have all we gotten the advice of how important professional appearances are!) might be more likely to be picked out for a higher-status job with greater benefits. Even the supplicant seeking public benefits who "looks" like she knows how to navigate the bureaucratic maze may be more likely to get favorable attention from the various officials and functionaries whose discretionary judgment can make or break a case.

The essay is a useful corrective to the instinct of many to assume the irrationality of the poor -- particularly when they make choices that at first blush make no sense to us (the infamous "If I Were a Poor Black Kid"  essay is a classic of the genre). Very frequently, choices that seem "bad" from the outside have a logic to them -- albeit often a logic born out of coercion and impossible choices -- that makes them quite sensible to persons actually living in the relevant circumstances. It's easy to say "joining a gang is a bad choice." It's harder to say that if not joining a gang means that the gang will gang-rape your sister, or beat you bloody every day before school. It's easy to say "the quick money from dealing drugs isn't worth the long-term consequences of ruining your future." It's harder to say that if your discounted utility is such that you can say "I might not live to be grown up. My life wasn't promised to me."

Put another way, if people aren't making what we deem to be good, pro-social choices, we can conclude either:
  1. They have malsocial preferences (they're "bad people" who don't have a good set of ends);
  2. They're irrational (their choices don't lead to their desired ends); or
  3. The incentive structures are wrong (their rational choices, in pursuit of reasonable ends, nonetheless don't yield pro-social results).
Frequently, we rush to explanations #1 and #2 -- ones which pathologize the poor (and other outgroups). But explanation #3 will frequently be more plausible (not to mention less degrading). And essays like this, which disturb the idea that poor people are simply stupid or diseased, can help point us towards other interventions that view the poor as we view ourselves -- as generally good, rational people who want a basically decent life and are trying as best they can, within the limits of their resources, to secure those ends.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Tomorrow's Predictable Punditry, Today

In a surprise announcement, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has thrown his hat in the ring to try and secure his old job. He will likely be running against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who brokered the Iran Deal with the US and is perceived as a moderate in comparison to the hardline Ahmadinejad.

Just to save everyone time, allow me to give you an advance copy of the various partisan pundits' takes on the outcome of this election:

If Ahmadinejad loses:

Republicans: "Now that America has gotten tough under Trump, hostile nations like Iran know better than to cross the US!"

Democrats: "Turns out that when you negotiate with a country rather than insist on it being an eternal international pariah, you decrease the appeal of the nation's extremist faction. Fancy that."

If Ahmadinejad wins:

Republicans: "I thought the Iran Deal was supposed to moderate Iran? Thanks Obama!"

Democrats: "Wow, you mean aggressive Islamophobia and saber-rattling by Donald Trump ends up emboldening radical forces in the Middle East? Who could have known?"