Wednesday, November 30, 2011

if you want credit for endorsing something unpopular you better actually endorse what it says

I'll take Ta-Nehisi Coates's lead and bring my thoughts on race and IQ to a close. I'll do it with a simple observation.

Perhaps what aggravates me the most about the position of Andrew Sullivan is how he, and others who endorse the Bell Curve argument, express that endorsement by essentially lying about what the argument says. To read Sullivan, or the myriad people who have popped up in my comments, one might think that these arguments offer minor distinctions between the intelligence of the black population and the intelligence of the white population, that we're talking nickels and dimes here. This is flatly untrue.   Both the Bell Curve and the larger suite of arguments about race and IQ that Sullivan and others are endorsing say that the black population is significantly less intelligent than the white population. The Bell Curve argues that the average white person has an IQ that is more than a standard deviation higher than the average black person. Since the publication of that book, Charles Murray and those like him have endorsed the view that sub-Saharan Africans have an average IQ better than two standard deviations lower than the average white American. (See, for example, the notorious Rushton-Jensen article, co-authored by the president of the explicitly racist and eugenicist Pioneer Society.) In other words, they believe that the difference in intelligence between the average white American and the average sub-Saharan African is the same as or larger than the difference in intelligence between the average sub-Saharan African and someone who suffers from Down Syndrome. These are not fine distinctions.

Sullivan wrote "No one is arguing that 'that black people are dumber than white,' just that the distribution of IQ is slightly different among different racial populations." If you take nothing else away from me, ever, take this: this is wrong. To say that a standard deviation of difference represents a "slight" difference is simply untrue. To say that the two full standard deviations separating sub-Saharan Africans from white Americans, asserted by the race science crowd, is merely a slightly different distribution is to engage in some truly mendacious wordplay, or to betray a lack of even elementary statistical education.

Does accepting these premises equate with arguing that black people are dumber than white people? I would suggest that it does. As I said in a previous post, I don't doubt that people are accurately reporting IQ data for different populations. What I doubt is that intelligence is a quantifiable phenomenon; that IQ is a meaningful proxy for it; that IQ tests are free of systematic bias and data corruption; and that these differences can be responsibly asserted to be the product of heredity and not environmental and other factors. But if you do accept these premises, I can't see how there is any meaningful way you can deny that statement. After all, the Bell Curve's central argument is precisely that intelligence is real, measurable, accurately quantified with IQ and IQ testing, largely heritable, and that black people have low IQs.

(How long ago did Sullivan read the Bell Curve? I have it sitting in front of me. The data is right there. I can't understand how Sullivan can believe that he's arguing the same thing as the book and yet still call these slight differences in distribution.)

This divide, between the pride with which people assert their independence and honesty on this issue, and the way in which they relate the arguments of race science in the most anodyne and minimized way-- that's what bothers me the most. It's the hypocrisy in patting yourself on the back for facing "harsh truths" and then failing to accurately reflect what those "truths" you're endorsing actually say.

In the post I linked to above, Coates talks about his community.
I have lived in the black community virtually my entire life. I went to black public schools. I went to a black university. I have spent a third of my life with a black woman. When I wake up in the morning, black people are the first thing I see. My black mother and father hurled books at me. My black Howard professors shot down my dumb theories. My black book editor parses through my long unwieldy thoughts. My black wife reads my first drafts. In very literal terms, what you read here everyday is representation of the collective brain-power of a black community.
If I know the rhythms of blogging, this episode will soon draw to a close and everyone will part as friends. I must insist on pointing this out: if the argument of the Bell Curve and attendant views is correct, the majority of the people Coates has described here are likely of significantly below average intelligence. That's what the argument says, that a significant majority of black people have below average IQs and that these IQs accurately reflect their intelligence. Sure, some race science types might say that Coates is likely to run with an above-average crowd. But if you expand the ranks of people far enough, and statistics are true, and the Bell Curve is true, we're talking about a group of people-- the people this man loves and admires-- who are largely made up of the unintelligent. That's what the book says. And you, reading at home, the black people you know and work with and socialize with? The Bell Curve says that you can expect a significant majority of them to be significantly below average intelligence. That's the text of the book. It's right there, in black and white.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

no, I'm not an IQ guy myself

Since some have asked, in response to my recent post on IQ and race-- no, I'm not a booster of IQ. You can read far smarter and more qualified people than I describing why a measure like IQ (or g) is deeply insufficient to approximate intelligence, or indeed why even "intelligence" as a static, comprehensive, or meaningful term is deeply problematic. (Although there are of course those who will insist that these perspectives are merely the product of well-intentioned sentimentality.)

Additionally, "race" and "black" have never been defined to my satisfaction in these discussions. Again, this is the kind of stance that is commonly dismissed as politically correct or romantic, but I find it simply a sensible consideration of the facts. When we're talking about ancestry and heredity we're talking about complex genealogical lines that are particularly tangled when you're talking about black Americans. Using terms like "of African ancestry" is deeply problematic when talking about black Americans, who represent a totally unique group and who have a genetic heritage loaded with the influence of other groups such as white Americans and Native Americans. It seems to me, from a common sense (read: inexpert) position, that "black" can't mean much if it includes both a first-generation Somalian who now lives in Los Angeles and can trace his lineage to the same town going back hundreds of years, and also someone whose family in Cleveland came by way of Alabama via Haiti via being captured as a slave from what is now Liberia, and whose lineage includes a Greek grandfather and a Cherokee great-grandmother and the slaveholders who raped their way into his background. I'm willing to be educated on why the term is still useful despite this lack of common background, but I keep not hearing that argument.

I engage on this issue using those terms and those assumptions because I want to critique the arguments that flow from their assumptions. And even accepting their assumptions that intelligence is one quantity that can be distilled down to individual numerical scores, and that broad designations of race and ethnicity are meaningful categories for making informed assumptions, their arguments strike me as a comprehensive failure. Again, show me the actual mechanism at work here. Point to the genes, the chromosomes, the alleles, demonstrate how those affect gestation, and prove that they lead to the phenotypical outcomes of lower IQ.

I'll show my cards and say that I don't think that will happen, because I don't believe intelligence, whatever that means, is like having lobed ears or blue eyes. Even if it were, I don't think it can be boiled down to a measure like g. But even if I did, I'd need to see the mechanism. Call me a stickler.

Monday, November 28, 2011

narrative is distorting/the mechanism is what matters

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, I see that Andrew Sullivan is lamenting a purported blackout of research regarding the race-IQ connection. This is not new territory for Andrew; he helped bring the issue into the public consciousness back during his tenure as editor at The New Republic.

Now: the first issue here is the claim that such a blackout exists. As Coates points out, the evidence for such a blackout that is presented amounts to the complaint of a single researcher, Dennis Garlick. The researcher is someone who could reasonably claim expertise on the issue, and he appears from my limited vantage to have an impressive resume. His claim, though, seems disturbingly unsupported. Whether or not research into IQ and heredity is being squashed is an empirical question. Coates links to a blogger who attempts to answer that question empirically, and while we couldn't call it scientific, I find it a sober and constructive attempt to find out the truth. The results seem to speak for themselves, but I can't know what goes on behind the scenes. I'm unqualified to say if Garlick is right, but as a consumer of research I also don't find his case compelling.

The fact that empirical inquiry cuts against the grain of what Sullivan and Garlick are claiming is resonant in the context of the race-IQ question. The "race realist" movement has always pushed a narrative where politics corrupts empiricism, but the movement's failures have primarily been empirical failures. When you strip away the endless paranoid conspiracy theorizing and the relentless flogging of the narrative, you get down to a robust set of data demonstrating differences in performance on IQ tests, then some fairly wild speculation about genetic causes. Over and over again, assertions about the genetic undesirability of black people involve making massive leaps from an observed phenomenon to a particular mechanism to explain that phenomenon, with dubious or nonexistent evidence to support those leaps.

It's true: a broad swath of research demonstrates that black Americans tend to perform less well on standardized tests of intelligence. This racial achievement gap is not adequately explained merely by controlling for socioeconomic status, as is commonly assumed, although adjusting for poverty does shrink it. There's no need to hide from that data, as those positing genetic determinism constantly accuse others of doing. If a connection between heredity and IQ can be discovered, it should be. (Measure what is measurable, etc.) But what empiricism requires-- not political correctness, not bleeding heart compassion, not even basic human decorum and civility, but cold-blooded rational inquiry-- is far more than the racial determinists have show us. The narrative they present is seductive, which is precisely why their insistence on narrative over the complicated and limited claims of science is disturbing. From my perspective, most people who assert racial genetic deficiencies seem remarkably disinterested in identifying specific mechanisms for the observed phenomenon. They instead seem primarily interested in flogging crude and reductive visions of our society and what ails it.

The rush to find genetic origins for any and all human phenomena has become so popular, particularly with the press, that the standards of evidence have eroded everywhere. Genetic or evolutionary speculation has become an obsession of our media, frequently undertaken without a shred of scientific credibility, and defined by faddishness and imprecision. Take homosexuality and genetics. I find it remarkable the number of educated people who I meet who assume, quite confidently, the homosexuality (in both men and women) is purely and straightforwardly the product of genetic predisposition. This is a politically palatable idea-- one might call it PC-- but it can't yet be proven, even conditionally. There are complications, such as the (controversial) older brothers hypothesis, which is important because it posits a mechanism that is non-genetic and yet nonetheless physiological in origin (and thus not "chosen"), as well as other evidence contrary to the assumed genetic origins of homosexuality.

But as it became politically important for people to insist that homosexuality is genetic, that insistence became more and more prevalent. Never mind that the dichotomy between "homosexuality is purely genetic" and "homosexuality is a choice" is flagrantly false, or that "they can't help it" is not a stirring cry for equality. Politics made the genetic origin necessary, so people believed in it. Indeed, it's hard for me to imagine a scenario where politics has more directly corrupted popular understandings of empirical questions than the widespread belief that we know for a fact that homosexuality is genetic. Yet curiously, I don't find Andrew railing against that assumption, or insisting on the supremacy of disinterested research, or leading the battle for more open-mindedness in the attempt to explain the origins of homosexuality. Perhaps we will identify specific alleles that determine sexual orientation; I wouldn't be remotely surprised. But jumping from observed phenomenon to the assumption of genetic origins of that phenomenon with limited direct evidence of a specific mechanism is unhelpful.

Compare these speculative genetic causes of low IQ or homosexuality to, say, genetics and sickle cell anemia. We don't have the presence of a human condition and vague talk such as "it's genetic." We have identified the particular gene, in a particular chromosome, that causes the condition. We know how the mutation changes protein structure, which leads directly to specific consequences in gestation that cause the negative health effects we see in people with sickle cell anemia. We identified the alleles responsible for specific phenotypic traits and demonstrated the connection scientifically. At every step, we have gone beyond "it's genetic," in regards to sickle cell anemia, specifically and constructively. We have identified the mechanism which causes the condition. That's the job of those who are dedicated to racial determinism: find the mechanism. Do your work. Show me the data. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you when you fail to prove your assertions.

My question for Andrew and others is whether my dissatisfaction with the assumption of genetic origins for the racial achievement gap is necessarily "PC," particularly when placed in context with our knowledge about genetic phenomena like sickle cell. Is the narrative so powerful that we couldn't merely be unpersuaded by the evidence?

Speaking as someone who is involved, for 14+ hours out of a typical day, in reading, researching, and learning about education and pedagogy, let me engage in understatement and point out that education and intelligence are remarkably mulitivariate phenomena. My continuing frustration with the ed reform crowd is how relentlessly reductive they are in discussing the origins of poor educational performance. Saying "it's those damned unions!" and accusing any dissenters of obstruction isn't just politically unfair. It's an incredible failure to soberly assess the depth of our problems and the complexities of their origins. Trying to isolate specific variables in education and intelligence research is incredibly hard. That's not politics. It's reality. To ascribe genetic origins without greater explanation of mechanism or the exploration of environmental factors which shape IQ is to engage in wild-ass speculation.

My own wild-ass speculation? The question of race and IQ will be answered in a way that is complex, rather dull, and totally useless for providing headline fodder for sensationalist publications like The New Republic or Slate. I wouldn't be surprised if a whole slew of factors, including poverty, exposure to lead, poor diets, parent educational background, the idiom tests are written in, neonatal health care, learning disorders, dyslexia and dyscalculia, lack of exposure to educational toys and games, low childhood reading loads, the persistence of syntactic immaturity due to parental modeling (my own academic obsession), and other environmental factors played a role. That doesn't even begin to untangle the web of what "black" means in terms of specific linear heritage, particularly since we are talking about a truly unique genetic history that has been conditioned by the rape and forced breeding programs that are common to chattel slavery. If I'm right and the origins of the racial achievement gap are revealed to be a stew of competing factors, it will make our job of closing the gap harder, but it will also hopefully blunt the words of those who ascribe vast social problems to the supposed inherent inferiority of our most oppressed group.

I chose the example of sickle cell anemia purposefully, of course. It's a condition that is generally found in those with sub-Saharan African lineage. What does that mean for American blackness? Is sickle cell anemia "inherent" in black people? Is there something essential about the disorder in black people? They're absurd questions. Yet they are of exactly the same character as claims routinely made about black people and intelligence. As I said, my unsupported speculation is that a large number of factors contribute to the racial achievement gap. It's possible that one of them is a genetic predisposition. If so, we'll need to know what genes are actually producing this trait, and how. Then what? If we find such a predisposition, does that make low intelligence "inherent" to blackness? Does it mean we send black people off on a barge? Is this somehow an insurmountable challenge to liberalism, or to our social policies?

Racial determinists say that they want rationality and then engage in hysteria. The first step in assessing these issues is getting to the truth of the matter, and their dogged insistence about what we know exceeds their evidence and thus hinders that pursuit of truth. They then dig deeper, insisting on a slew of negative social conditions that stem from these supposed genetic deficiencies. It isn't surprising where the conversation next turns, although those who embrace these ideas continue to feign shock when they find racists involved in race science. (I want to loathe Stephen Metcalf, but his prudence, intelligence, and fairness in this piece makes it impossible, I'm afraid. Seriously, read it.)

I find the case for racial determinism currently unpersuasive. I find the notion of a research blackout unsupported. I find the discussion of racial lineage and genetic diversity reductive. I find the description of a specific genetic mechanism nonexistent. I find the idea of essentialized blackness offensive. I find the suggested consequences unsupportable and the supposed policy responses laughable. And I find the case for egalitarianism, equal protection before the law, and the assumption of equivalent human dignity totally unchallenged, whatever the reality about the racial achievement gap.

Of course, I'm not without considerable biases, and I couldn't tell you that I have inhabited a space of pure rationality when confronting this question. But this narrative of a refusal to learn the truth due to political correctness, so self-aggrandizing to those who push it, is not credible and does not serve the cause of empiricism. The pursuit of the controversial for its own ends is as distorting as the avoidance of it, and nowhere is that more true than here. Many people have attempted to marshal the evidence for the race-IQ connection for quite some time. Rather than evidence, they keep bringing us the narrative. Remember that.

Friday, November 18, 2011

the racialized subject

One thing that I really wish more people understood (to be more direct, what I wish more white people understood) is that for racial minorities, the sense of being racialized is nearly constant, and often uncomfortable even when it isn't direct, explicit, or expressed in behavior.

Here's what I mean.

I think most anyone who has gone through any level of higher education has had a particular day of class when race was discussed in a way that was uncomfortable for at least some in the classroom. A particular form of this discomfort often comes when white students feel that they are being personally indicted by discussions of white racism, whether contemporary or historical. It's a phenomenon I've observed over and over again, and I'm always discouraged by it. For a lot of people, any discussion of race appears to be close to a personal accusation; palpable tension fills the air. The more the conversation turns away from a historical perspective, where the distance of history provides a buffer, and towards contemporary racism, the more charged the atmosphere becomes. And god forbid someone actually say that someone is being racially insensitive. Then things get really unhappy.

I am not insensitive to the feelings of white students in this situation, nor can I claim that I have never felt this way myself. The righteous notion that racial issues are of deep meaning and great consequence naturally makes these issues charged for everyone. And as accusations of racism are something of a nuclear bomb in discourse, being sensitive to them is inevitable. But that discomfort, I think, is also pedagogically invaluable. Being challenged in this way is precisely what higher education should be about. It's also yet another example of why protections like tenure and seniority are so important. As the university plunges along towards a service model, we need to preserve the ability of instructors to challenge their students in ways those students don't like-- often precisely because the students don't like it. Being made to feel like a racialized subject happens to white people very rarely and should be cultivated in college, comfortable or not.

What I would like for more white people to understand is that this feeling that they feel in those moments-- that they have been racialized, made to feel like an avatar for their entire broadly-defined ethnic or racial group-- is a feeling that many non-white people feel all the time.

To be clear, I don't contend that this feeling is always uncomfortable. I'm sure that many wear it with pride. There are of course times when members of racial minority groups seek out this stance, as a matter of pride, community, and the declaration of principles. But it is important to point out that it is often unchosen, and that being racially signified in that way is something that my fellow white people and I can't fully understand.

So imagine that you're the only black person at an otherwise all-white party, a fairly common occurrence, particularly at college. Somebody says something racially insensitive. It doesn't have to be out-and-out racism, and it likely isn't intended to cause offense. It's just stupid, and indicative of quietly ugly attitudes, and the kind of statement that is expressed so banally that it seeks to implicate others in its assumptions. The stupid statement is made and there's a brief window to respond to it or not.

So: what do you do? Maybe you don't know the people you're with very well. Maybe you're not willing to deal with the social consequences of objecting, particularly because those consequences are likely to occur behind your back. Maybe you're just tired and don't want to deal with this shit. And as I can tell you from personal experience, the chance for an actual productive exchange is low. But then again, racism should be challenged. People usually take silence as assent. Worse, if you're black and someone says something stupid and you don't challenge it, there's a tendency for the speaker to take that as evidence that what he or she said couldn't possibly be racist or unacceptable. "Hey, I said that around this black guy, and even he thought it was funny!" All of this goes right back to W.E.B. Du Bois; black people in America have always been forced to exist as a kind of double, the particular and the general black subject.

I couldn't possibly tell you what the right thing to do here would be. I'm not black, I've never had to navigate this particular minefield, and I never will. My point is only to say that if you're a racial minority, you have to make a choice, even if that choice is inaction. Having to face that choice is in and of itself a way of being racialized that white people don't face. Sure, we've all been in positions where we have to decide whether to engage with racism or not. But as I said above, there is an implied responsibility when you are a member of the insulted group that doesn't exist for white people. And there is no not choosing, as choosing to do nothing is making a choice, and a socially loaded one at that. It's like the guy who passes you on the street and tips his hat to you. You have no choice but to respond. You can choose to do nothing, but doing nothing is itself a choice, and in context one that sends one of the loudest social messages. Now take that and multiply the importance by a thousand times.

I have myself felt some of the discomfort that I describe above in classes where we discuss race. Then I leave the class and I'm just some dude. Meanwhile a black student leaves class and operates in an environment where many white people will take him or her to be emblematic of all black people. That's a necessary context to understand race in America, and it points to the poverty of terms like "playing the race card." The race card got played a long, long time ago. You can try to ignore it but you can't put it back in the deck.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

the presumption of innocence

You know, I just feel compelled to point out-- this Jerry Sandusky situation at Penn State is precisely the kind of situation where the rubber meets the road for a belief in the presumption of innocence.

You've had a lot of liberals lamenting the collapse of the rule of law the last decade. This would appear to be a situation where the rule of law and rights of the accused are most important. It's precisely when the media and the people have already decided the guilt of the accused (and are competing to describe his evil in the most lurid hyperbole) that these principles are the most important. And yet I find silence on that presumption of innocence from most liberal commentators, or the outright abandonment of it, when it comes to this particular case.

This particular case involves disturbing admitted attitudes and behaviors and a great deal of incriminating testimony. But the presumption of innocence is the bedrock principle of our legal system, and it applies until the legal process has run its course. And it has nothing to do with belief that the accused will eventually be found not guilty, or sympathy for the accused. I can generate no such sympathy for Jerry Sandusky. But I have to point out that precisely the same liberals who beat their breast about the terrible collapse of the rule of law are now trying to outdo each other in the expression of their outrage, directly against the presumption of innocence. I don't expect any different from conservatives, who by and large believe that any accusation is true if it is voiced-- unless it's sexual harassment, rape, or police misconduct, that is. But liberals who have staked many claims on the rule of law and the principles which undergird it suddenly find that commitment unpalatable, when it has become so unpopular.

I doubt you'll find many expressing that perspective, though.

Update: mistermix made some astute points here. This is what I said in comments.
I recognize the distinction. I just think that trial by media is a poor idea, as Richard Jewel could have told you when he was alive. And while I recognize that the legal right to a fair trial is distinct from the opinions on guilt of the public, I also think that it becomes functionally impossible to get that fair trial when the public is convinced there's no chance the accused is innocent.

It's a fair point about the institution, but recognize that the same criticism holds: they are accused of crimes and deserve the presumption of innocence.

It seems likely to me that Sandusky is guilty, and thank god we don't have a legal system predicated on the opinions of those minimally informed by the media. If he is guilty, he should spend the rest of his life in jail. Just like those in Guantanamo Bay should receive appropriate punishments, if they have been proven to have committed crimes in court.

Finally, on the outrage thing-- for me, "child rapist" is enough. I don't need to dig any further into my vocabulary to find appropriately angry terms. "Child rapist" says more than any purple prose ever could. It's just like with bin Laden. Why is "terrorist responsible for 3,000 people killed on 9/11" not sufficient? When people dig so deeply into their bag of outrage, at some point it ceases to be about the victim and instead becomes about them.
Update II: The consensus is that I'm full of shit here. (Although you know how little I value consensus!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

history lesson


check it out

Interestingly, one of the posts that shows up in the sidebar on The New Inquiry contains a pretty forceful rebuttal of a lot of the things that I've been writing about.
Thus, to vilify or defend the Internet, or Blogs, or Facebook, or Twitter, etc., as responsible in and of themselves for the noisy meaninglessness of our cultural discourse, for the polarization of our politics, or for the history-eschewing 24-hour news-cycle, is to lose the game before you start. It would be foolish to deny the role of social media in the current Arab uprisings, for example, but it is even more foolish to ascribe responsibility or agency to the sites or media platforms themselves. 
Yet we make this latter mistake all the time.
Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

what Twitter is for

One of the unappreciated benefits of the Internet is the way that bloggers and commenters are constantly proving your points. If I critique an argument, and one commenter pops up to say "nobody argues that," another commenter will inevitably show up and prove, quite loudly, that people do in fact argue that. It's helpful and clarifying.

Nowhere is this more perfectly realized than in my complaints about Twitter. Whenever I make my standard critique of Twitter, someone goes on Twitter, says I'm wrong, and basks in the glow of the self-selected echo chamber which reaffirms every thought. It's as regular as clockwork and as self-defeating as possible.

So: they republished a revised version of my essay on the resentment machine in the New Inquiry, for which I'm quite grateful. Ryan Avent, economics guru and reliably "reasonable" correspondent, was apparently stung by it. Unfortunately, he didn't think to articulate an argument. He merely took to Twitter.




Now, I actually think this might be the platonic Tweet. It disparages without content. It dismisses without effort. It denounces without understanding. Its totally artificial length constraints shield it from having to actually express an argument. It is broadcast in an ostensibly public way, but its creator only receives and replies to those who he chooses, and he will only choose those who flatter and support him. And it produced exactly what Twitter is meant to produce, some random figure that emerges only to gently stroke the ego of the user.

I am angry, because Avent didn't just dismiss my essay without argument. He instead decided to attack my field. I'm not interested in defending it; the scholars who are producing knowledge in my discipline, and their work, can stand on their own. I will merely say that Avent has no idea what my field is, couldn't name three people working within it, doesn't have a clue what kind of research comes from it, doesn't even have a context for understanding what he is offhandedly dismissing. He has no idea, and he has the arrogance that can only come from ignorance and a medium that privileges it. This is what Twitter is for, and this is indicative of the entire operation of prominent bloggers: socially and professionally connected people who defend each other no matter what, excluding and marginalizing dissent, ignoring unpalatable arguments that they can't answer, and in every way undermining as illegitimate criticisms that don't operate from a position of privilege and social authority. You know why our media sucks? Why blogging sucks? This is why. Because bad behavior will never be corrected, thanks to the endless corruption of professional patronage.

This, above all else: I'm right here. Everyone who wants to rebut me has only to take to a blog and rebut me, or come into my comments section to argue with me, or send me an email. I fight a lot. I win some. I lose many. But I am willing to fight, and to lose, as long as my critics are willing to fight. But they never do. They take their whinges behind closed doors, or they back channel grief to me through mutual social circles, or they utilize the fake public forum of Twitter to dismiss in 140 characters what they couldn't rebut in 1,000 words. They do everything but have it out. So here is Ryan Avent, without an argument, without any knowledge whatsoever of the field he's critiquing, with nothing but the reliable certainty that some follower would soothe his ego, flatter his pretensions, and indicate assent. This is what Twitter is for: for those too weak to engage in actual antagonistic discourse. And did Avent retweet his useful pal? Oh, of course.

Unlike Avent, I lack the protections of working for establishment media, or institutional authority, or the pleasant cocoon of neoliberal mutual admiration. I don't have a host of paid-up members of the establishment blogosphere using their levers of control to defend me. It's just me, on this free blogging platform, and nobody else. Not a think tank, not a big media magazine, not a foundation or a set of fellow travelers. I have no institution and I ask for no supporters. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ryan Avent can continue to hide in a coward's medium. I, meanwhile, will remain here, ready to fight. It's a small grace for a poor and tired grad student, one lacking all the amenities that Avent has accumulated in the world of privilege that establishment media represents, but in comparison to people who spend their whole lives hiding in a bubble of pleasant assent, I feel like a king.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

resentment machine watch

No, the way you mix your old-fashioned cannot reveal the depths of your character. The drink you choose says nothing of meaningful substance about you.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Google Reader to Google+: central planning even I don't like

(I'm just kidding. There's lots of central planning I don't like.)

With this switch from Google Reader's social features to integration into Google+, forced from above, it's almost as if the Goog is trying to prove the point of the engineer who recently complained about Google's culture and its failures. Google Reader began life as a simple RSS feeder. Simple and powerful: a program that pushes the content you subscribe to and aggregates it in one place. Google, being a bunch of chronic tinkerers (sometimes to the good, often not), continued to develop Reader and added social features. Rather than using this set of social features in a limited way, a small but passionate group of users adopted Reader as their default social network. (For context, I'm not one of them.)

Designers and those who use designs are always meeting in the middle. Designers make certain plans for functionality and use, and users organically define actual use. Actual use can often subvert the intentions of designers in such a way that it undermines their motives-- most obviously their profit motive-- and as such are designed away. That's neither fair nor unfair in and of itself. The only question is whether designing away organic use makes the product more or less attractive to its user base, and whether or not that in turn undermines the primary motives of the designer. Think about Napster. I am dimly aware that Napster continued to exist following its initial use as a clearinghouse for unpaid for music. It may even exist now, but if it does, it's no Amazon or iTunes. They abandoned the use which its user base actually was attached to, thanks to legal coercion, and the user base vanished. That's an extreme example, but it highlights the delicate balance that designers have to strike in pushing users towards certain official uses without losing the functionality that made the product attractive in the first place.

What makes the Google Reader situation frustrating is that they are facing no coercion except the internal edict to integrate their services into Google+. Part of the early brilliance of Google was the way in which it understood that the profit motive could be an impediment to attracting a user base for new products. They didn't allow immediate profitability to get in the way of developing useful products. (This is like the now-overquoted but still clarifying part in the Social Network where Sean Parker points out that you don't put ads on Facebook because ads aren't cool.) Obviously, it helps when you have a central service, search, that is a cash cow and dominant player to subsidize experiments and new ventures. What's distressing is that Google now seems to be allowing integration to affect its products in a way that it never allowed profitability to.

One of the hardest parts about the kind of expansion Google is continuing to embark on is finding needs to fill. This was the problem with Google Wave, and the reason why Wave failed: it's see a need, fill a need, not design a product, find a need for it to fill. One of the saddest parts about that failure is that people wanted to use Wave. Remember that? People got excited ahead of themselves. Then they didn't end up using it, despite initial enthusiasm, because they didn't find a use. Contrast that with Reader as social feature: a user base that found an organic use for a product and have become attached to it without a coordinated effort on Google's part. Reader's social features are the anti-Wave. I can't understand how a company that is so smart in so many ways is being so stupid in failing to understand its own recent past.

Google is trying to build a mall where it owns all the stores. The problem is that part of what makes a mall work is that its individual franchise owners and operators are invested in their individual stores and not in some centrally-planned definition of the health of the mall. Cinnabon might have to live by certain rules, but it's going to advocate for its own good and not for that of the other stores in the mall. By using its central authority to force Reader to suffer for the good of Google+, Google is threatening an established product and user base for the potential good of an unestablished one that might never take off.

If I was on the Reader team, I'd be screaming now.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

the security, prosperity, and peace of the Libyan people have not been secured

Spencer Ackerman has declared that Libya is over. 

First: if you believe that the manipulation of Libya by the United States and other western powers is over, you are ignorant of the history of Libya, Northern Africa, the 20th century, and the United States. Our country has been manipulating the course of events in foreign countries, and in particular in oil-rich countries, for the entirety of our modern history. We use coercion, violence, espionage, and diplomatic malfeasance to undermine the self-determination of sovereign countries. This is not conspiracy. It is a reflection of history, revealed in declassified military and espionage documentation that is freely available to anyone. We manipulated Libya when we backed Qaddafi as he ruthlessly murdered his people; we will do it in Libya by backing whatever new military junta ossifies in the coming months. It would take a special combination of ignorance and obtuseness to believe we have no operatives in that country now. We have interests in Libya and so we are manipulating Libya, and we will trod on person, property, and democracy to do so if it suits our ends.

Second: what actually matters-- what has moral valence-- is the material condition of the lives of the Libyan people. Nothing there is finished. Nothing is settled. To call it a democracy now would be an absurd act of projection. Many corrupt men are now freely operating in Libya, armed to the teeth and with a feeling of entitlement. Some of them want to execute homosexuals, oppress women, and adopt Islamic theocracy. Some want to ensure the ascension of their tribe or clan. Some just want to get their piece of the pie. But that's the reality. There is neither security nor stability yet, and anyone who actually cares for the future of the Libyan people would admit that.

But, of course, one of the most important aspects of being a professional pundit and advancing your career is demonstrating "even handedness," even for parlor radicals. So it comes as no surprise that Andrew Sullivan and his pro-Obama propaganda shop have blessed Ackerman with one of their patented Yglesias awards, which is (as I understand it) an award given to people who make stabs at being "reasonable" in a way that defies principle, reason, wisdom, ethics, or sobriety.

People respond to incentives. Behaviors that are rewarded are repeated. And in professional punditry, all of the incentives point away from truth.

dogged adherence to the Enlightenment is illiberal

It's fair to say that I'm not a fan of the term "classical liberal." This is a term of self-aggrandizement adopted by people who claim to be the real inheritors of Enlightenment values and the tradition of Smith, Locke, and Jefferson. Calling yourself a classical liberal tends to beg the question; the legacy of that era is contested, with leftists like me insisting that the egalitarianism espoused by those thinkers necessarily includes reasonable equity in fact and not just in theory. Even the legacy of specific thinkers, like Adam Smith, are contested. He's generally taken as the patron saint of laissez faire capitalism, but he endorsed progressive taxation, and some read his work as an endorsement of markets specifically because he believed they would deliver egalitarian outcomes.

But even this discussion strikes me as being somewhat besides the point. One of the most obvious elements of the Enlightenment was the rejection of tradition, and particularly the idea that tradition should preserved simply because it is tradition. Embracing reason means embracing change, as what is dictated by reason will shape and be shaped by a changing world. I take the best of liberalism to be its refusal to declare an end to any inquiry. Like the scientific method, liberalism is not a list of truth statements about the world but a way of knowing. It is a process through which useful knowledge can be developed, but the self-critique within it suggests that this knowledge can never be considered the final word.

For this reason, I find constant reference to the ideals of the Enlightenment, like constant invocation of the framers of the Constitution, to be uniquely self-denying. To treat the words of the Enlightenment thinkers as inflexible authority is to reject those thinkers in the most real and distorting way. The world has changed and liberalism must change with it or be discarded.

(Incidentally, I am trying to write shorter posts, as I have been teased about it. I am apparently not entirely incorrigible, my showy assertions of independence notwithstanding.)