Friday, November 30, 2012

stuff you need to think about if you want to go to grad school

I've gone on record several times as saying that going to grad school can be a good decision, if you are funded, and if you take the steps to inform yourself and make the decision without illusions. You should check out the post if you want the long form; a lot of it has to do with the perception of opportunity costs, which are dependent on opportunity, which is hard to come by for many people these days. But information is key, and being ruthless in your self-examination is key, and doing the research is key. To be a grad student is to say that you intend to spend several years of your life being a professional researcher. Fail to do the necessary research before you begin and suffer for it, and I have little sympathy for you.

I bring this up because my university has a new regime coming to town, and people are doing their initial assessments to prepare for new scrutiny.

So: since 1998, my program (not to be confused with the department in which it is housed) has graduated 92% of those doctoral candidates who have passed their exams, at an average total time to graduate of 5.3 years, with a hire rate for those pursuing permanent teaching positions at just about 100%. (Some of these people have taken permanent contracts at non-tenure granting institutions like community colleges, some go on to teach at high school, though the large majority have taken tenure track positions.) We also send a small but consistent number of people into industry, working in professional writing and communication for large corporations. These numbers are in part an aspect of the small scale of my field, and lit people would rush to point out that the TT jobs we get are rarely considered prestige jobs by the sort of people who care about that perception. But that's a separate conversation from that of being employable.

This is not an act of braggadocio. Those numbers guarantee nothing about my own career, and trust me, I'm aware that I could be left without a chair when the music stops. And I also have no illusions that such numbers will necessarily defend us against an antagonistic administration. But those numbers matter; they reflect real material differences in the lives of doctoral students and their families. They are not the product of an accident. They are the product of a program and professors who have made getting people graduated and hired a relentless focus of their work; of a field that has worked to demonstrate its practical value for students to administrators and gatekeepers; and of a community decision not to flood the job market with more PhDs than it can reasonably support. Choices matter and incentives matter, for professors and administrators. They also matter for students.

So if you're thinking of going to grad school, do the legwork. Try to find these numbers and read them critically. If you can't find them, don't apply to that school. If the numbers are terrible, don't apply to that school. If getting hired would require that you beat long odds, don't go, unless you have genuine certainty that you have some ace in your sleeve, or if you have other professional outs. If you come from money or have your realtor's license or can otherwise get employed after you graduate, fine. But don't depend on hope. I know people who have gone on to TT jobs coming from departments which have overall poor numbers. They are exceptional people. But none of us is good at assessing whether we ourselves are exceptional. If you're deciding, you owe it to yourself to decide with a strong bias towards not going.

People respond to incentives. You may have heard about a "law school bubble," an idea which is a product of our current moment where you can get absolutely anything published as long as you call it a bubble. Well, perhaps it's not a bubble but a balloon, and rather than popping, people are slowly and gradually letting some of the air out, as rational people do. As Noah Millman says, things that are unsustainable won't be sustained. (Problems are solvable, and the juvenile "bubbles everywhere" mindset presumes that everyone but the person calling the bubble is just too stupid or stubborn to solve them.) But to adjust your behavior you have to be rational. It's okay to be romantic about learning and the life of the mind-- I am-- but first, you have to be a mercenary.

liberal essentialism

As an internationalist, a socialist, and a pacifist, I'm used to a string of liberal argument that goes something like this. "You can reject the nation/capitalism/war because you're white and privileged! Black people/gay people/women don't hold those positions, it's all white men." Or, as someone put it in the comments here early this year, "I guess what I was getting at before is that the dream you're espousing here is itself a product of your tribal loyalties, or more succinctly, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people who share your dream are white Westerners, and there are cultural reasons for this."

This is of course liberal essentialism, reducing nonwhite and non-Western people to their presumed roles as liberal voting blocs. It's also not true. I've known dozens of socialists in my life who were black, or gay, or women, or transgendered, certainly in higher proportions than the regular population. That fact is irrelevant to the correctness of the ideas, but it speaks to the sense in which liberal belief in the superior diversity of their ideas has actually compelled them to imagine less diversity that there really is. That there is a tiny number of nonwhite socialists speaks to the fact that there is a tiny number of socialists, period. If not a single black person held a political position I believed to be correct, then I would simply have a bigger job to do in convincing them. That it isn't the case, but is casually believed by liberals, tells you more about the unfortunate space that minorities occupy in the liberal imagination than it does about radical politics.

The immediate aftermath of this last political election was gross for a lot of reasons, but none of them made me wince more than the strutting attitude towards race a lot of Democrats displayed. The self-congratulation itself was just gross. The broader problem is how deeply liberals believe that they own minority populations, and that this ownership not only grants them the electoral advantage of the votes, but the mantle of social liberal righteousness. This essentialism, like all essentialism, robs the people who are supposedly being honored of their agency and choice, and reduces all racial politics to the status of psychodrama.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

the way we argue and liberal peacocking

In mixed martial arts, there's an old nostrum that the fighter who wins is the fighter who dictates where the fight happens. The world's best striker can't win if his opponent constantly puts him on the mat; a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt doesn't help you any if you can't get the fight to the floor. Dictate where the fight happens and you dictate the victor.*

This is also true in political debate. The writers and bloggers who typically succeed in argument are those who understand their relative strengths and know how and where to engage to maximize those strengths. This is a delicate business and one that is really only learned through experience. But some people are good at it and some people aren't, and there's a real consistency in the rhetorical stance of the former and the latter. In my own blogging, I have received my worst beatings exactly when I have been careless in assessing what the terrain of the argument would be, when I haven't taken the time to best position myself rhetorically. My sense is that many or most writers think this way, though they likely don't talk about it much. I don't see anything untoward about it. It's just the way it is.

Someone who is very, very good at playing on home ice, so to speak, is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is a veteran writer who worked as a journalist for years and years before he ever blogged, and that experience shines through in his writing. Professional writing is an interesting business; writing rightly is thought of as a noble and important enterprise, but you've got to make a living. And Coates has been savvier than most. He has a way of framing every discussion as a facet of his particular obsessions, which means that anyone arguing with him is playing on his terms. This is particularly evident in what is literally his space, the comments section of his blog, where he has cultivated a rabid fanbase that is endearing in its protectiveness towards him, if not always enlightened.

I suppose this sort of talk is the kind that gets me in trouble with people. Coates is a tough case. Like many black intellectuals, he labors in a context where much of his white audience interprets him and his work as a kind of font of endless gravitas, rather than than through interrogating his work as usual with any other writer. This isn't due to anything Coates has done or to any conscious choice made by such readers, but rather to the tangled relationships many white people have towards race and blackness, which are generally well-intentioned but can descend into a type of condescension if unchecked. I don't mean to sound hypercritical here; complicated feelings towards race and the racialized subject are an inevitable facet of intellectual life in a country with a hideously racist past and persistently racist present.

In any event, I bring this up because this post by Matt Yglesias about Lincoln references Coates's long war on calling the Civil War tragic. Apparently Coates has waged that war well, because Yglesias can't even bring himself to write the word tragic in this context without scare quotes. I suppose I don't blame him. This issue is the kind of issue on which most liberals will not risk appearing on the wrong side of the race question; after all, we're talking about events that happened 150 years ago. There's far less risk in getting on the consensus side of an issue of racial controversy.

For myself, I found the whole conversation a matter of people insisting on fighting a battle in a particular locale, as I identified above. There were and are two separate ideas being discussed, and yet they were relentlessly conflated. One, that the Civil War was tragic because the South had some positive elements like white women sunning themselves on the gothic porch and drinking sweet tea before the cotillion, the romantic South notion, the Lost Cause idea that Coates is always talking about. That's all inherently offensive. A second idea is that killing people is inherently tragic, that the death of well over 300,000 people is inherently tragic. That idea can be disputed, and many or most would dispute it. It cannot be fairly conflated with the first.

I'm a pacifist. I believe that the intentional taking of human life is permanently and unalterably immoral. To be a pacifist is to swim in a sea of hypotheticals and counterfactuals, and I have heard them all, about Hitler, and about terrorists with bombs and buses full of children, about the prevention of genocide and rape and nuclear war and all the rest. And my answer is the same. I recognize no difference between the moral status of the killing of Osama bin Laden or Mother Theresa. It's perfectly fine for people to dismiss that and dismiss me; I have been laughed at for my views since I was 15 years old, after all. But I do reject the notion that calling all of that death tragic is somehow the same as dreaming about Gothic architecture or taking the Confederacy or those who fought for it for anything but racist and evil. But Coates has consistently refused to think about the issue in any other way.

"The Civil War was tragic" is a statement with many interpretations, and no one is obligated to consider it in the way that most people prefer. But then, I suppose Coates isn't obligated to consider the issue in any way other than he wants to, either, and as I said, savvy political writers always bring the fight where they want to fight it.

As for the Lincoln discussion... at this point it seems quite useless to me. I pretty much agree with Corey Robin, though I admired the film more than he did despite my qualms. I think that the early moments of this discussion had value, but those moments are probably gone. What good remains will likely be drowned out by liberal peacocking, the ritualized performance through which various left-of-center types try to demonstrate their superior social liberalism and critical positioning through proxy discussions of news or media. That fate was probably certain for Lincoln; a movie about Abraham Lincoln by Steven Spielberg is the Platonic ideal of the middlebrow, and most of us love to distance ourselves from the middlebrow. (I know I do.) And it is a film about race made and told by white people, to a largely white audience, and few white lefties can resist the opportunity to distance themselves from what they see as the unenlightened white majority. As time goes on, the value of the conversation will shrink and the cultural competition will continue. Beware arguments where everyone feels obliged to weigh in.

Not that this means people should stop talking. Useless conversations can still be fun to have, as long as you're clear about the limitations.

* I had a particularly persistent troll for awhile who was convinced that it was hypocrisy for a pacifist to like mixed martial arts. I told him that it's as true in this instance as in so many others in life: consent is a powerful thing.

Monday, November 26, 2012


I really liked this TNR piece by Noreen Malone on Kickstarter-- I've been waiting for a piece just like it-- but this made me chuckle.

deep thoughts with James Atlas

The Times ran a piece of post-Sandy commentary yesterday that is clearly meant for the very advanced. Luckily I am here to help you by summarizing its major points and translating it into language you can understand.

Sometimes cities get drowned in floods. It turns out that sometimes people know about this and other disasters in advance but don't stop the disasters. T.S. Eliot told us to fear drowning in an abstract poem in 1922 but we never did until now. Also George Bush is an asshole. Freud said that we can't imagine our own deaths for very specific psychological reasons. We can't imagine the death of cities dying for reasons that are completely different and yet the same. Now please continue reading this piece that imagines the death of cities.

History is a series of random events organized in a seemingly sensible order. You can get paid to write that in The New York Times. We tend to think of ourselves as the end of history, because we are all the sorts of people who write pieces like this one. Frank Kermode wrote something complex and nuanced, which I will now gloss with great self-deprecation as "Flux is all." We see patterns but sometimes those patterns aren't real.

We should have learned this banal truism based on the event of current obsession, but we didn't. We also didn't learn it every other time the Times has run a piece scolding us for not learning a banal truism based on an event of current obsession. There is a high probability that New York will someday fall into the sea. But nothing is inevitable. You see, when there is a high probability that something will happen, there is also a low probability that something will not happen. I know this is complicated. But this is what we mean when we talk about probability, which is a very advanced concept. But even if New York City does fall in to the sea, New York City might still survive. For example, all of its people might move somewhere else. This will somehow allow us to still refer to a New York City. Maybe New York will be remade in Scarsdale! We of course understand this to be an absurd proposition, as we are New York sophisticates. (But it really might happen.)

Humans are ingenious. You can also get paid to write this in The New York Times. We fight off nature. For example, the doomed city of Venice, which is doomed, is planning to fight off nature with ingenious engineering. But still, Venice's death is inevitable. I know I said that nothing is inevitable, but I meant that nothing is inevitable but Venice's death. I know this because those stoic Eastern Islanders all died out, and these situations are comparable. Every civilization must go. It's inevitable, you see. There's a pattern we can see from history.

But it's important to say, when discussing a particular climatological phenomenon that I'm suggesting will lead to our doom, that civilizations (which are just like cities so let's just equate them) all meet their doom for multiple reasons. Anthropology populizer Jared Diamond showed that was true in his book Collapse. He actually got way more particular and specific than that, but again his work is very advanced and I don't want to confuse anyone. The point is that you can't point to one thing as the reason a civilization disappears. The Norse of Greenland disappeared because they cut down all the trees. I mean, other stuff, too, but mostly the trees. There is a joke to be made about whether there's a sound when a tree falls in the forest, which is totally appropriate in tone for this article about a hurricane that killed people and the death of civilization and stuff.

(The joke is about how there was both no trees to fall and no one to hear the tree fall for the same reason, on account of they cut all the trees down. I might have the causation or chronology there a little bit confused; remember it's hard to think about history. This joke survived several rounds of editing and my own sense of personal shame.)

Robert Frost wrote many poems, but you can only quote like three lines legally, so I'm going to quote the ice and fire one. That Robert Frost, he was very homespun. You know who wasn't homespun? Pliny the Younger. He wrote about Pompeii, which was destroyed by a volcano. I'm back on cities now, just telling you so you can keep track. Anyway Pompeii getting destroyed made some people more religious. But it also made some people atheists. But the important thing to understand is that the volcano just destroyed Pompeii, not the whole world. It would be primitive and irrational to imagine that the destruction of your city means the destruction of the world. Unless you lived on Easter Island.

Contemplating our ephemerality can be a profound experience. This, too, is a sentence you can be paid to write for The New York Times. Did you know that I have wandered lonely as a cloud through the lyric beauty of the Lycian coast, and also gone scuba diving? This is because I am quite the sophisticate. That trip was pretty deep. It turns out that Wikipedia has many facts you can read about the Temple of Artemis.

For some reason, most people use vacation as an opportunity to have fun, rather than to ponder the ineffable. Because of this, we all of us can't imagine the impact of global warming. "We" is a powerful word that I enjoy using. The funny thing is that as we continue to fix New York after Hurricane Sandy, New York continues to grow. We literally bail out Lower Manhattan as a big tower gets built. That is kind of a crazy thing to think about, that we can be fixing some things and also making new things at the same time. I say literally because there's actually a guy there with an old paint bucket, throwing the water into the East River.

Life continues until it stops. Joseph Conrad taught me that. I know everybody knows that but they did not learn it from Joseph Conrad. I don't blame them. Joseph Conrad is only understood by the very advanced. I like to go to the museum to look at the dinosaurs because it is then that I ponder the ineffable. Other times that I ponder the ineffable are when I walk through the streets of Manhattan, when I am scuba diving off of the Lycian coast, and when people are drowning in the streets of Manhattan. It is hard to ponder the ineffable when  you are on a deadline. New York city is a kind of miracle. This thought is both original and deep.

Here are some striking images, expressed in elegant prose: necklace of green-and-red traffic lights. Vertical paradise for billionaires. West 77th Street. Did you know that I have read Edward Gibbon? It is best to describe his multivolume, exhaustive history of thousands of pages as an ode to evanescence, because that was what he was really trying to get across.

You should appreciate what you have while you have it, because someday, it will no longer exist. Alternatively, you might die. You should seize the day, is what I'm saying. I know that this is a radical and deep thought, so please don't try to grasp it all at once. After all, I am very advanced.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

thank god for what workplace regulation we have

A few years back a friend of mine was talking about historical work he was doing that involved death records from New England in the 18th century. He said it was remarkable how many deaths were caused by things like tainted food or building collapses, fears that are incredibly remote to us today. They're remote because of regulation. People observed these preventable injuries and deaths and made a choice: to enforce requirements on behaviors which potentially endanger the lives or well-being of others. We in America eat food, take medications, enter public buildings, ride in vehicles, and undertake innumerable other activities with little or no fear because of regulation. That security and confidence represents something of a miracle, one we almost always forget or ignore.

Not everyone is so lucky. Tonight I read about a horrible tragedy in a textile factory in Bangladesh, where at least 112 workers have died from burns, smoke inhalation, heat, jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and other horrible fates. It almost goes without saying that the building lacked emergency exits and other lifesaving requirements that can be enforced through regulation. But of course, those regulations increase the cost of doing business, and as we take it as an inalienable right to be able to buy pants for $20, regulations like that are inconvenient. Globalization simply cannot be responsibly understood without taking into account this deliberate avoidance of worker-protecting regulation. It's got a price, a price in human lives.

That we are overregulated is a truism in responsible, serious political circles. Many liberals seem desperate to push deregulation, under some sort of grand bargain scenario or simply because they have become convinced by the neoliberal notion that regulation does nothing but depress growth. Stories like this are essential to remind us of what a profound privilege it is to live in a society where there are rules that protect us everyday. Only those of us who sleep under the blanket of protection of those rules could ever underestimate their profound benefit to our lives.

working class life has become impossible

Peter Suderman of Reason was on Up with Chris Hayes this morning, making the libertarian argument in support of Walmart. He summarized his argument in Tweet form, which has been helpfully aggregated here. (Ignore the herp-de-derp headline attached.) Suderman is no phony, and when he speaks about the greater good for the working poor, I know he means it. But I think there are deep problems with his take.

I'll farm out the economics to the great Doug Henwood. Henwood injects some numbers that can't be perceived as anything but a disaster for retail workers and which significantly damage Suderman's point. Surely, whatever damage slightly higher prices at Walmart might cause to the working poor, it's nothing compared to the relentless downward pressure on wages. I will also point out that a huge amount of mental work is being left out of Suderman's Twitter argument in the vague Tweet #9, which states that raising prices cuts into the low-price benefit of Walmart for poor consumers. The essential question is to what degree and what practical effect?

More generally, though, I wonder what Suderman thinks of the essential plight of the working poor-- the plain fact that a very large portion of this country cannot subsist on the wages they earn. I invite anyone to do the math on a lifestyle lived at the current poverty line of $23,050 for a family of four. Even if you assume that people in such households live like monks, the numbers simply don't add up, particularly for those millions of Americans who live without access to any workable public transportation. The work of people like Barbara Ehrenreich has helped to convey some of this reality (and has met with considerable pushback from those who would prefer not to hear about it). Contributing to this problem is the federal minimum wage, which is now at an inflation-adjusted level below that of the minimum wage in 1968. In no state can a worker making the federal minimum wage at 40 hours a week afford to rent a two bedroom apartment at fair market rent. It's essentially impossible to afford payments, insurance, and gas on even the cheapest cars while feeding four and renting a modest important. What we consider basic elements of even working class lifestyle have become unreachable for millions.

What I would fear, were I a libertarian like Peter, is whether I was in fact hurting libertarianism in supporting a status quo that has become inimical to the basic American social contract. I suppose there's no reason to think that systemic change is going to come anytime soon. But our economic system is underwritten by the assumption that if you're willing to work you can at least ensure your own material security, and in the typical telling, gradually improve the quality of your life. Let's leave the middle class alone for now. I cannot imagine an honest observer who could conclude that this social contract is currently being fulfilled for those at the bottom of the income spectrum. We're all aware of the growing sense within this country that playing by the rules is no longer rewarded, that the system is failing for everyone but those at the top. Perhaps this sentiment will be directed in a way that brings us closer to libertarian principles, but I doubt it.

For Ezra Klein, who appears to be pulling the full David Broder these days, there are at least some outs. The social welfare state can be expanded, whether through indirect subsidy such as expanded public transportation (hugely important to the working poor) or direct payments. You fund such things through raising taxes on the rich, who now pay historically low rates and can afford it many times over. It's classic pity charity liberalism, and it makes our working poor even more subject to the vicissitudes of politics, and does nothing to make workers better able to redress grievances with their employers. But it's something, it's a way forward. As a bonus for Klein, it's the kind of mushy centrism that he seems to equate with seriousness these days.

What is Suderman's path forward? He's opposed to Obamacare, which makes a very real difference for the affordability of medical care for the poor. (Obamacare is his main beat at Reason.) I imagine that he's opposed to major public investment in public transportation. I'm damn sure he's opposed to higher corporate, capital gains, and upper income tax increases to fund redistributive programs. The working poor pay no income taxes and pay paltry sums in payroll taxes, cutting which would not have anything like the net positive impact as increasing money for food stamps or rent subsidies. I can only guess that Suderman's plan would involve the typical notions of a rising tide lifting all boats, that if we cut taxes and regulation the economy will grow and improve the stock of those on the bottom. But look again at Henwood's chart. That collapse for retail wages reflects the overall trend in wages across decades-- decades that correspond with a prolonged period of deregulation and tax cuts at the top. What is so strange about the notion that cutting taxes and regulation will improve wages for the rest of us is that we've been doing that for decades and seeing the opposite effect.

I said before that Suderman does care about retail's impact on the poor, and I do mean it. I wouldn't suggest otherwise. Indeed, if I were to suggest otherwise, the trend now would be to accuse me of the worst kind of political ugliness. But reflect on what that means for a moment. For a long period of time, it was acceptable  to take the Gordon Gekko line, to believe in a kind of survival of the fittest where capitalist society had no particular obligation to support those on the bottom. That's changed to the point where even the followers of Ayn Rand typically argue that their position is the position that actually helps the poor. That represents progress. But it muddies the waters a great deal, and it forces writers like Suderman to bend themselves into pretzels. This happens all the time in his reporting on Obamacare; he has many critiques of the legislation, some of them convincing. But he has no meaningful alternative, and also understands that he can't argue that sick people should just die, even if he wanted to. So there are weird gaps in a lot of his voluminous output on the subject. Those kind of gymnastics have become commonplace in conservative economic discussion, where everyone must assert the importance of helping the poor while they minimize their plight or actively work against programs to improve it.

I like a guy like Peter Suderman a lot more than I like the Gordon Gekko, fuck-the-poor types. But I understand them more, and I think there's more internal coherence to what they advocate. From a more concrete perspective, I think that the growing failure of the American system to fulfill our social contract is a problem for all ideologies, but particularly for those whose policy options are limited to tax cuts and deregulation. And a part of me believes that libertarian antipathy towards unions-- what the Walmart fight is really about, after all-- has been a profound strategic mistake, to say nothing of a real disappointment. Because the gaps that were once filled by unions look to be increasingly filled by government.Our social compact is a powerful thing, and you underestimate our desire to ensure it at your own peril.

Stripped away all the politics, and you can still see a basic problem: we can't have the kind of society we say we want to have when so much of the resources have been captured by so few. The system is not working for too many people, and the long term effects of that breakdown might be severe. I've got ideas to change things. I'm not sure if everyone does, not really.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

iCarly needs no defense

I was gonna go off on one of my rants here, about the shriveled little bags of hate and resentment in the comments here showing what unique sophisticates they are by complaining that a website reviewed the finale of a very popular and beloved show, despite the fact that they probably sit at said website hitting refresh over and over so that they can momentarily distract themselves from their drab, empty lives of misdirected self-hatred and congealed defensive apathy as they wait for the inevitable moment when they realize that they've gone grey and gotten varicose veins and lost the last shreds of their youth without ever once bothering to feel an unguarded emotion, so consumed were they with the fear that some fuckface will make fun of them for actually trying and in so doing cost them a social currency that was absolutely worthless to them in the first place, and sob quietly in the night for having thrown away the only gift life gives us, the gift of being emotional creatures capable of experiencing feelings so intense that they can ruin or save your life, if you only leave your beating human heart open enough to risk the pain that is the price of everything and anything truly worth experiencing.

 But, some commenters have gotten on me recently about how I should apply my time and efforts in more noble pursuits, so I'm not gonna do that. (Don't let anyone ever say I don't listen to comments.) More importantly, iCarly doesn't need such a defense. It's a great show, one that's attracted a whole mess of dedicated fans the old-fashioned way, not by playing to some self-pitying nerd wagon-circling impulse but by appealing to the human desire to create. iCarly is a show about young people who are dealing with shit, and respond to that shit not by shooting up the school, or by conforming a la The Breakfast Club, but by creating something. Something small, at first, and something silly, but something their own. And they do so not in a spirit of pessimism or petty judgment but in the spirit of friendship. And the show's understanding of friendship is beautiful and true, which is that one of the deepest and best parts of being friends is the recognition of true difference, annoying difference, exasperating difference. It's a show about the sacrifices people make in order to be with each other, to be unguarded with each other, and about what a fun, goofy, energetic, glorious time you can have when everybody allows each other the space to be their weird and dysfunctional selves.

It's a great show, and while I can hardly ever see it, I'll miss it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Up with Chris Hayes continues to impress

I've been deeply depressed by the flagrant lack of balance (not bias!) in our media's handling of Gaza. I don't expect much, but to watch clips from CNN turns my stomach. But I found a little refuge from a source that's established itself as one of the real bright spots for journalism and commentary in any medium, Up with Chris Hayes.

For a guy with my politics, being impressed by a national news program is a rare experience. I can't, of course, extract my admiration for the show's substance and willingness to look beyond typical media narratives from my compatibility with the show's politics. But I hope that even those to my right could find something to admire in the way that the show looks beyond the usual cast of pundits and politicos for its segments, for its willingness to entertain political ideas for outside of the American mainstream, and for its rigor. I've particularly admire the way the show has criticized Obama from the left, how it exposed Andrew Cuomo as a cynical politician who is no friend to liberals or progressives, Hayes's brave stance towards the use of the word "hero" to refer to any and all soldiers, and the aforementioned skeptical consideration of the Israeli position on Gaza, among other things. I don't agree with everything that's said by Hayes, but I am consistently amazed at what they get away with on cable news. If you don't watch it, you should, whether on cable or on the website.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Thanksgiving, as a piece of American mythology, is founded on a lot of bullshit, some of it genuinely offensive. But the idea of marking a day for giving thanks for what you already have is a beautiful one. And combining it with turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and stout and football, well....

And I have so much to give thanks for. I've been happier, the last year or two, than I've been since I was 7 years old. I'm doing the only thing I want to do right now. I get up in the morning and I go teach college students, committed ones and knuckleheads and every type in between, and I value them all. I spend long hours following the obscure dictates of my curiosity; there are things I have to know, and I am in the rare position of being able to make them my singular focus at any given time. I have an office with a creaky desk chair and a bookcase full of books. Students come just to gab to me and my peers are forever just hanging around. There's a secret fireplace in the student center to read in front of and I can get tickets to college basketball games for $5 if I try hard enough. Come spring there will be bald eagles nesting along the Wabash and on Tuesdays I can fill growlers with dark beer for half off. I get to peer edit for big time journals and I'm doing real research with real data. I'll be presenting at our biggest conference of the year... in Vegas... during March Madness. I cook for friends and we drink Sangiovese, talk about movies and ideas. They're letting me take grad stats courses and the cheeseburgers at the local hipster bar are amazing and people in my cohort bring in baked goods. I finally really know how to write a syllabus and I can lie in bed with a laptop and a cat and watch TV and read about syntax and the spread of the printing press and point biserial correlation and postcolonialism. There's a pedestrian bridge that crosses the river and I take it every day, but if I ever don't want to the bus stops right outside my door and runs every half hour. My dog and my cat are better than your dog and your cat. My family is happy and healthy. I'm in better shape than I've been in years, I sleep in on the weekends, we've got a nuclear reactor in the basement of the electrical engineering building(!) and you can get a tour if you know the right guy, I can get honest-to-god medical care with no copay and I look good in a suit. The coffee is piping hot in the morning. It's all pretty amazing.

I feel everything so intensely; it's always a little odd to me when people talk about the fire going out. It's only gotten hotter. I look back at my 22 year old self and I wonder why he didn't feel things a little more deeply.

I really am so lucky and so happy to be alive. Thanks to all of you, friends and critics alike, and cranky as I may be, I could never wish anything but the best for you all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


 I argue with libertarians a lot, often in venues where the conversation isn't very productive. My greatest frustration is the selective definition of coercion and the refusal to grapple with what forces actually constrain liberty in the real world.

You've got to eat to live and got to work to eat. That's coercion. The fact that the coercion arises from a state of nature might mean that we can't blame anyone for the coercion itself, but it certainly doesn't prevent us from blaming those who exploit it. And capitalism doesn't just permit that coercion, it can't function without it. The distinction between someone who puts a gun to my head and says "you must work for me or die" (bad coercion, to libertarians) and someone who points to my certain starvation if I don't work and says "you must work for me or die" (good coercion, to libertarians) is almost entirely irrelevant to how I actually experience life and liberty. And the latter condition afflicts many millions of people. The reality of death due to starvation and exposure might be a state of nature but the exploitation of that state of nature to satisfy self-interest certainly is not. But this exploitation is at the very heart of the libertarian and capitalist project.

I can't be sure, but I believe that if you were to go around the world and ask all working people whether they would give up working if they could do so and still ensure the survival of their families, a huge number would stop working immediately. I doubt many people would disagree with me there. Textile workers in Indonesia and tungsten miners in Bolivia and part-time Walmart employees in the United States are likely not working because of love for the job. And if you define your politics as resistance to coercion, and you're willing to agree that millions of people would abandon their jobs if not for being coerced into them, well, that should be a huge, huge problem for you. Libertarians agree that the choice between "work for me or die" when physically threatened is not a real choice, but disagree that the choice between "work for me or die" when under the risk of physical death from circumstance is not a real choice. That does not seem remotely consistent or defensible to me. In order to defend it they build castles of theoretical and semantic differences that are not meaningful at all to the people making such choices in real life.

Libertarianism and capitalism seem like deeply incompatible systems to me. I don't expect libertarians to wholesale abandon either in response to this incompatibility. But you'd think that there would be a large, extended, and frequently unhappy conversation within libertarianism about the exploitation of coercion in the labor force, the way there is a large, extended, and frequently unhappy conversation within the left about markets and their use. From my outsider's perspective, any such conversation happens very rarely and in small forums that have little to do with libertarianism writ large.

My vantage is limited. But it seems to me that libertarian principles have huge consequences that are frequently in great tension with capitalism and totally antithetical to the desires of large corporations; libertarian discourse, in practice, is dominated by whining about tax rates on the wealthy and regulations that protect workers. I've read my Nozick and my Rand and my Hayek and yet find barely any consideration of the massive exploitation of the coercive state of nature in the libertarian media. When brought up, the topic is treated with the typical defensive snark. It's depressing, and given the tendency of libertarianism to devolve into a defense of the powerful at the expense of the powerless, it doesn't look good.

Monday, November 19, 2012


If I was unclear about this, my point yesterday was not to say "everything in our culture is so trivial, man." I don't know what inherent triviality is, at least when we're talking about art or media or social interaction. My point is that some people treat everything as trivial, and I don't think that's a recipe for feeling good about stuff. Politics, clearly, are not trivial. They have huge real-world flesh and blood consequences. But it's my observation that many people, including and especially people who follow politics as a profession, treat them as trivial or comic all the time. And that combination of things-- obsessing over something that you regard as a joke or waste of time-- it just doesn't strike me as healthy. That makes sense, right? I'm a man of obsessions myself, and like a lot of my friends I'm constantly chasing stray thoughts and interests down rabbit holes. But even when the subjects seem silly or small, I'm thinking about them because I think they're worth thinking about. Why else would I spend any time on them?

There's things that I imagine are easier or harder to take seriously. My guess is that it's harder to feel like your time is well-spent if you're spending it on, like, the latest Justin Bier metacommentary. But that's just a value judgment of mine; it's totally up to you.

Somebody on Facebook posted the link to the Wampole piece and just quoted the bio at the bottom, "Christy Wampole is an assistant professor of French at Princeton University." The quote was meant as being dismissive in and of itself, and several people commenting on the Facebook post took it as such-- "LOL," "eyeroll," etc. This seems really wrongheaded to me. First, it would be hard to do a better job of confirming Wampole's points through disputing them. (A lot of people seem to be falling into that trap.) But second, let's just unpack the idea that being a professor of French is somehow inherently ridiculous. If you think that studying French is not a worthwhile pursuit, you're entitled to that position, but you should argue it and not let the assumption that everyone will see that profession as ridiculous do your work for you. This is especially true because counterarguments are available and potentially compelling. About a quarter of a billion people speak French! Seems important.

But more to the point, Christy Wampole certainly thinks French is worth studying, and she's found an institution that thinks it is worth hiring her to research and teach about it. For the conversation at hand, her own attitude towards her work is what's really important. It seems to me that being the person who is passionate enough about something to dedicate her life to it is better than being the person snarking at the other person for that passion. It's the "dancing at a wedding*" effect. Being a grad student, I am naturally defensive about how often people snark about grad school. But if I'm being more thoughtful about it, I tend to let it go. People who go to grad school because they've genuinely made an informed choice (as opposed to using it as a delaying mechanism or career avoidance) almost always are fulfilled by being there. So who cares about the snark? I'd rather be the grad student who spends his day doing what he enjoys and values than be the person making fun of grad students who hates his or her job. The assumption that everybody will agree in thinking that Wampole's profession is ridiculous speaks to the false idea that what matters in life is what other people agree matters. Personally, from my own particular vantage, I'd rather be Christy Wampole than somebody making fun of her. I think her piece was partly right and partly wrong, but I don't doubt that she holds the values she says she does.

*The Onion here uses irony in a critique of knee-jerk ironizing and a defense of behaving unironically. Irony is not the problem. Its application can be a problem.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

the great trivialization

I had an emailer asking why I haven't written about the current Israeli campaign in Gaza, given that I wrote so much about the topic during the last such incursion. I don't have a good reason other than to say that I am utterly, utterly defeated by it, and every attempt to write about it has ended up with me giving up. Maybe sometime soon. For now, here's something with much lower stakes.

It seems, I'm sorry to say, that the irony wars might start up again. Christy Wampole, a professor at Princeton, has published a big think piece in the Times titled "How To Live Without Irony." The combination of the piece's prominent place of publication, sweeping consideration, provocative title, and well-trodden subject matter will probably make it irresistible to essayists and bloggers. (Like me!) Let's face it, for many or most of us, "How We Live Now" pieces are catnip, particularly when they present the opportunity for that particular combination of judgment of others and self-implication that many people enjoy. (Again, like me.) But that doesn't mean that I find this particular conversation enjoyable or Dr. Wampole's piece entirely satisfying.

I find the irony wars an exhausting, exhausted conversation. Irony is something specific and important, but it's also true that we have a broader concept of irony that we lack a different vocabulary for. So we tend to talk a lot about irony as a placeholder for a whole host of ills that are cultural and social and (for lack of a better term) spiritual. I do recognize a great deal of what Dr. Wampole is talking about. But irony is not really the target that she needs to hit. Irony itself is never too plentiful or too scarce. Irony is instead poorly distributed; it is too present in places where it has no business being and not present in places where it is desperately needed. Your average review at the AV Club employs irony in a place where it can have no positive effect; your average bit of Obama hagiography cries out for more. Worse still, the piece wanders into the tired territory of hipster anthropology, a subject I think most everyone has had more than enough of. The hipster discussion is a distraction; hipsterdom, while not easily definable, is still easily identifiable, and thus doesn't pose the kind of threat that a broader and vaguer sense of chosen meaninglessness does.

All that said, I do think that Dr. Wampole's piece makes a lot of observations that are just true. Perhaps obviously true, but worth saying. For one thing, she makes a point of discussing the difference in behavior between children and adults, noting correctly that children live life without irony and seem to be happier for it. She also correctly defines the constant projection of irony as a defense mechanism, a strategy to avoid risk.  Both of these are the kind of annoying old nostrums that are old and annoying because they're true. But their status as cliche, whatever the reason for that status, won't do Wampole any favors. I imagine that her piece will receive a lot of pushback.

I'll show my cards. I don't think the issue is irony. I think that the issue is the cult of the trivial. And it only matters insofar as it makes people feel better or worse. I have observed that many people spend an inordinate amount of their lives devoting obsessive attention to subjects while simultaneously working to demonstrate that they don't take those subjects at all seriously. Not just that they don't take them seriously but that they couldn't possibly. This tends to be expressed in a tone that we typically identify as ironic, but I doesn't have to be, and the focus on irony misses the essential point. I think that people need a sense of narrative in their life, they need self-belief, they need to feel like their life stands for something. And I genuinely believe that the way a lot of people spend the majority of their time-- electronically mediated, participating in a constant digital conversation about whatever has captured the mass attention, and making fun of absolutely everything about it-- is just deadening of any sense of purpose or deeper meaning.

This past election season had plenty of moments that demonstrated what I'm talking about. Any major campaign event was endlessly discussed and analyzed online by people whose attention was curiously combined with an attitude of blase superiority. On Facebook or Twitter, you got dose after dose of people making fun of that on which they were obsessively focused. When you step away from it, it's bizarre; why would people spend so much time observing and commenting on events that they believe to be beneath them? What makes it especially depressing is that so much of it seems so obligatory. Whenever some notable event happens, it's like people feel that they just have to get some "clever" remark out there. They cannot let the moment pass without getting their own take in, regardless of whether that take is actually perceptive or funny. Everything seems so rehearsed, everybody seems to be going through the motions.

People tend to take my cultural criticism as deeply harsh towards the people it discusses, but the point has always been that I don't think this stuff makes people happy. And I don't mean to make this about me, but certainly, my earnestness or whatever has been one of the common criticisms since I started this blog. But earnestness itself has never been the point, not for its own sake. If I appear earnest it's only in service to living in a way that I find worth living. That's not a defense against criticism of the content of my beliefs. It's just a statement of the value of belief. It may be because of the idiosyncrasies of my biography, but I have never understood complaints about a lack of meaning or purpose in life. I know what it's like to feel ridiculed or ridiculous. I know what it's like to feel powerless. And I know what it's like to feel hopeless. But lacking purpose, self-possession, meaning-- never. Many people, including some of my critics, suffer because they don't stand for anything.

If I felt that the urge to trivialize everything didn't have emotional consequences, if I felt that people could spend so much time demonstrating superiority to the subjects that they obsess over without issue, I wouldn't care. What difference would it make? Tell jokes, be clever, amuse the crowd, knock yourself out. But I suspect that this behavior actually makes people feel deeply unhappy. Devote your life to the trivial and you end up feeling as though your life itself is trivial. What do you expect?

I don't know what a culture's ethos is, beyond its expression in particular behaviors. And I don't know what spiritual death or cultural exhaustion are beyond their consequences for human life. We have enough problems without mistaking irony as some sort of stain on our social character independent of how it makes people feel. But that's where I find common cause with Dr. Wampole and others who decry this age of irony, whether that's the right term or not: I am against it because it makes people unhappy, deeply unhappy, and yet so many of them seem afraid to try anything else. So many people I know seem hostage to their own self-defense.

Update: Oh, and-- Wampole's real failing is in thinking that argument could change this. The most inevitable consequence of her piece were people on Twitter  bashing her piece, and sounding very, very threatened in doing so. The immediacy of the agreement to trivialize anything-- I'm not taking this thing seriously, you don't take it seriously, too-- it's more powerful than mere words.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

to put it more simply

I really do believe in these guys and what they're doing. Sorry for the lack of substance the past few days, it's a busy time for me. Hope to post something long tomorrow.

Update: I'm not mad in the photo, just concentrating very hard on lining up the paper with the webcam. As you can tell, I didn't do a great job of it, regardless of these efforts.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

there may be a vlog in the offing. flee.

Fair warning.

This picture might make you think that Suavecito is cute, but don't be fooled. He's an apologist for the Khmer Rouge. "You go to war with the revolution you have," etc. etc.

support The New Inquiry

The explosion of new media seems to me a development that is too big to ever be seen as straightforwardly good or bad; there's so much good and so much bad and so much different and in-between. One of the negative aspects of it, though, is that it's easy to develop a sense of entitlement towards media, an unexamined sense that there's always more good stuff to read out there and it's all for free. I really think that this is a profound mistake; in the capitalist society we find ourselves in, those things that are valued are those things that are paid for. (I could unpack that but I'll spare you.) There's an odd dynamic where the more we consume of written opinion the less we feel we should support it materially.

I always thought that the Times Select debacle was really destructive. I'm not talking about the fact that Times Select failed, and I'm not talking about people who chose not to pay for Times Select (which includes me). I'm talking about the universal derision that was heaped onto the very idea of a paywall. It's a good example of where tone was as important as message. The attitude you heard from all over wasn't just that Times Select was not going to work but that it was an inherently ridiculous idea, to ask people to pay for written content on the Internet. And now we're at this point where many people consider any kind of a paywall a nonstarter, despite the fact that online advertising is just does not seem capable of supporting Internet media properties at anything like a large scale. Some people worry that mobile online advertising or online advertising in general or social media in general are currently inflating into bubbles. There's a problem of massive supply of places to advertise online, driving revenues down. A lot of smart people think that a check is coming due soon on all of this Internet media, and I think they have a point.

This is a typically long-winded way to ask you to subscribe to The New Inquiry, which is in a subscription drive and asks only $2 a month. TNI does not employ a paywall; all of the content you'll get as a subscriber is available on the website. You'll receive it in a "magazine" form (PDF or Ipad) once a month. That's a good system for a publication of this size; it allows everyone to access the individual stories for discussion and argument, and it makes it plain that monetary support is just that, a kind of support. (This model couldn't work, I think, for a publication like The New York Times.) There's something fairly radically old-fashioned in the appeal to pay for the written content which one enjoys.

I have fairly deep disagreements with the ethos of TNI and fairly angry disagreements with some of its writers. (This is essentially to say that there are people at TNI who have opinions.) That, too, I value and welcome, and I'm of course happy to have had the opportunity to publish there, although I imagine that may not happen again. More than anything I'm happy for a new and visible left-wing media. Just as American politics runs in a range from an extreme right wing to a right wing to a centrist right wing to a centrist wing to a centrist left wing, and stops exactly there, prominent American media has long gotten about as far to the left as a mainstream liberal press and stopped there. There are of course exceptions; more of them is better.

And they've played their hand, and the times, very deftly. They have generated a lot of attention, and have taken on prominent voices in a way that has increase attention for those voices and the publication both. (For example, in an apparent bid to prove everything I've ever said about social capture and what is really valued in political discourse, Henry Farrell recently tweeted to Aaron Bady that my criticisms of Bady could be disregarded because Bady is more famous than I am.) It's exciting to witness.

And, yeah, there's a ton of problems. For a bunch of Marxists they sure don't pay a lot of attention to material conditions. This manifests itself most troublingly in the #nodads phenomenon, which is an explicit rejection of the reality of parentage and inherited privilege-- a rejection totally contrary to left-wing ends. In other words, there's a profound class tourism problem in the publication. And there's a deep tension in the showiness that attends their frequent denunciations of grad school, coming as they do from people who are in many ways more grad school-y than grad students. That is, there's a clear and panicked desire to decouple the trappings of theory and critical inquiry from the assumed social distaste for people who study those things. That kind of preemptive, defensive rejection mistakes form for content and is self-defeating, as it accepts the pejorative attitude towards caring about theory in its attempt to avoid that attitude. Theory needs to be pursued with pride, not camouflage. Finally, there is the all-to-common insistence that the middle-and-upper class problems of the writers are somehow actually lower class problems, for reasons of optics or Marxist self-defense or legetimation or appropriation.

But they publish a lot of great stuff, and it's so much better to have them than not to have them, and if you enjoy what they do you should support them. It's $2 a month. Help them out.

Monday, November 12, 2012

exactly the kind of story we don't handle well

Incidentally, watching the Petraeus scandal develop, it occurs to me that it's exactly the kind of story that we do very poorly in the current era of constant Twitterfication and instant opinions. Yesterday the affair was a big scandal. Tonight the opinion is that this is all a sideshow and the real scandal is that the FBI was ever involved at all. Well hang on a second: your opinion was different twelve hours ago. Can you really say that it won't be different in another twelve? Guys: slow down.

If you want to talk about the nature of the surveillance state or our media or infidelity or the military or whatever, that's fine. Broad questions can certainly be discussed. But the actual events and repercussions... we don't know. We can't know, yet. You don't have to have both a brilliant and brilliantly counterintuitive opinion AND a bunch of lame quips already. Take a breath.

Petraeus, the word made flesh

It doesn't surprise me that Spencer Ackerman has produced some of his best prose in a piece discussing his own weaknesses. I think admissions of guilt or acts of self-criticism often result in the best writing; confessions have a way of resisting unnecessary flourishes or pretense. I hope that the experience he describes pushes him not only to maintain greater critical distance from generals and politicians but also to consider the subtle but ever present reality of social capture. I also hope it makes him and others consider the root cause of Petraeus worship, which is the basic tension within mainstream views on foreign policy.

The blame for our failure to apply proper skepticism to Petraeus and his record does lie in large part with the media. But the deeper reasons for this lack of critical distance lie with our relationship to war itself. American foreign policy is built on contradictions. As a people, we have internalized a belief in the value of the lives of non-Americans, but we doggedly pursue an aggressive, activist foreign policy, for reasons of ideology, self-interest, structural dependence, and pure habit.

This leads to debates on foreign policy that border on the schizophrenic, driven to extremes like the turn from Iraq to Libya, where those who bitterly complained about America dictating the future of the Muslim world pushed enthusiastically for America to dictate the future of the Muslim world. Those who rejected a "we broke it, we bought it" logic on Iraq embraced a "let's just break it and see what happens" logic on Libya. Our foreign policy incoherence leads us to claim that we act in the name of democracy, while we relentlessly deny self-determination and agency to foreign people. It leads us to denounce the violence of terrorism while embracing the violence of drone strikes. We extol the virtues of democracy while we depose rulers and undermine the results of elections. And we have a seemingly limitless appetite for stories that proclaim that technology has erased the horrors of war, and left us with the ability to kill only the bad men unerringly, despite the piles of bodies that disprove this notion. Even our concept of war has become confused by the profoundly American notion that we can have everything both ways. We want violence without violence, war without war, hegemony with a human face.

In some ways, the humanistic turn in American power projection represents progress. But it has proven remarkably ineffective at actually restraining our penchant for violently enacting our will around the globe. And it makes people endlessly manipulable by slick figures like Petraeus. Petraeus knew that the media is susceptible to flattery, and particularly to moral flattery. By presenting the image of the soldier intellectual, the warrior for peace, and the establishment-supporting iconoclast, Petraeus made himself as irresistible to our media as he presumably made himself to Paula Broadwell. No one can understand American foreign policy without understanding our media's fierce commitment to the limitless application of American military power. But it's equally important to understand our media's need for aesthetic cover, for the appropriate optics to accompany our projection of that power. The media's distaste for Bush's foreign policy was largely aesthetic; he and many of his chief advisors came across as yokels, zealots, or warmongers. A man like Petraeus gave them the cover they needed, the cover of intellectualization, of "a new manner of warfare," of the buzzwords they find irresistible. A handsome, brilliant man, coming up from the hierarchy of the Army but with a plausible stance as an outsider, admitting the failures of Iraq but promising American victory, speaking in jargony terms about counterinsurgency and winning hearts and minds, supportive of military action but without all the creepy biblical undertones.... They never stood a chance.

Spencer Ackerman is nobody's idea of a neocon. But like a lot of American liberals, he seems to struggle to reconcile a belief in the equal dignity of foreign people and their right to self-determination with the assumed superiority of the foreign policy of unrestrained American power. I don't blame him too much for that assumption; after all, that anything resembling a non-interventionist foreign policy is inherently unserious is one of the few universal truisms of contemporary media. The result, though, is a craving for like men like Petraeus, messianic figures who can resolve the inherent contradictions within the liberal interventionist philosophy.

I admire Ackerman for the willingness to revisit his past work and expose himself to public scrutiny. But as long as he imagines that the problem lies within his individual failures to maintain appropriate skepticism-- as long as anyone in the media does-- these problems will manifest themselves. We are ready to believe in hegemony with a lighter footprint, the benevolence of drones, the capacity to wage war without getting our hands dirty, the ability to occupy a country without violating its rights, and the magic morality of Barack Obama, from whose fingertips springs righteousness-- ready to believe, that is, in any fantasy, as long as it ends with American victory and American blamelessness. Petraeus is only a symbol.

The only true resolution is recognizing that our convictions and our actions are simply incompatible, that there is no such thing as humane hegemony. We can believe in the equal dignity of all human life and the right of all people to rule themselves, or we can exercise our power across the globe, but we cannot do both at the same time. We have to recognize that democracy and humanitarianism and non-interventionism are one and the same. And someday, long after I'm gone, we will.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

empiricism is inextricable from theory, data is meaningless outside of norms, science exists within philosophy

This post will be quite long. Please consider that before deciding whether to read it.

I'm writing this from my office. I came here at an ungodly early hour on a Saturday morning because I've been trying to work out a problem. The problem lies in a particular search string. I'm currently engaged in a research project investigating the composition processes of second language learners, in this case Chinese Mandarin and Hindi L1s. I am utilizing corpus linguistics software to mine a vast archive of student essays for certain patterns of argumentative and rhetorical structures. The software reports back to me about frequency and position, and through these outputs I can statistically compare the use of such structures between demographics-- language of origin, years of education in English, etc. And since a key to pragmatic results from second language studies is often reference to native speakers, I'm creating a baseline through reference to an equivalently-sized corpus of L1 English subjects.

Much of corpus linguistics has focused on the level of morphosyntax, for the simple reason that the software is better equipped to look for certain word-level constructions or word pairings than it is to examine the larger, more complex, and more variable argumentative plane. English is notoriously morphologically inert; that is, our use of inflections such as affixes is quite limited in comparison to other languages. (Compare, for instance, to a language like Spanish.) For this reason, searching for particular syntactic structures with computers can be quite tricky. It's also for this reason that formalist poets in other languages often have an easier go of it than in English-- it's much harder to write a villanelle or in terza rima when words lack consistent inflectional endings. In a language like Latin, word order is vastly more malleable because the inflections carry so much of the information necessary for meaning. In English, word order is quite mutable in an absolute sense but quite restricted in comparison to many languages. (There are exceptions, such as floating quantifiers, eg all-- "All the soldiers will eat," "The soldiers all will eat," "The soldiers will all eat," etc.)

But recently, researchers in composition have had some success in looking for certain idiomatic constructions as a clue to the kind of arguments that students are making. Some of these are obvious, such as the use of formal hedges ("to be sure") or boosters ("without question"), and those are types of features for which I'm searching. Some are more complicated and require a little more finesse to search for effectively.

Code glosses, for example. A code gloss is an attempt by a writer to explain to readers what a particular word or term in his or her text is meant to convey in the context of the particular writing. Code glosses are not or not merely definitions; a definition provides denotative information that is accurate or inaccurate regardless of context. A code gloss, in contrast, has to provide the information necessary for a reader to follow the writer's argument, and so a code gloss could fail as a general definition but succeed in its specific purpose. (This paragraph itself amounts to a code gloss.) The study of these kinds of features in writing, if you're feeling fancy, is referred to as metadiscourse. Many types of metadiscourse have certain formal clues that can be used to search for them in large corpora.

Unfortunately, false positives are common. The further you get from a restricted set of idiomatic phrases, the more likely it becomes that the computer will return a morphologically identical but argumentatively distinct feature-- so a search for "to be sure" as a formal hedge will also return "I looked it up in a dictionary to be sure that I got it right," which is not a hedge. The flexibility of language, one of our great strengths as a species, makes this sort of thing inevitable to a certain extent. The recourse is often just to sift through the returned results, looking for false positives. (Or, if you're lucky enough to have one, making a research assistant do it!) You might ask why to bother with the computer at all, if you have to perform a reality check yourself with most strings. The answer is just that it's possible to look through the, say, 600 returned examples from a given search string and eliminate the false positives but not to look through the 500,000-2,000,000 words in a given corpus looking for what you want to find.

Beyond that, your only recourse is to building effective search strings given the interface of the particular corpus linguistics software you are using. This requires carefully calibrating wildcards, places in the search string where the software can include any result. You can restrict these wildcards in a variety of ways-- for example, you can allow the wildcard to return any particular letter or one of a certain number of letters. Or you can bind the wildcard in terms of immediacy of surrounding letters or words; that is, the wildcard can be formatted so that the software will look a certain distance in characters from a particular search term. The more open-ended you make your search strings, the more likely you are to have false positives that have to be laboriously culled for accurate data; the more restrictive you are, the more likely you are to exclude relevant examples and thus jeopardize the quality of your research.

And that's why I'm here on a Saturday morning: I'm poking around with a particular search string, looking at the results it returns, and trying to fine tune it in order to better approach the results that I want. All of this is in the service of coming up with research that can express certain qualification- and caveat-filled conclusions, responsibly presented, in order to provide some small amount of progress in our understanding of second language literacy acquisition, which is one of my primary research interests. It's what I love to do.


This is all an exceptionally long-winded windup. (If you are looking to make the accurate criticism that my posts are way to long, this may be the best proof yet.) I mention it all as context for how I feel when I read this excellent post from Shawn Gude, on Ezra Klein and a certain brand of liberal commentator, commonly referred to as a wonk.

Gude quotes Klein as saying that he doesn't think of himself as a liberal anymore, just an empiricist. Gude points out, correctly, that this is a mistake on any number of levels. He shows an old Bloggingheads video where Will Wilkinson and Klein debate the necessity of first principles. I find Klein to be agonizingly frustrating in the video. Wilkinson keeps asking him to accept a simple fact: that whatever the empirical reality of health care, Klein is embracing that empiricism as a means to advance a particular normative end. And as Wilkinson accurately points out, that normative end must itself be justified and argued. It does not exist a priori. Klein repeatedly and doggedly evades having to make that justification, and in so doing makes his own arguments weaker and his own credibility suspect.

Gude is right to view all of this as a profound mistake on Klein's part. But it would be a mistake to view this as a conflict between empiricism and theory. Rather, it is a failure to understand what empiricism is, both in ideal and real-world terms. I referred to my own research here because I want to discuss how empirical work exists in a theoretical and normative framework. I think that, in addition to the theoretical, political, and moral failings in Klein's worldview, there are internal contradictions within Klein's worldview that leaves him bordering on incoherence. And as he is now one of the five or ten most influential journalists in the world, those failings have profound consequences.

Empiricism exists within a framework of theory, and theory cannot be derived empirically. The fact-value distinction is real. (This argument of mine is illustrative of its own point: I take it as an empirical truth, not a normative statement, but its empirical claims are necessarily grounded in theoretical assumptions.) And fact-value problems exist for both the commission of empirical projects and the evaluation of empirical results.

Conducting empiricism requires making a seemingly ceaseless number of choices, choices that cannot be resolved through reference to other people's empiricism. Sadly for all of us, a guidebook for empiricism has never been handed down to us from the heavens. Arguments and complaints about research methods and methodology are vast, and an enormous literature devoted to adjudicating these arguments has been written. These disagreements stretch from the most limited and quantitatively-oriented questions (when is it appropriate to use a p=.05 level of statistical significance? When is it necessary to use a .001 level? What aspects of a given research project determines the use of one or the other?) to the broadest questions of purpose and justification (why research? Towards what end? For what purpose and for whose good?). None of them can be answered empirically-- not that they shouldn't be but that they can't be. We lack even an idea about how such an empirical investigation of questions of value could be undertaken.

In the example from the Bloggingheads video, Wilkinson is trying to get Klein to acknowledge that before we assess empirically the data he says is in his favor, they have to determine what would constitute empirical success and even what questions they are trying to answer. If Klein prefers the language of social sciences, Wilkinson is asking him to consider what their construct is, how it is operationalized, and what results must be returned through the assessment of that operationalization in order to suggest success at a certain degree of confidence. Klein cannot answer those questions empirically. I think he knows that, but he is so stuck on this monolithic and transcendent vision of what empiricism is that he seemingly can't confront those necessary and prerequisite questions.

The real shame is that he would never make this mistake if he ever attempted to do social science research himself.

This semester, I'm taking a seminar in quantitative language testing. Among many other methods, one tool we've looked at is multiple choice tests. Some find such tests to be inherently clumsy or reductive instruments, and indeed there are a host of issues with them. But the science of multiple choice testing is extraordinarily sophisticated. Writing a good multiple choice item involves decisions having to do with deciding what construct to test, formatting of the language in which the question is expressed, formatting of the key, what kind of distractors should be included, and many more-- all before you even begin situating it within the context of a larger test. There are certainly statistical and quantitative ways to assess multiple choice tests, and any responsible test administration would have to utilize them. But the stats themselves are meaningless outside of a theoretical understanding of what they mean in application to a particular question. You can get great stats from your multiple choice test with worthless questions.

You might, for example, get a point-biserial correlation that suggests that a MC test item is perfectly discriminating between high- and low-scoring test takers, in a case where the test item is useless. A point-biserial correlation compares continuous variables to dichotomous variables; it is often used to show how well a test item (which can be scored dichotomously, ie, right or wrong) discriminates between higher and lower scorers. This is a clue to the validity of the item; if more low scorers (based on the rest of the test) are getting the question right than high scorers, the suggestion is that something has gone wrong with the item. But even with perfect point-biserial coefficients, you can have flawed, even lousy tests. Construct-irrelevant variance happens. The reason your high scorers are getting the question right and low scorers are getting the question wrong might have nothing to do with the given construct your items are meant to test. We have empirical tools that can help us find this kind of error, but we can never farm out our interpretation of such problems to empiricism. They have to be understood theoretically; theory is the only guide to pragmatic solutions to such problems.

I think of someone like Dr. Glenn Fulcher, whose credentials and reputation are beyond reproach. His wonderful website is a testament to a decades-long pursuit of better, fairer, more accurate tests of language skill. Dr. Fulcher is an empiricist, as I am, and he believes as I do in the positive power of responsibly-generated social science. And yet his work is filled with caveats, provisos, and discussions of limitation. In his indispensable book Practical Language Testing, he expresses this kind of self-skepticism again and again, declaring repeatedly that any effective empirical inquiry into human behavior requires locating the meaning of data in a theoretical framework. Speaking towards Gude's point explicitly, he says of the task of crafting test specifications, "Specifications therefore reflect the theoretical and practical beliefs and judgments of their creators." The meaning of the test is always a reflection of the pre-empirical beliefs of the people who wrote. In a world where tests like the SAT or standardized mastery tests in public schools have profound impact on human lives, understanding this empirical-theoretical interchange is essential, and that understanding is what Klein is at risk of obscuring.

Nothing could be more discouraging of the "I only deal in empiricism" mindset than a lifetime spent performing empirical research.

That skepticism of experience is why wonks frequently worry me, because in their (necessary and well-intentioned) policy generalism they fail to acquire the experience through which a broad understanding of a given field of human inquiry is derived. I don't question the dedication and responsibility of the wonk class. But I do believe that really becoming fluent in the ins-and-outs of messy, contingent research requires that one performs research, and that one spends the endless frustrating hours of reading and writing necessary to become credentialed in a given area of the social sciences. Our system of development of expertise, flawed though it may be, creates the indispensable conditions of time, thoroughness, and review. All three of those are frequently impossible for journalists and bloggers. Smarts are necessary but not sufficient. I have no doubt at all that Dylan Matthews, wonk-of-the-future and Klein's frequent research assistant, is extremely smart. But smarts are not nearly enough. If they were, we'd have fewer problems.

I said before, and will say again, that wonkery is necessary in today's democracy. But it can never be enough, and the sad fact is that in the world of liberal media these days, many people flatter themselves to believe that wonkery is the only way to advance the progressive cause. That's a ruinous and self-defeating notion. It is also one which is applied inconsistently: wonks, for example, tend to be supportive of conventional school reform efforts, despite the incredible empirical failures of those same efforts. (It seems that behavior does not descend so cleanly or inerrantly from empirical results after all.) Liberalism no doubt needs wonks. But the growing resistance to academics, theorists, and philosophers that Gude identifies within the liberal media is a profound mistake.

This all precedes the political question, which to my mind has been answered dispositively by global warming: the facts are not enough. We flatter ourselves to self-identify as the party of facts and science, but the human mind does not operate by facts alone. Last week, I saw a lecture by a rhetoric professor who works in a center for global sustainability. He told stories about how often climatologists and environmental scientists lament to him that the science is sound and yet not convincing for the people who need to be convinced. His job is to help them better craft their arguments in order to make convincing easier, and he often has to remind these scientists that conviction does not develop from science alone. Aristotle was one of the fathers of empiricism, and yet he wrote extensively on the dangers of trying to convince people based on facts alone. The human animal doesn't work that way, not 2,300 years ago and not now. The facts are not enough.

The urge towards empiricism as a tool is a necessary response to an ideology which has rejected plain facts again and again in the pursuit of its political ends. The urge to a transcendent or totalizing empiricism, however, is a deeply human, deeply understandable, and deeply flawed one: it seeks to remove messy moral questions from the scramble of everyday life. But no such refuge can be found, not in numbers or science or anywhere else. We are in a period of great liberal self-satisfaction. I get it, and I'm taking part in it. But these periods never last long, and they don't in large part because we mistake political victory for the triumph of the facts. This misunderstands both our strengths and our weakness, both the American character and the human character. The facts are only the beginning. To fail to understand that is to fail not only philosophically but practically and politically as well.

Friday, November 9, 2012

there has to be more to critical practice than criticism

I complain a lot about mainstream liberalism/progressivism's various problems, but never let it be said that the real left-wing can't drive you crazy. (I could write a book, really.) Now, this is gonna be a bit tricky to write, because what I'm writing about is self-implicating: the endless ability of the left-wing to criticize its own practice.

I'm inspired to say this by this recent effort by Occupy types to purchase debt at a lower price than what is owed (a common practice) and then freeing the indebted from their obligation. I saw a familiar pattern among the Facebook and Twitter set, now sped up to the point of self-parody: people get excited by some new idea or campaign, people want to deflate that bubble of enthusiasm and start poking holes, and before you know it everyone is shitting on the new idea. I understand: this is never going to happen at a wide-enough scale to be a feasible solution. I also get, I guess, that buying the debt drives up the price of the debt-- although doesn't the former complaint undercut the latter? Personally, I find this effort to be a smart fusion of symbolism and practical solution: symbolic because it helps call attention to a the debt problem, an area of genuine and extreme need (and not at all limited to student loan debt), and practical for the direct beneficiaries, who will have their lives helped considerably. Is that really something to immediately begin looking down your nose at?

I love the fact that the left-wing is self-critical. Contra Thomas Frank, I don't think caring about theory and getting practice right is a failing. In fact, I think it is the only way for true left-wing practice to endure, to matter. But there's a difference between an appropriate critical skepticism and a constant shit-eating "look at how clever my critique is" nihilism, and I'm sorry that the online space is absolutely full of the latter. Our problems are huge. Our enemies are many. Our efforts and our resources are limited. But with integrity and determination, good things can happen-- but only as long as we aren't busy tearing down every proposal before it gets off the ground.

To put it more bluntly: what are you doing to fix things?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Our liberal media

It occurs to me: part of the problem with our political media and analysis is that they always define Republican victory in terms of political direction and Democratic victory in terms of extremity. That is, a Republican victory is seen as a repudiation of liberalism, while a Democratic victory is seen as a repudiation of extremism. One suggests a push towards the right is the mandate of an election; the other suggests a push towards the center is the mandate of an election. Just another way in which the media pursues a "heads conservatives win, tails liberals lose" narrative.
Maybe that'll start to change.

plenty of reasons to feel good today

Hey, look-- I don't mean to be ritually self-flagellating. There are very many things to be happy about right now, and many reasons for cautious optimism.

It's not a center-right country, it's just a capitalist one. As you know, I believe a lot of contemporary American liberalism's wounds are self-inflicted. That's true on particular issues but it's also true on a broader idea of what America is and what our chances are in any given fight. When conservatives define America as a center-right country, I recognize it as a truthful expression of their central delusion, which is that conservatism's popularity is immune to events and exists a priori. When liberals define America as a center-right country, I see it instead as a kind of willful abdication of their own responsibility for the way things are. Last night's election has already failed to budge most conservatives from their iron-clad belief in conservatism's popularity. We shouldn't advance that narrative ourselves.

Take a look at abortion. I have heard many times from liberals that this is an issue of natural weakness for our side. That's just flatly wrong; the pro-choice argument is one of natural strength. This will piss people off, but the rights of the fetus are inherently an abstraction. You can be very passionate about abstractions, of course, I certainly am, and you can sometimes win political fights about them. But the pragmatic realities that the pro-choice side speaks to-- the harsh reality of "I cannot be pregnant right now," the fact that abortion is a problem that is literally embodied within women-- are more material, and thus more easily rallied around, than the abstraction of fetal life. We have lost ground on abortion in the past few decades because of a failure to mobilize in the way that the pro-life side has, which is due to a lack of political imagination and spine, which is due to accepting the notion that this country is against us. Elections like this one have to change our self-definitions as on the wrong side of the nation, or we are as deluded as the conservatives who think it's still 1980.

That's the good news, and it's reason for profound optimism. The bad news is that while there is a real and emerging liberal majority, there is not an emerging majority that is able or willing to stand against capital. Here, we really are naturally disadvantaged: in a capitalist democracy, capitalism comes first. As long as there is money, money will largely direct the course of this country and not the people. The liberal coalition can't overcome that in part because a political majority would have to be far larger than any existing in America today and in part because a large part of the existing liberal coalition is itself a part of capital or captured by capital. So our prospects are constrained by how you define victory. There's the typical enthusiasm and optimism that attends any big Dem wins going around right now. To separate the likely from the unlikely only requires comparing the issues to the desires of capital. For the first time in my lifetime, I feel genuine optimism about the possibility of marijuana legalization, an issue where there is genuine disagreement within capital-- the prison and law enforcement industries vs. a potential profits in marijuana as a cash crop (unlikely) or the potential profits in a dramatic upscaling of marijuana paraphernalia and accoutrements (more likely). On the flipside, people saying there's a chance for a grand bargain on a carbon tax... that just seems insane to me. Moneyed interests gave huge sums of money to the Democrats as well as to Republicans, and there just doesn't seem to be any percentage in dramatically lowering carbon rates for them.

Loathe me though they may, for the last couple years I've thought of the commentariat at Balloon Juice as being a microcosm of what the American mainstream is now. I mean that in mostly good ways and a few bad ways. They are aggressive in prosecuting the case for liberalism. They are skeptical of corporations and the rich. They are cognizant and welcoming of a racially and ethnically diversifying America. They are interested in political change that emerges outside of the electoral political system, but are easily brought onto the reservation during election time. They believe strongly in the social safety net but are perhaps too quick to accept cuts to it when those cuts are proposed by Democrats. And they are reflective of an America that has simply left social conservatism behind. I think liberals and Democrats could do themselves a serious strategic service by assuming the average American voter is closer to the Balloon Juice constituency than to the mythical white Christian farmer that has dominated the political imagination of liberals and conservatives alike. That just isn't what America looks like anymore.

Some of the biggest assholes in American politics lost. Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin (AKA The Rape Brothers), Allen West, Joe Walsh.... That was fucking sweet. And people like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, while hardly without their own problems and baggage, are about as good as a guy like me can expect in our legislature.

The referendums! Like I said-- we might actually get marijuana legalization. It could actually happen. I'm still mostly pessimistic; the Obama administration's inexplicable tack towards prosecuting medical marijuana dispensaries is not a good precedent. But voters are looking more and more tired of the prosecution of nonviolent marijuana offenders. For awhile now people have said that only a Republican president could make marijuana legalization happen, on a "Nixon goes to China" theory. The problem is that Nixon usually doesn't go to China. I doubt very much that we'll see federal decriminalization in this presidential term, but the end of prohibition seems more and more likely.

Plus, the success of a marriage equality in a straight yes-or-no referendum is a big deal, and the fact that it seems unremarkable in a lot of venues is a sign of progress. (Connecticut had a referendum on a constitutional convention that was understood by almost everybody there as a referendum on gay marriage, but that lacks the punch of a direct vote.) And California's three strikes law got at least a little better.

There is still room for progress in foreign policy. I have pointed out recently that Obama bears particular blame for some of his foreign policy decisions because he has such broad control over that aspect of policy. He can't wave a magic wand and get a public option, although we can and should question tactics and priorities on domestic policy. But he could end the drone program tomorrow. He could close Guantanamo without much more political blowback than that. Looking back, that means responsibility. But looking forward, that means opportunity. I don't doubt that Obama has embraced the drone program because he believes it actually makes America safer. But I think that's wrong, and a compelling case can be made that it's wrong, and there's a chance he might be convinced to do the right thing. I'll be the first to applaud if he does.

We're still pretty screwed in a lot of ways. The capture of our politics by moneyed interests probably means that we're stuck with low-paying, low-quality jobs and the overall decline of labor standards, even though unemployment is likely to continue shrinking for awhile. Our financial sector is still very unlikely to be constrained in any real way, which means that we're still deeply vulnerable to bubbles and other major economic disruptions. And global warming-- suddenly thrust into the center of national attention, then swiftly kicked out again by the election-- I just struggle to find any reason for optimism. Really addressing that problem will take actions that would be too deeply disruptive to conventional American life.

But the important legislation of my lifetime is much safer. The Affordable Care Act-- flawed, limited, unsatisfactory, inherently conservative, a sop to the profit motives in medicine, and still very vulnerable-- is nevertheless one of the most important and positive pieces of legislation in American history. An as it ages, the essential controversy of whether the government should provide medical care to those who can't afford it themselves will cease to be controversial, and we will instead debate how best to deliver that medical care. Eventually, I believe, a public option will be invented not through prominent and controversial legislation but through a natural and pragmatic attempt to provide better and cheaper medicine. That result, the defense of a profound health care reform measure that will eventually provide medical care to millions, is worth cheering for, worth dancing for.