Thursday, November 12, 2015

Going Out On a Limb on Race

Let me state the obvious up front: I'm a white man in a privileged position. I have tenure, rank, and an administrative position of some authority within a university. I have a social position within my community that is comfortable and oftentimes even respected.

So from some points of view, I may not be the best person to engage the current discussion about race, racism, and higher education. On the other hand, there are a lot of people like me running universities and colleges across the country. So if we don't engage, then solutions will be difficult to find. So I dip my foot in these waters tentatively, with humility and understanding that mine is a particular perspective.

A number of articles have been written of late that are well worth reading. There is Nicholas Kristof's excellent piece in today's NYT. There is a very good article in the Atlantic in defense of civility and against censorship. There is this blog post about racism written compellingly from a young black man's perspective.

In the midst of all of these conversations about clashing free speech and racism concerns, I appreciate these perspectives. In particular I appreciate the voice of the young blogger trying to explain what racism really is to those who never experience it. It is powerfully put and I believe sincere. He isn't attacking anyone in particular, but a broader problem in general. This is the kind of thing that can contribute to a conversation.

In order to actually push that conversation forward, however, it is not enough to hear from the victims of racism about the pain it causes. We need to know more - not about those who suffer from these indignities and injustices, but about those who perpetrate them.

Not all whites (or members of any group, for that matter) are racists. But some are. How do we address those who engage in these behaviors? How do we identify them, engage with them, and ultimately persuade them to change? That, it seems to me, is the real challenge. Beyond the protests and the screaming and the back-and-forth internet trolling, this is what real leadership (from wherever it emerges) needs to do.

Earlier today I likened the ongoing protests (some of which are occurring on my campus today, in solidarity with others) to a conflict. As a conflict scholar, the steps towards resolution are clear:

- Identify the essentials of the conflict. Who are the players? What are their interests, and what are they fighting about? What are the rules of the surrounding environment that shape how the conflict is conducted?

- Decide on the desired end goal. If the conflict were over, what would you want that to look like? What resolution do you seek, and what does that resolution look like for ALL of the actors involved?

- Evaluate and choose a strategy for achieving that goal. Can I get there through unilateral action, or do I need the cooperation of those with different views? Can I engineer a solution that meets my needs regardless of what the other side wants, or do I have to persuade others to join with me in a mutually-agreed settlement?

I don't think we've yet had much clear thinking about any of these things. Conflicts often arise between aggrieved students and university administrators or faculty, which is an example of the lamppost fallacy: tackling what you can see, rather than going where the problem really is. The fundamental conflict is between members of minority groups (blacks, latinos, transgender, etc.) and members of the majority group who want to discriminate against and oppress them. If that is the core of the conflict, there is no unilateral solution - neither group can wipe the other out, both must continue to live in the same society together. The question is, how?

I don't have any good answers. I don't know how you identify who the racists are, much less how you draw them into a political process designed to address their real interests and fashion a mutually acceptable solution. All I know is that until we do so, we are likely to be stuck in the ugly stalemate of today - sometimes quieter, sometimes louder, but with very little progress towards a better future.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Power on University Campuses

There has been a lot of struggle and conflict on college campuses lately over a variety of issues, particularly racial tensions and ongoing problems with minority and marginalized persons. These issues affect some campuses more than others, and some (Yale & Missouri) have become national flashpoints.

Today we get word that, one day after saying that he would NOT resign, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe has stepped down as President there.

What brought national attention to Wolfe's situation, and what may have led to his ouster, was a threatened strike by their football team (over 50% of which is African-American). The university stood to lose upwards of $1 million in TV revenues if it doesn't play next Saturday's game.

There you have about as stark a statement of power on campuses as I can think of. Student movements, even some fairly sizable ones, haven't accomplished much of anything. A Mizzou student has for over a week been on a hunger strike, vowing to starve himself to death. None of this moved the needle much. But when the football team threatens to cut into the university's revenue ... well, that's a different story.

For those that claim sports don't run Div I universities - do you still think so?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Defense Spending: We Used to Have a Real Debate

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).

That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:
[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers' lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don't tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, "Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?"
R. William Ayres You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between "liberals" and "conservatives" about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base...
There's a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don't think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.

The observation is this: we have long since ceased to talk about the defense budget. Once upon a time, there were significant policy differences and debates around the issue of defense spending as a component of both the US budget and US foreign policy. There were "hawks" and "doves" (and, to hear some tell it, "owls") who had different preferences about how much money the US should spend on defense and what that money should go towards. This debate was a significant part of the American political landscape, regularly featured in Presidential addresses and press conferences and almost always a topic for debates in Presidential election years. Candidates were asked their opinion, not only of the defense budget as a whole, but of individual weapons systems.

Today, despite broad public interest in the US federal budget, there is no discussion of defense spending at all. Zip. Zero. Zilch. From an economic perspective, this is astounding - depending on whose numbers you use defense spending takes up between 19% and 25% of the US federal budget, roughly equal to the entire expenditure on Social Security and larger than all other discretionary spending put together. Politicians will talk about Medicare & Medicaid reform (23%) and even Social Security reform (20%). But nobody talks about possibly cutting defense spending.

This is also crazy given the state of the world. According to the latest data from SIPRI, the United States in 2014 spent a little more than $600 billion on military expenditures. That is almost 50% more than the entire continent of Asia (including both China and India), more than 50% greater than all of Europe put together, and more than three times the combined expenditures of every single country in the Middle East (friend and foe alike). It dwarfs Russian military spending by a factor of more than 7, and Chinese spending by more than 2.5. The entire world in 2014 spent about $1.7 trillion on military expenditures; the US accounted for more than 30% of that total.

Even in the waning days of the Cold War, when we were outspending the Soviets, the margin wasn't this large. This isn't just being out front or staying ahead of the competition; this is utter and complete domination in the category of buying weapons.

And yet, to hear our politicians tell it, the US has never been less secure militarily than it is today. Most of this criticism is coming from blowhards running for President who would criticize the current administration if it said the sky is blue, and so shouldn't be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this is what the American people hear.

More importantly, there is no countervailing view. The Obama administration has shown no signs of suggesting that the US spend less, and there is no indication that anyone in Congress (Republican or Democrat) would be willing to vote that way anyway. There's a lot of vague, one-sided language about "keeping America safe" and "supporting our troops", but nothing like what you would call a discussion. It's pretty much just radio silence.

I framed this on FB as part of a broader political shift to the right, and I think that's partly true. But closer to the truth is that this silence represents the ultimate triumph of the military-industrial complex which President Eisenhower warned us about back in 1960. Those structures - the businesses and government agencies which together make up the nation's defense machine - have always done extremely well. But they used to have to at least compete for their share of public dollars in the public arena. Now, we just write them a (very large) check, quietly and without comment.

This goes far beyond liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican (since all are now singing from the same page of the hymnal). This is what it looks like to be an empire, simultaneously fearful of the world and utterly unconcerned about how it responds to those fears. We the people have conceded somewhere between 1/5 and 1/4 of the entire US government to a system that, from an economic point of view, is largely pointless. A small fraction of that $600 billion could be spent in myriad ways that would have a far greater positive impact on the American people. But we say nothing.

I don't expect this to change - not soon, not later, not in my lifetime. The systems that hold this in place have been decades in the making. They are powerful economically, politically, and (as my colleague pointed out above) philosophically. They are rooted in deep assumptions that have been developed over generations.

Because I don't expect this to change, I don't have any solutions to suggest. Really, I just find it sad that we have so abandoned one of the most fundamental questions of public policy. Maybe Mearsheimer had the right title, even if his argument was wrong - in this way, at least, I really do miss the Cold War.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Where Have All the Conservative Professors Gone?

I came across an article today asking "Where are all the conservative university professors?" This is a perennially interesting question, enough so that I got into an interesting FB conversation about it with a friend. On the off chance that anybody else could benefit from my side of that conversation, I'm going to reproduce my thoughts here.

In case you don't want to click the link above and read the attached article, here's a basic summary. What the author is looking at more specifically is why there aren't self-identified conservatives (or very many) on the faculties in humanities and social sciences departments. The article acknowledges that business and engineering are different animals, but since a lot of people equate "college education" with some pieces of the liberal arts, the question of how "liberal" they are is a relevant one, at least in the public mind.

I should stop and point out that there are real political scientists who have studied this question with actual data. You can find one of the better examples of this at this link; the research is written by a couple of friends of mine who are genuinely interested for scholarly, as opposed to op-ed, reasons. The article linked at the top of this post doesn't really get into data; it's more about rampant speculation.

That speculation boils down to this: current incentives for humanities and social science professors involve doing research that questions existing conventional wisdom, often in radical and new ways. This is means by which these disciplines advance knowledge, and it's also the path to success for professors who must "publish or perish". Because questioning things from radically new points of view and trashing conventional wisdom are seen as liberal, not conservative, traits it stands to reason that professors in these fields will likely be more liberal than conservative.

This is a plausible explanation, but only barely. I think there's some element of truth here. It is the case that "boundary-pushing" research in the humanities and social sciences encourages questioning things that are political and normative in nature. Similar cutting-edge research in engineering or medicine doesn't generally call into question preexisting social and political beliefs. Business is built on a set of assumptions which are fundamentally conservative (in the classic sense) to begin with, and so research within that paradigm is likewise unthreatening to conservative views. So it is reasonable to observe that there would be more political bias or impact in fields in which the subject is more inherently political and philosophical in nature. There is no such thing as "liberal engineering" or "conservative engineering" - there's just engineering, because designing circuits or aircraft isn't an ideological exercise. Interpreting Shakespeare, studying and analyzing history, and researching sociological phenomena all involve political & ideological issues.

All of this is only true if you understand "conservative" to mean what Edmund Burke meant: a respect for tradition and the past and a desire for change that is evolutionary and measured rather than radical. In this regard, modern humanist scholarship is indeed "non-conservative" in that it tends to reject what has come before and want to start fresh, rather than preserving and respecting inherited wisdom. By this standard, many who call themselves "conservatives" today aren't conservatives at all, which further muddies the waters.

I think the much better explanation for the original question - why so few conservative faculty in the liberal arts - is basic tribalism. People tend to sort themselves - where they live, what they do for a living, who they interact with - into groups that are comfortable. The fact that some (many?) humanities and social sciences departments ARE deeply liberal tends to drive conservatives away from those fields, because it's just not comfortable to be there. This is a complex phenomenon with a number of different vectors, as my colleagues who study this stuff will undoubtedly point out. But I wonder whether it doesn't have more to do with our social relations than with the nature of what we study as academics.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Pro-Gun Argument Isn't an Argument. It's All Gut Feelings and Symbols.

One of my favorite definitions to quote to students comes from a Monty Python sketch:
An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.
When we say that someone is making an argument in favor of something, that needs to include statements that lead via logic and evidence from one or more premises to the conclusion. Your premises may be wrong, there may be countervailing evidence, or your logical leaps may be too far. But this is the structure of arguments.

Much of what passes for political "dialogue" is not argument at all. There are no premises, there is no logic or evidence, there is only dogma couched as conclusions - usually framed in a way that they should be obvious to everyone, and that only the truly stupid could fail to see the "truth".

I have argued for some time that this constitutes most of the rhetoric from the NRA. It isn't logic or argumentation at all. Instead, the NRA appeals to tribal loyalty and bumper-sticker dogma that primarily relies on emotional symbols while denigrating anyone who doesn't agree with them.

I get a delightful range of things in my Facebook feed, including periodic reminders of this characteristic of the NRA. Here is one of the latest to cross my field of view:

This is the epitome of an emotional appeal. The "argument" here is that you're not a "man's man" if you don't own a gun. Why Mike Rowe gets to define manhood for everyone else I have no idea, but that's a separate question.

This is pretty standard dog-whistle stuff. Folks who are in the NRA tribe will "get it", and they can feel smug and superior towards those of us on the outside. Mr. Rowe has now given them license to question the manhood (whatever that means) of those who disagree. This couldn't get more petty if you set it on a kindergarten playground.

The tragedy here is that the more of this we see - the more this kind of tribal shouting becomes the only form of "communication" - the less possible it is to have an actual discussion. There's no room for dialogue here, no possibility of discussion, no acknowledgment that there might be other legitimate points of view. Mr. Rowe might as well just wear a shirt that says "We're Great, You Suck" and be done with it.

We were treated this past weekend to a visit from the bishop of our diocese. In a morning session before the service he concluded his remarks by noting that there are only two ways that people relate to each other. Either they try to get the better of each other - to advance their own interests and views at others' expense - or they interact in love and compassion. There are no other choices. The NRA has demonstrated time and again that it is only interested in the former, and that its vision of the world has no love in it. Which sounds like hell on earth to me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Faculty Facing Campus Gun Violence: We Don't Have To Be Afraid

In the wake of the Umpqua shooting, we are once again at the intersection of two of my passions in life: higher education and interpersonal conflict/self defense. Today's Chronicle of Higher Education has a very good piece on how the long string of university shootings is affecting faculty across the country:
As Campus Gun Violence Increases, So Do Professors' Fears
I've blogged recently about how one of the big impediments to a discussion of gun ownership in America is the failure of both sides to understand the others' fears. This article ought to be (but won't be) read by the NRA and anyone who wants to advocate for broader ownership and distribution of firearms, especially by teachers. You can't just hand these people guns and tell them, "There - don't you feel more safe?"

Arming students (or allowing students to arm themselves) isn't going to help either. There were students present at the Umpqua shooting who were armed - and, luckily for everyone, very well-trained. They kept their weapons holstered and concentrated on helping people get to safety. The presence of guns did not alter that course of events at all, even in the hands of "good guys" - although the heroism of some (armed and unarmed) did.

All of this is nothing new - I've written these same things, about different cases and in different words, many times. Here I want to respond to the faculty quoted in the Chronicle article above, because while I understand their fears I have a different perspective on them. Here's a quote from the article:
Many faculty members are thinking about such scenarios with increasing anxiety. They may crack a few jokes at a faculty meeting, or roll their eyes at the latest administration missive of how to stay safe in an "active shooter" scenario, but in the back of their minds there are questions. What would I do if someone walked into the classroom with a gun? Is that student who got angry about a bad grade potentially dangerous? Is my campus a safe place to work?
The overall tenor of the article is: isn't it terrible that faculty have to ask these questions, and isn't it understandable that they're terrified in facing them? My own response is: yes, it is terrible ... there are terrible things in the world, and this is one of them. And, more importantly, while it is understandable that facing these kinds of questions frightens teachers, that reaction is not necessary.

First, a reality check: we live in a world in which interpersonal violence is a possibility. We know from the data that the possibility is remote and, in our corner of the world, getting smaller all the time. That's good, and we should be working to make it an ever-rarer occurrence. We do that not by arming everyone to the teeth - we don't want a world of armed deterrence, we want a world in which conflicts are resolved in other ways. This will always be an asymptotic quest, but we get closer and closer to the zero axis all the time. So given a non-zero probability of being targeted by violence, we can and should declare violence a tragedy while not shying away from addressing it in every way possible.

Second, if we acknowledge that we live in a world in which violence is unlikely but possible then it makes sense to think about what we should do if it happens in our presence. I understand the psychological barriers to dealing with low-probability events, but we do these all the time in other contexts. Schools (in my part of the world, anyway) conduct tornado drills. My university is going to participate this Thursday in an earthquake drill, despite the fact that serious earthquakes in Ohio are almost unheard of. In driver's ed we teach students how to respond if their brakes fail, or if the hood of the car flips up unexpectedly - even though I've never seen either of those things happen in my life.

So we can and should learn to deal with the prospect of violence in our presence in a similar fashion. Understand what we can control and what we can't. Think ahead about the best courses of action. And practice. No skill read about in a pamphlet or listened to in a lecture ever worked. The only way we can be effective at anything is to do it, preferably a bunch of times.

I've written before about the benefits of martial arts training (including here, which remains my most-read blog post ever). I've also pointed out that self defense is a discipline, and as such must be studied and practiced like anything else. The benefit of such learning and practice is not merely that you acquire skills that can be used in an emergency. You also acquire a mindset of preparedness, which is far more important. Any good self defense class will tell you: your most important weapon is your mind.

The questions posed in the quote above, and throughout the Chronicle article, are questions I ask myself all the time. Most of the time when I walk into a classroom or a meeting, I take a moment to assess that space's defensive possibilities and weaknesses (especially in meetings, which often provide opportunities for the mind to wander). I consider approaches and alternative actions depending on various scenarios - who is the attacker targeting? What is he armed with? When do I hide, run, engage? I also evaluate people (students and otherwise) for signs of danger or instability.

For most of the faculty quoted in the article, facing these kinds of questions frightens them. I'm not frightened, not because I'm better or braver than my colleagues but simply because I've practiced. Fear in this case is very much in the eye of the beholder - while dealing with these kinds of questions is challenging, it is not necessarily frightening. We do not have to be afraid; fear is a default condition that can be changed.

There is a deeper level to dealing with this fear. I recognize that my modest skills and training do not guarantee survival 100% of the time in all situations. I may be able to escape, or I may be able to disarm or disable an attacker at close range. I certainly have a better-than-average chance of doing so, if only because the "average" here is very low. But I may also get shot, and I may also get killed. That's the reality.

How I would deal with that reality in the moment I don't know - none of us does until faced with it. But in the calm environment in which I live, I can at least contemplate my mortality. I can think about how I can influence and shape the narrative of events, even if the story includes my own death. "How do I want to die?" is not a question anybody relishes facing. But the stories we remember from some of these events are often from those willing to face that question - the veteran and father at Umpqua who was willing to put himself in harm's way, and while wounded kept repeating that he didn't want to die because it was his son's birthday.

I think there is a fear that thinking about such things will sully us, make us somehow worse people. But I think that's just the rationalization of fear - I think it makes us better people. The closer we get to the really big, important questions the more clearly we can see who we are and who we want to be.

So let us keep working to reduce violence at all levels. Let us certainly not do things - like arming swaths of our population - that will make matters worse. But let us also, in our everyday lives, stop and think about the realities of our world, prepare ourselves for what may come as best we can, and then move on. We will likely not see an end to violence in our lifetimes. But that does not have to rob of us of our peace, because fear is the one enemy we can conquer.

An Interesting Set of Facts About Guns and Violence Prevention

Amidst the American "debate" about responsible gun ownership in recent weeks, there have been some references from gun-rights advocates to Israel. It has been suggested, for example, that Israel suffers fewer shootings in schools (despite being surrounded by enemies) because they arm their teachers:

As usual, the facts are a little more complicated than the memes. It turns out, according to a Washington Post story in today's paper, that Israel has far more restrictive gun laws than the US does. Only about 3.5% of the Israeli population has a permit to own and carry a gun, and half of those work for security firms. The paperwork for a permit is far more extensive, and must include a justification acceptable to the state. Most Israelis would be turned down if they applied.

Were the United States to adopt Israel's laws on gun ownership the NRA would go ballistic. Yet Israelis understand what some of us don't seem to want to: having lots of untrained people running around with guns makes everyone less safe, not more. Perhaps Wayne LaPierre and his colleagues should take a trip to Israel. They might learn something useful.