Monday, June 26, 2017

Expertise: The Knowledge of Things Unseen

I've written before about the value and importance of expertise. We used to believe, especially in the realm of science, that experts really did know more than the rest of us. Now, in a world of echo-chamber social media and fake news and "alternative facts", a lot of us (meaning here Americans) have chucked this notion out the window. Many of us now believe that we and our friends know the real truth, and that everybody else is either a dupe or a liar.

One reason why it's easy to fall into this trap is that we feel good about our echo chambers - they make us feel powerful and affirmed, a sort of antidote to the fear we've been taught is the proper response to the modern world. That part of the psychology that leads people to reject expertise and accept otherwise wacky ideas is pretty clear.

But there's another aspect to expertise that actually contributes to its widespread rejection. The nature of expertise is that people who are experts see things that non-experts can't see. They perceive things in the universe that are, quite literally, invisible to the rest of us.

This phenomenon has been well-documented in all sorts of arenas. Elite athletes, for example, have been studied extensively. It turns out that, while they tend to be in excellent health and have certain physical gifts, they're not especially more physically gifted in general than the rest of us. It's that the tens of thousands of hours of practice they put in have rewired their brains so they can perceive things other's can't. That's why the best hitters in professional baseball actually stand a good chance of hitting a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher, traveling at more than 95 miles per hour. He can see things about that ball that are invisible to the rest of us.

The same is true in medicine. An experienced doctor will see in a list of symptoms, or the way a patient answers a question, possible diagnoses that we know nothing about. Nor can we understand the connections between those little bits of information and the much larger issue. Doctors carry around a whole world of knowledge in their heads that is inaccessible to non-experts.

So it goes for nearly every field of human endeavor. Architects see things in buildings that the rest of us miss. Musicians hear things in music we can't hear. Engineers, lawyers, designers, auto mechanics - in almost any human endeavor involving expertise, experts are privy to a world out of reach of the rest of us.

Unfortunately, this makes it easy to dismiss expertise. It's easy to assume that everything you see is everything there is to see. We're pretty good at accounting for the data coming into our senses, but generally terrible about accounting for what's not there. Arthur Conan Doyle immortalized this in his story "Silver Blaze", in which Sherlock Holmes solves the otherwise unsolvable case by observing that a dog didn't bark.

I encounter this all the time in my own area of expertise - politics - because, as John Stewart Mill put it over 100 years ago, politics "is a subject which no one, however ignorant, thinks himself incompetent to discuss". In the political realm, we all think that we can see everything there is to see. And when "experts" come along and try to point out what we can't see, we often dismiss them because, well, we can't see what they're pointing at. We think they're just making it up.

There are two conclusions here. First, humility is not only a moral virtue, it's an intellectual necessity. We all need to know what we don't know (the height of Aristotle's wisdom). Second, we need to make an effort to determine where real expertise lies - not in who shouts the loudest or in who says things we want to believe, but in who has really put in the time and effort to establish a track record. Anybody can claim they're an expert - evaluate those claims carefully, especially when the supposed expert is simply confirming your own biases.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why "Fear for your Life" Isn't a Reasonable Standard

There's a lot of reaction this week to the verdict in the case of Philando Castile's shooting last year. Naturally, a lot of it has centered on race and the officer's defense that he was "afraid for his life".

As part of this conversation, a friend of mine posted a video to Facebook along with a request for thoughts. The video showed a white man resisting arrest by two police officers (both also white). The man, who is a pretty big guy, puts up quite a struggle, at one point seeming to reach for one of the officer's guns (though he does not obtain it). Eventually the police wrestle him to the ground and pin him. At no time did either officer reach for any of the weapons on his belt. While he was on the ground, they did not continue to strike him in punishment; they simply held him still.

Commentary attached to the video by the original poster suggested that this was evidence of white privilege, if not white dominance: that whites who struggle against police don't need to fear for their lives, while blacks who are compliant with police do. It was this contrast which my friend was seeking comment on.

In response, I wrote the following, more less as a stream of consciousness:

"Fear for your life" is a subjective state of mind. My fear is mine - it is based on the judgments and expectations I have in my own head about is going on around me. 

Juridical standards of "reasonable fear" assume that we can take an average of what
 "most people" would fear given a certain set of circumstances. In some cases, this is in fact "reasonable" - most people will fear if suddenly confronted with a rattlesnake, for example. Most people will also experience fear if a gun is pointed at them.

To believe that we can do this kind of "reasonable averaging" without taking race into account is folly. If I get pulled over, it would not be reasonable for me to fear that the police officer is going to shoot me. Were I black, it would be very reasonable to fear that outcome.

This isn't "White Supremacy", at least not in the sense that there is a conscious, guiding ideology that drives these differences. Rather, there are unconscious and semi-conscious biases that exist in people's heads. We tried to call these biases "racism", but that falters because most people think racism is a conscious thing, a set of beliefs I consciously hold.

We all make judgments in the face of ambiguous evidence. Those judgments are driven by our beliefs, our expectations, and our emotional responses to things around us. This is why negative media portrayals of black men, for example, are so problematic. TV shows don't turn people into conscious racists. But they build up in our mind unexamined expectations about how other people are likely to behave.

Our laws and judicial procedures were developed with an underlying assumption that all people are equal. And so we wish ourselves to be. But in our minds, we are NOT all equal to each other. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality.

The simple answer to this particular problem is rigorous, continuous, serious police training. You can train officers to respond the same to everyone, regardless of color. But you have to recognize that such training has to overcome the differences already existing in their own heads. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of practice, to overcome those mental differences. Some - I suspect many - police officers already have, and many have probably never been seriously tested on the street. I am surprised, in the light of these continuing tragedies, that no one is talking about how we support, train, and discipline our police forces, and what expectations we have for the way they do their jobs.


It seems to me that the legal question we keep asking in these cases - would a "reasonable person" be afraid for their life under a certain set of circumstances - is the wrong question, because there is no singular "reasonable" viewpoint. Our experiences, especially around race, are so vastly disparate that most of us cannot understand what "reasonable" looks like to someone who has a different race, a different background, a different set of experiences than we do.

We will never make progress in our national conversations until we recognize this basic truth: that "reasonable" is not an objective standard, and that fear is based on many things including prejudices. Just because someone is sincerely afraid does not make their actions in response to that fear reasonable.



Monday, June 19, 2017

Mourning Conservatism: The Loss of the "Coarsening of Culture" Argument

Conservatism - at least, as it was understood during my formative years in the 1970s and 1980s - is dead. This is not a new observation, but its passing has been largely ignored such that I think it worth at least a brief obituary.

Not all parts of conservatism, of course, have died. Ideologies don't die so much as evolve and change over time. But at some point that evolution proceeds so far from its ancestry that one could usefully talk of a "new species". In that regard, what passes for "conservative" today is fundamentally different from the conservatism of a few decades ago. The old species of conservative I used to know have mostly died out, at least on the public stage.

In particular there's one aspect of that older conservatism that I always found had some appeal. Conservatives used to be concerned about a problem they sometimes called the "coarsening of culture" - that is, the flouting of social norms and common values that, in their view, led us towards a less-civilized society.

Sometimes this argument took on somewhat shrill overtimes, like Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah. (One can only imagine what Bork would make of Donald Trump.) But at its heart lies a fundamentally conservative, and sympathetic, idea: that the norms and cultural practices that bind us together in community should not be taken lightly. Sometimes these norms and practices are bad and need to be changed - much of the classic argument between liberals and conservatives (think Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke) was about how such change should be effected, and how quickly.

But many of the norms we take for granted are in fact good ones, and necessary to the functioning of a civil society. Among these are respect for the rule of law and respect for other individuals, including some level of tolerance of differences that inherently occur in all societies. At the root of all of this is the need to prevent diverse societies from devolving into anarchy, chaos, and violence - Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all.

This is the sort of thing that conservatives used to worry about, comparatively more than liberals. Yet, except for a few pious words in the wake of last week's shooting of a Republican congressman on a baseball field, today's "conservatives" are by their actions apparently no longer interested in conserving the core civility that was once the hallmark of their brand.

A minor but telling case in point can be found in this story:
Threats For What She Didn't Say
Here is a classicist - a field once staunchly defended by conservatives as necessary for the promotion of "Western Civilization" - being attacked by avowed conservatives, in most un-civil ways. What concerns me about the story is not so much the reactions by white supremacist internet trolls, who are by and large keyboard cowards wrapped in their own dark fantasy worlds. We have come to understand that these are a byproduct of the information age, the empowerment of hate in the midst of change.

More troubling, from the standpoint of modern conservatism, is the eagerness with which seemingly respectable conservative publications like the National Review engage in bomb-throwing behavior that is decidedly un-conservative (at least, by previous standards). The National Review has ceased to be conservative in its behavior or its outlook, adopting instead a sort of hyperventilating tribalism in which anything that plays to a particular set of prejudices, or against another, should be framed so as to maximize its controversy. It's all about creating heat, not light.

I understand why this is: because heat sells, and light does not. A once-conservative publication is now perfectly happy to engage in reckless playing with fire, and will undoubtedly denounce anybody who tries to draw a connection between them and the internet trolls they are stoking. But in doing so they - like many others, on all sides of our ideological divides - have traded their soul for money.

Heat - that is, emotionally charged controversy - used to be seen as the byproduct of the process of producing light - that is, truth. Conservatives spent decades, even centuries, pointing out to liberal revolutionaries that the heat produced by attempts to produce light could often burn down the building we're all standing in. It was one of the best arguments conservatives ever had to hold the moral high ground.

Now, it appears that the modern conservative movement has become corrupted by the same thing they always accused liberals of: moral relativism. There is no point in trying to hold the moral high ground if there is, in fact, no more moral high ground. Everything is simply a power struggle, a clash between sides to produce winners and losers. Donald Trump is a product and symptom of this shift, which existed long before he came along.

Conservatives used to argue that there were fundamental moral principles of right and wrong on which we could all agree. Among these were the rule of law and the maintenance of social order against the forces of chaotic violence that hover just outside our gates, never very far away.

I miss those conservatives. I wonder what happened to them. Now that they're gone, I think they deserve at least a decent burial.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Pathology of "Terrorism"

In the last three days we have seen headlines for two horrific incidents of violence:
7 killed in London Bridge attack
Disgruntled ex-employee kills 5 in Orlando
Both are appalling reminders of the violence which individuals are capable of. Both have made national and/or international news. Both involved the deaths of innocent citizens going about their daily lives.

One attack was a "terrrorist" attack. The other was not. And our differential responses say a great deal about us and our tolerance for violence.

The London attack immediately became part of a larger narrative when the self-styled Islamic State claimed responsibility. In the minds of many, particularly politicians with self-serving agendas, this immediately made it part of a larger global "war on terrorism". Tweets were sent, heated words flew almost immediately as we rehashed yet again the now-tired argument (at least in the US) between tribal Republicans who decry "political correctness" and tribal Democrats who defend the value (or the reality) of a multicultural society.

The Orlando case, on the other hand, falls into a much more isolated narrative, the "disgruntled ex-employee". President Trump has not tweeted about the attack in Orlando, preferring apparently to argue with the Mayor of London. There will be no calls from national politicians to do anything in particular. The headline quote from the local sheriff after the incident was this:
“We have no indication that this subject is a participant in any type of terror organization,” Demings said during the news conference.
That's our main response: well, at least it wasn't terrorism.

If it were my spouse, my child, my parent killed in that business in Florida, I doubt that would come as any comfort at all. The very idea seems absurd. And yet, our public conversation treats the deaths of innocents completely differently based solely on who killed them. We can live with the deaths of innocents, so long as they're shot by disgruntled ex-employees rather than stabbed or run over by terrorists.

We have become pathologically obsessed with terrorism. In any given year, far more innocent Americans are killed by disgruntled ex-employees than by terrorists. That's not just statistics - it's lives ruined, communities wounded, productivity lost. Every one of those lost lives leaves an impact, a hole where a person used to be. They all hurt. They are all children of God.

And yet, we act as if only those lucky enough to have been killed by terrorists matter. Those deaths get the attention, the large public ceremonies with politicians and media attention and stern promises of "This bloodshed will end"!

No one will go to Orlando and console the survivors of that attack with promises of action and praise for how strong they are to go on living in the wake of tragedy. There will be no mass gatherings of funds for those families. I imagine the local community will gather around the wounded and the fallen, and that's as it should be. But for the rest of the nation - and in particular, for our public "leaders" - the lives of seven people in London are far more important than the lives of five people in Florida.

There was an attack in Orlando that garnered a great deal of attention - because the attacker could be described as a "terrorist". We all came together united in the wake of the nightclub shooting. Yet just a few years before, we tore each other apart over an incident in which 20 six and seven year olds were gunned down in their school. No unity there, just spite and hate (even people who want to deny that it ever happened.) Our own children don't even matter unless they're killed by terrorists.

I understand why all of this is. I get the politics, the use of narrative, the incentives that drive politicians to use events for their own ends, the tribalism that divides us from our common humanity, even our common national identity. I understand all of that far too well, having studied it for too many years.

What I can't shake is a fundamental conviction: that this is Wrong.

Many American politicians piously call themselves Christians (Vice President Pence has famously said that he is a "Christian first"). Under what reading of the Bible does one set of innocent deaths matter more than another? If you think your job as a public servant is to protect innocent lives, why do you lavish hundreds of billions of dollars to protect some and nothing to protect others?

In the years immediately following 9/11/2001, we had a national conversation - not a great one, but the best we could do - about what constitutes "winning" for terrorists. We told ourselves that if we allowed the terrorists to drive us into fear, to change us, to make us something we're not, then they would in fact have won. We argued about where exactly those boundaries were, but for a while we shared a general sense: as long as we go on being Americans, they have not prevailed.

We are now so enthralled, so bewitched, so addicted to the idea of "terrorism" that I begin to think that perhaps they have won. Not too many years back, it seemed that tragedy brought out the best in us. We came together after 9/11, but also when the Mississippi flooded its banks and inundated the midwest; when New Orleans disappeared under water; when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida. In between disasters we argued and bickered, but when the chips were really down we seemed to have each other's backs. That's probably a simplified version of the past - but if so, it's an aspirational one.

Now, each new tragedy divides. Terrorist attacks are simply grist for more division and arguing and spite, while other incidents - like this morning's attack in Orlando - are ignored.

As usual, I don't have any solutions - only a conviction that we have all of this badly wrong. And I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's famous saying:
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why I'm Still Not Afraid of President Trump

As we lurch from one bizarre episode in the Trump Administration to another (Russia! Twitter! Covfefe! Special Counsel! Ethics rules! Fire the FBI Director! Paris Climate Accord!), I am repeatedly brought back to something I wrote just a little over a year ago:
Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump
This was written well before the election, and before Trump had technically sowed up the nomination (though by May it was pretty clear he would likely have it). One can quibble on a few details, but on the whole I think it's held up pretty well.

A significant part of my argument a year ago rested on this earlier piece, in which I pointed out that the US Presidency is in many ways a profoundly limited position. I think that the Trump Administration is actually providing a series of excellent illustrations of this point:

• Trump came out firing early with Executive Orders (long derided as "Presidential overreach" by suddenly-silent GOP Congressmen, but that's a topic for another day). But most of his Executive Orders have been words only. The one on "freedom of religion"? Actually changed almost nothing in practical terms. He's made two runs so far at trying to take unilateral action on immigration, only to have both of them blocked by the courts. Most of the stuff he's signed so far has been effective at generating a lot of press and buzz, but almost completely ineffective in actually changing anything (which isn't a bad description of Trump's career in show business).

• At the end of April, Congress faced a significant deadline to put together a budget for the remainder of FY17 for the Federal Government. The Trump Administration released a blueprint of what it thought Congress should do, including recommendations for massive cuts in a wide range of domestic programs and massive increases in defense spending. Though there was again a lot of press and public attention, in the end Congress pretty much ignored everything that Trump said and hammered out their own plan, which the President quietly signed. His impact on that process - perhaps the most important thing the US government does - was near zero. Early indications are that his FY18 budget proposal is going to get roughly the same treatment.

• His most recent action, on the Paris Climate Accord, is far less consequential than it appears for at least two reasons. First, "withdrawal" is not an instantaneous thing. By the terms of the Agreement, the US can't actually leave for three or four years - long enough to make this an issue in the next Presidential election cycle, and subject to being reversed by the next President. Second, the response from states, cities, and the corporate sector has been massively in the other direction. A great many entities that were going to have to take action under the Paris Accords are going to take those same actions anyway - up to and including giant oil companies, which are already coming under fire from their investors for not getting ready for a low-carbon future.

This is not to say that Trump's attempted actions don't matter. The most significant impact, as my colleague Dan Drezner has pointed out, may be that the US is largely abandoning leadership on the international stage to Europe and China. That's not the outcome that Trump or his supporters wanted, but it's the one we're getting. So I am not arguing that Trump's actions have no consequences.

I am, however, sticking to my pre-election conclusion: one man, no matter how ill-informed, arrogant, or unqualified, cannot destroy the United States or the world. The United States Presidency is far more limited in its scope and influence than we tend to give it credit for in our public discussions. Moreover, everything that Trump has done so far has had the effect of weakening the office still further, whether by appointing ill-prepared department heads who will spend their time fighting their own bureaucracies, taking extreme positions that mobilize resistance, or making policy proposals so absurd that he gets excluded from the important conversations. That's not the world I would like to see, but it's one I can live with.

I am often reminded of one of Fred Rogers' most famous quotes, worth repeating in this context:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
Things look scary now. But there are many people out there who are helping. Look for them. If you can, be one of them.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Terrible Temptation of "Christianity and..."

Years ago, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters warned against the dangers of what he called "Christianity and":
The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. 
My Facebook feed (because of a comment by a friend) served up a striking example of this phenomenon today - a graphic accompanied by the following text, posted by a FB group called "Our President and Savior":


Of all the sacred institutions upholding our democracy, none is as important as loyalty to the President. What better way to show your loyalty than by making a formal pledge in the sight of GOD, for all to know? Voluntarily pledging in the comments will demonstrate superior integrity than if you wait for the pledge to become mandatory. Don't delay; pledge your loyalty to President TRUMP today!
~~~~~~~

The Donald J. Trump Presidential Pledge of Loyalty:

"I swear to GOD this sacred pledge that to the President of the United States and people, Donald J. Trump, supreme commander in chief of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave patriot I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this pledge."

Amen!
In the (unsurprisingly extensive) comments section came this particular addition from the poster of the original:
Our President and Savior ATTENTION LIBERALS: This is a CHRISTIAN page and foul language will NOT be tolerated. We permit you to be here for your own benefit, but cussing and profanity are strictly FORBIDDEN. You have been warned!
I am baffled. Under what reading of the Christian Bible does it become "mandatory" to pledge allegiance to an earthly ruler? What kind of theology allows you identify as a Christian and call Donald Trump (or any other President) "Savior"? Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light" - I'm pretty sure he didn't make mention of the President of the United States, or the Emperor of Rome, or the Governor of Syria, or Pilate, or anyone else.

I'm also not sure what understanding of "democracy" regards "loyalty to the President" as one of the "sacred institutions" that upholds the system. Our government was founded on disloyalty to a ruler, and is clearly designed to protect the rights of anyone who wants to speak out and oppose those elected to office.

Somewhere, Screwtape is laughing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ideological Purity and the Loss of Tolerance

I've written before (here and here) about the dangers of trying to create an ideologically "pure" environment. Our politics are problematic in part because there are some folks on both the Left and the Right who refuse to have anything to do with anything that smacks of the other side. These people are doomed to live frustrated lives, since they will never achieve what they seek.

In academia, the forces pulling in this same direction can be even stronger. There is something about academic training, about dedicating a large portion of your life to seeking truth in a particular area, that seems to engender in us the need to Be Right and to vanquish all of the Wrong Thinking in the world. Academics are not much known for humility.

In this context, the latest wave of opposition to campus speakers has become particularly fertile ground for this sort of quixotic quest for purity. In the minds of some, to host an outside speaker on campus is to allow anything and everything that person has ever said to taint you. The institution itself becomes unclean by their presence, requiring rituals of purification. You could write these sorts of strictures up in Leviticus and they would fit right in.

One of the latest of these incidents involves a kerfuffle surrounding an invitation extended to James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who, along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, discovered and articulated the structure of DNA. He had a hand on one of the signature scientific achievements of the 20th century, on which a vast amount of biological and medical knowledge has been built. He is, as the saying goes, one of the giants in the field.

He has also, at various points, expressed some outdated views about race, gender, and other social issues. He has expressed concern that people in Africa are less intelligent than people in other parts of the world. He has said various things about women, about body types, and about homosexuality which most people these days don't agree with. He has also apparently been a supporter of eugenics, at least at the individual level. He is, from many points of view, on the wrong side of history on a number of social issues.

So here we have a man who has led a stellar scientific career, contributing to some of the most impactful scientific advances of the modern age, who also apparently holds some retrograde views on issues of race, gender, and sexuality - views not that uncommon, it should be noted, for white men born in the 1920s.

In other words, James Watson is a human. He has done things that are laudable, and he has done things that are condemnable. He has said things we wish he hasn't said, and he has done things we are extremely grateful for.

So when he is invited to give a talk about science - about the thing for which he clearly deserves praise - and then is disinvited because of things he has said unrelated to his scientific research, I not sure what the standard is. Can we only invite speakers who have led exemplary lives and have been saints since birth? Can we only host speakers who have never said anything that might offend someone's point of view? If so, our list of campus speakers will be very short indeed.

From a Christian point of view, this kind of intellectual purifying of the academy is nonsense. We are all sinners, and there is no coherent theological justification to suggest that some sins (racism, for example) are more egregious in the eyes of God than others (pride, or lust, or greed). People love to read the Beatitudes, but the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 makes us profoundly uneasy (Cut off your hand! Tear out your eye!)

I am therefore a little perplexed when people write "I am ashamed to be faculty at Illinois" because some part of the university - which is a large, complex organization with many parts, not a unified whole - has decided to host Watson for a talk about his research. Such a person must be perpetually ashamed of many things, because we are all connected to institutions and social structures that do things that we find objectionable.

None of this is to defend racism, or sexism, or homophobia. When Watson argues that one "race" of people is inherently less intelligent than another, he is doing so on the basis of prejudice rather than careful scientific study. The bases of intelligence are complex and multifaceted, and it is entirely likely that his own intelligence is a result of the nurture of his upbringing and circumstances (of having "won the ovarian lottery", as Warren Buffet puts it) rather than what's in his genetic code. As we seek the roots of intelligence we find a very complex web indeed. We would also do well to carefully untangle judgments about intelligence from judgments about moral value, lest we fall into the trap of moral elitism - "smart" people do not have a greater inherent moral value than "dumb" ones.

But it is one thing to disagree with an argument or a point of view. It is another thing entirely to assert that, by inviting a speaker to talk on one topic, you are in some sense endorsing his views on others - an assertion that, when brought to light, is clearly silly. It is still another thing to claim that, by that person's presence on campus in some kind of invited capacity, the institution as a whole is morally tainted - a modern version of the Levitical code of purity.

Ultimately, I think our problem is that we are confused. We see ourselves as individual moral agents - as responsible for our own moral choices. Yet we also imbue our institutions - which are, after all, simply collections of individuals - with a sort of moral status of their own. In itself, this can be useful,  because we want to feel that we belong to and contribute to something greater than ourselves. But we are unclear about the moral rules surrounding our institutions. We seek to hold our institutions to the same standards as ourselves - forgetting that we are not alone, and that others may have different ideas about what is appropriate or inappropriate.

All of this, of course, is just a description of what it means to live in society. My concern is that we are forgetting this - we forget that one of the chief qualities that enables us to get along with each other and improve our individual and collective lives is tolerance for difference and ambiguity. The quest for purity is really just the reduction of the moral world to a zero-sum game: either I win, or you do. Either we are not racist, or we are. We are either a conservative place or a liberal place. Throughout the history of humanity, this approach has always led to suffering, and never to the victory that its adherents sought. Maybe we should step back and look for a better way to listen to each other without so much throwing of stones and slurs and signs.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Limitations of Surveys

In perusing the higher education press this morning, I came across this story:
Americans see value in higher education, survey finds, but are unhappy with current system
The results of this survey are likely to be seized on by various constituents and interests. No doubt state legislators will see it as further evidence of the need for "reform" in higher education.

I don't intend to argue here about whether universities need to reform or not. In a certain sense, that's a silly question - all universities at all times can do things to make themselves better, and should. We can all find ways to better serve our students, to help our students learn and grow more, to be more efficient and cost-effective, and so on. This is the normal state of affairs.

One thing state legislatures and the general public don't often realize is that, despite our desire for simple answers, the kinds of change needed are usually university-specific. Even within one state or public university system, the issues and challenges facing any two universities within that area are likely to be very different. I have recently made the transition from one public university in Ohio to another. Both are sizable comprehensive universities serving metropolitan areas that in many ways are mirror images of each other. Both need reform. The kind of reform each needs, however, is radically different.

So a survey that says "things need to change!" isn't useful at all. Very few doubt the need for change on any campus, and those who do tend not to be in positions of authority or influence. Yes, there are rear-guard actions by groups of faculty or (less frequently) staff, but these are increasingly ineffective. Most good faculty leaders I know understand the need for reform. We just need to agree on what kinds of reforms are needed.

But the survey referenced above isn't just useless because it makes an obvious point. The observation that "58% believe colleges put their own interests ahead of students", or that "just one in four respondents feel higher education is functioning fine the way it is", reflect genuine opinions. But where do those opinions come from? As has famously been said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

Legislators or others with an agenda will argue that these opinions are evidence that things have gone wrong in higher education, that there is a "crisis". They assume, in other words, that people's opinions reflect reality. Unfortunately, that's not true.

If you call me up and ask me what I think of the nature of the health care system in the US, I have to construct an opinion on the spot. Like most Americans, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about "the health care system". I occasionally interact with that system, because (like most Americans) I tend to be generally healthy. Moreover, even if I like my particular doctor, I may not see that one data point as representative of the system as a whole. I'm likely to simply think that my doctor is a good fellow, or that my doctor's office is a nice and reasonably well-run place.

So where does my opinion come from? If I read stories all the time about how health care is "failing", how people can't get treatment, how drugs are too expensive, how hospitals are terrible, and so on - those things are likely to be "top of mind" for me when the pollster calls. We have known for a long time that in public opinion polling, people base their answers on the most recent relevant information in their memory banks, even if that information isn't that representative or even all that relevant.

So when somebody does a poll of 1600 people nationwide and asks their opinions about college, I know that the vast majority of those respondents are unlikely to have had a significant interaction recently with a college. Moreover, even if they have, we tend to differentiate the individual cases we know from the broader "system" we're being asked about. This is the same dynamic that leads most Americans to despite Congress, yet like their own individual representative. So the "raw material" we're likely to base our opinion on when asked about "the higher education system" is the general stream of stories and headlines we're exposed to in media coverage and our social media streams.

Polls like this, in other words, are self-fulfilling prophecies for politicians who have been railing against higher education for years. They don't reflect the reality of higher ed; they don't even reflect the reality of individuals' experience with higher ed. They reflect the narrative we have constructed of a "system in crisis" - a narrative that has been built to serve specific interests, mostly in service to political ambition.

The media (including the higher ed press and the social media sphere - bloggers included!) play into this. A handful of stories about interrupted speeches on college campuses created a narrative that we have a "crisis" of free speech on campus. Stories of free speech rights being appropriately exercised and protected don't make the news or the blogs, although I have personally seen more of that than of the "bad" cases. In my own small way, I'm guilty of perpetuating the problem here.

None of this is news. We know this is the way public opinion works, and have at least since John Zaller published The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion back in 1992. But polls make good headlines, which then further feed narratives.

For those of us in higher education: we need to stop playing defense and responding to specific charges, and build a different narrative. We have the tools and we have the facts. The reality is that American higher education is the envy of the world, which is why the United States brings in far more students from overseas than any other country. We need to tell that story, and enlist allies to help us tell it broadly and publicly.

For the broader public: we need to develop the skills that everyone keeps saying we need - critical thinking. The level of education needed to develop a little critical distance and not swallow a particular story wholesale is not unattainable. It probably doesn't even require a bachelor's degree. What it does require is training and practice (which higher education are designed to provide), and a willingness to think a little. That latter point is up to the rest of us.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Political Conflict on Campus Today

I write a fair amount about academia and higher education. I also write a lot about conflict. Sometimes, I get to cross my realms of expertise and write about both.

It was in that conjunction that this article from this week's Chronicle struck me:



From Video of Campus Forum, Virtual Venom Flows

The Reader's Digest version of the story is this: some folks at Northern Arizona University decided to have a public campus form titled "The Specters of Fascism?" It's the kind of thing that universities do - bring their expertise to bear on questions of public interest and hold open discussions about them.

In this case, the forum was mostly about Fascism in Europe, with the added question of whether there were lessons from those historical experiences that might be applicable to the United States today. It's the sort of question that historians, political scientists, sociologists, and others have discussed for decades - interesting, relevant in a high-level sort of way, and amenable to scholarly inquiry. In today's highly polarized political and tribal environment, however, it attracted a different sort of attention than one might expect when academics hold a scholarly forum.

A NAU student affiliated with a group called Campus Reform filmed the event and shared that video with the organization, which posted a segment of it on their website. Campus Reform, which bills itself as "America's leading site for college news", is a conservative project that "exposes bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses". It is an offshoot of the Leadership Institute, an avowedly conservative organization whose mission is "to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process".

Needless to say, university professors speculating about whether European fascism has any parallels in American politics today proved to be red meat to conservatives, who boiled the whole thing down to "liberals equating Trump with Hitler". Abusive and threatening emails started flying almost immediately, aimed at faculty members associated with the event (often for things that they didn't say, as the video was apparently unclearly labelled).

Interestingly, the student who took and posted the video also came in for a fair amount of online abuse and some pushback from people on her campus, some of whom accused her of being a racist and of belonging to the "alt-right". She characterized her treatment (perhaps a bit hyperbolically) as "full-on bullying from the university".

The usual frame by which these kinds of stories are viewed is the "academic freedom/freedom of speech" frame. In this view, everyone has the right to say what they like and to express the views that they like. The forum was an exercise of free speech, as was the taping of the forum and posting it online. The subsequent abuse and death threats are merely an unfortunate byproduct of our exercise of our free speech rights.

While correct in itself, this frame is largely useless for understanding what's going on here. What this episode shows is one manifestation of a much larger conflict taking place across society, on campuses as well as in other ways. Once we place this in a conflict frame, we have the chance to make progress towards both understanding and mitigating if not resolving these issues.

Like all conflicts, this one has at least two sides, each of which is a coalition of actors and entities that agree with each other to varying degrees. What holds the sides together is not agreement about facts or ideas, but a sense of common identity - "us" versus "them". The student who posted the video may not like being lumped in with the alt-right, but she's planted her flag on that side and so, in the eyes of her adversaries, she's one of "them".

Like all tribal conflicts, the dynamics are pretty predictable. Each side defines the other as both monolithic and defined by its own worst actors. Each side is reduced to simplistic, usually dehumanizing, epithets by the other ("libtard", "redneck", etc.) Each side has only a vague notion of its goals and objectives - though individual actors may have specific plans - but in broad terms, the conflict is seen as zero-sum - either "we" win or "they" win.

It is this last point that gives rise to the deplorable kinds of behavior that we see - the online bullying, dehumanization, and threats. Because people the conflict is perceived as zero-sum, each side focuses on "winning". There is no notion of compromise or accommodation - such thoughts are heresy, and those who entertain them usually branded as heretics and forced to recant or tossed out of the tribe. In the terms of my own research, each side is pursuing a Unilateral strategy.

Sometimes in international conflict, Unilateral strategies make sense. One thing my research has turned up is that Unilateralism is contagious - if one side gets it, the other side pretty much has to follow suit. It's very difficult for me to try to reach accommodation with you while you're trying to kill me. This is why Zartman has spent so much time researching the notion of "hurting stalemates", because once you're locked into Unilateralism on both sides, it's very difficult to get out.

Some of the rhetoric within our domestic political conflict has taken on this sort of flavor. Dig around a little bit and you can find conservatives (often of the alt-right variety) talking about a "genocide" of liberals, while on the Left you have liberals talking openly about secession (Calexit?) from the rest of the country. Both of these assume a universe in which members of both tribes cannot coexist, at least not in the same political space, giving rise for the need for one or another kind of "final solution".

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. My partner-in-crime on secession research Steve Saideman recently pointed out that Blue State secessionism is nuts and anti-democratic. And the idea that "conservatives" can somehow identify and remove (via death or forced migration) all "liberals" is both wildly unrealistic and horrifying.

The reality is that within the United States, Unilateral strategies are a waste of time. They will never succeed. The only thing they are good for - and this goes a long way to explaining their popularity - is helping some politicians get into power and stay here. The side effect of this political strategy, of course, is that the body politic as a whole suffers. And so a college professor and a college student are both made to suffer so that demagogues who have no interest in resolving conflicts can go to Washington.

The Atlantic recently ran an article covering research that suggests that one side effect of Americans drifting away from organized religion (in particular, the many branches of the Christian church) is that they are become less tolerant of each other. While Christianity is often associated in the public mind with intolerance (towards gays, Muslims, single mothers, and others, mostly because of particularly vocal denominations), it turns out that the universalism within Christian theology (a universalism reflected in most major theological systems around the world) does tend to make adherents less rigid than we usually think. You can only sing "In Christ there is no East or West" so many times on a Sunday before it starts to occur to you that maybe God really does love everybody, even the people you disagree with.

The flight from religion is particularly pronounced on college campuses, both among academics and faculty (who tend to share a culture of cosmopolitan secularism) and among students (who tend to share the young adults' gravitational pull away from the religion of their parents, who increasingly don't have one anyway). So it's not surprising that when the broader conflict surfaces on campus, its manifestation tends to be particularly intolerant. Each side, of course, uses this to accuse the other of hypocrisy, thus making the whole thing worse.

The thing about viewing this as a conflict is that it helps us think about the important questions. What would a "resolution" look like? What is the conflict about, and what kinds of solutions to those problems are possible? Because we tend to think that the conflict is about "ideas" ("liberal" ideas versus "conservative" ideas), we then erroneously think that the solution is for our ideas to "win". That is not, of course, how the "marketplace of ideas" works. Change tends to come evolutionarily. Nothing "wins" or "loses" in whole, but the interaction changes all sides and produces new (and hopefully better) ideas. Hegel was right - the conflict between Thesis and Antithesis produces, at its best, Synthesis.

As long as people are sending death threats to each other, of course, this kind of progress is going to be very slow. And as long as students (of whichever tribe) think that they need to help their side "win" - whether by posting videos of views they don't like to like-minded websites or by shouting down speakers they don't like at public events - not much is going to change.

When you're in a conflict, you should be thinking about how to end it - about what realistic conclusions are possible and about how to get from where we are to one of those, as fast as possible and with the least cost. Right now, people on all sides aren't thinking this way. They're trying to "win" an unwinnable war. If you don't like the idea of strangers flinging death threats around, heed the advice of Joshua: the only winning move is not to play:





Thursday, March 9, 2017

Quixotic Quest for Political Purity

I have written before about the dangers of seeking "purity" in public life - that is, of trying to dissociate one's self in all ways from things one disagrees with. This is as true about politics as it is about religion or any other belief system.

In this light, I read with a combination of amusement and concern this latest effort at "purity" of a particular political viewpoint by members of the NY State Senate:
New York Senate Passes Anti-BDS Bills
The idea here is that, if you work as a faculty member at any public university in New York (there are some 64 SUNY campuses, plus the CUNY system) you would not be able to use university funds to, say, travel to the conference of an organization that has passed a BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) resolution with regards to Israel.

Now, whether I agree with BDS efforts or not is irrelevant here (I'm not a fan, mostly on practical grounds). I am a member of scholarly organizations that have, at times, debated such resolutions. If one of these organizations were to pass such a resolution, and I worked in NY, what is the purpose of forbidding me from attending its scholarly conferences? All that does is punish the faculty, who now no longer have access to the means of sharing their work with the scholarly community, whether those faculty supported the symbolic BDS resolution or not.

The notion that allowing such a faculty member to use professional development funds to travel to such a conference constitutes the state "funding attacks against Israel or supporting hate", or that a conference appearance would be "inappropriate and offensive", suggests that the sponsors of this legislation are trying to purify the world according to their own world views. People disagree, about Israel and a great many other things. If you find such disagreement offensive, I'm not sure it's the world that needs to change.

This is, of course, a symptom of the deeper tribalist instincts of American politics, instincts that have been much emboldened of late. This is another example of a Politics of Force - an attempt to impose one's own worldview of everyone else, in this case on an issue that is purely symbolic and which has no direct practical significance. BDS resolutions by academic associations will not change Israel's behavior; withholding New York State funding from scholars seeking to attend those associations' conferences won't change theirs either.

As I have argued before, this is the real battle for the soul of American politics - not which side of this or that issue you fall on, but what kind of politics we want to have. If we opt for a politics of force, we doom ourselves to endless conflict and, likely, violence. This is the Trumpian zero-sum view of the world, and it leaves everybody worse off. Our alternative is to learn to live with differences even as we debate them, which means we have to become a little less comfortable with our own righteousness and a little more willing to engage in contact with the "impure".

Friday, March 3, 2017

What Does Free Speech on Campus Mean?

I am no fan of Charles Murray or his work. I suspect that if I read it exhaustively, I would find much to criticize. I have read The Bell Curve, and I'm unconvinced by his arguments.

That said: this behavior reported here by a group of Middlebury students is appalling. If free speech on a campus means anything, it means that people who are invited by members of the community - people who apparently thought he had something worth listening to - be allowed to share their views with decorum and civility. Shouting a speaker down, and then jumping on his car as he attempts to leave, are inconsistent with this notion.

The open letter referred to in the article linked above tries to square this circle by arguing, essentially, that there are certain views that are outside the boundaries of free speech protection and which therefore can and should be censured. It also argues that the airing of those views in and of itself constitutes a threat to other members of the community, a form of (their word) intimidation.

This is precisely the kind of division I spoke of in my most recent blog post. It will not get better by shouting and pounding on cars, or even by the more civilized means of "de-inviting" speakers. It will only get better through real dialogue. Whether a public lecture is the best form of that dialogue is another question, but I suspect that the students protesting made no real attempt to have an open conversation with their fellow students who had invited Murray in the first place.

I also suspect that the students who invited Murray in the first place knew darned well what they were doing, and that some of them are likely quite pleased to have provoked their liberal brethren into an overreaction. This is combative politics that divides. Rather than invite a controversial speaker to demonstrate your power, why not have a direct dialogue between student groups?

The students in question (on both sides) probably don't see it this way, but this is a politics of force. It is a politics that says, I am right and you are wrong and I am going to use all of the power at my disposal to impose my will on you. It is as anti-democratic as anything they are protesting against. I do not envy my colleagues in the Middlebury administration as they try to untangle this mess.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Thoughts About American Tribalism

I have just returned this past weekend from the annual conference of the International Studies Association. For scholars like me who study international politics in a systematic way, this is the largest gathering every year - a way to see people we interact the rest of the year only in writing, to meet new faces and get exposed to new ideas. It is a collective expression of a scientific community trying to figure out the world - often raucously and discordantly, although there are some things that the community agrees strongly on.

This year's conference got me thinking about tribalism, in part because:

• I tend to think about tribes a lot anyway (search this blog for the "tribalism" label to see a lot of my past stuff)

• The community of ISA scholars constitutes, in many ways, a tribe of its own, with various sub-tribes embedded therein

• The national (United States) conversation about immigration is really a conversation about who is "us" and who is "them" and how "us" should treat "them" (with the answer to the latter question, far too often, being "badly")

• I am reading Jonathan Haidt's work The Righteous Mind, which has an extensive discussion of how "groupish" humans are and why

• There is an underlying tribalism within the United States that worries me greatly, and which I think almost no one is dealing with very well (or at all) right now

This last point is what concerns me most. The specific issues we're arguing about at the national level - immigration, the role of the press, foreign policy, tax policy, and many more - are all suffused with a tribal divide. To put it plainly: there is no longer any room in our national conversation for Americans, only for tribes within America that each regard the other as an existential threat.

I see this mostly from the Left side of the divide, because that's where most of my social contacts have their home. There is plenty of opposition to Trump (reasonably so - every President faces opposition) and other individuals in his administration. This opposition seems reasonable, even obvious, to those who share it. It also seems treasonous to the most committed folks on the Right.

I suspect that there is a similar dynamic on the Right, though I don't see as much of it myself (again, most of my friends are on the Left). Polling data suggests that there is a committed core of folks who view Trump's actions so far as positive, who were excited by his electoral win and his inauguration, and who view the opposition to Trump's appointments and pronouncements with deep suspicion if not outright hatred. The Left, in turn, wonders if these same people are going to take over everything and destroy our democracy.

These groups of people seem to inhabit very different worlds - not only in social circles, but in the very reality they see. One side sees a massively dysfunctional government careening back and forth between evil and unprecedented incompetence. The other sees a hero battling valiantly against the forces he campaigned against. Even basic facts have become a matter of partisan identity. And everywhere, people are convinced that if Their Side doesn't win, it will spell the end of our civilization as we know it.

To say that this is bad is a massive understatement. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Unlike in 1858, we can't even sort ourselves into states on different sides of a contiguous line - we are more like Yugoslavia in 1990, intermixed in geography but inhabiting separate nations. I recognize that neither of these historical analogies ends particularly well for the people involved.

Last night President Trump gave a speech to Congress that was widely hailed, at least in the mainstream, as being very different from his first month of governing. And in truth he did call for bipartisan cooperation in Congress - though cooperation in service to his agenda and his ideas. In this, he did what every other President before him has done. He did not address the real divide among us, a divide he has done much to increase.

A part of my participation in last week's ISA conference involved chairing a discussion of a recent book, Nationalist Passions, written by my friend Stuart Kaufman. Stuart looked at a number of different societies with significantly diverse ethnic and identity groups - some that had gone down the road of violent conflict, some which had suffered through dysfunctional politics, and some which had managed to operate with normal political systems despite significant differences across their populations.

Stuart's advice for today's divide in America? Surprisingly (given the decidedly liberal bent in the room), he said that we should acknowledge diversity but we should celebrate what we have in common. We need to stop emphasizing our differences, and instead hold highest that which binds us together.

This is what our entire national conversation seems incapable of doing, on both the Left and the Right. Nothing that President Trump has said, even last night when he was being "reasonable", has suggested that he has any vision for what binds Americans together or what we might have in common. Nor have any national politicians, either on the Left or the Right, made this kind of claim. Everyone is backed into their corner playing defense and lashing out at the other side.

This is a question largely separate from the very real debates we are having over particular issues: immigration policy, terrorism and national defense, education, health care. All of those, bombastic rhetoric aside, are routine arguments we have perennially. They are things about which we should be expected to disagree.

Part of the reason why these debates feel different from previous iterations is the lack of a "center" - not centrist positions (those do exist, though these days they are rare), but a central touchpoint which we all agree exists and which connects us all to each other. In my view, we have reached the point where there isn't one. We are no longer "one nation", under God or otherwise. We are not one out of many. Pluribus has overtaken unum.

My work, and that of many much smarter scholars, on identity-driven conflicts suggests that there is no easy road back from here. Some of our work suggests that there may not be a road back at all. Violence and attacks have so far been limited mostly to threats and vandalism against minority groups that have been subjected to such things before (recently in particular, Jews but also foreigners). The more violence there is, and the more separated the sides become, the harder and harder it will be for any kind of reunification. What happens when somebody gets attacked for being a Hillary supporter? (Oh, wait - that has already happened...)

At this point, we cannot look to our leaders - neither Republicans nor Democrats, not Trump nor Pelosi nor Ryan nor Schumer - to provide us a way out. The President and members of Congress all have more immediate agendas for shaping legislation and influencing policy. Each will call for "Unity!" when it serves their purposes, and they will sow division when that works better. The health of the US body politic as a whole is too big, too distant, too easily put off into the future to make it onto their radar screens.

Unfortunately, as I have pointed out before, we have a tendency to expect our Presidents to solve all of our problems. Almost always, they can't - think of the hopes placed on Obama to bring racial healing (and who better positioned to do it?) President Trump has done his best to pour gasoline on our fires of division, so there is no hope there.

The problem, I think, is not just that we expect our Presidents to do things they can't. It's that we don't believe that we can do anything ourselves. But this is one problem that only ordinary Americans will be able to solve. Community leaders can help, if they are people who care more about bringing us together as a people than about getting their way. Look for these people where you live. If you don't find one, become one.

How do we do this? Talk to each other. Not argue on the internet, not get into Twitter fights. Talk with real people, about our real lives - our whole lives. Listen. A lot. Find the common ground, and celebrate it when you do. Decide that our relationships with one another are more important than winning this or that point.

This doesn't mean you can't call your Congressman, or join in a march, or write letters to the editor, or vote for your favorite candidate. All of those things, and many more, are good things to do. It does mean that as we do them, we should try to take care not to contribute any more to our widening divisions. We can be honest in our views, but we shouldn't be snarky. We can be open about how we see the world without disrespecting those who see it differently. How we do things is, as I have argued so many times before, ultimately far more important than what we do, because the How has a much greater impact over time than the What.

Tonight I join with millions of fellow Christians around the world in the celebration of Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. Lent has historically been a season of penitence, of introspection, and of discipline in preparation for renewal. Whatever our faiths, our theologies, and our beliefs, it seems like now is a good time for these things.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Gaslighting on Terrorism and Immigration

This weekend has seen a mass of confusion, protest, anger, and dismay at a hastily-constructed executive order that brought an immediate halt to certain kinds of immigration and travel, and an indefinite halt to others (specifically, refugees from Syria). People marched, court orders were issued (and apparently ignored), statements were made, contradicted, and clarified. Things are still far from certain as of the start of the week.

Lost in the shuffle of all of these important issues is an underlying reality: we as a nation have been effectively "gaslighted" on terrorism and immigration. The Trump forces have told the lie that we are unsafe and vulnerable to attack by terrorists traveling from overseas so often that we all now take it for granted - even Democratic Senators otherwise opposed to the executive order.

As a security studies scholar, let me put this in clear terms: there is not a shred of evidence that the United States is any more vulnerable to terrorist attacks from abroad than it ever has been, and plenty to suggest that we are safer than at any point in our history. There is also no way of defending the assertion that Islamic terrorism represents an existential threat to the United States, or that it even ought to be on the list of top US national security priorities. We are afraid of terrorism only because we've been told we should be.

The easiest way to see the truth, of course, is to look at the statistics. Violence of any kind - never mind terrorist violence - doesn't even make the top 15 list of causes of death in the US, and has been in long-term secular decline (as have death rates in general). Any given American's odds of being killed or injured by a terrorist are almost infinitesimally small, and the odds of a terrorist attack of any kind happening on US soil on any given day - or even in any given month - are likewise extremely small. The list of things you are more likely to encounter than a terrorist is vast.

The few high-profile cases we've had in recent years (San Bernadino and, if you really want to stretch, Orlando) were committed by US citizens. The only recent case that might conceivably have been stopped by the rules recently put in place was a knife-wielding Somali at Ohio State, which while regrettable and tragic didn't lead to any loss of life (other than the attacker's) and which represented only the tiniest of dangers even to the people of Columbus, OH. Dylann Roof did more damage in South Carolina that this student did in Columbus.

The fact is that, of things that threaten Americans' lives and way of life, terrorism just doesn't make the list. It is, in reality, just not that important. Are we 100% free of terrorist risk? Of course not - and we never will be. There is no set of rules, no border restrictions, no "extreme vetting" procedures that will ever eliminate that risk. And at this point, the risk is so low that any efforts to improve procedures - however well-considered and well-implemented - will only lower the risk level by an almost immeasurably small amount. When you're that close to zero, it's hard to get closer.

Why, then, are so many Americans concerned about terrorism? Why are even Senate Democrats unwilling to question the underlying logic of Trump's executive order, which amounts to "desperate times call for desperate measures"? Because we have all been gaslit on this. The lie has been repeated so many times that it has become the truth.

This is not a problem that goes away with one administration, however disliked or incompetent. This is now baked into the system, the result of 15 years of steady drumbeats that long predate Trump and his people. No politician, Democrat or Republican, will challenge the conventional wisdom, and a great many of them will find it useful as cover to do what they want to do, whether it be restricting economic activity or discriminating against certain groups or simply getting reelected on the basis of blind fear. The "War on Terror" is, indeed, the never-ending war, because we have enshrined it on a pedestal in our heads.

I wish I could be less bleak about this, but I don't see a way forward. We have largely lost the capacity for hope in our politics, especially as concerns "national security" issues. 25 years ago we dreamed of a world in which we felt secure. Since then we have allowed our "leaders" to make sure that we will never feel secure again, whatever the real world is doing. As usual, Walt Kelly said it best: we have met the enemy, and He is Us.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Trump's Zero-Sum Universe

There are plenty of things to respond to in President Trump's inaugural address last Friday. Having read the text of every inaugural since Harry Truman (all easily available online), some simple observations jump out:

• It was remarkably short.

• It was not particularly uplifting nor inspiring. This is obviously something of a judgment call, but I have read inaugural addresses by Presidents whom I liked and agreed with and by Presidents I disliked and disagreed with strongly. Pretty much all of them were good pieces of inspirational rhetoric, whether I liked the President or not. This one wasn't.

• The phrase "American carnage" was bizarre. The America that Trump describes is not one that most Americans experience.

• I had no idea that schools are "flush with cash" but leave "our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge." My local public schools, which my kids attend, do an excellent job of transmitting a lot of knowledge to my kids, and even though we live in a pretty affluent area even our schools aren't "flush with cash". I don't think his description fits a single school district in the country, much less the entire system.

• "America first" has a ring to it that troubles some folks. What I found far more disturbing was this statement:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America
Calling for total allegiance to the state is positively totalitarian and certainly un-American. I can't imagine where this came from, or what purpose it serves.


But beyond all of this, what I found fascinating about the address is the extent to which it illuminates Trump's fundamental view of the world. Trump's world is all about competition, all the time. All interactions, for Trump, involve winners and losers. Everything to him is zero-sum.

This is both inaccurate and profoundly amoral. Let me elaborate a bit on both.

There are indeed some human interactions that are zero-sum, at least on some dimensions. Negotiation over the price of a car or a house is inevitably this way, at least so far as that issue is concerned: every dollar I give up (as a buyer) is a dollar gained (by the seller). Of course, this works primarily for single-issue interactions, because as soon as I introduce multiple values I introduce the possibility of tradeoffs in which both sides can get some, or even all, of what they want or need. This is negotiation theory 101, and the fact that Trump (who claims to have written a book about bargaining) doesn't understand this says a lot about his worldview as well as his intellectual breadth.

More broadly speaking, the defining characteristic of human civilization is cooperation that produces greater benefit for all, rather than competition that takes from one to give to another. The creation of wealth, the functioning of markets, the social interactions that produce what we call "civilized society" are all predicated on the notion that we do things that benefit not only ourselves, but others as well. If we were all about competition, we would barely have descended from the trees.

It is true that many these interactions have both relative and absolute gains within them. Trump is clearly a "relative gains" kind of guy - if the other side is gaining more, even if he himself is objectively better off, he feels that he's "getting screwed".

Relative gains thinking always leaves everybody worse off. It was behind the wave of protectionist tariffs and trade barriers in the 1930's (Smoot-Hawley in the US) that drove the world economy further into depression. It was in response to this disaster that after WWII, American policymakers put forward the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Japan - arrangements designed to enrich Europe and Japan more than the United States, because that was the smart thing to do. The result was massive worldwide economic expansion that improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. No people has ever gotten prosperous on the basis of protection.

In Prisoner's Dilemma, relative gains thinking on both sides leads to very poor outcomes - both lose. Absolute gains thinking leads to mutual cooperation and better outcomes for both. This is, to a substantial degree, a matter of mindset. The winning strategy in PD is Tit for Tat, which assumes that cooperation is possible and starts every interaction cooperatively. Trump apparently hasn't read Axelrod.

In addition to being a lousy understanding of human interaction, Trump's worldview is also deeply disturbing from a moral standpoint. If everything is about winners and losers, then there are no real limits. Ultimately any behavior is justified, if only it helps you or your side win. Restraints on behavior are for suckers, and each side should be expected to do everything in its power to "win" (whatever that means in context). Winning, in turn, is its own moral justification. Might (achieved through winning) really does make right.

There are philosophical systems that have argued this point in the past, but they are profoundly un-American. They are also deeply anti-Christian. President Trump obviously has only the most tenuous connection to the Gospel, despite throwing in a few awkward God references in his inaugural address, but his zero-sum mentality makes it clear that he has no real relationship with Christianity.

The direction of the Christian gospel is pretty clear on this point. "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." "Love one another as I have loved you." "Blessed are the merciful, for they will have mercy." "Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also." "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

The list goes on and on, of course. Even "us first" nationalism is difficult to sustain in the face of Scripture. At the beginnings of the Abrahamic story God promises that "in you all nations of the earth will be blessed", and Peter understood that "God shows no partiality".

I keep being confronted with the same question: for those of us who claim to be Christians, do we take this stuff seriously or don't we? Forget the Supreme Court, or LGBT rights, or abortion, or any of the other issues that Christians sometimes hold up as being "the" issue that justifies their choices. All of this is under Screwtape's "Christianity and..." - things we attach to God that become God. They are idols.

To view the world as Us vs. Them, to reduce every human interaction and every issue to a struggle to produce winners and losers, is an utter and complete repudiation of the Gospel of Christ. To follow a man who walks that path is to reject the injunction of Jesus' own prayer to God: Thy will be done. God's will is not for a world of conflict and strife. Why would we follow someone who wants to make it more so?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Taking Goldhagen Seriously

A great deal of my FB feed of late is taken up with a steady stream of articles, memes, and statements around one argument: that Donald Trump is politically akin to Adolf Hitler, so much so that we should be worried about the United States slipping from democracy to fascism or some other form of nationalist authoritarianism.

Like all historical analogies (and especially like all instances of Godwin's Law), this one tends towards confirmation bias - people see the similarities and discount the differences. It seems material, for example, that Adolf Hitler had by the early 1930's a thoroughly developed political ideology, which he had written out in book form, whereas Donald Trump appears to have no coherent ideology and has never written a book on his own in his life. The former was an ascetic vegetarian, the latter a sybarite with enormous appetites.

While this exercise is intellectually interesting, it doesn't get at the important question: how likely is the United States to change from a functioning democracy to an authoritarian regime of some sort? Focusing on the election of a particular leader is one piece of the puzzle, but it misses other important variables.

If we are insistent on using Hitler's Nazi Germany as the yardstick, then we need to look seriously at that case and not merely at simplified versions of it. In particular, I think we need to take seriously the argument put forward some twenty years ago by Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners.

Goldhagen's work should be required reading for anybody who wants to use Nazi Germany as an analogy, not because he is necessarily right (he may be) but because he tells a very different story about how the Nazi regime worked. Our simplified American story is that Hitler and a small group of fanatically committed followers were able to take over the German political system and turn it the Nazi regime we know today by a combination of repression, intimidation, and keeping people in the dark. The "cause" of Nazi Germany is reduced to Hitler and his immediate inner circle, which absolves the rest of the population of responsibility. This story also raises the specter of the same thing happening here against our (the people's) will.

Goldhagen's book turns this story on its head. He argues that the Nazi regime succeeded because, and only because, a large majority of the German population actually agreed with its aims (in particular, the racial purification of the country) - hence the title, "Willing Executioners". In his work, Goldhagen casts serious doubt on parts of our standard story, in particular that Germans were kept in the dark about the Holocaust and didn't know what was going on.

Goldhagen's work raises a serious question: to what extent is the acquiescence if not enthusiastic participation of the population a necessary condition to a nationalist authoritarian regime? Leaving aside the details of Goldhagen's argument, this is the fundamental issue - are the feelings of the population a relevant variable in enabling a fascist government?

I think that the answer to this question must be "yes". Authoritarian governments have maintained their status through power and intimidation, against the will of the population - East Germany and North Korea come to mind - but these cases tend to be governments established in time of war, when force of arms was sufficient to shape a new political order. The Nazi example is so compelling to us precisely because Hitler didn't conquer Germany, he got elected (albeit by 1/3 of the population, at least initially).

There is no reasonable scenario under which the US government will be overthrown by force and our new political order established by military might. For all of its lumps, our current structure of government is our starting point. And if Goldhagen's hypothesis holds any water, it will be very difficult - perhaps even impossible - to turn that structure into an authoritarian one, whatever an elected leader may say.

It is clear that at this point that there is no ideology that commands the loyalty of the majority of Americans, largely because we are mostly tribal and post-ideological in our politics. Donald Trump has, as of this moment, a 40% approval rating - lower by 1/3 than George W. Bush's at the same point relative to his inauguration in 2001, and that was after the most contentious election in modern US history.

Because the internet has provided a megaphone to anyone who wants one, we can easily confuse volume and shrillness for strength. Our enemies (on whichever side we think they may be) seem large and terrifying. But if you're looking for a constituency ready to support a Trump authoritarianism, I suspect that (despite their loudness and shrillness) you're not looking at very many people.

I've argued before that Presidents aren't Gods. We ascribe far too much importance, and far greater power, to the office than it actually has, even in modern times as successive Presidents have used a dysfunctional Congress to expand the Executive reach. Donald Trump cannot turn the United States into a fascist country. Only we can do that. And I don't see any indications that Americans are willing to do so.