the supervillain’s guide to saving the internet

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I have been something of a critic of our professional online writing industry for some time, and I have never been shy about criticizing the people who work in it. Chief among my complains is that online writing is a culture that thinks it isn’t one — that is, our class of online writing professionals think of themselves as representing a diverse range of opinions and ideologies, but subtle social and professional pressures among them tends to produce provincialism and conformity. The hardest thing is getting most people who write for a living online to acknowledge the ways in which advancement in that domain tends to require adhering to unspoken but powerful social codes.

Yet despite this criticism I am increasingly sympathetic to this group, in general, as I think they are in a no-win industry at the moment.  The world of online writing is broken in a way that is very public and well-acknowledged. You’ve read it many times, I’m sure, from people like Alex Pareene and John Herrman: the click-based economy, driven by advertising as its only revenue stream, creates endless regurgitation of the same tired stories, leading to conditions like every website you follow running an identical story about how Amy Schumer smashed patriarchy with a skit. It compels sites to churn constantly, producing a deluge of posts every day, trying to capture sufficient ad revenue through sheer volume. That in turn leads to heavily-researched, high-effort, quality stories getting quickly pushed down into the void of the bottom of the vertical scroll, a nether-region that becomes even harder to escape from as the exponentially proliferating number of posts makes finding something good in the past that much more taxing. Sites try to find ways to highlight good work, keeping it around for longer, like Gawker’s failed Newsfeed experiment. But the push down the vertical scroll is relentless and stories seem to go stale incredibly quickly. Writers, meanwhile, are exhausted from the effort of trying to run fast enough on the treadmill, and burned out from producing endless amounts of aggregated garbage they have no reason to feel proud of. And even when good posts get highlighted for an appropriate amount of time, they’re not likely to earn half the traffic that today’s John Oliver video sweepstakes winner gets. An all-advertising model will always play to the bottom because the bottom sells.

I get bothered by all the garbage that gets pumped out every day. But individual writers are caught up in a broken economic system. You can be more garbage or less garbage but in the broader perspective people don’t have much choice, and there’s the rent to pay.

The reliance on producing on a massive scale to capture as many clicks as possible results in the weird situation of an industry with revenue problems featuring bloated payrolls. Because they have to throw content at the (Facebook) wall all day every day, many websites employ small armies of writers. I think I might actually be a staff writer for Fusion without knowing it. That in turn leads to an incredible sameness for online publishers, because you can’t have a distinct voice when that voice is actually a hundred voices talking about different stuff all at once.

Worse, and scarier, you’ve got the drip-by-drip erosion of the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial, such as has been going on at Buzzfeed. There will be no dam-breaking moment, no specific incident when we realize that newsmaking and selling have becoming indistinguishable from each other, just a gradual realization that the principle of editorial independence quietly suffocated under a listicle about 24 Things Less Tart ‘n’ Twangy than New Taste Explosion Starbursts. Native advertising and sponsored content and whatever other euphemisms are just part of a progression that few people in the industry are shameless enough to deny: that the entire point is to erode any remaining semblance of editorial independence from advertising. The Mail Online is just one of the pioneers. In an utterly saturated online media landscape with near-infinite supply of advertising space, the economic pressure to collapse the distinction between journalism and advertising will be too potent for most publishers to resist.

Nobody wants this. Nobody wants to peddle garbage. Nobody thinks the current state of professional writing online is good. (Well, maybe Ben Smith.) I get a lot of weepy pushback when I talk about this stuff from individual writers, but their hearts are never in it and they sound like aggrieved teenagers protecting a popularity hierarchy that they secretly hate and aren’t particularly high up on. (Usually, I know that online writers are feeling sensitive and defensive when they try to big time me, saying stuff like “well you’ve just got a blog,” while meanwhile they spent the day writing a listicle about Boy Meets World and once again forlornly adjusting the margins on their resume.)  We’re in one of those weird situations where everybody in it agrees that it sucks but nobody thinks alternatives are possible. I have and will continue to talk a lot of shit about  online writers who deserve it, but trust me when I say that I have great sympathy for them as a class. Nobody grows up dreaming of being a click farmer. (Well, maybe Ben Smith.)

At the heart of this issue is the bizarre fact that millions of people spend all day, every day taking advantage of the product the online writing industry is putting out, and the amount of money they are willing to pay directly for it is $0. You really cant overstate how fucked up it is that people who rely on this industry for work, education, information, and pleasure, and who consume its product obsessively day and night, pay nothing directly to the publishers themselves. Think about it. You pay $10 for a two hour movie. You pay $60 for a video game you play five times and never pick up again. You pay hundreds of dollars to Comcast even though you have no time in your life to watch TV. You wake up in the morning and read stuff online, you go to work and you read stuff online, you read stuff online after dinner and before bed, and not only do you not send a dime to the people who wrote it, the cultural expectation is that paywalls and subscriptions are actively ridiculous. “What, pay for online writing?” says guy who is literally never without a device in his immediate possession that enables him to read it.

People have to pay for the digital art, media, and writing they consume or else those things will disappear as professional phenomena. Under capitalism those things that are not paid for will inevitably become denegrated and marginalized; ask a 1950s housewife. The continued production of valuable, risky, deep, confrontational, quality writing is by no means assured. Anyone who has been paying attention should have long ago abandoned the Pollyanna notion of the internet as the great leveler, of the notion that digital distribution would result in a great flourishing of diversity. Instead, as books like Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform and Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? demonstrate, the current age is one of massive consolidation by huge firms like Google and Facebook, the latter of which is currently lording over journalism and commentary in a way that’s astonishing and frightening. I don’t know that anything can be done to oppose this consolidation of power, but I do know that the only chance we have is spending money on online publishers and writers directly.

That’s why, this morning, I installed AdBlock and Disconnect.

I had AdBlock installed years ago without ever really thinking about it. Online ads are ugly and annoying and I’d prefer not to be deluged with one weird tricks. But several years ago I had a conversation with a writer I respect and admire, and  she was telling me about how her publication at the time was really struggling to get ad revenue and stay solvent. And it occurred to me that my Adblock usage was hypocrisy. Though I’m totally opposed to heavy-handed enforcement efforts like suing individual downloaders or legislation like SOPA, I also have no patience for the endless rationalization and bad faith of enthusiastic digital pirates, who come up with vastly complex justifications for their practices that absolve them from any responsibility whatsoever to actually support the people who make the art they enjoy. I realized that using Adblock was putting me in the exact same place, so I disabled it and reentered the world of the ugly internet.

But today I reenabled AdBlock and added Disconnect, an extension like Ghostery that prevents sites from tracking your usage and farming your data. I urge you to do the same. The only way to save the internet is to starve the beast by making the click-based economy insolvent. It’s insolvent for a majority of publishers anyway; many of them are just riding a wave of VC funding, reassuring the investors that they’re sure to be profitable someday. Your rare Buzzfeeds are profitable largely through the aforementioned race to the bottom, enjoy networking  effects that are not scalable, and are subject to the whims of the actually-powerful Facebook and Google. Facebook could crush Buzzfeed tomorrow. With a wave of Zuckerberg’s hand. No, what the internet needs is direct payments from readers to publications. That’s the only way to get outside of this terrible cycle.

I’m friendly with a member of the Board of Trustees at an elite private university. I was inveighing against the  distorting, useless US News and World Report rankings to him a couple of years ago, as I do. He said that everyone in the academy knows the rankings are worthless and hurting college, but that no one felt that they could unilaterally disarm. “Nobody can be the first one out,” he said, which is a statement of cowardice but also of pragmatism. Something like that is happening in online writing. Sure, there are some places that employ paywalls or subscription services, but they are generally boutique operations that are founded on individual voices or which are part of political movements that inspire a charitable response from their readers. No, we need to expand the ranks of websites operating on a “give us money in exchange for our products and services” model, and the only way to do that is to shock them out of their institutional cowardice. We need to think big. We need to think like supervillains. We have to break the current internet to give birth to the next one.

So I urge you all to turn on AdBlock and Disconnect or Ghostery. Starve the beast. Deny them advertising revenue. Break the broken model. Force them to confront the fact that the advertising-only model not only compels them to constantly publish garbage but doesn’t even hold up its end of the bargain with profitability. It’s time to get apocalyptic in here.

There will be an ugly contraction of publishers, but everybody already believes there’s going to be an ugly contraction of publishers. There will be a lot of people out of jobs, but everybody already believes a mass de-professionalization is coming. The ensuing industry would be smaller, but smarter, better, and with greater integrity. And considering that there is literally no value added to the world by dozens of people spending an hour writing the same desultory aggregation copy for the latest bullshit viral video, very little would be lost. In the best case scenario, the truly worthless aggregators like Elite Daily or Viral Nova would disappear. More realistically, they would simply emerge as entirely separate entities from the sites that actually investigate the world and write intelligent, challenging, useful things about it. Let Facebook have  its garbage peddling function, and let a separate internet, a paid-for internet, flourish under the durable scheme of trading money for valuable work. On the internet we are bombarded with willful invocations of what “technology wants,” claims that current conditions are simply the result of a changing technological world, rather than acknowledgment that in fact the human world is the product of human practice and human choice. Well, let’s bend that bad faith to our own purpose. We have the technology! The internet wants to be ad free. How’s that sound? Why not treat adblocking technology as an engine of disruption, or whatever other ten-cent word you prefer, in the same way we resign ourselves to the death of the professional music industry?

We can do this. Yes, we can. We can crush impressions. We can kill clicks. We can ruin ad revenues. We can destroy the internet to save it. We have the power. Pretty up your browser and deny advertisers their impressions. Come kill a website with me today.  Then we’ll wander the wasteland together.

Walking the Wasteland by brisingre@DeviantArt
by brisingre@DeviantArt

mama, don’t let your baby grow up to be a winner

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You may remember that a couple years ago, a couple of young black metalheads from New York City got some deserved positive press for their band Unlocking the Truth. What’s less well remembered is that there was a backlash against them, on comments and Twitter, because one of them said in an interview “hip hop is whack.” The reaction against that sentiment was utterly fierce and utterly bizarre. People absolutely lost their minds that these kids didn’t like the culturally-proscribedprescribed music form. This mirrored the in-school bullying that is a fact of life for teenage metal fans everywhere. There was this really ugly undercurrent like they were race traitors or something. But of course they don’t like hip hop! They’re metalheads! Metalheads don’t like hip hop! And of course there’s no similar pressure the other way. Hip hop fans aren’t expected to genuflect before metal the way we’re all expected to treat hip hop as the one true art form these days.

I love them, and unlike the large majority of the click farmers who briefly told their story, I listen to the kind of music they make, and I like it. And I love it that they said that they think hip hop is whack. Not because I agree — I don’t — but because it was that rarest of statements, an honest expression of musical taste that doesn’t treat going against the grain of popular sentiment like a violation of the Nuremberg code. I love that they are young enough and honest enough to not run all of their aesthetic preferences through the filter of “will Twitter like this.”  I am so hungry for opinions on media and art that aren’t expressed to satisfy some bullying social expectation.

I thought of them last night as I got into one of those peculiar Twitter fights where a small army of aggrieved people descends to defend something that is in no need of defending. On a podcast for Grantland, the cool dad of #CONTENT websites, Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris flogged one of those rare pieces that dares to ask whether, maybe, musical acts that rack up five-star reviews by the dozen and are inescapable online and play for the Super Bowl and are in every sense culturally and commercially dominant aren’t actually oppressed. It’s an important topic and both are capable of being really insightful; unfortunately, the conversation was facile and reductive, because Pappademas got defensive. It’s a shame.

He immediately grabbed the biggest cudgel there is in the current bourgie fauxhemian arsenal, which is the “white people like the things I don’t like.” Personally, I find the comfort that white dudes feel in using “white dude” as a pejorative self-defeating; the fact that they feel that comfort demonstrates that the attack is toothless. But for an aging music critic, it’s precisely the kind of rhetorical trump card that gets likes and RTs. And once Pappademas threw it out there, there was no saving the conversation.

A big part of why these issues always drive people insane is because, for a lot of people, liking art produced by black artists has become a surrogate for all of their racial politics. That’s not to suggest that they don’t really like those artists; they certainly do. Pop partisans are nothing if not sincere about their aesthetic preferences. It’s just to say that they enforce a particular narrow vision of pop culture politics because they think embracing that vision means that they are excused from being interrogated in racial discourse. “I love hip hop” is the new “some of my best friends are black” Unfortunately, owning an Outkast record does not make you not racist, and the rabid embrace of cultural politics over politics politics has been a disaster for actual left-wing organizing.

All of this depends on several lies about the actual demographics of pop music. For one thing, the hoary old stereotype of the indy dude who only listens to the Shins and other sensitive guitar bands is at least a decade out of date. The indie tryhard types who are typically referred to as “hipsters” are immensely sensitive to that stereotype and do everything they can to avoid it. They mostly will tell you they love Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels now. (And I get it!) They’re not insincere in that admiration, again, it’s just that fronting their love of hip hop or pop prevents them from being subject to attacks like Pappademas’s. The notion of the whiting whitey who loves white guitar music and looks down his nose at everything else is, at this point, like the professor in Marine Todd stories. It’s an invention used to contribute to the self-definition of people who organize their lives around the rejection of what they’re not. I promise: go to the hippest enclaves in Brooklyn, and people are not listening to white guys with guitars. They’re listening to Earl Sweatshirt. And that’s without even getting into who buys, and has always bought, a large majority of pop and hip hop albums. Go to a big pop or hip hop festival. Take in the audience. Seriously, do it.

Nor does the designation “white dude music” have anything whatsoever to do with the people who actually make the music that is furthest from pop. Here in America, the original anti-pop, the music that was least interested in conforming to crowd-pleasing major scales, catchy rhythms, or traditional song structure, was free jazz. The most quintessential American art form, jazz is also one of the blackest and one of the furthest possible from chart pop. In a similar vein, I’m a big fan of noise music. The people who make a majority of the most influential, most listened to (by the tiny number of people who like it) noise music are Japanese. I’m sure it would come as a great surprise to Merzbow or Melt Banana or Boris that Alex Pappademas thinks they make white people music.

Worse, even purely from the standpoint of fans, sweeping rejections of large genres of music as white dude music erases lots of individual human beings. The first person who ever turned me on to a Primus record, when I was in high school, was a women of color from the local university. So is she not real, or does she not meet the current criteria of being a black woman? It reminds me of nothing so much as when socialism or anarchism are dismissed as white dude politics. I have known hundreds of people of color and woman who are socialists and anarchists in my life. In the use of the rhetorical weapon of white dudeness, people are always erased and marginalized. It’s gross.

Finally, there is the emptiness of the progress that gets discussed. Pappademas complains that the gentle pushback against poptimism seeks to eliminate progress, that women and people of color are in a position of power at last. But this is precisely the kind of false progress that cultural politics seduces us into taking too seriously. Sure: it’s great that pop music is more diverse than it once was. Definitely. But racial inequality is worse than when I was born, and sexual inequality remains vast, and if you’re representing poptimism as some sort of political radicalism then your standards are way, way too low.

Ultimately I was in one of those absurd internet situations which resembled being surrounded by a crowd of people who keep pushing you and saying “Why are you bullying us?!?” I made some innocuous complaints to Pappademas and he immediately big timed me, pulling the kind of jokey condescension that is the default response of big time #CONTENT types. Meanwhile, my anodyne criticism of poptimism brought the acolytes out of the woodwork, popping out of every corner like the scene in Three Amigos where the whole townsfolk are dressed up identically to talk out El Guapo. You would think that the very ability of these people to immediately whip up a crowd to fav every negative comment made about me last night would clue them in to the fact that, far from being some oppressed rump, they are the dominant social and cultural force today. If there ever was a poptimism “war,” it was won in an utter rout years and years ago. One of my many critics defined poptimism as merely the belief that chart pop should be taken seriously by critics. Well then I have good news! You have already won. It has already been accomplished. Where, I’d like to know, is chart pop not taken seriously by reviewers? What sad website didn’t run a rapturous review of the latest Kendrick Lamar? Jesus, Rolling Stone can’t fall over itself fast enough to seem down with the hippity hop. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have the Beygency sketch on SNL and posture like you’re a despised victim. You can’t dictate the conversation on Twitter and then act like no one listens to you. Sorry.

Contrast that with, well, liking what I like. I’m not oppressed, I’m not silenced, I’m not marginalized. I’m fine! But consider what I have to do if I don’t want to hear the latest song of the summer. I can’t listen to the radio. I can’t go to the gym. I can’t go to the bar. I can’t go to a party. I can’t put on Pandora. I can’t walk by the frat houses all over campus. Here’s what you have to do to never hear a Sunn O))) track: literally nothing. In fact, if you want to, you have to work hard to do it. That’s fine. That’s just a facet of having my own tastes. I don’t have and have never had a problem with people saying “I don’t like what you like.” I’ve never even had a problem with “what you like is bad.” That’s what tastes are, disagreements. What I am tired of is being told “you don’t really like this; you only claim to like it to seem cool/arty/different/intellectual.” That is something else. That is something different. That is not disagreement. That’s refusing me the right to be myself. It’s particularly aggravating because I don’t think artistic consumption says much about you as a person at all.

On Twitter last night, when I brought this up, the insistence was not that these people don’t represent poptimism, but that they don’t exist. Literally: that my lived experience is not true, that it couldn’t be the case that people are so aggressive as to deny the sincerity of other people’s tastes. Like, “I never do this, so it can’t possibly happen.” Sorry, but I promise, this has happened to me, many times. It’s happened in real life and especially online. The accusation that you only like art that is conventionally considered unusual or difficult to seem cool flows like water on the internet. It happens every day. “You don’t like this, hipster, you just want to seem cool.” I know that this is crazy, you guys, but there’s this funny thing: when you treat your artistic preferences like they’re a holy crusade and anyone who disagrees with them as racist conservatives, people will get aggressive about enforcing those preferences! Who could have known! When I was younger and I would go see a band like Converge with a couple dozen other people in some Elks Club in Massachusetts, I didn’t feel cool. Promise.

The mob doesn’t bother me at all. Like I said, I’m fine. The internet don’t hurt. What interests me, once again, is why so many people who are clearly winners want to posture as losers. Pop art is commercially and critically dominant. Why do its defenders labor so hard to present themselves as victims?

When the latest Star Wars trailer dropped, I made the fatal mistake of publicly expressing inadequate enthusiasm to match the cultural moment. Christopher Hitchens once said that Christmas season is like living in a one party state, where you literally can’t get away from the holiday; it’s on the lamp posts and in the music in the elevators and on the tip of everyone’s tongue. When that trailer dropped, for a couple days, it was like that. Star Wars was unavoidable. While I’m rooting for the movies to be good, I’m also surprised that so many people have dropped their defensive skepticism about it, given that people were also amped up for the prequels. So I said that, just that. And of course I was immediately harangued by a guy I know, launching into the same tired argument that geek culture is oppressed by the terrible forces of artistic snobbery, like the world is full of tophat-wearing opera fans on every corner, sneering at the poor huddled masses of Star War fans. This despite the fact that Star Wars by itself is a multi-billion dollar industry. Despite three days of ambient cultural celebration. I’m left wondering: if he couldn’t have felt secure in his artistic preferences on that day, when would he ever feel that way? What would it take?

Ultimately, the question is one of access and power, as always. Pappademas writes for ESPN, one of the most powerful media properties in the world. He was joined in time by people who write for Fusion and Vice and others. If there are any genuine “rockist” music snobs out there anymore, they are a dying breed, grandfathered in to cultural irrelevance, or lonely voices on the margins. They are no threats. And because Twitter’s supposed openness is a lie, where people maintain the pretense of equal conversation until it becomes rhetorically useful to abandon it, Somebody-ness is everything. Dan Kois takes to The New York Times Magazine to complain about the massive social pressure we all feel to watch the films of Andrei Tarkovsky; I’m here on WordPress. That’s the reality of who dictates the conversation and who doesn’t.

If you’re lucky enough to be Somebody, you can use that station to argue for making things more different or for making things more the same. It’s on you. In rare occasions, that might mean defending pop against a snob. But please: let’s get real. You aren’t encountering a ton of people on your Slack feed talking about how Bob Dylan is the only real musician. Most of the pressure today is to love pop, loudly, enthusiastically, and aggressively. That’s reality. As for me, well, horns up. Life’s more fun when there are more opinions instead of less. And even if you don’t want to participate that, don’t be like the Star Wars guy. It makes winning a kind of losing, and it’s good for nobody.

Update: Steve Hyden, also of Grantland: “an album that the majority of pop fans will have no interest in hearing (in part because it’s been rigged to turn those people off) can never be meaningful.”

That, friends, is cultural hegemony. That’s the person telling me what to like and not like that so many people say doesn’t exist. That’s the person saying “you will share my tastes or you have no tastes at all.”

Update II: Hyden writes in to note that my gloss on his sentence is reductive and unfair, given that it’s taken from its specific context. I think he’s right. I retract the update!

I don’t pat heads

So people keep sending me this Choire Sicha review of Jon Ronson’s recent book on public shaming, I guess because I’ve been something of a critic of those tactics. Several emailers have represented Sicha’s review to me as a kind of silver bullet argument against criticisms like mine, and in effect a strong argument for shaming politics. I find that very strange; it’s not at all clear to me that this is even Sicha’s intent. SIcha is a great writer, so his words are persuasive, and he radiates kindness, so he has credibility on this subject. But like many others, his point about the relative power of public shaming amounts to an argument for its toothlessness, and thus its abandonment by left-wing activists.

As Sicha points out, oftentimes the victims of public shaming end up just fine. And as I have done in the past, he also notes that women frequently bear the brunt of public shaming themselves. He loses me however when he digresses into a discussion of online harassment. His point that the harassment and threats women receive online are far worse than the consequences of public shaming is perfectly right and perfectly useless in context. What use is public shaming against the hordes of angry men who shame women online? In order for public shaming to be effective, two things must be true: those who deserve it must be public and they must have shame. Neither is true of the vast majority of people who threaten and harass women online. Indeed online harassment strikes me as the kind of problem that can and will never be solved by public shaming. So Choire’s review, which like most of his work is at heart a call for treating each other better, is not wrong to call harassment and threats the bigger problem with the internet. But it’s at best an accurate non sequitur.

When people point out that the victims of outrage politics and Twitter storms survive and rarely suffer too intensely or too long, they’re right. But that’s an argument against outrage politics. It’s a demonstration of their utter ineffectiveness. Yes, Justine Sacco has a job again. Whether you believe she should or not is between you and your own conscience. But the fact is that she does. So if you think her losing her job represented political progress, then public shaming has failed to give you what you want. And if you think that hurting her was besides the point, that there are deeper issues concerning racism and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, then I’m afraid the news is also bleak, because the great internet destruction of Justine Sacco did precisely nothing for people afflicted with HIV in South Africa. Likewise, if you point out that Adria Richards has suffered more than the men she publicly shamed at that conference, and that this says something about the nature of sexism and male privilege, I am inclined to agree. I also am inclined to point out that this is an argument against shaming as a tactic. In none of these prominent cases has it seemed to have given activists what they want.

I don’t know what an ally is. I know what solidarity is. I know what a bloc is. I know what recognizing congruent political purpose is. But this word “ally,” at this point, it seems irredeemable to  me. In my experience, it is associated with nothing so much as a kind of deeply insulting, head-patting condescension. What does it say when so many adults — so many of them white dudes posturing as “the good ones” — join your political project without seeming to care whether it’s true, good, or effective? The praise of allies is the participation ribbon of modern politics, substituting real political support for a brainless, aggressive associationism that seems to have more to do with ensuring that the ally in question appears to be on the right side than in actually achieving anything at all. Judgment is an indispensable quality in supportive human relationships.  It’s judgment that compels your friends to tell you, out of concern and support, that your current way of  doing things isn’t working. What use is a human relationship that has been drained of the willingness to judge and to disagree? Who wants that kind of “friendship?”

I grew up around activists; I was an activist; I have had a relationship to activists and activism for far longer than Twitter has existed. And the way that I show respect to activists is to give them my honest appraisal of how well their political tactics seem to be working. That’s not about enforcing a vision of which political ends are realistic; I won’t get most things that I want, politically, in my lifetime. It’s about noting what an activist wants and whether you think their current tactics can actually achieve it. That’s respect. Not “allyship.” Not the warm milk of people who start throwing hashtags around the second they’re trending. But respect. Respect isn’t the pop psychology bullshit emotional nourishment that we now so associate with left-wing politics in a world of microaggression theory. It’s an adult quality that requires actual critical review if it’s to have any meaning. So I respect activists by telling them if I think their tactics are effective and their analysis is right, just like I respect political writers by telling them if I think their arguments are sound, like I respect researchers by telling them if I think their conclusions are correct, like I respect artists by telling them if I think their work is any good.

How do you fucking show respect?

The CLA+ and the Two Cultures: Writing Assessment and Educational Testing

Whenever I start a sentence “My dissertation…,” at least when speaking to a non-academic, I smile a little inside. It makes me think I’m in an episode of 30 Rock. I guess it’s just that I’ve absorbed the ambient cultural  critique that grad students are inherently ridiculous. Like a lot of grads I have a kind of built-in presumption of other people’s antipathy towards what I do. It’s self-defense. Well: I’ll still risk saying that my dissertation is finished, it’s been in the hands of my committee for the last 10 days or so, and I think it’s good. I’m happy with it and I think it talks about important stuff and that it was worth doing.

That’s not universally true. A lot of people find their dissertations are compromised documents, whether because of a lack of resources (such as inadequate sample size) or institutional constraints or disagreements with their advisors or just because it doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would. I know someone who had more than half of her sample drop out over the course of her research, for example. So I feel particularly fortunate that I’ve ended up with a couple hundred pages that I think represents high-quality work about issues that are of pressing importance in our society. And while researching and writing it was often draining and frustrating, and there were several times when I thought I would simply not be able to complete the necessary research, it was also one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. It ate all my time and kept me from a hundred different other projects, but then it’s supposed to; it’s supposed to be an obsession, after all. That enables a kind of deep dive that is very rare for most adults. For example, at one point I literally read six volumes of Eisenhower-era educational reports. It was boring, sure, but it was also great to dive in that way. If you aren’t wired that way (and it’s healthier if you aren’t), that might not make sense to you, but for someone like me it’s a joy.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure that this was a book-type project. The hyper-localism of my original research seemed to limit the audience. But I’ve been encouraged by faculty, who feel strongly that the text has great relevance to other institutions, and the way that the conflict between the Mitch Daniels administration and the faculty over the test played out makes it a very useful lens through which to consider neoliberal higher education reform. As a book, I’d love to make the text more political, to pull in more questions about the future of higher ed in general, and also to make a more direct, critical response to Academically Adrift, which used the CLA as its empirical mechanism and which is rife with methodological and theoretical flaws. Ideally I’d like to make the book an academic-popular hybrid. Once I’m done with revisions and have deposited the dissertation with my institution, I’ll start talking to faculty about potential publishers and writing up a proposal.

Below you’ll find a little information about my project. I don’t blame you if you’re not interested! I defend today at noon.

*****

My dissertation is titled The CLA+ and the Two Cultures: Writing Assessment and Educational Testing. It concerns a standardized test of college learning, the Collegiate Learning Assessment+, and its proposed implementation here at Purdue University. I locate the current higher education assessment movement in a historical context of a perpetual crisis narrative concerning our colleges and universities, demonstrating that the notion of a crisis is adapted to fit contemporary national concerns. So in the Truman era, it’s educating millions of soldiers returning home from war; in the Eisenhower admin, it’s the Red Scare; then the space race; economic competition from Japan and West Germany; in the Reagan era, perceived moral decline; and so on. Crisis becomes the justification for enacting controversial changes. The higher education assessment movement has culminated in the Obama administration’s proposal to generate college rankings based on “value” and to tie those rankings to availability of federal aid, a threat that even the most deep-pocketed colleges can’t afford to ignore.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment+ is one of several tests that is currently competing to become the primary instrument in the creation of such rankings. The CLA+ is a product of the Council for Aid to Education, a New York-based nonprofit that has traditionally researched philanthropic giving to higher education. I will say up front that, though I am skeptical of this type of instrument for reasons I will discuss, I believe that the CAE are the good guys in the educational testing industry. People like Richard Shavelson, Steve Klein, and Roger Benjamin are genuinely committed to improving college education, and while I think they are sometimes misguided in that pursuit, I think their dedication is genuine. That is not always true of people within the educational testing industry, which is big business.

The CLA+ is made up of two major parts, the Performance Task, which is the larger portion of the test and student scores, and the Selected Response section. The Performance Task is a written response by students that places them in a scenario, provides them with several different types of information, and asks them to reach and explain a decision using several different types of evidence. The test is rated by CAE personnel that use a rubric concerning Analysis and Problem Solving, Writing Mechanics, and Writing Effectiveness. The Selected Response, meanwhile, is a fairly conventional set of multiple choice questions concerning critical reading and argument critique. A model Performance Task prompt is below; you can peruse an entire practice test here (PDF).

Performance Task

Like all tests, the CLA+ has its strengths and weaknesses. I find the Performance Task to be a novel and intelligent means to test how different student abilities work together in concert. The CLA+ uses a criterion sampling approach that intends to examine student abilities in concert, as the CAE argues that student abilities cannot be meaningfully de-aggregated into constituent elements. (How that comports with the various divisions in their rubrics is unclear.) I am also pleased that the test evaluates student writing itself. But there are major challenges to this type of test. Typical concerns of scaling, ceiling effects, attrition, natural maturation, and so on apply. No challenge is deeper than the issue of student motivation.

Consider a test like the SAT. Whatever criticisms of the test we might have, we can say with great confidence that most students who take it apply their best effort. They do because they have intrinsic motivation to do so; they want to get into the best possible college. The problem with a great deal of educational testing, and particularly collegiate testing, is that students have no such intrinsic motivation to do their best work. You can (and have to) provide incentives for the students to show up and take the test, typically things like low-value gift cards or discounts on graduation regalia, but this does not ensure that students will work hard. Empirical research demonstrates the threat that this poses to the validity of these tests. A major 2012 study found that students who were told their test results were high-stakes and would follow them in their later lives significantly and consistently outperformed students who were not. Differences in motivation therefore present a serious confound for interpreting these results. Other research (PDF) indicates that time on task, a crude but effective proxy for motivation, has a significant impact on student scores, with many students using far less than the maximum time allotted. That is particularly concerning given that the CLA+ is intended to demonstrate “value added” through a test-retest mechanism, and we can conjecture that graduating seniors will be even less motivated to apply their best effort than incoming freshmen. Even Benjamin, the president of the CAE, has admitted that this motivation issue is a major challenge to the validity of these instruments.

These types of challenges are part of what has been at issue in a major conflict between the faculty of Purdue University, my institution, and Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana, presidential candidate, and current university president. Daniels has been controversial from the start of his presidency, as is perhaps to be expected with a lifelong politician with essentially no academic expertise or experience. Daniels’s selection by the Board of Trustees — many of whom he nominated himself when serving as governor — was seen by many as part of an ongoing  corporate takeover of the American university. Controversies like the Howard Zinn debacle haven’t helped. Still, there have been aspects of the Daniels presidency worth praising. For example, his efforts to freeze tuition are abundantly necessary in an era of exploding student loan debt, and his work to consolidate various administrative functions and in doing so reduce payroll are a necessary element of stopping the rampant rise of administrative bloat in higher education. And while I disagree with Daniels about many aspects of education, I do believe that his efforts to enact assessment at the university stem from a genuine belief that  doing so is in the best interest of our students.

How to assess, however, is the question, and that is the issue that has caused a long-simmering conflict between the faculty and Daniels to turn into a boil. That conflict is laid out here in this story from our local newspaper. At issue is not just the specifics of the assessment effort but the notion of faculty control of curriculum and, in the larger sense, of the university. The administrative wrangling of the implementation of the CLA+ or a test like it is the focus of my original research. For the past year, I have investigated what’s been going on at the university, what the fight is about, what the sides are, what the stakes are, and what it all says about the future of the American university. I’ve conducted interviews and collected texts and assembled information, working more as a journalist than as a typical academic researcher. I’ve gone through it all because I feel strongly that the  research of higher education is far too biased towards the bird’s eye view, with many books and articles concerning policy decisions made at 10,000 feet but far too little examining how these changes actually occur in real, local institutions. I wanted to know: what’s the distance between the rhetoric at the top and the reality in the local world?

It’s been a remarkable investigation, and a remarkably frustrating one. That’s because I’ve been met with a great deal of avoidance and obstruction. Though I talked with dozens of people in the university community casually, only a small handful consented to undertaking a formal interview with me, with a couple others agreeing to discuss with me only under the condition of anonymity. (I admit that it’s something of a thrill to write a dissertation that include phrases like “a senior administrator said under the condition of anonymity…”.) While I was able to assemble all of the information I needed, and in fact gained access to a great deal of material that was initially confidential, I was repeatedly frustrated by my inability to get people to talk to me. Both those on the administrative side and the faculty side seemed to find little reward and potential risk in speaking to a researcher like me. For example, despite repeated requests, the only direct communication I ever received from Daniels came in the form of a brief email. This is one of the more important findings of my dissertation: that while these assessment efforts are represented as matters of accountability, they lack transparency, making those claims somewhat toothless. This isn’t just true of institutions like Purdue, but of test developers like the CAE, which jealously guard the secrets of their tests and prevent us from taking a real, close, independent look at their mechanisms. How can we trust that their tests do what they say they do when they  constantly cry “test security” or “industry secrets” when we ask to look under the hood?

I am happy with the history that I’ve assembled, but in my research — much of which I have recently  deleted, out of a somewhat paranoid fear that I will be compelled to reveal it — there is a much deeper, more inflammatory story. Due to reasons of ethics and institutional policy, I am not able to reveal some of the things that I learned in the course of my research from interested parties who were willing to share information with me but never to go on the record. For example, faculty members and administrators alike shared private memorandums and emails with me, some of which contained frank language that would be quite embarrassing to those involved if made public. I have no interest in causing such embarrassment. I do wish that more people involved had been willing to let me go on the record, as the distance between the carefully managed outward formality common to institutions of higher learning and the private communications about the same says a lot about institutional culture.

The ultimate decision about the assessment effort at Purdue has been delayed, but there is no doubt that assessment is coming, both to Purdue and to many other institutions of higher education. How we assess, and how assessment drives institutional and pedagogical change, is the key question. I’m often asked if I’m pro or anti the CLA+; many people, meanwhile, assume that I am blanket opposed to such instruments, given my thoughts on ed reform writ large. That’s not the case. The real answer is, it depends. It depends on how the test is interpreted. If it is viewed with appropriate skepticism, if it guides decisions that are institutional rather than individual, if it is taken as one piece of much more varied ways to assess how well we are doing, such as the Purdue – Gallup Index, then I’m fine with the test. Whatever else is true, there is little question that it is perfectly legitimate to ask how well we are doing and how much our students are learning. The problem is that too often these conversations devolve into  misleading, reductive, and politically-motivated arguments like that of Academically Adrift. Compared to some other tests, I find the CLA+ a useful instrument and its developers principled. The implementation is all.

Writing studies is particularly vulnerable in this conversation. For a long time, writing studies featured a robust wing of empirical research, alongside its theoretical, political, pedagogical, and aesthetic work. My paternal grandfather was a member of the field, or of the proto-field, and he published a great deal of empirical research alongside more traditional English scholarship. But that wing of writing studies has shrunk considerably, largely due to the “social turn” of the 1990s, in which scholars like Carl Herndl, Elizabeth Flynn, and James Berlin argued against empiricism as inherently masculinist, hegemonic, or similar. Empirical research examining the contents of our biggest journals and the programs of our largest conferences has demonstrated that the field has largely abandoned empiricism, and along with it the specific focus on student writing and writing pedagogy that is our traditional purview. We instead publish a tremendous amount of work on cultural studies, pop culture, digital theories, and multimodality, leaving traditional writing pedagogy and empirical investigations of the same to marginal status. I have written a great deal about this recently.

I am part of a movement within the field to return to more empirical work (whether qualitative or quantitative) and to more writing pedagogy in the traditional sense of prose, of putting words into order in a way to  satisfy one’s communicative and argumentative needs. The CLA+ and tests like it are part of the reason why. What my research has demonstrated to me is that we are totally marginal in these processes. We do not  contribute meaningfully  to these debates, largely because so many of us refuse to engage in the discourse of empiricism. While I lament the ways in which empiricism is defined reductively or simplistically, and I wish that there was more room for traditional humanistic ways of meaning in policy debates, the fact is that the discourse of the social sciences is privileged in that environment. We have used that discourse in the past, and we can again. Doing so does not mean abandoning our values or our political commitments. It means instead utilizing our best rhetoric, matching our discourse to our context in order to defend our institutional autonomy and integrity. I firmly, firmly believe that we can engage in policy conversations, using the language and assumptions of the social sciences and empiricism, in a way that ultimately strengthens our discipline and protects other types of work. But we must be willing to pull our heads out of the sand and to see the reality around us.

The two cultures named in my title are the cultures of writing assessment and educational testing, traditionally divided by these epistemological, political, and theoretical worldviews. I do not believe that we must surrender to the educational testing industry. Instead, I believe that we can, and must, adapt our research to make it a more effective check on that industry, to meet empiricism with better empiricism, and to refuse to cede that ground to for-profit entities. If we do that, we can operate more effectively both within our institutions and in the national policy conversation. The humanities can, in fact, be defended. The doors are not  completely closed to us. But if we self-marginalized, we will certainly be silenced.

The higher education assessment movement might peter out. Such policy initiatives have a way of being enormously important and then suddenly forgotten. But the broader questions of who owns the university, how we can save it from itself, and what the future holds will not go away. This dissertation has been an attempt to write my own  little chapter in that long book, and I’m so happy to have written it, and if you’ll forgive me, to have written it well.

*****

A chapter-by-chapter breakdown and the Table of Contents are printed below.

Chapter One provides an overview of my study and establishes exigency for this project by placing it into a socioeconomic and political context. By situating my project within Purdue University, writing studies, and higher education, I argue that college educators must study tests like the CLA+ in order to respond to the unique challenges and opportunities such tests represent.

Chapter Two provides an in-depth history of the higher education assessment movement. I place the recent push for standardized assessment of higher education in a historical framework, explaining the recent and historical policy initiatives that have led us to this current moment. I describe how a crisis narrative has taken root in the public conception of higher education, and demonstrate that from era to era, the crisis narrative is perpetuated to meet particular political needs. I demonstrate how recent changes to the American economy  contribute to both this narrative and the perceived need for standardized assessment of college learning.

Chapter Three considers the CLA+ in great depth, discussing its history, its assessment mechanisms, its competitors and analogs, and the extant empirical research conducted using it. I consider the test’s context among other tests of secondary and post-secondary education, consider the strengths and weaknesses of its approaches to assessment, and discuss the policies and procedures that its developer enacts around its implementation. I discuss possible challenges to the validity and reliability of the instrument and the ways in which the test attempts to measure “value added.”

Chapter Four uses the CLA+ and higher education assessment movement to consider the traditional cultural and epistemological divide between the field of writing studies and the field of educational testing. I provide a brief history of practitioner writing assessment, and describe the differences in how writing instructors and researchers have typically cast concepts such as validity and reliability when compared to the educational testing community. I investigate the traditional sources of this cultural divide, and detail some of the consequences, particularly in terms of the (in)ability of writing studies to influence policy arguments. I ultimately argue that the true conflict is within writing studies, regarding its long turmoil about the appropriate place of epistemology in the discipline.

Chapter Five develops a local history of the assessment effort at Purdue University, detailing the rise of the Mitch Daniels administration and its extensive controversies. I examine the selection of Daniels as Purdue president, his many reforms on campus, and the development of what would become the CLA+ assessment effort. I interview multiple stakeholders and detail various perspectives from faculty, administrators, and other Purdue community members. I present information about the piloting efforts undertaken by the Office of Institutional Assessment as part of the assessment effort. I discuss the conflict that arose between the faculty senate and the Daniels administration over the test, and what that conflict says about higher education assessment writ large.

Chapter Six concludes the dissertation and presents my perspective on the various issues contained within it. I discuss the dangers that the current state of higher education presents to writing studies, the humanities, and the American university system itself. I claim that the lack of transparency in the development and implementation of standardized assessments undermines claims that these are accountability systems and reduce public information about high-stakes, high-expenditure systems within  education. I argue that scholars in writing studies must become more conversant in the techniques of empiricism, social science, statistics, and educational testing, in order to defend our traditional values and institutional autonomy, in a hostile political and policy environment.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

ABSTRACT

CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
A Growing Movement for Change
The Assessment Mandate
The Role of Writing
Understanding the Present, Facing the Future
Statement of the Problem
Data & Methods
IRB
Textual/Archival
Interviews
Chapter Summaries

CHAPTER 2: THE HIGHER EDUCATION ASSESSMENT MOVEMENT

Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy: Three Reports
A Nation at Risk
Response From Accreditation Agencies
The Spellings Commission
The Obama Administration
Conclusions 

CHAPTER 3: HISTORY AND THEORY OF THE COLLEGIATE LEARNING ASSESSMENT

Early Precursors
The Old Standards: The GRE and Similar Entrance Exams
The Council for Aid to Education
The Collegiate Learning Assessment
The Performance Task
The Analytic Writing Section
From CLA to CLA+
Validity
Reliability
Criterion Sampling and Psychometric Assessment
The CLA and the SAT: Is Another Test Necessary?
The Slippery Measurement of Value Added
Future Directions

CHAPTER 4: THE TWO CULTURES

A Brief History of Practitioner Writing Assessment
Sources of Friction
The Higher Education Assessment Movement and the Two Cultures
The Contested Role of Quantification in Writing Studies
The Road Ahead: Reasons for Optimism?

CHAPTER 5: LOCAL CONTEXT, LOCAL CONTROVERSIES

Local Contexts
Previous Assessment: Accreditation
A Controversial Catalyst: the Administration of Mitch Daniels
Perceived Needs and the Foundations of Excellence Plan
Identified Issue: Administrative Redundancy
Identified Issue: A Campus Divided
An Early Reform: the Core Curriculum
The Initial Assessment Push
The Roots of Conflict
Piloting
Initial Results
Internal Skepticism
Faculty Resistance
Was the CLA+ Preordained?
Buying Time
The Road Ahead

CHAPTER SIX: CONCLUSIONS
Some Form of Assessment is Likely Inevitable
Critical Thinking Measures are Inadequate
Accountability Cuts Both Ways
Writing Studies Must Adapt to Thrive

BIBLIOGRAPHY

APPENDICES

VITA

bankrupt on selling

I’ve never thought of myself as a creative writer; I’ve always assumed that I wouldn’t have the talent for it, if I ever tried. But I do envy creative  writers in the simple sense that they have much less pressure to make everything explicit. I am bored to tears of other people’s explanations and even more bored of having to explain myself.

I don’t pretend that my frustration is just a facet of some grander evolution in whatever we call all this. I’m sure 90% of it is idiosyncrasy. But I do suspect that the current moment in people throwing opinions at each other is uniquely hostile to any point of view that does not come with instructions. We’ve taken deliberate misreading to a level of art undreamed of by the ancients, and the penalty is death in a world where shame has become a quality of such ubiquitous and stale ambiance that people seem as resigned to it as humidity. And  forgive me, I know that these narratives are always wrong, but it does seem like there’s more proud stupidity online than ever before. I know that one of the fundamental functions of broadband is to tap directly into a vein of “WELL ACTUALLY”s in general, but now half of them are just restating exactly what I just said. It is incredible how you can say “X and Y and also Z,” and have some aggressive idiot pop up to saying “WELL ACTUALLY, also Z, if you would just do some deeper research and consider it from the perspective of….” Nobody reads anything. Nobody.

But even aside from direct, basic misreading or failure to read there’s just an increasing demand that you explain every little morsel. I feel like a sommelier– “this metaphor has an oaky flavor, not too dry, pairs well with a thinkpiece about hot takes.” I hate how explicit everything I write these days is. It’s self-defense but it’s also customer service. What do you mean by this, what’s the connection here, WHERE’S THE LINK?!? I like allusive writing. I like disconnected writing. I like having to pedal for myself. And yet I feel increasingly hectored to write it in precisely the way that I would enjoy reading least. I don’t know when the expectation became that every potential reader is a simpleton but it’s tiring and insulting, particularly to the people who ask the loudest. I want to say “even the people who like me best,” but honestly it’s more like especially than even.

If I make a reference now, I fear that I have to make some sort of nod, to include a decoder ring, or be accused of plagiarism. It’s that exhausting. At this point I hate the word “citation.”

I’m more and more inclined to just tell people to do their own homework. I am not in the explainer business. The point of the question “you dig?” is first to signal that it does take real effort and second that it’s your job. You have to dig it out. If that’s not interesting to you, that’s fine; know that I’m even less interested in explaining to you than you are in working to understand me. There’s a whole world of writing out there that flatters you by assuming your fundamental idiocy. Read that, or read the other stuff, the disinterested, uncaring stuff that has no particular desire to be understood. Forget about me, in particular; just look for people who respect you enough to know that you can operate on your own. Do your homework. Wander around. Maybe we can reverse this growing editorial culture that mistakes incompleteness for failure. The writer writes the contract but the reader signs it. Sign or don’t, I don’t care anymore.

I am so bored, so hungry for the new. I wish some weird looking animal would come along.

young and free

When my father got sick, the insurance company sent him to Los Angeles. He was on the organ donor list and I guess the hospital there was better, or cheaper, even though living in Connecticut, we didn’t suffer for world-class hospitals. Like so much of life as a teenager, that decision seemed bewildering at the time; “why is this happening, right now?” was for me the constant refrain of my teenaged years, the feeling that life was directed by a series of remote and inscrutable decisions. But I suppose there was something comforting in the decision, too. To send him to the other side of the country meant that there had to be a good reason, that the place they were sending him to had to be a better place for him to get healthy. Surely Los Angeles was a place where people went to get well. I remember standing outside of Cedars-Sinai on a visit to see him and thinking, at the time, that no human beings could possibly die in such a vast, vastly expensive hospital. But it turns out that they do.

I was never there for long. My family, such as it was, was mostly heading to California – my father, sick and weak and as vast as ever; his wife, who I did not talk to then and will not talk about now; her children; and my younger brother, 12. My older sister was safely away at college. My older brother and I, though. For us, the timing was bad. 15 years old, I was about to start my sophomore year of high school, he at 17, his senior year. We had classes to take and credits to earn and college resumes to build. And for me, the transition from junior high to high school was a change from loneliness and misery to, eventually, social acceptance and friendship. This was not an ideal time to pack up and leave for the west coast. So we didn’t.

My father let us stay, at home. He gave my older brother an ATM card and the keys to the Mercury Sable. We stayed for most of that school year, alone, in the home he had bought to house our blended family, though the blending was and would remain aspirational more than actual. A couple adult friends of the family were told to keep an eye out and check in on us every once in awhile. Our life alone was probably illegal and technically a secret, but not one we much bothered to keep. We didn’t go telling any guidance counselors or principals, but our friends knew and I suspect some of our teachers knew too. They left it alone. There can be kindness in neglect.

My father knew we could handle it. His parenting style was built on the premise that freedom is a powerful teacher. We were allowed to watch any movie or show, read any book. We made most of our own decisions. Like a lot of kids in the 80s, we were free range. We had a beautiful little white house, surrounded by trees, fields, and a public housing project. We would wander for hours. The father of a friend of ours tells the story of the time he came to pick up his son, so my father simply stepped outside and shouted our names at the top of his lungs. We ran scampering back from deep in the woods. That was how it was. And sometimes it hurt; sometimes watching any movie meant lying awake at night, terrified. Sometimes running through the woods meant sprained ankles and bee stings. But if that made the world more painful, it also made it less scary. It taught us how to explore and how to play and how to fill time, and it also taught us how to be on our own. His choosing to let us be on our own helped prepare us for a time when being on our own was not a choice.

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Nowadays,  that kind of parenting can get you thrown in jail. It seems like every day, there’s some news story about parents getting arrested for letting their children play alone in the park, or walk to school by themselves, or otherwise occupy any time free from the immediate anxious gaze of an adult. It’s as though we made a decision to fundamentally change our legal and cultural expectations about parenting, while no one was looking, and to enforce it with the power of the state. This panicky intrusion into parental rights does not exist in a vacuum, but rather reflects a broad cultural embrace of overparenting, the presumption that more parenting is always better and that a child left alone is a child waiting to be victimized.

The defense of this kind of aggressive enforcement of overparenting norms is as obvious as it is wrong: the notion that we live in a new world, a fallen world, one which is filled with far more dangers for children than the one I grew up in during the 80s and 90s. This notion is simply, factually false. As with all violent crime, violent crime against children has declined precipitously in the last several decades. The Crimes Against Children Research Center reports that in the period from 1990 to 2007, child sexual abuse declined 53%, physical abuse 52%, aggravated assault 69%, simple assault 59%, on and on. (Now, as in the past, children face vastly greater threat from their own parents than they do from strangers.) Add to this reduction in violent crime the remarkable advances in medical care of the last several decades, and across all causes, the mortality rate for American children dropped from over 140 out of every 100,000 in 1935 to under 30 by 2007. American children are safer now than they have ever been.

But the presumption of the imminent dangers of youth is not built on facts. Such feelings emerge from animal spirits, cultural drift, and vague convictions about the state of the world that are usually wrong. Those forces now compel many among us to imagine the duty of a parent as akin to that of a smiling, benevolent prison guard, and they are prepared to enforce that notion.

*****

The sad reality, for those who would keep their children on a leash and punish those who refuse to do the same, is that my younger brother, the one who lived in LA, with his father, with his family – he had it worse than my older brother and me. It’s true that my older brother and I were 2,886 miles from our surviving parent. It’s true that we lacked for guidance and support. It’s true we were alone. But my younger brother was also alone, in a different way, and friendless in a strange school in a strange city, at a time in life where kids are cruel even to those they’ve known their whole lives. That is not my story to tell. But I assure you: proximity and watchfulness were for him no balm. Your children can suffer while they are clutching your hand.

And that’s the real sob story: all of us are beyond saving. You can ward off a host of threats, petty and large, but in the end, your children will learn the meaning of human devastation. Anxious parents and those who aggressively enforce a culture of constant supervision are wrong in both ways at once. They overestimate the physical dangers they imagine, the boogeymen they believe hide in every alleyway, eager to drag children away. And at the same time, they underestimate the inevitability of pain, mistaking constant watchfulness for a panacea against the world’s ills. Loneliness, heartbreak, disease, disillusionment, the simple brute reality that you don’t get what you want in life – each will come to your children in turn, and if you raise them under glass, they will not be equipped to confront the world as it is.

My brother and I were on our own, in all the good and bad senses. It was a strange, exhilarating time, and it ended suddenly and with finality. Freedom had its virtues and its price. What we could not know, and what the culture of endless supervision cannot comprehend, was that the hardest times were yet to come, and would have come no matter how closely we were watched. Better, then, that we had for awhile a parent who recognized the inescapable brokenness of this harsh world, and let us come to know it too.

this, again

Allow me to reiterate.

Awhile back, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece echoing the widespread claim that anti-Semitism is rising in Europe. That piece was bad. It was bad in large measure because it made large claims with little evidence. Worse, it almost entirely walked back its own claims in the last paragraph, admitting “The degree of danger that Jews in Europe actually face is beyond my knowledge.” In other words, “I don’t actually know anything about the inflammatory claim I just spent hundreds of words making.” I found this professionally sloppy, as well as dangerous: claims of rising anti-Semitism in Europe are constantly invoked as justification for harsh reprisals on Europe’s Muslim population, an overwhelmingly poor, politically powerless group of immigrants who are so hated that their mere existence has fueled the rise of ultra-right parties. Friedersdorf knew that; he wrote it anyway. And in that, I also saw another phenomenon, which is people at his publication trading on its almost impossible level of pomposity to throw lazy work out there and expect it not to matter. What’s more, because so many people feel so intimidated by the accusations of anti-Semitism that flow like water on the internet, I’m sure Friedersdorf knew he stood little chance of getting any push back. So far all of these reasons, I dinged his essay.

That’s what I did: I made fun of an essay because I thought it was bad. That brief post of mine wasn’t, and couldn’t be construed as, my take on anti-Semitism in Europe in general. Both before and after that post, I’ve written thousands of words on the subject, after all. Anyone who really wants to know what I think about that subject could just check those out– if they’re honest, I mean. If they care about what I actually think. As it happens, my basic point remains the same: that the fact that people constantly assert that anti-Semitism is rising without evidence, indeed without even betraying the presumption that they are required to marshal evidence at support that claim at all, in the long run does no favors to the fight against anti-Semitism. And as the endless throngs of commenters who show up at The Atlantic to call for a war on Islam to save civilization show, this conversation has teeth. So let’s wage that conversation well, and let’s take care with our claims, and let’s not walk back some of the most inflammatory accusations you can make near the end. Because I take the question seriously.

The internet is hung with writers who are desperately trying to make it. That is the way of things and it has been for as long as I’ve been online. These are the people who send you emails asking you to guest blog on your site, the ones who tag 50 people on Facebook, the ones whose Twitter feeds are little more than constant blasts of grubby self-promotion. I don’t mean to mock; the economics of online writing are brutal and life is not a meritocracy and talented people struggle all the time. There are very good writers out there who are struggling to make it. John-Paul Pagano is not one of them. He marries professional incompetence to professional failure in a way that makes you want to believe in the perfection of the market and bootstraps and just deserts. He hasn’t caught on because his writing is somehow simultaneously sophomoric and pretentious, clearly the product of desperate effort and yet often barely coherent, and more than anything, serially dishonest.

But he has one thing going for him: shamelessness. That is a talent that will take you a long way. Why, just look at this hot little opinion, published the day after Sandy Hook, and see a man who wants you, so desperately, to know who he is, to care. Look at a man stand on a pile of dead children, waving his arms like a lunatic, just so you’ll please please notice him.

11026092_10100650295195499_835855509402681409_n

That’s John Pagano. And since there are publications out there that match this level of shamelessness– publications like Tablet– he may just have a bright future ahead of him.

Jamie Kirchick is the more successful iteration of Pagano. He, too, is someone whose writing talents are incapable of rendering his constant accusations particularly readable, but then his writing talents are almost entirely incidental to his writing career. Kirchick is a propagandist for empire, someone who never met a war he didn’t like, the kind of guy who writes notes on the movements of Muslims he sees at the airport, a professional proponent of  xenophobia who would like very much for you to be afraid of the world around you and all of its shiftless brown people. Kirchick, whose sweaty, desperate bigotries could power a city, has been busily signal-boosting Pagano’s sketchy attempt at a takedown. Not because he believes it’s particularly accurate; I don’t think Kirchick is unintelligent, just professionally motivated to see every weak attempt at character assassination of this type as worthy of championing, even when it busily avoids referring to the actual words that spell out the actual opinion of the actual person it’s intending to slander. Kirchick thinks thinks of himself as a man with a cause, although to all outside parties, he appears to be only a man with a career. At that career, he’s very successful.

I am still writing about Pagano’s profoundly motivated reading and sad attempt at polemic because, as he and Tablet’s editors knew when they pushed that piece onto the internet like parents sending their kid out to intentionally infect other children with chicken pox, the fairness of its representation of my actual views is totally irrelevant to its reception. Pagano didn’t link to or quote my ample writing on the question at hand because he never had any intention of representing what I actually thought about the subject at hand. Tablet certainly doesn’t care about whether what it publishes is honest, as long as it is in the service of the website’s rapidly-congealing conservative political agenda. WordPress tells me how many people click over from a site that links here. Anyone could check the actual post I wrote and realize that it is not about European anti-Semitism but about a bad essay published in a national publication. But almost no one has actually come over from Tablet; they can’t. There’s no link.

Let this fact wash over you: the post of mine that Pagano is reacting against is not linked to in his essay. Tablet employs editors; it’s ostensibly a professional enterprise. This is the behavior of children.

If you care about whether I am or am not an anti-Semite– if you actually think that such accusations should depend on their accuracy; if you think that anti-Semitism is actual serious business, not a playground insult to be thrown around casually and without consideration; if you’d care to be honest– you can peruse this website and read my own words. You can’t do that at Tablet; Pagano quoted almost none of them. He had business to get to and a career to build, a propaganda outfit willing to help him do so to advance its political agenda, and champions like Kirchick who have images to maintain. That’s how their little cottage industry keeps on puttering along. That’s how they take a sin they say they hate and trivialize it, making accusations of it so ubiquitous as to dull their force, packaging and repackaging it like breakfast cereal, never noticing or caring that in doing so, they make it harder to confront the real thing. I hardly figure in that awful work. My own words barely register in their accusations because I am just a convenient pit stop; they all have other places to get to.

true vs good, again

As time goes on, I’m more and more convinced that the fundamental contemporary political failing is the inability or the refusal to sort “this is true” statements from “this is good” statements.

So check out this piece in Gawker by Donovan X. Ramsey, titled “White America’s Silence on Police Brutality Is Consent.” It makes a moral argument that begs a political argument, but can’t bring itself to make that political argument. Ramsey lays out an indictment of white America for its silence on the continuing war against black America by the police. Although I agree with some of this commenter’s critique about how Ramsey is representing the polling, I don’t  generally disagree with Ramsey much at all descriptively: this is a country of hideous racial inequality, particularly when it comes to police violence, and while I believe most white Americans are consciously opposed to racial inequality, their failure to actively work to end it amounts to tacit support. I’m on board, there.

But where is the prescriptive element? I mean, I get that Ramsey wants white Americans to rise up and work to fix things. But how does he propose that we actually inspire them to do so? Sure, it should be enough to show them the reality to provoke them to fight for change. But should is a word of remarkably little relevance in the real world. 50 years after the most important Civil Rights legislation, it seems obvious that just pointing out that our society is unjust is not enough to provoke the white majority to create change.

In other words, the piece recounts in exacting detail a political problem but does nothing to establish a political solution. It begs for a next step– “here’s what I would do to convince white Americans to get on board with a political movement against racial inequality”– that it never takes. And in not taking that next step, it falls perfectly into line with the general, bizarre trend, the trend to say “it’s not the job of oppressed people to educate you.” Really? Then whose job, exactly, is it? I hear that all the time, and I find it such a bizarre attitude for self-described activists to take. To call yourself an activist is precisely to say “It is my job to educate you.” Change is active by its nature. The status quo doesn’t need activists. Change requires that you make it your job. So where’s the political strategy? I don’t pretend that it would be obvious or easy– in fact I think it’ll be incredibly hard– but, well, 200 years ago you could buy people, and the ability to do so was deeply embedded in the economy. Things can change, but you’ve got to make them happen and you have to motivate people who aren’t inherently predisposed to be motivated in order to do so. That’s me making a “this is true” statement, not a “this is good” statement.

It’s ugly that positive political change so often involves having to motivate precisely the people who you see as responsible for the problem. But life’s ugly. The world’s a broken place.

There is no plausible scenario in which racial inequality is ended in this country without the support of the white majority, a majority that is likely to endure for quite some time, despite what you might have heard. So what do you want to do? If people have alternative possibilities, I’m all ears. Seriously. Drop me an email. But from my vantage, I just don’t see how change is going to come without making much better progress with convincing white people to care about black lives, and I don’t think that the current rhetoric of most left-wing race politics is oriented towards convincing them. I see a lot of pieces like Ramsey’s: long on “these people are bad,” short on “here’s how to make them good.” I don’t think that’s working, and I don’t think saying so makes me a bad ally.

Success Academy Charter Schools will never, ever scale

I will leave to others the task of debating the actual educational conditions of Success Academy Charter Schools, as discussed in this deep, disturbing profile in the New York Times. I will further let others debate the actual meaning of standardized testing and the paucity of evidence that constant testing actually generates superior educational outcomes. I merely will say this: even if you believe that this is a model of education that should be replicated on a larger scale, the fact is that this it can’t be replicated on a larger scale, and will not be, ever.

In recent years, many reform types have started to walk back their previous, absurd goals for massive, short-term, nationwide educational improvements across demographics and cohorts. No Child Left Behind was merely the sharp policy edge of a wildly unrealistic set of expectations from reform types. It is worth saying that no previous attempt to achieve educational gains of such size and universality as dictated by NCLB have ever before been attempted in the history of education, let alone achieved. Now, reformers are faced with decades of false promises and few gains, typically relegated to sui generis institutions that have the benefit of massive effort, sky-high teacher turnover, unusual attention from policymakers, and sponsorship from deep-pocketed institutions and individuals. Little wonder, therefore, that ed reformers who once shouted “No excuses!” are now more likely to grumble about marginal gains.

Success Academy is the kind of institution that keeps their transformative dander up. It’s also an object lesson in how the only truly important questions in school reform concern replicability and scale. Success Academy is part of an evolution in typical ed reform practices. Rather than developing some new base of charter-specific professional teachers, these schools now often feature a teaching class that is essentially Teach for America in all but name. That is, they are frequently staffed in large part by affluent graduates of elite private colleges who come with the specific intent of only teaching for a few years for the benefit of their resumes and for cocktail party righteousness, with the intention of eventually bolting for more lucrative, less emotionally-draining work. That condition can be seen in this article in the sky-high turnover rates at these schools. Teacher turnover is huge in this country in general, reflecting the profession’s relatively low pay, high stress, and long off-the-books hours. Little wonder that it is frequently higher in contexts like this, with the constant grinding surveillance, absence of emotional and social protection of fragile young children, and corporate philosophy of harsh punishment for failing to achieve “success.”

But it is possible in the relatively small number of Success Academy schools — in New York. Because New York is the destination for precisely the type of young overachievers that these schools churn through. Because New York is a place full of desperate people looking to latch on at all costs. Because New York offers vast cultural and social riches to balance the long hours and brutal evaluations. Because New York offers many aspirational economies for these young teachers to dream of eventually entering, once they have had their fill of playing drill sergeant to poor brown children. Now: recall that, in order to achieve the kind of change that ed reformers say they want, this system will have to be scaled up to the tune of thousands upon thousands of schools, and hundreds of thousands of teachers, almost half of whom we can assume will follow the general trend and drop out of the teaching profession within five years. Does this sound like a plan, to you?

If you’re a reform type and you read about Success Academy Charter Schools and their success, as defined by rigid metrics of standardized testing, and you set aside concerns about the emotional and social health of these children,  you must ask yourself this question. Do I believe that I can replicate the labor conditions of New York City, which sees an annual influx of endless thousands of educated young strivers who are desperate for work and any foothold into professional life in  the city, in the Mississippi Delta? In the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia? In Camden, New Jersey? In the secluded rural agricultural communities of inland California? In the destitute Indian reservations of the northern Midwest? In the blighted urban centers of America that have all of New York’s poverty and inequality but none of its arts, restaurants, or nightlife? Can we attract thousands upon thousands of young teachers, reliably, in mass and at scale, throughout the country, at adequate numbers and in requisite consistency,  with constant replacement of the endless dropouts, while eliminating tenure, and without being able to achieve the kind of tax hikes necessary to actually offer meaningful increases in teacher pay?

I’m guessing… no.