Time for the Libya mea culpas

A perennial question among the more thoughtful political types is why things don’t change, why the discourse doesn’t get better. A big part of that is that we have no history. The news cycle is relentless and people never seem to look back. It takes failure of world-historic proportions to prompt retrospective consideration of the wisdom of previous commitments, and as we saw with the hand-wringing over Iraq, that never actually leads to anybody losing their jobs because they got it wrong. But it’s still better to look back than not to. If we have no history, nothing will ever, ever get better.

Well: Libya is a nightmare. A humanitarian intervention has led to a humanitarian crisis.

So: you guys want to step up and talk about why you were wrong? I mean I don’t expect the real Samantha Power warmongering types to admit they were wrong. But can we get a little social pressure for our political class to own up to the fact that they were wrong, please? You guys want to weigh in, here? Zack Beauchamp? Spencer Ackerman? Juan Cole? Jon Chait? Garance Franke-Ruta? John Judis? Christopher Hitchens, I’m sorry to say, is no longer around to apologize. But how about you, Fareed Zakaria? John Heilemann? Andrew Sullivan, at leastand his readers– are getting frank about the damage done. But Shadi Hamid, how about you? Anne-Marie Slaughter, we already know, is beyond helping. The whole New Republic will never stop being wrong about war. And Jeffrey Goldberg has built a career on being wrong but acting really pompous about it. But you, Peter Beinart? You have another of those brooding apologies in you? Matt Steinglass, still feeling good?

I could go on. I keep score, you guys. Because every time you get these things wrong, people die.

Me, I wrote dozens of posts about Libya, at the time. You can check my record. (And right on, Matt Yglesias, Radley Balko, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and of course the always prescient Daniel Larison, among others.)

You guys. The people who want to make things better. The people who think there should be accountability in punditry. The ones who think professionals should take responsibility for their professional work. This is where it happens, or it doesn’t. Either the community that is the elite political media pressures people to examine their support for this failed intervention and in so doing perhaps gain insight for the future, or it doesn’t. But this is where it happens. This is where the rubber meets the road. So what are you guys gonna do?

Posted in Rhetoric | 3 Comments

they say that was the day deBoer’s heart truly died

kill it with fire

Alright, I give up. Throwing in the old towel. I’ve had a good run. I’ll be at the bar if you need me.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 3 Comments

what do you want to subsidize?

1. Given the economics of current professional online journalism and commentary, blanket condemnations of what is conventionally called clickbait are essentially arguments that paid online writing should contract substantially. You don’t have to like clickbait and SEO stuff– I don’t– but if there’s gonna be such a thing as professional writers whose work appears online, at anything like current scale, then there’s gonna be tactics used to maximize advertising revenue. Nature of the beast.

2. It’s true that companies like Google and Facebook have enormous power to manipulate what gets seen and doesn’t online, and thus what generates money, and thus what people produce. And I think there’s lots of little improvements that can be made on the margins. That said, those are algorithmic processes, always will be, and my trust that algorithms can effectively sort high quality content from low is nil.

3. What do you want to subsidize, as a consumer of online media? Some sites just produce the worst kinds of “curiosity gap,” low info, manipulative dross. You should probably avoid those if you don’t think they’re doing good work, and you should particularly not share them. What crosses that threshold is up to you; lots of people praise Buzzfeed’s reported content, for example, and even Upworthy has its defenders. ViralNova? EliteDaily? Uh, less so. If a site pushes out thoughtful, researched/reported pieces which necessarily take time and effort to produce, and they pay for it with clickbaity viral video posts and similar, then I think that’s a defensible strategy. It all depends on the quality of the high-quality content and just how low the lower-hanging fruit dangles. It’s a judgment call. But like I said: just saying no to viral content is not an option for 90% of the publications and writers out there. Share accordingly.

4. If you use AdBlock and you don’t whitelist the sites that you think are worthy of supporting, you’re cutting yourself out of the system of reward that will ultimately determine which publications succeed and which fail. It’s always easy to say that you as an individual don’t have any impact. But thousands or millions of people thinking the same has a big impact on what gets monetized and thus what gets repeated. So think about using that whitelist feature on the sites you admire and respect.

5. Don’t like clickbait, pay for subscription services or donate. Don’t want to pay, don’t complain about clickbait or SEO. Simple.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 9 Comments

a proud, indecorous tradition

I wanted to be sure to share this remarkable letter from Natalie Zernon Davis, an emeritus professor of history from Princeton, in protest of the firing of Steven Salaita for his criticisms of Israeli actions in Gaza. She writes in part,

I write you as an admirer of the remarkable achievements of the historians, literary scholars, and anthropologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I have seen the lively and creative exchange among professors and graduate students close up as an invited guest of the History Department, and cannot believe that you would want to jeopardize this learning experience by the inappropriate and misguided criterion of civility.

I write further as a Jew, growing up in Detroit during the rise of Nazism and the anti-Semitic sermons of Father Coughlin; a Jew committed to that strand in the Jewish sensibility that still places justice and universal values at its heart; committed to the uses of rabbinical and Talmudic debate, which sought truth by language not always decorous; and to the old tradition of Jewish humor, which put laughter and mockery to the service of helping the oppressed.

It is that recognition that we risk losing in situations such as the Salaita affair: that we have debated passionately, even angrily, in the past, and have emerged stronger rather than weaker for having done so.

As much as some insist that it is not the case, I think it is absolutely possible for all of us, including gentiles like myself, to argue about Israel and its occupation directly and with passion, in clear and frank language, the way we discuss every other issue of political controversy. As I wrote at the Dish, I do not believe that the issue of Israel requires preemptive apologetics or showy acts of balance in a way that no other issue we discuss does. People sometimes say to me, “I can’t believe you puts that stuff on your professional website! Other academics will see! Senior academics!” To which I say, good! I stand by what I write here, and I specifically stand by it as a matter of political and moral objection to the inexcusable actions of a state’s government and its military, not any kind of statement about the character of an ethnicity or religion. I define my own beliefs, I am in fact defining them here, and they are critical of the nation of Israel and not the Jewish people.

Situations like that of Dr. Salaita, and Norman Finkelstein and Juan Cole, demonstrate that there are reasons that people are afraid to  speak out on this issue. I firmly believe that this is a mistake in the long run, even for defenders of Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories. There is no good that comes from acting as though we cannot discuss this issue, and only this issue, rationally. I don’t avoid anti-Semitism by tying myself into a pretzel to avoid saying things that could be misconstrued by interested parties, but by not being anti-Semitic. What is at issue is a matter of character, and that exists independent of how some might use conversation to entrap others. If some job search committee discovers that I have written critically of Israel and rejects me for that reason, then that is indicative of a deeper problem than my decorousness. We need to argue, so we will, and the truth will out. We have to have faith in people’s  ability to recognize the right and responsibility to forcefully argue, even in the face of situations like this one, which call the very future of academic and intellectual freedom into doubt.

Read the rest of Dr. Davis’s letter.

Posted in Rhetoric | Leave a comment

a few thoughts on internet conformity

So a study came out saying that social media causes conformity.

1. I actually almost avoided talking about this story, because it would seem to play too much to my biases, and that’s always boring.

2. I’ve seen people complaining (on social media, naturally) that this study can’t possibly be right because they see plenty of fights on social media. But the point of a study is a) to say things with methodological rigor, and that’s not methodologically rigorous and b) the point is not that arguments don’t happen but that they have a tendency to happen less than they would absent social media, and perceiving a relative reduction like that is very, very hard to do intuitively.

3. One of the basic points that I make about elite internet culture is that it is a culture– a culture that doesn’t like to think of itself as one. That’s often taken as this inflammatory position, but I’m really just pointing out that, despite all the diversity among the people who write the elite internet– the people who write, edit, and lead the kinds of online publications that set the conventional wisdom and define the mood for internet obsessive types– there are commonalities, affinities, and most especially, a shared vocabulary. And talking a particular way has everything to do with what you talk about and how.

4. None of this is nefarious. In fact I think it’s inevitable; I can’t imagine an inherently social enterprise like internet writing not becoming a culture, with social expectations and socially defined– and enforced– norms for its members.

5. But there are consequences. The most obvious ones are political. But there’s also simply the aesthetics of internet consumption. I find the professional internet a frighteningly boring place, in part for reasons that David Sessions and myself have laid out recently. But even besides the economic incentives for everyone to be writing about the same topics, there is the incredibly boredom of when everybody in the Twitterati develops the same attitude towards a show, celebrity, or piece of writing. The elite internet is never worse– never– than when the people who create it decide that so-and-so is just the worst. When everybody suddenly decides that someone is a schmuck, it leads to the most tiresome and self-aggrandizing forms of  groupthink imaginable. Take, for one example, Nic Pizzolatto. I’m not a big fan of his show and I’m not interested in protecting him. But when the entire cool kid internet seemed to decide together that he’s the worst, it led to the most boring kind of writing the internet produces– eye-rolling, affected with weariness, entitled, aggrieved. Boring to read, boring to think about. It’s a version of We Are All Already Decided. Or when everybody suddenly decided that the previously untouchable Louis  CK was suddenly a bad guy. I never thought CK was that good before, don’t think he’s that bad now, but more importantly don’t like reading a concert of the same opinions represented with the same aggrieved and entitled tone. And it crops up again and again, often with musicians or other producers of culture, but usually with pretensions to political critique. And I just find it produces boring, aggravating writing.

6. As a political guy, I dislike the conformity because it excludes minority opinions in a political context that badly needs them. As a typical self-defined special snowflake of a personality, I dislike the conformity because I think adults define themselves through their rejection of popular opinions and because I find the world much more interesting when it is filled with idiosyncratic, difficult, combatitive people. But most importantly for me, as a consumer of internet writing I dislike the conformity because it leads to my least favorite kind of internet writing. When writers online are asserting the aesthetic and political stances that all savvy, decent people share, they are at their absolute worst, playing to the worst tropes and tendencies we associate with online life.

7. From my perspective, and I’ve felt this for a long time, the issue isn’t a lack of fights. The issue is what defines who is perceived as having won a fight. The danger isn’t that people will stop arguing. The danger is that people have come to see arguments as having been won when one side convinces the most people. That is a problem that I find much more worrisome than a reduction in the number of arguments, and one that I find deeply, deeply entrenched in the culture of arguing as an online practice. On social media, arguments that attract the most supporters are usually treated as ipso facto the correct arguments, even when there are systematic biases that incline the majority to support those arguments. The formal systems of assent on social media, your likes and favorites and reblogs, contribute to this dynamic. I can’t tell you how often I’m in an argument with someone online where they will point to the existence of a large group of people who disagree with me as proof positive that I’m wrong. This assumption, that the truth is whatever the crowd holds to be true, has seeped into the collective unconsciousness of the internet. If we want to encourage a more open, interesting, and politically productive debate on social media, changing the definition of argumentative success has to come first.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 8 Comments

Israel and the privilege of being non-partisan

So since I’m talking about the Atlantic‘s biases: today Jeffrey Goldberg, the credulous Iraq war shill, contributed more to his long history of attacking critics of Israel by equating such criticism with anti-Semitism. Indeed, even by Goldberg’s incredibly low standards, this is pretty ugly:

many protesters are challenging Israel’s very right to exist, not its policies in the territories it came to occupy in 1967 (or in Gaza’s case, territory it occupied in 1967 and then turned over to Palestinians in 2005). A second is that the line separating anti-Zionism—the belief that Jews have no right to an independent state in at least part of their ancestral homeland—and anti-Judaism, already reed-thin, has pretty much vanished.

So, 1) territories Israel “came to occupy” has gotta be the funniest way to phrase that I can imagine– whoops, we slipped and fell into almost 50 years of brutal occupation! 2) it’s absurd to say that the Israelis turned over Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005, given that they control Gaza’s borders, airspace, and waters, impose a brutal economic blockade against it, and feel absolutely no compunction against launching military strikes against its citizenry whenever they feel the need; 3) a man who denies Palestine’s right to exist, and in fact participated in that denial as a member of the IDF, complains about those who question Israel’s right to exist; 4) Goldberg ignores the fact that it has actually been Zionists who have worked tirelessly to collapse the distinction between Zionism and Judaism; and 5) anti-Zionism is an old and principled stance and one that was once a perfectly mainstream position within international Jewry, before Zionists undertook the previously-mentioned effort of conflating support for the Jewish people with support for the Zionist state. Details! In any event, when we talk about how accusations of anti-Semitism are used to police debate about Israel, sometimes people object and claim that doesn’t really happen anymore. Well, saying that the “already reed-thin” line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has vanished is pretty much the definition of that practice.

Now, were I the kind of person to have the ear of the august Atlantic, I might ask a few questions. For example: would you ever, in a million years, employ a former member of the PLO or Hamas, and give them carte blanche to publish pro-Palestinian propaganda the way you have given carte blanche to Jeffrey Goldberg? Why not? Do you feel any sort of responsibility to balance your coverage? Does the fact that Goldberg admitted to covering up prisoner abuse in his book factor into your decision to give him a forum? If a Palestinian writer similarly admitted to participating in the abuse of an Israeli prisoner, would you give him a forum? Does the fact that he was notoriously duped in the run-up to Iraq, in a way that contributed to that disastrous war, change your confidence in him as a journalist? Do you find it embarrassing that he used the cover story of your print magazine to describe an Israeli attack on Iran as imminent, given that it’s been over 4 years since that story ran and no attack has occurred? Is there a certain amount of times Jeffrey Goldberg’s reporting can go disastrously wrong before you’ll consider no longer giving him a forum? These are my questions.

But this gets back to my earlier point from today: to give a permanent forum to a former member of the IDF who publishes endless defense of Israel and attacks on its critics is, in the context of American media, not a particularly noteworthy move, and not one that is seen as particularly controversial or indicative of any kind of political bias. But to extend a similar invitation to a Palestinian– to give a former member of the PLO, say, a cushy gig as a blogger on the Atlantic– would be unthinkable. It would call down immense controversy and be seen as inherently radical and left-wing. The default, in American media, is the unwaveringly pro-Israel position. This again illustrates one of the greatest privileges in American political culture: the privilege of having your views be interpreted as non-partisan.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Rhetoric | 38 Comments

The Atlantic is the The National Review is The Nation

I could go through this Graeme Wood piece on Minvera, the latest in the hoary old industry of disruptive innovators disruptively innovating in education, and offer my rebuttals. Wood is so hopelessly infatuated with the Silicon Valley hero-libertarian narrative that he doesn’t even begin to question the company or its Ayn Rand-dweeb founder, Ben Nelson. There’s so much low hanging fruit here that my basket would overflow if I started picking it. To begin with: Nelson says that education is “a science and a science,” which is the sort of thing you can only say if you’ve never really taught before. Wood takes this all in with a credulity and lack of skepticism that should pretty much keep him from ever getting work as a journalist again. Well, science depends on evidence, and the evidence that education is a process that can be ported into the online space is nonexistent. Indeed, the extant evidence is incredibly pessimistic about online education specifically and educational technology in general. The record of using technology to radically alter the educational process is shockingly, incredibly, monumentally poor. It is a graveyard of big ideas and terrible results, of over-promising and under-delivering. You would think Wood might go a little further to tell his reader that– but there is not one moment in this piece when he isn’t advocating for a point of view. It’s a several thousand word piece of free advertising, no more skeptical than the Scientology advertorial that the Atlantic ran.

Now you’ve read this all before. Wood’s piece is so filled with Wired-style cliches and buzzwords that I started to wonder if the piece wasn’t all an arch parody. Fundamentally, Wood and Nelson share the same misunderstanding of what education is– and what students are. Like Clay Shirky, they think that most students are like them: self-styled autodidacts who reject teaching because they think they already know everything. But most students will never be that way. The notion that we’re training a nation of young Aaron Swartzes simply misunderstands most students and what motivates them. Most students have to be dragged to education. The world will never, ever be made up primarily of the self-educated and the autodidacts. The next stage of education will not be about the Atlas Shrugged set but rather the marginal students, the people who have traditionally struggled and who need direct engagement and supervision to reach competency. That doesn’t flatter the egoist narrative, but it’s what we’re actually confronting as a nation. And what works best, the evidence shows, is the opposite of disconnected, virtual teaching. What works is human communication and accountability. You know? An instructor sitting with a student, asking for engagement and effort, and guiding that student with care and respect? But nobody ever got rich selling that. Nobody ever got a venture capital infusion making that case, and ultimately that’s what Nelson, and Wood, care about. How does it sell to the gang in Silicon Valley?

I could go on. Wood uncritically and unthinkingly accepts the notion that education is a matter of pouring knowledge into another human’s head, even though he gets a cogent objection from a Harvard prof. (But then, Harvard isn’t exactly known for its dynamic disruptive innovation creative destruction The Cloud internet of things outside the box TED workflow synnergy.) That’s the basic play, here: Wood half-heartedly mentions some inconvenient objection, then turns it aside in favor of meaningless invocations of efficiency and corporate dynamism. But I’m less interested in another crypto-libertarian dudebro who thinks that the future is a techno-utopian hero narrative and more interested in the phenomenon that is The Atlantic, and its pretensions to objectivity. In the article, you can see Wood constantly struggling to push down his boner and do some Serious, Objective Reporting. He knows he needs to defend the Atlantic‘s brand– stentorian, authoritative, self-impressed– while still advancing the neoliberal, technocratic dictates that are the contemporary Atlantic‘s ideology.

If this was put out their honestly and directly, I’d have fewer complaints. But what rankles about the Atlantic and the NYT and The New Yorker and similar publications is that they have somehow been afforded the mantle of being non-partisan, or “general interest,” or similar. We think of magazines like The National Review or The Nation or any dozen others as being partisan, or ideological, etc. They are thought to have a particular point of view, a political slant that responsible types factors in when considering the work they publish. But a publication like the Atlantic has an ideology too. It’s just that part of their ideology is pretending they don’t have one.

Wood is the perfect example, an ideologue who thinks that his ideology is called “the future.” In fact, his ideology is credulity: credulity to empty buzzwords, slick but shallow narratives, the Powerpoint vision of human knowledge, and the techno-utopian ideal that does nothing but fail and yet which will never receive anything less than an endless tongue bath from our media elites. Which is fine. Just like the witless neoliberalism that is the magazine’s default ideology magazine is fine. The problem is that this stance towards technology, “the future,” and capitalism is represented in our culture as somehow outside of ideology or politics, when in fact it’s hard to imagine something more ideological or more political. Like many publications, the Atlantic publishes lots of good pieces and smart people, even while its default mode is so dopey. In fact, it publishes some brilliant, essential writers. It just makes sure that at the end of the day, its invocation of technology-enabled neoliberal triumphalism emerges as its dominant voice. That’s life. But let’s not give it, or any other magazine, the laurel of being not having a political stance. Instead, its stance is the stance of establishment corporate power.

Posted in Education, Popular & Digital Writing | 9 Comments

programming note

Hey gang, I’m writing to let you all know that I’ll be blogging for Andrew Sullivan while he’s on vacation next week. Feel free to come and check it out, starting Monday morning. I’m excited.

Posted in Meta | 38 Comments

the subtle approach in the age of clickbait


Posted in Meta | 7 Comments

my letter to Phyllis Wise, Chancellor at UIUC

Dear Dr. Wise,

I am writing to ask that you please reconsider the decision made by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to rescind an offer of employment to Dr. Steve Salaita. As an academic and a public writer, I am deeply disturbed by the consequences for intellectual and academic freedom when scholars are judged not by the quality of their work but by the popularity of their political opinions. Israel’s conduct in the Palestinian territories is a matter of great and legitimate public controversy, one which has inspired passionate reactions from both sides of the argument. Every day, the conflict is discussed with emotion and conviction by a multitude of voices, from a diverse and complex array of actors. To punish Dr. Salaita because he happens to hold positions considered extreme by those in a position of particular power and institutional authority cuts directly against the spirit of free inquiry that is the lifeblood of the research university. Some have questioned Salaita’s tone, but to police tone is to police speech. There is no clear dividing line where legitimate expression ends and illegitimate tone begins.

My grandfather was John James deBoer, who served for decades as a professor of Education at your university. It’s a connection to UIUC that I have long cherished. During his time there, he and several other colleagues were the subject of a vicious campaign of McCarthyism, thanks to their socialist and pacifist beliefs. He and his colleague Norman Cazden were specific targets of the notorious Broyles Bills, a set of Illinois state bills that were expressly designed to punish political dissidents. In many ways, this campaign deeply damaged my grandfather’s life. But he had the benefit of tenure, and so was able to serve out the rest of his career at UIUC. His colleague, Dr. Cazden, was pre-tenure, and his career was destroyed. Now, we can only look back and regret the terrible legacy of the anti-Communist panics of last century.

To deny Dr. Salaita a job for which he was already approved, on the basis of his controversial political beliefs, is to draw from the same poisoned well. I urge you and others within the administration at UIUC to consider whether this action is something that the university will ever look back on with pride. Please stand for academic freedom by reinstating your offer of employment to Dr. Salaita.

sincerely yours,

Fredrik deBoer
Doctoral Candidate in Rhetoric & Composition
Purdue University

Posted in Education, Meta, Popular & Digital Writing | 1 Comment

sometimes they’ll just show you the strings

Here’s The New Republic‘s Hillary Kelly, ostensibly talking about how you shouldn’t say you’re from the city when you’re really from the suburbs, and really about how Hillary Kelly is a cool and interesting person, and therefore also about how Hillary Kelly feels like she has to sell everybody on the idea that she’s a cool and interesting person, and therefore probably doesn’t really feel like a cool and interesting person. Oh, it’s also about how Hillary Kelly’s Cool Story Bro boyfriend tells a Cool Story Bro story sometimes. I’m really entirely unclear on why I’m reading about Hillary Kelly’s boyfriend’s inane geographical musings, but then I guess that’s the internet.

Do you think she’s aware that there are many large cities in the world, such as Mexico City and Tokyo, where there simply is no clear dividing line between the city and the suburbs? That, in fact, the notion of such a clear boundary is foreign to many cultures and governments? I mean, that would be an important point to make, in an argument about how the suburbs aren’t the cities! It’s the sort of knowledge that, if you’re being paid real money to write something for a professional magazine like The New Republic, you might bother researching. But oh well!

Perhaps next time save that one for the Tumblr. Or just say the hell with it and literally write “everybody be envious of my interesting life!” You know, for economy of expression’s sake.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 37 Comments

Blogarach and Wilkinson on BHTV

My all-time favorite blogger and true mensch Jacob Bacharach has a conversation with liberaltarian writer and cartoonist Will Wilkinson on Bloggingheads. I can’t wait to go check it out. You come, too.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

the very real difficulty of identifying patch writing

While putting the finishing touches on a draft chapter of my dissertation recently, I happened to go digging around in the research archives one more time. I felt that one section, about the earliest advocates of large-scale assessment of higher education, was missing that killer quote. I happened to find an unpublished dissertation that considered some of the same themes as my own, but which used a very different methodology and which comes from a different programmatic background than mine. I found a good source to look up there, which leads as always to the dilemma: am I obligated to cite the place where I found another citation? Does the obscurity of that source matter? Certainly, if what I had found through that dissertation was some obscure manuscript, I would have cited the dissertation as well, but in fact the source was just another scholarly journal article. As is often the case, I would have found it myself if I had just slightly altered search terms. (I often think of Law & Order episodes where there is some controversy about an illegal search, and the prosecutors argue inevitable discovery.)

Reading further, I was somewhat surprised to find how many other sources we shared. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been. The topics I’m researching include very obscure avenues of education assessment, psychometrics, and the history of higher education policy. But it was worrisome to see a half dozen or so shared citations, even while I knew that there were far more references that we did not share. Most disturbingly, we had even quoted some of the same passages and sentences, although where we chose to truncate those sentences was different. At that point, I had a mini-panic attack; was I guilty of plagiarism? Of course not. I had written this stuff down weeks before I had found this other dissertation. But the implications were disturbing: if my advisor or another reader compared my work to this other researcher’s, it might cause them to question the originality of my work. I ended up quoting and citing the dissertation as a way to touch that base. That sort of self-defensive approach to plagiarism or the appearance of same comes from my years-long experience in academic writing.

I tell you this story because of the accusation of plagiarism that has been leveled against Rick Perlstein, the historian of contemporary conservatism. Craig Shirley, himself a biographer of Ronald Reagan, has accused Perlstein of copying and pasting some of his work, of patchwriting, and of insufficiently sourcing his research. I can’t really adjudicate the fairness of these accusations at present, as Shirley has not yet presented his full claims or evidence. I doubt very much that Perlstein intentionally plagiarized Shirley, but I am unable to say that this attitude is a matter of addressing the accusation rather than the accused. I admire Perlstein’s work very much, and there’s some significant overlap in our politics, so it’s hard for me to doubt his integrity. (In a remarkable lapse of ethics of his own, Fred Barnes fails to disclose in that Weekly Standard piece that he himself wrote the forward to Shirley’s book.)

Patchwriting is a very sticky issue. In the Poynter piece I linked to above, it is discussed as a type of dishonest practice in which “rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.” In other words, this is not strict copy-and-paste plagiarism, but rather plagiarism wherein the writer changes some minor syntactic and stylistic features but preserves the information and content of the original. I certainly agree that this practice is bad business, one which prevents students from learning the necessary moves for writing well, and one which amounts to stealing from the original author. But I also think that it can be hard to say where appropriate paraphrasing ends and patchwriting begins, and it’s even harder to tell the difference between someone drawing from the same sources and someone copying.

As I said before, when boring down into great detail about very specific subjects, it becomes common to find that only a handful of other people have written about your subjects. And without getting into an epistemelogical debate, facts are facts, more or less, and we can expect for different people to come to the same conclusions quite frequently. This is a particular issue when the topic is history; two different historians investigating the same time periods and people will inevitably dig up some of the same stories. Facts, famously, cannot be copyrighted. During the Benny Johnson dust up, I was quite convinced that Johnson was a serial plagiarist, and I think there’s tons of evidence that he had lifted text word-for-word from other sources without attribution. I think firing him was appropriate. But there were also accusations that seemed less clear to me, places where he had paraphrased historical or factual information that, while too close to other people’s materials, seemed more a matter of clumsy paraphrasing and bad judgement. More, I’m not sure that if you put several similar paraphrases or discussions of the same material against each other, I could safely say which was a matter of intellectual theft and which was coincidence.

Again, I don’t say any of this to exonerate Johnson. I think Buzzfeed dismissing him was an appropriate step. But I do think that we have a tendency to slide very quickly from the obvious, identifiable problems of copy-and-pasting plagiarism to the harder to define, harder to defend accusation of patchwriting. The current structure of the “content” business just makes this more difficult. With the constant claims of joke stealing in stand up comedy, I’ve often thought that, with so many people trying to make it in that industry, different comics legitimately coming up with the same material seems inevitable. Likewise, in an era of so many people writing online, and writing about the same small handful of subjects thanks to the economics of the industry, some overlap is inevitable. So how do you adjudicate that? I don’t know.

In Purdue’s introductory composition classes, there’s a mandatory, weekly conferencing session for all students where they work with their instructor individually or in small groups. It’s a major investment of resources, and there are always administrators asking why we bother. But when I was teaching freshman comp, I found these sessions immensely useful. I actually felt that I got more real teaching done in these small groups than in any other part of the class. Beyond the pedagogical value, conferencing was the only way I felt confident that I was minimizing (not eliminating) plagiarism in my class. With the internet making plagiarism a constant temptation, the only way I truly felt that I could substantially curtail the problem was by seeing student writing through from beginning, to middle, to end. Usually, the students just weren’t savvy enough to plagiarize without my noticing. They’d go from having nothing to having a totally polished, impressive draft, or they’d have a piece that was sketchy and unfinished and suddenly several clean paragraphs that didn’t really connect. And Google helped, as well. But I know that there were likely some smart plagiarists who, with enough effort and smarts, could put one over on me. The fear with plagiarism is that what you can really punish isn’t so much plagiarizing as failing to do it well.

That’s my  fear with plagiarism outside of the classroom, too. But I’m also afraid of accusing those who didn’t plagiarize, in part because I know how easy it can be to appear to have done so, and because the accusation is rightly very serious and potentially damaging. It’s a sticky, sticky set of problems.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Prose Style and Substance | 4 Comments

contemporary culture is the opposite of solipsistic

In a piece about the concept of “relatability,” inspired in part by Ira Glass’s dopey complaints about Shakespeare, Rebecca Mead writes:

to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Relatability is indeed a somewhat troublesome lens through which to look at art, and given that Glass’s take on Shakespeare was the hottest of hot takes, I’m happy to read some criticism of both. But this is odd. Selfies are the opposite of solipsism; they are the creation of a perspective that is entirely alien to the person taking them. None of us can naturally see our own face. We build mirrors precisely to get outside of our own perspective. We use the camera to put ourselves in the position of other people. Call that what you’d like, but it isn’t solipsistic.

Complaints that we’re all self-obsessed are evergreen, but I think that they badly miss the point in our current technological moment. Rather than being obsessed with our own point of view, I think we are instead in an era in which we are obsessed with the gaze of others. Yes, we are watching others watch us, and so there’s a second order sense in which we are still the subject of our own drama. But rather than being uninterested in the point of view of others, I think we have constructed an immense digital apparatus to focus on little else. There’s the obvious culprit of social media and blogs (like this one), where the opinions of others are fed to us in an endless stream. But there’s also Most Emailed lists, Netflix and Amazon recommendations (based on “people like us,” whoever that might be), algorithms that measure popularity or “virality,” online reviews, crowdsourcing…. All of this, I think, has consequences for what it means to be a person, and I am afraid not that we’re too much ourselves but that we’ve forgotten how to be, without instantaneous information about how other people are.

In a piece on the internet phenomenon that is performatively hating Zach Braff, Noel Murray writes:

I think the phenomenon Fritz is describing is just an unfortunate byproduct of how the cultural discourse has developed in the Internet age. Even though we live in an era of fragmentation, where people can more easily seek out and enjoy their own niche entertainments or opinions, the conversation online often seems to presume—or to push for—a monoculture. It’s almost as though we’re all anxious for some certainty: a point of view shared so widely that dissenters are singled out as freaks or morons. Often that means that movies most people don’t feel strongly enough about either to defend or dispute get defined by a passionate few, who want to make sure that the default position on a film like Garden State is that it’s an abomination.

Of all of my many petty complaints about online culture, this is the one that bums me out the most: that a set of technologies that enable limitless diversity in tastes seem to push towards numbing consensus. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the perfect “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the people who punish critics for spoiling one. I find this totally bizarre: critical unanimity on any piece of art means that criticism has failed, because a critical establishment that does not represent a diversity of opinion must be one that has systematically excluded a particular point of view. And any artwork that everybody likes must be, in a certain deep sense, toothless and unthreatening. More and more, I find that the middlebrow projects that receive the most unified, unbroken praise are fine but boring, crafted to be critic-proof, beautiful but safe.

Undoubtedly, human beings paying attention to what other human beings think is a good thing. Perhaps this type of chronic obsession with the hive mind is a necessary precondition of a new era of empathy and consideration. If so, I’ll gladly make the trade. But I worry about what it means to exist as a thinking individual when the subtle conditioning of other people’s opinions is a constant. And I’m worry about these passionate young writers who seem deeply uncomfortable with being disliked, when being disliked is a natural consequence of writing things worth reading. What I think is possible, and worth fighting for, is a culture where we strive to understand one another, but can achieve that understanding, recognize disagreement, and live comfortably with the mutual rejection of someone else’s opinion.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 11 Comments

things people should stop writing, part 1,234

The whole “I’m not even going to link to/quote from/respond to X thing that somebody wrote….” deal.

1. Not linking to, quoting from, or responding to that thing does not mean it does not exist.
2. If you’re writing those words, you already are responding to it.

Posted in Meta | 10 Comments