every bad argument against polygamy, debunked

This Jonathan Rauch response to me in Politico is indicative of most of the negative responses I’ve gotten from supposed progressives: defensive, non-responsive, filled with ad hoc arguments and temporary moral frameworks of convenience, propped up by bald assertion, and generally indicative of a profound discomfort with having to actually think through this issue.

Here, I respond to all of the bad arguments I’ve gotten about why we should continue to outlaw polygamous marriage.

God/the gods/the divine firmament/Odin/whoever says marriage is between one man and one woman.

The first of the social conservative arguments against. These arguments are interesting in that they are wrong, and clearly out of keeping with current popular sentiment, and yet far more coherent, intellectually and morally, then liberal resistance to polygamy. The response is pretty easy: I don’t believe in your god(s); even if I did, I wouldn’t find that belief an appropriate piece of evidence for discussions of social policy; we have a clear popular and legal rejection of that reasoning in our contemporary society.

Tradition says that marriage is between one man and one woman. 

Social con argument #2. Wrong because, first, “we used to do things that way so we have to keep doing things that way” is pretty much never sound political reasoning, and second, because polygamy likely predates monogamous marriage and is millenia old. Next.

The purpose of marriage is to create stable family units, in order to raise children.

Social con argument #3. Another one we’ve long disregarded. People get married with no intention of having children all the time. There is absolutely no legal compulsion for them to have children or to try to. Those who can’t conceive are not barred from the franchise of marriage. And a polygamous marriage that features both cis-gendered men and cis-gendered women are fully capable of producing and raising children, and those that don’t can adopt.

Studies say that polygamy leads to bad outcomes.

This is the heart of Rausch’s disdain. It’s also nonsense.

First: basic social science tells us that the very illegality and taboo that I’m trying to get rid of distorts the empirical picture. When a practice is illegal and taboo, that practice will necessarily be undertaken by people who tend towards extremist or outsider lifestyles. The fact that in America we associate polygamy with radical religious types is a function of that illegality and that taboo. You can’t conclude that polygamous relationships are inherently unhealthy through looking at groups that have decided to remove themselves from broader American society and who have fundamentally different values, assumptions, and ways of life. Similarly, I find comparing demographic data from, say, Senegal to a potential United States of America with polygamy invalid on its face, as a matter of pure empiricism. The truth is that we don’t know what a wealthy Western society like America would look like with polygamous marriage because conservatism has prevented that society from existing.

Second: this is not how rights work. Typical of the kind of jury-rigged arguments that progressives tend to employ against polygamy, this implies a profound, drastic deviation from conventional political morality. Are people really rights consequentialists in this way? If I proved that segregated schools produced better test schools, would Jon Rauch  say we should resegregate them? If social science demonstrated that interracial marriages had poor demographic outcomes, would Rauch favor recriminalizing those marriages? I certainly hope not. But that’s an absolutely necessary logical consequence of his argument. I cannot stress this enough: if you say that social science compels us to deny polygamous marriage, you have to also say that you’d oppose gay, interracial, or any other kind of marriage if that empirical research existed. I find that a fundamentally bankrupt vision of political morality. And there are examples everywhere. There is research that suggests a great number of socially undesirable outcomes associated with religious belief. So do Rauch or other people who quote the social science on polygamy think that we should start shuttering the synagogues, temples, and churches? Of course not. They don’t actually believe in rights consequentialism. They just endorse that viewpoint here because of their fear of polygamy.

Third: outlawing polygamy does nothing to prevent these problems, if indeed they exist, as  the problems would be inherent to polyamorous relationships in general, not just those codified legally. Does Rauch think that more than two people should legally be able to have sex with each other? That more than two people should legally be able to be in a loving, committed relationship with each other? That more than two people should legally be able to cohabitate together? If the answers to these questions is “yes,” then congratulations: all of the things you don’t like about polygamy already apply. You’re just denying people the protection of marriage, and doing nothing to prevent the problems you insist are endemic to polygamy. Congratulations.

The logistics are too hard!

Logistics are never sufficient reason to deny human rights. Again: this is not how rights work. The Americans with Disabilities Act has cost our country hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of effort and energy. And yet it’s one of the best pieces of legislation in our history, precisely because rights exist regardless of their short-term convenience. Again: is this logic applied in any other case? If someone proved that desegregation was really expensive, would that be sufficient reason to establish it? If gay marriage was logistically difficult? No. No, none of the people making this claim would oppose gay marriage or desegregation or any other rights-based claim on logistical grounds, because again, these complaints are not the product of a coherent legal worldview but of short-term, ad hoc, “any port in a storm” argumentation.

Also, it’s not like two-person marriage isn’t expensive, onerous, and legally fraught. Have people really never read anything about divorce or family court? These are immensely expensive legal battles, bitter and difficult and expensive after centuries of precedent. Nobody argues that this is a reason to dissolve traditional marriage, and for good reason. Structures will be built. Laws will be written. Precedent will be set. That’s life in a society of equal rights.

Polgyamy tends to produce patriarchal relationship structures.

True. You know what else does? Regular marriage. These problems are a consequence of patriarchy, not polygamy. We must rebuild society to eliminate sexism, whether we have polygamous marriage or not.

Your only argument for polygamy is that there’s no reason not to.

No, my argument for polygamy is that there are people in the world who want it, and I recognize the inherent and total equality of the dignity and value of their relationships in comparison to two-person relationships.

Polygamy isn’t sufficiently radical. It doesn’t tear down the state/disrupt capitalism/destroy patriarchy/eliminate the hegemony of Western values/etc.

True. In fact in many ways polygamy is a conservative venture. But just like I must insist on the equality of women in the capitalist workplace, even while I recognize that the workplace is a site of alienation, exploitation, and destruction, I have to insist that the conservative structure of marriage must apply equally to all loving relationships. If the state is going to formally recognize some loving relationships, and extend benefits to those relationships, I must insist on equality in that recognition even while I have my doubts about the institution writ large.

Poly people don’t want it.

There are many people who self-identify as polyamorous and who work to build activist and intellectual structures supporting polyamorous love, and good for them. But there is no such thing as “poly people” in the sense that only some people are legitimately allowed to be in polyamorous relationships. Anybody can be in a polyamorous relationship, just like anyone, gay or straight or in between, can be in a same-sex relationship. So while I respect the efforts of poly activists who disdain marriage, this fight is not just about them. It’s about my right, your right, and everybody else’s right to engage in a legal marriage contract with whom we choose.

Gay is an identity, polyamorous isn’t. Gay people deserve marriage rights because homosexuality is immutable.

The immutability principle — the “born this way” argument — is exactly the kind of wrongheaded argument that was developed for short-term political reasons during the marriage equality fight that should now be abandoned. The immutability argument is insulting, as it poses straight marriage as the legitimate norm that is simply denied to gay people because they can’t be that way. It is inherently and unambiguously condescending and insulting towards gay love. And it has all kinds of perverse logical consequences. Can bi people get gay marriages? After all, they could fall in love with a straight person! They aren’t forced to choose between a life of loneliness or a gay marriage. So the state should be able to prevent bi people from marrying same-sex partners, right? And come to think of it, maybe we need a test. After all, if the right to same-sex marriage depends on being inherently and immutably gay, then clearly, only the really gay should have the right. Right?

Absurd. Absurd, ugly, and incoherent. People have the right to marry whomever they want because the state has no business dictating who is or is not an appropriate partner. You should be able to marry someone of your own sex whether you’re gay, bi, straight, or any other color of the rainbow. Same with polygamy: the moral right to marry two or more people, whether guy-guy-guy- or gal-gal-gal or cis-trans-gender queer-etc., does not depend on being existentially predisposed to do so. That is the real battle: to get past the insulting and infantilizing notion that marriage equality is a bone we throw to people who can’t help it.

Marriage just is between two people!

Argument from assertion. Meaningless. Empty. Structurally and argumentatively identical to “marriage just is between a man and a woman/members of the same race!”

I’m really just mad and uncomfortable about you bringing this up!

OK, so nobody actually puts it that way. But that’s the strong impression I get, particularly from progressive types: they just don’t want to deal with this. So many of the arguments seem to spring from places of annoyance. So many of the arguments against are based on incredulity, the assumption of bad faith, and irritation that they are being put in a position to be challenged from their left when it comes to marriage rights. After years of preening about how liberalism stood for love and dignity, a lot of liberals are not happy being asked to open their own minds.

Well, look: I think this is a good, natural, and healthy conversation to have, and frankly I think it’s good for liberals to be challenged in this way. It’s good for American progressivism to not be able to assume a monopoly on the moral high ground or on recognition of the equal dignity and value of different relationships. I believe that polygamy is a natural and moral outgrowth of changing norms about marriage and romance. So I’m making the case. Yesterday, you said that love is love. So what are you going to say today?


If we have polygamy, what we’ll really have is individual men with lots of wives, and lots of sad horny angry dudes who can’t get laid of get married!

1. We already have lots of sad horny angry dudes.
2. Government has no business trying to regulate the sexual or romantic “marketplace” so that men feel like they have an adequate number of partners to choose from. Society has no legitimate interest in ensuring that you feel like you have a good chance of getting laid.
3. Traditional marriage has traditionally invested men with superior power, too.
4. That polygamy often functions to have one man who dominates the household and lots of subservient wives is a function of patriarchy. It’s our duty to destroy patriarchy. If we undertake that effort, the benefits will accrue to traditional marriage, to polygamous marriage, and to the unmarried.
5. That the idea of one wife with many husbands is just assumed away is itself reflective of ingrained sexism.
6. The notion that polygamy will necessarily and perpetually default to one husband, many wives because of inequality in social and economic capital between men and women seems to me to be a matter of declaring defeat in the battle against sexism.
7. While a huge amount of work remains to be done, we’ve seen remarkable progress in closing the gap in social and economic capital between men and women in recent decades. There are a lot of relationships out there, right now, where the woman is the partner with more social capital, more education, a better income, and better prospects. It’s one of the most obvious changes in educated, elite society. Under those conditions, I can easily imagine one wife taking multiple husbands. And while we should never presume progress, I think we have a clear duty to spread that changing condition in the relative social and economic value of men and women throughout society. If we do, you’ll find this problem goes away.

please help save my dog Miles

11287969_447335895427854_1607350991_nI’m very sorry to tell you that my dog, Miles, has taken very ill this past week, and I’m forced to ask for some help in paying his vet bills. Miles is an 8 year old hound mix, about 70 pounds. Before last weekend, he was in fine health, very energetic. But this past weekend, he stopped eating. That isn’t so unusual for a couple days at a stretch, but on Monday he was very lethargic. A trip to the vet brought bad news. Miles has Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia, a type of autoimmune anemia where his immune system is attacking his red blood cells, leaving him tired and lethargic and with labored breathing. It’s unclear what’s causing this condition. I’m convinced that it was something he ate, as he is forever eating things he shouldn’t and had metallic material in his colon which has since passed, but the vets aren’t sure. His condition is life-threatening and the vets told me there is a good chance he won’t make it.

Here is a GoFundMe campaign to help me pay for his care. (And for only that reason. Please read on for more details.)

I have not been able to afford to hospitalize him so we have been trying a treatment regimen. He is currently on five medications: prednisone, a steroid designed to suppress his immune system and reduce the attack on his red blood cells; doxycycline, an antibiotic to stave off infections; sucralfate, a drug to protect his stomach from damage caused by those drugs; an antacid; and a small dose of baby aspirin to prevent blood clots. We have been to the vet every day since I first took him in, as well as to Purdue’s animal hospital. His treatment has pretty much cleaned me out, financially. I am getting some help from my brother. I am unemployed right now, but I am applying to jobs all over the country and I’m confident I’ll find something in the next month. I was planning on just trying to hold on through the end of July. I have been doing some writing for pay, which will really help in the long run, but it tends to take a long time for those jobs to pay. I got a cheap sublet for next month and the rent is paid for, so that’s good. But we have another vet visit coming on Monday, and at present I’m not sure how I can continue to take him in.

My goal is for total transparency. I am posting invoices and receipts on the GoFundMe page so that you can see what I am trying to get reimbursed. I arrived at the goal amount of $2890 because that is the amount I’ve paid for thus far, plus the $2000 that was quoted as an estimate for how much a blood transfusion may cost. A transfusion may become necessary in the next couple days, and as of right now, I couldn’t pay for it, which is my immediate worry. Again, I have no interest in asking for any money that is not directly related to Miles’s care. I will continue to update you with receipts and invoices, and if I end up with more than his care costs, I will arrange a donation with the Connecticut Humane Society where I got Miles, minus a little bit for odds and ends that I don’t have receipts for. I will show proof of that donation as well.

There has been a little bit of positive signs lately. Miles’s red blood cell count dropped as low as 12% at one point. (Above 30% is healthy.)  But he’s crept back up the last couple of days to 16%. He’s also eating some again, which is good. I make bland chicken breast and rice for him on  doctor’s orders, mix it up with a little wet dog food, and feed him by hand. That way I can get him to take his medicines. Because I was advised to limit his physical exertion as much as possible, I have been carrying him up and down the stairs and carrying him to where he likes to go to the bathroom. He also no longer has a fever. However, I want to be upfront in saying that his odds are still not good and that it is likely that, even if you pitch in for his care, he won’t make it. If that prevents anyone from chipping in I understand completely.

It’s been a very difficult week, full of sleepless nights where I wake up to make sure he’s breathing. I am happy to spend the effort to care for him. I just need to get the money together to keep bringing him to the vet. I really feel like I’m on the verge of getting life together if I can just hold on. Miles is my best friend and I love him with my whole heart. If anyone can pitch in, I’ll be more grateful than I can say.

my Politico piece on polygamy

I’m in Politico today, making the argument for legally recognized group marriage. Check it out.


Did you write this piece to troll conservatives?

No, I wrote it because I believe in a natural moral right to group marriage.

Did you write this piece because you oppose  same sex marriage?

No, I support same sex marriage wholeheartedly. I wrote it because I believe in a natural moral right to group marriage.

Did you write this piece to demonstrate the slippery slope of social liberalism?

No, and I wrote explicitly about the slippery slope in the piece, which you should read if you’re commenting on it. I wrote the piece because I believe in a natural moral right to group marriage.

Why did you publish it today? Too soon!

If you believe that we have a natural moral right to group marriage, as I do, telling people to slow down is offensive.

But why publish it on the day gay marriage becomes law?

Because I do think, despite what so many progressives have halfheartedly said, that marriage equality meaningfully influences the legal and moral case for polygamy, and that this is a good thing. I waited until that day because, with marriage equality now the law of the land, with broad popular support, the political  risk of association with polygamy has died, and so the time has come to make the case for polygamy, a natural outgrowth of social liberalism and one of several moral imperatives for us going forward. I wrote the piece because I believe in a natural moral right to group marriage, and for the reasons I said in the piece. You can agree, or disagree, but you cannot dictate my reasons or my views.

Update II: 

Gay people don’t choose to be gay, but people choose to enter into polyamorous relationships, so we have a duty to provide marriage rights to the former but not the latter.

I reject the “born this way” argument for gay marriage, so this logic doesn’t move me. That argument, too, seems ad hoc and motivated by political concession more than by principle. That argument is both inherently insulting and logically troubling. Insulting because another way to put it would be to say “they can’t help it, so give them marriage.” That’s not an argument for the equal value of gay relationships. On the contrary, it’s a demeaning argument of necessity. Logically troubling, because its logic insists that only “really gay” people should have the right to gay marriages. Suppose there was some sort of blood test for homosexuality: if you turned up straight on such a test, does that mean you would have no right to marry someone from your same sex? That’s a necessary logical conclusion of this argument, and an absurdity. People should have the right to marry whomever they want because there is no rational reason society should privilege heterosexual relationships in the first place. Similarly, my argument is precisely that polyamorous relationships are equal in value and dignity to couple relationships. Chosen or inherent, the right to whatever romantic and sexual relationships you want to have should be respected.

Your argument isn’t really radical and doesn’t destabilize capitalism.

True. Same with same sex marriage. And indeed, like many I am not a huge fan of conventional marriage and government sanction of same in general. I do agree that there are a great many problems with it. But the fact of the matter is, marriage exists, and marriage rights are now extended to different sex and same sex couples alike in this country, as they should be. And as long as government is providing formal recognition of relationships that confers practical and legal benefits, I believe the right thing to do is to extend those benefits equally to all consenting relationships regardless of whether there’s only two people involved. That’s not me giving marriage an unskeptical blessing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I think marriage will tear down the state or capitalism, both of which are quite keen on marriage. It just means that, as long as this edifice exists, we should spread its benefits equally. In much the same way that I simultaneously recognize that capitalism and the business world are exploitative and demeaning, and think that women have to have equal opportunity to advance within them. That’s the weird condition of egalitarianism in today’s world.

Is this really the top priority for the left when we still have [X social problem] to tackle? 

I didn’t say, and didn’t mean to imply, that polygamy is the top priority. Only that it should be a priority, and that it is a natural and moral right for us to pursue. We can, and have to, do different things simultaneously as a left-wing movement. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Update: Here’s me talking about the issue with Alan Colmes on his radio show:

my Vox piece on alt metal

Hey guys, I’m thrilled to share a piece I wrote for Vox on art/alt/heady metal music, why I love it, how to get into it, and some bands to try out. I haven’t had this much fun writing something in a long time.

And now some words for the purists. (Whom I love, despite myself!)

  • I knew going in that a lot of metalheads would hate it. It was inevitable. You can’t write the words “heavy” and “metal” on the internet, even if you’re a chemist, without somebody showing up to tell you You’re Doing It Wrong. Didn’t write the piece for them.
  • Some people’s unhappiness seems to stem from the headline, which I grant does suggest that this will be a piece specifically on doom metal, a particular subgenre within the world of metal. That’s unfortunate, and I would have preferred they use the term art metal or alt metal. There are, however, two things to say about this. First, “I’m not in love with the headline” is a thing approximately 100% of writers on the internet have said about the stuff they’ve had published. (It amazes me that some people still don’t know this, but writers almost never write their own headlines.) But listen: publishers, particularly those who pay, have a right to decide what the headline is. Headlines have everything to do with whether a piece gets shared, and whether a piece gets shared determines if they’re going to get any advertising revenue. Vox is paying me actual American currency for this piece; they have a right to influence the headline. Second, you could solve this problem by reading the fucking article instead of only the headline and the band names.
  • If you want doom metal as such, my friend Gavin recommends Thergothon, Skepticism, and Shape of Despair
  • I had a much longer bit discussing what I was talking about and what I wasn’t, mentioning names and genres of more traditional kinds of metal, and defining why I wasn’t writing about them. It was cut in editing. And you know what? That was the correct decision by the editor. The draft I initially handed in was legit 4500 words. I wrote defensively at the beginning because I knew I would take some hits about what is and isn’t metal. But the piece is for exactly the people who don’t care about that; they’re who I’m trying to reach. The piece was improved in editing, and again, when you get paid, the publisher has a legitimate right to cut.
  • The piece isn’t, and doesn’t purport to be, a comprehensive guide to any particular genre. It’s saying “here’s some music I’m into, here’s why I’m into it, here’s how to get into it yourself, and here’s some great songs and bands to try out.” Because I really do love it and want other people to love it too.
  • I did my time. I spent years going to mostly-terrible and occasionally amazing local metal and hardcore shows at the El ‘n’ Gee club in New London (RIP), followed great metal and hardcore bands like God Forbid and Converge, spending my time in the mosh pits. Met Kerry King. Again, you can never please people. I did my time. I’m too damn old to worry about if I’m a true metalhead.
  • I’m opening up comments, so pop in and discuss, ask for recs, give recs, or yell at me about what a hipster/poseur/fake I am. And thanks to Vox and Dylan Matthews.

in the interest of full disclosure!

Well gang, it’s looking pretty much official — unless I’m mistaken about the timelines of a few remaining jobs, I’ve struck out on the 2014-2015 academic job market. I had a bunch of close calls, including an offer that looked to be in hand, but no bites. It happens. I figure if I’m gonna tell you all when things are good, I better be upfront with the setbacks, too.

I will say upfront that it’s a blow, obviously, after working on documents since this time last year and submitted apps since October 1st. But it’s a well-known tale,  after all, given the realities of the academic job market. I will go on the market again in the fall and see what’s what. I have a good and developing CV with some exciting things upcoming. And as I’ve teased several times — and really and truly hope to be able to formally announce soon — there’s some cool nonacademic stuff coming soon. I gotta give it another shot. I just wish everything was more open; I’d love to know if, as some people have told me, my political writing has rendered my efforts in this regard a waste of time.

As many have suspected, I’ve pretty much sunsetted this blog, in part I suppose because so many people have told me it’s such a professional liability. But also I think it’s time. I’ll pop up from time to time, mostly to announce and/or extend stuff I’m publishing elsewhere, and I’ll give you updates on my life. But it’s just time. At some point, you’ve said what you have to say, and you need to listen a little more.

I don’t know, we’ll see. There’s gotta be meaningful work for me somewhere. I can do a few things really well. To tell the truth, I’m much more worried about the next month and the immediate worry of finding a place to live, etc, than I am about the next year. I’m gonna keep plugging away at writing for money. I feel good about stuff generally. And not to be arch but I finally feel like I’ve got my medical life sorted in a way that, until very recently, seemed to elude me. I just have to figure out where exactly I’ll be living and working this year.

I’ll let you all know. Don’t worry too much — I’ve been in much, much worse shape in the past. We’ll see!

my piece for the LA Times

I had a piece in yesterday’s LA Times on the Rachel Dolezal affair that you can check out here.

The reaction to the piece has been overwhelmingly positive, but there’s been a few people who have accused me of writing an anti-“political correctness”, anti-identity politics, or similar piece. I find that idea very frustrating. That’s not the text of the piece; that’s not the intent of my piece; that’s not how my editor and I discussed it. The piece is not a complaint about political correctness. It’s not a complaint about academia. It’s not a complaint about activism. Anyone who represents it that way is lying to you.

The very central argument of the piece is that Dolezal manipulated theories and ideas that I agree with, and she did so for perverse reasons I was trying to think through. Since I apparently wasn’t clear enough, I believe in the social construct theory of race. But as I’ve said several times since this story broke, I also think that social construct theory is really complicated, and we need to talk about it with care and with understanding for those who don’t immediately understand. (Update: Jamelle Bouie has a piece that could serve as a model for just this kind of compassionate but unflinching discussion.)  And we have to recognize that people like Rachel Dolezal — who I think is some combination of dishonest and traumatized and deserves sympathy along with condemnation — are going to find ways to manipulate a complex set of theories like that. That’s not an insult to social construction theory. It’s just a recognition that no theory, in the history of politics, has ever been perfectly functioning with all of its parts working in pristine coordination. If that statement itself has become impermissible, I don’t know what stance is left other than blind agreement and keeping our heads down — which is how we got Rachel Dolezal in the first place.

If there is one complaint in my piece, it’s this: that we’ve mistaken the necessary sensitivity and deference that we work into our engagement with these issues, given their great political and emotional weight, with a refusal to have the hard, frequently-uncomfortable conversations we must have. That’s what I’m arguing: that Dolezal was able to play in the spaces where many are afraid to go, because we mistake our duty to be careful and sensitive with a duty to not ask or answer tricky questions.

My disagreements with many people stem from a simple mistake. The discourse that we call intersectionality or identity politics or one of many names contains many ideas I agree with and some I disagree with. That discourse was first pioneered largely by people of color, women, and other marginalized groups. But it has in recent years been adopted by many people who come from our country’s demographic of power: white, affluent, educated, urban people. Many times, they use this discourse in ways that I see as illegitimate. In particular, they want to borrow a kind of rhetorical power that has been granted to that discourse, in a few small and idiosyncratic spaces, for their own ends. Rachel Dolezal is not the first person to borrow blackness. She’s just one of the few to do so as nakedly and with as much risk as she has. Every time you find some white professional writer who was raised in upper middle class comfort and who was educated at Brown appropriating intersectional discourse for professional or personal gain, as they do whenever their work is criticized for any reason, you can see the same bare logic. Could I be wrong about that? Sure. Is saying that many people misuse this discourse out of self-interest the same thing as dismissing that discourse? No. It’s just not.

I think, quietly, there are a lot of people who have noticed an unhealthy appropriation of discourses of marginalization by those who are not marginalized. But they’re afraid to point out this appropriation for fear of having that same discourse turned against them. Dolezal’s story has, in an absurd and sad way, made this dynamic real. If I can’t say that such behavior is wrong without being forced into some “anti-PC complaint” narrative, then I’m not sure what space is left than just the inherently apolitical stance of total acquiescence.


The Daily Caller dude done goofed

So I got this the other day:

watSo the dude called me and asked me three questions. I presumed it was in response to this. I pinged Keenan Trotter about it before my interview to say that I thought it was weird.


On the third question, I realized there was some sort of weird misunderstanding going on. I told the dude, flat out, that I wasn’t a Gawker employee, and that I was just an interested observer that cares about the future of unions in this kind of work. I reiterated that point several times. I did mention that I have been working on a freelance piece for Gawker, but said directly that I’m not an employee, never will be, have no connection to the union, and couldn’t speak to any of that. He assured me he understood.  Afterwords, because it was weird, I emailed Max Read.


Today I see this.


I have no idea why he would quote me as saying “we” here– I didn’t say anything of the kind. Again, I stated and restated that I’m not a Gawker Media employee, and he said he got it. I said they’ll have a structure in place for grievances, again simply from the standpoint of someone who cares about unions.

It’s all very strange and I am genuinely baffled by how he could misquote me in that sense when I went out of my way to tell him that I don’t work for Gawker.

Update: Somebody asked me why I would bother to be interviewed by a conservative site like the Daily Caller. That’s actually why I was willing to be interviewed– I figured it would probably be a hit piece and thought it would be a good chance to defend unions in a conservative space.

to be a better amateur

At the beginning of this chat I had with Noah Millman, you’ll note my caveat: I speak as a dedicated but decidedly amateur student of artificial intelligence. Noah makes a similar announcement. I was thrilled to be invited by him to discuss issues of the philosophy and theory of knowledge of AI, and I had a great time chatting with him. I announced my amateur status because I felt compelled to: whenever I write about more quantitatively oriented issues, people try to check my card — they make some sort of aggressive statement about my lack of expertise. Sometimes these statements are accurate, sometimes inaccurate, but the essential message is always the same: numbers-based ways to understand the world are meant to be discussed by a certain credentialed minority. I think that’s a terrible mistake, and in fact that’s why I was eager to have this discussion with Noah. I believe it’s essential for people with non-STEM backgrounds to be conversant in these topics, as they’re so important for the future. I think an informed conversation on AI between a guy with a background in writing and the humanities, and a guy with a background in history, finance, and the arts can be fruitful and useful.

To lay out my (beginner, amateur, but informed and passionate) understanding of AI, I’ve read Doug Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach twice; I’ve read a significant majority of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig; assorted books in cognitive science, ranging from popular like Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought to academic like Randy Gallistel’s Memory and the Computational Brain; a couple hundred articles, popular and academic; and a good deal of natural language processing that I utilize in my own academic research. Let me say straight up: there are large chunks of essentially all of this that I don’t understand, and the actual computer science that real understanding would require eludes me. There’s huge chunks that I just don’t grasp because I can’t follow the algorithms or the code or similar. Like I said, I’m an amateur. Just one who wants to learn as much as his amateur brain will allow.

There are some topics on which I am not an amateur. I’m not the type to act as though expertise is all a lie, which seems to me to create a tyranny of the ignorant. I will claim some expertise in the fields of writing assessment, particularly quantitative approaches; second language writing specifically and applied linguistics generally; writing program administration; and standardized tests of higher education, a topic which has occupied most of my attention for the past two years. There’s no bright line between things that I define as matters of my professional competence and those that I see as the interests of a beginner, but I maintain the distinction all the same.

I have, for the past six years of graduate education, gradually brought myself to a fitful and inconsistent understanding of statistics and research methods appropriate to my research interests. As I’m sure is common, this didn’t really come from some grand scheme to get quantitative. I just found that I had certain questions that I couldn’t answer without using numbers, and as time went on, I needed to know more and more. Which means that I know how to do a few things that are quite sophisticated and don’t know how to do some very basic things. When I want to do a simple confidence interval, for example, I often find myself reaching for a textbook. There’s something embarrassing about that, I guess, but I don’t mind too much; the point’s not to pass someone else’s test. It’s just to know how to ask certain questions, or to know how to find out, or how to ask. It’s like anything else: you study and you think you know something, and then you learn more and you look back on your old understanding and you say, boy, I didn’t get it back then, but now….

Which is not to say that I am not subject to the insecurity that comes with attempts to develop quantitative skills. There’s so much ingrained disrespect for the liberal arts, and such a schizophrenic set of attitudes about quantification within them. Oftentimes, it feels like you just can’t win: your work isn’t serious if it doesn’t involve numbers, but if you incorporate numbers into a subject they see as unworthy, or in a way they see as unworthy, that’s ridiculous, too. In such a context, it doesn’t surprise me that many humanities people simply wash their hands of the whole thing, and say “they aren’t going to respect me anyway, so why not just do my own thing?”

I want to stress that a majority of the STEM-oriented people I’ve worked with (and in the last couple years in particular, I’ve worked with many) have been friendly, approachable, and generous. For the past two years I’ve worked with a series of international graduate students, almost all of them in the STEM fields, and the collaboration has been among the most meaningful and satisfying elements of my recent life. My statistics professor and those I’ve worked with in the statistical consulting service here, as  well as my private R tutor, have been patient and kind with me. There have been a few people in the STEM disciplines here, and many more who claim to be online, who have been… less generous. That’s life, I guess. People have weird ownership issues over this stuff.

One thing I’ve gained: I am much less subject to mathematical intimidation than I once was. A lot of people (and it’s far from just in academia) will just try to wing claims by you by throwing in some numbers and statistical terminology. What I’ve developed is a lack of fear of really interpreting those claims, thinking them over, and performing a critical review. I won’t always know if they’re right or wrong, but I won’t fear looking deeper and saying if I’ve found problems. I’ve gained the confidence to inquire more deeply, and the framework for understanding how to l earn more.

Sorry this is so scattered. I’ve tried and failed to write a post here a thousand times about the humanities, numbers, and the future, but I am apparently incapable of writing coherently on the subject. I guess I will just say this: I write about statistics and research methods here not because I know everything but because I so certainly don’t. I am feeling my way through, thinking my way through, and day by day getting a little better. That has never meant that I have left the liberal arts behind, or that I have come to embrace a purely quantitative or positivist way of knowing. I’ve just had these questions, and have wanted to find  answers to them, and I think that I can do a service by talking through some of these issues from the standpoint of someone who has been growing and has more growing to do.

Neil Degrasse Tyson sometimes says that his shelves are filled with books from history and literature and the arts, but that professors in history and literature and the arts usually don’t have books on the sciences. I’m not sure that’s as true as he thinks; he’s obviously a brilliant man and a great science communicator, but he sometimes seems incurious about people. But either way: I am determined not to be one of those types, and would be moved by curiosity to learn more even without a philosophical commitment to doing so. I am convinced that there must be a way to pursue these interests without denigrating or sidelining the traditional values and methods of the humanities, and without suggesting that only numbers can tell us more about our world. My goal is simply to learn more, to gather more expertise where I can, and in those fields where I am sure to remain an  amateur, to be a better amateur.

book review: Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform

The internet, we are all expected to believe, is revolutionary, in several different meanings of the term. In the span of a decade or two, the digitally-connected technologies we refer to as the internet expanded from being populated by a few thousand academics, government officials, and cultish amateurs to a ubiquitous part of contemporary life. No industry has been untouched by this rapid explosion of infrastructure and attention, and none could afford not to engage its customers online. For researchers and teachers, the internet has completely transformed the way we investigate problems and solve them, and has opened up even the most remote classroom to more information than the greatest  libraries in the world could once hold. But it’s not merely the communicative, economic, or academic changes that give the internet its outsized reputation. That reputation also depends on the revolutionary potential of these technologies, their ability to act as agents of change that can empower the little guy against entrenched authority, enable grass roots organizing, even spark revolutions that overthrow dictators. This portrayal of the online world, as a force not just for greater communication or commerce but for emancipation, has spilled out from the cheerleading technology press such as Wired magazine and into general interest publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic.

But quietly, a counter-narrative has begun. As the online world has matured, and the initial rush of the potency of these technologies has subsided, critics of the digital utopian narrative have begun to emerge. Astra Taylor’s 2014 book The People’s Platform is a clarion call in that new tradition, a book that could be to digital skepticism what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was to environmentalism. And it offers us a new perspective on the digital tools that we use in our day-to-day lives, a way to appreciate their power while recognizing that they are neither intrinsically good nor bad, but rather can be used creatively or destructively by individuals and society.

Taylor is not the first to throw cold water on the revolutionary potential of the internet and its subsidiary technologies. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (2010) argued that, when access to knowledge is ubiquitous and nearly instantaneous, we lose some of our independence and ability to think critically. Evgeny Morozov, a longtime critic of digital-era utopianism, published The Net Delusion (2012) in reaction to claims that social media had created the conditions for the Arab Spring and similar political movements, arguing that these simplistic takes distorted history and failed to recognize how authoritarian governments, as well as populist movements, can take advantage of new technologies. Jaron Lanier, an early pioneer of virtual reality turned techno-skeptic, wrote You Are Not a Gadget (2010) and Who Owns the Future? (2013) to document the ways that the new digital era has undermined individuality and the ability of artists and thinkers to make a living, respectively.

All of these writers explored themes similar to Taylor’s, and yet none of them, in my estimation, produced as powerful of a critique. Without being a demagogue or dismissing the very real gains that the internet has brought, Taylor systematically, rigorously undermines the triumphalist narrative. She compares the hype about how the internet has changed the world to the reality, and finds the reality far less positive and more disturbing—in journalism and the media, in the arts, in the economy, and in politics. Throughout, she looks at the outsized claims made by digital utopians, academics and writers and Silicon Valley gurus who have claimed that the internet is a great leveler that will bring power and fame (if not fortune) to the masses. The predictions of prominent commentators like Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, the academics Clay Shirky and Lawrence Lessig, and tech-industry powerhouses like Larry Page of Google are subject to meticulous review, and found wanting. Rather than being a tool of egalitarianism and liberation, the internet is revealed as a feudal system, one which has actually entrenched old power structures and cut the financial legs out from under entire industries. “In fact,” writes  Taylor, “wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume, and connect…. they pose a whole new set of challenges to the health of our culture” (9).

Take journalism. Journalism is a topic of obvious and unique importance in democratic societies, which require reporters and pundits to act as watchdogs over the government and to help alert the public to  risks and problems. The internet has surely increased the ability of the average citizen to engage in this kind of activity, as Taylor acknowledges. Everyone with broadband access can potentially become an amateur journalist, sharing photos, starting a blog, and holding politicians accountable. Taylor summarizes the popular conception of this revolution, the belief that “the Internet has freed us from the stifling grip of the old, top-down mass media model, transforming consumers into producers and putting citizens on par with the powerful” (69). It’s a pleasing idea, and as someone who has engaged politically online myself, on blogs and social media, a seductive narrative. But as Taylor demonstrates, the truth is far less reassuring. Although it’s certainly true that it’s easier than ever for regular people to share their opinions, that doesn’t mean that reporting is any easier. Old school journalism—the brick-and-mortar work of asking questions and finding out facts—remains a very expensive proposition. With plummeting revenues from classified advertisements (thanks to free online alternatives like Craigslist), traditional newspapers have dramatically scaled back their investigative reporting units, including closing extensive foreign bureaus that have provided essential information on foreign events. Even the most dedicated of amateurs could not hope to replicate the type of reporting that led, for example, to the Watergate scandal, reporting that took time, money, and access. “Hit by a double whammy of technological change and a global recession,” writes Taylor, newspapers the country over “cut staff, slashed sections, or closed shop” (80). This has left many major areas of the country without any real professional journalism, meaning that there is no one to keep government and industry accountable.

The internet is often described as an attention economy, and yet as many aspiring online journalists will tell you, getting attention is not the same thing as making a living. Consider  the story of Baltimore-area journalist Stephen Janis and his now-defunct website The Investigative Voice. In many respects, Janis would seem to have done everything right. After having been laid off by the Baltimore Examiner, one of many once-celebrated newspapers that has been economically devastated in the internet era, Janis started his site out of a perceived need for what Taylor calls the “nitty-gritty beat coverage that no one wants to invest in anymore” (84). The site was an immediate success, breaking big stories, drawing a modest but enthusiastic audience, and finding a comfortable niche for itself locally. But despite the quality of its content, The Investigative Voice struggled in terms of access and in terms of sustainability. Lacking the immediate potential to go viral and attract lots of clicks, it was very hard for the site to generate ad revenue. And though he was a well-known reporter with real connections in the city, Janis found it much harder to get access to important people and information without the imprimatur of a paper like the Examiner. Taylor extensively quotes figures like Lawrence Lessig who claim that institutions like newspapers are dinosaurs in the new era, and yet when it comes to having the kind of clout necessary to open doors, it seems that institutions still matter. Working long hours for almost no money, Janis and his collaborators eventually called it quits, and The Investigative Voice was shuttered. It’s a sadly common reality on the internet: success in terms of praise, recognition, and attention in no way ensures financial stability.

Nowhere is Taylor more convincing than in her discussion of how the internet has (and has not) changed life for artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers. Herself an established, respected documentary  film director, Taylor has great credibility to demonstrate how the reality of professional arts and media has not matched up with utopian predictions. Taylor talks openly about the problems with the older models of media production and show business, describing them as closed, hierarchical systems that typically rewarded only those who were already connected and successful. One of the strengths of Taylor’s book is her refusal to romanticize the old systems as she critiques the new. As she writes, “in discussions of digital culture, complex dynamics are reduced to stark, binary terms” (169). Her own habits are far more nuanced. But even with nuanced, the portrayal of the basic economics of the culture industry is stark and frightening. Widespread digital piracy has severely reduced revenues in the music industry, for example, and digital streaming sites like Pandora and Spotify have not come close to replacing them. A similar dynamic has begun to happen in the world of filmmaking, with technologies like Bit Torrent and faster broadband access making movie downloads easier and easier. And despite the fact that piracy is often described as an attack only on rich corporations, Taylor demonstrates how independent, low-budget artists like herself are feeling the squeeze. She interviews Jem Cohen, himself an acclaimed independent filmmaker, who reflects his disappointment on finding that a low-budget documentary he directed had appeared on file sharing sites before it had even debuted publicly. “Sometimes we need to remind ourselves,” Taylor quotes Cohen as writing,  “that the relationship between those who make creative work and those who receive it should be one of mutual support” (167). But with illegal file sharing simple and ubiquitous, and the online cultural attitude largely laissez faire, few on the consumer side hold up their own end of the bargain. The result is not the level playing field we were promised but instead an online economy where the Googles and Facebooks rake in millions and artists are increasingly unable to make ends meet.

Taylor’s analysis expands into politics, education, and the labor market, demonstrating how internet technologies have concentrated power in the hands of a few large entities and undercut the ability of individuals to make a living. But there is some hope. Taylor does not believe that the genie of technological change can be put back into the bottle, and would not try even if she did. Rather, she advocates for seeing technological change in terms of potential—the potential for both good and bad. “A more open, egalitarian, participatory, and sustainable culture is profoundly worth championing,” she writes, “but technology alone cannot bring it into being” (232). Instead, we must recognize that internet culture will be what we make it. Taylor advocates for a new spirit of conscientious consumption of online media, and she sees a new spirit of digital skepticism as emancipatory rather than pessimistic. If the people who read, learn, debate, shop, create, and engage online work together to make the internet into the accessible, egalitarian space we were promised, “only then,” writes Taylor, “will a revolution worth cheering be upon us” (232).

I read books I enjoyed more in 2014 than The People’s Platform. But I didn’t read any books that were more important. It’s hard to imagine a more timely argument, or one more worth making.