free speech rights and ability

One of the traditional, fundamental political divides between the left and the right has been the question of rights and ability, the question of positive rights. Conservatives have tended to endorse only negative rights, while liberals have endorsed a more expansive vision of positive rights. Healthcare is a prime example. Conservatives have long reacted to liberal claims of a right to healthcare by saying that people have a right to healthcare, but no reasonable expectation that government or any other entity will secure people access to healthcare. Society’s only responsibility is to prevent some from obstructing access to healthcare by force. Liberals have always argued that to speak of rights in this way is meaningless, that rights have no meaning without the ability to use them. That’s what I’ve argued, my entire adult life, and I have long been able to assume broad liberal support for that stance.

But when it comes to free speech rights, American liberals seem to have sprinted in the opposite direction. The congealing conventional wisdom among progressives now is that the right to free expression has only been abridged if government literally physically prevents you from speaking. Absolutely every other way in which your right to express yourself is fair game. So when I wrote about a University of California Santa Barbara professor who physically ripped a sign from the hands of another person in an attempt to silence that sign’s message– her quote was literally, “I’m stronger so I was able to take the poster”– it was patiently explained to me by patiently explaining liberals that there was no actual abridgment to free speech, because the government hadn’t sent tanks to silence those protesters. What that professor did was “direct action” and was thus permissible. Why that person using her physical advantage to silence someone amounts to direct action, and a crowd beating up antiwar protesters would not, I have no idea.

Or take the Brandon Eich situation. I have been told by liberals lately, again and again, that Brandon Eich has no right to unpopular political beliefs in the workplace, that he entered into a contract with his employer and that part of that contract means giving up his right to hold and express unpopular opinions. If that sounds like straightforward Cato Institution-style libertarian argument, that’s because it is, and to see so many self-identified progressives aping it would be shocking, if not for the fact that this kind of argument by convenience is so common in today’s liberalism. That there are fundamental issues of principle at stake here, or that the long-term consequences of all this could be profound, goes largely unsaid. In a piece typical of the current progressive style, Alex Pareene mocks concerns like mine without even really attempting to grapple with them at all, content in the idea that because the people who are complaining about this stuff are on the wrong side, their complaints are necessarily ridiculous.

Personally? I don’t know how you can possibly say that we have free speech in principle if you’re enthusiastically supportive of efforts to restrict free speech in practice. It’s just like saying that Bill Gates and a homeless man have the same right to own a Ferrari. Of course free speech doesn’t mean you have a right to not be criticized or a right to occupy every forum. But the way in which contempt for the very term “free speech” has become one of those cultural signals that are the glue of today’s bourgie elite progressivism can and will lead to actual, no bullshit suppression of speech. A liberalism that claims that rights are only denied if tanks are rolling through the streets is a pathetic liberalism and one that stands in direct and stark contrast to the history of the principled left.

It seems superficially, straightforwardly true to me: people like the anti-abortion protester and Brandon Eich are presumed by progressives to have no right to free expression because progressives don’t like what they have to say. It’s pure tribalism, which more and more often is the only organizing principle of liberal America that has any valence whatsoever. Take #CancelColbert, which seemed to me to be a straightforward case of people misunderstanding satire. The opinion of the crowd seems to have become that only effect matters– that intention is irrelevant, and if someone is offended by satire, that satire is offensive even if the intent was not. I find this an interesting attitude, not least of which because progressives don’t even pretend to apply it equally. After all, who is most likely, in American life, to misunderstand satire and be offended by it? Not liberals, but rather conservatives, particularly conservative Christians. How many times have progressives mocked conservatives for mistaking The Onion for real news? There are entire websites devoted to this purpose. How often has Colbert been defended by the self-same progressives because he offended the conservative rubes? It turns out that the principle of “that which offends is offensive” only applies when it’s the right sort of people taking offense.

If it all is just tribes– if there’s no principle that matters except for Yooks vs Zooks– then fight, OK. I won’t be on board, but I’ve never been much of a joiner. But please: just come out and say so. Just own up to it. If you think that a feminist woman should have the right to hold unpopular political beliefs without being fired for it, but someone who opposes gay marriage doesn’t, because you agree with the former and not the latter, just say so. If you think a counter-protester has the right to physically rip a sign from the hands of an anti-abortion protester but not from a pro-choice protester, just say so. If you think satirists have the right to offend conservatives but not liberals, just say so. It would make all of this so much easier and more honest.

Me, I am absolutely chilled by the idea that companies should have the right to fire people because they hold unpopular political beliefs, even when those beliefs are not being expressed in the workplace. And I find the notion that progressives can safely endorse that bit of crude libertarianism so immensely short-sighted I can’t quite believe it. I also don’t want to live in a world where anyone, no matter how much I agree with them on the issue of substance, feels free to say “I’m stronger so I could stop speech I didn’t like.” If your average progressive disagrees with me, out of a desire to root for the ol’ home team, that’s fine. But let’s be open and honest about what’s happening.

Update: In a system where you have to work to live, if employers have unfettered ability to force your expulsion because you hold political beliefs that the company or your fellow employees find unpalatable, then there is no right to hold unpopular political beliefs at all. There’s no protection, not only for opponents of gay marriage, but for radical feminists, communists, black nationalists…. And the long-term consequence of a world where employees lack the right to political expression is a world where that right becomes solely held by the idle rich.

Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Comments

cautionary tales: give it to me straight edition

“Bowers writes that Perkins always wanted someone different. Bowers writes, ‘He always wanted someone different.’ “

– Claire Pires, “22 Rumors, Orgies, And Relationships From The Golden Age Of Gay Hollywood,” Buzzfeed

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | Leave a comment

did you hear about the gay girl in Damascus?

Remember how everybody thought that Kim Jong Un fed his uncle to rabid dogs, and they all had a good time working themselves into a frenzy about it? And remember how that wasn’t true, and everybody was like, boy we sure were stupid then! Remember how weeks later, everybody thought that everyone in North Korea was required to have the same haircut, and they all had a good time working themselves into a frenzy about it? And remember how that wasn’t true, and everybody was like, boy we sure were stupid then!   Remember all of those images of brutal crackdowns of Venezuela’s protests, and everyone had a good time working themselves into a frenzy about it? And remember how when people actually looked at those images, they were like, hmm, these photos are years old, and from Greece and Egypt and Syria, isn’t that odd! And everybody was like, boy we sure were stupid then! Remember when everybody thought that Putin had the guy responsible for the malfunctioning Olympic rings killed, because they forgot that the Daily Currant is a) fake and b) uniformly unfunny? And remember how that wasn’t true, and everybody was like, boy we sure were stupid then! Remember how everybody believed every other ridiculous made up lie about the conditions in Sochi, and they all had a good time working themselves into a frenzy about it? And remember how they weren’t true, and everybody was like, boy we sure were stupid then! Remember how everybody thought that China had to broadcast images of the sunrise, because China’s pollution is so bad, and China are scary commies who can’t run a country right, and everybody had a good time working themselves into a frenzy about it? And remember how that wasn’t true, and everybody was like, boy we sure were stupid then!

I could literally go on and on. And on.

Now I don’t know if Jews in eastern Ukraine are being forced to register. It’s a very scary story. It’s a very frightening situation in an unstable part of the world, one subject to illegal and immoral aggression from the Russian government. But it’s also a situation where Western journalists, like Adam Weinstein of the oh-so-savvy Gawker Media here, will simply report any story that casts Russia in the worst possible light under the flimsiest of pretenses. Meanwhile, they refuse to countenance any aspect of the story that might portray the new Ukrainian government in a bad light– like pointing out, for example, that every major election certification group in the world had found the previous election free and fair. Even the actual story linked to from USA Today does not make the case that the headlines flying around now say it does. Time will have to tell. But recent history, and the basic pro-American -hegemony nature of American media, gives us every reason to be profoundly skeptical of this story. American media will believe literally anything you tell them about governments our own government doesn’t like, and the supposedly liberal, supposedly savvy, supposedly hip set are worse than anyone. Maybe every word of this story is true, and all the fevered panic about it is justified. But the broader point would remain the same: when it comes to “the bad guys,” American journalists will print anything, so long as it makes us look better and them worse.

American journos, pundits, writers, and internet obsessives: you are very, very bad at assessing evidence about regimes that your government does not like. You should not trust your own instincts when assessing the likelihood and legitimacy of stories about governments that are antagonistic to your own. Continuing to do the same thing over and over again, and then realizing the bad results after, is not an effective way to go about doing your job. Maybe try, you know, learning.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 9 Comments

talkin about stuff, again

Posted in Meta | 16 Comments

the tears of the 800 pound gorillas

Here we go again.

Devin Faraci is one of my favorite film writers. He really has a wonderful sensibility, a kind of grumpy enthusiasm for movies and tons of experience that really shows up in his writing. In a world of film criticism where anybody with a broadband account can (and probably has) given you their thoughts on all of the latest movies– and that’s a good thing, mind you– there’s a real value in people who have been doing this for a long time, who know something about the industry, and who have an appropriate skepticism worked into their opinions. Faraci in particular, as an old school geek, typically has little patience for the Geek Grievance Industrial Complex. So it’s very discouraging, and very weird, to see him plug into the GGIC in this piece, where he bizarrely complains about a few throwaway lines from critics about superhero movies. Right when Captain America is busy smashing every record, when every studio executive is poring through boxes of old comics at Secret Headquarters hoping to find some unlicensed gem, when comic books movies absolutely define the current conversation of big budget cinema, we get this howl of unhappiness because– well why, really? Because Manohla Dargis expressed some limited reservation about the all-powerful, resistance-crushing juggernaut that is the comic book movie?

Faraci plays with the fact that there’s only a few superhero movies released a year, although he’s using a very limited definition of superhero movie. But as he must be aware, the cultural phenomenon of comic book movies is far bigger than just the releases. They’re an attention- and commentary- suck, pulling eyeballs and pageviews from other worthy projects and threatening to leave less popular entertainments uncovered. And that’s to say nothing about what actually has power in Hollywood, which is not people like Manohla Dargis, but dollars and cents, and in this domain comic books and superheroes are Godzilla, Goliath, Galactus. Who cares if a few scattered critics don’t kiss your ass the way our entire culture does? How much is enough? How dominant, exactly, do you need to be?

Game of Thrones is the most important TV show in the world right now. It might not have the most viewers, given that it’s on premium cable, although with the rampant torrenting and HBO Go-borrowing out there, who knows. But certainly there is no show that dominates our cultural attention right now more than Game of Thrones. It’s not just the popularity, but the rapturous critical praise, the utter dominance over what was once called water-cooler talk. It’s covered not just in our pop culture press but in every corner of the establishment media, every big magazine, every big newspaper, every big website. It’s as big as a television show gets. It’s got critical, cultural, and commercial dominance. There’s nothing else like it right now. It is completely unavoidable. But sorry– for Harry Cheadle of Vice, this is insufficient. Somebody said something mean about Game of Thrones, and so it’s to the battlements to defend a show that could not need defending less.

What Cheadle wants, clearly, is literal unanimity– he wants literally everyone to like and celebrate the things he likes and celebrates. He cannot tolerate living in a universe where all of his choices and tastes aren’t constantly validated and supported by the crowd. He wants a frictionless critical universe where he never has to encounter alternate opinion.

This is a gadget-obsessive culture. The worship of gadgets is pushed into absolutely every part of our media. If you don’t like tech and gadgets and would prefer to avoid them, you will find that the media available to you has shrunk incredibly. There is nowhere you can go in regular society now where gadgets aren’t omnipresent. The endless expansion of technological mediation into more and more areas of our lives is a project that capitalism has thrown its whole weight behind. Gadgets have taken on a religious status in our society; they’re discussed in the most breathless, absurd hyperbole imaginable, with every new app and gizmo represented as the dawn of a new age of human flourishing. What’s going to save humanity from poverty, war, famine? Wearable computing! The Internet of Things! Teaching kids to code! It seems like every other day I read about techies who are going to solve (drumroll please) Death. It’s like a whole genre now! Solving death. That’s what we talk about, now, when we talk about gadgets. Because we weren’t enthusiastic enough about technology. We have to argue that tech is going to end the central human dilemma, the inevitable fate that has haunted human thinking forever and which has rendered all of us ultimately equal, in the long run.

But xkcd, the internet’s most aggressively condescending comic, exists. Because no matter how much people worship their gadgets, no matter how much incredible hype we build around consumer technology, it’s never, ever enough. As long as there are any people out there who don’t want to have sex with their smartphones, then people will wail about how we don’t sufficiently love and respect technology.

This woman here feels the burning need to defend the internet. THE INTERNET. Yes, the internet, the singular obsession of a generation of people who, by the way, are the ones who get to create the written record of our culture– that needs to be protected from people being mean about it. The internet! Defending the internet! It’s like feeling compelled to defend gravity. You’re talking about a series of technologies and practices so ubiquitous, powerful, popular, and expansive that I don’t even know what linguistic category to  use to refer to it. The internet has an incredibly rabid set of defenders, so passionate in their denunciation not just of criticism of it but even of calls for moderation in its use that they genuinely frighten me. If you so much as say “you know, I think maybe some people spend a little more time on the internet than is healthy,” you’ll get a 5000 word thinkpiece in Slate about how you’re an asshole and the internet is perfect and we should all have Google Glass surgically attached to our face. Then commenters will threaten to murder your family. That’s how little the internet needs defending.

I don’t know what has happened to this species where so many people feel so profoundly insecure about their lives and their choices that the most limp, ineffectual criticisms of what they like is taken to be some sort of mortal wound. What is happening in human culture that compels people to be so immensely incapable of dealing with criticism, or even just alternative behavior? There are seven billion of us on this planet. Each of us is an individual. What that means is that you’re going to have to learn to live in a world where all of your choices and preferences and tastes are not validated by all other people. And why would you want it to be? Becoming an adult, becoming a full-fledged human being, means figuring out the ways that you’re different than other people. That necessarily means that people are going to do things you don’t like and criticize things you do like. That criticism and that alternative behavior does nothing to hurt you. It doesn’t keep you from enjoying the things you like. You just have to live in a world where other people are not like you. That’s all. If you can’t learn to live like that, I genuinely don’t know how you can survive as a functioning human being.

I don’t get it, and I’ll never get it, ever.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 15 Comments

quote for the day

“I haven’t read any superhero comics since I finished with Watchmen. I hate superheroes. I think they’re abominations. They don’t mean what they used to mean. They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it’s nothing to do with them. It’s an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men. Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love ofGreen Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal. This is a significant rump of the superhero-addicted, mainstream-addicted audience. I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good. I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.”

- Alan Moore

Posted in Prose Style and Substance | 12 Comments

my piece on neoconservatism in Salon

Salon has been kind enough to print (and pay me for) an essay I’ve written about neoconservatism in the post-Bush world. Please read it if you’re inclined.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 9 Comments

correlation: neither everything nor nothing

Intellectual  culture, like most social phenomena, is subject to pendulum swings, to backlashes and overcorrections. Right now, I think we’re witnessing a pretty wild back and forth about statistical reasoning, under the (not entirely helpful) frame of Big Data. I recently expressed some reservations about how statistical significance testing can lead us astray, but I also think that statistical approaches to knowledge generation are vital and useful. They require an appropriate skepticism. The phrase “correlation does not imply causation,”  at this point in the internet cycle, risks becoming a kind of research nihilism. I worry that the denial of the importance of correlation is a bigger impediment to human knowledge and understanding than belief in  specious relationships between correlation and causation.

First, you should read two pieces on the “correlation does not imply causation” phenomenon, which has gone from a somewhat arcane notion common to research methods classes to a full-fledged meme. This piece by Greg Laden is absolute required reading on correlation and causation and how to think about both. Second, this piece by Daniel Engber does good work talking about how “correlation does not imply causation” became an overused and unhelpful piece of internet lingo.

As Laden points out, the question is really this: what does “imply” mean? The people who employ “correlation does not imply causation” as a kind of argumentative trump card are typically using “imply” in a way that nobody actually means, which is as synonymous with “prove.” That’s pretty far from what we mean by “implies”! In fact, using the typical meaning of implication, correlation often implies causation, in the sense that it provides powerful evidence for a causal relationship. In careful, rigorously conducted research, a strong correlation can offer very strong evidence of causation, if that correlation is embedded in a theoretical argument for how that causative relationship works.

A few things I’d like people to think about.

Correlation describes a relationship between quantitative variables. I often read people saying something like “I think there’s a correlation between party affiliation and IQ.” Party affiliation is a categorical variable, and correlation describes relationship between two or more quantitative variables. There may be an association between an explanatory categorical variable and a response quantitative variable, but not a correlation. To investigate that kind of association we would use an ANOVA instead of a correlation. I say this simply because if we’re going to understand how to draw responsible conclusions from evidence, we need to be clear about terms and procedures. Likewise, saying something like “there’s a correlation between your opinion of a writer and if you usually agree with them” just strikes me as a misuse of specific terminology. It’s too vague to really make anyone more informed. (Don’t check my archives to see if I’ve been guilty of this!)

There are specific reasons that an assertion of causation from correlation data might be incorrect. There is a vast literature of research methodology, across just about every research field you can imagine. Correlation-causation fallacies have been investigated and understood for a long time. Among the potential dangers is the confounding variable, where an unknown variable is driving the change in two other variables, making them appear to influence one another. This gives us the famous drownings-and-ice cream correlation– as drownings go up, so do ice cream sales. The confounding variable, of course, is temperature. There are all sorts of nasty little interpretation problems in the literature. These dangers are real. But in order to have understanding, we have to actually investigate why a particular relationship is spurious. Just saying “correlation does not imply causation” doesn’t do anything to actually improve our understanding.

Correlation evidence can be essential when it is  difficult or impossible to investigate a causative mechanism. Cigarette smoking causes cancer. We know that. We know it because of many, many rigorous and careful studies have established that connection. It might surprise you to know that the large majority of our evidence demonstrating that relationship comes from correlation studies, rather than experiments. Why? Well, as my statistics instructor frequently says– here, let’s prove cigarette smoking causes cancer. We’ll round up some infants, and we’ll divide them into experimental and control groups, and we’ll expose the experimental group to tobacco smoke, and in a few years, we’ll have proven a causal relationship. Sound like a good idea to you? Me neither. We knew that cigarettes were contributing to lung cancer long before we identified what was actually happening in the human body, and we have correlational studies to thank for that. Same with heart attacks and diet, and a variety of other relationships.

Or consider relationships which we believe to be strong but in which we are unlikely to ever identify a specific causal mechanism. I have on my desk a raft of research showing a strong negative correlation between parental income and student performance on various educational metrics. It’s a relationship we find in a variety of locations, across a variety of ages, and through a variety of different research contexts. This is important research, it has stakes; it helps us to understand the power of structural advantage and contributes to political critique of our supposedly meritocratic social systems. Suppose I was prohibited from asserting that this correlation proved anything because I couldn’t prove causation. My question is this: how could I find a specific causal mechanism? The relationship is likely very complex, and in some cases, not subject to external observation by researchers at all. To refuse to consider this relationship in our knowledge making or our policy decisions because of an overly skeptical attitude towards correlational data would be profoundly misguided. Of course there’s limitations and restrictions we need to keep in mind– the relationship is consistent but not universal, its effect is different for different parts of the income scale, it varies with a variety of factors. It’s not a complete or simple story. But I’m still perfectly willing to say: poverty causes poor educational performance. That’s the only reasonable conclusion from the data.

Correlation is a statistical relationship. Causation is a judgement call. I frequently find that people seem to believe that there is some sort of mathematical proof of causation that a high correlation does not merit, some number that can be spit out by statistical packages that says “here’s causation.” But causation is always a matter of the informed judgment of the research community. Controlled experiments are the gold standard in that regard, but there are controlled experiments that can’t prove causation and other research methods that have established causation to the satisfaction of most members of a discipline.

Human beings have the benefit of human reasoning. One of my frustrations with the “correlation does not imply causation” line is that it’s often deployed in instances where no one is asserting that we’ve adequately proved causation. I sometimes feel as though people are trying to protect us from mistakes of reasoning that no one would actually fall victim to. In an (overall excellent) piece for the Times, Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis write, “A big data analysis might reveal, for instance, that from 2006 to 2011 the United States murder rate was well correlated with the market share of Internet Explorer: Both went down sharply. But it’s hard to imagine there is any causal relationship between the two.” That’s true– it is hard to imagine! So hard to imagine that I don’t think anyone would have that problem. I get the point that it’s a deliberately exaggerated example, and I also fully recognize that there are some correlation-causation assumptions that are tempting but wrong. But I think that, when people state the dangers of drawing specious relationships, they sometimes act as if we’re all dummies.

Those disagreeing with conclusions drawn from correlational data have a burden of proof too. This is the thing, for me, more than anything. It’s fine to dispute a suggestion of causation drawn from correlation data. Just recognize that you have to actually make the case. Different people can have responsible, reasonable disagreements about statistical inferences. Both sides have to present evidence and make a rational argument drawn from theory. “Correlation does not imply causation” is the beginning of discussion, not the end.

I consider myself on the skeptical side when it comes to research, and as someone who is frequently frustrated by hype and woowoo, I’m firmly in the camp that says we need skepticism ingrained in how we think and write about new types of inquiry. I personally do think that many of the claims about Big Data applications are overblown, and I also think that the notion that we’ll ever be post-theory or purely empirical are dangerously misguided. But there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While we should maintain a healthy criticism of them, new ventures dedicated to researched, data-driven writing should be greeted as a welcome development. What we need, I think, is to contribute to a communal understanding of research methods and statistics, including healthy skepticism, and there’s reason for optimism in that regard.

Posted in The Discipline | 11 Comments

diving in

This is me, studying from my rapidly approaching language exam. As I successfully (if not painlessly) passed my prospectus defense a couple weeks ago, it’s the last hurdle between me and my dissertation. Should I successfully complete the exam (two hours, 250 words, a text I won’t know about in advance), I will officially have only the dissertation standing in the way of the doctorate. My advisor and I are working on a four year plan. At times, that seems eminently doable. At times, it occurs to me that it took me five and a half to finish my BA, and it seems crazy. But I am ready for the challenge.

Right now, I’m diving in– diving in to French, diving in to the deep mental work. It’s a blessing, one of the greatest of my life. Like a lot of academics, I harbor a deep insecurity about being an academic, about my mental life. It’s a reaction to a cold, deeply anti-academic culture. I always feel the need to explain, the need to justify…. But when I am assigned something– when I’m compelled to do something– I can just dive in, and all of that just falls away. Language work, this work with French, it’s taxing, in a corporeal way, a frustrating, satisfying way. I get physically tired. There’s not much assignment left in my life. When I’m through with this test, the expectation will be that my life as a student is essentially over. Right now, I’m signed up to take Medical Writing (in the English department) and Experimental Design (in the Statistics department) in the fall, and the ability to take classes across that gulf in disciplines is one of the great blessings of my life. There’s every reason to think that I’ll end up dropping those classes. I’ll be dissertating, after all, and if I meet my goals, on the job market. But if I’m honest with myself, when I think of never taking another class again, I’m afraid.

I’m 32 years old. I have been in formal education for going on 23 of those years. A lot of people see that as inherently ridiculous, and they’re entitled. For me, it’s a primal kind of requirement: there are things I need to know.

The future is coming rapidly, and I am resolved to confronting it openly and honestly. There is, of course, the reality of the humanities job market. But then there is also the job market of my field, and the spotless hiring record of my program. And then again there is the omnipresent threat of another financial crisis, another collapse. I have no illusions and no great expectations of success. I am prepared to finish this degree, one way or the other, and to do so consciously. I will not get to be a student for much longer. So, for now, I’m just enjoying the struggle, the requirement, the pleasure of having my mental work dictated by someone else, learning those things I wouldn’t choose to learn if it were up to me, the work. I’m diving in.

Posted in Education | 9 Comments

of course I could be wrong about Suey Park

I should probably know enough to just leave it alone at this point. But look: I sometimes get the impression, from the emails that I get – which, let me say, I truly cherish – that what some (only some) people who disagree with me want is more acknowledgement that I might be wrong. Well, look – I take every piece of criticism of me I read seriously, and I read them all. Yes, I could be wrong. I can always be wrong.

But I have to engage as directly and straightforwardly as I know how. And if I’m going to get it wrong, I’m going to get it wrong honestly and directly. It’s the only way I know how to remain corrigible, to remain true, to both fruits and supporters alike. A lot of people make fun of me for this kind of pretense, and lord knows, it’s pretentious. And it won’t satisfy the people who are inclined to complain. But the alternative, the safe alternative, is so much worse. If you are inclined to call that self-aggrandizing, I won’t disagree.

Posted in Meta | 3 Comments

not guilty

Michelle Goldberg writes about the #CancelColbert fiasco and, naturally, uses it as an excuse to go after radicals, and does so, naturally, at The Nation, America’s preeminent source of bloodless, fretting progressivism. She blames the radical left for the rise of censoriousness and the focus on affective politics in the broadly defined left. It’s a classic liberal attitude– when threatened, punch left, not right. But it’s also just wrong, a fundamentally incorrect read on the history of identity politics.

Goldberg fundamentally misunderstands who is behind the obsessive focus on language policing and social “respect” over structural and economic reform. Don’t be fooled by the jargon; the politics behind Twitter activism is pure progressivism, an obsessive focus on cultural affinities and good feelings over changes to the basic class character of our society. In complaining about “political correctness,” Goldberg is deliberately invoking the 90s and our last embrace of linguistic politics, and the subsequent backlash. But what was the dominant political force of the 90s, radicalism? Of course not. It was Clintonite triangulation. It was Bill Clinton’s saccharine insistence that he “feels your pain” while being responsible for a welfare reform effort that invoked the worst impulses of the white mainstream. By the 90s, the coffee shop politics of American liberalism had become a kind of empty insistence on mutual grooviness, with your typical liberal more likely to complain about anti-globalization protesters than to praise them. The fact that people are using the word “intersectionality” to complain about language doesn’t make them radicals. At its heart, Suey Park-style engagement is AIDS quilt politics, all symbolism, all the time.

I mean, ask yourself: who is more likely to call for the elevation of identity politics above all other kinds of political engagement, liberals or socialists? Liberals. Who has thrown their shoulder behind the gay rights movement with all of their fervor but demonstrated nothing resembling a similar commitment to economic justice? Liberals. Who’s more likely to accept the empty symbolic politics of the Obama administration, rather than calling for deeper change and a real alternative to American plutocracy? Liberals. Who identifies people as being “the right kind” through the kind of limp social signalling expressed through buzzwords, rather than based on deeper concerns about the fundamental social order? Liberals. Salon gives readers a never-ending parade of complaints about who used the wrong word when; Jacobin questions the basic power structures that make the oppression those words signal possible. The Nation wants people to say nice things about women and people of color; In These Times wants to reorganize our economic order so that it doesn’t matter if white men say nice things about women and people of color. I suspect Goldberg knows that.

I have lots of radical queer friends, socialists and anarchists, who are totally contemptuous of the kind of politics involved in #CancelColbert or the recent Mozilla CEO freakout. They are far more likely to complain about Brendan Eich’s salary and power than they are to complain about his boneheaded views on gay marriage. Nor are they likely to think that enshrining the ability of gay people to engage in bourgeois marriage contracts represents some sort of ultimate victory, in a world where stultifying social and economic norms are otherwise untouched. And since so many of the genuine radicals I know have exposure to street level activism and local politics, unlike those who went straight from high school to a liberal arts college to the numbing embrace of Twitter, they are far more resilient and less fragile than the obsession with policing language would suggest.

It’s precisely because mainstream liberalism has so thoroughly surrendered on issues of economic justice and class war that so many young people think of politics as a game of word policing and loud noises on Twitter. Andrew O’Hehir recently argued that people turn to hashtag “activism” because they see no other way to engage politically at all. If that’s true, it’s true because decades of preemptive surrender and Sister Souljah moments from mainstream liberalism have so thoroughly disarmed the left that there’s nothing to do but complain about whether Katie Couric misused the indefinite article. Obsession over language and decorum is an alternative to class politics and historical materialism, not an expression of it. And The Nation has certainly had a hand in privileging the former over the latter.

Being polite is important. Talking to people with compassion and respect is important. Not being an asshole is important. But none of those things actually helps change the structural inequality and injustice that actually hurt people, and they don’t represent a long-term plan for helping people secure their own well-being. The goal isn’t for everyone to be nice, but to empower people so that the people who aren’t nice no longer matter. I have heard an awful lot about Suey Park’s politics in the last week, and yet I have absolutely no idea what kind of economic restructuring she’d undertake if given the chance. If Goldberg wants to be a part of the effort to reorient left-wing discourse towards the project of empowering marginalized people rather than being nice to them, then I’m all for it. But if she wants to be useful in that effort, she needs to do a better job of recognizing where, exactly, the bad habits come from. She needs to ask herself if writing for The Nation puts her outside of the scope of this culture or squarely within the heart of it.

Update: I am not, and have never been, an “it’s not about race” lefty. It’s most certainly about race, and sex. What I am is a lefty who thinks that the only way for permanent racial justice and equality between sexes and genders to be achieved is for people of color and women to have the economic and political strength necessary to secure their own best interests. Justice cannot be given, but it can be taken. The question is whether you think the current tactics embraced by the social justice movement (whatever that is) are a real route to securing that kind of economic and political power.

Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teacher Union, an organization filled with women of color fighting daily for economic justice through street level activism and labor organizing, has less than 3,000 Twitter followers. Suey Park has almost 23,000. Yet Lewis does more for women of color in a day than Park has done in her whole life. If attention is the coin of the realm in a world of hashtag politics, then something is clearly wrong here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 33 Comments

coincidence department

Via Yasmin Nair, this piece on Quartz lends credence to a phenomenon I myself have observed very often: people who attack the value of a college degree a) all went to college themselves and b) don’t extend that thinking to their children. Now I happen to think that a healthy economy and social system will present opportunities for those who don’t want to get a college degree, and I’ve worked with enough college students who don’t want to be there to know that no one should feel obligated to go to college. But there sure is an asymmetry between what our chattering class writes about college and their actual behavior.

Here’s another thing I’ve been chewing on for a long time. After decades of structural exclusion, women have come to take a clear lead in post-secondary education, not only at the bachelor’s level but more and more in grad school, too. Check out this chart.


Now as a grad student and college instructor, I’m admittedly biased. But I’m gonna go ahead and say that it isn’t a coincidence that as women have taken the lead in education, many (mostly male) pundits and writers have started concern trolling the value of education.

Posted in Education | 6 Comments

political efficacy and political respect

I don’t want to bore you by adding too much to the #CancelColbert pile. I just want to ask this question: do intentions matter, when it comes to political speech? I ask because it seems like the current conventional wisdom on the question is schizophrenic. Many people have been arguing that intentions don’t matter, that whatever your intent, causing offense should result in criticism and ostracism. Certainly that’s been a popular tack to take with Colbert, as it was with infamous Onion Quvenzhane Wallis tweet. And yet the congealing conventional wisdom is the opposite when it comes to questions of efficacy, when it comes to asking whether hashtag activists are actually having any material benefit for any actually existing people of color. Asking whether any of this works– if it succeeds in making the world a more just or equitable place– is rapidly finding its place on the list of the great forbiddens. Forbidding questions of efficacy strikes me as something like a nadir for any political movement, but that is the trend.

What else to make, for example, of the last couple of paragraphs of this piece by Jay Caspian Kang? It’s received a lot of praise as a balanced take, but I find it confusing, even nonsensical. Kang seems simultaneously to want to access the question of efficacy and yet to shield Park from those questions herself. Kang says that he spoke “to Park about what she hoped to accomplish with all this (a paternalistic question if there ever was one).” This is a profoundly strange definition of paternalism. I ask my Congressmen what they are hoping to accomplish with a piece of legislation, my political allies what they hope to accomplish in a particular protest or action, myself whether a particular political utterance might be of some use. Listening to what someone says politically and then asking her what she hopes to accomplish, or if she thinks she can accomplish it, strikes me as the opposite of paternalism. Talking to someone about politics but writing in such a way as to prevent those nasty questions– that, on the other hand, seems to me to be the behavior of a parent, briefly patronizing the political pretenses of a child.

I take Suey Park seriously. I take seriously her stated intention to dismantle the state. I take her fight against racism seriously. And so I am required, by the conventional definition of respect, to acknowledge that her intentions and her tactics seem misaligned, to say that she has articulated no meaningful strategy through which she might actually dismantle the state or defeat the structural economic inequalities that constitute racism, to point out that racism and the state seem remarkably persistent in the face of her trending topics. An insistence on the mutual acknowledgment of reality is not an insult; it is rather a precondition of respect. Suey Park is not my little sister. She is an adult political activist who is intent on changing the world. Kang writes in his piece that “#CancelColbert may have been silly and dumb and wrong in spirit,” says that if we take it at face value “we can easily dismiss it as shrill, misguided, and frivolous”. I would like to think that I can go through my political life without larding my defenses of those I call allies with these kinds of qualifications. I would like to be able to give out praise or blame, and give it out honestly, the way adults talk to each other.

An activist is someone who wants to create change. Taking the desire to be an activist seriously, whether in Park or anyone else, means assessing whether they are creating that change. You can call that attitude tone policing, or mansplaining, or whatever else you want. But as long as you deploy that language as a way to protect someone from the truth of her own intentions, you are neither an ally or a friend.

My suspicion is that those who claim to stick up for Park, or other Twitter activists like her, know very well that she has no ability to dismantle the state.  My suspicion is that they know she has done nothing to halt racism. My suspicion is that their forceful rejection of questions about her efficacy is not, ultimately, a defense of her, and certainly not of her project. My suspicion is that they reject those questions because they have already assumed her political irrelevance; my suspicion is that they quietly believe the worst things people say about her. I think the current contradiction in popular attitudes toward political intentions functions, ultimately, as a kind of modesty screen, placed in well-meaning condescension around adult, passionate people, under the false presumption that they must be shielded from the harsh truth of a broken and friendless world.

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

boy, why are some people so pessimistic about race?

Some emailers to the Dish think that Ta-Nehisi Coates is too negative about all this race stuff. And I mean, really! What reason might we have to be pessimistic about race in America?

I guess some people just have a bad attitude.

Posted in Uncategorized | 30 Comments

p-value weirdness in a world of big data

I thought this Tim Harford piece, on the seduction of so-called Big Data and the notion of post-theory, was really good. Harford makes several important points about the ways in which Big Data enthusiasts have underestimated or misunderstood long-term issues with analyzing statistical data. I want to expand a little bit on the question of statistical significance in order to back up his skepticism.

Think of statistical significance like this. Suppose I came to you and claimed that I had found an unbalanced or trick quarter, one that was more likely to come up heads than tails. As proof, I tell you that I had flipped the quarter 15 times, and 10 times of those times, it had come up heads. Would you take that as acceptable proof? You would not; with that small number of trials, there is a relatively high probability that I would get that result simply through random chance. In fact, we could calculate that probability easily. But if I instead said to you that I had flipped the coin 15,000 times, and it had come up heads 10,000 times, you would accept my claim that the coin was weighted. Again, we could calculate the odds that this happened by random chance, which would be quite low– close to zero. This example shows that we have a somewhat intuitive understanding of what we mean by statistically significant. We call something significant if it has a low p-value, or the chance that a given quantitative result is the product of random error. (Remember, in statistics, error = inevitable, bias = really bad.) The p-value of the 15 trial example would be relatively high, too high to trust the result. The p-value of the 15,000 trial example, low enough to be treated as zero.

We account for this error (variability) by setting a particular threshold of p-value that we are willing to tolerate, which is called alpha. So if our alpha is .01, our analysis would require that there only be a 1% chance that our observations were the product of random error before we called the result significant. Choosing alpha comes down to a variety of things, the most powerful of which, in practice, is usually the convention for a particular discipline or journal. In the human sciences, where what we’re looking at tends to be much more multivariate and harder to control than the physical sciences, we often use an alpha of .05. That means that 1 out of every 20 trials, we would expect to get a statistically significant result just by random chance. In other domains, particularly where it’s super important that our results be conservative– think, say, whether a drug is effective– we could use an alpha as low as .0001. It’s easy to say that we should just choose the smallest alpha that’s feasible, but the danger there is that you may never make any claims about real differences in the world because you’ve diminished the power of your mechanisms. (Statistical power = the ability to avoid false negatives.) It all depends, and statisticians and researchers have to make a series of judgment calls throughout research.

Harford talks about the multiple-comparisons problem, which really gets at some of the profound weirdness of how p-value operates, and how much theory there always is hiding in empiricism.

The multiple-comparisons problem arises when a researcher looks at many possible patterns. Consider a randomised trial in which vitamins are given to some primary schoolchildren and placebos are given to others. Do the vitamins work? That all depends on what we mean by “work”. The researchers could look at the children’s height, weight, prevalence of tooth decay, classroom behaviour, test scores, even (after waiting) prison record or earnings at the age of 25. Then there are combinations to check: do the vitamins have an effect on the poorer kids, the richer kids, the boys, the girls? Test enough different correlations and fluke results will drown out the real discoveries.

There are various ways to deal with this but the problem is more serious in large data sets, because there are vastly more possible comparisons than there are data points to compare. Without careful analysis, the ratio of genuine patterns to spurious patterns – of signal to noise – quickly tends to zero.

I wrote about this exact temptation awhile back when I talked about the Texas Sharpshooter problem. The Texas Sharpshooter is the guy who fires his gun into the side of his barn, looks to see where the bullets are clustered, and then paints a bullseye around the cluster. In a world where we have sets of massive data and the ability to perform near-instantaneous computations with spreadsheets and statistical packages, it’s potentially a major problem. As Harford points out, there are techniques to manipulate alpha in a way that can help account for these issues– the Bonferonni adjustment, Tukey’s range test, Dunnett’s, the Scheffe method. There are lots of ways to use these intelligently, but you have to be careful. In the simplest, Bonferonni, you just divide your alpha by the number of comparisons you’re making. The problem is that, if you’re making as many as 7 or 8 or more comparisons, you’re giving yourself a tiny alpha for every individual comparison, making it more and more likely you won’t be able to see real differences. Again: a balance of interests, presumptions, judgment calls.

Philosophically, this is also all kind of strange. A big part of dealing with the vagaries of significance testing is beginning with a set plan, a number of comparisons that you want to look at before you even do data collection, and one that you have good reason to explore thanks to theory. The real serious stats guys I know are super strict about that stuff. That comes from precisely the kind of problems that Harford is talking about. But it is kind of weird: if a data set has a particular statistically significant relationship hidden in it, what difference does it make if you look for it or not? The numbers are the same. Not looking at particular relationships may prevent you from finding a spurious relationship, but it doesn’t change the numbers. The point is not that the numbers aren’t there if we don’t look. The point is that, while sample size, the central limit theorem, and independence of observations can help, in a world of variability, there will often be relationships that look real but aren’t, so we should only go looking for them if we have good reason to– if we have a good theory, in other words.

Things get even stranger when we’re talking about multivariable methods like regression and ANOVAs. Individual predictors confound and interact with each other. Entire models can be significant without any individual predictors being significant; individual predictors entire models can be insignificant but specific predictors can be super significant. (OK, can have super low p-values. Some stats guys are strongly against ever saying “more” or “less” significant.) A predictor can be totally insignificant when in the model by itself but become super significant in the presence of another predictor. Two predictors can be individually significant if they go in first but not if the other is in there first, thanks to overlapping sums of squares. In polynomial regression, we have to keep insignificant predictors in our model if they precede significant predictors. And so on.

The really interesting thing is that, as Harford points out, we’ve known the basic contours of these problems for decades. They really aren’t new. They’ve just taken on new urgency in a world of Big Data hubris.

The point is not to be nihilistic about data. The point is that all of these are theory-laden, value-laden, choice-laden exercises. They require us to make decisions, often involving tradeoffs between predictability and interpretability, often involving a more conservative, less interesting model vs. a more interesting but potentially distorting model. All of that is theory. In a world where the Nate Silver/Ezra Klein/”I consider myself an empiricist” vision of knowledge is ascendant, we have to remind people that there has never been a statistical test devised that can’t go wrong, even in the hands of a smart and principled investigator.

Posted in Tech Stuff, The Discipline | 18 Comments