self-defensive preemption

Whenever I write about controversial issues, such as intersectionality politics or Israel-Palestine or any number of things, I receive a certain kind of counsel, sometimes admonishment. Sometimes  it’s a kind of well-meaning advice from people who agree with me, sometimes a kind of scolding by those who don’t. But in each case, the argument is this: I should spend more time listing caveats and qualifications that announce what my claim isn’t before I launch into a discussion of what my claim is. So when it comes to interscetionality politics, I should more forcefully and at greater length announce that I believe that people of color and women are traditionally silenced in political debates. (I do.) And when it comes to Israel and Palestine, I should take much more time to announce that I see Jews as a group that has suffered unique historical persecution and that anti-Semitism is an immense evil. (I do, on both counts.) I should, in other words, undertake more preemptive self-defense in my writing, because the risks of being perceived to hold positions I don’t are too high. That’s  been an opinion I’ve heard today, both publicly and privately, in regards to my last post. Why don’t I do more to address the real terrors of European anti-Semitism?

Well, to begin with, I am somewhat distressed by people who seem to equate treating the issue of rising European anti-Semitism as an open, empirical question with denying anti-Semitism is real or denying its particular evil. You can believe that European anti-Semitism is a powerful evil without believing that it’s rising in prevalence or destructive effect, and I don’t think it’s healthy to equate the two. After all: if it’s offensive even to question whether that’s true, why send Jeffrey Goldberg on his fact-finding mission in the first place?

Do I think anti-Semitism is rising in Europe? I have seen some evidence to support that reading. I happen to think that Europe’s Jews still have more to fear from old-fashioned, the-Aryan-race-is-supreme-style Anglo-Germanic fascism than from Europe’s Muslims, as the former group has more establishment political power than the latter. I am also deeply skeptical of narratives that seek to establish Muslims as the root of contemporary evils, particularly in pieces like the one in question, which places blame not on corrupt governments in majority-Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia but on poor Muslim immigrants who are minorities where they live. But all in all, I am perfectly willing to consider the issue of whether anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, provided the investigation is rigorous and fair. In my estimation, Goldberg’s piece does not meet that challenge.

My piece was about the process through which Goldberg asserts what he asserts, and much less about its conclusions. My piece was about Goldberg as a figure in the media who has been paid handsomely to pump out unconvincing and irresponsible propaganda that always bends in one direction, and The Atlantic, a general-interest magazine that seems to have special interest in asserting the unique dangers of Islam, including in its past two cover stories. My piece was about the use of hearsay and speculation. My piece was about, for example, sentences like “Early last year, Yardéni and other Jews were banned from a left-wing demonstration called to protest homophobia and—of all things—anti-Semitism, because they were ruled to be Zionists.”– a sentence expressed in the passive voice, seemingly to prevent answering the essential question, banned by whom? It is perfectly fair to question whether Goldberg, a journalist with a history of failure and a clear ax to grind, is fair and rigorous in his reporting, without feeling compelled to spend time engaging on the clear history of European bigotry against Jews. I am well aware of the history of European anti-Semitism; that the greatest crimes in the history of humanity have been committed by fair-skinned, blue-eyed champions of Western supremacy could hardly have escaped my notice.

Spending half my time saying what I’m not saying is a requirement that only is ever asked of those who speak against establishment power and never for it. When it comes to the issue of Israel and Palestine, which I  write about often, the problem is particularly acute, because larding my pieces with assertions that I’m not anti-Semitic, when I’m criticizing Israeli policies or actions, would merely contribute to the tacit  expectation that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or close to it.

The second reason I don’t tend to do this kind of preemption is subtler but more important to me: what does it mean for me to express these kinds of caveats, if the people urging me to do so express it as a form of self-defense? What is the moral value of that kind of language, if both they and I know that I would be doing it to protect myself? Think about what it means for me to, for example, spend paragraphs discussing the horrors of campus rape when I say that affirmative consent rules are unlikely to result in actual progress on this issue. If the purpose is merely to demonstrate that I am a good person who believes the right things, then I have instrumentalized an issue of exquisite sadness and sensitivity and made it all about me. There is something so profoundly vulgar about that exercise, so chauvinistic, that I just cannot stand it. If I spend 200 words distancing myself from anti-Semitism purely so that I may not be misunderstood as anti-Semitic myself, I’ve turned the denial of one of history’s great evils into a vessel for my own self-interest. I can’t stand that. I just can’t stand it. You know I can’t sleep, at night, and if I do that then it’ll just be another thought I beat myself with for hour after hour.

The fact is simple: in each case, you either take my word for it or you don’t. You either believe I criticize Goldberg’s piece out of principled media criticism or out of anti-Semitism. You either believe me when I say that intersectionality comes from a principled place but often has unhealthy and unhelpful consequences, or you don’t. You either believe I oppose campus rape and also think affirmative consent does more harm than good, or you think I just don’t care about  campus rape. That’s the condition we live in, in this life of words. You’re only as moral as you can convince people of. There’s no saving yourself from other people’s misunderstanding, and I will not put on the bulletproof vest of calling evil evil.

the basic logic of bigotry

This is a topic about which I will reliably lose my temper, so let me try to stay in control.

It’s an undeniable fact that there’s a level of casual bigotry against Muslims that is permissible in our media that would not be permissible against any other group. That’s why The Atlantic can yet again publish a piece that takes as its subject the unique violence and threat posed by Muslims, a subject it has published many pieces about already in this young year– including its immediate prior cover story. There are many, many things to dislike about Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest smear of Muslims: its classic bogus-trend-story failings, its utter reliance on hearsay and disconnected anecdotes, its uncorroborated claims, its constant use of weasel words and dishonest qualifications, its heavy reliance on the passive voice to make accusations and claims that cannot be meaningfully parsed by its audience. All of it coming from someone who has ground the same axe against the same people for his entire career and who is bent on reaching the foregone conclusion that Islam is the enemy of the civilized world. The response to this post will inevitably be more scolding that I don’t believe in European anti-Semitism or take it seriously. That isn’t true. Rather, I will simply point out: if the case is clear that European anti-Semitism is rising, then it can and should be made honestly. Goldberg, instead, relies on all of the tropes of dishonest reporting, fake trend-spotting, and misleading readers.

One point of Goldberg’s is the most absurd, the most toxic, and the most dangerous. Goldberg argues that there is a chance that Europe’s Muslims will form a coalition with Europe’s rising far-right political parties. He then explicitly analogizes that possibility to the conditions that led to Nazi party. This is utter, absurd lunacy, an idea so inherently ridiculous and straightforwardly wrong that it should totally disqualify his piece even from the many people who are bent on agreeing with it. As his own reporting makes clear, Europe’s actually-existing far-right parties hate Muslim immigrants and would never, ever form a coalition with them. The National Front, a white supremacist group, they’re going to get cozy with a bunch of poor Arabs and Persians? Really? Golden Dawn, which literally contributed to war crimes against Serbian Muslims? They strike you as a group eager to join forces with Muslims? The English Defence League, a movement that started explicitly to harass and exclude and degrade Muslim immigrants in the UK? Really? Indeed, the very rise in those far-right parties that he describes is happening because of anti-Muslim sentiment. The very idea of explicitly Aryan-supremacist, pro-white, anti-immigrant, pro-“Western civilization” parties forming a bloc with the very people they are rising up to oppose is so farcical that only a publication as motivated by intrinsic bigotry as the Atlantic could allow it to be published.

And the thinking behind it is prejudiced on its face. See:

Capture

This is merely a direct example of something that is filling Twitter right now, which echoes Goldberg’s thinking: the assertion that Europe’s Muslims, millions of largely-impoverished brown immigrants who face constant xenophobia and harassment, are in fact a unified bloc similar to a political party. The idea that disparate and unaffiliated people, coming from dozens of countries, speaking many different languages, practicing different forms of Islam,  different in culture and politics, can be analogized to the Stalinist Russian government of the 1930s is, simply and unambiguously, bigoted. To take a vast swath of humanity, one that has no shared party affiliation and no consistent allegiance, that comes from myriad backgrounds, that seek different things, that live separate lives, and to treat them as a unified group that can be fairly hated and feared is nothing other or less than the basic, corrupt logic of racism and bigotry. It can be called no other thing. And that is the logic of Jeffrey Goldberg and The Atlantic. 

Big Media Twitter is, of course, sharing this article with enthusiasm and gusto, championing Goldberg for his “courage” at telling them what they already believe. An industry full of self-described liberals rallying to the Drudge siren, waving the same flag as some of the most virulent and explicit racists of our time, so proud of their own iconoclasm and refusal to bow to “political correctness.” And all, of course, waged with the threat of accusations of anti-Semitism, as if the refusal to ignore the palpable Muslim-hatred of the article constitutes de facto hatred of Jews, as though asking Jeffrey Goldberg to conform to the most basic requirements of journalistic rigor is anti-Semitic, as though calling out the absurdity of comparing impoverished immigrants to the proto-Third Reich could stem from no other place than anti-Semitism. I have this crazy belief: that if it is in fact true that Europe’s Jews are threatened on a historical level, then journalists can prove it without every dishonest reporting tactic ever employed; that it can be proved without literally analogizing poor brown immigrants who control no governments or militaries to Hitler’s party; that it can be done by someone who wasn’t responsible for one of the greatest failures in the history of journalism. Do you take those to be entirely unfair requests?

I don’t doubt that the many, many media insiders who are pimping this narrative don’t see themselves as hating Muslims. But with Muslims, and only with Muslims, they are willing to accept and repeat the basic logic of prejudice: that a group of immensely diverse people deserve to be feared and opposed because they share a religion. To praise Goldberg’s piece is inherently and unambiguously to assert that a 12 year old boy from Azerbaijan is in some fashion the same as a 65 year old man from Yemen and a 33 year old woman from Indonesia, that in each and every case they are to be feared as members of a potential fifth column. That’s bigotry; that’s what that is. Goldberg is a bigot, someone who has made the demonization of Islam his career’s most central and most constant subject, and The Atlantic is a bigot’s magazine, with an insatiable appetite for pieces that  place the world’s ills at the feet of Islam, and the people who draw paychecks from the magazine are handmaidens to bigotry. And if telling that plain truth invites the responses I get whenever I criticize this particular magazine– aggressive emails from its employees, dark muttering about consequences, the assertion that I will be unemployable for speaking out in this way, and so on– then that’s the way it goes.

the Rich Uncle Pennybags test

For awhile now I’ve counseled leftists to apply the inverse of Gandhi’s famous dictum: think of the most privileged person you have ever seen, and ask if your next act will be of any threat to him. I call this the Rich Uncle Pennybags test, after the guy from Monopoly. The question is, does your next proposed political action hurt Rich Uncle Pennybags? Does it threaten his station at all? Could it meaningfully reduce his advantage? I’m not saying everything that you do has to pass the test. I’m not saying that there aren’t meaningful, constructive types of political engagement that fail the test. But I am saying that a left-wing movement that devotes enormous time, effort, and attention to actions that fail the test risks no longer being a left-wing movement at all. I’m saying that a left-wing that constantly fails the Rich Uncle Pennybags test is precisely the kind of left-wing movement that establishment power likes: about symbolism over substance, about the individual rather than the masses, about elevating minorities in the ranks of a corrupt system rather than changing the system, about being good rather than doing good.

So, for example: does race-based affirmative action threaten Rich Uncle Pennybags? It does. Race-based affirmative action helps to address the deep inequalities in access to college, inequalities that most often help people like Rich Uncle Pennybags and his idiot kin. It’s also a (small) step to help redress the overall socioeconomic inequality that Rich Uncle Pennybags enjoys. Done well, it helps lift the fortunes of millions rather than of a few; it’s a victory for an entire class of oppressed peoples, not a lottery. Supporting race-based affirmative action passes the test. Meanwhile, whether Iggy Azaliea gets another nasty thinkpiece written about her just makes no difference to the privileged. It’s irrelevant. So: in the last year, what have you read more of in left-wing environs? Articles about affirmative action, or articles about Iggy Azaliea?

Or consider  what I am told is the great internet political debate of the moment: whether you should only read books by authors who aren’t white men. Well, if that’s what you’d like to do, go wild. I could not care less what you read. I certainly don’t think not reading white men amounts to “reverse racism” or “political correctness gone mad,” the typical complaints of conservative commenters and Twitterers. Knock yourself out. I just don’t mistake that decision for somehow amounting to a meaningful political action. It completely fails the Rich Uncle Pennybags test: what do the privileged care if you don’t read white men? Even under the absolute best case scenario, it’s hard to see this kind of action making a meaningful dent in the inequalities that are present in book publishing, already a threatened field, and there’s no way this engagement spreads to make the economy less sexist and racist generally. It’s absolutely great if this gets more people reading a more diverse set of authors, or if some non-white, non-male authors get a bigger readership. But it’s not in any sense a meaningful, structural response to any kind of inequality. Yet judging by the enthusiastic embrace of this initiative, and the palpable pride of those who espouse it, you’d think this was our Gettysburg.

Like I said: read who you want, and if this effort gets some people diversifying their reading, great. But this isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in a left that seems to have no other interests than in these kinds of purely symbolic politics. And that’s a type of apoptosis self-destruction. [I’m told apoptosis, while having a self-destructive element, is actually a good thing. Too clever for my own good.]

critique drift

I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of engineers in my days here at an engineering school. A couple years back, a friend of mine who is also an academic was visiting from her institution. (I have gotten her permission to tell this story, with the caveat that I admit that I am a rogue and a ne’er-do-well. So admitted.) We had a conversation with a civil engineer who is a friend of a friend. A white male himself, he told us of a recent eight-month trip he had taken to western Africa, in which he had helped build a bridge. He spoke glowingly of his trip, and of the people he had seen and worked with and how gratified he was to help.

Later on in the evening, my friend complained about him and his story. She rolled her eyes at his “voluntourism,” complained of all the imperialist overtones, and compared him to white college kids who take Facebook profile pics with beaming African children. Other than to say that voluntourism seemed like the wrong critique, given that he was paid for his efforts, I let it go. Though we were and are friends, I knew that there was little benefit to disputing her critique, and high potential risk. Still, in my head, I did my own eye rolling. Yes, voluntourism is a thing, and there was more than a little wince-inducing language in the way he told his story. It’s not like I didn’t understand where this was coming from at all. But… dude built a bridge. For a community that had been trying to get it done for years. It made it easier for them to access hospitals and schools. It was a worthy project that genuinely helped a community that had asked for some and, however poorly he may have expressed himself, he deserved to feel pride and to share that feeling.

What my friend was guilty of, in my estimation, is a phenomenon I’ve seen more and more, which I call critique drift. Critique drift is the phenomenon in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time. This in turn blunts the force of the critique and ultimately fuels a backlash against it. Critique drift is a way that good political arguments go bad.

So my friend here used a term that reflects a real phenomenon (voluntourism) which has been used to good effect in the past but which has, over time, become less effective thanks to overgeneralizing it and treating it as a magic word. This general trend has become a remarkable problem for the left, particularly in online spaces, where the sheer volume of engagement threatens to produce critique drift even among those who use language carefully. Very obvious examples of critique drift include the term “mansplaining,” “tone policing,” and “gaslighting.” Each highlights real phenomena: men who explain things to women who know more than they do about the subject at hand; people using critiques of tone as a way to dismiss or avoid the substance of the argument; the tendency to try to make someone feel crazy as a way to win an argument. All of those are real. But the actual communicative, rhetorical, and analytical value of each has been severely undermined, in my view, by the way in which they are now applied to more and more situations, or to instances where the standards for meeting these simply haven’t been met. Political critique draws power from specificity, but the presumed social force of using certain terms inevitably leads to their watering down. It’s a real problem.

Or consider the trigger warning. Trigger warnings were initially endorsed specifically for the good of those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a specific and potentially debilitating medical issue that afflicts a very small percentage of people. Triggers were not broad categories of potential offense that provoked vague feelings of discomfort but very specific situations that resulted in deeply painful experiences that stemmed from narrowly-defined traumatic episodes. Now, triggers are everywhere, lurking behind every corner, endorsed by people in all manner of situations for all manner of reasons, and subject to appropriation by those who would use them for cynical ends– such as the students at other institutions my academic friends tell me about, who use talk of triggers as an all-encompassing excuse to get out of doing work or experiencing viewpoints they don’t like. Some of the most privileged college students in the world now feel no compunction against invoking triggers at any time they find it convenient. Anyone who questions whether they actually deserve to invoke that claim, meanwhile, is regarded as inherently a bad ally and bad person. This, in turn, compels some people to think that all talk of triggers and trigger warnings is academic lefty bullshit that leaves us unable to educate, unable to ever bring students to encounter any remotely challenging or controversial opinions, and makes conservative backlash that much more likely. This is classic critique drift.

I have occasionally been surprised to meet people who think that I don’t believe, for example, that mansplaining or tone policing are real, or even worse that I don’t think privilege is real. Of course I think those things are real. They’re real and pernicious and have to be accounted for. But I find myself arguing against their particular use in so many instances because they’re often employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way. Worse, ever pointing out that they’ve been employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way is treated as absolutely anathema by a very vocal and influential part of the online left. That’s bad in and of itself and it fuels backlash. It also hampers our ability to meaningfully spread the critique. I’ve been asked point blank on many occasions how one can know when a disagreement coming from a man becomes mansplaining. On an intellectual, theoretical level, I absolutely believe there’s an important difference. In the realm of actual practice? At this point, I’m not sure there is any such definition, because the term is so often used as a meaningless intensifier or petty insult. Likewise, I absolutely believe that tone policing is a real and troubling phenomenon, and that there’s a space between doing that and doing the kind of inevitable and necessary criticism of tactics and language that any political movement needs. But in the actual scrum of online political argument, “tone policing” now seems to mean nothing but “criticism of my argument that I don’t like.” That’s critique drift.

As Douglas Williams of the South Lawn has pointed out, even the terms of social justice politics that seem to be employed in the most unhelpful ways often spring from smart, perceptive places. Privilege theory and intersectionality are the perfect example. Both contain trenchant critiques, but also a complex and careful set of limitations and guidelines that agitate against using those critiques frivolously. But only the acidity of the critique tends to be preserved, not the care or limitation. In thinkpieces about privilege, I find, people are quick to say that you can enjoy privileges and still be oppressed, or impoverished, or otherwise suffer. But those caveats tend to drain away in the actual argumentative forum. Take this piece on straight white male as being the lowest “difficulty setting” in the video game of life by John Scalzi, a sci-fi writer who has earned a lot of attention as a champion of social justice. It’s funny and effective, and the analogy strikes me as largely correct. And Scalzi includes the necessary caveat that you can choose the lowest difficulty setting and still get unlucky and still suffer and still deserve help. But when someone learns about privilege from this framing, do they then turn around and remember that key element? My experience tells me that they don’t; when people argue politics with these terms, they very rarely hold on to the qualifications and instead use only the weaponized critique. Indeed, Scalzi himself rarely seems to stop to remind people of those qualifications when he is waging political war online. And why would he? He is rewarded for being as acid in his critique as possible, not by being understanding and magnanimous. In these online spaces, viciousness trumps specificity and care.

This all largely descends from a related condition: many in the broad online left have adopted a norm where being an ally means that you never critique people who are presumed to be speaking from your side, and especially if they are seen as speaking from a position of greater oppression. I understand the need for solidarity, I understand the problem of undermining and derailing, and I recognize why people feel strongly that those who have traditionally been silenced should be given a position of privilege in our conversations. But critique drift demonstrates why a healthy, functioning political movement can’t forbid tactical criticism of those with whom you largely agree. Because critical vocabulary and political arguments are common intellectual property which gain or lose power based on their communal use, never criticizing those who misuse them ultimately disarms the left. Refusing to say “this is a real thing, but you are not being fair or helpful in making that accusation right now” alienates potential allies, contributes to the burgeoning backlash against social justice politics, and prevents us from making the most accurate, cogent critique possible.

I find myself, more and more often, in the useless position of defending particular critiques in the general while having to admit that a particular instance of it is cheap or unfair or just wrong. I also find myself constantly having to tell people that I do in fact believe in a given critique, because denying that a particular application of that critique is correct does not in any way mean that I deny its salience in general. Both of these things amount to wasted time and energy, precisely the kind of wasted time and energy that the online left appears to be drowning in right now. Like so many others, I am exhausted by the need to constantly assert the sincerity of my views because I refuse to engage in the useless signaling that is so much a part of current social justice culture. And you can imagine the immediate rejoinder to this post: just more of the same of what I’m criticizing. “You’re mansplaining politics, you’re tone policing, you’re gaslighting.” That’s exactly the problem: every critique of this type of engagement can simply be ground up in more of the same.

I am far, far from alone in thinking that the way in which we are prosecuting this immensely important set of arguments is unhealthy and unhelpful. As someone who has been making this type of argument for a long time, I attract a lot of communications from people who feel strongly about the need to pursue social justice but who feel that the social justice movement has lost its way. (A lot of people.) These people are not enemies of the fight for equality and justice; in fact, they reach out precisely because they think current tactics are impediment to the achievement of actual equality and justice.  Many of them are afraid to be public with those feelings, because they fear reprisals from those who enforce a very narrow, cliquey vision of progressive politics. Well: we have been talking about privilege for 30 years. We’ve been talking about intersectionality for 25. We’re still here in this unjust world. It’s time to recognize that the injunction against criticizing those who self-identify as activists for social justice is a dead-end for our movement. While the work of counseling others to be more specific, fair, and self-critical in their engagement is uncomfortable, fraught work, it is also profoundly necessary, and I see no possible alternative if the left is to wage a campaign against injustice that can actually win.

cautionary tales: unfurls like what?

“…none of these directors has made a film that has the unadulterated momentum of District 9, which unfurls like an act of God.” – Kevin Lincoln, in a not-bad-at-all reconsidering of District 9.

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to write too-cute metaphors. Metaphors can go bad in one of two ways: they can be too good a match or not a match at all. The former is a sin of cleverness; the latter, like this one, of cockiness. If you’re going to marry an abstraction as portentous and indistinct as “an act of God” to a term of such visual and kinetic specificity as “unfurls,” you better really know what you’re doing. It is no insult to Lincoln to say that he does not have that kind of a fastball.

Nowhere do I see the stitches more often in contemporary cultural writing than in the deployment of ostentatious metaphors. Remember: if you find yourself with a metaphor you like too much, if you turn it over and over again in your hand before you slide it excitedly into place, it’s already too late. Throw it back.

The Fall

This post contains significant spoilers about True Detective and The Fall.

So I just finished watching the second season of The Fall, with Gillian Anderson. It’s really very well done, smart and political and beautifully shot. Anderson is a standout as detective Stella Gibson, but the cast is overall excellent too. It’s got the overall quality in production and immense attention to detail that are easy to take for granted these days. A couple things, though.

First: it’s another gorgeously made, lovingly created crime show that just doesn’t work on the level of a crime show. It reminds me of True Detective in that sense. It’s better than that show, and not just politically, but it still is better acted and better shot and better created than it is plotted.

True Detective was, for me, an interesting and noble failure because it was a mystery, at least in large part, and it utterly failed in that regard. I mean, really: as a mystery, it could not be worse. As a lot of people pointed out, in the lovely, ridiculous final episode, the whole boat ride meant nothing– they learned nothing of use to solving the mystery, and the creators seemed to have that whole plot point just for the “cool” scenes of showing the sheriff the ritual-rape-and-murder and for the terrible cliche of the secret sniper trick. But if you go back through a lot of the show, very often the things the detectives do make no difference for the overall case. In fact the entire part where Rust goes undercover in that motorcycle gang, leading to the wildly overpraised single tracking shot, ultimately makes little difference in progressing from point A to point B. That could work in a series that played up that angle; the movie Zodiac very effectively explored the false starts and dead ends that are part of detective work. But that’s not the show True Detective is, or the show it wants to be. I mean, they catch the guy through an impossible intuitive leap based on a ridiculous clue. I’ve painted a lot of houses in my life, and I never got paint on one ear, let alone both. It’s impossible that the character guessed it, the audience had no way of making the connection earlier… it’s a mess. And that’s just in terms of how the detectives get from point A to point B in the story, not even going into the massive plot holes, dangling threads, and pointless contrivances. The show’s beautiful in many ways, but it’s just a bad crime story.

The Fall isn’t nearly as bad in that regard, but I also find it fails as a traditional crime story. It’s important to note that, unlike True DetectiveThe Fall isn’t a mystery; the killer is the first character we meet. But the show seems to go back and forth without confidence about whether Paul Spector is a master criminal or incompetent. At times, he’s the former, and at times, the latter. He meticulously covers his tracks, while simultaneously accruing evidence against himself. The show suggests that this is the product of a manic reaction to a killing gone bad, but it doesn’t dramatize that adequately, and there’s no rhyme or reason to the things he does to cover his crimes up and the things he does to incriminate himself. Again, I think that showing all the ways someone who styles himself a master criminal has screwed up, gradually giving the cops the evidence they need, could be a good show. Something somewhat similar happens in the recent movie Night Moves. But I don’t think the show is doing that intentionally, or at least not cohesively. Whether Paul is bumbling or masterful, and whether he wants to get caught or not, are questions that the show seems perfectly incapable of making its mind up about from scene to scene. Also, a subplot about a powerful Belfast figure who holds sway over the top cop just up and disappears from the story. (Is there any resolution at all to the killing of the detective Olson?) The abusive husband figure is also both a very obvious and heavy-handed dramatization of the show’s key themes and a convenient vehicle to move the plot along when in need. He’s too obvious a device for both theme and plot and this exacerbates his lack of character beyond big violent oaf.

It’s still a very satisfying couple of seasons of television, don’t get me wrong. I just feel like this is a key problem with Prestige Disease, the very palpable awareness that a lot of shows have now that TV is supposed to be a very big deal and that they are high quality productions of the highest caliber. Production values are much more reliably bought than a compelling, tightly plotted story.

Second, and maybe more importantly: the show’s muchchampioned feminism. Which…

On the one hand, yes, it’s more explicitly and intelligently feminist than most any show I can imagine. And it’s a dark, absorbing, challenging feminism, one that really is profoundly ambivalent about the fundamental violence (sexual and otherwise) of maleness. It’s amazing to see feminism of this radicalism and dedication on a mainstream TV show. There’s no noble male figure to reassure viewers that most guys are good guys. There’s better men and worse, but every major male character is implicated in some kind of aggression against women. So that’s great.

But I also feel like the show is pulling a more sophisticated version of the old Law & Order: SVU two-step. That show has a simple and powerfully enticing formula for viewers: it titillates them, then assuages their moral sense by having the detectives righteously win in the end. When Detective Stabler says some version of “creepy perv, you like getting your jollies with little girls,” he’s ritualistically cleansing the prurient entertainment they enjoyed when the creepy perv was getting his jollies with little girls. Not that they approve, of course, but the relationship between viewers and the crimes that entertain them is a little unhealthy in that way. It’s a way to have your cake and eat it, too.

I feel like The Fall is sort of the same way, though surely not intentionally. Because there are a lot of hints that the creators don’t want to make the classic, Hannibal Lecter-style appealing serial killer story… but they kind of do. Near the end of season one, Gibson gives a speech to Spector over the phone that insists that he’s in fact weak, and not powerful at all. (One of the show’s minor weaknesses is a tendency to just announce its themes explicitly.) The show is so self-aware that it wants to make that kind of statement. So why is Jamie Dornan shot to look cool, when he’s in his serial killer hoodie and mask? Why is there the classic, intense focus on his serial killer rituals, so common to the genre? Why the loving shots of his abs and pecs? Why does he get in one last cool little philosophical aphorism at the end of the second season, again portraying him as a figure of philosophical detachment and discernment? Why is his intelligence as insisted on as his sadism? Why is his relationship with his daughter so loving? The show’s head believes that he’s evil, but it doesn’t have the heart not to make Paul Spector another gorgeous, charismatic woman-destroyer.

Having been told by a detective she’s just bedded that he finds Spector fascinating, Gibson says, “I despise him with my entire being.” And maybe she does. But the show doesn’t. Or at least, the camera doesn’t. And while I applaud the show’s explicit feminism, I find the implicit sexism of yet another sexy killer of women depressing. I have come to wonder if the only way to make a serial killer story feminist is to have the killer himself be obviously pathetic on the outside as well as morally, or if there can ever be such a thing as a serial killer story that is genuinely feminist at all. Though I don’t think it’s intentional, and thus not cynical, I think the show’s effect is explicit feminism acting as a palette cleanser for another story about dead women and the charismatic evil man who killed them.

Maybe this is just the facts of life in the entertainment business; you’re not going to get a lot of show biz execs willing to cast their screen-dominating villain with someone who looks like John Wayne Gacy. But the show adds to what has become, for me, a growing ambivalence about the power of the protagonist in art and the powerlessness of creators to oppose it. Look at Sopranos. As many have pointed out, the last several seasons of the show function as a rebuke to all of the viewers who thought that Tony was cool and the fun was in watching him whack people. And, yeah, I hate that as much as David Chase obviously did. But… can you blame them, in a sense? James Gandolfini was so charismatic, and the criminal monster as sexy, enviable figure is so prominent in American culture that I wonder if asking people to recognize that Tony is a terrible, pitiful creature is too much. How many Scorcese movies have had the intended thematic purpose of demonstrating the moral rot of his characters, and yet the impact of plastering those characters on dorm room walls? I knew enough to make fun of people who thought that the point of Fight Club was that you should start your own fight club and do Project Mayhem. But god, they made it look sexy, didn’t they? It takes the incredible beauty and tenderness of that final shot to wipe Brad Pitt’s sexy abs and cool clothes away.

I just wonder if the natural power of the protagonist, or the attractive, intense antagonist, overwhelms the political and artistic desires of creators in most cases. Which is precisely what I think happens in The Fall.

Look, it’s great TV. I wish I had more of it to watch. It’s frequent thematic and plot confusion don’t outweigh the quality of the characterization, acting, and production values. And it’s remarkable to watch a show with such direct and unapologetic feminism. I just don’t know if, in the end, that feminism is achieved as well in practice as it was so clearly intended in theory.

a simple reform to improve data journalism

Like a lot of terms that get bandied around, it’s not always clear what “data journalism” means, but I’ll risk the potential for being a bit vague and assume that most people know what I’m talking about. We’ve seen a rapid growth in the use of arguments based on statistics in the popular  media in the last several years. In particular, we’ve seen growth in journalists and commentators running statistical analyses themselves, rather than just reporting the statistics that have been prepared by academics or government agencies. This is potentially a real boon to our ability to understand the world around us, but it carries with it all of the potential for misleading statistical arguments.

My request is pretty simple. All statistical techniques, particularly the basic parametric statistical techniques that are most likely to show up in data journalism, require the satisfaction of assumptions and checking of diagnostic measures to ensure that hidden bias isn’t misleading us. Many of these assumptions and diagnostics are ultimately judgment calls, relying on practitioners to make informed decisions about what degree of wiggle room is appropriate given the research scenario. There are, however, conventions and implied standards that people can use to guide their decisions. The most important and useful kind of check, though, is the  eyes of other researchers. Given that the ability to host graphs, tables, and similar kinds of data online is simple and nearly free, I think that data journalists should provide links to the graphs and tables they use to check assumptions and diagnostic measures. I don’t expect to find these graphs and tables sitting square in the center of a blog post, and I expect that 90% of readers wouldn’t bother to look. But there’s nothing to risk in having them available, and transparency, accountability, and collaboration to gain.

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That’s the simple part, and you can feel free to close tab. For a little more:

What kind of assumptions and diagnostics am I talking about? Let’s consider the case of one of the most common types of parametric methods, linear regression. Whether we have a single predictor for simple linear regression or multiple predictors for multilinear regression, fundamentally regression is a matter of assessing the relationship between quantitative (continuous) predictor variables and a quantitative (continuous) outcome variable. For example, we might ask how well SAT scores predict college GPA; we might ask how well age, weight, and height predict blood pressure. The types of regression analysis, and the issues therein, are vast, and I’m little more than a dedicated beginner. But I know enough to talk about some of the assumptions we need to check and some problems we have to look out for. I want to talk a little bit about these not because I think I’m in a position to teach others statistics, or because regression is the only statistical process that we need to see assumptions and diagnostics for. Rather, I think regression is an illustrative example through which to explore why we need to check this stuff.

There are four assumptions that need to be true to run a linear (least squares) regression: independence of observations, linearity, constancy of variance, and normality. (Some purists add a fifth, existence, which, whatever.)

Independence of Observations

This is the biggie, and it’s why doing good research can be so hard and expensive. It’s the necessary assumption that one observation does not affect another. This is the assumption that requires randomness. Remember that in statistics error, or necessary and expected variation, is inevitable, but bias, or the systematic influence on observations, is lethal. Suppose you want to take the average height of the student body of your college. You get a sample size of 30. (Not necessarily too small!) If your sample is truly random, and you get a sample mean of 5’8, but your actual student population mean is 5’7, that’s error. That’s life. On the other hand, if you only sample people who are leaving basketball practice, and you get an average height of 6’2, that’s bias. The observations aren’t independent; they share a common feature which is influencing your results. When we talk about randomness in sampling, we mean that every individual in the population should have the same chance of being part of the sample. Practically, true randomness in this sense is often impossible, but there are standards for how random you can make things. Getting random samples is expensive because you have to find some way to compel or entice people in a large population to participate, which is why convenience samples, though inherently problematic, are so common.

Independence is scary because threats to it so often lurk out of sight. And the presumption of independence often prohibits certain kind of analysis that we might find natural. For example, think of assigning control and test conditions to classes rather than individual students in educational research. This is often the only practical way to do it; you can’t fairly ask teachers to only teach half their students one technique and half another. You give one set of randomly-assigned classes a new pedagogical technique, while using the old standard with your control classes. You give a pre- and post-test to both and pop both sets of results in an ANOVA. You’ve just violated the assumption of independence: we know that there are clustering effects of children within classrooms; that is, their results are not entirely independent of each other. We can correct for this sort of thing using techniques like hierarchical modeling, but first we have to recognize that those  dangers exist!

How would a lack of independence affect regression? Well, suppose you wanted to define the relationship between average number of hours sleep per night and Body Mass Index. But say you chose your sample by asking people as they left the gym. Your sample is now made up primarily by people who exercise regularly. Maybe the relationship is different for the sedentary. Maybe people who exercise a lot can sleep less and stay trim, but those who are sedentary have a strong relationship between BMI and numbers of hours of sleep. If you only are looking at the fit because of your sampling, you have no way to know.

Independence is the assumption that is least subject to statistical correction. It’s also the assumption that is the hardest to check just by looking at graphs. Confidence in independence stems mostly from rigorous and careful experimental design. You can check a graph of your observations (your actual data points) against your residuals (the distance between your observed values and the linear progression from your model), which can sometimes provide clues. But ultimately, you’ve just got to know your data was collected appropriately. On this one, we’re largely on our own. However, I think it’s a good idea for data journalists to provide a Residuals vs. Observations graph when they run a regression.

Here’s a Residuals vs. Observations graph I pulled off of Google Images. This is what we want to see: snow. Clear nonrandom patterns in this plot are bad.

SPSSREG236

Linearity

The name of the technique is linear regression, which means that observed relationships should be roughly linear to be valid. In other words, you want your relationship to fall along a more or less linear path as you move across the x access; the relationship can be weaker or it can be stronger, but you want it to be more or less as strong as you move across the line. This is particularly the case because curvilinear relationships can appear to regression analysis to be no relationship. Regression is all about interpolation: if I check  my data and find a strong linear relationship, and my data has a range from A to B, I should be able to check any x value within A and B and have a pretty good prediction for y. (What “pretty good” means in practice is a matter of residuals and r-squared, or the portion of the variance in Y that’s explained by my Xs.) If my relationship isn’t linear, my confidence in that prediction is unfounded.

Take a look at these scatter plots. Both show close to zero linear relationship according to Pearson’s product-moment coefficient:

2015-02-28 15.55.48

And yet clearly, there’s something very different going on from one plot to the next. The first is true random variance; there is no consistent relationship between our and variables. The second is a very clear association; it’s just not a linear relationship. The degree to which varies along changes over different values for x. Failure to recognize that non-linear relationship could compel us to think that there is no relationship at all. If the violation of linearity is as clear and consistent as in this scatter plot, it can be cleaned up fairly easily by transforming the data. I currently have the advantage of a statistical consulting service on campus, but I also find that the internet is full of sweet, generous nerds who enjoy helping with such things.

Regression is fairly robust to violations of linearity, as well, and it’s worth noting that any relationship that is sufficiently lower than 1 will be non-linear in the strict sense. But clear, consistent curves in data can invalidate our regression analyses.

Readers could check data journalism for linearity if scatter plots are posted for simple linear regressionFor multilinear regression, it’s a bit messier; you could plot every individual predictor, but I would be satisfied if you just mention that you checked linearity.

Constancy of variance

Also known by one of my very favorite ten-cent words, homoscedasticity. Constancy of variance means that, along your range of predictors, your varies about as much; it has as much spread, as much error. That is, if an SAT score predicts freshman year GPA with a certain degree of consistency for students scoring 600, it should be about as consistent for students scoring 1200, 1800, and 2400.

Why? Think again about interpolation. I run a regression because I want to understand a relationship between various quantitative variables, and often because I want to use my predictor variables to… predict. Regression is useful insofar as I can move along the axes of my values and produce a meaningful, subject-to-error-but-still-useful value for y. Violating the assumption of constant variance means that you can’t predict with equal confidence as you move around x(s).

Here’s a residuals plot showing the dreaded megaphone effect: the error (size of residuals, difference between observations and results expected from the regression equation) increases as we move from low to high values of x. The relationship is strong at low values of and much weaker at high values.

megaphone

We could check homoscedasticity by having access to residual plots. Violations of constant variance can often be fixed via transformation, although it may often be easier to use techniques that are more inherently robust to this violation, such as quantile regression.

Normality

The concept of the normal distribution is at once simple and counterintuitive, and I’ve spent a lot of my walks home trying to think of the best way to explain it. The “parametric” in parametric statistics refers to the assumption that there is a given underlying distribution for most observable data, and frequently this distribution is the normal distribution or bell curve. Think of yourself walking down the street and noticing that someone is unusually tall or unusually short. The fact that you notice is in and of itself a consequence of the normal distribution. When we think of someone that is unusually tall or short, we are implicitly assuming that we will find fewer and fewer people as we move further along the extremes of the height distribution. If you see a man in North American who is 5’10, he is above average height, but you wouldn’t bat an eye; if you see a man who is 6’3, you might think yourself, that’s a tall guy; when you see someone who is 6’9, you say, wow, he is tall!, and when you see a 7 footer, you take out your cell phone. This is the central meaning of the normal distribution: that the average is more likely to occur than extremes, and that the relationship between position on the distribution and probability of occurrence is predictable.

Not everything in life is normally distributed. Poll 1,000 people and ask how much money they received in car insurance payments last year and it won’t look normal. But a remarkable amount of naturally occurring phenomena are normally distributed, simply thanks to the reality of numbers and extremes, and the central limit theorem teaches us that essentially all averages are normally distributed. (That is, if I take a 100 person sample of a population for a given quantitative trait, I will get a mean; if I  take another 100 person sample, I will get a similar but not exact mean, and so on. If I plot those means, they will be normal even if the overall distribution is not.)

The assumption of normality in regression requires our data to be roughly normally distributed; in order to assess the relationship of as it moves across xs, we need to know the relative frequency of extreme observations to observations close to the mean. It’s a fairly robust assumption, and you’re never going to have perfectly normal data, but too strong of a violation will invalidate your analysis. We check normality with what’s called a qq plot. Here’s an almost-perfect one, again scraped from Google Images:

2010-01-19-qqplot

That strongly linear, nearly 45 degree angle is just what we want to see. Here’s a bad one, demonstrating the “fat tails” phenomenon– that is, too many observations clustered at the extremes relative to the mean:

heavy tails

I will confess that, when I work with my statistic instructors, I still can’t predict what he will deem a “good enough” quantile plot. But this is just another way to say that I’m a beginner. Data journalists would do a good deed by posting publicly-accessible qq plots.

Diagnostics

OK, so 2000 words into this thing, we’ve checked out four assumptions. Are we good? Well, not so fast. We need to check a few diagnostic measures, or what my stats instructor calls “the laundry list.” This is a matter of investigating influence. When we run an analysis like regression, we’re banking on the aggregate power of all of our observations to help us make responsible observations and inferences. We never want to rely too heavily on individual or small numbers of observations because that increases the influence of error in our analysis. Diagnostic measures in regression typically involve using statistical procedures to look for influential observations that have too much sway over our analysis.

The first thing to say about outliers is that you want a systematic reason for eliminating them. There are entire books about the identification and elimination of outliers, and I’m not remotely qualified to say what the best method is. But you never want to toss an observation simply because it would help your analysis. When you’ve got that one data point that’s dragging your line out of significance, it’s tempting to get rid of it, but you want to analyze that observation for a methodology-internal justification for eliminating it. On the other hand, sometimes you have the opposite situation: your purported effect is really the product of a single or small number of influential outliers that have dragged the line in your favor (that is, to a p-value you like). Then, of course, the temptation is simply to not mention the outlier and published it anyway. Especially if a tenure review is in your future…

Some examples of influential observation diagnostics in regression include examining leverage, or outliers in your predictors that have a great deal of influence on your overall model; Cook’s Distance, which tells you how different your model will be if you delete a given observation; DFBetas, which tells you how a given predictor observation influences on a particular parameter estimate; and more. Most modern statistical packages like SAS or R have built-in commands for checking diagnostic measures like these. While offering numbers would be nice, I would mostly like it if data journalists reassured readers that they had run diagnostic measures for regression and found acceptable results. Just let me know: I looked for outliers and influential observations and things came back fairly clean.

(Here’s a recent post I wrote about the frustration of researchers failing to speak about a potential outlier.)

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Regression is just one part of a large number of techniques and applications that are happening in data journalism right now. But essentially any statistical techniques are going to involve checking assumptions and diagnostic measures. A typical ANOVA, for example, the categorical equivalent of regression, will involve checking some of the same assumptions. In the era of the internet, there is no reason not to provide a link to a brief, simple rundown of what quality controls were pursued in  your analysis.

None of these things are foolproof. Sums of squares are spooky things; we get weird results as we add and remove predictors from our models. Individual predictors are strongly significant by themselves but not when added together; models are significant with no individual predictors significant; individual predictors are highly significant without model significance; the order you put your predictors in changes everything; and so on. It’s fascinating and complicated. We’re always at the mercy of how responsible and careful researchers are. But by sharing information, we raise the odds that what we’re looking at is a real effect.

This might all sound like an impossibly high bar to clear. There are so many ways things can go wrong. And it’s true that, in general, I worry that people today are too credulous towards statistical arguments, which are often advanced without sufficient qualifications. There are some questions that statistics certainly can not answer. But there is a lot we can and do know. We know that age is highly predictive of height in children but not in adults; we know that there is a relationship between SAT scores and freshman year GPA; we know point differential is a better predictor of future win-loss record than past win-loss record. We can learn lots of things, but we always do it better together. So I think that data journalists should share their work to a greater degree than they do now. That requires a certain compromise. After all, it’s scary to have tons of strangers looking over your shoulder. So I propose that we get more skeptical and critical on our statistical arguments as a media and readership, but more forgiving of individual researchers who are, after all, only human. That strikes me as a good  bargain.

And one I’m willing to make myself, as I’m opening up my comments here so that you all can point out the mistakes I’ve inevitably made.

it eats everything

At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege From the Inside

Establishment power is defended with the baton and tear gas  only as a last resort. In the first instance, it is defended with far subtler, far more insidious means.

On a recent morning, 20 or so high school students, most of them white, milled about the meetinghouse at Friends Seminary, a private school in Manhattan. They were trying to unload on their classmates slips of paper on which they had jotted down words related to the topic “Things I don’t want to be called.”

Street level protests like #BlackLivesMatter are the most genuine and principled form of resistance to this power; counterintuitively, they inspire response from establishment power that is less true to establishment power’s typical modus operandi.

Several girls tried get to rid of “ditsy.” A sophomore in jeans and a gray hoodie who identifies as Asian-American was seeking to unload “minority.” And several white students, including a long-limbed girl in a checkered lumberjack shirt, wanted to get rid of “privileged.” Under the rules of the exercise, no other student was obligated to accept it.

As the history of dictatorship shows, armed, heavy-handed defense of establishment power is effective only until it isn’t. The obvious and crude nature of this form of defense reveals its real-world power but also its vulnerability.

“It’s just a very strong word to use,” the last girl said. “I don’t want to be identified with that just because my parents can afford things. I think it has a negative connotation.”

Contemporary capitalism has produced systems that are far more sophisticated. Modern neoliberal nations do not typically have to crush dissent. They rarely feel forced to meet strength with strength. Paradoxically this tendency to avoid the direct expression of force through violence demonstrates the true depth of establishment power.

The workshop was part of a daylong speaker series known at Friends as the Day of Concern. Students gathered in small groups to discuss a variety of social justice issues and participate in workshops; there were also talks about gender and the environment. But the overarching theme of the day was identity, privilege and power. And it was part of a new wave of diversity efforts that some of the city’s most elite private schools are undertaking.

Perhaps no form of subtle social control better exemplifies privilege’s ability to dominate through soft power than the way in which privilege theory itself becomes a commodity, monetized and peddled to the privileged as easily as consumer electronics or expensive clothes.

In the past, private school diversity initiatives were often focused on minority students, helping them adjust to the majority white culture they found themselves in, and sometimes exploring their backgrounds in annual assemblies and occasional weekend festivals. Now these same schools are asking white students and faculty members to examine their own race and to dig deeply into how their presence affects life for everyone in their school communities, with a special emphasis on the meaning and repercussions of what has come to be called white privilege.

Capitalism employs the power of the rifle only when necessary. Over time, the systems of commodification, appropriation, and undermining become more and more sophisticated; concurrently, the need to use brute force declines. Pinkertons are replaced by well-meaning cultural studies professors. The defense of privilege is carried out by those who rail against it.

The session at Friends Seminary, on East 16th Street, was led by Derrick Gay, a 39-year-old diversity consultant who has led similar programs atCollegiate School on the Upper West Side, Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights and the Spence School on the Upper East Side.

Sincerity becomes a tool of power. When establishment power’s tactics were cruder, less refined, appropriation relied on insincerity; it was a form of outward deception. Now the deception is self-deception. The most committed, most passionate critics of privilege become the agents through which their own critique is packaged, consumed, and ultimately stored away in a mental closet like last season’s handbag.

Mr. Gay, who is black, says schools are increasingly drawn to conversations about privilege and race because they understand that “raising students to live in a bubble — a white bubble, a black bubble, a Latino bubble, whatever type of bubble you want to call it — is not to your benefit in a global society.”

In an earlier time, establishment power would have opposed the creation of an anti-establishment professional class. Today, establishment power recognizes that the surest way to blunt the impact of a social movement is to professionalize it. Thus the rise of the professional anti-racist, the professional anti-sexist, the professional opponent of privilege. Sincerity in pursuing the cause becomes not an impediment to serving the needs of establishment power but a powerful virtue.

For most of their history, private schools were the living embodiment of white privilege: They were almost all white and mostly moneyed. Not anymore. This year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, minority students make up a third of the population of New York City private schools, and 18.5 percent of all students receive financial aid.

To improve the optics and keep overwhelming irony at bay, privilege enacts aesthetic reforms that deepen greater inequality. Like the woman elevated onto the board of a company where the CEO makes 300 times the average worker, establishment power looks to diversify systems and institutions that are unequal by their nature and elitist in their function.

Educators charged with preparing students for life inside these schools, in college and beyond, maintain that anti-racist thinking is a 21st-century skill and that social competency requires a sophisticated understanding of how race works in America. In turn, faculty members and students are grappling with race and class in ways that may seem surprising to outsiders and deeply unsettling to some longtime insiders. And the term “white privilege” is now bantered about with frequency.

Political discourse becomes, in the hands of the privilege education industry, inherently and existentially linguistic in its function. Language becomes inescapable: bad language is represented as the cardinal sin, good language the cardinal virtue, language is the means through which those worthy of punishment are identified, and language the tool to punish them.

It comes up during schoolwide assemblies like a recent one held to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, also known as LREI, a progressive school in the West Village. It is explored at parent gatherings at the Dalton School on East 89th Street during broader conversations about racial equity. It is examined in seventh-grade social studies at the Calhoun School on West End Avenue, where students read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a 1989 article by Peggy McIntosh that outlines dozens of ways white people experience “unearned skin privilege.”

This obsessive focus on language seems, to those who have accepted its central premises, to be a trap that can catch all bad behavior within it. In fact, privileging language above all else merely empowers the more industrious to escape criticism through employing language themselves. If language is both the cage and the lock, language is inevitably the key.

And at a few schools, students and faculty members are starting white affinity groups, where they tackle issues of white privilege, often in all-white settings. The groups have sprung from an idea that whites should not rely on their black, Asian or Latino peers to educate them about racism and white dominance.

First, by making language the means through which inequality is identified, expressed, and combated, structural and material inequality become strangely marginalized in critical analysis, and those who focus on them are mocked and distrusted.

“In the past, there was a tendency to think: This isn’t my problem and it isn’t something I need to deal with because it isn’t something I even think a lot about,” said Louisa Grenham, a white senior at Brooklyn Friends Schooland a member of a white affinity group there.

Second, when the linguistic becomes the only means through which to understand the world, the linguistic rejection of privilege becomes an arbiter of who gets sorted into which camp. Curiously, the most effective way to undermine one’s place of privilege is to announce it; “I know I am privileged” becomes a tool with which to force others to see you as something else.

“Whiteness” as a concept is not new. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about it in the 1920s; James Baldwin addressed it in the 1960s. But it did not gain traction on college campuses until the 1980s, as an outgrowth of an interdisciplinary study of racial identity and racial superiority. It presumes that in the United States, race is a social construct that had its origins in colonial America when white plantation owners were seeking dominance and order.

If all identities are social constructs, it becomes impossible to conduct a reality check. Social critique marches further and further from the material conditions it arose from.

Today “white privilege” studies center on the systemic nature of racism as well as the way it exposes minorities to daily moments of stress and unpleasantness — sometimes referred to as “micro-aggressions.” Freedom from such worries is a privilege in and of itself, the theory goes, one that many white people are not even aware they have.

Whatever critiques of the-thing-in-itself exist become subject to the appropriation of those who have it, and thus their capacity to harm is blunted. Since belonging is a matter of linguistic ritual, even those most directly indicted by these critiques feel no compunction against taking them up and directing them outward. Even the bullet with your name on it cannot harm you if you are allowed to grab the barrel of the gun and point it in the other direction.

It may seem paradoxical that students at elite institutions would decide to tackle the elitism they seem to cherish. But private schools’ diversity consultants brush aside insinuations that their social justice work is inauthentic.

The best defense is a good offense.

In recent months, for example, as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, on Staten Island, have prompted protests, schools have tried to make the conversation relevant for their students, taking them to Black Lives Matter marches and honoring white civil rights leaders in schoolwide assemblies.

So men who enthusiastically mock “Not All Men,” sharing memes and composing tweets, are inevitably themselves saying “not all men” in a different register. Just as shamelessly as the men who insist “Not All Men,” they extricate themselves from the critique which they ostensibly celebrate.

Talking about “whiteness,” administrators say, gives white students a way into conversations about equity and prejudice that previous diversity efforts at their schools may have excluded them from.

Thus the white person who rails the loudest about white privilege feels themselves to be least vulnerable to the accusation of being so.

At the LREI high school campus, the front entrance is adorned with a student art project, by the seniors Ana Maroto and Sage Adams, that includes a black-and-white photo of a somber-looking teenager, who identifies as mixed-race, holding a placard that reads: “I need justice because I’m sick of having to explain privilege.”

Like an auto-immune disorder, the systems designed to keep the body healthy attack it themselves. Privilege theory has become the instrument of the privileged.

At the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, two white seniors started the Exploring Whiteness club in the fall, which now regularly attracts 15 students. They were inspired by reading “Waking Up White,” a memoir by Debby Irving, a self-proclaimed WASP from New England who discovered in her late 40s that many of the benefits her father had received in housing and education from the G.I. Bill had been denied to millions of African-American veterans. In the book, Ms. Irving writes about “stepping out of a dream” and realizing that the black people she knew lived in a more challenging world than she ever would face.

Capitalism being as it is, a new class of professional privilege educators is born. They react to market need. If the affluent are seeking to salve themselves through the careful application of privilege theory, a professional class will arise to commodify that desire. If the privilege are looking to be soothed, someone will sell them the balm.

Every year, an increasing number of New York City private schools select students to attend the White Privilege Conference, founded 16 years ago by Eddie Moore Jr., the former diversity director at Brooklyn Friends. This year, the theme of the conference, organized by the Dalton School, is “Race, Privilege, Community Building.”

As the ranks of the professional privilege opponents grow, the urge to defend the theory from external criticism grows.

The new focus on addressing white privilege has not been an unmitigated success. Dr. Moore, for example, despite the stature of his conference, is no longer working with Brooklyn Friends. Acknowledging the inherent tension, he said: “Not every student is saying: ‘I want to talk about white privilege. Give me the best book.’ ”

Luckily for these enthusiastic capitalists, the form of that defense is inscribed in their position: accusations of privilege and bigotry themselves. The initial political defense of these ideas and tactics intermingles with the naked financial self-interest until they are, by design, totally inextricable.

For years, private schools in New York avoided conversations about race and class by remaining uniformly white and wealthy. They began desegregating in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s, as programs for low-income students like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance brought in minority scholarship students. Many white parents welcomed the change, worried that their children would be ill prepared for an increasingly multicultural world if they did not have exposure to people from diverse backgrounds. Today, for example, at LREI, Calhoun and Dalton, at least one-third of the student body is not white.

These people become invulnerable, their commodification impregnable: there is no critique from within privilege theory that they cannot turn around on others, and no critique from outside of it that they cannot dismiss as itself the hand of privilege.

At some of the city’s top neighborhood public elementary schools, nonwhite populations are actually lower. At both Public School 6, on the Upper East Side, and P.S. 41, in Greenwich Village, 21 percent of the students in the 2013-14 school year were nonwhite, according to state figures. At P.S. 41, that is a dip from 31 percent in the 2003-4 school year.

The initial functions of these theories, to challenge and undermine and discomfit, are thus lost, at least to those savvy enough to appear forever on the right side of things.

Many of the private schools have struggled, though, to make these new minority students feel welcome, oscillating between a colorblind philosophy and a feel-good “festival approach” — reserving light discussions about race and class for Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Black History Month and an annual assembly or two.

That approach, diversity directors say, has proved ineffective.

The ameliorative potential of this kind of engagement is always asserted, rarely proven. Nor is serious consideration given to whether, by focusing so intently on feelings as a deracinated aspect of psychology, these efforts actually prevent serious efforts to dismantle the socioeconomic conditions that cause them.

Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist and the author of “White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son,” said: “If you’re still talking about food and festivals and fabrics with high school students, you’re probably not pushing them to think critically about these bigger issues.”

Indeed, in recent years, several documentaries filmed inside these schools — including Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s“American Promise,” Kavery Kaul’s “Long Way From Home” and “Allowed to Attend,” produced by Trinity’s director of communications — present in excruciating detail the alienation many minority students experience. The schools are depicted as institutions teeming with white students oblivious to their outsize privilege — the lavishness of their spring-break vacations, weekend homes and lunch money — and unaware of the challenges faced by their less privileged classmates.

Absurdly, the more immaterial and asystematic these critiques become, the more likely those who voice them are to self-style as radicals, as if radicalism exists in inverse proportion to the willingness to explore first causes and foundational inequality.

In “The Prep School Negro,” the filmmaker André Robert Lee explores what it was like to be one of the few African-American students enrolled, on scholarship, in the 1980s at Germantown Friends, an elite Quaker school in Philadelphia. He has taken his film, first completed in 2008 and reworked in 2014, to hundreds of schools around the country. He maintains that the screenings have helped spur conversations about race and class that would not have been possible even 15 years ago.

Mr. Lee is now touring schools with another film he produced, “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” Commissioned by the Calhoun School, the film follows 12 New York City private and public school students for a year while they attend workshops exploring racism and white privilege. “School administrators tell me: ‘We realize we have a lot more work to do on these issues,’ ” Mr. Lee said.

In these contexts, the obsessive focus on conversations, awareness, and knowing becomes inevitable. Solutions must, like causes, remain vague, indistinct, and resistant to material evaluation.

Administrators at Friends Seminary would seem to agree. In January, students gathered in the school’s slate-gray meetinghouse, a room virtually unchanged since 1860, to watch a presentation by Mr. Gay, a classically trained opera singer and the former director of community life and diversity at the Nightingale-Bamford School, a private institution for girls on the Upper East Side. With slides, videos and a series of pen-and-paper exercises, Mr. Gay talked to the students about how race, class, gender and ablebodiedness influence people’s perspective and contribute to whether they feel welcome “inside a space.”

During an exercise called “Who Are You?” Mr. Gay asked students to create their own “identity cards,” writing down terms they wanted to be associated with, in stark contrast to the other exercise, which focused on unwanted identities. One girl wrote “white,” “SoHo” and “Sag Harbor”; another wrote “a very nice person.” Then students paired up, with one responding to the question “Who are you?” The room erupted in noise, with students shouting, “black,” “white,” “straight,” “lesbian,” “Jewish,” “Spanish” and “smart.”

Whatever once remained of the material, objective conditions of oppression that first inspired theory has dissolved. A wealthy 16 year old becomes representative of marginalized identity; an out-of-work truck driver becomes classified by his male privilege.

“Everyone has a card,” Mr. Gay told the students. “It’s called an identity card. Society doesn’t value each of these identities equally.”

Later he added: “It’s no one’s fault. But you should be aware of it.”

Paradoxically, a movement often accused of essentialism teaches its adherents that they can wriggle out of any critique of their demographic and social qualities.

During another seminar that day, Darnell L. Moore, a writer and activist from Camden, N.J., divided students into small groups, giving them large sheets of paper and felt-tip markers and asking them to develop social-status charts, based on current conditions in America and general perceptions.

The students produced strikingly similar charts, with several envisioning a straight, white male as the most powerful citizen and a poor, black single mother as the least powerful one.

White privilege becomes other white people’s privilege; male privilege becomes the sin of other  men; heteronormativity, the fault of some category “straight people” and not the particular “this straight person.”

“It was kind of gross how easy it was to be able to say, ‘This person has to be this,’ ” said Camille Fillion-Raff, a junior at the school.

Educators who do this work in New York private schools say one of the challenges white students face when exploring their own identity is the dearth of white anti-racist role models. They say white students have traditionally been offered only three ways to confront race: to be colorblind, ignorant or racist.

“Those are not happy identities,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College and the author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”

Identity, stripped of any plausible real-world referent, signals everything and means nothing.

With that in mind, the Trevor Day School on East 89th Street spends at least some time every year honoring the white civil rights activist Andrew Goodman, who was killed in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, while working to register black voters. This year, the school invited Mr. Goodman’s brother, David, to speak at the school.

But helping students explore their white identity has not been without its challenges.

Once synonymous with reactionary conservatism, pride in being part of a privileged class becomes reconciled with an ostensibly radical, counter-cultural worldview.

At the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, which has campuses in Manhattan and the Bronx, a plan this winter to roll out a racial awareness workshop series for third through fifth graders was met with fierce resistance by parents. Many objected that children as young as 8 were being asked to segregate themselves into race-based affinity groups. Ultimately, parents were told, students who chose not to identify with any of the racial categories would be allowed to sign up for a group that was not based on race. A fifth grader’s father, a white man who asked not to be identified because he did not want any repercussions for his daughter, called the plan “mind-boggling” and said his daughter found the entire concept confusing and unsettling.

Unmoored from the responsibility to actually demonstrate marginalization, groups like #GamerGate proceed to use the terminology and tactics of privilege theory against its champions. Having created the conditions for this appropriation themselves, they find themselves powerless against this. Aesthetics having totally eaten the actual, no one has a firm enough place to stand to deny their claims to marginalization, least of all to the corporate advertisers towards whom they make their appeals.

At Brooklyn Friends, a controversy over the approach of Dr. Moore, the school’s former diversity director, ended abruptly when he left at the end of last year and did not return this fall. Many students, like Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, a black senior, said Dr. Moore was a warm and stimulating figure at the school who talked openly about what he called “subconscious racial bias.” But several sources inside the school said some white students complained that Dr. Moore was a polarizing figure whose focus on white privilege made them uncomfortable. Both Dr. Moore and a school representative described his departure as “amicable.”

Capital thus sends its newly-educated young people out into the work place, stuffed with the means to combat privilege but no idea why, ready to devote ostensibly left-wing theory to the cause of personal financial gain, and possessed of an iron-clad assurance that their self-conception is congruent with the brand new moral world. Political morality is as etched into their identities as their money, as intrinsic to them as will be their inevitable Ivy League diplomas.

At LREI, Sandra Chapman, the director of diversity and community, said conversations about white privilege could be difficult, with some students and faculty members more willing to engage than others. “This is messy work,” she said. “But these conversations are necessary.”

Establishment power then sits back to wait for the inevitable corruption and conservatism of age and time.

butterfly theory in the classroom

10446284_10100614256587159_5706319377317509171_oI learned this idea from a mentor of mine, and thus I can’t give proper credit to whoever thought it up. Perhaps it’s one of those pieces of lore that’s been floating around between teachers forever and belongs to no one. In any case.

Anyone who’s been a teacher  for long enough has probably encountered a student that displays a certain degree of, for lack of a better term, performative eccentricity. Or you might look back to your high school days and think of someone like this. This is the kid who played up a particular kind of difference from the crowd, accentuating his or her “weirdness.” I’m not just talking about being different in general, and I’m not at all  suggesting that these people are not expressing sincere aspects of their personality. I am saying that there’s a way in which they broadcast their difference in order to make that the salient aspect of their personality in the eye of their peers. And I say this from experience, as in middle school, this was more or less me.

Butterfly theory is an attempt at an explanation for this tendency. To understand these students, think of how a  butterfly flies. If you study the path of butterflies through the air, it looks like they’re drunk. To get from one point to another, they never travel in a straight line; they zig and zag through the air, dipping down strangely and without warning. The presumed reason for this is a survivability advantage: if you are a creature as fragile as a butterfly, it’s a very bad thing if other animals can predict where you’ll go. Contrast with, say, a 1,000 pound moose. You might be prey, sometimes. Your physical advantage doesn’t make you invulnerable. But mostly you’re equipped to handle it if some other animal comes across your path. So you walk in straight lines. In a similar way, people who have certain social vulnerabilities — people who can be easily hurt thanks to the outward aspects that signal different types of social value, particularly when we’re young — have a vested interest in unpredictability. If no one knows who you really are, no one can insult who you really are.

Or, to put it in another way, when I was in 8th grade, I think my implicit thinking was “If they define me as the weird kid, at least they aren’t defining me as the kid with the greasy hair, with the bad clothes, the kid who smells.”

As I could tell you, from my middle school experience, this system of self-defense is inadequate. But I think both from my own experience and from my years of teaching, as a sub in middle and high school and as a college instructor, there’s a great deal of truth in this theory. And I’ve often struggled to know how to react to students who I perceive to be enacting this kind of behavior, not out of judgement, but out of sympathy. How can I make them feel that my classroom is a place where they are safe enough to move in straight lines? And how can I think of them in this way without acting like eccentricity and difference are things to avoid, or like they are all performance rather than an expression of genuine personality?

Because I was on the receiving end of the very worst way to go about it. One day in 8th grade, I was quoting from Moby Dick, because I had watched Wrath of Khan the night before. So while we puttered around doing exercises, I was saying some lines to the members of my group. My teacher pulled me out of class and gave me a speech that has only gotten harder to believe over time. My problem, as she patiently explained to me, was that “you’re different from other kids.” “You act so unhappy,” she said, but I was lonely because I acted strangely, and if I wanted to be happy, I had to stop. What bothers me in particular, with the weight of hindsight, is that while middle school was something like social hell for me, by then most of the people around me in classes had come to understand, if not accept, who I was. I’m still friends with a bunch of people from that very class. And I’m sure they thought it was odd that I was quoting Ahab, but they knew me well enough by then to leave it alone. As much as I was chased around and laughed at, for a couple years, none of my peers ever made me feel as bad as my math teacher did that day.

So I have some sympathy for fellow teachers who say that the personal or social eccentricities of students is simply none of my business, that the most humane and fair thing to do is not to acknowledge those idiosyncrasies. By the time they come to us at the collegiate level, students are adult learners, and deserve to be treated in the ways befitting the narrow exchange of pedagogical practice between teacher and student. The best way to avoid being like my 8th grade teacher is through benign neglect.

But context matters. There’s a funny reality of teaching freshman composition at a university like mine. So many of the classes our students take in their first couple years, at this huge STEM university, are giant lecture hall classes. I can’t tell you how many of my freshman have said to me, “You’re the only instructor here who knows my name.” That, to me, dictates a certain responsibility. I guess the punchline of this piece is that I haven’t really discovered a way to meet it yet. The best I can come up with is to act in a way that I hope all teachers would act: to try my best to remain aware of the social dynamics within my classroom that can be so hard for instructors to notice, to extend sympathy and respect, to make sure students know that I am accessible. Then again, I think to when I was a college freshman and try imagining going to tell a professor I was lonely then. Would never happen. I guess this is all weak brew.

Perhaps by the time they come to me it’s less pressing. Things got better for me, after middle school. I know the popular conception of high school is as a hellish wasteland of ceaseless cruelty, but things were OK for me, and they got better as time went on. Part of that was choosing to get more invested in my hygiene and my appearance — not for that teacher, or for the kids who teased me, but for me. Part of it was just aging into myself; I grew almost 4 inches in 18 months, my complexion cleaned up, I lost weight. But a lot of it, I perhaps naively think, was just that people started to give each other a better time. I became close friends with some of the very kids who had once chased me around. People let stuff go. I think people came to understand how rough life could be and resolved to just leave each other alone, more. You just grow up, you know? In any event, I got popular, to my surprise. I even started dating — although the first two women I dated came, not incidentally, from over the bridge in the next town over, and never knew me when I was the awkward kid getting chased.

So maybe by the time they come as college students, they are past some of this stuff. Maybe there’s a virtue to not seeing all of the same people in all of the same classes. Maybe it’s the simple reality of not having to ride the bus or eat in the cafeteria. I’d like to think that, at a certain age, the social cost of acting like an asshole overwhelms the insecurity and self-hatred that provokes it. But then, now I’m tall, and I’ve lifted weights for forever, and I dress a certain way, and I have absorbed the subtle rules of the social hierarchy, and I’m educated and male and white, and I have been told I’m attractive often enough to realize that there’s a certain kind of arrogance in self-deprecation. So from that stance of abundant privilege, my optimism is cheap, and I find myself wondering about the abundant social cruelties that may be multiplying right out under my nose. Reluctantly I come to admit that I am powerless to  understand, much less to prevent, the pain among the students who I cherish and do not understand.

this is why we can’t have nice things

So here’s a perfect example of how actually-important political debates get lost in the haze of useless slapfights, observe David Corn vs. Bill O’Reilly on the subject not of foreign policy or really even media ethics but the personal integrity of Bill O’Reilly. Sure, I’m happy to see a lying blowhard get called out in this way. But Greg Grandin wrote a piece that was similar to the later-arriving Mother Jones piece earlier this month. (To be clear, I’m not accusing anyone of journalistic impropriety, but a link back to Grandin would have been natural and useful to readers, largely because it’s just a better, more thoughtful piece.) Why didn’t Grandin’s piece attract as much attention as the MoJo piece? I mean, it actually had a point beyond  shooting spitballs at O’Reilly; it considered the way in which post-Vietnam journalism evolved in response to various late-Cold War conflicts, and in so doing, had a broader point than “O’Reilly’s a dink.” O’Reilly is a dink, and he deserves to get shot called in this way. But everybody who will side with Corn already thinks that O’Reilly’s the devil and those who like O’Reilly will never listen to Corn. And of course, there’s Politico to cover it all like it’s a fight on a  junior high school playground.

The answer is that Grandin’s post didn’t suffer in comparison despite the fact that it had a broader point than O’Reilly’s lack of integrity. It suffered in comparison because it had a broader point. The politics of personalities is the problem.

Update: I notice that MoJo has a link to say that the Nation had a video first. I’m not sure if it was retroactive or not. Broader point stands: we should have a conversation about the Falklands, about South America and the West, and foreign policy over this, not just a “showdown” between media personalities.