ah, civility

If you have any interest in the continuing controversy of the Steven Salaita affair, or academic freedom in general, or the fetish for civility and the way it is used to suppress unpopular political opinion, you really have to read this post from Corey Robin. In it, Dr. Jean O’Brien, professor of history and chair of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, communicates via email with Chris Kennedy of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. If you ever needed proof that invocations of civility are deployed selectively as a way to quiet criticism and meet the needs of establishment power, here it is.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruening wrote a really sharp essay on the notion of civility recently. As she writes

It’s not an accident that civility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit, the one which supposes the particular aesthetics of the afternoon salon produce the richest debates, and that the richness of a debate is really its goal. It’s not an accident because — as even people who argue for civility will tell you — civility is about, at some level, establishing common ground. Supposedly this works the arguers to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

But there simply isn’t always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding. So if you are arguing, for instance, that poor people are being mistreated, should be angry about it, and should lobby for change — civility will force you to give up the ‘angry’ part, or at least to hide it. But that was part of your ground! Now you’ve been muzzled.

Which explains Salaita’s tweets very well. Whatever else is true, this is true: Salaita was reacting to the killing of hundreds of children, and to a corresponding refusal by the American press to judge that killing with the sort of moral clarity that we would normally associate with the killing of hundreds of children. Indeed, it was the media’s “civility” about massive slaughter that was the target of his ire, and mine, and thousands of other people. The notion that he must adopt the master’s tools and speak civilly about the inappropriate deployment of civility is perverse, and inarguably undercuts the rights to free expression that UIUC has always claimed it supports.

Civility is the discourse of power. If you’re Chris Kennedy– yes, one of those Kennedys– and you’ve been bathed in power your entire life, you might mistake that civility for some sort of value neutral, friendly idiom of the exchange of ideas. But then, you’ve also been talking to people your whole life who you have power over and who therefore fear you. And so, when pressed, you may not even notice when you slip into disrespect and insult the way he does here. That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.

credit where due

When Vox was still a young site, they published a piece on technology adoption rates that was just fundamentally misguided. The methodology simply didn’t work, as Paleofuture’s great writer Matt Novak detailed. Mistakes happen, particularly for young publications, but Vox compounded the issue by being cagey and evasive in addressing the problems. I criticized them for that at the time.

Today, Vox’s tech-libertarian type Tim Lee ran a curious post in which he both announced that he was investing in Bitcoin and made the case that others should buy Bitcoin as well. He made an interesting case about the future of Bitcoin, but the ethical problem is direct and obvious: whatever else Bitcoin is, it’s a commodity that is traded speculatively, and part of what drives the price of a speculative asset is people in the media telling you to buy it. If a financial columnist at the Wall Street Journal can buy shares of a stock, urge readers to buy that stock, and then sell when the price goes up from more people buying– well, you get the picture. For this reason, Lee’s old employer the Washington Post sensibly prohibited him from investing in Bitcoin. But despite acknowledging that rule in the piece, Lee and Vox’s editorial team seemed to have no issue with that conflict of interest.

They got some criticism, and apparently thought better of it. Ezra Klein’s explanation is clear and direct and apologetic. That’s how you do it: you just express the thought process that you used to arrive at the prior bad decision, explain why it was wrong, and apologize. So much better for all involved. So good for them.

the Wagner thing, again

Just to build on my update to my last post– there seems to be a bit of an argument about Joan Rivers and how to talk about her death, given that she called for the destruction of the Palestinian people shortly before her death. It’s the Wagner thing, one more time.

I confess that I find this argument kind of boring. I am firmly of the opinion that bad people can make great art. I always say “Ty Cobb had a great OBP,” which is partially a joke but also a serious point. Nobody would question whether Cobb’s racism (or other character defects) kept him from getting on base; it’s an objective statistic. People also probably wouldn’t question that Robert Lee Moore made important advances in topology. So with certain athletic or scientific or similar accomplishments, we know we have to separate the quality of their work from their character. Art is subjective, but I think we should apply the same basic logic and acknowledge that there’s no magic formula in the universe that keeps bad people from making great art. In fact it seems like they make more than their fair share. Pretty easy question, pretty boring question.

The other side of this is whether you are excused from bad behavior by your historical circumstance. We tend to talk a lot about the racism and homophobia of specific individuals, but the fact of the matter is that a very large portion of human beings in history have been racist and homophobic, given their times. I remember when that college student refused to recite a poem by Walt Whitman because of Whitman’s racism. I promise: a large majority of the poets whose work that kid reads all the time were crazy racist. So is that an excuse? Part of the problem is that there are almost always people who did correctly identify the moral argument who were contemporary of, or came before, the person you’re defending. Yes, Thomas Jefferson held slaves at a time when many people held slaves. But there was also a robust abolition movement with a long history and a lot of writing that Jefferson could have read and been convinced by. Hell, there were anti-slavery arguments in ancient Greece. So too with Joan Rivers and Palestinians: yes, a lot of people of her age are racist against Palestinians, but there’s also plenty of people her age who aren’t. If Noam Chomsky has been able to find a non-racist position on Palestinians as a contemporary of Rivers, why wasn’t Rivers herself?

Here’s what I know for sure: we’re not at all consistent with this stuff. Not even a little bit. Do you need to mention Rivers’s racism every time you talk about her or her accomplishments? I don’t know. Do you need to mention the slaves every time you talk about Jefferson? Do you need to provide the necessary caveats every time you talk about Woody Allen? (Provided you think he’s guilty.) Recently, there was a controversy about H.P. Lovecraft’s abundant racism, with many arguing that we’ve got to start mentioning it every time we talk about him. Is that a general principle? I think the answer to these questions has way more to do with how much you like the person in question’s work than any moral principle. I’ve never known anyone to be particularly consistent on this issue.

So I guess that’s the source of some frustration, for me. If you want to celebrate Joan Rivers, go ahead. I just hope that if you spent time blasting people for still enjoying Woody Allen’s work, you reevaluate how closely you hold onto those principles. And I also hope that, even if you don’t think her statements about the Palestinians belong in her obituaries, you acknowledge the fact that the media’s broad silence on those statements are a product of who she was criticizing. Don’t allow your own silence to be complicit in a culture in which racism against Palestinians is uniquely permissible.

the racism you get to keep

In the comments of Gawker’s obituary for Joan Rivers, I pointed out that nobody seems to be remembering the fact that just a month or two ago, Rivers claimed that Palestinians deserve to die. This is about as gross and racist a thing as someone can say, but is permissible in American media because Arabs are not defended by the usual prohibition against racism. Many commenters popped up to say that Joan Rivers lived a long life and had a long  career, and that it doesn’t make sense to mention that  controversy in a brief obituary.

Well, here’s the first two paragraphs of Gawker’s obituary for Helen Thomas:



Which is not to single out Gawker. This dynamic can be found in publication after publication. It is inconceivable — literally inconceivable — to imagine that an American celebrity could say that Jews deserve to die a month before her death and not have that information be published in her obituary, right near the top. And this just goes again to show that, for all of our pretenses to equality and a principle of universal prohibition against targeting ethnic and racial groups for generalized criticism, we actually have no such prohibition against Arabs generally and Palestinians especially. They are a group that is valued so little, you can wish death on them and have the entire American media essentially ignore that fact at the time of your death.

Incidentally, I encourage you to listen to these interview clips of Helen Thomas, which demonstrate how much more reasonable and well-argued Thomas’s position was than that of Rivers. And yet these comments destroyed Thomas, while Rivers didn’t suffer a hit to her public reputation at all.

Update: Since somebody asked– no, I don’t think you have to dislike Rivers’s comedy because she said really ugly, racist stuff. It’s the whole Wagner thing. Bad people can do great stuff. Ty Cobb had a great OBP. It happens. You can say she was a good comedian without endorsing all of her views. But it would be nice to have it acknowledged that she did, in fact, have really ugly, racist views on Palestinians, so that should factor in how we think about her as a person. And my point here is more to say that if she had said “black people deserve to die” instead, that would have colored the portrayal of her death in the media much, much more.

there is no such thing as legitimate accomplishment

I quite liked Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on learning French (and intend to write long on it soon), and I don’t agree at all with Rod Dreher’s take on it. So I appreciate Phoebe Malz-Bovy’s defense of Coates’s essay. But in an oddly underwritten ending, Bovy goes badly wrong.

Taking Dreher to task for pointing out that Coates is, in material and social terms, a winner, Bovy writes

Dreher remains committed to calling out Coates’ “privilege”… when what he’s actually calling out are achievements Coates has earned.

From his initial response:

He is part of the Establishment now. He writes for a well-respected national magazine, about things he enjoys. He takes summers to go to language camp to learn French. That’s great! Why is he such a sore winner? Feeling guilty about one’s privilege doesn’t mitigate it.

And the second:

He’s a senior editor at one of the most respected magazines in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, he writes for top publications … and he has the luxury of spending his summer studying French at Middlebury. And is embittered because of circumstances in his youth, circumstances he attributes to white supremacy, he’s probably not going to ever master French, at least not to his satisfaction.

We should all be fortunate enough to have such problems.

I suppose Coates is privileged in the it’s-been-a-privilege sense. Unearned advantage, though, is a tough case to make.

That’s not much of an argument. And it’s also plainly untrue. Of course Coates has been the beneficiary of unearned advantage. It’s an unearned advantage to be born without crippling medical ailments. It’s an unearned advantage to be born male. It’s an unearned advantage to be born in the United States rather than in Afghanistan or Somalia. And so on. Is that what most people mean when they talk about privilege? Maybe not, but then another of the central points of privilege theory is that the privileges that are most profound tend to be those we don’t acknowledge. Besides: Coates has written at length about the benefits he had growing up thanks to his parents, and to being politicized by his father, a former Black Panther. That’s a classic kind of privilege, parental privilege, and one that absolutely matters.

Such talk will inevitably piss some people off, but it shouldn’t. The fact that Coates has been the recipient of great advantages compared to many people in the world doesn’t change the fact that he has also been faced, his whole life, with the disadvantage of living in a structurally racist society, or the relative disadvantage of his own economic circumstances compared to some others. The point is that “privileged” is not a binary category, and in fact essentially all people are some combination of advantaged and disadvantaged. And a lot of these things manifest themselves in ways that we can’t understand from the outside, unearned, material advantages or disadvantages that do not represent themselves as neatly as race, gender, sexual orientation, or similar. Indeed, in the context of an American progressivism that has gotten caught up in simplistic black-and-white moralism, one of the aspects of Coates’s writing I like best is the way in which he troubles such simplicity.

Bovy has articulated sound critiques of privilege talk in the past, and seems inclined to do so again in this post. But she appears guilty of talking about privilege in the worst way, both theoretically and politically: to think of privilege as some sort of tally system, where you can add up marks for every bit of advantage and disadvantage and come up with a list of those on one side or the other of the ledger. This tendency is politically disastrous, as voiced clumsily, it asks people to define themselves by their advantages without acknowledging the hardships that everyone endures. That will never result in political victory, and in a majoritarian democracy like ours, convincing the masses is the only way we will ever achieve a more socially and economically just society. Whether we like it or not. Whether we think that’s “fair” or not.

Instead, the point should be to ask people to see the ways in which all of our lives are conditioned by vast forces we cannot control, that these forces in general work to the benefit and hindrance of certain broad groups of people in a way that conflicts with our conceptions of justice, and that we can build a more just, more equitable world if we acknowledge that no one’s life is the product only of their work ethic and intelligence.

The long-term project of those who decry the role of unearned advantage in human society should not be to try and parse who is most and least privileged. The project should be to deny the salience of “merit” as a moral arbiter of material security and comfort. The very notion of just deserts– the notion that some people have legitimate accomplishments that we must celebrate because they represent “merit,” whatever that is, distinct from their privileges– is what has to die. There is no space where privilege ends and legitimate accomplishment begins. There is, instead, a world of such multivariate complexity that we can never know whose accomplishments are earned and whose aren’t. Instead, we should recognize the folly of tying material security and comfort to our flawed perceptions of other people’s value, and instead institute an economic system based on the absolute right of all people to food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.

Time for the Libya mea culpas

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

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

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

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

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

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

what do you want to subsidize?

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

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

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

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

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

a proud, indecorous tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of Dr. Davis’s letter.