doing something

Both neoconservatism and liberal interventionism depend not merely on believing that the United States is a force for good, one which has the right and ability to project power anywhere it pleases to secure the peace. They depend on the idea that the citizens of this country, who are supposed to be the ones who actually hold power, have adequate understanding of foreign conflicts to make (quite literal) life-or-death decisions about those conflicts. They require the average citizen to not just be a willing moral judge of every conflict into which we might wade, but informed enough to make a measured judgment.

Think of the domestic policy matters that you are the most informed about. Now think of how much more you have to learn even about that subject. Now think about how little you know about all the political subjects of interest in foreign countries where they speak a language you don’t and ask yourself if you are ready and willing to determine the future for the people in those places.

The Syrian conflict is a immensely complex civil war in a geographically, linguistically, and culturally distant part of the world, one that involves both centuries-old history and minute-by-minute events, between a vast and shifting number of agents, both internal and external to the country, which have conflicting and overlapping interests and methods, all of which are obscured by a lack of journalist presence in a dangerous country, the prevalence of disinformation and propaganda on all sides, and the fog of war. I do not know what’s happening in Aleppo, and I suggest that you don’t either. That doesn’t mean I can’t make any moral judgments. I know that Assad is a monster; I know that al-Nusra is a horror; I know that the entire bitter reality is almost more than the human heart can bear. But the people who are saying “do something!” are asking for more than moral judgment. They are, generally, asking that you be willing to kill for them. Are you ready to do that? Are you ready to kill? Are you ready for the civilian casualties that are the absolute, non-negotiable, inevitable consequence of intervention? Are you ready to decide who lives and who dies?

I’m not. I lack that confidence in my own judgment, my own knowledge. And I’m frightened of those who have it.

my piece in the Guardian today

I’m in the Guardian today, arguing about how flatlining or declining real wages and absolute generational mobility speaks to a broader failure of capitalism to fulfill its promises. I write

The engine of capitalism is struggling to create the abundance that was once taken for granted. The basic hope that parents have for their children – that their lives will be better than their own – is being lost.

Check it out.

may you live in clarifying times

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to you that many liberal Democrats apparently have a deep and abiding belief in the honesty and benevolence of the CIA, but I confess it was a bit unexpected for me. And perhaps it was common knowledge that this trust in the CIA was matched by an equal disdain and distrust for the FBI, but I confess I was in the dark. These no doubt longstanding and durable perspectives on the relative value of our feuding intelligence agencies match quite perfectly with the short-term and contingent interests of the Democratic party, but this, I’m sure, is a matter of pure coincidence. And I know we can all proceed secure in the belief that, if it was the FBI claiming the election had been influenced by Russia and the CIA doubting that claim, partisan Democrats would still be lionizing the CIA and criticizing the FBI today.

I will add “the CIA is honest, competent, and good” to the list of Things That Democrats Have Always Believed, like “single payer healthcare is bad,” “Russia is the root of all evil,” and “it’s good and noble for losing parties to contest the outcomes of elections.”

the birthering of the Democrats

Several people have compared the post-election lunacy of the Democrats to the birther movement within the GOP. This violates a core tenet of liberal philosophy, which is that literally any comparison of the behavior or beliefs of Democrats and Republicans is a matter of saying “both sides do it!” and is thus inherently wrong no matter what. But I find the comparison very apt when it comes to the general tenor of current Democratic messaging: conspiratorial, self-pitying, defensive, and totally resistant to any calls for self-reflection or self-criticism.

Let us accept from the outset that partisan Democrats and I will never agree on the substance of the particular claims they have made about the election. Let’s simply try to find common ground on what they’re alleging. Conventional post-election debate among Democrats has involved…

  • Blaming the media for their ills, insistent that it is the reporting on Democratic candidates and messaging that is to blame, not the candidates and messaging themselves
  • Developing elaborate conspiracy theories involving foreign powers, non-state actors, and our own intelligence services working together to oppose their interests, without a single piece of credible, verifiable evidence that does not stem from hearsay or anonymous sources
  • Claiming that the leaked Clinton emails were uniquely damaging to her campaign after months of insisting that there was nothing meaningful or important in said emails
  • Agitating for renewed hostilities with Russia, which hold’s the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, after years of reduced risk of a uniquely destructive war
  • Suddenly espousing an aggressive nationalism and militarism that they have long accused the GOP of engaging in, with loose talk of treason and aiding our enemies for those who question the idea that the Russians and the FBI conspired to elect a Republican
  • Insisting that Wikileaks is a partisan pro-Republican organization despite the fact that the largest and most prominent leaks in the organization’s history were directly damaging to the GOP’s efforts to justify and defend the war in Iraq
  • Fixating on the popular vote and the Electoral College, insisting suddenly that these structures are to blame for their loss even though they were well aware of our system before the election, and despite the fact that they were completely silent on this dynamic before their loss
  • Waving away the severe deficiencies of the Democratic ground game, lashing out at anyone who points out its problems, and completely failing to subject the people responsible to the harsh assessments that this loss would seem to require
  • Developing all of these conspiratorial and blame-shifting excuses despite the fact that the party has suffered almost unprecedented losses at the state and Congressional level for at least six years
  • Generally doing anything and everything possible to avoid engaging in real, serious, genuine self-criticism and self-reflection.

I have asked this question before, of Democrats, and I’ll ask it again: if, after losing a close election, Republicans responded by insisting that the outcome was in fact the result of a conspiracy between a foreign government, a non-state actor that has leaked information that was damaging to both parties in the past but which is now alleged to have particular allegiance to one, and an American intelligence service, all working together to install a Democrat… what would you say? Would you really take that seriously? Do we really need to pretend that the answer might be yes?

You may argue that the Democrat conspiracy theories are true and the Republican conspiracy theories are false. But you cannot honestly argue that only one party now uses conspiracy theory as a central part of its political messaging. So the arguments to come are not for or against conspiracy theory as the centerpiece of American politics. They are simply about which shadowy agents you think are secretly driving American affairs and for whose benefit. I can’t imagine a better symbol of the stumbling, mortally wounded superpower that we are – two establishment parties, paranoiac and raving, convinced the world is out to get them, defensive, McCarthyite, deranged.

when you poison the well, people stop drinking from it

I’m really tempted to do an old school fisking of this piece arguing that the real war on science is being waged by liberals and the left, but I just don’t have the time. Briefly: like so many other conservative criticisms of “the Left,” John Tierney’s piece conflates all manner of groups that have broad internal divisions, in a way that leads to fundamentally flawed analysis. The idea, for example, that liberals and leftists broadly reject genetically modified foods shows complete ignorance of the left-of-center. More importantly, the idea that conservatives don’t have much control over scientific research is demonstrably, objectively untrue, particularly when it comes to climate change, and that question is genuinely one of the most important facing the entire human race. The Trump administration is nominating a real-deal climate change denier to head the EPA. I mean, come on.

Like I said: I wish I could really dig in to the piece at length. Let me make a limited point about the left-of-center’s relationship to human genetics, though.

Echoing a familiar complaint, Tierny writes, “resistance in academia to studying the genetic underpinnings of human behavior… has cut off many social scientists from the recent revolutions in genetics and neuroscience.” He goes on to complain that study of genetic impacts on human outcomes has been rendered difficult in the contemporary academy, which creates a gulf between the social sciences and the natural sciences when it comes to studying the human animal.

Well, look. There is indeed a lot of blank slate thinking on the broad left. Sometimes this goes to the extreme of arguments that are straightforwardly incompatible with the facts, like the presumption that genetics plays no role in human behavior. And too often arguments that reached correct conclusions but which had dubious or dishonest methodologies are still embraced, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. But let’s be 100% clear: people are sensitive about the study of human genetics because the study of human genetics has been repeatedly used to advance bigoted goals. Blank slate-ism is a historically contingent manner of thinking, and the history that has produced it is a history of racism, sexism, and justifications for inequality. And when you tie your complaint about blank slate-thinking to straightforwardly bigoted arguments – as Tierney does in endorsing Nicolas Wade’s book – then of course people are going to reflexively assume the worst of the legitimate points you’re packaging along with racism and sexism.

I am not qualified to offer particularly informed discussion of behavioral genetics. I read and interact with the published literature on this stuff on an informed but generally amateur level. With that important caveat, here are some things I believe:

  • That genetics plays a significant role in a variety of human outcomes
  • That biological parentage has a demonstrable impact on a given student’s academic tendencies
  • That parenting style plays a limited role in a child’s personality, and that some portion of our personalities is genetic in its origin.

Here are some things that I don’t believe and that I consider straightforwardly bigoted:

  • That different races have inherent advantages or disadvantages in intelligence, however you want to define it
  • That there are consistent gender differences in academic potential, whether generally or in specific fields like math or science
  • That some racial groups are inherently predisposed to aggression or passivity
  • That belief in “human biodiversity,” to use a euphemism popular with race science types, can ever be compatible with a just society.

To me, the gulf between the first set of beliefs and the second seems huge and obvious. In particular, the difference between discussion of parentage – the two people whose DNA combined in fertilization to make another human – and discussion of race and gender – vast, diverse groupings that are often arbitrary, perceptions of which are influenced by all manner of social, cultural, and historical presumptions – seems clear to me. I leave it to others who are more informed to spell out all the dynamics here, empirical, scientific, political, historical. I do find it frustrating when people presume that belief in the former set leads necessarily to the latter. But I get it. I get it because the history is so awful and the stakes are so high. How could I not get it?

If people who, like me, want to have productive conversations within the left about the fact that genetics play a role in many aspects of human behavior and human outcomes, we have to recognize that there are perfectly good reasons that people are sensitive on this topic. We have to be frank about the ways that genetics have been used to justify bigotry and inequality. We have to be adamant that racism and sexism have no place in academic research or public policy. And we have to demonstrate that it’s fully possible, even easy, to discuss human genetics without endorsing bigoted opinions.

These conversations can be frustrating. It’s touchy. It can be difficult to even broach the topic without people getting defensive, assuming that any discussion of human genetics has to end up in eugenics and race science. But there’s a history here, an ugly history, one that’s had real and pernicious impacts on real people. So it’s our job to make the case, to heal these rifts, and to be relentless in rejecting bigoted arguments that are sometimes lumped into these conversations. It’s our job. It’s not the job of marginalized people or those who speak for them to get on board. We have to do this work.

And if you’re a conservative who wants to help in that effort maybe you could start by not advancing bigoted horseshit in the name of genetics research.