memento

This letter to the editor was written in response to my father’s obituary and published in my hometown paper, The Middletown Press. My stepmother had a copy, I think, but with the dissolution of my relationship with her in the years after his death, I had no way to get my hands on it. For years I’ve looked for it, but the local library’s microfilm collection had a gap in the months following his death, and I didn’t have any idea of the exact date. This week, after hours of searching through microfilm in the basement of a university research library, I finally found it, published June 3rd, 1997, the day after my 16th birthday.

2014-12-23 10.37.56

race “science” and shoulds

I am and have always been cool with people not liking me or what I write; being disliked is as comfortable for me as my old coat. But I would really, truly appreciate it if people would stop attacking me for a position that I don’t hold and didn’t express on the issue of TNR and The Bell Curve. People claiming that I’m making an argument about having untrammeled debate; people saying that I’m claiming that we should “teach the controversy”; people claiming that I’m defending The New Republic‘s role in all of this, when I find that role as odious as I do everything else the magazine has done in my lifetime; people claiming that I’m saying that we should follow the truth wherever it may lead, in this situation, as though I think it might lead to the conclusions of The Bell Curve; the out-and-out claims that I think race science is correct, when I’ve probably written more words on why it’s incorrect than I have on any other subject — those are wrong, running to dishonest.

What I believe is pretty simple: despite claims that the basic argument of The Bell Curve is so rare and so debunked that it represents no threat, the notion is in fact prevalent in our deeply racist culture, though it is expressed carefully, as we have entered an era where racism is endorsed quietly and through codes. Further, I think it’s wrong to believe that race science lived and died with that particular book. I particularly find it flatly wrong to suggest that by merely mentioning the fact that race science is incorrect, I somehow support it. This is the notion that, by working hard to establish that race science has no credible basis in fact, I am in fact “signal boosting” the concept, as if absent my mentioning it, no one would ever even think to hold that opinion. I instead believe that racism encoded in the terms of science is common enough and pernicious enough to merit fighting. I truly would love to live in the world that these people live in; one of the most persistent and pernicious of racist tropes has been defeated there, long ago. But I don’t live in that world, and neither do they.

We live in a world where 44% of white respondents to a large, rigorous, and very well-respected survey report that they believe white people are more intelligent than black people. We live in a world where just a few years ago, Slate ran a multi-part series endorsing the basic arguments of race and IQ, by a writer who is still employed there and given a position of great prominence. We live in a world where Nicholas Wade was writing for the New York Times just a couple of years ago. We live in a world where the number of people who utilize the anonymity of the internet to express what they quietly believe about black people’s supposed lack of intelligence are legion. We live in the world that produced literacy tests and has not moved that far from their basic logic. And we live in a world where I encounter, in far too much academic work that touches on intelligence testing and race, a kind of tip-toeing, sotto voce agreement to look the other way, a refusal to really look at the question that comes not from the agreement that it has been dispositively disproven but rather from the fear that it has not been disproven at all, so best not to look, and into that lacuna rushes in the worst sort of people.

Along with this discussion comes attendant questions that are meant to demonstrate the obvious absurdity of my position,  but which are not nearly so obvious at all. “Would you bother to fight against astrology?” Sure, and have. Many charlatans and cranks extract a lot of money from the credulous with astrology, and the potential ill-effects of racist science are far worse than those of astrology, and thus more worthy of being rebutted. “Would you waste energy rebutting creationism?” Yes! I would! I have! Creationists have power in our society! They get their mythology written into textbooks! They take seats on school boards of large states and huge school systems, the worm their way into the sciences. How can you be so assured of the popularity of your own ideas as to fail to see the need to fight bad ones?

This whole issue is almost a perfect parody of the current state of the American left, which is a state of enclaves and echo chambers. What could be a better indication of liberal delusion than statements of the kind “this attitude does not exist within my sphere, thus there is no need to fight it”? Your Twitter feed is not the world. Your Tumblr dashboard does not reveal all types of people to you. Brooklyn is not America. Though it may seem that way from your vantage, not everyone alive acquired left-wing theory at Sarah Lawrence or Oberlin. Your enclave, so studiously defined, so easily pruned by the many digital tools that allow you to deny the existence of attitudes you don’t like, cannot and will not protect you. And it cannot and will not protect those who are less privileged and more oppressed than you.

The response that I both respect the most, and which discourages me the most, is this one: black people should not have to debate their intellectual equality. And indeed, it’s true. They shouldn’t have to. But I don’t know what that “should” means. I don’t know what it refers to. I don’t know what valence it has. What does should have to do with anything? Eric Garner should be alive. Chelsea Manning should be free. The poor should be clothed and fed. Racism should be over. Of course black people shouldn’t have to debate their intellectual equality, and it’s nice that in progressive environs, they largely don’t have to. But America writ large does not operate by the social norms of lefty Twitter, and the effects of the presumption of black stupidity are pernicious and destructive, and so that should has no meaning, to me. Lots of things should be, and aren’t, and so you are forced to deal with the world as it is.

The word “should” is the worst thing that ever happened to the left. “Should” has become a virus in the contemporary left, a word that is more effective at defeating left-wing resistance than any right-wing argument ever could be. It seems like every day I read fellow leftists telling me what they should and shouldn’t have to do, rather than what they are compelled by injustice to do. “Feminists should not have to teach people the importance of feminism; it’s their responsibility to educate themselves.” Perhaps it is. But they won’t educate themselves. No one will make the world a just place but us. That’s why there is such a thing as feminism. The struggle exists precisely because the world does not fix itself and its people do not educate themselves. That’s such a basic statement of political principles it frightens me that it has to be said at all.

I ask this basic question of young leftists I meet all the time, the ones who insist to me, with great passion, that my suggestion that we have a duty to fix a broken world is itself oppression: are we winning, or are we losing? That’s what I want to know. Do you think we’re winning or losing? I cannot imagine a leftist or progressive who thinks we’re winning. Not in a world of Tamir Rice and campus rape and Barack Obama’s Wall Street presidency. Yet the attitude that we need to change anything at all, that we need to consider our tactics and our strategy, that we have a responsibility to adapt to our movement’s failures to better succeed, is anathema. That contradiction cannot stand. It is incoherent to say that your movement has failed and yet has no obligation to change. Only those who are protected by privilege from the consequences of this failure could ever be so opposed to overcoming it. Continuing to repeated the word “intersectionality” to the same small group of the already-converted, in the face of so much failure, is to endorse the conditions that you call unjust.

All of it — the misrepresentation of my position, the echo chambers, the shoulds– all are indicative of a political movement that is incapable of looking at the world as it is and dealing with its challenges. You are perfectly free to disagree with my belief that the best way to invalidate these arguments is to debunk them, rather than to ignore them in the hope that they’ll go away. You are perfectly free to disagree with me on the best tactics and strategy to oppose racism. But when you feel compelled to lie about what I believe in disagreeing with me, what does that say about your ability to engage with the broader world, given that on the fundamental issue of substance here I agree with you completely? How could you ever engage with those who don’t agree with you about anything, and who have power, and are inclined to use it against you?

Unless you prefer to pretend that those people don’t exist at all.

Merry Christmas

Hey friends, I’m writing from my home in Connecticut on Christmas morning, which I’m celebrating with family. I just wanted to take a moment and thank you all for your various forms of support. The Christmas Funding Drive was far more successful than I could have imagined and saved my bacon this holiday season. I also want to thank you all for your continued readership, your support, and even the occasional crazy emails. I have a few year-end posts to come in the next few days, but today I’ll be relaxing and celebrating.

It’s been a tough year for me on a number of fronts, but things have been turning around lately. I have finally gotten a little momentum on the professional front, and a developing number of options, and I hope to be able to share good news with you all before too long. But either way, I’m reminded again of my many privileges and the great luck I have to be leading the life I do. Thanks for being a part of it. It means more than I can say.

So Merry Christmas, or what you will.

what’s Jeet Heer afraid of?

Sadly necessary preamble: please, read this post to see what it actually does and doesn’t say

Long layovers make for good blogging time.

So Jeet Heer has a response to Andrew Sullivan’s response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the form of one of his long Twitter considerations. The topic, this time, is on the legitimacy of publishing portions of the Bell Curve (along with rebuttals) in a national magazine. Well, I bow to no one in my distaste for TNR, and I also have a long record of opposing race science. But I find it indicative of a very common kind of liberal incoherence on this issue that, ultimately, makes it harder to combat racism.

Heer is of the opinion, as many people are, that publishing portions of The Bell Curve is ipso facto a racist enterprise and something no publication should do. He seems even to find exploring the question to be off-limits. I find all of this strange. We investigate claims to rebut them as much as we do to confirm them. I am not afraid that we will discover a scientific basis for treating black people as inferior human beings. I’m confident that black people have perfectly equal rights to political equality, to economic opportunity and material security, to human dignity and respect. I don’t think black people are inherently genetically inferior in intelligence. And I think the arguments necessary for making that case are perfectly capable of being mustered in the dispassionate manner of social science. It isn’t necessary to become so defensive about the issue that you shut out perspectives that you find offensive. Those perspectives are perfectly subject to criticism, and to my mind comprehensive rejection, precisely by examining them closely. I’ve written a lot of that kind of criticism here and at my old blog. And because race science types constantly play to the perception that their opinions are harsh truths that liberal society cannot face, this only plays to their narrative. It’s a clear strategic failure, and not a necessary one.

Typically, there are two reasons to argue that we shouldn’t look at the arguments of those who advance race science. The first is the argument that I glossed above, which is that there are some ideas that are just too dangerous to look at. I wrote about that idea at some length here. It’s like I said: I’m not afraid to look, and I think telling people we shouldn’t look out of fear of what we might find is just disastrous from a political and strategic point of view.

The second reason is that the ideas are so self-evidently weak, so obviously false, that we needn’t bother to rebut them. To the degree that Jeer articulates any reasons for his stance, this is his take, tweeting “Reasons not to give Bell Curve TNR imprinteur: it wasn’t peer reviewed and Sullivan lacked scientific training to evaluate.”

True, there was no peer review. And the claim that you can “detox” with certain diets also does not have the benefit of peer review. Nor the claim that magnets have healing properties. Nor the notion that MSG causes long-term health problems. And yet all of these ideas, and many more that have never been peer reviewed, have received a full review from serious people. Why? Because they are prevalent ideas, and because things that are believed should be examined, and if necessary, rebutted — and all of these claims have been. I suspect that this is a line of argument that Heer doesn’t apply remotely consistently. The notion that only peer reviewed arguments require rebuttal simply doesn’t pass the smell test. And while Heer might respond that race science is not widely enough believed to be worth rebutting, I find this deeply naive. Precisely because I think our society is deeply racist, but now usually tacitly and secretly racist, I think the idea that black people are inherently intellectually inferior is prevalent. I think many more people believe that than would admit to it in polite society. That is reason enough to present the arguments for the opportunity to rebut them.

And while Sullivan may not have been qualified to interpret the evidence, many of TNR’s readers were. And indeed: many powerful rebuttals of the book emerged from academics.

There’s something to this kind of argument that, I think, fundamentally misrepresents the strongest objections to race science. You occasionally get people incredulously quoting claims that black people score lower on IQ tests or standardized tests of education, as if that claim itself were what’s racist. But we know that black students score well below white students on a whole swath of educational assessments and metrics. The argument isn’t that this racial achievement gap isn’t real; if it wasn’t, then essentially the entire fields of educational testing, assessment, cognitive and developmental psychology, sociology, and psychometrics would be a massive racist conspiracy. Instead, the argument opponents make — the argument I make — is that these differing outcomes are the result of massive and entrenched disadvantages that reflect this country’s legacy of hideous racism and its ongoing, massive racial inequality in economic and sociological factors that impact quality of life. Often, race science types will say that a particular piece of research “controlled for poverty.” But such controls are typically limited to income level or parent’s wealth. Because racism is such a pervasive and all-encompassing phenomenon, these controls are never remotely adequate. In order to really assess these differences, I’d have to feel comfortable accounting for cultural biases in the nature of the questions, parent’s income, parent’s wealth, parent’s level of education, family stability, exposure to crime, exposure to drug abuse and alcoholism, the psychological and social impact of explicit and implicit racism, the Matthew Effect…. Take exposure to lead. We know that black children have significantly higher exposure to lead than white children even after controlling for poverty level. This is what I mean when I say that saying “we controlled for social class” is so inadequate.

I reject the notion of inherent black genetic inferiority because I think that we have far stronger evidence of enormous social and educational factors that serve in aggregate to depress black student performance across the board. The fact that these factors are hard to isolate only demonstrates the degree to which racism is an ambient and diffuse phenomenon in our society. (For similar reasons, I don’t think we’ll ever find a smoking gun for the source of these gaps, but that they are an aggregate of copious types of racial inequality that must be combated with mass redistribution.) All of that objection is simple assessment theory. It’s statistics and empiricism. It doesn’t require a political, emotional, or social revulsion towards asking the question. It simply requires faith in the process and confidence that, well, that black people aren’t inferior.

Ultimately, I get from Heer’s many, many tweets not a lot in terms of why he thinks publishing those excerpts was necessarily racist, but a lot of emotive righteousness, which of course is very popular with is Twitter followers. But that doesn’t help combat a quiet but pernicious attitude about black inferiority in this country. I find liberals are often not very useful allies on this question; typically, they haven’t looked very closely at the arguments they are rebutting and haven’t thought through their objections. I have. I find the principle of racial equality remains as strong as ever. I think maybe more people should try thinking through these things more carefully, exactly because we need to give our objections the necessary juice.

Update: As I’ve said many times, believing in race science is ipso facto racist; it’s the belief that one race is inherently inferior to another. But then, supporting the drug war is ipso facto racist, and I think that’s worth debating too. Fundamentally, I don’t see how these two separate thoughts can both be true: one, that the race science argument is so inherently weak that it does not need to be refuted, and two, that the race science argument is pernicious and potentially destructive. Those both can’t be true. I think the race science argument is dangerous, and so it has to be refuted.

Update II: I’m working on something larger about this phenomenon, hopefully for another publication, but this is a very good example of a broad issue with the left. My critics on this piece believe, as I do, that racism is real and that its effects are pernicious. And yet they also seem to think that the theory that black people are unintelligent is so disreputable that no one needs to rebut it– that rebutting it serves only to legitimize it. But I don’t think that people need to have that view legitimized because far too many of them already believe it. Look at this poll from the American National Election Studies, a very reputable polling project. 44% of whites surveyed said they think white people are more intelligent than black people. How can it be that an idea that’s so prevalent doesn’t need to be fought, and in fact needs to be legitimized by our willingness to fight it? I don’t understand how people who are so confident (and so correct) that our society is deeply racist can also be so confident that the notion that black people are less intelligent than white is only believed by an uninfluential fringe.

dear Louisa, meet my friends Eric, Trayvon, and Michael

It’s tough to be a professional writer, but there are beats you can work. There are roles you can occupy and never go hungry. Few are safer than to be an imperial scribe, the kind of writer who tells Americans that their country is good and that others are evil. Grantland’s Louisa Thomas, an enterprising sort, mashes up that hoary old genre with the perennial moneymaker, the end-of-year retrospective. Cast your eyes back, she counsels a burning nation, and think about those innocent days of Sochi, when we were all united in our contempt for our old antagonists. She describes Russia:

“a country that had recently banned gay “propaganda,” harassed and imprisoned political dissidents, and was run by a man who appealed to imperialist traditions and fear of foreigners”

That the United States is a country of enormous historic and contemporary homophobia; that this is a country that has locked up, sexually assaulted, and tortured to death its own political enemies; that this is the country that has been more aggressive, more blatantly imperial, than any other in the post-1945 world; that this country simultaneously relies on and despises an army of underpaid, precarious brown foreigners — these things are unspoken, because unspeakable.

“It was funny, at first,” she writes of Sochi, and indeed it was, but never in the way she might mean. It was indeed funny to watch a generation of Millennials ho-ho-hoing at their televisions before trumbling off to work as baristas, making $10/hour and carrying $75,000 in student loan debt. It was indeed funny to watch Americans snarking at a broken decorative snowflake while, in New York, the Monstrosity Formerly Known as the Freedom Tower was slowly completed, a monument to the hubris of a country that has no right to any, its purpose to satiate a billionaire land developer rather than the people of the city or the country, its immediate environs an unlivable stretch of cold urban vacuity, every inch of its 1776 feet a sad, unsatisfying compromise. It was indeed funny to see Americans laughing at the rosy, false version of Russian history on display, given that they live in the country that celebrates Thanksgiving, that contains Custer State Park, that publishes textbooks that claim that Moses invented the United States, that releases a torture report after 5 long years of obstruction and then only in pieces. That was funny.

The Cossacks were never funny. Cops never are. I invite you to imagine the international outrage and American horror, had one of Putin’s police choked an innocent man to death on camera for the crime of selling loose cigarettes.

Thomas calls Sochi a mass spectacle of irony, and I suppose it was. But there are worse things in life. Worse than public, open irony is a citizenry who is caught in a kind of arrested half-irony, dripping snark and condescension over everything but those things that deserve them the most, skeptical of most everything except the central lie of their lives, which is the notion that they live in a great, healthy, free, fair nation. I will take the unadulterated version of irony over the desperate, scared, defeated version that people my age stuff into hashtags to distract themselves from their own lives.

Thomas says that every year is the year we’re let down by our heroes, but this implies a lack of agency, like we only let it happen. We do not let that happen. We make it happen. Thomas, in this piece, is making it happen. She is choosing to tell herself a series of lies that she and her audience find more palatable than the truth, and she is being paid for her work. To make the decision Thomas makes, and everyone who LOLs at Russia while their country stumbles around like the violent oaf it is, is to be American. It’s to shake your head at Crimea and not call to mind Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. It’s to discuss another country’s currency crisis and neglect to mention that your own economy has become a machine for distributing more and more resources to a tiny elite. It’s to laugh at broken elevators for Sochi but to not admit that your country’s infrastructure is a dangerous embarrassment. It’s to talk about what Jesse Owens came home to after the ’36 games but not recognize all the ways he still wouldn’t be home in 2014 America. It’s to see the lie in every other country’s myths but your own.

Like I said: she’ll never lack for work.