Soul on Fire: Appreciating Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel departed this world at the age of eighty seven. He has had a tremendous influence on my life, though I never met or corresponded with him. His books were always in the house when I was growing up, and I remember my mother retelling for me the plot of Dawn, but I cannot remember how old I was. Perhaps I was nine. The details have faded but the memory remains and comes to mind quite often. Honestly, it was sobering and a bit frightening to realize that no one is exempt from life’s horrors, that even I might be forced at some point to choose between two ugly outcomes. I still hope that I never will, but it was Elie Wiesel who forced me to acknowledge the possibility that it could happen.

I have not rushed to post on Wiesel’s death because I have been picking up his works again and pondering his life. He deserves as much. I confess that it has been at least a year since I last read something of his. Wiesel himself resisted tidy conclusions. Still, something that I have noticed while following  media coverage is just how much is misunderstood about Wiesel. He had his flaws and failings, of course, and valid criticisms can (or is it should) be leveled at him. There were even survivors with more compelling views on the universality of the Holocaust than his own, and Wiesel sometimes clashed with them, but he was a powerful voice for good nonetheless. Then there was the disgraceful spectacle of people like Max Blumenthal, who possess the moral stature of a Chihuahua, publishing tweet after tweet vilifying Wiesel not long after his death was announced.

Something that I can see even in many valid criticisms is that Wiesel is being judged by our own image of a Holocaust survivor and champion of human rights should be rather than by what Wiesel actually was. To understand Wiesel we must set aside such grand images as citizen of the world and its conscience, and start with the Elie Wiesel who was deported to the kingdom of night, as he would put it. A shy but ardent Hasidic youth who viewed everything through a spiritual lens. His parents had to force him to set some time aside for secular studies, such was his religious fervor. Then came the Holocaust, an outburst of the forces of evil so intense that it destroyed his ability to believe as he once did. Wiesel always wanted to recover that simple faith, but could not. This is the thread running throughout his works, the source of the enigmatic laughter and silences that fill his stories.

Night is a powerful novel. Really needs no introduction. Dawn is not as well known, but as noted above, perhaps more compelling and troubling because it deals with the internal struggle of a Holocaust survivor faced with making an awful choice. If Night is about surviving in a kingdom where God does not act, Dawn looks at the choices one must make when acting in history instead of God. Night will make you weep, and Dawn will chill you, but if you want to get at the man behind Wiesel’s public persona then read Souls on FireSouls is a collection of sayings, stories, and character sketches of several 18th-19th century Hasidic masters, leaders of a Jewish revivalist movement in Eastern Europe. Wiesel has written quite a bit on this or that Hasidic master. It is a prominent topic in his writings, and though I have never bothered to quantify this, I would not be surprised if he has written more frequently and directly about Hasidism than he has about the Holocaust, but everything that he wrote eventually touched upon his experience in the camps.

The Hasidic master, or Rebbe, acts as bridge between his followers, the Hasidim, and God. The Rebbe was central to how they approached the world, so telling stories about these masters practically became a sacred duty. These were stories about hidden saints and holy beggars, miracles and prophecies, uplifting the poor and downtrodden, intense longing for the Messiah as if he were due any minute, putting God on trial for neglecting his children, and a host of other colorful episodes, but most of all about the soul and how to mend it. Sometimes cryptic and paradoxical, they all share a love of truth. These stories were used to draw man closer to God rather than simply entertain. Wiesel did that, too. “I don’t believe the aim of literature is to entertain, to distract, to amuse.”

Hasidism, then, was the world of Wiesel’s innocence, where God was close, always ready to intervene on behalf of those who loved him, a world filled with warm memories of conversations with his grandfather the devout Hasid. It was he who taught Wiesel his first stories and embodied their virtues. Hasidism was about faith. Not mental affirmation, but an attitude of trust and devotion.

In the chapter entitled Disciples IV, Elie Wiesel relates a Hasidic legend of how Satan protested the birth of a particular Rebbe so holy that he would draw enough followers closer to God so as to destroy Satan’s kingdom effortlessly. The heavenly court recognized the unfairness of that scenario, and decided to send a rival – a counterfeit Rebbe – whom no one would suspect of serving God’s rival.

How is one to know? How does one recognize purity in a man? And how can one be sure? I remember putting this question to my grandfather. He chuckled and his eyes twinkled when he answered: “But one is never sure; nor should one be. Actually, it all depends on the Hasid; it is he who, in the final analysis, must justify the Rebbe.”

It is hard not to see this as really being about God, about Wiesel’s relationship with him. This answer to a childhood question, I think, lies behind the anger in Night, and behind the moral calculus in Dawn. Like the old chestnut, show me your friends and I will show you who you are. With Wiesel, though, there is never a simple affirmation of man’s moral superiority to God. That is a subtle nuance which even as fine a film as God on Trial (inspired by a Wiesel experience and story) misses. Man is responsible for affirming his devotion to truth through his actions and choices, perhaps even to transform his master through them. His failure to do so can have acute repercussions because God and man are inseparably linked.

“You’ll grow up, you’ll see,” my grandfather had said. “You’ll see that is more difficult, more rare to find a Hasid than a Rebbe. To induce others to believe is easier than to believe…”

Another story is shared of a Rebbe scolding God for keeping an old man like him waiting all his life for the messiah, then Wiesel’s own memory of his grandfather blessing him to see the messiah end evil, and how that caused him to tremble in Auschwitz for his grandfather. A story about a holy dance invites Wiesel to wonder how his grandfather died. For him, it is all connected. He expressed what he experienced in the camps in terms of these Hasidic tales and sayings.

One of Hasidism’s finest tales relates that the founder of Hasidism went to a certain spot in the woods to perform a ritual and utter a prayer to avert a disaster. His successor could not remember the ritual, but knew the spot and the prayer. The next Rebbe knows only the spot, and, finally, only the story remains. This must suffice, or can it? Wiesel suggests that we might be past that stage.

The proof is that the threat has not been averted. Perhaps we are no longer able to tell the story. Could all of us be guilty? Even the survivors? Especially the survivors?

That last question alone opens up a world of anguish that the trite and easy phrase survivor’s guilt can never fathom. It also lends urgency to the task of storytelling. There are no easy answers to any of these questions which occupied Wiesel his entire life.

Two sayings of Hasidic masters are given in the chapter with no commentary. “To pronounce useless words is to commit murder,” and, “Nothing and nobody down here frightens me… But the moaning of a beggar makes me shudder.” Both of these encapsulate Wiesel’s approach as author and witness. Waste no word on things that do not teach truth and fear nothing as much as another’s suffering.

There is much more that could be discussed. Instead, read Souls on Fire, especially the moving postscript describing why he wrote it. Your time will be greatly rewarded.

To end like I began, on a personal note: I was surprised to feel no sorrow at Wiesel’s passing. In fact, I almost felt happy. I typically get very emotional thinking about the Holocaust at any length. Why not now? In Jewish thought death is often considered a passage from the world of illusion to the world of truth. Wiesel loved truth but was haunted by it. He was truly a soul on fire, so perhaps now he will be able to see things as they really are, and meet with God to reconcile differences and finally have his questions answered. A chance, I feel, to regain his childhood faith.

DREditors’ Best Books of 2018

Due to a long-term and acute case of lameness, I never published the DREditors’ best books of 2017. As part of my recover from this lameness-attack, I’m making sure that we get 2019 started off right with a review of the top-5 best books from each of our DREditors. Each who replied, at least. So, here we go!

Ro Givens

The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Many books like this one have a lot more science in them. This is more of a memoir/biography mixed with some science and medical law. So if you’re looking for a science-focused book, this is not the one, although if you’re looking for a book with no science, this is also not the one. This book tells the story of Henrietta and her family, interwoven with the medical industry’s use of her cervical cancer cells (HeLa), the author’s journey to uncover the family and medical history, and the legal precedents (or lack thereof) involving the consent for and use of human tissue sampled from patients and research subjects. One of the biggest legal takeaways is that if you have tissue separated from you (especially by a medical professional), you likely have no legal claim to it, the medical establishment can do whatever research they want on it, and, in most cases, they can profit from its use.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance

This book really touches on the cultural aspects of “hillbilly” America that have resulted in poverty throughout much of middle and southern America. It’s not all encompassing, as the author grew up white lower class, and not black, lower class (which brings a host of other issues, but which also has some overlap). Vance often talks about the pervasive feeling that “nothing I do matters” which results in people not trying hard and then blaming everyone else for their problems. He also discusses the feeling that “only other people can be successful”, the inherent tribalism among those who grow up in poverty, and thus the fear of admitting and showing success if you do end up successful. Ultimately Vance believes he “escaped” the poverty cycle because his grandparents didn’t let him hold on to these feelings and provided a safe and stabilizing home – even if he didn’t always live there. But he also benefited from getting into Yale law school – which gives some of the best social capital you can have in America.

Vance’s grandparents were amazing (in both great and crazy ways). I felt a connection to this book having grown up in a broken home (though my mom was the best) with economic difficulties (though not as extreme), with several last names in the household resulting from a complicated family tree, and with my grandfather being the most present father figure in my life. I also connected with the idea of growing up poor and unfamiliar with the academic and business world (my mom never went to college) and then trying to navigate that world all the way through graduate school and beyond. I think the book has the potential to bring empathy, understanding, and laughter to those who have grown up in stable, nuclear families and to bring a feeling of connection to those who have a family skeleton or two in their closets.

When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery by Frank T. Vertosick Jr.

Great read. Not for people who dislike gory details and sad endings, or anyone who needs to avoid webMD-like information for their emotional well-being.

I thought his description of cancer was super interesting.

Cancers and embryos are kindred spirits, both composed of highly mobile cells dividing at full throttle.  A fertilized ovum changes from a single cell to a miniature human body in a matter of weeks.  During this period of high speed construction, cells migrate freely from one region of the embryo to another, as complex organs are assembled from amorphous cell clusters.  The ability of cancerous cells to metastasize to distant sites is a throwback to the migratory  properties of embryonic cells.  The similarity of cancer cells to embryonic cells goes deeper than a simple capacity to migrate.  Proteins and hormones produced in fetal tissues suddenly reappear in cancerous tissues of adults… Mechanistically, cancer results not from the degeneration of adult tissue into decrepit forms, but from their regression into juvenile forms.  Cancer cells relive the heyday of their fetal youth… While adult tumors arise from differentiated cells lapsing retrograde into prenatal behavior, pediatric tumors arise from islands of embryonic tissue which never matured in the first place.  These “Peter Pan” cells won’t grow up, acting like embryonic tissue even after birth… The fetal nature of these tumors explains why they are so refractory to treatment.  Fetal cells have a mission: to create a child.  Their drive to complete this mission is so strong that only killing the patient will stop them.

Dr. Frank T. Vertosick, Jr. in “When the Air Hits Your Brain”

Honorable Mention / Fiction

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline aka 1980s Nerd Sci-Fi Explosion

The Martian by Andy Weir aka Space MacGyver

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness aka An Academic Writes a Vampire Novel

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller aka Young Female Pirate Captain is the YA Heroine We Need

Walker Wright

In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty by Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan

With populism on the rise, an empirical and philosophical defense of liberal trade and immigration are both needed. Brennan and van der Vossen give the best case I’ve seen in favor of an open economy, challenging both right-wing and left-wing populists. Perhaps even more important, they defend the notion of productive human rights: the ability to produce, work, build, create, etc. “To leave out productive rights,” they write, “…is not just to distort our picture of human rights and global justice. It’s to distort our picture of people—including the world’s poor. To fully respect people, we must not just make sure that they have enough welfare, happiness, or utility…We must treat them as active and productive agents, as contributors to their own lives and those around them, and no just as consumers or receptacles of goods” (pg. 111).

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motivations in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

In the era of social media, I have become extremely skeptical of people’s public moral grandstanding. Through a wide-ranging empirical investigation, Simler and Hanson demonstrate that I’m right to be skeptical: many of our motives are in fact selfish in nature (color me shocked…). We often seek to gain power and status through the accumulation of social and moral capital. And we do this through various mediums: consumption, charity, politics, religion, and so on. Of course, we are a mixed bag of motivations. But sweeping the selfish ones under the rug for fear of being called cynical does no one any good.

Sex & World Peace by Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett

The impressive datasets and empirical research found in this book demonstrate the interdependence of macro and microlevel institutions. The authors find that the physical security of women and various factors of gender inequality (e.g., polygyny, inequitable family law) are strongly associated with state-level peacefulness. In sum, gender inequality in customs and law perpetuates state insecurity and war. This is likely why Hudson elsewhere has described companionate heterosexual monogamous marriage as human peace incarnate.

The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology by Jonathan A. Stapley

Priesthood has been a hot button issue in contemporary Latter-day Saint discourse, largely due to debates over gender and ecclesiastical authority. In Stapley’s historical construction, priesthood in the early Church was cosmologically identified with the eternal kinship bonds created and concretized through temple rituals. The eclipse of this understanding and its conflation with ecclesiastical priesthood offices had major effects on future interpretations of both scriptures and ordinances. Stapley’s recovery of this earlier meaning enriches our already temple-oriented theology.

Death (The Art of Living) by Todd May

May is a philosophical advisor for the show The Good Place and it was there that I saw this book briefly mentioned. May argues that death is the most defining feature of human beings since it permeates throughout everything we think, feel, and do. What’s more, he argues that immortality in some ways would undermine meaning by eliminating the sacrifice and urgency associated with time scarcity. As a Latter-day Saint, my theology views mortality as a necessary step in eternal progression toward divinity. Despite the author coming from an atheistic angle, this book offers possible answers as to what role death plays in this training ground for godhood.

Honorable Mention

Nathaniel Givens

Unashamed by Lecrae Moore

It’s like I said in my Goodreads review: if I could give this book 6 stars, I would. I started listening to Lecrae after hearing “Just Like You” on a campus bus in Michigan. I memorized enough of the lyrics to look it up when I got home, and from then on I was hooked. Lecrae is one of my heroes with folks like Dustin Kensrue and Josh Garrels: artists who refuse to pick and choose between their faith and their art. Between the world and the kingdom.

This book is Lecrae’s autobiography. It’s an awesom story. It’s well-written. A lot of Lecrae’s excellent lyricism translates from verse to prose just fine. And it’s also full of really insightful Christian theology. I’m pretty sure Lecrae is reformed Calvinist which is pretty different from my ow faith, but it’s OK. It’s OK with me, anyway. What we have in common is much more than what separates us, and I learned–and continue to learn–a lot from Lecrae.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” The word for “workmanship” is “poema”. We are God’s poem to the world. A poem articulates the heart, the mind, and the character of the poet. Your calling may not be to write music or produce music or sing music but that’s OK. You are music. You’re God’s music. And God doesn’t just want to break records and top charts with you. He wants to change lives and industries and society. By God’s grace, I’m going to keep making the music as long as I have air in my lungs. But my prayer is that you’ll make music too. Maybe not with your voice. Maybe not on a stage. But hopefully with your life. And may God get the glory from the music we create. 

Keep on creating.

Lecrae in “Unashamed”

Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

I grew up with friends who were Muslim. I learned about Islam in school. I studied Islam a little bit more on my own. But reading Destiny Disrupted was the first time I felt like I really started to get it. The most important insight for me was understanding the extent to which Islam is–and always was–a communal project. I also really enjoyed learning about the stories of the lives of the early successors of Mohammad. Hearing those stories made me think that to understand where someone comes from, you really have to know the stories that they heard as kids. Finally, it’s a tragic story of how the forces of fundamentalism won out over other branches of Islam and sidelined their progress. I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone who is interested in Islam or just wants to read great history.

The moment Mohammed died, the community faced an overwhelming problem. It wasn’t just “Who is our next leader?” but “What is our next leader?” When a saint dies, people can’t simply name some other saint in his placed, because such figures aren’t created by election or appointment, they just emerge; and if they don’t, oh well; people may be disappointed but life goes on. When a king dies, by contrast, no one says, “Wouldn’t it be nice of someday we had another king?” The gap must be plugged at once.

When Prophet Mohammed died, it was like a saint dying but it was also like a king dying. He was irreplaceable, yet someone had to take his place. Without a leader, the Umma could not hold together.

Tamim Ansary in “Destiny Disrupted”

When the Air Hits Your Brain by Frank T. Vertosick, Jr.

I know that Ro already picked this one for her list, but I have to add it to mine, too. I’ve read several medical or scientific autobiographies, but this one is probably the most touching that I’ve ever encountered. It is a book defined by one term that you don’t ordinarily associate with the medical profession, and especially not with neurosurgeons: humility. This book will touch you, and it will also enlighten you. Read it.

You have to care about the patients, but not too much. It’s unethical to operate on our wives. Why? Because we’d be too likely to choke. To get nervous and f–k up if its our own family on the chopping block. The very fact that medical ethics forbids treating your immediate family is proof that we shouldn’t get so involved with a patient that we are made nervous by the possibility of failure. Patients want us to care about them, but they want us to perform with the nerveless demeanor of someone slicing baloney in a deli at the same time. It’s one of those unexplained paradoxes we just accept.

Doctor Frank T. Vertosick, Jr. in “When the Air Hits Your Brain”

The Destroyermen Series by Taylor Anderson

I have had so much fun with this series this year! There are thirteen books in the series, and I read every single one of them. (OK, I listened to them.) The premise is pretty simple. The USS Walker, a World War I-era destroyer that was sent to the Pacific after Pearl Harbor (Walker was a real-life ship) is caught up in a mysterious storm that transports it to an alternate-history version of the Earth where humans never evolved, but other intelligent life forms did. And those other species? They’re at war. Also: dinosaurs. It’s so, so good, and it has grown so, so far from that initial premise. There’s no way that I can summarize 13 books, so just trust me: they’re great.

“Wherever we go, whatever we do in this goofed-up world, somebody or something always needs killing.”

– Jim Ellis, in Taylor Anderson’s novel “Firestorm”

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 – 1918 by G. J. Meyer

This is the best history of World War I I’ve read since Guns of August, and I’d even say it’s better than Guns of August. It’s always amazing to me how badly wrong everything I learned about history in high school was, and this is no exception. A lot of that is on me. What can you really teach a sheltered teenager about the Great War? Not much. So, yeah, a lot of what I learned about trench warfare was wrong. The combat in World War I was much more dynamic, even on the Western Front, than what I was taught. But the utter, monumental, tragic senselessness of it all? I was told about it, but it didn’t sink in. Of course I don’t believe I cna understand it now like someone who lived through it then, but at least a glimmer of it finally got through to me while reading this sweeping, majestic, terrible history.

“Among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that war is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country. Let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.”


Excerpt from a letter by Roland Leighton to Vera Brittain in August 1915 as quoted by G. J. Meyer in “A World Undone”

Honorable Mention

Fisking Slate’s Non-Review of Gosnell

When Walker saw Slate’s non-review of Gosnell, his response was admirably succinct:

Oh, is Slate Slating again?

Me being me, I went on a smidge longer, and Monica asked me to turn my comments into a post. So, here they are.

Ruth Graham’s hit piece is so by-the-numbers that it serves as a great template for how to dodge an accusation that you really, really don’t want to address head-on. For that reason, even though fisking is usually not my thing, I couldn’t resist in this case. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Be vaguely dismissive

That’s even more impressive considering what the movie is: a gory legal thriller about abortion.

Most readers aren’t going to get past the first paragraph (if they even get past the headline), so you’ve got to lead with something that will effectively change the subject. Characterizing the film as a “gory…thriller” is a masterstroke. It fictionalizes the very real horror of Gosnell’s crimes, putting the film in the genre with the Saw franchise instead of real-crime, where it belongs.

Step 2: Seize the moral high ground

It’s true that many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long. And it’s also true that some of the obstacles Gosnell has faced are plausibly evidence of institutional discomfort with the film’s subject matter.

For the rare readers that make it this far, it’s time to switch to defense in depth. That requires occupying the high ground by giving the appearance of a reasonable concession. The appearance alone is enough to make you seem fair-minded and reasonable, but you don’t want to actually concede anything. This means you can either pick a few innocuous, specific aspects of the accusation or some benign generalities and then make a show of conceding them.

Then, having planted your flag on Mount Moral Superiority, you can then proceed with the rest of the piece as though nothing had happened. You can keep this up even if some of your subsequent points contradict–or at least directly relate to–the faux concession that you led with.

Step 3. FUD as far as the eye can see

In August, he said, executive producer John Sullivan inquired about purchasing a sponsorship spot on Fresh Air. An NPR representative told him he would have to edit the ad copy to call Gosnell simply a “doctor,” rather than an “abortionist” or an “abortion doctor.” But NPR’s own reporters had used the phrase abortion doctor in straight news stories, including stories about Gosnell. Gosnell’s producers ended up pulling the ad. (NPR told the Daily Beast, which reported the claim in September, that “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”)

The more valid the accusation, the harder it is to rebut specifically. So don’t try. Just fall back on good, old-fashioned FUD: fear, uncertainty, and denial. FUD isn’t a rebuttal, which is a based on providing contradictory information, but rather a “disinformation strategy…to influence perception by disseminating negative and dubious or false information.”

In other words, don’t contradict the accusation directly. Just throw up a bunch of stuff that kind-of, sort-of seems to contradict the accusation but really just trail off into suggestive innuendo.

Did NPR request changes to the copy that would have contradicted their own journalistic standards? That’s the important question, and we’re left with the impression that it was addressed… but it wasn’t.

When they struggled to find a distributor, they called it a “media coverup.”

Well… was it? This is what I mean about the fake concession. Graham stated right at the outset that “many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long” and that there is “evidence of institutional discomfort”. Yet here were are, at the very heart of the issue, and those earlier statements have disappeared down the memory hole. Now we’re putting “media coverup” in scare-quotes as though it were some wild-eyed conspiracy theory.

When some theaters dropped the film in its second weekend—not an unusual occurrence—they suggested it was ideologically driven “suppression.”

Is it an unusual occurrence for films that have cracked the top 10 box office to get dropped? Did “some” theaters drop Gosnell, or was it more widespread? All the quantitative information–information that movie reviewer should have at hand–is conspicuously absent here and what we’re left with is one of the most dishonest sections in the entire article.

Step 4. Attack the accuser

This is what we’ve been building up to. In an honest article–one where you actually tackle the accusations head-on–this is just an afterthought. Maybe you get around to supplying an alternative theory and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because you’ve already dealth with the accusaion itself. Going after the accuser is optional.

But in a dishonest article like this one, you haven’t really dealt with the accusation at all. And so attacking the accuser isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. In fact, it’s the whole point. Everything else–the moral high ground, the FUD–just lays the groundwork for the real payoff: an ad hominem response.

In 2015, he staged a drama in Los Angeles based on grand jury testimony from the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that suggested the shooting was justified. When some actors in the show requested changes, and others quit, McAleer claimed censorship and requested more donations on his crowdfunding page. When your audience thrives on stories of its own oppression, it’s easy to turn stumbling blocks into stairs.

See? The Gosnell film and all the controversy around it are just a plot to milk an unwarranted martyr-complex for fun and profit. Also: racism. This is an article about conservatives in Slate, after all. We had to get that in there somehow. It’s in their journalistic policies handbook.

Let me wrap up by getting more specific about the “accusation” that pro-choice folks, like Ruth Graham, want to make go away.

You see, the entire Kermit Gosnell situation is basically a worst-case scenario for pro-choice Americans, because it exposes and then explodes basically all of the myths that the American abortion industry is built on top of.

For starters, there’s the humanity of unborn human beings. The pro-choice lobby likes to focus on the early stages of conception because the issues seems ambiguous and they can get away with “clump of cells”-style rhetoric. Gosnell’s penchant for performing “abortions” by delivering live, late-term fetuses and then severing their spinal cords with scissors makes it just how obvious how arbitrary and capricious the whole born/not-born distinction is while simultaneously underscoring the basic humanity of all human beings, even the unborn.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact of late-term, elective abortions happening in the United States. Folks like Ruth Graham–liberal journalists who have never had to leave the comfort of their warm, cozy liberal womb echo-chamber–like to look to Europe as a breacon of sane, common-sensen social liberalism. And yet, America’s abortion laws are dramatically out of step with Europe’s. As an example, consider abortion in France:

Abortion in France is legal on demand up to 12 weeks after conception… Abortions at later stages of pregnancy are allowed if two physicians certify that the abortion will be done to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; a risk to the life of the pregnant woman; or that the child will suffer from a particularly severe illness recognized as incurable.

A law like this, one that is typical for “liberal” Europe could never be enacted in the United States. Not without overturning Roe v. Wade. The fact that Gosnell could routinely perform late-term, elective “abortions” without running afoul of American laws underscores how extreme the American abortion regime really is. Only a handful of countries in the world have laws that allow abortion as broadly as ours do. Protecting Roe v. Wade isn’t about protecting common-sense, basic feminism. It’s about protecting a radical policy that is wholly out-of-step with the rest of the developed world.

Then there’s the fact that Gosnell operated a filthy shop of horrors while pocketing millions of dollars from his (often poor, desperate) “patients” underscores another major pro-life argument: legal, elective abortions aren’t a way of empowering women; they are a means of victimizing and subjugating them. Pro-choice activists will tell you that legal abortions are safe abortions, but the fact is that Gosnell operated entirely without any competent medical oversight whatosever because any scrutiny could be seen as violating the pro-choice ethos of protecting abortion at all costs, including costs to women’s lives.

For all the talk about abortion empowering women, it is in fact a part of a systematic transfer of all the burden and costs of casual sex onto the shoulders of women without even the compensation of having those frightful costs acknowledged. In the US, we expect women to be sexually available for men no matter what it costs them, and the same people who prop up this misogynistic exploitation want to lecture us about “rape culture.” Rape culture didn’t aid and abett Kermit Gosnell, pro-choice culture did.

And look, if that seems a little too extreme for you, the final fact that Gosnell killed some of his patients (the adult ones) makes it really hard to perpetuate the myth that legal abortions are safe abortions.

These are the accusations that the Kermit Gosnell episode raise. And these are the reasons that pro-choice Americans desperately, fervently want the entire thing to go away. They emphatically don’t want to talk about a major, successful, independent film that draws heavily from transcripts of the court case to bring these issues front and center. So, this is what you do instead. You write a dissembling, dishonest non-review following this playbook and somewhere along the way you manage to change the topic from, “These guys accuse us of bias for sweeping this under the rug” to “These guys are racist profiteers.” Does that answer any of the questions raised by Gosnell or the secondary questions raised by the refusal of the media to cover Gosnell? No, it does not.

It was never supposed to.

Woodward’s “Fear” Made Me Fear Trump Less

This post is adapted from my original Goodreads review.

Fear Book CoverWhen the first sensational excerpts of Bob Woodward’s Trump book came out, I knew that I had to read it as quickly as I could. But I also wanted to have some perspective, given how controversial Trump is, and so first I read All the President’s Men and Obama’s Wars to calibrate my response. So, in the past few days, I’ve gone through all of these books, and here are my thoughts.

First–strictly speaking about the book as a book and ignoring the politics for a second–Fear is much better All the President’s Men or Obama’s Wars, both of which were basically nothing-burgers. In contrast, Fear was much more interesting and I felt like I really had learned a lot at the end of it.

OK, so now let’s switch to the politics. What did Fear teach me about Trump? In a nutshell, it taught me that the anti-Trump case is pretty weak, he’s probably not going to be impeached, and there isn’t anything worthy of impeaching him for. I’m not happy with any of those conclusions. I consider Trump unqualified by moral character to be President, and on the few issues where he has a genuine conviction I disagree vehemently with those positions. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that Woodward himself uses to close the book:

Dowd remained convinced that Mueller never had a Russian case or an obstruction case. He was looking for the perjury trap. And in a brutally honest self-evaluation, he believed that Mueller had played him and the President for suckers in order to get their cooperation on witnesses and documents. Dowd was disappointed in Mueller pulling such a sleight of hand… Dowd believed that the President had not colluded with Russia or obstructed justice. But, in the man in the and his Presidency, Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back and forth, the evasions, the denials, the Tweeting, the obscuring, crying “fake news”, the indignation Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the President: “You’re a f—ing liar.”

Fear by Bob Woodward

Although it’s hardly flattering, calling a politician a liar is not even newsworthy and if that’s the worst accusation you can throw at Trump, then we might as well settle in for his second term. That’s not to say that Trump’s dishonesty isn’t on a new level compared to other politicians, but Americans are too jaded from past accommodations with immoral behavior for an accusation of dishonesty to have any real traction, no matter how pathological. If you’re hoping for a smoking gun or something that will bring down the Trump presidency, this book not only isn’t it; it throws water on the whole prospect.

In fact, my overall impression of the book–especially in contrast to the early excerpts everyone talked about before the book was released–is that it humanizes and explains Trump. It doesn’t make me like him any more, but I do feel like I understand him more and that understanding isn’t always bad. For example:

Afterward, when Trump had phone calls with others from the military who had been killed, the White House staff noticed how hard and tough it seemed for him. “He’s not that guy,” Bannon said. “He’s never really been around the military. He’s never been around military family. Never been around death.” The deaths of parents of small kids struck him particularly hard. “That had a big impact on him, and it’s seen throughout everything.”

A staffer who sat in on several calls made to gold star families was struck by how much time and emotional energy devoted to them. He had a copy of material from the deceased service member’s personnel file. “I’m looking at his picture. Such a beautiful boy,” said in one call to family members. “Where did he grow up? Where did he grow to school? Why did he join the service?” 

“I’ve got the record here. There are reports here that say how much he was loved. He was a great leader.”

Some in the Oval Office had copies of the service records. None of what Trump cited was there. He was just making it up. He knew what the families wanted to hear.

Fear by Bob Woodward

That’s definitely not a description of a great president, but it’s not really a description of a monster, either. Woodward also finds some reason for the chaos in his administration:

Trump heard about the conflicts [among his staff]. He liked aggressive disagreements. They smoked out a wide variety of opinions. Harmony could lead to groupthink. He embraced the chaos and churn beneath him.

Fear by Bob Woodward

He also recounts Trump graciously thanking attorney John Dowd after Dowd had given Trump some really harsh criticism and advice Trump didn’t want to hear, recounting that “in a lifetime of law, Dowd maybe had only five clients who had so graciously expressed their thanks.”

Finally, Woodward revealed that Trump reads newspapers “more thoroughly than the public generally [knows],” which you have to contrast with allegations that Trump is only semi-literate. Sample:

This is what happens when you are functionally illiterate: Trump can read in theory but chooses not to, and therefore he is incapable of sustained learning.

“What on earth is Trump saying?” by Max Boot

This kind of reckless exaggeration from the press explains, to a great extent, why Trump seems invincible. As White House Communications Director Hope Hicks put it, “the media had ‘Oppositional Defiance Syndrome’,”:

Oppositional Defiance Syndrome is characterized by excessive anger against authority, vindictiveness, and temper-tantrums. As far as she was concerned, that described the press.

Fear by Bob Woodward

She’s not wrong, and Woodward deserves credit for avoiding that pitfall. I wish more journalists did, because if they hadn’t been so hysterical maybe they could have stopped him. The saddest part of the whole book for me was the revelation that–at the height of the Access Hollywood scandal–the plan was to have Trump step down and Pence run instead with Condoleeza Rice as VP. I don’t love Pence, necessarily, but I <3 Condi Rice.

The whole Access Hollywood thing is also a tragically ironic example of Trump’s resilience and the media’s complicity–intentionally or not–with that resilience. Here’s what happened:

By fall, the intelligence reports showed that Moscow, like almost every one else, believed that Clinton was likely to win. Russian President Vladmir Putin’s influence campaign shifted strategy to focus on undermining her coming presidency. Clapper and Secretary of Homeland Security Jay Johnson were the most anxious to alert the public to the Russian interference. At 3pm, on Friday October 7th, the released a joint statement officially accusing Russia of trying to interfere in the US election, although they didn’t name Putin in the public release. 

“The US intelligence community is confident the Russian government directed the recent compromise of emails from US persons and institutions. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Russia’s senior most officials are the only ones who could have authorized the activities.”

Clapper, Johnson and the Clinton campaign expected this to be the big news of the weekend, as did the reporters who began working on the story. But one hour later, at 4:05pm, David Farenthold at the Washington Post released a story headlined, “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.”

Fear by Bob Woodward

So, instead of a major headline about Russian meddling before the election we got the Access Hollywood story. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been a story, but I do think it’s less important than the Russian story for the simple reason that nothing in the Access Hollywood story was actually news. We all knew Trump was a pretty awful misogynist. Just one more example of that didn’t actually change anything, but it sure distracted people from the Russia story, which actually would have been news to the American public at that time. The press went with the sensational over the important, and here we are.

Oh, and one more thing: in addition to the dim view of Mueller, Woodward recounted a pretty devious play by the FBI that explains a lot Trump’s animosity. After an NYT article about Trump aids having contact with Russian intelligence officials, Andrew McCabe came to Reince Priebus to tell him the story was wrong. He even promised that the FBI would publicly reveal the info, a huge win for the White House. But then… he didn’t. Preibus called and tried to get McCabe to reveal the info he had and that he’d said they would reveal, but he refused. And then CNN reported an exclusive story with the headline: “FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia story.”

So not only did the FBI not come through like they said they would, but they setup the Trump administration to make it look like they were trying to pressure the FBI dishonestly, when all they were doing was asking the FBI to reveal facts the FBI had first come to the Trump administration with. Only months later did the truth come out–far after everyone quit paying attention–when Comey public testified under oath that the original NYT story was “in the main… not true.” I’m not sure exactly what happened there–and Woodward doesn’t explain it either–but if the FBI did that to me, I’d be furious and suspicious, too.

What I’m saying is that, at the end of the day, this book made me–a committed #NeverTrumper–dislike Trump less than before I read it. This is mostly just a question of expectations. My opinion of Trump was so low that even a really damning, negative book is actually not as bad as my worst suspicions. Yeah, there’s a lot of pretty negative quotes from Trump officials, like Mattis saying Trump had the intellectual capacity of “a 5th or 6th grader” or Bannon saying adult logic didn’t work on Trump, and you had to use teenage logic instead, but (1) that’s not news and (2) these are insults hurled immediately after angry confrontations.

Understanding someone doesn’t necessarily mean liking them. I still think President Trump has no business being President, and I’m disappointed that so many Americans voted for him (especially primary voters!). But understanding does make it harder to casually hate a person. 

There’s still a lot left to understand, of course. The book isn’t a comprehensive biography of Trump, and so there’s still a lot left that I don’t get. Mostly: W=why did he run in the first place? Was it just outright egoism? Just an opportunistic grab for the biggest spotlight he could find? That’s my best theory, but it’s outside the scope of this book and so I don’t know.

I will say that the most interesting person in the book is Steve Bannon. He understands Trumpism better than Trump ever did, and I’m surprised he got the boot. Then again, that might be the problem. Trump seems to be a basically empty vessel that happens to be anti-trade, anti-immigration, and isolationist without any discernible foundation of principle that would explain these views. Steve Bannon has the same views, but he also has a brain and conviction. It’s like Trump is a cardboard cutout and Bannon is the 3d version. From that perspective, it makes sense that Trump wouldn’t want him around forever.

Here’s how Bannon outlined Trumpism before coming on board to lead the campaign to victory:

The elites in the country are comfortable with managing the decline, right?… And the working people in the country are not. They do want to make America great again. We’re going to simplify this campaign. She is the tribune of a corrupt and incompetent status quo of elites who are comfortable managing the decline. You are the tribune of the forgotten man who wants to make America great again, and we’re just going to do it in a couple of themes. Number one… we’re going to stop mass illegal immigration and start to limit legal immigration to get our sovereignty back. Number two, we are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country, and number three, we’re going to get out of these pointless foreign wars.

Fear by Bob Woodward

I disagree with all of that, but at least it’s comprehensible. And for the first time, the expression “make America great again” made sense to me. It’s not about restoring America’s place in the world or in the eyes of others, it’s a reaction to decades of America’s elites–with liberal academics as the point of this particular spear–deliberately attacking the myth of America and leaving nothing in its place. And yeah, America as a virtuous country is a myth, but it’s an important myth and (I would argue) one that is worth keeping in a conditional and aspirational sense. And maybe that’s what liberal academics intended, but that message got lost in translation and all everyday Americans heard was a constant, sneering repudiation of everything they loved. They’ve had enough. And now the pendulum is swinging too far the other direction.

My last thoughts are about the folks in the Trump administration who are actively working to thwart Trump’s plans, like the infamous anonymous staffer who wrote that NYT op-ed piece: I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.

I think they thought that America would be grateful for all they do, but the response has been pretty negative, with many accusing the resistance within the Trump administration of basically committing a soft-coup. It’s a tough decision. What do you do, allow Trump to do absolutely asinine and genuinely dangerous things like try to kill NATO or unilaterally end a trade deal with South Korea that is vital to our national security? Or actively undermine the democratic process by preventing the President from doing the very things that he campaigned and was elected to do, like pull out of free-trade deals? I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Some of what Trump wants to do is flat-out illegal. The Administration has a right and a responsibility to thwart that. But, on top of the coup-argument, I also feel like a lot of ignorant people in America voted for a President who shared their ignorance, and to the extent that we prevent Trump from getting us into ruinous trade wars we’re effectively enabling the people who voted for him to maintain their sense of grievance without paying the very real and very high cost for the idiotic policies they love so dearly. 

I’m conflicted, because I’m angry enough that it’s hard to separate arguments about democratic accountability from a desire to have people reap what they sow. Free trade deals like NAFTA and mutual defense pacts like NATO are a bedrock part of American and even global prosperity. I’d dearly, dearly like to see them preserved and–when it comes to the free-trade deals–expanded. We depend on immigrants to bring in fresh ideas and fresh patriotism and contribute to ensuring America stays true to its legacy as a country defined by ideas and principles and not by ethnicities or tribes. Being white should never be relevant to being an American. Supporting ideals like freedom should always be relevant. But if we’re going to have a large section of the American public repudiate things like free-trade and immigration and pluralism, then a part of me wants to see them get exactly what they’re asking for rather than be protected from the consequences of their actions. The electorate may have behaved like children, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated like children. That paternalism is probably counter-productive in the long-run, not to mention corrosive to the very idea of democracy. On the other hand, nuclear war…

At the end of the day, I don’t really see any good options and I don’t really see any good guys. Thwarting Trump is vital to national security, but also further strains the very legitimacy of our system of government. Trump and his most fervent supporters are a dysfunctional, amoral disaster and his harshest critics aren’t opposing him, they’re codependent with him. Welcome to America in the 21st century.

Hey, at least we had a good run.

Weaponized Opinions and Ideological DMZs

When David Hume said that “reason is…the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”, he thought it would “appear somewhat extraordinary.” Maybe it did in the mid-18th century, but a 21st century audience takes this assertion in stride. It’s not that human nature has changed. Humans have always held opinions and they’ve always been held for non-rational reasons. What’s changed is that we’re more aware of the extent of our opinions and of their frequently irrational nature.

We’re more aware of this for two reasons. First, the narcissism of social media and the tribally partisan nature of our society make us painful aware of everybody else’s opinions. As a group, we can’t shut up about the things we think are obviously true, even though things that really are obviously true (like the sky being blue) don’t generally require frequent reminders in the form of snarky memes.

Second, there’s a growing body of research into the reasons and mechanisms by which humans acquire and maintain their beliefs. It’s become so trendy to talk about cognitive biases, for example, that the Wikipedia list of them is becoming a bit of a joke. Still, the underlying premise–that human reason is about convenience and utility rather than about truth–is increasingly undeniable and books like Thinking, Fast and Slow or Predictably Irrational make that undeniable reality common knowledge.

In fact, we can now go farther than Hume and say that not only is reason the slave of the passions, but that it is only thanks to the passions that humans evolved the capacity for reason at all. This is known as the Argumentative Theory, which researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber summarized like this:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation.

Oddly enough, I can’t find a Wikipedia article to summarize this theory, but it’s been cited approvingly by researchers I respect like Frans de Waal and Jonathan Haidt, who summarized it this way: “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.”

If the theory is right, then the human tendency to believe what is useful and then to express those beliefs in ways that are farther useful is part of the story of how humanity came to be. This might have been deniable in Hume’s day, requiring an iconoclastic genius to spot it, but it’s becoming a humdrum fact of life in our day.

Our beliefs are instrumental. That is, we believe things because of the usefulness of holding that belief, and that usefulness is only occasionally related to truth. If the belief is about something that’s going to have a frequent and direct effect on our lives–like whether cars go or stop when the light is red–then it is very useful to have accurate beliefs and so our beliefs rapidly converge to reality. But if the belief is about something that is going to have a vague or indeterminate effect on our lives–and almost all political beliefs fall into this category–then there is no longer any powerful, external incentive to corral our beliefs to match reality. What’s more, in many cases it would be impossible to reconcile our beliefs with reality even if we really wanted to because the questions at play are too complicated for anyone to answer with certainty. In those cases, there is nothing to stop us from believing whatever is convenient.

And it’s not just privately-held beliefs that are instrumental. Opinions–the expression of these beliefs–add an additional layer of instrumentality. Not only do we believe what we find convenient to believe, but we also express those beliefs in ways that are convenient. We choose how, when, and where to express our opinions so as to derive the most benefit for the least amount of effort. Benefits of opinions include:

  • maintaining positive self-image: “I have such smart, benevolent political opinions. I’m such a good person!”
  • reinforcing community ties: “Look at these smart, benevolent political opinions we have in common!”
  • defining community boundaries: “These are the smart, benevolent political opinions you have affirm if you want to be one of us!”
  • the buzz of moral superiority: “We have such smart, benevolent political opinions. Not like those reprehensible morons over there!”

Opinions aren’t just tools, however. They are also weapons. If you want to understand what I’m talking about, just think of all the political memes you see on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. They are almost always focused on ridiculing and delegitimizing other people. This is about reinforcing community ties and getting high off of moral superiority, but it is also about intimidating the targets of our (ever so righteous) contempt and disdain. We live in an age of weaponized opinion.

Which brings me to the idea of a demilitarized zone.

A demilitarized zone is an “is an area in which treaties or agreements between nations, military powers or contending groups forbid military installations, activities or personnel.” The term is also used in the context of computers and networking. In that case, a DMZ is a part of a private network that is publicly accessible to other networks, usually the Internet. It’s a tradeoff between accessibility and security, allowing interaction with anonymous, untrusted computers but restricting that access to only specially designated computers in your network that are placed in the DMZ, while the rest of your computers are stored behind a defensive firewall.

The same concepts make sense in an ideological framework.

A typical partisan might have a range of beliefs that looks something like this:

The green section doesn’t represent what is actually good / correct. It represents what a person asserts to be correct / good. The same applies for the red portion. So, these will be different for different people. If you are, for example, someone who is pro-life then the green category will include beliefs like “all living human beings deserve equal rights” and the red portion will include beliefs like “consciousness and self-awareness are required for personhood”. If you are pro-choice, then the chart will look the same but the beliefs will be located in the opposite regions.

And here’s what it looks like if you introduce an ideological DMZ:

The difference here is that we have this whole new region where we are refusing to categorize something as correct / good or incorrect / bad. This may seem like an obvious thing to do. If, for example, you hear a new fact for the first time and you don’t know anything about it, then naturally you should not have an opinion about it until you find out more, right? Well, if humans were rational that would be right. But humans are not rational. We use rationality as a tool when we want to, but we’re just as happy to set it aside when it’s convenient to do so.

And so what actually happens is that when you hear a new proposition, you (automatically and without thinking about it consciously) determine if the new proposition is relevant to any of your strongly-held political opinions. If it is, you identify if it helps or hurts. If it helps, then you accept it as true. Maybe you use the same “fact” in your next debate, or share the article on your timeline, or forward it to your friends. In other words, you stick it into the green bucket. If it hurts, you reject it as false. You attack the credibility of the person who shared the fact or thrust the burden of proof on them or even jump straight to attacking their motives for sharing it in the first place. You stick it in the red bucket.

If you’re following along so far, you might notice that what we’re talking about is certainty. One of the popular and increasingly well-known facts about human beings and certainty is that certainty and ignorance go hand in hand. The technical term for this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.” Even if you’ve never heard that term, however, you’ve probably seen webcomics like this one from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

Or maybe this one from xkcd:

The idea of a DMZ is related to these concepts, but it’s not the same. These comics are about the vertical ignorance/certainty problem. Lack of knowledge combined with instrumental beliefs cause people to double-down on convenient beliefs they already have. That’s a real problem, but it’s not the one I’m tackling. I’m talking about a horizontal ignorance/certainty problem. Instead of pouring more and more certainty into (ignorant, but convenient) beliefs that we already have, this problem is about spreading certainty around to different, neighboring beliefs that are new to us.

How does that play out in practice? Well, as a famous study revealed recently, “people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.” That’s because–without a consciously defined and maintained DMZ–they immediately categorize new information into the red or green region even if it means magically becoming bad at math. That’s how strong the temptation is to sort all new information into friend/foe categories is, and it’s the reason we need a DMZ.

So what does having a DMZ mean? It means, as I mentioned earlier, that you can easily list of several arguments or propositions which might work against your beliefs, but that you don’t reject out of hand because you simply don’t know enough about them. It doesn’t mean you have to accept them. It doesn’t mean you have to reject the belief that they threaten. It doesn’t even mean you have investigate them right away.. It just means you refrain from categorizing them in the red bucket. And you do the same with new information that helps your cause. If it is about a topic you know little about, then you go ahead and put it in that blue bucket. You say, “That sounds good. I hope it’s true. But i’m not sure yet.”

There’s another aspect to this as well. So far I’ve been talking about salient propositions, that is: propositions that directly relate to some of your political beliefs. I’ve been leaving aside irrelevant facts. That’s because–although it’s easy for anyone to stick irrelevant facts in the blue bucket–the distinction between relevant and irrelevant facts is not actually stable or clear cut.

One of the problems with our increasingly political world is that more and more apparently unrelated facts are being incorporated into political paradigms. There’s a cottage industry for journalists to fill quotas by describing apparently innocuous things as racist. A list of Things college professors called ‘racist’ in 2017 includes math, Jingle Bells (the song), and punctuality. This is a controversial topic. Sometimes, articles like this really do reveal incisive critiques of racial inequality that’s not obvious at first. Sometimes conservatives misrepresent or dumb-down these arguments just to make fun of them. But sometimes–like when a kid in my high school class complained that it was sexist to use the term for a female hero (heroine) as the name for a drug (heroin)–the contention really is silly. And so part of the DMZ is also just being a little slower to see new information in a political light. Everything can be political–with a little bit of rhetorical ingenuity–but there’s a big difference between “can” and “should”.

If you don’t have an ideological DMZ yet, I encourage you to start building one today. In networking, a DMZ is a useful way to allow new information to come into your network. An ideological DMZ can fill the same function. It’s a great way to start to start to dig your way out of an echo chamber or avoid getting trapped in one in the first place. In geopolitics, a DMZ is a great way to deescalate conflict. Once again, an ideological DMZ can fill a similar role. It’s a useful habit to reduce the number of and lower the stakes in the political disagreements that you have.

Even after all these years, North and South Korea are technically still at war. A DMZ is not nearly as good as a nice, long, non-militarized border (like between the US and Canada). And so I have to admit that calling for an ideological DMZ feels a little bit like aiming low. It’s not asking for mutual understanding or a peace treaty, let alone an alliance.

But it’s a start.

 

Robert Putnam, Our Kids, and the Future

I have thoughts on Robert Putnam’s most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and on the response he gave me when I asked him a question about his optimistic outlook while he signed my copy after giving a lecture at the University of Richmond earlier this year.

My first thought, and I might as well get this out of the way, was the jaw-dropping irony when someone at the lecture stood up to ask an “us-vs-them”-style question juxtaposing “the rich” against ordinary people, like those of us here in the audience. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, just that it assumed as a premise that rich people were some weird, money-grubbing, alien group far away and the students, faculty, and alumni in the room were all very different from them.

That’s an astonishing lack of self-awareness, given the fact that you can expect to cough up more than $60,000 per year to attend the University of Richmond. That’s right up there with the most expensive colleges in the country. The students at the University of Richmond come from some of wealthiest families in the country. The decadence was really off-putting for someone like me, who attended for free thanks to generous faculty benefits, and never could figure out how to fit in with the kinds of people who are chauffeured from their family’s private jet to their dorm room in a limousine.

The question was a stark contrast with Putnam’s own views. One of the primary functions of modern identity politics is the way that it absolves upper-class Americans of guilt and redirects inquiry away from any social or economic critique that could threaten their entrenched power. This is one half of the danger presented by this ideology: no matter it’s original intent or origins, it has been firmly and decisively co-opted by America’s upper class and obediently serves their interests.

The other half of the danger was best articulated in the Slate Star Codex post Against Murderism, where the threat was summarized like this:

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”

Putnam didn’t contradict his interlocutor directly, but he didn’t really need to because his book is so adamantly opposed to an identity-based view of social and economic inequality, channeling the focus instead on class. For example:

That gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts. Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, with the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing (the same pattern we discovered earlier in this inquiry for other measures, among them nonmarital births). By the opening of the twenty-first century, the class gap among students entering kindergarten was two to three times greater than the racial gap. (162-163)

And later:

What we found in our interviews is that upper-middle-class kids–even across differences of race, gender, and region–look and sound remarkably similar across the nation. The same goes for working-class kids. For example, a black working-class boy like Elijah in Atlanta share many more life experiences (parental abandonment, jail, poor school, and so forth) with David, a white working-class boy in Port Clinton, than he does with Desmond, a black upper-middle class boy in suburban Atlanta. This is not to say that race does not matter for children’s outcomes; as we say in Atlanta, both Desmond (upper-middle-class) and Elijah (working-class) face harmful prejudices and discrimination in their schools and neighborhoods. However, Desmond’s mother’s class-based parenting practices–intervening in institutions, thoughtfully building cognitive skills and self-confidence from early childhood, and even monitoring how Desmond dressed when he left the house–sheltered him from many of the harsh realities experienced by Elijah on a daily basis. (273)

Not only does Putnam refuse to allow identity politics to be used as a cloaking device for class, but he also eschews the more radical economic criticisms that equate wealth with immorality.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this is a book without upper-class villains. Virtually none of the upper-middle-class parents of our stories are idle scions of great wealth lounging comfortably on family fortunes. Quite the contrary, Earl and Patty and Carl and Clara and Ricardo and Marnie were each the first in their families to go to college. Roughly half of them came from broken homes. Each has toiled exhaustingly to climb the ladder, and they have invested much time, money, and thought in raising their kids. Their own modest origins–though not destitute–were in some respects closer to the circumstances facing poor kids today than to the circumstances in which their own kids have grown up. (229)

Aside from class, the major theme that Putnam addressed was family structure, although he also noted that the two frequently go hand in hand.

Ironically, the new research findings [into parenting strategies] tend to amplify class differences, at least in the short run, because well-educated parents are more likely to learn of them, directly or indirectly, and to put them to use in their own parenting. As we’ll see, a class-based gap in parenting styles has been growing significantly during recent decades. Simone and Stephanie both clearly love their children, but as their stories and the scientific research make clear, when it comes to parenting, love alone is not enough to guarantee positive outcomes. (117)

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression: I’m not claiming that Robert Putnam is a conservative. He’s clearly not. Nor does he suggest that race is irrelevant or unimportant. Although he’s generally skeptical of the idea that specific policies either caused the widening class-gap in the United States or could easily fix it, he does call out one particular group of policies that did “contribute to family breakdown” and thus the widening chasm in our society: the War on Drugs, ‘three strikes’ sentencing, and the sharp increase in incarceration.” (76)

So it’s not that I claim Robert Putnam as an ideological fellow traveler. He isn’t. But he’s the kind of nuanced, serious, open-minded, fact-based, honest researcher that I believe improves the conversation even when I disagree with him.

Now, let me get to my brief exchange with him during the book signing.

Putnam’s optimistic spin on all the negative statistics is pretty simple: America has been here before and it made us better. The last time things were this unequal and unfair in our society was the Gilded Age and it was eventually followed a wave of progressive reforms that remade our society and ushered in an era of unprecedented equality and social mobility. I’m not sure I buy this historical narrative, but even if I grant all of it to Putnam for the sake of argument, there’s one dark reality that overshadows his optimistic belief that we can reproduce last century’s turn-around.

You see, one of the most vital causes of our current inequality is (as I mentioned above) family structure. And on that metric more than any other, our current dismal state of affairs is not like what has happened before. It’s unprecedented. As Putnam observes:

Unlike today, desperately poor, jobless men in the 1930s did not have kids outside of marriage whom they then largely ignored. Today the role of father has become more voluntary, which means that, as Marcia Carlson and Paula England have put it, “only the most committed and financially stable men choose to embrace it.” (75)

He also draws the connection to economic prosperity and equality directly:

Given these handicaps, it is hardly surprising that recent research has suggested that the places in American where single-parent families are most common are the places where upward mobility is sluggish. (79)

So, I asked him as he signed his book, how did he think we could turn things given the erosion of the family? He gave me a direct and honest reply. First, he pointed out that he left those points (and especially the quote on page 75) in the book intentionally to rile his own political allies. Second, he criticized conservative ideas that you could directly strengthen American families through policy intervention. (Which seems reasonable to me.) Finally, given these two facts, he suggested that we just had to hope that somehow our society could rediscovery prosperity and equality without strong families.

It’s an honest answer, but a bleak one.

The longer I’ve written and read about politics—not to mention the dumpster fire that is American politics in an age of Trump—the more I’ve come to see culture as fundamental.  I have my political and economic views, sure. But they pale in importance relative to the essential question of culture. A fundamentally honest and civil culture is resilient and can tolerate an awful lot of policy mistakes. A fundamentally dishonest and angry culture is brittle and probably can’t thrive even with perfect policies.

Much as I’d like to share in Putnam’s optimism, I just can’t.

Campus Free Speech Crisis a Myth?

The WaPo has an article claiming that there is no free-speech crisis, and providing stats to back up the claim. The article did not convince me. Here’s why.

It’s Not Just About Free Speech

The decline of free speech on college campuses is not the root problem; it’s a concerning symptom of a broader malady. In particular, the folks who are concerned about this issue posit that there’s a tendency of a radical minority to shut down political discourse as a political tactic. Although a lot of problems in the country are bipartisan, this one isn’t. It’s a peculiarly left-wing malady that reflects a growing contempt by many on the modern left for the values of liberalism that once defined it. I mean liberal in the old sense of the word, as in emphasizing individualism.

This isn’t an accusation from the outside, by the way, it’s an avowed element of one of the core intellectual components of Critical Race Theory. One definition states flatly that “CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy.”

So it’s not that there’s this explicitly anti-free speech trend in college campuses. It’s that there’s a virulent new ideology that uses attacks on free speech as a first resort.

Not All Speech is Equal

This being the case, looking for general survey results that attack free speech is misguided on multiple levels. First, it’s possible that the anti-free speech crowd are too small to register much in surveys but still powerful enough to create a climate of fear. In fact, that’s basically exactly what people concerned about this issue are saying. Second, even if you can get a survey with enough granularity to pick up on this minority, they aren’t opposed to free speech in all cases, but only in some cases. If you ask them about the wrong cases, you won’t measure anything at all.

Bearing that in mind, what kind of survey does the WaPo piece rely on? One that asks whether or not gay people should be allowed to give a speech. I kid you not. That, and an example about an anti-American Muslim cleric, are the leading examples. If you wanted to design survey results to be willfully blind to the actual concern, you couldn’t do better than this.

What are We Trying to Measure?

Speaking of willfully blind, the last section cites research by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that there were only 35 no-platforming attempts in 2017 with only 19 being successful. So, “In a country with over 4,700 schools, that hardly constitutes a crisis.”

The meaningless of this statistic is impressive, given that Jeffrey Adam Sachs went to the trouble of finding and citing a dataset, but apparently not copy-pasting it into Excel to do some super-basic charting. Your first question might be, “Well, 35 attempts in 2017 doesn’t sound too bad, but is there a trend?” That would be anybody’s first question, I’d think, and here’s what that chart looks like:

Well, gee. There’s an upward trend if ever I saw one. And remember, we said that this was an ideologically-biased trend. FIRE helpfully sorts the no-platforming attempts into left and right, so what does that breakdown look like?

We’ve got a more or less flat line from the right, and a pronounced, multi-year upward trend for the left starting a little less than 10 years ago. It’s almost as though all those people who are worried about a disturbing new anti-free speech trend coming from the political left might have something in the data to substantiate their concerns! Again: the same dataset that Sachs cited (but apparently didn’t really look at).

This doesn’t go directly to Sachs’ claim that 35 incidents out of 4,900 universities isn’t enough to care about, but that’s a questionable assumption if ever there was one. First of all, I’m curious as to what Sachs’ threshold is. How many times do left-wing radical have to shut-up speakers they don’t like in specifically the places ostensibly designated for discussing controversial, diverse ideas before it becomes a problem?

And then there’s the fact that this doesn’t reveal anything about how many controversial speakers never get invited at all because administrators don’t want to deal with protests? Counting free speech in terms of protests is fundamentally a strange concept. I would expect both a libertarian utopia and an Orwellian dystopia to have essentially zero protests, so what does the absence of protests say about free speech? Only that it’s not an issue. When it’s as prevalent as the air we breath, no one protests. And when it’s completely repressed, no one protests.

But when free speech is in a transitional period–away from or towards repression–well that’s when I’d expect to see a spike.

And keep in mind: there’s a lot more going on than just no-platforming. One of the most important functions of no-platforming is not only to dissuade controversial speakers from visiting the campus, but to create a climate of ideological intolerance and intimidation that keeps ordinary students from speaking their minds, something that is going on, as Sachs concedes: “Very conservative students also tend to report that they are less comfortable expressing themselves in the classroom than very liberal students.”

Final Thoughts

Some folks might not like that I’ve singled out the left in this piece, especially when I try to be even-handed. I get that. I do try to be even-handed. That’s not going to change. This post doesn’t represent a new, angrier, more partisan turn for me. This just happens to be one, specific, exceptional case where the cards don’t break evenly. The left has a bigger problem here.

But that doesn’t mean the right doesn’t have one! You could easily say that Trump’s populism and the entire Alt-Right is nothing but the right’s attempt to catch up with the left’s new-found identical politics. And you’d be right. And, lamentably, the right is a fast learner in this regard. It could very well be that–shortly–the right will have caught up with its own radical fringe of anti-free speech zealots.

Whether or not you call this a “crisis” is just semantics. What does seem evident is that there is a rise in no-platforming protests, that it is stemming primarily from the left, and that it is happening at the same time as a tide of research indicates ideological discrimination on campuses is widespread and pernicious for both students, professors, and research. For more on that, just check up on the Heterodox Academy’s problem statement.

Moving the Conversation Forward on Common Sense Gun Reform

While most Americans support the Second Amendment, and support the rights of hunters and homeowners to own rifles or handguns to defend themselves or bag deer, these same Americans also support restrictions on certain specific guns that are too deadly to be in the hands of civilians, because they lead too-readily to slaughter.

While certain gun-rights advocates take this to be a call to “ban all guns,” it’s really not. It’s only about particular guns, and the distinction is common sense.  It’s so simple I can explain it in pictures.

This is a picture of the rifle used in the 2011 Norway massacre where some 77 were slaughtered.

This gun is fully semi-automatic. While this is not an AR-15, it is based on an AR-15, and fires the same deadly ammunition at the same rate of fire used at both the Parkland shooting and the Las Vegas massacre. It has a detachable magazine that can hold up to 20 rounds and be readily changed. With an attachment like a bump stock, this gun can be altered to fire at machine-gun speeds.

Here is a picture of another rifle.

This gun is dubbed a “ranch gun,” intended for use by hunters and ranchers for life in the American West. It fires a moderate round, the Remington .223, which many believe to be a “varmint round” — that is, a bullet that is suited more to shooting coyotes than to hunting deer. The bullet caliber is nothing compared to more deadly ammunition intended to bring down elk or bears, and some states ban the use of this caliber for deer hunting, since it doesn’t always kill a deer immediately. And unlike an assault rifle, the ranch gun will not fire automatically.

It’s common sense that no one needs to own the first gun, which is intended only to kill, while the second gun has a legitimate use for ranchers. While some individuals may be calling for a blanket ban, most Americans wanting a reform of gun laws still believe in the right to own a firearm like the ranch gun to hunt or defend your property.  Most Americans want sensible gun control laws, that will still allow you to own the ranch gun, but not the deadly weapon used in mass shootings.

But It’s Not So Simple

This is the thing, though, about common sense gun reform: The two weapons shown above are the same gun. They are both the Ruger Mini-14.

Similar to automobiles, which can come in coup, hatchback, or sedan styles, guns can also come in different styles. What I just showed you are two different styles of the same gun: tactical and ranch. Those two guns have the same rate of fire (semi-automatic), fire the same caliber bullet (.223R), they both have detachable magazines that can hold up to 20 rounds. Neither of the guns is capable of automatic fire.

Further, the Ruger Mini-14 uses the exact same caliber bullet as the AR-15 and has the exact same rate of fire as the AR-15. Neither the Ruger Mini-14 nor the AR-15 is capable of automatic fire.

Aside from details of appearance and preference, there is no functional difference between the ranch gun I showed you and an AR-15. They are equally deadly as weapons.

This is where we see a problem with “common sense” gun reform. While I agree it seems obvious which gun to ban, that is a misperception formed from a lack of knowledge. The public is largely misinformed on guns, and it is crucial we clarify what we mean.

The Terms of the Conversation Are Muddled

There is a vocal movement of people calling to ban assault rifles. You hear about it very often in the news. FedEx just released a statement calling for ban on assault rifles, as did Dick’s Sporting Goods.  And it would seem common sense, that civilians do not need assault rifles for hunting.

Common sense gun-reform proponents will then be happy to know that assault rifles are already illegal for civilian use in the United States. Only certain professions are authorized to own assault rifles, and they may only own registered assault rifles manufactured before the ban went into effect.

You may further be stunned to learn that the NRA supported the ban on civilian ownership of assault rifles.

But now you’re wondering: if assault rifles are already illegal, then why is there a vocal movement to have them banned? And if assault rifles are already illegal, then how are these killers able to get their hands on AR-15s?

As to the second question, the answer is easy: it’s because an AR-15 is not an assault rifle.

I know, I know: who cares the terminology, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, you don’t need to own it. But it does matter. It matters because these words have definitions, and we can’t have a conversation about policy if we’re not going to use the policy-defined words to talk about it. It leads to confusion.

The word “assault rifle” already has a definition. An assault rifle is a rifle capable of selective fire between automatic and semi-automatic fire, as defined by the ATF.  Assault rifles (and all automatic weapons) are illegal in the US for general civilian use. An AR-15 is incapable of automatic fire, and so is not an assault rifle, and therefore not included under the ban on assault rifles.

The difference between firing rate is a common source of confusion, so let me explain: automatic firing means that the gun will continue to chamber and fire bullets for as long as the trigger is held down; semi-automatic firing means that the action of releasing the trigger causes a new bullet to be chambered. This is an important distinction. A semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 or the Mini-14 can only fire one bullet with one pull of the trigger.

It’s important to remember this difference in firing rate, because it matters to policy decisions. For instance, because it is already illegal to own one kind of gun, and perfectly legal to own the other. If you talk about banning assault rifles, someone might think you mean to ban guns capable of automatic fire; someone else might think that guns like the AR-15 are capable of automatic fire. It leads to confusion on what we’re even talking about, and makes people claiming to be following “common sense” appear to not actually understand the issue at hand.

Assault rifles are already illegal, an AR-15 is not an assault rifle, because an AR-15 is not capable of automatic fire.

As to the first question, why the move to ban a category of weapon that is already banned… I think the answer is a lack of understanding.

If You’re Not Familiar With Guns, You Have a Bad Intuition About Guns

There is currently a proposed bill that would criminalize all semi-automatic rifles. When Marco Rubio, at the CNN Town Hall, warned about just this, he was met with defiant applause; as Trevor Noah of the Daily Show put it, that’s what we want to do; we want to outlaw all semi-automatic rifles.

Except think back to the ranch gun from earlier. You probably thought it was common sense not to ban it. And you probably didn’t think of it as a semi-automatic rifle.

The problem is that people are guided by their intuitions on this issue, and those intuitions are formed by a mix of Hollywood images and national news cycle that are at best misinformed, or at worst actively disinterested in accuracy in favor of sensationalism and theatre. In such media, words like “automatic”, “semi-automatic”, “assault rifle”, and “machine gun” get thrown around with reckless abandon, seeming to confuse them all in discussing guns like the AR-15.  We usually see the AR-15 is characterized as some sort of pinnacle of scariness, such as in the recent CNN investigation into them that kept trying to hype up their terror-factor. We’re told that the AR-15 is a toned-down machine gun with superior firepower and devastating ammunition.

I think many people calling for common sense gun reform believe what they hear about the AR-15, and don’t know of any other referent in the discussion of guns, calibers, and firing rate. If the AR-15 is the only semi-automatic weapon you’ve ever heard of, then you probably associate semi-automatic rifles with massacres; less so with ranchers shooting coyotes.

The fact of the situation is that semi-automatic rifles make up one of the most popular classes of hunting rifles (by some estimates more than 20% of all privately-owned guns), and make a larger proportion of gun sales each year. As it turns out, hunters (like video gamers) prefer not having to reload after every shot.

But the only difference between a semi-automatic rifle used for hunting and the tactical gun we need to ban, is the way it looks. There is no meaningful legal category that distinguishes them.

If you ban semi-automatic rifles, you will be banning the Ruger Mini-14 ranch gun. You’ll get the tactical Ruger Mini-14 and the AR-15, but you’ll also get the gun that shoots coyotes and may or may not be able to bag a deer.

So when someone tells you that there is no way to ban the AR-15 without banning all semi-automatic rifles, you, the advocate for common sense gun laws, should be concerned. Most Americans would feel that a rancher has a right to a gun that can defend his property from predators. It’s common sense. If you really feel he has a right to it, then you should oppose laws that infringe that right. And a ban on semi-automatic rifles would do just that.

The point of this has been to try to clarify the conversation, because so much misinformation exists out there. I get people calling for common sense gun reform. One school shooting is too many, and at first glance there is an obvious way to draw the line about weapons. AR-15s are deadly; but so are all guns, including the hunting and defense guns that most Americans think people should be allowed to own.

The point of this is not that stricter gun control is unnecessary. That is a conversation worth having. The point is to make sure we’re being clear what we mean when we say “ban assault rifles” or “common sense gun control.”

To summarize:

Assault rifles are rifles capable of switching between semi- and fully-automatic firing. They are already banned. Any weapon capable of automatic fire is illegal for general civilian use. Ordinary civilians cannot purchase an assault rifle, or an automatic rifle. Modifying or building any weapon to be capable of automatic fire is strictly illegal.

AR-15s are not assault rifles. (The “AR” is for “Armalite Rifle“) They are not capable of automatic fire. They are semi-automatic, which means they fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger. The trigger must be released before a new bullet will load. They fire a Remington .223, which is not a particularly deadly round compared to other ammunition in other rifles. (Update: as a visual illustration of this point about caliber, here is slow-motion video of a ballistics test of an AR-15 vs. a .30-06 hunting round; the AR-15 impact is shown first from two angles, and then the impact from the hunting round)

An AR-15 definitely looks intimidating, but that’s only a style. An AR-15 made with gray metal and a wooden stock would look like a normal rifle, and still be just as deadly. The way a gun looks doesn’t determine how deadly it is; that is primarily a combination of accuracy, rate of fire, and bullet caliber.

Semi-automatic rifles are very popular with hunters, and are available in styles that look more “common sense.” They make up a very large, if not the largest, class of rifles used in hunting. When we’re talking about banning semi-automatic rifles, we’re talking about removing staid-looking hunting rifles from the hands of hunters; we’re talking about going against what we earlier thought was common sense.

There is no way to ban the AR-15 and not ban the ranch gun, because there is no meaningful difference between them. Enacting a kind of “common sense” law that bans the AR-15 and the Mini-14 tactical rifle, but not the Mini-14 ranch gun, would not solve any problems; the next shooter would use the equivalent Mini-14 ranch gun. A ban distinguishing guns by their style would be security theatre; you might feel something was done, but no one is any safer for it.

With all of that in mind, hopefully we can continue having this conversation more intelligently, with a better understanding of the terms, and what exactly it is we’re talking about banning

Why Are We Addicted to Panic?

Photo by Charles Knowles.

Four days ago The Independent (an online UK magazine) ran this story: Bulletproof backpacks for children reflect a new reality in America. The article, and plenty like it, are leading to dramatic Facebook posts from or about teachers about how they help their high school students deal with the new reality that they might be gunned down in their schools at any time. Parents are afraid, kids are afraid, teachers are afraid, everyone seems to be afraid.

But why?

And no, I’m being earnest here. Why?

If there’s one topic that’s been prominent in media over the past few years, it’s been human irrationality. For a while there, “cognitive bias” threatened to become almost as much of a buzzword as “machine learning” has become, and it seemed like Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases was getting a new entry every day. Everyone in any academic discipline even tangentially related to how humans evaluate risk–evolutionary psychology, economics, finance, etc. etc.–had a new book or a new study that showed how bad humans are at evaluating risk.

Some of the most prominent cognitive biases studied in experiments and written about in the popular press include the availability heuristic and the recency effect. So we know–or at least we should know–that in the immediate wake of a horrific school shooting our cognitive biases are going to go into overdrive to exaggerate the threat. This isn’t unique to school shootings. We do the same thing with all kinds of dramatic/traumatic events, especially terrorism. More Americans died because of the shift from flying to driving in the wake of 9/11 than died in the attack themselves. The fear of terrorism was quite literally more deadly than actual terrorism.

This over-reaction to the threat of terrorism has had horrific consequences. Some have been felt here in the United States, including the erosion of civil liberties and a lamentably paranoid tinge to any discussion of immigration, but for the most part we (ordinary Americans) have been free to go about our lives because we have outsourced the cost of our fear-driven policies. We don’t pay the price. The small minority of Americans who volunteer to serve in the armed forces pay the price–including physical and mental trauma that no amount of yellow ribbons at home can compensate for–along with children killed in drone strikes, collateral damage from American interventionism, and desperate refugees who were barred a safe escape.

Now, in the wake of another awful school shooting, we’re witnessing again America’s masochistic addiction to panic and fear.

If you read an article like the one from The Independent or this one from The Cut or any of the thousands of emotional Facebook posts about how teachers and students shouldn’t have to fear for their lives just because they’re going to school, then you’d think we were suffering some kind of massive tidal wave of school shootings.

But what’s actually going on?

Enter Business Insider with their article: How likely is gun violence to kill the average American? The odds may surprise you. The centerpiece of the article is this chart, which compares lifetime odds (for Americans) of dying from various causes:

Right off the bat, the odds of dying in a school shootings are significantly lower than the kinds of deaths that we Americans don’t fear: car accidents, drowning, choking are all much more likely to end your life than a mass shooting. What’s even more interesting, to me, is that you are apparently more likely to die because a police officer killed you than because a mass shooter killed you.

However, a major problem with the Business Insider numbers is that they aren’t talking about school shootings, they’re talking about “mass shootings” with the definition of “any event where four or more victims were injured (regardless of death)”.

I went to Wikipedia and created two lists of my own. One of all the school shootings for 2015 – 2017 (the same years as the data available from the BI article) and another of all the school shootings that fit the popular perception of a school shooting. I called this narrowest category “mass school shootings” and I counted any shooting perpetrated by a student / former student resulting in at least 2 fatalities (other than the attacker) at a school. This table illustrates what the numbers look like using these three different categories:

From this, I’m able to calculate the lifetime odds of death from the two new categories: school shootings and mass school shootings. Compared to the 1 in 11,125 odds for any mass shooting, the odds of dying in a school shooting are 1 in 280,350 and the odds of dying in a mass school shooting are 1 in 934,500.

First, let me deal with a couple of quick math issues. These numbers are for all people. Obviously a random 70-year old is unlikely to be in a school and so is much, much less likely to die in a school shooting, and a high school student is (relative to some random 70-year old) much, much more likely. But if you want to do a relative comparison, then you should keep this list as-is. The only way to get the risk assessment for high school students (or all K-12 students, or all K – college students) would also be to look at their likelihoods of dying across all the categories. You’d see heart disease drop off the list, but you’d also see car accidents go much higher. So no: this is not scientific. These are what I’d call back-of-the-envelope calculations. And according to them, you’re more likely to die from being struck by lightning than from a school shooting (category #2) and the only things on the BI table less likely to kill you than a mass school shooting (category #3) is a regional asteroid impact or a shark attack.

Asteroids and shark attacks, people.

I know people are going to be mad at me for being insensitive, but maximum sensitivity isn’t always the right course. When you have a child–your own child or a kid that you’re responsible for–and they are afraid of something than your job as an adult is more than empathy. You can’t just share the child’s fear. You have to allay that fear when possible.

When my children were younger, they were really, genuinely afraid of dying in a tornado. We had moved from Virginia to Michigan and they heard the tornado sirens being tested every now and then, and so they were afraid. Part of my job was to empathize. Part of my job was also to allay their fears by explaining realistically that–while dangerous–tornados were not that common.

More recently, one of my children came to me and confided with a quaver of real fear in their voice that they thought they might have tetanus because “my jaw is starting to feel kind of tight.” This is funny to us, but my kid was really, truly scared and on the verge of tears. My job was not to participate in their fear. It also wasn’t to mock their fear. It was to empathize but–again–allay the fear.

Please note that this doesn’t mean I’m trivializing the devastation of an actual tornado. During the tornado outbreak of Dec 2015, 13 people were killed. Nothing about that is funny. Nothing about that is trivial. Tetanus isn’t a joke, either. Because of vaccinations, only a few people die in the US every year from tetanus, but historically it was a real killer and it continues to be a serious health concern in many parts of the world (especially India).

So I’m not trivializing terrorism when I point out that more people died from avoiding planes after 9/11 than died on 9/11. I’m not trivializing tetanus or tornados when I help allay my kids’ fears. And I’m not trivializing school shootings when I point out that our fears of them are vastly overblown.

Far from it. The reason I’m writing this is that it broke my heart to read a post from a friend on Facebook about how his wife (a teacher) could do nothing but share the fear and panic of her high school students. They are afraid, and she wasn’t able to offer anything substantive to combat that fear. I don’t blame her personally for that at all, but–as a society–we should be mature and sober enough to tackle risk and fear responsibly. We need to do better for our kids.

I think I know the answer to my question. I know why we’re addicted to fear. Some of it is human nature, as we mentioned already. Evolutionarily, risks are more important than rewards. But there’s more to it than that.

For one thing, fear is profitable. It drives traffic and donations. That explains most of what human nature alone cannot.

But I have my suspicions that it doesn’t explain everything. I wonder if human beings are calibrated to a certain degree of threat and risk in our lives. And–living in what is without any doubt the safest and most comfortable period of human history–it’s almost as though we are incapable of accepting that realty and intent on manufacturing risks and dangers we keep expecting to be there, but aren’t.

This post is not about gun control or even school shootings in particular.

It’s just about risk, and fear, and how we need to deal better with the fear if we want–individually and as a society–to find ways to batter manage risk.

Speaking on campus and the ctrl-left

Update: the full text of the speech is now online on its own post.

My university is home to a controversial Confederate War memorial.

It is a bronze sculpture of a college student carrying a rifle, commemorating the students at my university who left their studies and went to fight in the American Civil War for the Confederacy. On the base are three inscriptions, the middle of which shows the student in class, hearing the call of a woman representing duty urging him to fight. The side inscription speaks of honor and duty.

The statue has always been controversial, but recent events have brought the controversy back.

The university is holding an open panel, inviting the general public to share their thoughts. You just had to register, and the first 25 get to go.

Well, I have some thoughts on the monument, and I wanted to share them. So I signed up, and I wrote a speech (exactly 3 minutes in length), and I’ve been practicing it. On Wednesday, I anticipate getting to deliver the speech.

I would be pretty foolish to not be worried. Actually, on an issue this incendiary, I am pretty foolish to want to speak out at all.

For starters, there’s a chance my talk could anger white supremacist groups.

I am a white man with pale skin and reddish/blondish hair. I am married to a beautiful woman from Costa Rica, with caramel skin and these gorgeous black eyes you can just get lost in. We don’t have children yet, but we are both excited to meet them. I know they will be beautiful, like their mother. I hope my daughters look like her, with her dark skin and dark eyes and her raven black hair.

If you listen to what white supremacist groups actually say these days, then you’d know this is their raison d’être. They refer to it by the moronic title “white genocide” — the “diluting” of the “white race” through marriage of white people with people of other races.

Me and my family are the main thing that white supremacists march against.

In the speech I have planned, I think I make it clear that I consider the cause of the Confederacy in the American Civil War to be an unworthy cause — it was certainly not worth the lives of the men who died for it.

That might anger white supremacists, who would already have reason to despise my family.

But, I’m not afraid of angering white supremacists; they’re evil, but they don’t frighten me. Because I know they are a powerless group of isolated and outcast individuals with little to no social standing in their own communities, who are resorted to anonymous online forums for human contact. They are pathetic, and I’m not enough of a coward to shrink away from shadows in a basement.

White supremacy is, of course, evil. It cost me nothing to say that, and means nothing when I do say it, as everyone either agrees with it already, or is a white supremacist and doesn’t care what society thinks about them.

White supremacy is also stupid. It is lazy thinking. It is the kind of mental shortcut that the feeble-minded rely on. It is the sort of excuse that the weak-willed cower to, lacking the testicular fortitude to face their own inadequacies. It’s the kind of pseudo-intellectualism the internet is famous for, citing poorly analyzed statistics, when all it would take is meeting one normal, middle-class African American to see the fatuity of it all — that blacks and whites are the same race, because there is only the one race of Adam.

My comments might make them mad, but what are they going to do? Make memes about me?

There is also a chance my speech could anger Progressives on the ctrl-left. Actually, probably a much bigger chance. And that does scare me.

It scares me so much that I’m actually considering if I even want to speak at all. I have a speech written, and I’ve been practicing it, and I’ve shopped it with a number of friends, and I’ve made edits and timed it perfectly. But I’m thinking of not doing it at all.

I’m afraid of what the ctrl-left could do to me.

What is the ctrl-left? The label is a take on the alt-right designation, though the ctrl-left have been around for a lot longer. Maybe since the Bush administration. They are a political activist class — that is, they are a class of people with nothing else to do but be politically active. They are employed in universities, shutting down conservative voices. They are employed in news stations, selectively editing narratives and choosing which stories to give press time. They are employed at online opinion magazines, and spend all day opining on politics and culture. They are employed in Starbucks, and then spend 14 hours a day on twitter and tumblr investigating the lives of people they disagree with, trying to have them removed from their jobs, or shut down their youtube, facebook, or twitter to prevent them from sharing in electronic public forums. They are employed in tech companies enforcing “community standards” with bans and post removals, which on platform after platform seems to conveniently mean removing opinions on the right of American politics.

The ctrl-left, in essence, want to control what you are allowed to say, and punish you when you say what you are not.

The most recent explosion of this movement has been in antifa, the group of emotional children using acts of literal street violence to suppress and silence dissident voices in the public sphere — which is to say, they are a group of fascists. These jackbooted thugs have been taking to the streets, punching people in the face, smashing up their campuses in temper tantrums, setting fires, and generally acting exactly like the goosestepping authoritarians they are in order to stop people from saying anything that they don’t think people should be able to say anymore.

This latest expression of the ctrl-left doesn’t particularly worry me. I can take physical violence. I can take being punched in the face, or maced, or beaten with a club. I would consider it an honor, actually. Make my day.

What does worry me are the online Social Justice Warriors in the ctrl-left who have nothing better to do with their lives, apparently, than to seek new ways to punish people for wrongthink.

I work in academia. Tenured professors cannot get fired for refusing to attend their own classes for two years, but tenured professors have been fired for daring to injure the precious emotions of the ctrl-left. I’m a mere, lowly teaching assistant. I could lose my job, or be dismissed from school. I could be made unhirable in colleges and tech companies.

If my speech offends the wrong person, they could look to dig up all kinds of stuff on me.

It wouldn’t even be very hard to dig up stuff on me. For most of my life, I was a pretty terrible jerk. Just ask anyone who knew me in high school. Since high school, I have been slightly tolerable. If you had nothing to do but look for reasons to say crap about me, you could find crap to say about me. And the ctrl-left has absolutely nothing else to do.

But even if they can’t find dirt on me, the very act of disagreeing with their orthodoxy is a firable offense. They have power in universities and companies to crush whoever displeases them; and not only do they have it, but they use it.

I know this, so I generally go about my day and just grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut. My fellow students don’t have to keep their mouths shut, because they affirm the accepted dogmata of our thought guardians.

I let them talk and express opinions I disagree with and laugh at people who think the exact things I think and endorse ideologies I completely reject and say nothing, because I just want to get out of here alive, get my PhD, and maybe once I have a job I can rely on, maybe then I’ll be able to breathe again.

And the crux of the story is that I’m just sick of it. I am sick and tired of shutting up. I am done with being expected to receive with full docility the ramblings of this tumblr magisterium. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t speak my mind without retaliation and blowback, while others can express their politics unafraid.

I’m done. I’m done being shut up.

Realistically, I can probably expect nothing. I’m probably over-worrying myself. It’s unlikely anyone will really take notice. It’s an indoor event with a few dozen speakers, and who really wants to attend a meeting like that unless you’re speaking? Local news might pick it up, and they might run two seconds of my three minute speech (probably selectively edited to make it sound like I’m saying something completely opposite of what I’m saying), and then that’s probably it. Maybe some person I know might notice and say something, maybe a student would say they heard I spoke or something, but that’s about it.

In a rational universe, maybe that’s all there needs to be about it. I can just say what I think, people can hear it and agree or disagree with it, we can have back-and-forth, and then we go on our merry ways.

But this is not a rational universe, so who knows what I can expect.

(Authors’s Note and General Disclaimer: These are not the only two groups of people with opinions in this country. There are people opposed to the monument who are not part of the ctrl-left and who want civil dialogue and peaceful protest to lead the change. There are people in favor of the monument who are neither white supremacists nor part of the alt-right, and who want all people to be treated with the dignity due all human individuals. There are people on the left who also champion free speech, such as the ACLU, because free speech is not a partisan concern but the birthright of humanity. I know these people exist, because I know them; they are my family and friends and neighbors. With all of these people, I hope to see the American spirit of passionate but nonviolent engagement in the marketplace of ideas continue to drive political discourse. To the ctrl-left and alt-right, I pray that God has mercy on you and grants you repentance from your hatred, violence, and folly.)

The “Everyone is Racist” Quagmire

This is swamp in southern Louisiana. Technically a swamp is not a mire, but it turns out that pictures of actual mires are pretty, and that’s not what I’m going for. CC BY-SA 3.0

UPDATE: Although this post was published on August 24, 2017, it was written weeks ago. Notably, before Charlottesville. I’ll be writing a followup in light of recent events for the near future.

Despite the fact that overt, explicit racism is widely rejected and condemned within the United States, racially disparate outcomes remain endemic. One particular blatant example of this is the racially unequal justice system we have in this country. In super-short terms, blacks and whites use illegal drugs at about the same rates, but black people are more likely to be arrested, charged with more serious crimes, and serve longer sentences than whites.

Contemporary definitions of racism–of which there are basically two–attempt to explain why America continues to be a place with racially unfair outcomes even though overt racism has long since been marginalized. The first contemporary definition of racism is about systematic racism. According to this definition, prejudice is a feeling of animus against a person/people based on their race, discrimination is unequal treatment stemming from prejudice, and racism is an attribute of social systems and institutions where prejudice and discrimination have become ingrained. Accordingly, America can be a white supremacy without any white supremacists, because the overt prejudices of the past have been absorbed into our institutions (like the criminal justice system) and have taken on a life of their own. If the system is racially biased, then even racially unbiased people are not enough to get racial justice. It would be like playing a game with loaded dice. Even if the other players are 100% honest, their dice are still loaded, and so the outcome is still not fair. If you accuse them of cheating, they will be defensive because–in a sense–they are playing the game honestly. But as long as their dice are loaded (and yours are not), the game is still rigged.

Second, we have the idea of implicit racism. This is the idea that even people who really and sincerely believe that they are not racist may harbor unconscious racial prejudice. This is based on implicit-association tests and the theory that tribalism is basically hard-coded in human beings. These two findings–the empirical results of implicit-association tests and theories about the innateness of human tribalism–are not necessarily connected, but they come together in a phrase you’ve almost certainly heard by now: “everyone is racist.”

Thus, racial injustice can remain without overt racism because (in the case of systemic racism) racism is now located inside of institutions instead of inside of people and/or because (in the case of implicit racism) racism is now located inside people’s unconscious minds instead of their conscious minds.

So far, so good. Both of the new definitions (which are not mutually exclusive) provide promising avenues to understand ongoing racial disparity in the United States and seek to redress it. But this is where we run into a serious problem. As promising as these avenues might be, they certainly take us onto more ambiguous and complex territory than civil rights struggles of the past. The more overt racial injustice is, the simpler it is. Slavery and Jim Crow are not nuanced issues. But now we’re talking about how to fight racism in a world where nobody is racist anymore (at least not consciously). And just when things start to get tricky, the problem of perverse incentives rears its ugly head.

Perverse incentives are “incentives that [have] an unintended and undesirable result which is contrary to the interests of the incentive makers.” In the fight against racial injustice there are basically two kinds of perverse incentive: institution and personal.

Institutional perverse incentives arise whenever you have an institution with a mission statement to eliminate something. The problem is that if the institution ever truly succeeds then it is essentially committing suicide and everyone who works for that institution has to go find not only a new job, but a new calling and sense of identity.

If conspiracy theories are your thing, then it’s not hard to spin lots of them based on this insight. Instead of fighting poverty, maybe government agencies perpetuate poverty in order to enlarge their budgets, expand their workforces, and enhance their prestige. But you don’t have to go that far. In practice, it’s far more likely that an institution dedicated to ending something will have two simple characteristics. First, it will exaggerate the threat. Second, it will be studiously uninterested in finding truly effective policies to combat the threat.

An agency that does this will successfully satisfy the economic and psychological self-interest of the people who who work for it. Economically, the bigger the threat the bigger the institution to oppose it. This is true regardless of whether we’re talking about a government agency arguing for a bigger slide of taxpayer revenue or a non-profit appealing for donations. Psychologically, the bigger the threat the easier it is for the people who work in the institution to feel good about themselves and not think too hard about whether or not they are really picking the most effective tools to eliminate whatever they’re supposed to be eliminating. In short: institutions that oppose a thing will gradually come to be hysterical and ineffectual because that’s in the best interest of the people who run those institutions.

This may sound all very hypothetical, so let me give you a specific example: the Southern Poverty Law Center. Politico Magazine recently came out with a very long article titled Has a Civil Rights Stalwart Lost Its Way? which makes a lot of sense when you keep the perils of perverse institutional incentives in mind as you’re reading it.  The article points out that the SPLC has “built itself into a civil rights behemoth with a glossy headquarters and a nine-figure endowment, inviting charges that it oversells the threats posed by Klansmen and neo-Nazis to keep donations flowing in from wealthy liberals.” It also notes that the election of Trump–while ostensibly bad for anti-racism efforts in the US–is unquestionably great for the SPLC, “giving the group the kind of potent foil it hasn’t had since the Klan.” So no, this isn’t just hypothetical theorizing. It’s what is happening already, to one of America’s most legendary anti-racism institutions.

The second set of perverse incentives are personal and basically class-based. Both the systematic and implicit definitions of racism evolved on elite college campuses, and the anti-racist theories that are based on these definitions are correspondingly unlikely to successfully reflect the interests and concerns of the genuinely underprivileged. They may be about the underprivileged, but they are adapted to–and serve the interests of–elites.

Consider first the case of a hypothetical young black man with a solidly middle- or upper-class background. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. observed that “the most ironic outcome of the Civil Rights movement has been the creation of a new black middle class which is increasingly separate from the black underclass,” and a 2007 PEW found that nearly 40 percent of blacks felt that “a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks” which meant that “blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.” Thus, this young man faces a sense of double alienation: alienation from lower-class blacks and alienation from upper-class whites. Placing emphasis exclusively on the racial component of social analysis obscures the gulf between lower- and upper-class blacks and offers a sense of racial solidarity and wholeness. At the same time, it denies the actual privilege enjoyed by this person (after all, his neighborhood is not crime ridden and his schools are high-functioning) and therefore eases any sense of conflict or guilt at his comparative fortune.

The case is simpler for a hypothetical young white man with a privileged background, but (since this person enjoys even more advantages) the need for some kind of absolution is even more acute. Propounding the new definitions of racism allows low-cost access to that absolution. For an example of how this works, consider how the hilarious blog-turned-book Stuff White People Like discussed white people’s love of “Awareness.” Stuff White People Like notes that “an interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.” Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.” The entry goes on: “This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges.” Finally:

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets.  In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference.

The apotheosis of this awareness-raising fad is the ritual of “privilege-checking” in which whites, men, heterosexuals, and the cisgendered publicly acknowledge their privilege for the sake of feeling good about publicly acknowledging their privilege. In biting commentary for the Daily Beast, John McWhorter noted that:

The White Privilege 101 course seems almost designed to turn black people’s minds from what political activism actually entails. For example, it’s a safe bet that most black people are more interested in there being adequate public transportation from their neighborhood to where they need to work than that white people attend encounter group sessions where they learn how lucky they are to have cars. It’s a safe bet that most black people are more interested in whether their kids learn anything at their school than whether white people are reminded that their kids probably go to a better school.

So we’re at a time when the complexity of racial injustice in the United States calls for new and nuanced definitions and theories of racism at precisely the time when–due to the past successes–the temptation to exaggerate racism and ignore effective anti-racism policies is also rising. The result? You might have a Facebook friend who will pontificate about how “everyone is racist” one day, and then post an image like this one the next:

So, you know, “we’re all racist” and also “if you’re racist, you deserve to die.” No mixed messages there, or anything.

Speaking of implicit bias, by the way, the actual results of Project Implicit’s testing are that nearly a third of white people have no racial preference or even a bias in favor of blacks. Once again, this doesn’t prove that racial justice has arrived and we can all go home. That’s absolutely not my point. It’s just another illustration that simplistic narratives about white supremacy don’t work as well in a post-slavery, post-Jim Crow world. The serious problems that remain are not as brutally self-evident as white people explicitly stating that the white race is superior.

Just to toss another complicating factor out there, researchers compared implicit bias to actual outcomes in undergraduate college admissions and found that despite the presence of anti-black implicit bias, the actual results of the admission process were skewed in favor of blacks rather than against them:

When making multiple admissions decisions for an academic honor society, participants from undergraduate and online samples had a more relaxed acceptance criterion for Black than White candidates, even though participants possessed implicit and explicit preferences for Whites over Blacks. This pro-Black criterion bias persisted among subsamples that wanted to be unbiased and believed they were unbiased. It also persisted even when participants were given warning of the bias or incentives to perform accurately.

If implicit bias can coexist with outcomes that are biased in the opposite direction, then what exactly are we measuring when we measure implicit bias, anyway?

I believe that both of the new definitions of racism have merit. The idea that institutional inertia can perpetuate racist outcomes long after the original racial animus has disappeared is reasonable theoretically and certainly seems to explain (in part, at least) the racially unequal outcomes in our criminal justice system. The idea that people divide into tribes and treat the outgroup more poorly–and that racial categories make for particularly potent tribal groups–is equally compelling. But the temptation to over-simplify, exagerate, and then coopt racial analysis for institutional and personal benefit is a genuine threat. As long as it’s possible to cash-in on anti-racism–financially and politically–then our progress towards racial justice will be impeded.

I am, generally speaking, a conservative. I don’t, by and large, share the worldview or policy proscriptions of those on the American left. But I do care about racial justice in the United States. I believe that the current discussion–or lack therefore–is significantly hampered by the temptation to profit from it. And I figure hey: maybe by speaking up I can contribute in a small way to shifting the conversation on race away from the left-right political axis and all the toxicity and perverse incentives that come with it.