being right to no effect

This post of mine from earlier today, which was based on this column by Damon Linker, has a lot in common with this post by Scott Alexander:

I write a lot about how we shouldn’t get our enemies fired lest they try to fire us, how we shouldn’t get our enemies’ campus speakers disinvited lest they try to disinvite ours, how we shouldn’t use deceit and hyperbole to push our policies lest our enemies try to push theirs the same way. And people very reasonably ask – hey, I notice my side kind of controls all of this stuff, the situation is actually asymmetrical, they have no way of retaliating, maybe we should just grind our enemies beneath our boots this one time.
And then when it turns out that the enemies can just leave and start their own institutions, with horrendous results for everybody, the cry goes up “Wait, that’s unfair! Nobody ever said you could do that! Come back so we can grind you beneath our boots some more!”
Conservatives aren’t stuck in here with us. We’re stuck in here with them. And so far it’s not going so well. I’m not sure if any of this can be reversed. But I think maybe we should consider to what degree we are in a hole, and if so, to what degree we want to stop digging.

Which in turn has a lot in common with this post by Freddie deBoer:

Conservatives have been arguing for years that liberals essentially want to write them out of shared cultural and intellectual spaces altogether. I’ve always said that’s horseshit. But I’m trying to be real with you and take an honest look at what’s happening in the few spaces that progressive people control. In the halls of actual power, meanwhile, conservatives have achieved incredible electoral victories, running up the score against the progressives who in turn take out their frustrations in cultural and intellectual spaces. This is not a dynamic that will end well for us.
Of course by affirming this version of events from conservatives, I am opening myself to the regular claim that I am a conservative. Which is incorrect; I have never been further left in my life than I am today. But you can understand it if you understand the contemporary progressive tendency to treat politics as a matter of which social or cultural group you associate with rather than as a set of shared principles and a commitment to enacting them by appealing to the enlightened best interest of the unconverted. That dynamic may, I’m afraid, also explain why progressives risk taking even firmer control of campus and media and Hollywood and losing everything else.

Which, in another turn, has a lot in common with this column by Andrew Sullivan:

I know why many want to dismiss all of this as mere hate, as some of it certainly is. I also recognize that engaging with the ideas of this movement is a tricky exercise in our current political climate. Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being “normalized.” But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Indeed, the more I read today’s more serious reactionary writers, the more I’m convinced they are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives. I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance.

What all these writings have in common is this: We are all saying to the Angry Left that it’s unwise, impractical, and counterproductive to think that you can simply refuse to acknowledge and engage with people who don’t share your politics — to trust in your power to silence, to intimidate, to mock, and to shun rather than to attempt to persuade.

I think we’ve all made very good cases. I also think that almost no one who needs to hear what we have to say will listen. So what will be the result?

Freddie is right to say that the three industries where the take-no-prisoners model is most entrenched are Hollywood, the news media, and the university. And that entrenchment leads, as I have explained before, to the perception of ideological difference as defilement — a thesis that I think goes a long way towards explaining the intensity of the outrage about Bret Stephens’s NYT column on climate-change rhetoric. The purging of those who have defiled the community is a feasible practice unless and until the departure of those people is costly to the community; and each of those three cultural institutions assumes without question that no costs will be incurred by cathartic expulsion of the repugnant cultural Other.

Hollywood could be right to make this assumption: certainly there are no plausible alternatives to its dominance, though that dominance might take new forms — e.g. more movies and series made outside the conventional studio structure by new players like Netflix and Amazon. (It’s possible, though I think highly unlikely, that those new players will attempt to exploit a socially conservative audience.)

But it’s hard to think of two white-collar professions more imperiled than journalism and academia. The belief that left or left-liberal university administrators and professors, and journalists and editors, have in their own impregnability is simply delusional. If they connected their political decisions to their worried meetings about rising costs and desiccating sources of revenue, they would realize this; but the power of compartmentalization is great.

So what I foresee for both journalism and academia is a financial decline that proceeds at increasing speed, a decline to which ideological rigidity will be a significant contributor, though certainly not the only one. (The presence of other causes will ensure that publishers, editors, administrators, and the few remaining tenured faculty members will be able to deny the consequences of rigidity.) I also expect this decline to proceed far more quickly for journalism than for academia, since the latter still has a great many full-time faculty who can be replaced by contingent faculty willing to work for something considerably less than the legal minimum wage.

But at least the people who run those institutions will be able to preserve their purity right up to the inevitable end.

think locally, act globally

I was drafting this post before Freddie deBoer’s recent post on the subject, so this isn’t really a response to Freddie. But what the heck, call it a response to Freddie.

I want to respond by changing the terms of the conversation: Instead of asking “What is the university for?” I’d like for us to ask, “What is this university for?” — “this” university being whatever university I happen to be associated with or to care about.

For instance, I teach in the Honors Program at Baylor University, an intentionally Christian research university — one of the few in the world — that happens to sit in the middle of an exceptionally poor city. So I and my colleagues need to ask:

  • What is the role of the Honors Program within the framework of the university as a whole, whose students are not, by and large, as academically accomplished?
  • What should Baylor be doing to become, more and more fully and truly, a *Christian* university — to be deeply serious about its faith commitments and its academic ambitions?
  • What can Baylor do to be a good institutional citizen within its local community — to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and train the jobless — since, after all, these would seem to be mandatory concerns for Christians of all descriptions?

I really believe that this is how we should be thinking about our universities: not deductively, by reasoning from what “the university” should be to how we might instantiate that ideal locally, but rather inductively: from what this particular institution is called to be, and is capable of being, to larger generalizations. I truly believe that if we could suspend the general conversation about “the university” for a decade, a decade during which every American institution of higher learning focused on understanding and realizing its own particular mission, and then reconvened with one another to compare notes — then we just might get somewhere.

And I further believe that by attending to its own home turf — its own students, its own faculty, its own surrounding community — any given university will be better able to serve the larger world of academia and society. The old slogan “Think globally, act locally” gets it precisely backwards, I believe: it is only by thinking and acting locally that we can make the right kind of difference globally.

UPDATE: Roberto Greco reminded me of what Wendell Berry says about this:

I don’t think “global thinking” is futile, I think it is impossible. You can’t think about what you don’t know and nobody knows this planet. Some people know a little about a few small parts of it … The people who think globally do so by abstractly and statistically reducing the globe to quantities. Political tyrants and industrial exploiters have done this most successfully. Their concepts and their greed are abstract and their abstractions lead with terrifying directness and simplicity to acts that are invariably destructive. If you want to do good and preserving acts you must think and act locally. The effort to do good acts gives the global game away. You can’t do a good act that is global … a good act, to be good must be acceptable to what Alexander Pope called “the genius of the place”. This calls for local knowledge, local skills, and local love that virtually none of us has, and that none of us can get by thinking globally. We can get it only by a local fidelity that we would have to maintain through several lifetimes … I don’t wish to be loved by people who don’t know me; if I were a planet I would feel exactly the same way.

a civil tongue

A sudden consensus seems to be emerging among a subset of current-event commentators: there are big problems with with term “civility.” Here’s the claim, summed up:

(NB: see important clarifications/corrections from Pat Blanchfield in the comments below.)

Likewise, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig writes of the “cult” of civility, of its “peculiar tyranny.” Freddie deBoer agrees, and goes a step further: “Civility is the discourse of power…. That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.”

I think these complaints are immensely counterproductive. Does the term “civility” get misused? Of course it does — just like every other term celebrating a virtue or an achievement. But it’s sloppy and thoughtless to allow criticism of a term’s abuse to slide into dismissal of the term itself. What words have been more abused than “justice” and “peace” and “charity”? Yet it would be madness to stop using those words because of the ways that bad people have sought to deploy them. They must be rescued and redeployed. The same is true, I think, of “civility”, of which, surely, there is not enough in this fetid swamp of abusive language everyone on social media at least dips a toe into every day.

So, to Freddie I would say that if the powerful demand a civility from the powerless that they are not willing to offer in turn — a claim that I agree with whole-heartedly — then the problem is not that the powerful invoke civility as a virtue but that they are rankly hypocritical, acting in a way totally at odds with their rhetoric. The critique should focus on that hypocrisy; such a critique is not aided by the abandonment of the ideal of civil discourse.

Making a rather different argument, Bruenig writes, “We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues.” Well, sure! But the lesson Bruenig draws from this point is the opposite of the one that should be drawn. It is precisely because civility is a lesser virtue that we should be at pains to cultivate it. It is precisely because charity and mercy and forgiveness are so hard that we build a bridge to them by the lesser virtue of civility. I may not be able yet to love my enemies as I should, but if I can practice civility towards them that’s a step in the right direction. If that’s a “cult,” it’s one I want to belong to. A world in which the language we use towards others does not aspire to something nobler than we feel at the moment — well, again, that’s the world of most social media. And it’s not a healthy one.

Nor is civility of discourse incompatible with speaking truth to power. Indeed it may be necessary if one would speak that truth in a way that it can be heard. Consider, as a paradigmatic example of what I mean, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It’s hard to imagine anything more civil. It’s also hard to imagine anything more devastating. King held himself to a strict standard of civility because setting that standard aside would have reduced the likelihood of his people entering their promised land.

It may well be true that some nasty and ill-intentioned people have tried to co-opt the language of civility. For heaven’s sake let’s not help them do so. Instead, let’s take it back.

"Officer, this man stole my authenticity!"

Freddie deBoer is exactly right about how annoying this Hillary Kelly post is. As Freddie points out, it assumes the absoluteness of a distinction that just doesn’t apply absolutely in many places — and, I might add, even when it does apply it doesn’t always apply in the same way. In America we tend to think of the suburbs as refuges for the economically comfortable, while the poor are confined to inner cities; but the relationship between Paris and its banlieues is almost the opposite.  

But what interests me about Kelly’s post is how intensely moralistic her language is. No doubt she would say that she’s exaggerating for effect, but I don’t think that she’d deny that she’s perfectly serious about her point. It’s a classic example of pink-police-state-style boundary policing — but in this case with actual (if highly artificial) boundaries. People from, say, Media who tell folks they’re from Philadelphia are not just simplifying for conversational ease, they are liars. They are fabulists.  

As a great man once said, Why so serious? It can only be because for Kelly being from the city is a mark of authenticity — and being from the burbs is necessarily and tragically inauthentic. Therefore to claim to be from the city when you’re not is an attempt to surreptitiously and dishonestly appropriate urbanite charisma. Being urban is gritty, it’s real; being from the suburbs is vacuous, bland — or so we’re told, even though we know that at best that’s a vague generalization. Kelly elevates a statistical probability into an ontological principle. Which is just silly.  

I was born and raised in the city of Birmingham, Alabama; my wife was raised mainly in one of the over-the-mountain white suburbs. Both of us have always told strangers we’re from Birmingham, and the idea that my wife could be called a liar or a fabulist for saying that strikes me as utterly bizarre. It provides the necessary information without burdening the people we meet with pedantic detail. If we get to know them better we can explore the differences in our upbringing.  

Of all the things to get outraged about! 

the geeks inherit the earth

Emily Bell recently argued that some hot new tech/journalism/etc. companies that are positioning themselves as radical alternatives to business-as-usual are, in the matter of hiring women and minorites, totally business-as-usual: a bunch of white guys with a slight scattering of women and minorities.Nate Silver, one of those whom Bell was describing, didn’t like her accusation: “The idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say.”Zeynep Tufecki has precisely the right response to Silver’s annoyance:

What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.”

Most tech people don’t think of it this way, but the fact that most of them wear jeans all the time is just another example of cultural capital, an arbitrary marker that’s valued in their habitus, both to delineate it and to preserve it. Jeans are arbitrary, as arbitrary as ties….

How does that relate to the Silver’s charged defense that his team could not be “bro-y” people? Simple: among the mostly male, smart, geeky groups that most programmers and technical people come from, there is a way of existing that is, yes, often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege. When they think of male privilege, they are thinking of “macho” jocks and have come to believe their own habitus as completely natural, all about merit, and also in opposition to macho culture. But if brogrammer culture opposes macho culture, it does not follow that brogrammer culture is automatically welcoming to other excluded groups, such as women.

I’m reminded here of a fantastic essay Freddie deBoer wrote a while back about the triumphs of geek culture, especially in its love of fantasy and SF:

Commercial dominance, at this point, is a given. What critical arbiters would you like? Is it a Best Picture Oscar for one of their movies? Can’t be. Return of the King won it in 2003. (And ten other Academy Awards. And four Golden Globes. And every other major award imaginable.) Recognition from the “literary establishment?” Again, I don’t know what that term could refer to; there are publishers and there are academics and there are book reviewers, but there is no such thing as a literary establishment. Even a cursory look at individual actors dedicated to literature will reveal that glory for sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels has already arrived. Turn of the century “best book” lists made ample room for J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others. Serious book critics fall all over themselves to praise the graphic novels of Allison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman. Respect in the world of contemporary fiction? Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and other “literary fantasists” have earned rapturous reviews from the stuffiest critics. Penetration into university culture and academic literary analysis? English departments are choked with classes on sci-fi and genre fiction, in an effort to attract students. Popular academic conferences are held not just on fantasy or graphic novels but specifically on Joss Whedon and Batman. Peer-reviewed journals host special issues on cyberpunk and video game theory.To the geeks, I promise: I’m not insulting you. I’m conceding the point that you have worked for so long to prove. Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished. It’s time to enjoy it, a little; to turn the critical facility away from the outside world and towards political and artistic problems within the world of geek culture; and if possible, maybe to defend and protect those endangered elements of high culture. They could use the help. It’s time for solidarity.

And this is what I’d also like to say to Nate Silver: Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished. Dude, you worked for the New York Times and you left it voluntarily — to work for ESPN, 80% of which is owned by Disney and the other 20% by Hearst. In 21st-century America, it is not possible to be any more inside than this. You cannot stick it to the Man — you are the Man. It’s best that you, and people in similar positions, realize that as soon as possible; and forego the illusion that you have some outsider status that exempts you from criticism like that presented by Emily Bell. Whether you agree with Bell’s argument or not, get used to it: you’re going to hear a lot more along those lines as long as you continue to be the Man.  

faith and (in) AI

Freddie deBoer:

Now people have a variety of ways to dismiss these issues. For example, there’s the notion of intelligence as an ‘emergent phenomenon.’ That is, we don’t really need to understand the computational system of the brain because intelligence/consciousness/whatever is an ‘emergent phenomenon’ that somehow arises from the process of thinking. I promise: anyone telling you something is an emergent property is trying to distract you. Calling intelligence an emergent property is a way of saying ‘I don’t really know what’s happening here, and I don’t really know where it’s happening, so I’m going to call it emergent.’ It’s a profoundly unscientific argument. Next is the claim that we only need to build very basic AI; once we have a rudimentary AI system, we can tell that system to improve itself, and presto! Singularity achieved! But this is asserted without a clear story of how it would actually work. Computers, for all of the ways in which they can iterate proscribed functions, still rely very heavily on the directives of human programmers. What would the programming look like to tell this rudimentary artificial intelligence to improve itself? If we knew that, we’d already have solved the first problem. And we have no idea how such a system would actually work, or how well. This notion often is expressed with a kind of religious faith that I find disturbing.

Freddie’s important point reminds of of a comment in Paul Bloom’s recent essay in the Atlantic on brain science: “Scientists have reached no consensus as to precisely how physical events give rise to conscious experience, but few doubt any longer that our minds and our brains are one and the same.” (By the way, I don’t know what Freddie’s precise views are on these questions of mind, brain, and consciousness, so he might not agree with where I’m taking this.) Bloom’s statement that cognitive scientists “have reached no consensus” on how consciousness arises rather understates things: it would be better to say that they have no idea whatsoever how this happens. But that’s just another way of saying that they don’t know that it does happen, that “our minds and our brains are one and the same.” It’s an article of faith.

The problems with this particular variety of faith are a significant theme in David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, as, for instance, in this passage:

J. J. C. Smart, an atheist philosopher of some real acuity, dismisses the problem of consciousness practically out of hand by suggesting that subjective awareness might be some kind of “proprioception” by which one part of the brain keeps an eye on other parts of the brain, rather as a device within a sophisticated robot might be programmed to monitor the robot’s own systems; and one can see, says Smart, how such a function would be evolutionarily advantageous. So the problem of how the brain can be intentionally directed toward the world is to be explained in terms of a smaller brain within the brain intentionally directed toward the brain’s perception of the world. I am not sure how this is supposed to help us understand anything about the mind, or how it does much more than inaugurate an infinite explanatory regress. Even if the mechanical metaphors were cogent (which they are not, for reasons mentioned both above and below), positing yet another material function atop the other material functions of sensation and perception still does nothing to explain how all those features of consciousness that seem to defy the physicalist narrative of reality are possible in the first place. If I should visit you at your home and discover that, rather than living in a house, you instead shelter under a large roof that simply hovers above the ground, apparently neither supported by nor suspended from anything else, and should ask you how this is possible, I should not feel at all satisfied if you were to answer, “It’s to keep the rain out”— not even if you were then helpfully to elaborate upon this by observing that keeping the rain out is evolutionarily advantageous.

I highly recommend Hart’s book on this topic (and on many others). You don’t have to be a religious believer to perceive that eliminative materialism is a theory with a great many problems.