Friday, June 15, 2018

Why I'll Keep Teaching the Stanford Prison Experiment (Even Though It's A LIE!!1!1!!1!)

So there's a new article making the rounds of academic social media (and maybe normal people social media, who knows?) about how the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was bunk. Here's what I believe is the original piece that sums it up as "a sham" while this one calls it "a fraud."  But I would submit it's much less the case that this very famous experiment is a fraud and a lie that academics have been uncritically accepting for decades, and more the case that, as always, science reporting sucks pretty bad.

As far as I can tell, most of the reports suddenly appearing about this decades-old experiment are drawing from the piece linked above to the article written by Ben Blum, who notably has a book he's trying to sell. This is really important, because you don't drum up book sales with nuance, you drum up book sales with splashy headlines about how a famous old study is a FRAUD full of LIES.

The interesting thing about this is that it's almost the inverse of how science reporting typically sucks. How it usually goes is that a study (like all studies!) finds an interesting, but limited, effect of X on Y in a very limited setting, and then reporters blow it out of proportion with headlines like "New study proves X causes Y!" without noting any of the many, many limitations of the study. This one just does the mirror inverse, where it acts as if the SPE was canonical scientific gospel which has been DESTROYED and SHREDDED by new evidence. Like all shitty science reporting, if you actually pay attention to it, there's nothing much here (famous old study has plenty of issues, all of which are well known to pretty much everyone), but it's trumpeted as EXPOSING A LIE!

Really, there's so much wrong with Blum's piece that it truly deserves an FJM-style line-by-line takedown, but ain't nobody got time for that. And yet a lot of otherwise intelligent people are falling for this shoddy writing, so I do feel compelled to hit on some of the major issues with Blum's style of...reporting? Yeah, let's call it reporting.

One big problem is that Blum's critique reeks of anti-intellectual posturing. The whole thing has the distinct tone of "Oh, these nerds think they're so smart, but look at how they were all duped by this fraudulent study!" But...that's just not the case at all. Sure, maybe in the immediate period after study was released academics might have accepted it rather uncritically, but no one currently thinks of it as solid research. I mean, when I first learned of it in undergrad...checks calendar, lets out long defeated sigh...nearly 20 years ago, it was already the go-to example of unethical and shoddy science. Hell, even in Blum's article he has to note "methodological criticism of it was swift and widespread in the years after it was conducted." Swift and widespread. SWIFT. AND WIDESPREAD. That does not sound like uncritical acceptance! Of course, he brushes past that point really quickly, probably because it undermines the entirety of his argument. Even more annoyingly, when he (or any of the other articles I've seen written about this) actually talks to an academic about the SPE, they all pretty much uniformly say something along the lines of "Oh yeah, that study had tons of problems, but it's useful for illustrating some certain points." So again, there's literally no evidence academics are simply uncritically accepting this study, and yet that's the hook of every one of these articles.

This is, of course, to say nothing about the fact that it's one single study. Something people outside of the sciences and/or academia have a hard time grasping is that it's incredibly rare that a single study really amounts to anything. Because no study is perfect, there are always more variables to include, more ideas to consider, etc. Science works by collecting a large number of studies. So even if people were uncritically accepting this as true (which they aren't), it's being disproven (which it isn't) wouldn't really matter, because there's been tons and tons of other research conducted on prisons, the prison environment, the power of authority, etc., many of which come to the generally the same conclusions. Again, one study in isolation is typically pretty useless. That's why we have lots of people studying things lots of different ways. I mean...that's just what science is.

Another major problem is that neither Blum nor any of the other people writing about this at all address the concept of what we call in our fancy-pants social science language "desirability bias." Which is pretty much what it sounds like -- all of us want to present ourselves as good people, consciously or unconsciously. That's why we have all sorts of checks and measures built into survey and interview research, because it's rare that you can just straight-up believe what people say. A classic example of this from political science is asking people who they voted for in prior presidential elections. When you do this, even if your sample is very carefully calibrated to be representative of the US population, you will get significantly more people saying they voted for the winner than actually happened. For some this is a conscious manipulation of the truth (no one likes to be lumped in with the loser, or to have voted "wrong") while for others its subconscious (they don't really remember who they voted for, so their mind fills in the blank with the more memorable winner). But the point is that it doesn't matter at what level it's happening, just that its empirical reality that most people will try to present themselves in what they think is the best light.

How this applies here is that most of Blum's damning expose is based on the fact that several of the principal research participants now say they knew what was happening all along and that they were just playing the roles they thought they were supposed to play. And maybe this is indeed true! But there's zero reason to just accept these guys' word on that. Because you could just as easily argue that if you're someone who's famous for, say, being a sadistic asshole during this world-famous experiment, or freaking out and having a massive panic attack, you have pretty good reason to later say "Oh no, no. None of that was real. I was totally just acting the entire time! I definitely knew what was going on and wasn't tricked in the slightest!" I mean, I sure as hell would. Really, there's no way to actually know, and my point is not that these guys are lying. Rather, the point is that it's just as likely they're inventing a new story to excuse their behavior as it is they had this all figured out from the get-go.

But yet, even if most of the people involved were consciously acting out a part (even though it's obvious not all of them were, such as the fellow who staged a hunger strike), this still stands as a damning condemnation of our prison system. After all, is it not telling that a group of college students told to be prison guards assumed that meant they needed to be abusive assholes?

Furthermore, the training of the guards in this study was not terribly different than the training actual prison guards receive. If you're interested in a great detailed account of prison guard training, I highly recommend Ted Connover's Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.

For instance, check out this supposedly damning quote from Zimbardo:
"“We cannot physically abuse or torture them,” Zimbardo told them, in recordings first released a decade and a half after the experiment. “We can create boredom. We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them, to some degree… We have total power in the situation. They have none.”"
Yup, that's pretty much what actual prison guards are taught -- what they legally can and cannot do, and then from there are basically told to make it work however they can. Indeed, here's another passage that is somehow supposed to prove the SPE was a fraud:
"In 2005, Carlo Prescott, the San Quentin parolee who consulted on the experiment’s design, published an Op-Ed in The Stanford Daily entitled “The Lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment,” revealing that many of the guards’ techniques for tormenting prisoners had been taken from his own experience at San Quentin rather than having been invented by the participants."
So sure, this proves Zimbardo oversold his experiment (which, again, is a point so thoroughly established and accepted that it's beyond banal). But it really undermines the whole "SPE was nothing like actual prisons!!!!" argument when you note that the guards' techniques were taken directly from actual prison experience.

Here's another passage that, again, while being marshaled as evidence the SPE was bunk, actually makes the very point the study was trying to make:
"Once the simulation got underway, Jaffe explicitly corrected guards who weren’t acting tough enough, fostering exactly the pathological behavior that Zimbardo would later claim had arisen organically."
Again, read the Connover, book -- this is what happens in actual prisons. Any guard who is being too friendly with the inmates or not enforcing tough rules will have superiors and/or coworkers set them straight right quick. So while again Zimbardo comes off as an ass, it actually reinforces the claims of the study.

But what's probably most frustrating about this poorly-formulated take down is how this dude clearly knows little else about prisons and has obviously read little-to-no social science, in general or about prisons specifically. For instance, take a look at these two quotes:
"According to a 2017 survey conducted by Cullen and his colleagues Teresa Kulig and Travis Pratt, 95% of the many criminology papers that have cited the Stanford prison experiment over the years have accepted its basic message that prisons are inherently inhumane."
"The SPE is often used to teach the lesson that our behavior is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves."
These things are both true! Seriously, spend 10 minutes perusing the literature on American prisons and I'll be pretty shocked if you don't come away with the notion that they're inhumane. And the idea that "our behavior is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves"? That's more-or-less the basic starting point of all social sciences. Even if the SPE was completely made up and completely bullshit, these things would still be true. In this sense, it's a lot like finding problems with one study of climate change and using that to declare that climate scientists are all dopes who have been duped into believing bullshit.

The reason the Stanford Prison Experiment sticks around in textbooks and lectures is because it's an interesting example with a lot of media produced around it, making it accessible in both the figurative sense of being easy to grasp and the literal sense of having all sorts of videos and interviews and whatnot available. It's in many ways the same as how we teach the scientific method to kids in elementary school. I very distinctly remember learning that 6-stage process of science in the 4th grade. And now, as an actual research scientist, I can tell you it's complete bullshit. No scientific study in the history of scientific studies has ever followed that 6-stage process. But that doesn't mean we're teaching our children lies, it's just a simplified version of a much more complex and nuanced process. The SPE is roughly the same -- I have a hard time believing anyone is teaching it as an example of great science, but rather it's handy for discussing all sorts of methodological and ethical issues, as well as serving as general entry point to studies of the prison as well.

Again, Blum's piece undercuts itself quite directly with this quote, which I think more-or-less reflects how the majority of academics feel about the SPE:
“Even if the science was quirky,” said Kenneth Carter, professor of psychology at Emory University and co-author of the textbook Learn Psychology, “or there was something that was wrong about the way that it was put together, I think at the end of the day, I still want students to be mindful that they may find themselves in powerful situations that could override how they might behave as an individual. That’s the story that’s bigger than the science.”
And that's really the entirely of my problem with Blum's "expose." He writes as if he's blowing the lid off of a conspiracy by pointing out the problems with the SPE, when in reality, academics have been discussing these issues with the study for literal decades.

So really, what we learn from all of this is that A) the SPE has all sorts of problems that have been widely recognized from basically the day it was published, B) Philip Zimbardo is a bit of a publicity hound, C) most of the conclusions/arguments of the SPE have been confirmed by subsequent, much better-designed research, and D) none of this is news to anyone who pays any attention to this stuff.

But those conclusions are not nearly as catchy as calling something a sham, and they sure as hell won't help you sell your book.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Starbucks, Pig Motherfuckers, And When "The Law" Isn't A Great Defense

By now you've surely either seen the video or at least heard about the two guys in Philly who were arrested for SASWB, or Sitting At Starbucks While Black (not the best acronym, I know, but these things are happening faster than our collective ability to make witty shorthand for them). But in case you've been living in a cave on Mars with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears, the gist of the story is that two Black men were sitting at a Starbucks waiting for their friend when the manager told them they needed to leave if they weren't going to buy anything. When they explained they were waiting for their friend, the manager called the police, who showed up and arrested the two, perp-walking them out of the store, before eventually releasing them without charges.

A lot of the reaction to this has been in pointing out the double-standard obviously at play here, pointing out that had these two guys been white, it's laughable to think this would have played out in anywhere near the same way. Indeed, the linked article above frames it as an example of implicit bias, even though I'd argue this seems much more like a case of explicit* bias.

Yet at whatever level the bias was operating, it's pretty clear to everyone who's not being willfully obtuse that this ordeal was clearly the result of racial bias. This is one of those situations where you don't need to see empirical studies or have a broad grasp of the literature on racial hierarchies and racialized order in America or any of that fancy pants book learning stuff, you just need to walk to any Starbucks right now and see how many white people are there who obviously have not purchased anything and who are not being handcuffed and perp walked out of there.

But here's where the people who are being willfully obtuse will point out that technically these men were loitering and that's against the law, so the manager did nothing wrong by calling the police, and the police did nothing wrong by arresting them. Because they were objectively breaking the law! You can't break the law and complain when you get arrested!

Hell, that's pretty much the exact argument made by the PPD Commissioner about it. Check out his official statement:
"They did a service that they were called to do. And if you think about it logically, that if a business calls and they say that someone is here that I no longer wish to be in my business, (officers) now have a legal obligation to carry out their duties. And they did just that. We are committed to fair and unbiased policing and anything less than that will not be tolerated in this department. These officers did absolutely nothing wrong."
-Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Richard Ross (on the actions of his officers at the 18th & Spruce Starbucks on 4/12/18)
The problem is that we're pretty much all objectively breaking the law, all the time. Mostly because of the gargantuan number of laws we're subject to, and how incredibly broad and vague many of those laws are. Hell, we don't even know how many laws there actually are. But important for this conversation, the Supreme Court has ruled that as long as someone is objectively breaking the law, the subjective motivations of the police don't matter. So even if the police in this case had said "We're arresting you because we don't want Black people in Starbucks" it still would have been a legal arrest, given that in the technical sense the two men were objectively breaking the law by loitering. In the eyes of the courts, it simply doesn't matter at all that this is a law pretty much everyone has broken at some point in time (hell, this is a law I break all the damn time). Hell, it doesn't matter that loitering laws are almost always so vague as to mean that we're pretty much all violating it all the time.

This plethora of poorly-written and vaguely-defined laws creates a scenario in which we live according to two sets of laws. There are Laws, which are passed by congress and signed by a president or governor, and then there are Laws, which are what the police enforce. Now, the two aren't entirely unrelated, but there are a hell of a lot of Laws which are not really Laws, and more than a few Laws which are not actually Laws. But even more importantly, there are a whole mess of Laws that only become Laws depending on who is breaking them. Which is what obviously happened in Philly. I can all but guarantee there were other people in the store at that very moment breaking the Law but because of their appearance were not deemed by the manager or the police to be breaking the Law.

But even though the Starbucks manager and the police were well within their official legal rights to do what they did, it was an incredibly stupid thing to do. The best analogy I can come up with is one I often use to teach my students the difference between Laws and Laws: it is your complete constitutional right (and has been verified as such by the courts) to walk up to a police officer, flip them off, and say "Fuck you, you piece of shit pig motherfucker." As long as you don't touch the officer or interfere in their work, this is 100% the Law and legal for you to do. Yet despite the fact that it's legal for you to do, it's a stupid thing to do for two reasons -- first, that's a rude thing to say. Not really the kind of thing you should go around saying to people for no reason. But second, even if you don't care about the politeness angle, it's dumb because it's pretty likely going to end in that officer whooping your ass and arresting you for some kind of trumped up charge (my guess would be some combination of disturbing the peace, interfering with an official act, and/or assault of an officer). And even though this is full your constitutional right, good luck getting any court in America to prosecute the officer who beat your ass for calling them a pig motherfucker. Because while your right to call them that is a Law it sure as hell isn't a Law.

The Starbucks incident is a case of that manager and those police officers acting similarly stupid for two very similar reasons; the first is the obvious one that racism is bad. You shouldn't treat people differently because of the color of their skin. Duh. But the second is that even if you don't care about racial equality, it's still dumb for Starbucks and the police to do this. All you need to do is look at the fallout -- look how much backlash the company is experiencing, and just think about what this is doing for police-community relations. Because even though it was all perfectly legal, that doesn't mean it wasn't a terrible idea to arrest these men.

So just like you can call a police officer a stupid pig motherfucker, it's not a good idea to do so, if for no other reason than self-preservation, it's similarly not a good idea to arrest people who are doing nothing actually wrong, if for no other reason than it will (rightfully) lead a lot of people to believe the police are biased and harass Black people for no reason.



*I'm not just being a pedantic asshole here, as I think the distinction is really important (though I definitely am a pedantic asshole). Implicit bias is generally best proffered as an explanation for split-second decisions; there is, after all, a reason it's so often invoked in the case of fatal shootings. Implicit bias happens at a subconscious level, so it's most pertinent in events which require immediate reactions which cannot be consciously processed but instead must rely on unthinking reaction. But in a situation like this, when both the Starbucks folks and the police had plenty of time to mull their decisions and think about what they're doing, it sure seems like they were explicitly making the decision to treat these Black men differently, not reacting based on a lifetime of unconscious social conditioning.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Free Speech and Whatnot

"The remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence"
 --Louis Brandeis (originally), Asshole White Guy Playing Devil's Advocate (usually)

As you're undoubtedly aware, the US is current mired in a fight for its very political soul, as college kids occasionally interrupt literal Nazis giving speeches. Ok, that might be setting up a bit of a straw man, but it's more-or-less correct. Read pretty much any David Brooks column from the past several years (this is a rhetorical device, under no circumstances should you actually read a David Brooks column) and you'll hear an old white guy ranting and raving about how the kids these days don't accept free speech because they keep interrupting people who are just saying the maybe there's an intellectual case to be made for why Black people are subhuman, or trans people should be beaten up in the streets, or anyone with brown skin should be rounded up and deported en masse. You know, for the sake of argument.

Again, maybe I'm being a bit unfair to the position, but it's so difficult for me to take that position seriously that I can't genuinely write out their arguments, because they're so obviously facile that presenting them with a straight face offers them far more legitimacy than they deserve.

Of course, in an empirical sense, the war on free speech is not happening at all. In fact, actual data demonstrates the vast majority of Americans strongly support free and open speech, and those who show most support for it are...wait for it...the very college students who hack writers love to wring their hands about for the blue-hairs that actually still read newspapers. But let's skip right past this, since the empirical reality of what's happening has very little to do with why people are writing these columns and think pieces and whatnot.

If you do read the link above, you will find that there is one group that Americans of all stripes feel pretty comfortable in denying free speech rights to, and that group is Muslims. Funny that I've yet to see a David Brooks article worrying about the abuse of free speech rights for Muslims, but I'm sure that's just because his cab driver hasn't told him about this yet.

But what makes it most interesting that the same Americans who just ~love~ free speech have no problem with it being denied to Muslims, is that the group most often harmed by their beloved free speech just happens to be Muslims.

A central facet of the argument made by the white guy free speech warriors of today is essentially the old "sticks and stones" bit, in which they note that, sure, sometimes these speeches are pretty caustic and offensive, but at the end of the day, they're just words. And words have never hurt anyone! Why, even the implication that words could harm someone means you're just so juvenile! You should have thick skin, like the rich white guys who write these articles who have, just coincidentally, never been on the receiving end of racial slurs or wide-scale attempts to demonize them. Some even go so far to concede this point, but argue it's a strength that allows them to view these issues rationally and dispassionately, not like all those hot-blooded, irrational coloreds (well, they use a bit more polite coded language to make that point, but that is unmistakably the point they are making).

This is, of course, a very dumb point. Words hurt immensely, as literally thousands of psychological and sociological studies demonstrate. But even if we ignore the mountains of evidence regarding how discourse can harm people at the individual level (which we absolutely shouldn't!), there's plenty of evidence to demonstrate that words hurt in a very substantial and real way on a larger scale.

A recent study by the New America Foundation found that spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes in American happen not after notable terror attacks or other major news stories regarding the supposedly perfidious acts unique to Muslims, but rather that such attacks follow a clear pattern of mimicking the election cycle; that is, people don't attack Muslims because they saw a news story about a terror attack and felt the need to retaliate, they attack Muslims because they listened to a politician speak about how bad Muslims are.

So I ask of the "the only counter to speech is more speech!!1!!1!!1!" crowd -- exactly what speech should these Muslims who were beaten and/or killed by bigots riled up by bigoted speeches have used in their defense? Because I'm willing to bet they tried the counter speech of "Please don't beat me to death!" but that was clearly not effective. Seriously, though -- what speech would have countered this? Because it sure looks like shouting down those speakers before they riled up a crowd of murderous bigots would have had a chance at being successful, but that's an open empirical question. But what is not an open empirical question is if more speech would have prevented these attacks, because there's been a shitload of "more speech" about how Muslims are human beings who do not deserve to be beaten and/or murdered simply for who they are, but that has been emphatically proven to not be effective.

This is not a process limited to the United States. For instance, the preeminent criminologist John Hagan has pretty conclusively demonstrated that rhetoric (a/k/a speech) was integral in laying the groundwork for the genocide in Darfur (particularly these two studies). Once again, many people tried the "more speech" option of arguing against the mass slaughter of human beings, but once again, that was clearly not effective.

Obviously people of good faith can argue about, say, what limits on speech are or are not acceptable, or what utility there is in shouting down individual speakers, and all of that sort of thing. But what is clearly inarguable is that the idea that "more speech" will effectively counter hate speech is simply false. And not "false" in the sense that I disagree with it, but "false" in the sense that all available empirical data demonstrates the "more speech" tactic to be completely ineffective.

But the point, of course, is that the "more speech" crowd is not arguing in good faith. Their central argument is not about the freedom of speech, but about the freedom of bigots and white supremacists to continue being bigots and white supremacists without anyone doing anything about it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Only Good Foreigner is Rod Stewart

Of the many stickers, posters, and other political ephemera I have hanging in my office, one of my most favorite is a bumper sticker referring a joke from the great webcomic Wondermark. It's so great, this is at least the second time I've used it as the header of a post. If you can't read it, it's amending a famous old quote attributed to Ghandi to now read "First they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win. Then their children claim it was their idea all along."

I think it so very perfectly encapsulates our desire to constantly re-write and whitewash the past. Since history has already decided who the good side and the bad side are in most every conflict, it's pretty easy to look back and pat ourselves on the back for our presumption we would have been squarely on the good side. It's what allows us to pretend like everyone loved MLK and the freedom riders and the lunch counter sit-ins, because they were so obviously correct, when at the time, a majority of the nation disagreed with what the freedom riders were doing and felt lunch counter sit-ins were doing more to hurt the cause of civil rights than help it.

We've got another handy example of this happening in real time as Trump's attempt to ban entry for travelers from numerous nations was shot down, only to be followed by a ramping-up of immigration enforcement and deportations, with ICE raids happening all across the nation and ICE agents working to lie about who immigrants are to paint them as villainous. And, of course, this is likely to only get much worse following Trump's SOTU, in which he played the classic xenophobic card of claiming all of our problems are due to dirty, dirty foreigners and their dirty, dirty foreign ways.

A popular narrative to try to sell these policies is that the people we're deporting or not allowing to enter the nation are bad and dangerous people, and keeping them out/kicking them out is a matter of national safety. Many others counter that by pointing out that a large number of people being deported/prevented from entering are actually refugees, very often refugees from political violence either directly inflicted by the US government or indirectly through regimes supported and financed by the American government.

But regardless of the position take, ultimately the heart of the debate is whether these people are "worthy" or "deserving" to be in America, in large part defined as whether they're fleeing something truly dangerous, thus giving us a moral imperative to accept/continue to allow these refugees.

The problem is that for one side of this "debate," there seems to be no one who is truly deserving.

Side note: this pretty well parallels the Right's concern over the "deserving" poor. Realizing that a platform of "Fuck the poor, let them starve to death in the streets" is not terribly politically palatable, they instead attempt to divide the poor into the "deserving" and...well, they pretty much never articulate the implied other category, again I'm assuming largely because it's not terribly palatable to many. But given the constantly-shifting and extremely-narrow criteria it takes to meet the definition of "deserving," it leaves one to strongly suspect they truly see no poor people as deserving of assistance.

It's pretty easy to understand this by looking at a case in which it's extremely difficult to argue the "deserving" portion of the immigration debate -- Jewish refugees during the Nazi regime. As you can see from the poll below (from the twitter account Historical Opinion, though I snagged them from this pretty good WaPo article) in 1938, about 2/3rds of Americans not only opposed allowing refugees fleeing Nazi persecution into America, but actually agree that "we should try to keep them out."


Of course, you could argue it's easier to see which opinion is "correct" with the benefit of hindsight and all that. But hindsight wasn't really necessary for the second graph below, which is the results from a poll conduct after Kristallnacht, so it wasn't really a secret that the Nazis were pretty shitty to Jews and other groups they didn't like. Not that the Nazis had exactly ever hid this fact, but I suppose you could make the argument that in the early days of the regime people might not have known to take them seriously. But once they started instituting official mass violence against Jews and other minorities, it's hard to argue that people could have assumed the Nazis weren't serious about all of their anti-Semitic proclamations. Not only that, but this poll question was only asking about whether we should accept children who are fleeing Nazi violence. So you can't even make the (already absurd on its face) argument that there might be Nazis posing as refugees to sneak into America and then...I dunno, take us down from the inside? Whatever the argument is, it doesn't hold up when we're discussing children fleeing from the Nazis. If ever there was a group that would be the dictionary definition of "deserving immigrants," I think you'd be pretty fucking hard pressed to come up with something better than children fleeing Nazis.


But as you can clearly see, a strong majority of the nation felt children escaping from the Nazis did not meet the definition of "deserving" immigrant. So I could write several thousand more words on the problematic construction of dividing immigrants/refugees into "deserving" and "not deserving," but nothing I could write would make this point nearly as well as this poll result. If Jewish children fleeing Nazi violence does not meet the bar of "deserving," I think it's safe to say no one ever will. Although, of course, now pretty much everyone would agree that we should have accepted these children fleeing the Nazis. Just like I'd be willing to be that in 50 years it will be so obvious that we should have been open to accepting Syrian refugees.

But of course that belated realization will be just about as useful to Syrian refugees as it was to those Jewish children denied entrance to the US...

For those that don't get the reference in the title, you really need to watch Much Apu About Nothing

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Shithole by Any Other Name Is Still As Exploited By Colonialism and Imperialism

So Trump has said something really stupid and racist again and we're all angry about it (this sentence should probably precede every post I make for the next several years). It was obviously stupid and racist and bad and this is most definitely not going to be some contrarian post about how, like, he wasn't really wrong if you think about it, you know, or some bullshit about how it's good he said it.

Nor do I want to minimize what he said -- calling large swaths of the world "shitholes" and the implications about those places and the people that live there, especially when this comes from the President of a world superpower, has real effects and does real damage to real people. Everyone condemning Trump is right to do so.

Now here is where the obnoxious contrarian "but" comes in. What I can't jibe with is a central feature of many of these condemnations, which is that Trump is violating some great norm or going well beyond the pale here. Certainly his rhetoric is unsavory, but if you think Presidents like, say, Nixon didn't say this exact same kind of thing, then...I dunno. Go listen to the many White House recordings of him saying exactly these kind of things. Maybe not these exact words, but the same sentiment.

But more than the nasty rhetoric, I can't stand the insinuation that Trump's assertion that there are "good" and "bad" nations and that we only want people from "good" nations and those "bad" nations need to quit whining and get their shit together is somehow a viewpoint unique to Trump or his brand of far-right incoherence more generally. As Corey Robin has done a yeoman's job pointing out repeatedly since Trump first entered the presidential race, most of Trump's views (and his actual policies since becoming President) are pretty boilerplate Republican views (even more, they're often pretty traditional bipartisan views). He just doesn't put as nice of a sheen on them. Here's Robin discussing this while Trump was but a candidate, but there's plenty more where that came from and I highly encourage you to read all of his work on Trump.

Even more to the point, though, Trump's castigation of African nations as "shitholes" is, again apart from the course language, pretty much been official US policy since...oh, the founding of the United States. Hell, take a look at the person most often used as contrast for Trump's "unpresidential" ways -- his predecessor, Barak Obama, who is often held up as the eloquent, compassionate statesman we wish the President could always be.

Well, what were Barry's views on these shithole African nations? He told them, basically, to quit whining about colonialism, slavery and racism and to admit that everything wrong in Africa is their fault and they need to get their shit together. From the article: "And yet the fact is we're in 2009," continued the US president. "The West and the United States has not been responsible for what's happened to Zimbabwe's economy over the last 15 or 20 years." (Click on through for more victim-blaming fun!)

The difference between Trump and Obama in their view toward the political and economic problems facing so many African nations is not a difference between compassion and belittlement, it's a shared belittlement divided by using nice or mean language. Eloquence in defense of colonial empire is effectively no different than vulgarity in defense of colonial empire, at least in terms of outcomes.

And really, one could argue that Obama's eloquent defense of empire is more dangerous than Trump's artless bumbling, as empire sure goes down easier with pretty language and thoughtful speeches than it does with the equivalent of a drunk fratboy bragging at a kegger.

So I end this rant as I have many of my Trump-related rants by looking for the silver lining in our current dystopian hell scape; in this case, its that Trump's inarticulateness serves to sharpen the contradictions (as an old Marxist might say) of US policy. At least with this jackass crowing about our foreign policy in the most crude and brash way, people might start to see the problems with what we're doing to the world.

Or to put it in an even simpler way: at least he's admitting how we've always officially viewed these places. And the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem...

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Everyone Wants Nuance (But Everyone Hates Nuance)

The vast and growing #MeToo movement has long since moved from exposing the people pretty much everyone knew were creepy abusers (your Harvey Weinsteins of the world) and has moved on to exposing people that are a bit more surprising (Al Franken comes to mind), though at this point, we probably shouldn't be surprised by any man being outed as an abuser or harasser, save maybe a Fred Rogers or Tom Hanks.

Recently we've seen a prime example of someone I think most people were surprised got called out in the person of Aziz Ansari, whose generally-thoughtful writing and comedy around gender relations and whose position as a relatively-outspoken feminist made him seem like one of the least likely to be called out. But called out he was, by an anonymous woman's account of a really shitty date they had where she felt pressured to perform sexual acts she didn't want to.

There's a lot to unpack in this story, but the angle I find most interesting is where this fits in the larger #MeToo movement. One thing those opposed to this movement toward some justice for women (or at least an acknowledgement of the difficulties they face) have focussed on relentlessly is the concept of nuance -- that is, are all men who have been accused of bad behavior to be all lumped together? For instance, as was constantly heard throughout the Franken affair, sure he shouldn't have done what he did, but that didn't make him Weinstein. And shouldn't that matter? Shouldn't we talk about that difference?

Predictably, this crowd has jumped all over the Ansari story as proof that those crazy feminists have gone too far again. The New York Times said Ansari is guilty only of "Not being a mind reader" while WaPo has deemed this "A gift to anyone who wants to derail the #MeToo movement" (which I assume means them, because that's exactly what they're doing). Anyway, you can find a million more hot takes on this line of thinking, where the regressive forces of people who are so concerned that in the middle of the thousands and thousands of women coming forward to tell their tales of abuse, assault, and harassment, a man might be inconvenienced have finally found their hallelujah moment.

Except...this story is really what these people have been calling for all along, a nuanced portrayal that recognizes it's not a white/black dichotomy of good and bad, that consent is not always a completely straight-forward matter, and that there are degrees to this kind of thing. If you actually read her story, you'll see she presents a pretty nuanced understanding of what happened, and indeed, it was only after parsing through the nuance that she came to see it as a sexual assault. Why, it's almost as if she did exactly what all these people so concerned about nuance and not getting carried away say they want, and yet it's still not good enough.

Because the bigger point is that sexual consent is not simply a yes/no matter, and is impacted by all sorts of things (remember, I bet very few people explicitly said "no" to Weinstein or Cosby, yet we don't forgive them their crimes for that). As this great piece points out, consent is just the baseline, not a get-out-of-jail-free card, and it's not ridiculous to expect men, (all men, but especially men who make a big public deal out of what a feminist they are) to conceptualize consent beyond a simple yes/no. It's not a terribly difficult or onerous task to recognize that gendered power imbalances exist and then take the incredibly minuscule effort required to address that. Whether it be the fact that women are socialized since birth to prioritize the feelings of others (especially men) over their own, to try to navigate an impossible Madonna/Whore complex, and of course, to fear for their safety should they dare explicitly say "no" to a man, it's clear that it's not as simple as saying no and walking away, as the incredibly offensive NYT opinion piece linked to above claims.

But what that horribly offensive NYT piece (seriously, don't read it unless you've taken your blood pressure meds this morning) misses is that, no, Ansari didn't need to be a mind reader to know she wasn't comfortable. You know what magical powers he did need? The ability to have a conversation at an adult level. For instance, maybe after the third or fourth time he forced her hand onto his penis and she clearly wasn't into it, maybe he could have been a grown up and spoken to her? Remember, this isn't a 15 year old kid figuring out what all this stuff is, this is a grown man who literally wrote a book on romance and relationships. But instead of actually seeking out her consent (her active consent, if you will), it seems that Ansari took the fact that she wasn't screaming "RAPE!" at the top of her lungs to mean she must be into it, right? I mean, who has ever heard of a woman going through with a sex act she didn't want to simply because she felt like she had no other choice?

Gee, if only there were a handy hashtag one could use to quickly find literally thousands of such stories.

In that way, this reaction to the Aziz Ansari story seems to be like a modified version of Lewis' Law ("the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism") -- something like "the reaction to any particular #MeToo story justifies the need for the #MeToo movement."

Because the real impact of the #MeToo movement is not that we're outing famous abusers (though it's great that's happening), it's bringing to light all of the many much smaller ways women are harassed, intimidated, and abused on a daily basis that don't rise to the level of the explicit legal definition of rape. It's about recognizing how the personhood of women is so easily discarded by men whenever it's convenient to them. Or, to put it a much more nuanced way, it's about recognizing that just because someone didn't do what Harvey Weinstein did doesn't mean they're incapable of being shitty to women.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Brazen Conceptual Activities of the Wealthy

So Trump is an obnoxious asshole, but he is good for some things -- laughing at his insanity as we inch ever-closer to the destruction of all humanity, driving a nail though all meritocracy-based arguments about American society and/or politics, and of course, hilarious pictures of super-long ties (seriously, what is up with dude's ties?).

What I think Trump is especially useful for is how well he pulls back the veil of rich person executive culture in a way that few others have. Anyone who follows most any news about corporate malfeasance knows that the majority of corporate executives do basically nothing of any meaningful or substantial use -- they golf, they drink, they have meetings with other do-nothing rich assholes, and just kind of putter their way through their days, collecting giant checks and stock options along the way.

But their life of do-nothing opulence is typically only visible to those who seek out information about them; I think most people assume they must be working hard. After all, they're CEOs and high-level executives! Surely they're doing something. And, of course, these CEOs and other executives will be glad to tell you about all the hard work they're doing, albeit without providing any evidence of having done any actual work. But again, I think the majority of people don't give it much thought at all and instead just fall to the default assumption that those above them on the economic ladder must be working much harder then they are. You know, American meritocratic myths and all that.

Trump is a fantastic example of this kind of do-nothing corporate ridiculousness. By all accounts of his professional life prior to the White House, he was pretty much the archetype of what I'm discussing -- he'd golf and have discussions with important people, but his actual money came from inheritance, not from any actual work he'd done or good deals he'd made (indeed, more than a few accounts have argued he'd have more money if he just sat on his inheritance and never actually tried to do any of his beloved deal-making).

While he was just any other rich asshole, like most all other executives, could skate by on reputation and a political and media environment that worships wealth and is unlikely to question its holders, the office of the President carries with it some level of scrutiny. I'm certainly not arguing that contemporary American media really hold the President's feet to the fire, but there's at least a certain level of scrutiny about basic aspects of the job and his performance thereof that just doesn't exist for the CEO of a hotel chain. Not to mention, of course, that simply by being in the world of partisan politics, no matter which side, you instantly have a group of people on the other side with a vested interest in scrutinizing what you're doing, again in a way that no random CEO is ever going to experience, save some sort of major scandal.

So when you switch up the corporate penthouse for the White House, you start to get stuff like this, where people leak what your daily schedule is actually like.

Now in the linked article, Trump's absurdly lackadaisical schedule is presented as some sort of aberration, but I'd argue this looks pretty much exactly like any other rich asshole's schedule. It might be different than that of your typical President, but compared to your typical CEO, I'd bet it's basically run-of-the-mill.

What really stands out to me is not how short and light the scheduled day is for someone whose job supposedly carries such great weight, but more so how it's conceived of by Trump. Especially this sentence:

The schedule says Trump has "Executive Time" in the Oval Office every day from 8am to 11am, but the reality is he spends that time in his residence, watching TV, making phone calls and tweeting.

This is the purest distillation of the worthlessness of high-level executives one could possibly find. What you or I would call "screwing around" and what any of our employers would call "knock that off and get back to work," for Trump and his ilk is "Executive Time."

Ooooo! Executive Time! Time for doing executive stuff! He's not "sitting on his couch watching TV," he's having "Executive Time!" He's not "fucking around on Twitter," he's having "Executive Time!" You see, you and I are not executives, so when we sit around watching tv and scrolling social media, we are doing nothing special. But when An Executive sits around watching tv and scrolling social media, they are doing Important Executive Things.

And I've not a doubt in my mind that this is not cynical manipulation by Trump, as if he knew he were just dicking around doing nothing of any worth but felt the need to dress it up. No, it's pretty clear he (and those like him) genuinely see this as qualitatively different from when you and I do it. It's not hard at all to believe Trump honestly believes that his twitter and TV time is of vital necessity, and therefore is truly, genuinely part of his working day.

But again, this is almost assuredly not an aberration in the high-levels of the corporate world. I'd be willing to bet the CEO of wherever you work is having their version of executive time right now. It might not be Fox and Friends and twitter, but it's of similar value.

So there's a small silver-lining: Any time any person tries to make the argument that wealth is obtained through hard work can simply be presented with the schedule of Mr. Trump, the schedule of a very wealthy and therefore successful businessman. And then the rest of whatever they have to say can be completely ignored, as it already should have been, anyway.