Friday, December 04, 2015

I Will Never Tire of Shaming People Who Talk About "Student Shaming"

I've written about this subject before, but self-righteous academics keep writing these articles, so I'll keep belittling their arguments (shaming them, if you will). Recently published on the Shit Academics Say new blog SAS Confidential (which is hugely disappointing, because I normally love SAS), we have yet another post about how super upright moral professors never say anything bad about their students, and if you do, it means you're a horrible person who is single-handedly destroying the institution of higher learning. Ok, so I hyperbolize a little, but not that much.

While I think my previous take down of what is, essentially, the same argument holds up pretty well, this gives me an excuse to catalogue the many more problems I have with this line of thinking. And Lord knows I love nothing more than to complain on the internet. So in addition to all the previous reasons I've listed for hating this opinion, here are some more crotchety complaints! In numbered form!

1) This is the most annoying type of argument: the kind where what is claimed to be the most moral position possible and the author's own position on the subject just happen to be one and the same! "Oh no, it's not that I'm writing 2,000 words about what a great person I am and how I'm so much better than you, it just turns out what I do is the only possible way to do things!" Kevin Gannon, the person who wrote the offending column this time, promotes himself as a pedagogical expert on his linked website. So I have to assume he's familiar with the fact that people have all sorts of varied learning styles, and what works for one may be terrible for another, etc. And yet, he writes things like:

I don’t like shame. I run and hide from what makes me ashamed, and do my level best to stay hidden.

Bummer dude. It legit sucks that you feel that way. But did you know that not every person alive responds that way to shame? Let me take you on a special journey in the way back machine to learn about a time Young Jesse got his ass shamed pretty fucking hard in front of a college classroom. In my very first semester of college I was a music major (vocal performance, to be exact) and of the many music-related classes I had to take, one of them was Aural Training. Which is basically learning how to pick stuff up by ear, but in a very formal way (this, by the way, is a skill I do not posses to this day, and it blows my mind that people are able to do this).

So in one of the first weeks of class, by which point in time I had already realized I was in way over my head with this music shit (I just liked to sing!), we had an in-class assignment where the professor played simple songs on the piano and we had to transcribe them. Just by listening to them! Witchcraft! By virtue of the fact I'm still amazed people can do this, you might surmise (correctly!) that I was not able to do so. My transcriptions were bad. Laughably bad. And I mean that literally -- they were so bad that the next class meeting, the prof played what I had transcribed for the entire class, all of whom (including the professor!) were laughing uproariously. Of course, he didn't announce whose it was, but I still don't think I've ever been more embarrassed. If anyone was actually wondering whose it was, it would have been pretty easy to figure out it was the kid whose face was turning brighter red by the second and who was doing everything possible to slink as far down in his chair as possible.

But this also kicked my ass into gear and made me realize I needed some serious help if I planned on passing the course. So I went out and got a tutor and put in a shitload of time on practicing this stuff, and I managed to pull a B- in the class, simultaneously the lowest grade I earned in college and the one I'm most proud of. Would I have put in all this extra work had I not been shamed in front of the class like that? Eh, who the hell knows. This is a rather pointless anecdote from which we can draw no conclusions. But it is the same level of selective, completely non-empirical evidence employed in Gannon's piece, so it felt appropriate.

2) Gannon actually kind of gives away one of the biggest problems with his piece when he writes things like:

What would have happened if I saw or heard about this “venting?”


I don’t know if my professors joked about me at the coffee pot, or traded stories about me at cocktail parties.

You see the running theme there? It's that as a student himself, Gannon had no idea whether his professors were doing this kind of behavior or not (But let me help out: they were. They definitely were. One, because so many professors complain about their students. Two, if you were half as sanctimonious as an undergrad as you are now, all of your professors were complaining about you). After all, the only two examples provided of dangerous student shaming in Gannon's piece are the Dear Student column on Vitae (an offshoot of the Chronicle of Higher Ed) and one twitter account of an anonymous professor. Well…do you think any undergrads are reading these things? I mean, seriously? I would wager somewhere between 98 and 99.99% of all undergraduate students don't even know what the Chronicle of Higher Education is or that it exists. I didn't even know it existed until I was several years into grad school.

But upping the ante of simplistic dichotomous thinking, Gannon follows up admitting he has no idea if the professors he had ever vented about him, he notes:

But I do know that they took an interest in helping a student who was trying to get his act together.

Hey, did you know that these two things are absolutely in no way mutually exclusive? That a professor can both be upset by his students shitty behavior, even going so far as to commit the crime of complaining about that behavior, while simultaneously attempting to help the student correct said shitty behavior? If we did live in your weird hypothetical world in which to complain about bad behavior automatically disqualifies one from attempting to help students, then I could follow your argument. But since those are completely unrelated activities which do not effect one another in any way, I can't follow how one supposedly prevents the other.

3) Finally, in what is possibly the most glaring omission of these two pieces is the complete dismissal of the concept that sometimes students do things for which they should be shamed. I briefly touched on this in the previous post, but it's worth noting that the two most prominent critiques of the Dear Student series specifically and the idea of "student shaming" more broadly have both been written by white men. While the Dear Student series, for instance, is edited by a woman of color and regularly features women and/or scholars of color, many of whom are in precarious labor positions.

As a sociologist, I'm not really trained to see many things as coincidence, so I'm having a hard time not seeing something in the fact that the two most prominently-shared pieces I've seen on this subject were both written by white dudes. Which means we have to delve into the thorny world of privilege, and especially how privilege can blind one to the experiences of marginalized people.

Because while much of this student shaming is indeed about students just saying or doing something dumb, a great deal of what I see is coming from women and/or people of color who are venting far less about their students' lack of technical skills and far more about their students' lack of respect for them, which often comes in the form of directly challenging their knowledge or authority. This is something that I can attest through both empirical evidence and personal experience does not happen to white men at anywhere near the levels it happens to people of literally any other identity in the classroom. I've heard countless stories from academics far more accomplished than I about being belittled or disrespected in the classroom, while I, a literal long-haired hippie, have never once experienced that in roughly a decade in the classroom.

This isn't a case of some young, misguided student not knowing the subtle ins and outs of the world of academia, this is assholes being sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.That kind of behavior deserves shame!

And therein lies the rub -- by lumping all forms of complaining about students into the nebulous category of "student shaming" and then labeling all student shaming as bad, you necessarily silence very real problems. This is, in fact, a very classic derailing technique, a way of dismissing out of hand very legitimate critiques from people who are experiencing problems that will never effect you. Because the guys writing these articles don't experience this kind of crappy behavior from their students, it's clear they're basing their critiques of "venting" on the kinds of problems they encounter, ignoring (willfully or not) the wide array of problems that effect people with other identities. And then they hold up the fact that they don't complain about their students' minor transgressions as evidence they're more virtuous than those who complain about their students' racism/sexism/homophobia, etc. Again, it seems hard to call it coincidence that we have two white men positioning themselves as the arbiters of reason and civility against a horde of women and people of color who are all angry and irrational.

Really, that's the take away point; I'm not trying to make venting about problem students or anonymously shaming them on twitter out to be great moral enterprises or anything, just noting that they serve some pretty legit purposes. So if you don't like participating in these kinds of things, that's fine, ignore them. But please knock it off with trying to argue that because you personally don't like something, it's somehow necessarily an immorally corrupt practice. To borrow from your arguments: wouldn't it be a lot more helpful for you to reach out to those of us venting and try to help us learn rather than take to the internet to shame us?*

*Included only as a mildly humorous jab at what seems to be a fairly hypocritical stance on their part. Please do not actually reach out to me.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Holy Shit, Ghostbusters Is Super Conservative

So two weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C. for a conference, and a friend of mine and I had planned on walking around and doing some sight-seeing and other touristy stuff. But then it was raining heavily, so instead we hung out on my friend's couch droning beers and watching t.v. (I mean, why travel to our nation's capital to do anything else).

Anyway, we ended up stumbling upon an airing of Ghostbusters, a movie I hadn't seen since I was a kid and mostly just remembered as the reason for Ecto Cooler existing (which will forever give the movie a pass in my eyes). But watching it again as a grown adult is really a very different experience.

For one, man, do they get a lot of milage out of that Ray Parker, Jr. song. In addition to playing in full over the opening credits, it pops up at least three times in the movie. Very economical use of the soundtrack budget, I guess. But that's not the point of this post.

Also, there is definitely a seen in which Dan Akroyd's character, Ray Stantz, receives oral sex from a ghost. In a movie that is only rated PG, nonetheless. This is neither here nor there, it was just really weird to realize there's a ghost fellatio scene in a beloved children's movie. But that's not the point of this post, either.

No the point of this post is that Ghostbusters has to be one of the most conservative movies I've ever seen. Because the real villain of the film is not Vigo Carpathian, but is instead Walter Peck and the Environmental Protection Association:

Pictured: Every 80s movie villain
What makes it most ridiculous is not even the fact that, hey, objectively speaking the EPA has good reason to be concerned here (after all, these are a bunch of amateurs building nuclear reactors), but instead how the EPA is portrayed: as an all-powerful, despotic organization. Instead of, you know, the underfunded and completely feckless organization it actually is.

For one, just look at how dude is dressed there -- in the world of Ghostbusters, apparently low-level government bureaucrats can afford finely tailored three-piece suits. But even more ridiculous is the level of power he's portrayed as having; the instant he decides something is up wight he Ghostbusters, he's back with about a dozen NYPD officials. Because if there's one thing we all know the NYPD prioritizes, it's EPA inspections. In a world in which environmental protections a rebutted at every turn, it's downright hilarious to see a fictionalized EPA which apparently has direct command over local police departments in its long litany of extensive powers. And of course, EPA inspectors have basically unlimited power to shut down private businesses at a moment's notice in this world, as opposed to issuing tiny fines and milquetoast letters of condemnation like they do in the real world.

It's hard to even catalogue all the ways this depiction of the EPA is not only wrong, but so far from the truth as to be about as backwards as possible. The whole EPA plot (which drives most of the action in the film) is so paranoid about the government having any power whatsoever, it reads like something Ron Paul would dismiss as being a bit too paranoid about the role of government power.

I suppose it's not terribly surprising that a Reagan-era movie would cast environmental protections as the antagonist, but it was definitely jarring to see this movie as an adult who actually knows what the EPA is and does, as opposed to when I was a kid and mostly fascinated by the antics of Slimer.

I'm now very curious if the new remake will have the same rabidly anti-regulation focus as the original, or if they'll find some even more powerless regulatory body to pin all the world's evils on. But in any event, the new movie might spurn the reintroduction of Ecto Cooler. And if that's actually the case, I can forgive pretty much any amount of blatantly propagandistic conservative messaging….

Friday, November 13, 2015

Oh, I Definitely Would Have Supported That Civil Rights Movement

One of the more obnoxious white people complaints about what's happening at Mizzou and Yale (and spreading elsewhere!) is that this is all over some petty stuff. But this argument is tricky to make, not because it's empirically wrong (which it is, but that's not what these people are concerned about), but because it has a good chance of making you look like a racist.

And of course you're not a racist, you're a Good Person™. So to prove your bonafides as a Good Person™, you have to point out that you don't disagree with equality, you just think these damn kids are going too far and being too sensitive when they complain about being called racial slurs and threatened with death. So what you do instead is find something some Black person did sometime that you can safely agree with to show how not-racist you are.

I can't count the number of times I've seen denunciations of Mizzou phrased as some version of "the civil rights movement was actually necessary, these kids are just whining about nothing!" Because everyone supports the civil rights movement…now.

But did you know there was a time when MLK and the civil rights movement and all those other now-venerated events and people were not super popular? In fact, it turns out that when the civil rights movement was actually happening, a lot of people didn't think it was necessary. They thought it was a bunch of uppity kids complaining about petty stuff that didn't matter. And it wasn't just Klan members, but self-appointed Good People™who thought this was all a bunch of unnecessary grandstanding by self-important troublemakers.

It might help these people who argue "MLK = good, Mizzou = entitled brats" to go back and read what Good People™ like them were saying at the time these things were actually happening. It turns out white America wasn't super fond of the civil rights movement! Shocking! To hear most white people tell it, everyone supported the obviously-correct civil rights movement. Of course they did! They were Good People™, not racists!

….and yet, for some reason the civil rights movement had to happen. Why, it's almost as if there were a lot of white people who weren't on board. Hell, it almost seems like most white people weren't on board, which is why the civil rights movement was necessary in the first place.

But that can't be, because that would imply that progress can happen against the wishes of white people (who are, of course, Good People™), which wouldn't make any sense, because no white people are actually racist. Hell, to hear them tell it, the civil rights movement was basically their idea and the only people who opposed it were a very tiny number of sheet-wearing terrorists. Why the federal government had to repeatedly intervene is kind of confusing, but we can just leave that aside, I guess.

Anyway, not able to come up with any better ideas, I've been collecting and cataloging screen shots of people making this argument, so that 40 years from now when this period is codified as a universal good that only a very small ignorant minority opposed, but whatever current struggle is happening is just a bunch of spoiled kids, I can pull up all of these to point out that, nope, the white, moderate Good People™always oppose progress. That is, of course, until the progress happens, and then they claim they were on-board the entire time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What's The Big Deal? It's Just Some Mean Words!

Probably the most obnoxious and pernicious derailing tactic in response to the current rebellion on the campus of the University of Missouri is the tone-deaf argument of so many white folks that this all boils down to some kids not being able to handle the fact they were called a mean word.

This is a really dumb argument. Actually, it goes far beyond dumb. It's fucking stupid and racist as hell.

Leaving aside the entire (well researched and empirically-supported) concept of how microaggressions operate and why they're important to understand*, it's still easy to grasp why this goes beyond some mean words. So easy, in fact, that to make the argument these kids "just need thicker skin" and to "ignore their bullies" is an argument so obviously bullshit that I can't even accept it's simply a clueless ignorance of what's going on, but is instead an intentional attempt to minimize an incredibly important issue.

Because the "mean word" in this case is not just any random word. It is "nigger."

This is a word I typically avoid using even in an academic context such as this, but in this case, it's really important to literally spell out the invective being hurled here.

Because "nigger" is not a mean word like any other word. "Nigger" has a very special place in American history, as the word (and much more importantly, what the word represents) has been integral to maintaining America's racial hierarchy for centuries.

"Nigger" is the reason white men were free to rape Black women for centuries. "Nigger" is the reason it was not only acceptable, but obviously natural and even moral, for Black people to be enslaved. "Nigger" is the reason Black men were lynched simply for the sake of being Black men. "Nigger" is the reason a 14 year old kid could be murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman.

And it's not like this stuff is ancient history. "Nigger" is the reason a 12 year old kid playing in the park could be murdered by a police officer and the murder deemed "justifiable" by the courts. "Nigger" is the reason a 17 year old kid could be stalked and murdered by a man with a long history of violent crimes and yet somehow be the one who's actions were most closely scrutinized at trial. "Nigger" is the reason the deadliest hate crime against Black Americans in 75 years happened just a few months ago, not the very distant past. "Nigger" is the reason more unarmed Black Americans have been killed by police this year than were lynched in any year since 1923.

So when a white person calls a Black person "nigger," they're not just saying a mean word. They're invoking literal centuries of horrific crimes against Black people. They're invoking the idea that white people can do whatever they like to Black people with the confidence that no punishment will come to them. They are simply employing a short hand way of saying "Not only do I think you're subhuman, but I could murder you right here and right now for no reason and the majority of this nation would spend their time examining what you did to invite this murder, many of whom would celebrate me as a hero." They're invoking the idea that Black lives truly do not matter to a very large segment of our population.

So if you truly can't wrap your head around why these folks are so upset by a "mean word," in your head just replace "mean word" with "being threatened with murder by someone who will face no consequences for their actions," and then see if you still think it's no big deal.

*But for the record, we shouldn't put that aside! The only reason I'm skipping it here is to avoid this devolving into a discussion of whether or not microaggressions are real (they are), because this is one of those terms asshole white people have picked up on as a marker they need to virulently disagree with whatever point is being made, regardless of its merits.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Trigger Warnings: They're Not That Hard!

Discussions of trigger warnings are everywhere, and man, are some people confused. So confused, a lot of them are angry. A quick google of "Trigger warnings ruining America" returns just shy of three quarters of a million results.

Sure, sometimes some people may go a tad overboard with the concept, but in reality, it's not terribly difficult to figure out. As with most such things, it really just boils down to "Don't Be A Dick." I've written before about discussing rape and sexual assault in class, and again, I pretty much just stick to the edict of not being a dick about things, and it's served me pretty damn well. It hasn't required the insane amounts of stress and negotiation that the critics seem to think; instead, it's just required not actively being a dick.

So if not being a dick is too hard, I've come up with a simple and handy way to understand trigger warnings: they're pretty analogous to allergies. In fact, I think it maps really well. Walk through a hopefully non-tortured analogy with me, won't you?

To being with, much like allergies, there are some obviously well know trigger warnings you should be aware of. So just like any decent restaurant should be sure to warn people if they use a bunch of peanuts, what with the fact that peanut allergies are both serious and well-known, you should take a second and think before you bring up news of some sort of horrible sexual assault, because a lot of people have been sexually assaulted and it's a pretty serious trauma for many of them. Or, for instance, maybe don't share a bunch of graphic photos of war casualties to your buddy who just got home from a deployment.

To stretch the analogy further, there are some allergies that are really obscure. If someone is allergic to, say, oranges (I have no idea if this is a thing), they would probably have to get used to letting people know they shouldn't use oranges around them, because most people are probably not thinking about people with orange allergies (if they exist). Similarly, some people may be triggered by very unusual or obscure things, so they may have to go a bit out of their way to let people know not to discuss certain topics around them.

And finally: yes, sometimes people will make a ridiculous fuss about trigger warnings. Maybe even go well beyond what could be considerable reasonable at all. This doesn't invalidate the concept of trigger warnings! It just means that person might be an asshole. It's similar to all the people who have self-diagnosed a gluten insensitivity -- they're just idiots following a trend. But for many people with actual, diagnosed celiac disease, even a tiny amount of gluten can be incredibly damaging to them. Just because some people use the term incorrectly doesn't mean these people are no longer afflicted with celiac.

So again, it's pretty simple. Just don't be a dick. But if that's too hard, just think of trigger warnings as helping people with allergies. You wouldn't serve peanuts to someone with a deadly peanut allergy, so don't trigger people who have experienced emotional trauma.

Update: Shortly after I finished writing this, I came across a post to this article. It provides a much more detailed and in-depth case for basically exactly what I'm arguing (e.g. that trigger warnings aren't a big deal, they just mean not actively being a dick to people). Here's a great pull quote from the linked piece:

Professors give warnings of all sorts that, when not explicitly entangled in the national politics of political correctness, amount less to coddling than to minimizing chances of disengagement with material. “Block off more time this weekend than you usually do, since the reading for Monday is a particularly long one,” for instance, is a reasonable way of reducing the number of students who show up unprepared by issuing a warning. “Today we’re discussing a poem about rape, so be prepared for some graphic discussion, and come to office hours if you have things to say about the poem that you’re not comfortable expressing in class,” meanwhile, is a similarly reasonable way of relieving the immediate pressure to perform in class, which stresses out so many students.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ben Carson and the Specificity of Knowledge

Something I see coming up a lot in discussions of the Republican field of candidates is mystification over how Ben Carson can keep saying so many dumb things. "But he's a brain surgeon!! You need to be smart for that!!1!!1!!1!one!"

What people are missing on this is something my undergraduates have trouble with all the time: knowledge in one area, even very advanced knowledge, does not give one any knowledge in any other field. Sure, it takes a fair bit of smarts to be a brain surgeon (though in many ways it's as much about working hard as it is being smart, but that's another post for another day). But nothing about brain surgery teaches you about American history, or about the tenets of democracy, or the about the constitutionality of various ideas, etc.

As I always take care to explain to my students the first week of every class I teach, not only should you always check to see if any given source is credible, but if it's credible on that specific issue. The example I always use is of myself and an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) physician. Both of us are doctors, but we're very different kind of doctors with very different kinds of expertise. So even though I'm a doctor, if you came to me for advise on your strep throat, I would be pretty useless. Just like if you went to the ENT and asked about best practices in post-conflict police reconstruction.

Both I and the ENT are people who are experts about one thing. That expertise is non-transferrable -- sure, this hypothetical ENT or myself may have some good knowledge of other subjects, but that knowledge is completely coincidental to our credentials.

So why does Ban Carson keep saying such stupid shit constantly? Because electoral politics is literally not brain surgery. He's shown that he's quite adept at the latter, but fucking terrible at the former. And that's not confusing, it's just a demonstration of the basic fact that one highly specific set of knowledge does not guarantee one has even basic knowledge of any other subject.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hey, It's That Day From That Movie

In case you don't have access to the internet, but instead only read selected web pages printed out for you by your special internet butler, well…first, I'd like to say thank you for including this blog in your internet print outs. But secondly, today is the day Marty McFly travels to the future in Back to the Future II (that's the one where his mom doesn't try to have sex with him, but not the one where he's in the Wild West).

In classic internet fashion, for the last two years there's been about a billion photoshopped images of the Delorean's time machine display trying to trick people into believing that was the day featured in the film. So much so that enterprising people set up websites just so you could fact check that completely useless fact.

(On a semi-related topic, I've always been fascinated by people who do such things. I mean, what's the end game? The presumably incredibly slight smug satisfaction you feel for fooling strangers into believing the incorrect date of something that happened in a 30 year-old film? Who are these people so enraptured by fooling others into believing completely plausible falsehoods that have no effect on anything other than giving people slightly incorrect information about a film?)

But thankfully such meaningless photoshop hoaxes will presumably die down, as we have reached the actual date from the film. Hopefully this will also kill the sub genre of internet articles devoted to either what the movie got right about the future or complaining that reality does not match what a middling old film said it would be.

In any event, the one bit of Back to the Future ephemera clogging the internet today that I actually enjoyed is this video. Yay for cynicism!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Happy Indigenous People's Day

It's all true
Columbus sucks and was a huge asshole and committed genocide and pretty much everyone knows all that by this point.

And yet somehow Columbus Day is still a thing, although many places are starting wake up and replace it with a far less stupid day.

But hey, maybe you get the day off of work or something. So that's cool, I guess.

Anyway, to celebrate, I used my advance photo manipulation skills to create what is sure to be the hot new viral meme for you all. You're welcome.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cooking Test: Stove-Top Pizza

Although not involving any delicious offal, today has produced yet another cooking adventure!

Specifically, the pilot light is out on my oven. And the diagram on the back of the stove is absolutely no help in figuring it out, which means I'm going to have to find a user's manual for this stove somewhere online. And given that I'm renting from a slumlord and the oven is approximately 17 years older than Christ, I'm not certain I'll have much luck with that.

But the stove top still works! And I forgot to go grocery shopping yesterday and am hungry now with only a frozen pizza to my name. But hey, ain't no rule sez you can't make a pizza not in the oven.

So join me, won't you, as we endeavor to make ourselves a frozen pizza without the aid of an oven.

First, I figure it's best to use a non-stick pan. Don't want my pizza sticking to that pan. It's also my larger pan, which turns out to be a fortunate coincidence, as the pizza just barely fits in there.

Pizza pie in a pan? Mamma mia!
So it fits, which I feel is already winning an important battle. Especially because I had already unwrapped the pizza from it's protective plastic womb, and I didn't want to have to put it back in the freezer and get all freezer burned. This is one of those hippie frozen pizzas that's way more expensive than the regular shit. You don't go around wasting a pizza like that.

Anyway, I put some olive oil in the pan to prevent sticking, and figure a low temperature is probably the way to go.
Kind of an oven
Then I figure to make it more oven-y, I should find something with which to cover the pan. Since this particular pan doesn't have a lid, a cookie sheet will have to do. Maybe it will even be better, as by not tightly fitting on there, it can let steam escape, giving me a less-soggy pizza. Or maybe not. This isn't really a very scientific process here.

It doesn't look much better not blurry
 It's about this point in time in which I realize I neither set a timer nor bothered to pay attention as to when I started this thing, so we're really getting into a guessing game here. I pull the ol' cookie sheet off to discover the pizza is indeed cooking, but not nearly as quickly as I want it to. How I determine it's not cooking quickly enough is somewhat of a mystery, as I just explained how I was not timing this at all. But it just felt like it should be cooking faster, so I cranked up the heat. This may have been a mistake. Or it may not have made any difference. But a variable to keep in mind for future attempts.

Hey, it's a pizza!
So after waiting awhile longer and then being summoned by the smell of burning, I decide the pizza is as close to ready as it will ever get. And as the picture above can attest, it looks pretty much like a pizza is supposed to look. What you can't see is that the crust is absolutely burned to shit, but when you're making a pizza on the stove top you're firmly in the "beggars can't be choosers" camp, so we'll look past that. And it's not like burnt crust makes it inedible. Just less than ideal. Which is more than acceptable to me. In fact, I feel like that's a pretty good model to strive for in all aspects of life: "Not terrible, just not ideal."

But Was It Any Good?

Eh, for the most part. It's still cheese on sauce on (burnt) crust. I mean, as the old saying goes, even the worst pizza is better than being repeatedly kicked in the crotch. Something like that.

Anyway, stove-top pizza, official verdict: acceptable!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Teaching Sociology: Materialism And Why The Selfie Is Not As Vain As Old People Think (Part Something In A Never-Ending Series)

Last night I was watching the Nightly Show, and what began as an almost interesting conversation turned to complaining about those damn kids and their damn selflies these days:

This certainly isn't unique to Larry Wilmore and friends, I just use this as an example because I saw it last night. But surely if you ever watch tv or read anything on the internet, you'll hear people complain about how vain kids these days are, because they constantly take pictures of themselves and what they're eating (why pictures of food make you vain I don't understand, but what do I know?).

Anyway, it's a pretty common argument. And it's pretty much completely wrong. Kids today aren't necessarily any more or less vain than previous generations, but instead, live in a materially different world.

Materialism is a philosophy most often connected to the works of Marx and Marxists, although not exclusive to Marxist thought. To dramatically oversimplify the concept, the idea is that it's the real, material conditions of an era that shape how people think and act (as opposed to idealism, which holds that it's great ideas that shape history and society).

As an example, I often use the higher incidence of drunk driving violations in the Upper Midwest (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas tend to be 1-5 in drunk driving rates in any given year); while it's possible some of this comes from a culture more open to the concept of drunk driving, I would argue it stems from the material conditions found in these places -- mostly rural states in which, outside of the few major urban centers, public transportation and even taxis are virtually nonexistent. Throw in the fact that these rural spaces are also geographically dispersed, and you get a situation in which most people have to drive a fair distance to go to a bar. Then, if they over consume, they are left with few options to get home -- if there's no friend they can call to come pick them up, it's not like they can take a cab or bus home. So often the only option is to just hop in the car and drive home drunk. So it's not that Midwesterners necessarily approve of or accept drunk driving more than people do elsewhere, but that they have far fewer options for avoiding drunk driving than do most people elsewhere.

So how does this apply to selflies? Well, a big part of the generational divide in how much teenagers take pictures of themselves now as opposed to in previous generations comes from not facing the same material limitations as previous generations did. Before the ubiquity of smart phones, taking pictures cost real money. You needed to own a camera, you had to buy film, you had to pay for the film to be developed, etc. There were also those non-economic "costs" that made it less likely you'd take pictures of yourself everywhere -- you needed to remember your camera, you needed to carry enough film with you, you needed somewhere to store all the photos you took, etc. There were direct, actual monetary and non-monetary costs to every photo you took, and as such, you had to be much more judicious with your use of film, thus making you less likely to waste it on pictures deemed frivolous.

But the technology explosion of the past few decades has rendered those physical limitations and costs mostly moot. If you have a smartphone, you not only have a pretty decent camera with you, but you also have significant storage space for pictures. And the cost of these photos is effectively nil -- sure, the phone is probably pretty expensive, but it's unlikely anyone is buying a smartphone solely for its camera capabilities. And while there are effective limits to how many photos you can store on your phone, it's also quite easy to upload those photos to a much more expansive storage file, and smartphone data storage abilities are continuing to grow.

So in a few short years, we've gone from each photo taken having a real, identifiable costs associated with it, to the cost of taking, developing, and storing a photo being essentially nothing.

This, of course, leaves one free to "waste" film on all sorts of things. Things previous generations probably would have deemed as not photo worthy not because they had really well-developed sense for what is and is not inherently picture worthy, but because that stuff cost actual money. Of course it's an impossible to prove counterfactual, but I think it's pretty reasonable to assume that had taking pictures been basically free for previous generations, they probably would have been taking selfies and dumb pictures of their food, too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Happy Justice!

One of history's greatest crimes has been finally brought to justice. Well, not so much one of history's greatest crimes, but...uh...well, it's not really that big of a deal, but kinda interesting. As I wrote about in this space before, for years Warner Chappell Music has claimed to hold a copyright on the song Happy Birthday. How they got it, or why it was theirs, they've never explained, but they have been happy to charge millions to anyone wanting to use it.

But finally, justice has prevailed! And what's more, it's prevailed in the most American criminal justice system way possible -- the claim to copyright was not rejected because it's insane than anyone can claim they own the copyright to a possibly-centruies old folk song, but because Warner Chappell Music couldn't prove they had a copyright specifically to the lyrics. Kind of a convoluted way to get there, but we got there nonetheless.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Today's Lesson: The Costs of Procrastination or Listen to Your Mother!

After I moved into this place I'm currently living in, my mother, who along with my dad was visiting and helping me unpack, noted that the slumlord I rent from did not leave a fire extinguisher anywhere in the place (which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a violation of state law) and that I should get one before I use the sketchy-looking stove, which had clearly caught on fire at some previous point.

And I did intend to get around to that. Eventually.

Though I probably should have gotten to it before I attempted to cook some bacon in the oven this morning, as that resulted in a grease fire in the crappy old oven.

Fortunately, it was confined to the oven, and I'm only out one pan (which I may be able to salvage!) and one package of expensive bacon. The only lasting downside is that my entire house is going to smell like a campfire for the foreseeable future. But now you can sure as shit bet I'll always have a fire extinguisher on hand.

For as I was running around through the smoke opening windows and debating what to do in the absence of a fire extinguisher, all I could think was "should have listened to Mom." Well, that and being super glad I got renter's insurance last week.

Pictured: How I spent my morning

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Muslims, Clocks, and America's Strange Penal Rituals

By now you're aware of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old who made a clock and got arrested for fabricating a bomb. He also happens to be Muslim, which…oh, I was going to make some joke about how his arrest was just coincidence, but it's not even funny anymore. The kid was arrested because he's brown and has an Arabic name (after all, as many have pointed out, if they thought it actually was a bomb, why did they keep it around? Why did they not evacuate the building?). Here's a standard Glenn Greenwald withering take on how this is just one small example of the fruits of a decade-plus of anti-Islam fear mongering.

The whole story is insane in that special American way, but what stands out to me is that both the school and police, in their attempts to defend their blatantly prejudicial behavior, have cited the fact that Ahmed would not provide further explanation beyond explaining it was a clock. Of course, to a rational, sane person, that would be because it's impossible to add further explanation. It's a clock, it does clock stuff. Unless they were expecting him to detail a theory of the linear progression of time, there's not a whole lot of context to add to the concept of "a clock."

Despite the legal concept of "innocent until proven guilty," there's widespread belief among many actors in our criminal justice system that if you get arrested you are guilty of something. It may not be the particular charges you're facing, but it's a common attitude amongst police and prosecutors that if you end up in the back of a squad car, you're definitely deserving of some sort of punishment.

This is what leads to one of our more interesting penal rituals, the ritual confession the "guilty" are often required to make. If you want a thorough (and thoroughly depressing) breakdown of it, check out this superb Frontline documentary on plea bargains. A major part of a plea bargain is that the person taking the plea has to admit their guilt. But as the doc shows, a lot of times these people are not guilty, or at least not guilty of what they're being charged with. Which leads to the odd situation of a judge or prosecutor explaining to someone what they've done and then that person having to repeat back this fictive story as part of their plea deal.

Well, much the same happens in much police interrogation. After all, you wouldn't be being interrogated if you weren't guilty of something (so goes the attitude of many). And while they haven't (and probably won't ever) release the audio of the police interrogation of Ahmed, it's not terribly hard to guess how it went based on the story the police are telling. I would hazard a guess that a confused 14 year old was suddenly handcuffed and lead out of school for reasons he didn't understand (seriously, look at how bewildered he appears in this picture):

Pictured: The face of evil?
Then they ask him what this object is. He explains it's a clock. Then they tell him to cut the bullshit and tell them what this really is. And then he again explains it's a clock, but now he's starting to sound really nervous, because he doesn't know why he's there or why these large, armed men are so angry with him. His uncertainty reinforces the officer's belief he's lying about something, so he gets even more aggressive in his questioning, while Ahmed continues to just answer that it's a clock.

This is the kafka-esque nature of the criminal justice system for Black and Brown people in America -- you have to admit your guilt whether you're guilty or not, and you have to give them a story about your guilt, which can be very difficult when you're not guilty of anything. So your literally factual statement of "I made a clock and brought it to show my teacher" becomes evidence that you're lying, obstructing the investigation, and a hostile and uncooperative suspect because you refuse to explain to them how you committed the crime you didn't commit.

This is the only possible way both the school and police can still claim they acted appropriately. Even though their entire belief the object in question was a bomb is that it had wires. Again, a rational, sane observer might point out that typically a bomb needs some sort of explosives attached to it. Or the fact that most people who are planing to bomb their school don't bring the bomb to school and proudly show it to a teacher.

Thankfully it appears things will probably turn out well for Ahmed (after all, when the President* chimes in in support of you, that's typically a pretty powerful bit to have in your back pocket), but this is only so because it became a national media story. Imagine that Ahmed's didn't go viral and ponder what would be happening to him right now. Then take a second to ponder the fact that what you're imagining is happening right now. And then, you know, feel bad about it and maybe do something about it.

*Update: As Sam Biddle points out, Ahmed is lucky that he's American, because were he Yemeni, this would have been more than enough evidence to qualify for a "signature strike," and instead of inviting him to the White House, Obama would have likely killed him via drone strike. So…hurray for progress?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The NYPD Should Have Drafted Peyton

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably seen this footage of an NYPD officer body slamming tennis player James Blake after mistaking Blake for a suspect (who, it turns out, was innocent anyway):

This is pretty inexcusable behavior. It's especially galling in that the response of so many law enforcement (and their supporters) to the cases of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and the many other recent victims of brutality has often been "well, don't resist and you'll be fine." Except videos like this show that to be the blatant lie is (not that it would be fine if that were actually true anyway, as we supposedly have rights and don't live in a police state); Blake is not only not resisting, he can't be said to be doing anything even remotely suspicious, let alone dangerous. Dude is standing still in a hotel lobby. Any rational person watching this video would conclude that is excessive force.

But you know who wouldn't conclude that? NYPD PBS spokesperson/off-brand Voldemort, Patrick Lynch, that's who. Lynch, of course, pulls out the old canard of "unless you're out there doing it, you don't know anything about it, and therefore can never judge it in any way possible." Now in this sense, the police aren't unique -- a lot of professionals will argue people who aren't in the field can never truly understand it and therefore shouldn't be allowed to judge it; just ask any physician how they feel about medical malpractice suits. Or any professional athlete how they feel about sports writers.

But the difference is that, for some reason, people accept it with police. It's like the argument that criminals don't follow laws so we shouldn't have any gun laws -- the idea that criminals don't follow laws and therefore laws are worthless would theoretically apply to every single criminal law we have, but for whatever reason, people only accept this idea with gun control. It's fascinating how arguments so obviously invalid get accepted in certain debates, but that's not what I'm here to write about today.

No, instead I want to address the idea that people who aren't police can't understand, and therefore can't judge, the actions of police. In a certain, very broad and theoretical sense this is true  -- hell, it forms the basis of the post-modern line of thinking most often referred to as "standpoint theory,"which is essentially the idea that one can only understand the things they've directly experienced. And to a certain extent, I'll buy this -- I don't know what it's like to be in every situation a cop may find themselves in.

But to return to the professional athlete example, I'll also never know what it's like to play quarterback in the NFL. Hell, I was a b-team second-stringer on my 8th grade football team, and that's the closest I've gotten to any actual football experience. But I can still tell you that Ryan Leaf sucks. Sure, he has infinitely more experience playing quarterback than I ever will and can play quarterback infinitely better than I can, but I can still look at objective measures of his play and come to the incredibly rational conclusion that Ryan Leaf was not a good NFL quarterback. I can come to this conclusion without any experience playing quarterback in the NFL because it's quite easy to look at someone playing poorly and conclude they're playing poorly. Maybe I'm not qualified to diagnose exactly why he played so poorly, or to give suggestions on how he could play better, but I think it's fairly safe to say my lack of experience playing professional football does not preclude me from looking at objective measures of Leaf's ability and drawing basic conclusions (like that he sucks) from those objective measures.

Well, the same is very much true of policing. Sure, I may not be able to really understand on a deep level what it means to be a police officer. But that doesn't mean I can't look at a situation, assess the objective facts, and then draw basic conclusions about what happened. And in case like Blake's, it's not like there's a lot of ambiguity. I mean, watch the video -- he's standing completely still, when some random dude (an undercover officer, but of course there's no way Blake could have known that) rushes up to him and tackles him. This is obviously bad policing. Blake presents no threat, there's no rational reason to believe he would all of a sudden pose a threat, and the crime he was mistakenly suspected of committing was credit card fraud, not really your most violent crime.

Basically, this cop's actions were the equivalent of Ryan Leaf's quarterback play in the NFL -- so obviously and objectively bad that you don't need any experience or deep knowledge of what is happening to know that what is happening is bad. So just like the fact that criminals not following laws doesn't mean we shouldn't have laws, not being able to exactly understand everything a police officer experiences in no way precludes members of the general public from noting that tackling an innocent man who is doing nothing is wrong and bad, regardless of how stressful the officer's day may have been, or whatever next excuse Lynch and his ilk are going to trot out to justify this kind of blatantly illegal behavior.

Monday, September 14, 2015

I Don't Think That's Exactly How It's Supposed To Work

Every day I get a form email from somewhere in the deep bowels of the University administration letting me know all the various goings on of the university. It's got stuff about upcoming speakers, new grants people have gotten, and various things to know about happening on campus and in the community. I usually give it a skim at best, but last week I found an actual reason to pay attention to these missives. Here's a screen shot of the section in question:

This…seems like an odd thing to announce in advance. I've actually heard that there's either a local ordinance or even possibly a state law that these things have to be publicized in advance (NOTE: I am far too lazy to spend the 5 minutes on google to determine if this is true or not), but that seems to pretty much destroy the entire purpose of these things, right? I mean, isn't a big part of a DUI checkpoint the elements of surprise*? I mean, if you saw this and then were out drinking that night, wouldn't you just not use that road, thereby greatly diminishing your chance of getting a DUI? Not at all to mention the idea that a DUI checkpoint would probably be a lot more effective on a Friday or Saturday night, right?

As with everything in Morgantown, this seems like a self-defeating, pointless waste of time, but then I'm no policing expert (NOTE: I am technically a policing expert). Nonetheless, if you ever find yourself in Morgantown intent on doing some drinking and driving, I'd recommend checking out where they've announced the checkpoints will be. Unless, of course, it's raining. In that case, you're apparently completely free to drink and drive. Because, come on, the police aren't going to stand outside in the rain. They're not superhuman.

*Semi-related to this: currently there's this ad constantly running on tv about how cops will catch you if you drive drunk. It features a bunch of people in work-type clothes stumbling out of a bar, and then some police painted to look exactly like what they're standing in front of so they blend into the background. So the drunk people, oblivious to these camouflaged police officers, get into their car and drive off, swerving all over, only to end up…at a DUI checkpoint. The voice-over then intonates something to the effect of "If you're driving drunk, the police will see you before you see them." Which while an empirically-flase statement on its face (lots of people drive drunk and never get caught, so they should say that if you drive drunk the police may see you), this makes no sense given the action on screen. Because it's not like the camouflaged police jumped out of the darkness to nab these unsuspecting people; in fact, the camouflage part makes serves no purpose, since the drunk people get caught by a stationary DUI checkpoint that is incredibly visible, with the police wearing bright yellow jackets, and with flares on the road, and cruisers with their flashing lights going. Hell, even in the very narrow sense of the video the voiceover makes is wrong, as the drunk people clearly see the checkpoint before the police there see the drunk people. I get that they're just trying to scare people away from driving drunk, but words mean things! You can't just string together a bunch of tough-sounding phrases when half of them directly contradict the other half! For God's sake, hire an editor! Or proof reader! Or someone who has passed a high school-level logic class!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

…And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Curmudgeonry

Well we're finally back into the school year and things have settled down enough for a return to regular blogging. And why not recognize the beginning of another academic year with one of the most annoying annual traditions in higher ed: the completely ridiculous Beloit College Mindset List.

I've complained about this collection of banal observations masquerading as social insight multiple times in the past, but if Beloit can keep cranking out the same thing for page views, why can't I? Now, I know the list largely exists as a shrewd way for the leadership of Beloit College to get people talking about their tiny college in the middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin, but the cynicism of the creators has never before been an excuse for me not to hate something, so I figure it's worth another dive in.

So what are the things that this year's incoming students inexplicably cannot understand because they happened a year or two before their birth? Let's dive in and find out!

3. They have never licked a postage stamp.

This…can't be true, right? I mean, I get that it's there because the stamps with adhesive on the back were probably introduced sometime around their birth, but surely stamps you lick are still available, right? Even if they're not, surely some of them survived to find their way to these young'uns.

9. The announcement of someone being the “first woman” to hold a position has only impressed their parents.

This one is definitely not true. Remember how it was a big deal that the first ever women graduated from Army Ranger school? And remember how that was, you know, last week?

16. Their parents have gone from encouraging them to use the Internet to begging them to get off it. 

I don't doubt the second part, but I very much doubt the first part. Did these kids really need their parents encouragement to use the most ubiquitous means of information and entertainment available?

17. If you say “around the turn of the century,” they may well ask you, “which one?”

Kids these days, so confused by turns of phrase that could apply to more than one thing! People who have already finished college would never be confused by whether you meant this century or the last!

30. Surgeons have always used “super glue” in the operating room.

Well, sure, but it's been used in surgeries dating back to at least the Vietnam War, so this is something that's been true of people entering college for longer than I've been alive. Seems like a cheap one to round out the list.

33. Phoenix Lights is a series of UFO sightings, not a filtered cigarette.

Uh, what? I finished college years before these kids got there, and I have never in my life heard of Phoenix Lights cigarettes. Wait? Am I actually a first year college student? What's happening?

36. First Responders have always been heroes.

I'm assuming this is in reference to 9/11, but didn't most people hold a fairly high opinion of firefighters before then?

39. Heaven’s Gate has always been more a trip to Comet Hale-Bopp and less a film flop.

Again, this movie came out before I was born. Even for this list, which by definition is a reach to make pointless historical trivia into something meaningful, this is a pretty big stretch. Not to mention, the Heaven's Gate cult committed their infamous mass suicide in 1997, which means an 18 year old today would have just been born when it happened. Which presents a weird Beloit paradox, because usually they assume people apparently have no ability to understand anything that happened on or before the year of their birth, but apparently now things that happened when they were born are major events they mark their life by.

47. They had no idea how fortunate they were to enjoy the final four years of Federal budget surpluses.

Ha! Dumbass toddlers, not paying enough attention to macroeconomic trends!

But wait! It gets even worse! This year features a sort of inverse list, in which the obviously out-of-touch middle aged people who compile this list sound even more painfully out of touch by trying to explain the lingo of youth to the olds like me. It is exactly as painful to read as you think it is. They're all pretty hilarious, but this is the best one by far. Remember, this takes place in a section of the list described as "In fairness to the class of 2019 the following are a few of the expressions from their culture that will baffle their parents, older friends, and teachers …with translations."

6. A significant other who is a bit "too Yoko Ono" has always created tension.  
    A partner too hard to handle…hard for your friends to compete with perfection.

    They're seriously arguing that only the kids these days know who Yoko Ono is, and that their parents would't understand referring to a difficult partner by invoking Yoko Ono. Apparently kids these days are really into some small-time indie band called "The Beatles." And no, that's not a spelling error! That's how those rag-toppled boys actually spell their band name! What will these kids come up with next?!?

    Tuesday, July 28, 2015

    Living Life and Doing Shit

    I'm currently on what is essentially a working vacation. Well, every vacation I take is a working vacation, but such is the life of the young academic. Anyway, since it's already enough effort to try to squeeze in both work and spending time seeing friends and family, I typically have to cut out all other non-necessary functions. So while I think I'm going to do things like keep updating my blog, I basically never do unless something really important happens.

    So this is just a round about way of saying no updates for the next two weeks or so. But really, who's wasting their time inside reading blogs during the summer anyway?

    Thursday, July 23, 2015

    Summer Sucks For The Self-Employed

    I've written before about how summer is neither fun nor a vacation for professors. Mostly, it's because during the summer we're basically self-employed; I mean, technically I still work for the same university (although they don't pay me over the summer, so...), but there's no deadlines or meetings or really any externally-imposed schedule. How much I work and when I do it is completely up to me.

    Which is great! In some ways. But in many ways, it's also terrible. Because I still have to get work done, I just have no one to force me to do it. Which leads to times like this, when it's a gorgeous day outside, but I'm inside working. Which I know is how it is for most of the working-age populace, but somehow it's far worse when you're the one doing it to yourself. At least when I had an office job I could curse my boss for making me work on a beautiful summer day, but now I have no one to curse. I am that horrible person making me work on a beautiful summer day.

    So the point is, as always, that adulthood and responsibilities suck. This is, after all, why Funyuns continue to sell so well.

    Friday, July 10, 2015

    Moving Sucks

    Moving sucks. I think that's a concept which is generally agreed upon. I've learned over the past week that moving sucks even more when you have inadvertently rented from a slum lord. The type of slum lord who acts as if you're a demanding prima donna for wanting outrageous things like "a back door that opens and closes" or "a shower that drains through a drain rather than through the light fixture in the kitchen below it" and seems confused when you ask them when they are going to do enough repairs to make the place up to bare minimum legal code. I can't really say too much more about it as I may soon be embroiled in a legal case against said landlord, but pretty much all of my conversations with them have gone like this:

    In fact, here's an honest-to-God, as verbatim as a I remember it snippet of an argument with my landlord.

    Landlord: I don't know what you're complaining about! I built you a beautiful new bathroom!
    Me: Yes, but it doesn't work. Nothing in it works.
    Landlord: How was I supposed to know that?
    Me: Uh…try it? Like, after you install a new water fixture, turn it on to see if it works?

    So anyway, in addition to the regular annoyances that go with a move, I got to add living out of boxes stacked in the middle of every room (because work crews were still constantly in and out of the house for 5 days after I moved in, so I couldn't unpack anything) and no working shower for about a week. It was…unpleasant. In fact, had my super awesome parents not come out to help me move and basically just made all the repairs the landlord is theoretically legally obligated to but definitely had no intention of doing, I'm not sure I would have been able to contain my murderous rage. But fortunately no one was murdered and the place is now almost up to bare minimum legal code, so life is settling back into an almost normal routine. Except now I can finally unpack, so my life more closely resembles this:

    Wednesday, June 24, 2015

    What's The Confederate Flag All About, Anyway?

    I've written before about how concepts like "state's rights" are obviously just coded dog whistles for racist ideals, but possibly the biggest (and most poorly disguised) dog whistle of them all is center stage in the current debate over whether or not to remove the confederate flag at the South Carolina state house (and more generally, to get it out of common public usage).

    Predictably, those defending the continued use of a symbol representing people who staged a violent, treasonous uprising to defend their ability to own human beings try to downplay that part of it all, instead focusing on how it's just a symbol of Southern heritage (while of course, leaving out exactly what that heritage entails). So much like the leaders of the confederacy would have been surprised to learn their treason was not about slavery or racism, given how often they spoke about defending slavery and upholding the racist social order, it would probably surprise the folks who came up with the confederate flag to learn that it's apparently not about slavery or racism, either.

    But how can we know what those folks were thinking? If only there were some sort of written record of their ideas. Oh, it turns out there is. Here's William Tappan Thompson, the designer of the confederate flag, on why he designed it:
    As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause. ... As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.
    —William T. Thompson (1863), Daily Morning News (Savannah, Georgia)
    It's funny; I've read that quote several times and don't see anything about Southern heritage. I do see a whole bunch of stuff about racism, though. But I thought that flag wasn't about racism! Someone should really inform the guy who designed it.

    Of course, it's very important to remember that flag is just one small token of our nation's horrible history of racism and that removing it is, at best, a symbolic gesture. And furthermore that taking it down simply for pr reasons is missing the entire point. That being said, let's please have a national conversation about race and try to begin to heal the wounds and make reparations. But let's do that without the shadow of a confederate flag flying over us.

    Monday, June 22, 2015

    Why Don't We Have Public Intellectuals?

    Recently I was reading this insightful piece by Michael Schwalbe, an academic I greatly admire. In it, he makes an argument for why we don't see nearly as many public intellectuals these days, at least not in the form of academic professors actually making an impact on public opinion or public policy. He does a great job of detailing how the many economic pressures currently facing universities makes such a position untenable for the great majority of academics. Between budget cuts, a relentless assault from anti-intellectual politicians, and the proletarianization of the academic work force, most academics are so busy trying to get enough publications and funding to keep their jobs that there's simply no time to insert themselves into public debates like they used to. It's a pretty compelling argument, and well worth your time to read.

    But I think there's one factor that's missing from Schwalbe's analysis -- namely, that the position of public intellectual has been over taken by pseudo intellectuals who are not at all beholden to "research" or "basic facts" like academics are. Take one of my most hated people in the world, David Brooks. Brooks obviously fancies himself a public intellectual, and while he is indeed quite publicly visible, the "intellectual" tag can only be applied in the most generous of settings. Really, Brooks is best understood, to borrow a phrase from this great takedown of Malcolm Gladwell, as what a stupid person thinks a smart person sounds like.

    When he's not using banal observations of single cases and pretending they explain large swaths of humanity (as in the comic above), he's often just outright making stuff up. Though often even his "observations" are also completely fabricated, such as his infamous claim that you can't spend $20 at a restaurant in "red America" even though a cursory glance of the menu at said restaurant proves the claim false.

    But more to the point, to give himself the sheen of an intellectual, Brooks is fond of making up stuff that sounds right to those who want to believe it, but has no actual basis in reality. In essence, he's pretty much the living, breathing embodiment of truthiness. Take, for example, this man's bewildering account of attempting to find out where Brooks got one of his favorite academic-sounding anecdotes.

    The anecdote in question, which Brooks regularly cites in speeches and in print, concerns a survey that found in 1950 only 12% of high school seniors thought they were a very important person, while by 2006, that number was up to 80%. Ha! Those millennials and their damned self-importance! It sure sounds right, doesn't it? What with all these think pieces on the kids today and their tweetbooks and facetubes. The problem is, it's completely fabricated. There exists no such survey. And while the linked piece eventually locates some surveys that are kind of talking about the subject, they're so far off from what Brooks claims them to say that it's obvious this isn't a simple case of reading it wrong or forgetting one or two important details. No, this is obviously yet another example of a case in which Brooks just flat out made something up to give his rote condemnation of the kids these days an intellectual veneer.

    Which brings me back to the absence of public intellectuals. If an academic of any field made stuff up as regularly as Brooks, or used one small piece of factual information to represent large swaths of society, they would be laughed out of their job. Yet in the much more forgiving world of opinion journalism, Brooks somehow still has a regular column in what is supposedly our nation's premier newspaper. The problem is that actual research is never as clear cut nor as convenient a story as the kinds Brooks and his compatriots tell; after all, this is why he has to make shit up. But in the chaotic marketplace of public ideas, in which very few readers are fact-checking these arguments, it's pretty hard for the nuanced, ambiguous, and hesitant findings of actual intellectuals to hold court against the pat, decisive, and often demonstrably false proclamations of the faux intelligentsia. So while Schwalbe is no doubt correct about the corrosive effect of draining resources from our nation's universities, I'd argue another important factor in the decline of professors as public intellectuals has been the usurping of their place by people who have the free reign to simply make up a better sounding story when there are no facts to support what they want to say.