Saturday, April 22, 2017

My How the Pendulum Swings

A professor at Arizona State permitted his students to hold a protest on an issue of their choice as their final project. Students elect to do so. Conservative commenters view this as inappropriate. Said commenters then demanded that the university take official action against the students. Awaiting soul-searching think pieces from other conservative intellectuals about growing illiberalism in their community, how, even if one disagrees with the decision of the professor or the students, it clearly falls within the parameters of academic freedom and First Amendment protected activity, and how the way to respond to speech one dislikes is with more speech etc. etc. in 3 ... 2 ... forever ....

The thing is, conservative discourse about American academia swings, pendulum like, between "college is a cesspool of leftists indoctrination which must be stamped out" and "college is about encountering difficult ideas and if you don't like it, you hate freedom." Some people have the courage of their convictions. Most people are rather fair-weather.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Put Up or Shut Up

There are about a million and one things I dislike about Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly's recent speech on immigration policy. But there's one part that has a grain of truth to it:
[F]or members of Congress who don’t like the laws, Kelly said they “should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
Even this passage is mostly wrong. But I will say this: I'm sick and tired of members of Congress who somberly say that they don't necessarily support this or that Trump immigration policy, that we need to be humane, that we shouldn't be tearing apart families, that we should protect DREAMers and DACA recipients -- and then proceed to do nothing tangible about it. If you're in Congress, your value-added isn't what you say on a talk show. It's the bills you write, the hearings you hold, and the votes you cast. And while talk can matter as a means of rallying and crystallizing public support, ultimately, if your chatter isn't backed up along those metrics (bills/hearings/votes), it's meaningless to me.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Epidemiology of Antisemitism

The New York Times has hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens, lately of the Wall Street Journal, to provide an additional conservative perspective to the Grey Lady. Controversy immediately erupted, first over Stephens status as a climate-change denier, and then more recently over a 2016 column that characterized antisemitism as "the disease of  the Arab mind" (it came in the context of an Egyptian Olympian who refused to shake the hand of his Israeli competitor).

NYT Cairo Bureau chief kicked off the discussion with this tweet:

And his colleague Max Fisher succinctly articulating what I think is our legitimate squeamishness at hearing an entire group of people characterized as possessing a "disease of the mind."

Now, I've responded to a Bret Stephens column once, and it was not one I was impressed by -- a tiresome bit of neocolonialist claptrap seeking to establish which peoples are sufficiently civilized to deserve self-determination. So I don't have any particular interest in defending Stephens per se.

That said, this controversy did interest me because of an angle I don't think I've yet seen explored: the widespread literature on the "epidemiological" approach to racism. I first came across this view in an article by prominent Critical Race Theorist Charles Lawrence III, but it is hardly restricted to him. It is a perspective that is at least familiar to anyone who spends significant time in the literature on contemporary racism and prejudice.

The epidemiological view treats racism as, well, a disease -- a public health crisis that demands intervention. Among the motivations for articulating racism in this way is the belief that an epidemiological approach steps away from the focus on conscious choices (we don't choose to be infected) and with it, the politics of blame (we don't view cancer patients as being morally inferior because they have a disease). Rather, thinking of racism as a disease channels our focus onto (a) the devastating social consequences that can occur when racism is widespread and unchecked, and (b) what we can do to check the spread and, eventually, find a cure.

As it turns out, the use of the epidemiological approach for antisemitism has deep roots -- deeper, perhaps, than its use to analyze racism. Re-reading Lawrence's article while writing this post, I discovered that it actually contains a significant discussion of antisemitism as disease, as an epidemic -- and one that he investigates through the specific case of Black antisemitism right alongside the parallel case of Jewish racism.  Even more interestingly, a 1949 book by Carey McWilliams on "Anti-Semitism in America" claims to have found "hundreds" of examples of antisemitism being defined in epidemiological terms -- a "theme" that runs through descriptions of what antisemitism is. Among the statements he found was the claim that antisemitism is, simply, "a disease of Gentile peoples."

Under this view, then, the rhetoric of epidemiology and disease is meant to be gentler -- not stigmatizing to those it labels, not concerned with separating out the bad people from the good. But as Fisher observes, there is at the very least another set of tropes associated with "disease" rhetoric that is not so benign. Under the latter usage, "disease" connotes those groups which are dirty and mutated; those who need to be isolated, sequestered, or purged. Rhetoric of various outgroups -- including Jews, Arabs, immigrants of all backgrounds -- being "diseased" and therefore dangerous has a been a staple of racist fearmongering for generations. Again, it is not for nothing that we squirm when we hear talk of a group being "diseased".

I don't think that Stephens was intentionally referring to the literature on the epidemiology of racism. But leaving his particular case aside, here's my question: Do the concerns of Fisher et al mean that the epidemiological approach is inherently tainted and must be abandoned? If not, what interventions are necessary so as to use the method (and its necessarily attendant rhetoric of disease, infection, and so on) without triggering these problematic associations?

My familiarity with the epidemiological approach gives me some sympathy towards it -- I think it is at least a useful way of thinking through how racism and antisemitism operate, how they spread, and how they should be combatted. Yet at the same time, my familiarity with how rhetoric of disease is used to degrade and dehumanize means I am sympathetic to the concerns that it would do so here. The questions in the previous paragraph are those made entirely in earnest, and I in turn invite earnest replies.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The New Charles Murray, For Those Who Don't Know Him

A group of researchers decided to circulate a copy of Charles Murray's Middlebury College speech -- without saying who it was by -- in order to measure how readers gauged its political valence (did they think it was a liberal speech, a conservative speech, or a centrist speech?). They found that, without knowing who it was by, their sample of college professors viewed it as rather middle-of-the-road (5.05 on a 1-9 scale, where 1 is very conservative and 9 is very liberal). They also sent different portions of the speech to a random online sample group; averaging their responses together the speech got a 5.22 rating. Finally, they sent the speech to another group of college professors -- this time telling them Murray was the author. With that knowledge they rated the speech at 5.77 -- still basically "middle-of-the-road", albeit apparently more conservative by a statistically significant amount.

I'm actually not too surprised by this: my understanding is that Murray's recent work on American class divisions is not particularly conservative and certainly not as inflammatory as The Bell Curve's musings on race/IQ linkages. I would genuinely be curious about how readers would label the controversial portions of The Bell Curve under this methodology, mostly because I'm curious how most of us would "code" of that sort given contemporary political dynamics.

I do think there was some obscurantism -- sometimes deliberate -- regarding what Murray was going to be talking about at Middlebury and in other lectures. His challenged lectures were not going to be about The Bell Curve, which is widely discredited in the academic literature, but about this new class-related research, which has not been the subject of such scholarly disdain and which seems on face to fall well within the normal range of academic discourse. My initial instinct is that there's something off-putting about protesting a speaker not for what they will say, but for what they had said years ago that they will not be talking about in this lecture.

That said, I suspect part of what's going on is the idea that for a certain type of white conservative intellectual, it is impossible to discredit yourself such that you're no longer deemed a worthy entrant into public conversation; whereas for many outgroups there's a "one strike and you're out" standard where they are forever haunted by bad speeches, books, or ideas they propagated years ago (witness the treatment of Keith Ellison). The protests are an expression of the frustration that -- as Matt Yglesias put it -- "Charles Murray ... manages to be a best-selling author, in-demand speaker, have a think tank gig and be a free speech martyr."

None of this excuses illiberal modes of shutting down speech (see my endorsement of Jill Filopovic's column following the Middlebury event). But I think we can hold multiple thoughts at the same time:
  1. That Charles Murray's Bell Curve work is widely discredited and generally thought of as racist claptrap;
  2. That Charles Murray's present work -- what he currently lectures on -- is not particularly politically polarizing (and -- perhaps this is the more controversial point -- that someone who produces racist claptrap can also produce interesting arguments which fall entirely into the accepted range of ongoing political controversies);
  3. That many people are not like Charles Murray in that we have no interest in ever looking past bad statements, and it is not shall we say random who gets to make comebacks and who is permanently haunted by their past; and
  4. That, however we choose to manage the tensions elucidated by observations 1 through 3, certain types of remedies (like governmental censorship or censorial disruptions) are off the table as violations of free academic inquiry.