Friday, August 18, 2017

Identity crisis

Guys, I just got contacts and I don't even know who I am anymore. That's also sort of literally true because I can't really see that well, and everything (including, importantly, my own head) looks concave and HUGE.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Addendum: speech vs. war

I hadn't seen this op-ed before posting on Monday, but it's illustrative of the confusion underlying the broadly unified outrage. The main problem here seems to be that no one is sure whether we're opposed to white supremacists as fellow citizens with abhorrent ideas or as outright enemies in a war, and our conception of them vacillates with our rhetoric, never resulting in any coherent idea of what we're doing. Is this a speech question, or a war question? (You can see this confusion illustrated in the remarks of UVA students here as well.)

Vaidhyanathan starts out by describing them in the terms of the former:
Denying hate groups attention might work if everyone agreed to do so. But as long as television cameras — or even just regular people streaming on Facebook Live and posting to YouTube — were going to witness the events, and as long as others were committed to confronting the white supremacists, there would be oxygen.
On this view, white supremacists are a political affinity group pursuing strategic political aims by exploiting American media, including obviously social media. In that sense, they are just like BLM or the DSA or even the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which also used media strategies for political ends. This does not imply moral equivalency, just a reliance on the same kinds of strategies. The point is that marching around yelling and filming it is a popular way to conduct political activism in the US, regardless of what you're yelling for. Because we understand this as activism by citizens and not war by enemy combatants, we have a whole set of rules and procedures to make it possible to do, and spend a lot of time arguing about how to apply these rules fairly. The white supremacists were playing by these rules too, in applying for and litigating permits, and going through all the civic motions.

(I don't understand Vaidhyanathan's conclusion here that we are simply hostages to social media, which, unlike previous media, makes ignoring a white supremacist march impossible. If you don't show up, they will only be able to film themselves marching around aimlessly. Does that really strengthen their cause?)

But after this, Vaidhyanathan shifts his terms to describing the white supremacists as enemies in war:
Plus, as we had learned from previous such assaults on our community, the hate groups were not just after attention. They wanted conflict. They came to hear the sound of flesh being struck, bones being broken. So the idea of denying them attention seemed less significant as the event drew closer. Still, there were compelling reasons to avoid confrontation...
One could reasonably ask why the conclusion that these people want to break bones requires us to offer up our bones for breaking. Why not just deny them their desire for conflict? But, moving on:
I now believe we made the wrong choice. Does my status as a parent make me special? It shouldn’t. A young man named Dre Harris was ambushed in a parking lot and took dozens of blows by club-wielding thugs. He took them so I wouldn’t have to. Next time I will stand on the street with my neighbors, even at the risk of injury or death. It’s the least I can do to repay those who stood bravely this time....
They hurt us. But they did not defeat us. Local clergy locked arms to stare down the attackers. Volunteers dispensed water to counter-demonstrators. Black Lives Matter members put their bodies on the line for all of us...  
This is not about “free speech.” It never was. There is no “free speech” if anyone brandishes firearms to intimidate those they despise. You can’t argue with the armed.
Now the white supremacists are effectively enemy soldiers set on conquering our city, and in this context, it certainly does make sense to say that it is the responsibility of residents to come out in force and defend themselves. It is indeed unjust, not to mention ineffective, to rely on Dre Harris and BLM members to defend the entire city against an invading army. But if that's the case, then it's crazy to propose that our self-defense should take the form of "taking dozens of blows" and "staring down" our armed opponents. If this is really a war, and the enemy is really big and powerful and armed, we should take up arms ourselves and march on them. We immensely outnumber them; it would be a brief and probably fairly decisive battle (once we learned how to correctly discharge our weapons...). Or we call up the military to do this for us.

But Vaidhyanathan insists instead on nonviolent direct action, which is a strategy for domestic activism - a speech strategy, not a war strategy. This is the crux of the confusion. If we're fighting a war against white supremacists, if we understand them as organized domestic terrorists like White Power ISIS, then nonviolent direct action - "staring them down" - seems like an unbelievably naive response. If Vaidhyanathan were in Iraq, would he fight ISIS by "staring them down"? The obvious response to a domestic insurgency is to use the power of the government, which is on our side regardless of Trump's dithering, to outlaw and execute them for treason. We have certainly done that before.

While I'm sure there are people who would like to do just that to any participants in or sympathizers with white nationalism, I suspect that not even most liberals would be willing to go that far. Even doxxing the men in the photos from the Cville rally in order to get them fired from their jobs has produced unease among them. Why? There is general agreement that the guy who plowed his car into pedestrians ought to be understood as a terrorist. But most people seem to be very hesitant to apply this label to those who profess white supremacist beliefs online, and even those who assemble in their name so long as they do so peacefully. The reason, I suspect, is that, contra Vaidhyanathan, this is still about free speech. We basically do see white supremacists as fellow citizens engaged in speech (hateful speech, dangerous speech, but still speech), not enemy combatants engaged in war. That's precisely why protestors and armchair-commentators alike turn to nonviolent direct action instead of counter-terrorism to fight them. They're concerned to denounce and persuade, not to capture and kill them. So, evidently, you can argue with the armed, because if you really thought you couldn't, you'd arm yourself against them.

Maybe the mood will shift now, and we will begin to treat white supremacism more like treason than repulsive speech. That will of course raise all sorts of difficulties of distinction that no one participating in the present frenzy of righteous outrage seems interested in considering. But the transition will be made somewhat easier by all the domestic counter-terrorism infrastructure we've already established and which we can now extend to surveil a much broader range of speech activities. Or we can hope to split the difference by strengthening the legal scope and consequences of "hate speech," leaving it to judges to surgically separate out white supremacist speech from other kinds of speech. Or maybe we will double down on preventing violence while protecting expression, with all the municipal costs that this will clearly impose. Or maybe we'll just sidestep all this law-and-government stuff and continue indulging in Lincoln's "mobocratic spirit."

Monday, August 14, 2017

Utopia, VA has a dystopian moment

- Thanks for all your messages of concern, peeps. The Self-Importants are all fine, having determined in advance that this event would not end well and concluding that Saturday would be a good time to take in the sights of Lynchburg, VA rather than stay in town. I actually thought there would be all-out rioting, so my paranoia was excessive, but not by much.

- What can be done to diffuse violence while still defending First Amendment rights in these situations, because surely these situations will recur? The reason we left town was because it seemed to me that, after the July rally ended with tear gas, a bigger confrontation in August, for which both white supremacists and anti-white supremacist protestors were streaming in from out of town, was inevitably going to degenerate into violence. And it did, within minutes. What else could possibly happen on a hot day when hundreds of people so devoted to their cause that they flew in just for this march around yelling about their desire to eliminate everyone, and hundreds of other people equally devoted to their cause show up to yell the opposite? The only way to prevent physical confrontation is to prevent any physical contact between the groups, which means either dispersing counter-protesters who try to approach while pushing the marchers through town as quickly as possible, or containing both sides within enforced cordons.

I think both of these approaches are technically possible, though both would require a much larger policing effort than Charlottesville can muster or afford on its own. But even if the next march here or anywhere else is greeted by a veritable army of state troopers in riot gear, this will require a huge diversion of resources to defend the speech rights of terrible people. I wonder if there is a kind of strategy at play here too: if marches like this are insufficiently policed, violence is inevitable and the white supremacists either get to complain that their speech rights have been denied, or they get to kill people and blame the (lack of) police for it, and both outcomes help them. But by being able to call up a huge police presence just by being white supremacists, they suck up public resources and force everyone to indirectly support their activities.

This seems to be the conundrum. We have to defend free speech, but we also have to be able to defend ourselves, and I don't know how we can effectively do both at once. The only response to white supremacist assemblies that would do both is to allow them to proceed without any counter-protest. That is to say, would-be counter-protestors would have to voluntarily ignore them. That way, the white supremacists get their speech and we get to use our lives and public resources for more worthwhile purposes. (Surely there are other solutions too? The problem of defending offensive speech is old enough.)

Of course, I understand that we will never get enough would-be counter-protestors to agree to this because, as I have been informed, the mere suggestion that we should not show up in force to confront a white supremacist mob is a sign of moral cowardice, and probably also secret white supremacist sympathies. All sensible people may agree that mobs are dangerous, that chaos and violence resulting from them is fairly predictable, and that they should be avoided. At least they agree on this until the mob is comprised of Nazis. Once Nazis come into the picture, then apparently we are morally obligated to run toward them with fists in the air, carrying our children on our shoulders (for this is a useful civics lesson). Because Nazis are clearly bad, the baddest of the bad, and expressing that matters more than the laws of group behavior. And I agree. Nazis are the worst! But even when all right-thinking people agree on that, they won't defeat a Nazi mob with a counter-mob, not even a counter-mob comprised entirely of those with pure moral convictions. Instead, they will exacerbate the pathologies of mobs by enlarging them, and increasing the likelihood and reach of their chaos and violence. Is that morally courageous, or foolish?

- Frequent social media refrain: "Silence is complicity." Not unless the inverse, in this context, is also true: "Copy-and-paste is resistance."

- Versions of the claim that Charlottesville must be an especially racist place to be hosting a white supremacist march or that the march exemplifies Charlottesville's essential Southern-ness have the thing precisely backwards. The only reason Charlottesville has been targeted is because it's very liberal and stands out quite starkly against the counties surrounding it on every electoral map. The city resolved to remove its Confederate statues, and that resolution inspired the white supremacists' ire. The problem is that Charlottesville is not, or is no longer and hasn't been for several decades, essentially Southern, if by that is meant something like "full of genteel covert racists." If it were, what would the white supremacists have to march against here?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sex differences on the internet

 This idea:
Consider it this way: If you asked a right-wing misogynist to craft a sexist parody of his political opponents, you might get something like the highly neurotic, fainting-couch politics of recent campus and online progressivism, whose acolytes oscillate between soft therapeutic language and maenad-like frenzy.
If you then asked a left-wing misandrist to do the same sort of parody in reverse, you’d end up with something like the online far-right — nerds and autodidacts obsessed with cuckoldry, fascist cosplayers eager for evidence of their own racial superiority, would-be lotharios furious at feminism, libertarians with a ten-point case for despotism.
 Explained here:
Boys tend to bully one another physically, while girls are more likely to do so by undermining a victim’s social status or relationships. Social media give middle- and high-school girls a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Best emergency notification ever

Received this today:

Update: The backstory. Watch video of tranquilized bear being thrown into truck.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Book pitches for "engaging" recalcitrant readers at any cost

We return to an old theme of this blog, YA lit. The author of an apparently pornographic YA novel that his publisher decided was too objectionable for even this genre that exists solely to raise objections laments in the NYT that his publisher has missed an important pedagogical and social justice opportunity by refusing to market his books to kids.

The social problem, you see, is that adolescent boys are not very enthusiastic readers. But, as we all know, reading is the highest moral virtue of children. If children do not express an unbridled enthusiasm for reading, they will not go to a Good College, and will thus be consigned to a life of sociopathy. So it is absolutely essential that we coax a love of reading into every child.

The good news is that when we say we want kids to read, we mean we literally want their eyes to scan words on pages - any words, on any pages. For the most desperate cases - and that includes pretty much all boys - it doesn't at all matter if what they read is good, so long as they read something. Anyway, since reading is a virtue, even bad books can never do any harm.

So why not bribe boys who don't like to read with things they do like, only bound in volumes with pages and words?
It’s also offensive to pretend, when we’re ostensibly wondering how to get more young men to read, that they’re not interested in the thing we all know they’re interested in... 

My new novel portrays a young boy’s emotional, heteroflexible sex life — and I’d like young people to read it. But it’s being published for adults, partly because the guardians of young people’s literature get so easily riled up about sex, preferring to recommend, say, books about teenagers slaughtering one another in a post-apocalyptic landscape, rather than books about kids masturbating at home.

To which many would say, so what? Don’t we have more important things to worry about than giving sexually explicit literature to young people? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about, say, the rampant misogyny of everyday life, in a nation led by a self-admitted sexual predator?

Which to me is precisely the point. I believe in the power of literature to connect, to transform, particularly for young minds beginning to explore the world. I want books to be an unlimited resource for young people and their curiosity, not a sphere restricted by how uncomfortable some curiosities make adults feel.

The books I read as a teenager, sex and all, made me a better boy and then a better man, just as literature continues to make me a better husband, a better father, a better feminist. I want that for my son, and for all my young readers of every gender. Let’s not smirk at their interests. Let’s give them books that might engage them.
An important point! We do have more important things to worry about than what kids read. For example, we have to worry about what they think, as it contributes to "the rampant misogyny of everyday life." Good thing there is no connection between reading and thinking.

But, Miss Self-Important wonders whether there aren't more adolescent boy "interests" that we could "engage" through YA lit, so that books may truly be "an unlimited resource" rather than a "sphere restricted by how uncomfortable some curiosities make adults feel." There are lots of things that make adults feel uncomfortable but that boys might be interested in. Violence, for example.  Mischief, havoc, things that go boom. We need to supply books on these topics to meet the teenage demand. How about an ISIS beheading manual? A guide for making explosives out of regular household items and using them against your annoying siblings? A guide to setting your house on fire? (This last would also teach them a lot about science - flammability and other such physical properties. Intellectually enriching!) Maybe child pornography is an untapped demand among adolescent boys, who are, after all, underage themselves. That it makes adults uncomfortable is no measure of its value for the young. What do adults know about such things anyway? And what does it matter, when ideas and images can never do harm so long as they're contained within that most sacrosanct of educational objects, the book?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Another defense of meritocracy

Scott Alexander has also noticed the now-ubiquitous bipartisan opposition to meritocracy that I have been documenting forever and has also come to its defense. He makes the important point that merit is not synonymous with wealth and success, and that when we say the best flutes should go to the best flute players (not his example, but he should consider it), we don't mean that great wealth and fame are necessarily attached to the best flutes. In fact, flute-playing is a good example precisely because it is a difficult art, requiring extensive cultivation and whose basis in talent is unevenly distributed in the population, but which nonetheless does not reward its masters with much besides recognition of their excellence in the art. The best flute players are still poor and obscure.

SSC reverses the flute equation in order to eliminate the suggestion of personal dessert implied by saying that the best flute players ought to have the best flutes given to them. What's really happening, he says, is that the best flute players are being assigned to play the best flutes because that's the distribution that benefits everyone most. That's fine for its limited purpose, but we should be careful not to treat flutes as though they precede men in order of priority, and men are mere instruments, created for the sake of playing flutes. Or that all things subject to meritocratic distribution are social goods. Yes, we all benefit when people most skilled at surgery are allowed to perform the operations. But if even the best flute-playing has no social benefit (which is pretty much true), justice requires that the best flutes still go to the best flute players.

SSC also sees that the biggest problem for opponents of meritocracy is that they have no plausible alternatives to it:
The most salient alternative to meritocracy isn’t perfect equality, it’s cronyism. If people keep criticizing meritocracy, eventually the word is going to become uncool, it’ll be impossible to advocate for it without giving three boring paragraphs worth of qualifiers that put everyone to sleep, and it’ll become that much harder to criticize cronyism or advocate for something different.
And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit. If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I honestly want to know.
But his solution is too simple - in order to avoid confusing credentials with actual merit, "Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance." One problem seems to be this is pretty hard to test. Can anyone actually predict the market better than chance, in the long run, for reasons other than chance? How would you know if an 18 year-old or 22 year-old has really done that? They have no track record. Another problem is that for many of these sorts of desirable, high-paying jobs - entry-level investment banking, management consulting, journalism, academia - there would be many more people who pass a test of sufficient background skill or knowledge than any employer could hire. (At least at first, before people started specializing and training extensively to do well on these tests instead of the standardized tests we give high schoolers now.) But if the employer is committed to considering only performance on the entry test, then how can he turn away anyone who scores above the bar? These are thorny problems, and the reason that Goldman Sachs currently hires whoever does best at Harvard is precisely because they're allowing Harvard to answer them (and take the flack for it) for them.