What I’m reading, Week of 15 Nov 21

Well, let’s start with what I’m not really reading:

Dune, by Frank Herbert

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When I tweeted that, I had just re-read Foundation because of the HBO adaptation. Foundation always felt to me like the end of an era and a historical bridge to Dune. More epic than, like, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, but still anchored in a very mid-century sensibility. There are still newspapers and cigars in the future, anyhow.

I wasn’t going to re-read Dune, movie notwithstanding, because I’m not due for a re-read for at least a few more years, but a few nights ago, thinking back to my pithy little chairdogs joke, I remembered the one passage in Dune that involved normal people talking to each like normal people, kind of:

“The men were already boiling in from the field when he reached the yellow-domed room. They carried their space bags over their shoulders, shouting and roistering like students returning from vacation.

“Hey! Feel that under your dogs? That’s gravity, man!”

“How many G’s does this place pull? Feels heavy.” “Nine-tenths of a G by the book.”

The crossfire of thrown words filled the big room.

“Did you get a good look at this hole on the way down? Where’s all the loot this place’s supposed to have?” “The Harkonnens took it with ’em!” “Me for a hot shower and a soft bed!” “Haven’t you heard, stupid? No showers down here. You scrub your ass with sand!” “Hey! Can it! The Duke!”

That may be the last time in any of the books there are characters who just … talk about stuff. There aren’t any real “street level” scenes after that. Or rather, there are a few more street level scenes scattered around, but they’re heavy with Herbert’s “plans within plans” dialog. Well, in one of the last two books one of the characters complains to herself that there’s too much paprika in her food. We’re not going to speak about Herbert the Younger here: There’s artistic canon, and then there’s legal canon.

So I am not “reading” Dune. But I did start reading it on the Kobo until I could get to that passage, which had become a very strange sort of literary ear-worm for a week or so.

“Hey! Feel that under your dogs? That’s gravity, man!”

I don’t judge. Frank Herbert had a pretty interesting and varied background. Given a book about dogs you can sit on, accessing ancestral memory with drugs, and a galaxy-spanning conspiracy of nuns, he was hard pressed to “write about what he knew,” so it’s great that he was able to fit a paragraph or two in there.

Assorted Links

What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In? (New York Times)

“Calling out assumes the worst. Calling in involves conversation, compassion and context. It doesn’t mean a person should ignore harm, slight or damage, but nor should she, he or they exaggerate it. ‘Every time somebody disagrees with me it’s not ‘verbal violence.’’ Professor Ross said. ‘I’m not getting ‘re-raped.’ Overstatement of harm is not helpful when you’re trying to create a culture of compassion.’”

I read this one when it was first published but just stumbled back across it this past week, so in it goes because it still works for me.

I’ve come to believe that some of the rhetoric of the social justice left makes it hard for people to prioritize. And that since so many people “do social justice work” on Twitter, tactical conversations are a context collapse-driven mess.

People struggle to solve for themselves instead of everything and everybody. At least, I went through a lot of thinking about this, following a few blind alleys, because I was trying to square an uncritical acceptance of “silence = violence,” an appropriate desire to avoid tone-policing people who have experienced harm, and a generally mild world view when it comes to being in disagreement with people.

What I’ve come to believe since I first began to think of myself as an ally of some kind is that you should probably leave the aggrieved response to the aggrieved parties if they so choose it. When I took an ally skills “train the trainer” course, that belief aligned neatly with the “don’t cause further harm to marginalized people” dictum from our instructor.

Cack-handed interventions on behalf of others tend to make things worse for everyone and don’t convince or change much of anyone. A lot of people who consider themselves allies, and who also believe that Twitter callouts or pile-ons constitute “social justice work,” are helping drive a lot of needless anxiety and reactivity. They’re making things worse, and by “worse” I mean contributing to an atmosphere where people who already feel targeted feel even more targeted. I spoke to a therapist recently who told me that a general sense of anxiety around callouts has become pervasive among all her clients:

“Not just white men, but my queer clients, my trans clients, my Black and Latino clients … everyone. It’s a real problem.”

That conversation helped me decide to work on this weekly reading journal project at all, because I realized that there are ideas I’d like to share and/or explore, but was stuck on the problem of social-media-driven context collapse. Using a more long-form approach, I can ensure better delivery without doing all the stuff people do to shoehorn complex ideas into Twitter.

This article also leaves me receptive to the idea that “callout culture” is probably worth dusting off in favor of “cancel culture.” I said last week that I wasn’t interested in reclaiming “woke” — that it’s not my word to reclaim. Same with “cancel.”

Two other things that have shaped some of my thinking here:

  • Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which offers excruciating details on a number of public shaming case studies.
  • Contrapoints’ “Canceling” video, which is both a lucid breakdown of how cancelation works, and a painful thing to watch because of Natalie Wynn’s obvious suffering as the video progresses.

The Absurd Side of the Social Justice Industry, (New York Times)

I remember Michelle Goldberg from early in her career, when she wrote some interesting things about the religious right, including a book I enjoyed a lot.

I thought she hit a slump as one of the co-hosts of The Argument podcast because I thought the format of the show was pulling her and co-host Ross Douthat into a repeating pattern of predictable positions. I felt very resistant to a recent column where she did something I think a lot of progressives took to doing to debate “cancel culture,” which was argue that it’s not a problem because actual cancelation attempts aren’t all that efficacious anyhow. I don’t think you really refute claims of growing illiberalism on the left by arguing that newly illiberal people are bad at it.

That gambit wasn’t unique to her. A widely circulated “refutation” of the “cancel culture moral panic” relied quite heavily on the “low success rate” argument, and it’s a pretty common trope among liberals to point to Substack millionaires who have evaded financial ruin despite public shamings.

All that aside, I feel closer to her on this column for two reasons:

First, her starting-off point is a recent document released by the AMA that included a lot of language guidance that is plainly well intentioned but occasionally tortured and convoluted. To it, she says:

“… substantive change is hard; telling people to use different words is easy. One phrase you won’t find in ‘Advancing Health Equity’ is ‘universal health care’: The American Medical Association has been a consistent opponent of Medicare for All.”

That’s right. There’s plenty about “woke capitalism” that amounts to focusing on language and signification because you can move the conversation about social justice to friendlier, more emotive playing fields where your commitment to justice can be wrapped in sentimental words and images. Where anyone objecting or merely reacting to the hollowness or sentimentality — or asking why there are not more material, substantive efforts — gets to look like some kind of regressive ogre (or a pinch-faced glass-half-empty un-realist).

Second, she turns her attention to “ridiculous” excesses in school district training materials:

“ … if conservatives couldn’t find useful examples from the classroom, they discovered a rhetorical gold mine in materials from a training session for administrators, including a slide juxtaposing ‘white individualism’ and ‘color group collectivism.’”

She links to a New York Post article that calls out a slide that liberally quotes or calls back to Tema Okun’s work (covered last week) and describes it as embarrassing.

Last week I spent a few links on the “critical race theory” moral panic, and came down on the side of a few of the things I shared that acknowledged, as Goldberg does here, that even if capital-c Critical Race Theory isn’t being taught to grade-schoolers, there’s a collection of material adjacent to it that is being stuffed into the same bag, forcing people on the social justice left to defend a broad swath of teaching that is easily decontextualized (and easily weaponized, as even Tema Okun has admitted).

There’s a part of me that resents the CRT moral panic the same way I resent any moral panic. I’m a philosophy person. I like ideas. I try to understand ideas. I understand the realpolitik of distorting and misrepresenting ideas, but resent it all the same. But I also think the CRT moral panic is perhaps useful right now — even if it is annoying, regressive, and contrary to my own values — because it seems to be forcing an appraisal of what’s leaving the factory under the “equity” or “social justice” or “DE&I” label from people who weren’t interested in doing any kind of theoretical quality control until they had to start viewing the outcomes through the lens of America’s middle.

James Davison Hunter posited in Culture Wars that maybe 40 percent of the country is not actively engaged in the cultural conflicts elites at each pole engage in. Partisans deride so-called “swing voters” as vacuous and unserious at best, disingenuous at worst. The peril of dismissing that slow-moving 40 percent (or faster-moving 5 percent) is that you can lose them just not paying attention to what works or doesn’t work for them. And I’d argue the left broadly (and the Democratic party specifically) has been ignoring what works and doesn’t work, believing it can coast on demographic essentialism. Now we’re being asked to take responsibility for some of the less palatable assertions of some voices that have found their way into the discourse because we can see the effect they have on people who are not very online or very immersed in social justice dogma.

To put an even finer point on it, you can be a committed anti-racist without having to embrace or espouse every idea that marches under that banner. Commitment to social justice, equity, anti-racism — whatever you want to call it — doesn’t grant you a license to suspend your own critical faculties. You can be both rigorous and humble. You can both respect and consider other perspectives — and hold yourself accountable for the weaknesses of your own — without abandoning yourself.

Goldberg is probably going to take a few hits for apostasy for this column, but it tells me something that she’s willing to do a little conceptual sorting.

How a School District Got Caught in Virginia’s Political Maelstrom, (New York Times)

Following on from Goldberg’s column, this article interested me because of the way the narrative is structured. I read it before Goldberg, and was thinking of it while I read her column.

There’s a lot of positioning going on about what happened in Virginia’s election and why. People on the social justice left are often content to characterize it as “racism happened,” while Democratic centrists, socialists, and others think that’s reductive — that the “racism happened” analysis ignores historic trends and the existence of an A/B test in the form of the New Jersey election, and generalizes any concern about “education” to the CRT moral panic (vs. McAuliffe’s, un-retracted gaff on keeping parents out of teaching and general frustration with a year of school closures or stumbling hybrid learning environments).

This article seems like an attempt to buttress the “racism happened” thesis without saying as much. Instead, it does some slippery ad populum stuff to make any opposition to any element of Loudon County’s attempts to grapple with racism seem like a minority position. Some people find parts of the work to be “ham-fisted and over-the-top.”

Michelle Goldberg called this specific report out in her column:

“‘Teachers and administrators said that conservative activists had cherry-picked the most extreme materials to try to prove their point,’ The New York Times reported. I’m sure that’s true, but it’s also true that school districts should avoid using training documents that will embarrass them if they’re made public.”

Maybe the most interesting thing that will come out of all of this will be a clearer picture of what counts as “embarrassing” or “extreme” as the social justice left evolves its rhetoric and tactics.

Last week I mentioned a conversation where someone urged a reconsideration of meeting notes because they’d gone to a training where the instructor said that was racist. I’d like to catch up with them on that now, a year later. I wonder if they’re doing their own sorting.

Kyle Rittenhouse, American Vigilante, (The New Yorker)

I don’t have a lot to say about this piece, except that it reads as a very thorough recounting of the events in Kenosha and an interesting portrait of Rittenhouse. It’s also helpful as a measuring stick to compare with some of the rhetoric around the Rittenhouse case. It was an interesting exercise to take what I thought I knew, read through this article, and then compare and contrast. I had a few things wrong. Give it a try. And I say that with no idea what you, whoever you are reading this, thinks was true or not true. I know that I have seen a lot of other people getting the same things wrong that I did, so I think this could be a useful exercise for more than a few people.

I started writing this before there was a verdict. I anticipated Rittenhouse being acquitted on most if not all of the charges, and wasn’t surprised when he was. I also anticipated that when that happened there’d be more protests, but I seem to have been wrong about that: There weren’t many, or they didn’t last long.

A demonstration in Portland was declared a riot (by one of two responding police agencies — the Portland Police Bureau quickly tweeted that they didn’t declare the riot), but didn’t result in a lot of property damage as these things go. One t.v. news crew was assaulted, because attacks on the press seem to be de rigueur among LARPers across the ideological spectrum.

Another Humorous Substack Panic, (Matt Taibbi)

Matt Taibbi on “big media striking back at Substack” (and independent newsletters generally):

“These warriors of the information economy have been hustling venture capitalists for ages, decades in some case, in search of the magic wand that will make media fortunes: headline generators, lad-mag layout schemes, all-British editorial staffs, more and bigger chyrons, streaming, Axios-style ‘Why it matters’ bullet-point formats, and so on, and so on. These people have been searching for a gimmick for so long, they think everything is one, including, now, the ‘independent subscription newsletter.’

“One would think even the hardest-headed tech executive would see the conceptual problem with the New York Times creating ‘independent newsletters’ — after all, the whole point of a platform like Substack is that it’s not sponsored and overseen by something like the New York Times — but they don’t. They’re convinced that what audiences are responding to with Substack is another collection of widgets: subscription format, a self-edited ‘content creator,’ etc. All they need to swat away the blight of unregulated commentary is a facsimile version of the same thing.”

It has been twelve years since I last participated in anything like a traditional media environment, but I spent ten years doing it during the period where “Web 2.0” was the defining cliche, blogs were causing mainstream media outlets to have the vapors, and then all of that gave way to social media.

The trend-chasing was so bad. Ugly share icons, mandatory posting of content to whatever social network came along, people trying to write like bloggers (who terrified us), ecstasy when something did well on Digg, editors posting their content on their personal Facebook profiles and wondering why we weren’t getting that sweet, sweet social traffic.

I mean, god bless us. One of my colleagues said something mean about “disco night at the old folks home.”

It’s still jarring for me to see people in WaPo and NYT who came up during the early blog scene. They’re just plain old columnists now, with assorted stylistic deviations — various mixes of stentorian pronouncement and sweatiness that characterized their early and resentful phase – that stick out like tiny man ponytails. I’m sincerely happy for any writer who’s making a living at it, but it looks like newsletters are the new blogs.

Anyhow, the thing that characterized all the trend-chasing was this belief that the format itself was conferring something beyond being trendy and seeming modern somehow. And that was going on with both the nervous “traditional media” types and the assorted blogger triumphalists who went on to become bog-standard financed content operations who just never went through a dead-trees phase on their way to taking advertising money and figuring out how to game search engines and social networks.

Burgerville Says Excessive Criminal Activity Led to the Closure of its Let Location. Police Reports Don’t Support That. (Willamette Week)

This was a frustrating read. Burgerville was happy to weigh in and make a bunch of claims, but there’s no evidence on the record, and they won’t show anyone the internal “reports” they claim to have. By closing a location and citing crime, they gave a bunch of cover to people trying to stoke a panic about the homeless.

Opinion: We won’t surrender our city to People for Portland’s bleak vision (The Oregonian)

I wondered how far People for Portland would make it before its deliberate effort to fuzz everyone’s ideological radar would finally fail.

The group’s early messaging hammered shelter capacity and police cameras. Everyone (well, not everyone, and not even every good liberal) wants more shelter beds. Police cameras sound like a useful reform to most people.

But the group was constructing its message in such a way that it could blunt reaction to its less vocal agenda by seeming like it might somehow be “progressive.” It’s not. It wants things a lot of Portlanders would be uncomfortable with, and part of its agenda involves paying for legal research to get around inconvenient rulings like Martin v Boise. Enough is in the open now that the lines are drawn.

The letter itself bothers me a little. It feels less to me like an argument than a signal flare or semaphore. Less a way to to figure out how to bring everyone along on an alternative frame and more a way to simply get down to the business of polarizing the issue using language the social justice left responds to, and vaguely insinuating that if you think Portland has a problem you’ve been duped by racists and don’t care about poor people.

Mike Takes Quizzes

Who doesn’t like sorting caps?

Where do you fit in the political typology? (Pew Research)

I got “The Progressive Left” on this one, read the summary of just what that means. I don’t think it’s probably fruitful or interesting to complain that a political poll is reductive.

Quiz: If America Had Six Parties, Which Would You Belong To? (NY Times)

This one was more interesting. I ended up somewhere between the “Progressive Party” and “The American Labor Party.” My relatively liberal social outlook pulled me more toward the former than the latter, and I tend to get pulled into the “social justice left” types in this kind of quiz a lot, when I probably belong on the socialist left.

Take me and the average social justice left type and we will probably describe a number of similar material conditions, and express a desire for better. We will probably share some analysis in common. But the differences start to show up in what to do about it. Freddie de Boer’s A Materialist Alternative to “Antiracism” sums the difference up pretty well.

A Few Odds and Ends

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