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  • 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

  • What I’m Reading: Week of 9 Nov 21

    First installment! A mix of books, articles, and videos on a variety of topics. I’ll aim for posting these on Saturdays or Sundays. Why am I doing this at all? Read this.

    Recent Books in Progress

    Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

    Just a single chapter in this week so I don’t have much to say. Fisher’s ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’ crystallized a few things for me, so when I came across a promotion to buy a bunch of books from Zero Books, I dropped this in the cart for a rainy day.

    What am I hoping for, though? Maybe some more insight into the core of the conflict between the social justice left and the … materialist? socialist? class? left.

    American War by Omar El Akkad

    Woof. Set in a late 21st century American South ravaged by civil war over fossil fuels. I read this years ago, but didn’t feel like I gave it the attention I needed, so I started a re-read. Its protagonist is a young girl living through social upheaval, so I’m reminded of Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which I loved.

    Woke Racism by John McWhorter

    This is more of a tract than a book. It took a few hours to get through on a camping weekend.

    McWhorter’s take on the social justice left as a middle class black scholar is cranky and resentful. He considers the social justice left condescending, illiberal, and dangerous. His ire toward Robin “White Fragility’ DiAngelo and Ibram “How to Be an Antiracist’ Kendi is palpable, and I suspect the title itself is a bit of tail-twisting over Kendi’s definition of “racism.”

    McWhorter argues that America has formed a new civil religion. Rather than calling it “political correctness” or “wokeism,” he prefers to call it “Electism.” I’m not here to write a review of this book. That’s out of scope for this project.

    A few things I’ll call out:

    McWhorter believes the concept of structural racism is non-falsifiable (and hence an ideal part of the Elect creed). I don’t find this compelling, but I think it stirs his ire because he believes it is used to patronize black people by making up a force that deprives them of agency.

    I’m also not fond of the idea that “Electism” is actually quite racist (which turns up in one of the links below, as well), but I think that’s an abuse of the term “racism,” which is a word that perhaps deserves a timeout while we all figure whether it is personal or not. From McWhorter’s perspective, it’s appropriate because he finds Elect politics to be patronizing and harmful:

    “Here is how Elect ideology does not genuinely care about the welfare of black people.

    “You are to turn a blind eye to black kids getting jumped by other ones in school.

    “You are to turn a blind eye to black undergraduates cast into schools where they are in over their heads, and into law schools incapable of adjusting to their level of preparation in a way that will allow them to pass the bar exam.

    “You are to turn a blind eye to the willful dimness of condemning dead people for moral lapses normal in their time, as if they were still alive.

    “You are to turn a blind eye to the folly in the idea of black ‘identity’ as all about what whites think rather than about what black people themselves think.

    “You are to turn a blind eye to lapses in black intellectuals’ work, because black people lack white privilege.

    “You are to turn a blind eye to the fact that social history is complex, and instead pretend that those who tell you that all racial discrepancies are a result of racism are evidencing brilliance.

    “You are to turn a blind eye to innocent children taught to think in these ways practically before they can hold a pencil.”

    McWhorter finds a lot of social justice texts to be self-contradicting and paradoxical. I agree. And I’m reminded of a conversation I once had about the phrase “servant leadership,” which was very much in vogue among a certain kind of man in tech a few years ago.

    The person I was chatting with suggested that using phrases like “servant leadership” and similar, which traffic in part on the frisson of seemingly paradoxical ideas, is a very exclusionary thing to do:

    Great for people who are comfortable with the language and feel like they belong in the conversation, confusing and intimidating to people who don’t. So perhaps, ventured my friend, bandying about phrases like “servant leadership” is a way to render yourself inaccessible and incontestable. “Humble” by assuming the role of “servant,” but subtly buttressing and guaranteeing your ongoing leadership.

    Similarly, some social justice/antiracist texts pose a set of contradictory ideas that render discernment of right action fraught if not impossible. Indeed, trying to figure out right action is itself posed as “solutionism,” and a sign that you are doing it wrong. You should both do nothing, but also “do the work.” You should sit silently — your belief that you should say something is an example of your privileged presumption — but also be aware that your silence is damning.

    That’s a simplistic take. There is nuance and context to consider. It is not a new idea that sometimes it is best to listen instead of speak. I consider it a bedrock value. Similarly, we all know a quiet or angry sulk — emotional withdrawal or disengagement — when we see it. McWhorter and others would like to pose some of these contradictory directives as hopeless paradoxes, and I don’t think it’s quite that severe. But I also think these ideas, like all ideas must eventually, have escaped the context of their source texts, and that there are people who are content to use them as an excuse for violent and abusive language.

    When McWhorter talks about this stuff, is he engaging in the Internet-accelerated practice of “nutpicking”? Maybe some? It’s the kind of thing you can see on Twitter, or “Electism”-dominated fora. Metafilter is rife with it, so if you’re inclined to go looking for it, you can find it.

    Another area where I share some of McWhorter’s discomfort is simply with the essentialism of what he would call “third-wave antiracism.”

    Modern antiracist texts speak about assorted identities in a broad and essentializing way that is pretty much the opposite of the way people of a certain generation were taught.

    I think the “I don’t see color” worry over appearing “prejudiced” or “bigoted” was damaging to the way we talk about race in this country. As I mentioned in my kickoff essay, for a period I did a lot of reading about American racist groups. One thing I learned about their rhetoric was that it played very directly with something white Americans were studiously applying themselves to in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which was denying that there were any differences at all between “races.”

    Now, look, “race” is a construct, yes. But it is a construct with immense power that people definitely subscribe to even if they aren’t super sophisticated about what “race” is. If you believe that there’s such a thing as “black culture,” you are subscribing to the idea that there is race, and that you can ascribe cultural attributes to it.

    I read a book years ago that helped me make a lot of sense of my own journey on race: Black and White: Styles in Conflict. An ethnographic work, a key takeaway of the book is that white people view a lot of black cultural expression as deviant and probably ought to knock it off. White supremacists (of the racialist bent) play in that space all the time, and they’re very good at it: Because much of the ‘70s and ‘80s was spent teaching kids a sort of cultural denialism (out of a very reasonable desire to stamp out prejudice), white supremacists like David Duke were able to claim that non-racialist thinking was a sort of gaslighting. On the one hand, they argued, good white children were being taught “we’re all the same,” but there were these cultural differences anyone could see if they cared to admit it.

    Reading about peoples’ descent into racialist ideologies, an early part of their experience involved a sort of “red-pilled” realization that there were very definitely different cultural behaviors. Where the racialist ideologues led them astray was in conflating “race” and “culture,” leading them to generalize from observed cultural differences that there must be profound “racial” differences.

    Conversely, some of the healthiest “race” experiences I had were in, of all places, the Army. Black and white soldiers were a lot more raw and real with each other about their cultural differences, spoke about them much more frankly, and admitted much more readily when they found certain behaviors irritating. There was less cognitive dissonance.

    So “colorblind” teaching and behavior, from my perspective and experience, helps make Nazis. It can generate a kind of cognitive dissonance that makes people susceptible to radical upendings of their world view.

    So … if I’m all about more frank language around cultural differences, what’s my problem with essentializing language in third-wave antiracism?

    Maybe it’s as simple as seeing a lot of daylight between “race” and “culture,” and thinking some antiracist texts don’t make that distinction, and so buttonhole us into a less useful way of thinking about how to interact with people.

    I’m looking at the word count for this entry and realizing I am closing in on 6,000 words. I am also realizing I got far afield. I want to stick a pin in this topic, so please don’t consider my thoughts fully formed.

    Finally, I suppose I should point out that McWhorter also has an interesting set of things he thinks we should be doing to address anti-black patterns in society:

    The first is to end the war on drugs:

    “Its eclipse would create a black American community in which even men dealt a bad hand would likely work legally, spells in prison would be rare, and thus growing up fatherless would be occasional rather than the norm. Antiracism should focus strongly on ending the war on drugs, and there is no need for legions of whites to be instructed in how privileged they are for this to happen.”

    I don’t take any issue with this on its face. I know some people will bristle at the bit about “growing up fatherless.”

    The second is to “teach reading properly” (i.e. use phonics):

    “Since the 1960s, phonics has been unanimously demonstrated to be more effective at teaching poor kids to read. Middle-class kids from book-lined homes often manage to guess their way into learning how to read via something like the whole word method. A ‘light just goes on,’ as parents of such kids describe it. However, that light does not often turn on for kids from homes without many books, where language is mostly oral. Kids like this need to be, well, taught to read.”

    And finally, he says, “get past the idea that everybody must go to college”:

    We must revise the notion that attending a four-year college is the mark of being a legitimate American, and return to truly valuing working-class jobs. Attending four years of college is a tough, expensive, and even unappealing proposition for many poor people (as well as middle-class and rich ones). Yet the left endlessly baits applause with calls for college to be made more widely available and less expensive, with the idea that anyone who does not get a four-year college degree has been mired without ‘opportunity.’

    “Yet people can, with up to two years’ training at a vocational institution, make a solid living as electricians, plumbers, hospital technicians, cable television installers, body shop mechanics, and many other jobs. Across America, we must instill a sense that vocational school—not ‘college’ in the traditional sense—is a valued option for people who want to get beyond what they grew up in.”

    Whew. I bristle a little when I read a middle class person downplaying the value of a four-year degree. It reads a little like the ladder being pulled up into the treehouse.

    I wasn’t interested in college in high school. I had an IQ of 150, read at a college junior level in sixth grade, and my vocabulary was consistently tested at the 99th percentile. But I had no interest in college. I was your basic small-town autodidact: If an idea came across my line of sight, I read about it voraciously. I couldn’t imagine needing more than my own brain and a library card.

    I feel fortunate that my dad took it upon himself to fill out applications and student aid forms, and cosign my student loans. He informed me that he was going to be driving me to college, and did so. My first semester was mediocre and my second semester was a disaster. But something sparked. I realized college was putting things in front of me I wouldn’t have found on my own working in an RV factory in Goshen, Indiana.

    Everything I have and am today is a result of that four years. Without saying anything bad at all about people who would’ve just taken the factory job, I am glad I didn’t.

    But I can also appreciate that college can entail debt, and can represent a misdirection of resources and time. I’m sympathetic to the idea that you should be able to live a comfortable, materially secure life without a four-year degree.

    Of the three planks in his platform, provoking a societal reappraisal of the value and meaning of four-year degrees just feels the least likely — this is a country run by its professional managerial class, which worships credentials — and the most personally worrisome. A liberal arts education provides an opportunity beyond job certification. I think a greased-chute, two-year intensive certification program represents a lost opportunity.

    So, given the format of this project and given the feeling I have that there’s a certain tightrope precarity to being a wide reader, I ought to offer some summarizing word on the book — whether it was “good” or “right” or whatever. Did I like it and why.

    Yes, I liked it. It’s angry throughout, and melodramatic in places (he literally says the Elect “are coming for your kids.”) But it’s also an articulation of (small-l) liberal politics at odds with the social justice left. McWhorter might be a good neoliberal, but he’s not a “conservative” or “right-winger,” and I think a lot of people on the social justice left forget that there are other kinds of “left” thought with different priorities and different perspectives.

    Do I agree with McWhorter? On some points, sure. Politically, overall? No … I’m way to his left, and I tend to find the worst excesses of the social justice left to be coming from a place of good intentions but impoverished analysis. Down further in this post I link to an essay from Freddie de Boer that asks “what parts of this political school are worth saving, and what it’s time to leave behind.” It sums up my reservations, and they are less adversarial than McWhorter’s.

    The book, by the way, was the subject of a thin, disappointing NPR interview with McWhorter. I don’t think Steve Inskeep knew exactly what to do with him, but the idea that there might be an anti-anti-racist black scholar was plainly catnip to NPR’s bookers, so we got five minutes of Inskeep gumming the material.

    I guess that leads us to the links for the week, where “wokeness” figures prominently:

    Articles, Posts, etc.

    “Wokeness” and “Critical Race Theory”

    So, there were some elections last week, and a Republican won the governorship in Virginia after campaigning on the idea that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is being taught in schools. The literal truth is that it is not, but … I’ll just let the links handle it (and slide in some commentary of my own as I go:

    Democrats can win the debate over critical race theory. Here’s how. (Washington Post)

    I don’t know if Democrats generally will want to take advice from Max Boot, but I’m tossing this in because it’s the first thing I remembered to bookmark this week that pointed out what we should probably learn to live with, which is that “CRT’ is the new “political correctness:’

    “CRT might have started off as an esoteric academic theory about structural racism. But it has now become a generic term for widely publicized excesses in diversity education, such as disparaging ‘individualism’ and ‘objectivity’ as examples of ‘white supremacy culture’ or teaching first-graders about microaggressions and structural racism.’

    It’s a grab-bag term that will mutate to suit whatever triggers a collection of audiences.

    To the extent I can imagine having to have a conversation with someone worked up about “CRT,’ I think the most productive thing I could lead with would probably be “what, exactly, do you think CRT even is?’ The answer you get will probably help dial in how much hope you have of getting anywhere productive:

    If they think “CRT’ is stuff like “acknowledging that slavery happened and that there is a lot of racism in America’s past,’ and they’re bothered by the thought of teaching that, well, good luck having a useful conversation.

    If they’re fine with teaching about racism in America, but more bothered by what Boot calls “excesses’ — and Boot is pretty much listing stuff from Tema Okun’s White Supremacy Culture when he lists “excesses’ — then there’s probably room to work.

    The Intelligencer picks up that point, and then names Okun to provide an example of “the most dogmatic strands of anti-racist pedagogy”:

    When Keeping It ‘Woke’ Gets Racist, Liberals Should Say So (Intelligencer/New York Magazine)

    “If this multiplicity of meanings renders ‘CRT’ unintelligible as a concept, such ambiguity serves it well as a campaign prop. Reactionary Virginians could interpret Youngkin’s proposed CRT ban as a reassertion of white cultural dominance (and/or, a crusade against a totalitarian plot to indoctrinate their children), even as respectable centrists could interpret it as a mere prohibition on the most dogmatic strands of anti-racist pedagogy. Indeed, the GOP candidate encouraged this interpretation. On the stump, Youngkin affirmed that American history has ‘dark and abhorrent chapters,’ and that ‘we must teach them,’ while insisting that Virginia nonetheless cannot ‘teach our children to view everything through a lens of race.’”

    […]

    “The Smithsonian’s graphic took inspiration from the work of Tema Okun, a co-leader of the Teaching for Equity Fellows Program at Duke University, and a popular consultant in progressive circles. In Okun’s account, ‘objectivity,’ ‘a sense of urgency,’ and thinking in binaries like ‘good or bad’ and ‘right or wrong’ are defining characteristics of ‘white supremacy culture.’ She therefore advises progressive organizations to rid themselves of those ‘damaging’ tendencies.

    “The notion that there is something inherently white supremacist about believing in a binary between ‘right and wrong’ reads like a parody of progressive doctrine. And encouraging left-wing organizations to foster internal cultures that stigmatize a ‘sense of urgency’ or ‘objectivity’ sounds like a job for the CIA. Indeed, Okun herself acknowledges that her pamphlet on ‘The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture’ has routinely sown dysfunction within progressive groups by inviting their members to see any assertion of objective fact, authority, or deadlines as a manifestation of racism. As one ‘skilled facilitator’ told Okun, ‘I could not possibly tally the number of hours I have spent over the last three years dislodging people from the reductive stance they construct based on the tool … I worked in one situation where the communications function had come to a grinding halt because a segment of the staff had decided that editing was white supremacist.”

    Okun’s work shows up in virtually every enumeration of what people find irritating about “CRT,” but almost never in its source form or home context (go read her site if you want that). It always turns up in its reductionist PowerPoint form, or in its misapplication from well intentioned people who saw it excerpted in a DEI training. In its PowerPoint form, or its poorly trained form, “White Supremacy Culture” can be pretty alienating, even to devoted antiracists.

    I have been involved in conversations where Okun’s work has been misapplied by well-meaning people, drifting from “we should be careful because here are some behaviors that marginalize people or make for a less inclusive environment” to “I went to a training where they said it’s racist to take notes in a meeting, so we should consider just recording.”

    Having a reductionist reading of Okun is not, to my mind, “accidental racism,” and I don’t think Okun herself is racist (accidentally or otherwise). We should just be able to disagree with her ideas, or people who misapply them, without having to resort to such a charged word.

    I suppose this is also a good example of the unsettledness of the word “racism” at all. Antiracist folks use it in a very institutional sense, others stick to its older meaning, with stronger connotations of personal bigotry or bias.

    Personally, I was pretty on board with the shift to a meaning with more connotations of institutional power but I use it advisedly: That usage isn’t a settled matter with a lot of people who read it as a personal insult instead of an academic observation. I wish more people were mindful of that.

    Further, on “woke” and its uses/abuses:

    The War on Wokeness (Charles Blow, New York Times)

    “‘Woke’ is now almost exclusively used by those who seek to deride it, those who chafe at the activism from which it sprang. No wonder young people are abandoning the word. Opponents to the idea are seeking to render it toxic. They use it to stand in for change itself, for evolution, for an accurate assessment of history and society that makes them uncomfortable and deflates their hagiographic view of American history. The opponents of wokeness are fighting over an abandoned word, like an army bombarding a fort that has been vacated: They don’t appear fierce, but foolish.”

    “Woke” is in use in its negative sense in a few kinds of left circles that are not social justice left circles, but I agree that abandoning it is probably a good idea: I certainly don’t use it in polite company. At this point it isn’t going to help me be better understood by anyone I’d use it with, and it’s not my word to reclaim.

    Speaking of left circles, I’ve read and re-read this one a few times:

    Some Principles & Observations About Social Justice Politics (Freddie de Boer)

    “The social justice world is seemingly incapable of making intelligent and strategic decisions about where and how and why to politicize any given issue. The discursive and social practices of that world seem almost designed to make those politics strange and alienating to most people, of any gender or race. It operates as though the world has an infinite supply of outrage and that regular people will respond the right way, when you ring the bell, again and again. And its myopic emphasis on the gender semiotics of Dr. Who, or whatever the fuck, over the day-to-day realities of actual human inequality robs it of both moral clarity and the ability to focus on what actually matters. The problems with this school of politics are abundant, overflowing, and many people who espouse them every day do so purely out of fear of social censure. They can do great damage. But they cannot win.

    “Perhaps the time has come for people to be brave enough to define what parts of this political school are worth saving, and what it’s time to leave behind.”

    And speaking of CRT:

    Capitol riot suspects say they’re ‘force fed critical race theory’ and ‘anti-white messaging’ in jail (NBC News)

    “According to the motion, ‘the jail also prevents him from having reasonable access to reading materials while simultaneously streaming anti-white messages and critical race theory propaganda across his tablet. This is psychologically damaging.’”

    Modern Solzhenitsyns, all.

    Portland’s Crime Rate Isn’t Impacted By Size of Police Force, Data Finds (Portland Mercury)

    “… the belief that crime decreases when a city has more officers isn’t supported by PPB’s own numbers. According to data collected and crunched by a Portland group of independent researchers, there is no recent correlation between the city’s crime rate and the number of police officers employed by PPB.

    “Using data acquired through public records requests to PPB and PPB online data dashboard, the researchers found that ‘additional officers do not correlate with a decrease in crimes.’

    “Instead, as their graphed data illustrates below, the monthly number of officers employed by PPB over the past five years has had an insignificant impact on the city’s monthly crime rate. The graph shows that, at times, Portland’s crime rate has both skyrocketed and plummeted regardless of the size of its police force. In all, the data shows that, as the police force grows, crime appears to slightly drop at a near-immeasurable rate.’

    Also on crime:

    The truth about shoplifting in San Francisco (Popular Information)

    Is there an epidemic of shoplifting by ‘organized gangs’ in San Francisco? And does it prove that the state’s efforts at criminal justice reform have failed?

    Walgreens, one of the nation’s largest drugstore chains, claims that retail theft in the city is proliferating. ‘Organized retail crime continues to be a challenge facing retailers across San Francisco, and we are not immune to that,’ Walgreens said in October, announcing the closure of five stores in the city. The company told the New York Times in May that ‘thefts at its stores in San Francisco were four times the chain’s national average, and… the scale of thefts had made business untenable.’

    ” These claims, however, are not reflected in the citywide crime data. In 2020, shoplifting in San Francisco reached its lowest level since statistics began being collected 45 years ago.”

    Well, well, well:

    The false narrative of out-of-control crime in San Francisco, and California as a whole, is being pushed relentlessly by a far-right website run by a former Republican consultant who received a pardon from Trump.

    I think some of its staff writers may hang out on /r/portland, where you could be excused for believing we’re at some point on the Mad Max timeline just after the original movie and a few years before The Road Warrior.

    Joe Rogan, Parody of the Open Mind

    I have a level of affection for Joe Rogan as a color commentator for the UFC. I’ve learned a lot about MMA from him over the years, appreciate his affection for the sport, and think he’s pretty good at that particular job. I think I can sign this, though:

    “When I think of Joe Rogan and his podcast I think of a reasonably entertaining interviewer who asks some incisive questions, has some dopey opinions, and is really remarkable only in his huge audience and cultural impact. But of course our media hates him, passionately and performatively, which speaks to just how singular and important he’s become despite his fundamental ordinary-guy nature; his chronic unfussiness has led to a permanent state of fuss. And that’s what I also think about, when I think of Joe Rogan: as culture war’s greatest beneficiary, one of cancel culture’s biggest winners and the unintended but utterly predictable consequence of the absurd mores of contemporary liberals. Ridicule broad swaths of diverse people under a political pretext and they will rally to that which you ridicule, and then they will elect champions to represent them. In standing up for the unpretentious and frequently-thoughtless mainstream Rogan has become the antithesis of media liberals, their negation, and they are thus the source of his considerable fortune. They can also be blamed for giving him a reputation he doesn’t quite deserve.’

    I listen to Rogan’s podcast when he interviews people who interest me, and until whatever he is drinking or smoking has kicked in and he begins to stumble around. His interviews with martial artists, other comedians, and some kinds of contrarians are pretty good for a few minutes, at least. His interview with Jonathan Haidt was pretty absorbing, thanks to Haidt’s patience with him. Rogan wanted PC thought police horror stories and confused a metaphor involving peanut allergies as an invitation to indulge his sweet tooth for health contrarianism, so he eventually got bored.

    The “Joe and Ivermectin” thing:

    “Take the fiasco related to Rogan’s use of Ivermectin. The entire news media linking arms to mock as ‘horse dewormer’ a drug that absolutely should not be taken to treat Covid-19 but which absolutely is not accurately referred to as ‘horse dewormer’ is a perfect illustration of the mutually-parasitic equilibrium between the liberal media and its antagonists. The term became a clever meme for three days for the former and permanent proof of the the media’s duplicity for the latter. Progressives won the Twitter trending topics sidebar, while their critics won the ability to reference one of the most embarrassing displays in media conformity and thoughtlessness I can imagine.”

    I posted a horse dewormer meme on Facebook, collected some yuks, and considered my work done. Then I started noticing actual journalists referring to Ivermectin solely as a horse dewormer (including in reporting around Rogan getting Covid and then saying he used Ivermectin to treat it). It was sobering to see journalists biasing in favor of the lulz, too. I’m not okay with it.

    What Happened to Matt Taibbi? (Intelligencer)

    Speaking of people who have fallen out of favor with the liberal media:

    One lament, though, among those who believe Taibbi has lost his way, is that the game he chases today might not be worth it. Instead of throwing hedge-funders up against a wall, Taibbi is excoriating the media for failing to report on the fact that, despite the FDA and NIH advising against treating COVID patients with Ivermectin, some doctors are prescribing the drug off-label. Taibbi’s argument — that the news media can report health-care authorities are warning against Ivermectin as a treatment while acknowledging the drug is out there and being distributed — isn’t wrong. It’s more a matter of how one of the most talented reporters of his generation should wield his formidable powers in this uncertain age.

    Taibbi believes the American media needs another Mencken, but there are enough heterodox thinkers that operate, in the realm of Substack at least, to flay whatever the predominant and misguided groupthink might be. Takedowns of NPR and the Democratic Party are not especially scarce. What is far more of an endangered species is the bold investigative reporter with enough time and money to produce the kinds of stories that terrify politicians and shift the Zeitgeist — the reporter that Taibbi used to be.

    I listen to and read a few people who are drifting into what I hear referred to as “the heterodox left” and the thing that bugs me most is usually not their politics, exactly, but their growing reactivity. When I think about Matt Taibbi, I think about Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t ever read Hitchens when he was more reliably left: I started noticing him after 9/11.

    I do remember Taibbi from his earlier reporting, so I feel a little more sensitive to where he’s going now. Useful Idiots is still a semi-regular listen when the topics are interesting.

    How to Save as PDF from iPhone or iPad with a Gesture (OS X Daily)

    Seems like a small thing, but it saved me buying an app. I wish iOS would just let you print to PDF, same as MacOS, though.

    Research: Cameras On or Off? (HBR)

    “Our results — recently published in Journal of Applied Psychology — were quite clear: Using the camera was positively correlated to daily feelings of fatigue; the number of hours that employees spent in virtual meetings were not. This indicates that keeping the camera consistently on during meetings is at the heart of the fatigue problem.

    “Even more interesting to us was our finding that fatigue reduced how engaged employees felt, as well as reducing their voice in meetings. Turning cameras on is often encouraged because it is popularly seen to help with both of these challenges—engagement and having everyone be heard — so it was notable that our findings indicated that feeling fatigued due to camera use may be actually undermining these goals in some situations.

    “To further complicate matters, when we examined our results along with the demographics of the employees, it also turned out that being on camera was more fatiguing for certain groups — specifically, women and employees newer to the organization.”

    I do find meetings where someone is keeping their camera off a little jarring because a de facto “cameras on” culture exists at work (even if we tell people they can choose otherwise, which is the right thing to do).

    I think it’s jarring because it thwarts my instinct to read the expressions of the speaker. But I also remember voice-only conference calls from long ago with some fondness: It was easier to stand up and walk around, give the phone the finger when vexed, and otherwise do something besides sit smiling and nodding unctuously or frowning judiciously. So if everyone were cameras off, I think I’d prefer it over mixed.

    Prescribed burns are key to reducing wildfire risk, but federal agencies are lagging (LA Times)

    The idea of prescribed burns got a lot of play this season. It’s great that people are coming around. It’s terrible that acceptance of the idea/practice has to wind its way through so many agencies and obstacles, and it’s sobering to read that the context is increasingly grim:

    “And even if federal authorities were able to perform these treatments on the scale that is needed, the increasingly extreme conditions under which fires are burning still means they wouldn’t always be sufficient to protect forests and communities from damage. In a development that surprised researchers on the Goosenest study, one of the units treated by thinning and prescribed fire that burned during a four-hour high wind event appears to have been fairly heavily damaged despite the low surface and crown fuel loads, Knapp said. ‘To me, this illustrates there may be some limits to what treatments can do under severe fire conditions,’ he said. ‘Maybe when we’re up against the worst conditions, you just can’t really do much to prevent that.’”

  • Hi!

    I’m going to try something out, and I’m going to do it with a minimum amount of setup, but some setup is probably necessary.

    When I’m at my best, I’m a curious person. I’m most curious about ideas — ideologies, philosophies, religions — but I’m also pretty curious about humans interacting with those things. For a while, I did a lot of independent research in to white supremacist groups (the Klan, the Order, Aryan Nation, etc.) and gave presentations about them. The highlight of my time as a journalist was a three-hour-long interview I did with an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who happened to live about 30 minutes down the road from my small town in Indiana. For a brief period I knew way more about the racialist right than anyone else I knew. I got to the point I was setting aside more books on the topic than I was reading all the way through.

    When I was very active in left politics a long time ago, I was as intrigued by the assorted socialist factions I came in contact with as social entities as I was the political theory that drove them. I just found their norms and behavior fascinating and odd.

    In some ways, I enlisted out of curiosity, too, and spent four years both struggling to be a good soldier, but really delighting in the ability to be immersed in a subculture most people don’t know much about. All the language, the beliefs, the manners … it was a good time for learning.

    That curiosity has stayed with me. I’m grateful for my education in philosophy. It has profited me to be able to occupy different systems of thinking or perspectives — to live inside them and understand their patterns — without losing my own grounding.

    Over the past ten years or so I felt some of that curiosity slip. A few things happened that caused me to deeply reappraise my view of the world, and to be honest I had some personal things happen that helped nudge me into a less angry place than I had been for a while. Some of the fire that had informed my curiosity faded. It felt better to me to listen to people more closely. I set aside a lot of ego so I could feel okay letting people teach me about stuff I hadn’t considered much. It was easier to be quiet and self-effacing. I think I lost a little of that capacity I had to take an idea in, inhabit it, then come back out of it with myself still intact.

    Lately, though, a few things have happened:

    My curiosity has woken back up, and I’ve come out of that long period of quiet listening and self-effacement with a sturdier sense of what I’m about than I have been in a while. I won’t go into the reasons why. I think we have all spent the past couple of years figuring out how to be in the world, adapting, and maybe struggling with understanding what we are in the face of so many tests.

    So this thing I’m going to try is just a simple reading log.

    I come across things I’d like to share with other people, but I haven’t taken the time to create a context to do that. Creating that context is important, because I like to read a lot of different things, from a lot of different points of view, and I like to bring things back from them.

    That feels like a socially unsafe thing to do. People like their categories. They don’t want to be trolled. I’ve lived through a few public declarations of the death of irony, but it is somehow both infusing everything and simply not tolerated. It’s the age of the milkshake duck, the missing stair “ally” dude, and social media self-immolation. People are probably right to be wary, but that wariness is hard to navigate.

    So, I’m going to keep this reading log. I’ll try to explain a little bit about what I find compelling or interesting about each thing I share. I’ll try to make it a thing I put together once a week so that when I share a link to it, it’ll be less likely to read, as single-link tweets do, as an isolated one-off (“why’d he share that?”) and more as a sort of mosaic.