Thursday, May 22, 2014

Irony, Hypocrisy, and the Debate About Guns

A friend of mine coined a saying some years ago: it's a good thing irony is so damned funny, because there is so much of it.

This meme, and variations on it, has been making the internet rounds of late (and, possibly, for quite some time):

The sentiment behind this is quite reasonable, even insightful. For those who are wondering (since the meme doesn't say) Jeremiah 17:9 reads:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?
This is a point that many in the NRA and others supportive of gun rights have been making for years. The more popular phrasing is, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people", but I like this one better because it actually points to something of importance: what is in the hearts (and minds) of people leads to violence.

What makes this ironic (and hypocritical) is that many of those in the Tribe of Gun Rights who promulgate this notion have been active contributors to the poisoning of people's hearts with respect to violence. These are in many cases the very same folks (indeed, I found this meme on the very same FB feed) as those who glorify the use of retributive violence. I've written about this before (here and here, among others). Here is perhaps one of the more egregious examples, which you can find on Snopes (it's been circulated in a variety of forms for years):


March 5th, 2009

Last Thursday night round midnight, a woman in Houston, Texas was arrested, jailed, and charged with manslaughter for shooting a man 6 timesin the back as he was running away with her purse.

The following Monday morning, the woman was called in front of the arraignment judge, sworn in, and asked to explain her actions.

The woman replied, "I was standing at the corner bus stop for about15 minutes, waiting for the bus to take me home after work. I am a waitress at a local cafe. I was there alone, so I had my right hand on my pistol, that was in my purse, that was hung over my left shoulder.

"All of a sudden I was being spun around hard to my left. As I caught my balance, I saw a man running away from me with my purse.

I looked down at my right hand and I saw that my fingers were wrapped tightly around my pistol. The next thing I remember is saying out loud, 'No way punk! Your not stealing my pay check and tips.' I raised my right hand, pointed my pistol at the man running away from me with my purse, and squeezed the trigger of my pistol six times!"

When asked by the arraignment judge, "Why did You shoot the man six times?" the woman replied under oath, "Because, when I pulled the trigger of my pistol the seventh time, it only went click."

The woman was acquitted of all charges. And she was back at work, at the cafe, the next day!

You cannot circulate stories like this one and then claim that the "real problem" is people's hearts (the story, by the way, is false). This story tells a simple fable: money (specifically, my money) is worth more than a human life (especially if that life belongs to a "punk", something less than human). Anybody who believes that has a very selective reading, at best, of the Bible. Cain killed Abel, by some interpretations, because Abel was wealthier and had been more successful than Cain.

If gun rights supporters want to live by the first meme (the real problem is human hearts), they should be doing something to heal those hearts - to appeal to the "better angels of our nature", to borrow Lincoln's phrase - rather than steeping themselves in the glory of violence. I know that expecting consistency, especially on the internet, is tilting at windmills. But folks within the gun rights community should at least try to rein in the more violence-accepting of their brethren, if they expect anybody else to take them seriously.

The Strange Case of Saskatchewan: A Cautionary Tale in Higher Education Administration

Most of us, even higher education geeks, don't pay much attention to the University of Saskatchewan. It's not a big name in the North American higher education landscape (neither is my employer), though I'm sure it's a fine institution.

This past week, however, the U of S has gotten a LOT of press, all of it bad. I made reference to the story in another blog post over at RelationsInternational, but hadn't written about the case much. Yesterday and today there have been interesting updates: yesterday the provost at the university resigned his position, while today we learn that the president of the university has been fired by its Board of Governors.

To recap: a dean speaks out in public against a restructuring plan which his president was promulgating, concerned that it could threaten the accreditation of his school and that the plan had been developed with little outside input and was being forced down people's throats. The dean has previously been warned by the provost and the president not to do so, but did anyway. The dean was fired, initially from both the deanship and from his tenured faculty position; the latter was given back a day or two later after a firestorm of protest over the rules of tenure. Controversy and bad press ensues, and within days the provost resigns his administrative position and the president is fired by the Board.

My friend & co-author Steve Saideman has already blogged about all of this (he writes faster than I do), from the angle of defense of tenure and academic freedom. In a previous post he had made another good point: if you can't take some public disagreement from faculty (and deans), you shouldn't be an administrator.

I want to expand on that last point, because it is actually one of the central questions facing any university administration: how centralized and secretive should our decision-making be? There is, on the whole, a fundamental tradeoff between breadth of inclusion and transparency on the one hand, and speed, efficiency, and getting exactly what you want on the other. All senior university administrators (presidents and provosts primarily) face this reality, and most of them will favor the latter (speed & efficiency) over the former (inclusion & transparency) most of the time.

I will confess that I have never served a university at that level, and so do not have the authority to speak to this question that, say, a retired president might. However, I have served under a number of administrations at varying levels, some of which I have been very close to (organizationally speaking). I've seen this decision play itself out a number of times, and I've seen presidents come down on both sides. I draw two conclusions from my observations:

1) Transparency & Inclusion Should Be First Choice

In the end, transparency always wins in higher education. Universities are large, complex organizations with lots of people who work together, communicate with each other, and form relationships. The root culture involves the open sharing of information - that's what teaching and research are about. So trying to keep a decision secret almost never works. In the end, even if nothing is ever officially acknowledged, people know what "really went on". You may as well be transparent up front and get your critics sitting at the same table, because they're going to be engaged either with you or behind your back. Yes, there may be circumstances where you can't do this - but they should be rare, and you should know why, which leads to my second conclusion:

2) Many Administrations Choose the Efficiency & Speed Route for the Wrong Reasons

The argument for narrowing the circle of decision-making and refusing to deal up front with potential objections is always that this is more "businesslike" and "efficient" - meaning, it's faster. Presidents and provost often present sweeping new changes with the warning that "we need to do something now!" But despite these Chicken Little warnings, the sky usually isn't really falling. Healthy, robust universities do not go bankrupt overnight. Those few that die off take years and years to do so, and their demise can usually be predicted far in the future. In my experience, when senior administrators say "we must do something now!", what they really seem to mean is, "I need quick results". Provosts looking to become presidents want to build a resume; presidents are often either looking for the next presidency or thinking about their "legacy". All of these things operate on a much shorter time frame (2-3 years) than is either healthy or necessary for an institution - but it's great for their careers.

It is possible to square this circle - to make decisions that are both reasonably efficient and inclusive & transparent. But doing so takes a lot of skill in negotiation and persuasion, as well as a healthy dose of humility and a willingness to give up some control over the final outcome. This combination is, in my experience, extremely rare among administrators. I recently wrote a blog post about why people might want to become administrators, and some of those motives select against these very characteristics. At the very least, it's luck-of-the-draw where the odds aren't that great to begin with (how many people do you know in the general population that fit this mold?)

So in the case of the University of Saskatchewan - as my friend Steve points out, "tenure wins", at least with respect to the particular dean in question. But the bigger victory here is in favor of more open, inclusive, and transparent decision-making. If a few more presidents get tossed out for coming up with sweeping plans in their office and then trying to force-feed them to their campuses, perhaps the rest will think twice.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Commencement Speakers, Polarization, and the Terrible Price of Moral Certainty

There have been a rash of high-profile commencement speaker incidents this year. Conde Rice withdrew from Rutgers, Haverford's invitation of former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has been called into question, and now IMF Managing Director Christine Legard has pulled out of speaking at Smith College. It's getting to the point where choosing a commencement speaker has become one of the hardest things a college has to do.

Common to all of these cases were small, well-organized, loud campaigns by students and faculty against the speaker in question. Each of these campaigns was built around a central moral claim, communicated with the kind of vigor that only the Righteous (or self-righteous) can muster. Some examples from these various cases:

From the petition against Ms. Legard speaking at Smith:

"By selecting Ms. Lagarde as the commencement speaker we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class. Although we do not wish to disregard all of Ms. Lagarde’s accomplishments as a strong female leader in the world, we also do not want to be represented by someone whose work directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against. By having her speak at our commencement, we would be publicly supporting and acknowledging her, and thus the IMF."
From a faculty petition calling for Dr. Rice's withdrawal from Rutgers:
Dr. Rice "played a prominent role in his administration’s efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the existence of links between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime," and that "the lies thus promoted led to the second Iraq war, which caused the death of over 100,000 men, women and children, and the displacement of millions of others."
And from a letter from faculty and students calling on Haverford to disinvite Birgeneau from their commencement:
"As a community standing in solidarity with nonviolent protesters across the country, we are extremely uncomfortable honoring you," a group of 50 Haverford students and professors wrote to Birgeneau. "To do so would be a disservice to those nonviolent protesters who were beaten and whose actions you dismissed as 'unfortunate,' as if they brought the abuse upon themselves."
In each case, faculty and students are making statements about values - both the symbolic values attached to a particular individual and the espoused values of the institution. In each case, the complainants are concerned that their institution will be "tainted" by honoring and listening to someone who has done things that differ from (what they perceive to be) the institution's espoused values.

This strikes me as an extremely slippery slope at best, and a thinly veiled way to attack people you don't like at worst. I have my own feelings about each of the individuals named above and the things they have done in their careers. But for me and a small group of like-minded individuals (in each case, the petition or letter originated from about 50 people, which at a college or university is a very small group) to impose our views on the rest of the institution strikes me as simply indefensible. I know intelligent, reasonable people who would disagree with the arguments made above - these are things about which reasonable people can in fact disagree.

And that is very much a part of the problem here. By resorting to internet-fueled, social media-spread controversy, and in some cases threats of unsightly pickets and protests, these groups are essentially imposing a minority veto on the rest of the institution. They are exercising power which, even in an ideal democratically deliberative community, they have no right to. They are shouting down voices they disagree with on a simple premise: we're right and you're wrong.

This kind of logic fails a second test as well: it attempts to equate absolute moral principles with live human beings. This is nearly always a recipe for disaster, because very few humans fit neatly into our absolutist boxes. Ironically, it was the commencement speaker at my own graduation many years ago who pointed this out - so eloquently that I still remember his speech today. He told two stories - one of a Nazi SS officer who amidst all the terrible things he did as part of the SS saved a Jewish family in Northern Italy in the midst of the war, the other of Dwight Eisenhower who despite all the noble and heroic things he did ordered the public hanging execution of an orphaned American soldier as an example to American troops not to desert their posts. The punch line was clear: terrible people sometimes do good things, and good people sometimes do terrible things. The real moral world of human beings is far more complex than you think it is.

This is the point that these petition-writers, despite their advanced educations, have apparently missed. Christine Legard does not equate to the IMF, nor does Condelezza Rice equal the Iraq War - even if those things were morally unambiguous, which they are not. In the drive for moral purity and certitude, some folks seem compelled to insulate themselves from anything tainted with what they regard as morally corrupted. By that logic, they will soon find themselves alone in a room talking to themselves - hardly the kind of "liberal education" these institutions are supposed to champion.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Theology as Tribal Identifier: An Update from the Bryan College Case

A month ago I wrote a blog post about a small, obscure Christian college in Dayton, Tennessee that has been going through some internal turmoil. Some additional information has come out about the case that illuminates things further, and which exposes what I think is really going on.

It's no secret that there is, for some folks at least, a "culture war" within US society. This, in and of itself, is nothing new - people have had wildly divergent ideas about religion, theology, social norms, science, and a host of things ever since societies were formed. One of the challenges of trying to live in a pluralistic society is that we have to coexist with people who hold ideas very different from ours - an uncomfortable task for most of us. That we have managed it as well as we have (that is, with relatively little bloodshed) is a testament to the success of the American experiment.

But living with difference is hard for most folks to do. The primary coping mechanism is to form tribes or sub-groups of like-minded folks who can band together, increasing comfortable interactions with your "kin" while decreasing interactions with outsiders. This can take on varying levels of extremity - some tribes (old order Amish, for example) have extremely limited interactions with outsiders, even when they live in close geographic proximity to them. The Amish get a pass on this largely because they are peaceful and self-sufficient and don't bother anybody - they make no demands on the rest of us, so we leave them alone. Our world is filled with less obvious mechanisms to do much the same thing - which part of town do you live in, what church do you go to, which news do you watch on TV.

The Creationism "debate" falls into this category of behavior. The label "debate" misses the mark entirely, because it assumes that there is an exchange of ideas when in fact none is intended or allowed. Debates imply either winners and losers (as judged by some authoritative audience outside the debaters), or an exchange of ideas intended to illuminate and possibly change either or both. Statements about Creationism such as the Bryan College controversy have none of these characteristics.

At the root of the Bryan controversy is a "clarification" added to the college's Statement of Faith. The article linked above explains the change in this fashion:
Formerly, Bryan’s statement of faith, which all faculty and staff must sign annually, says “that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death[.]” 
In February, the college’s Board of Trustees -- backed by President Stephen Livesay -- approved of the following clarification to that part of the statement: “We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”
To be clear, lots of Christian colleges have statements of faith that faculty and students are required to sign. All of them serve the same purpose: they are markers of identity for the community, a way of insuring that only the like-minded are included. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing so - there are plenty of benefits to creating a community of like-minded people, from fellowship to mutual support to growth. But it does have the effect of including some and excluding others.

That Bryan is essentially "tightening" their Statement at this time suggests that the community (or those who control its boundaries) feel threatened by forces outside the tribal boundaries, and are trying to draw the wagons in a little closer. This has the very predictable effect of excluding a few more people, who naturally leave (whether by choice or not is a separate question).

If that particular community wants to define itself is somewhat more narrow and exclusionary ways, that's their choice. The students will ultimately decide for themselves whether that's what they want, and if enough of them don't like the narrower box they will leave and the college will collapse. If they can persuade enough folks to join them on their particular tribal island, they can stick around as a going concern.

From a sociological and psychological perspective, I understand this urge to create and defend group boundaries. From a theological and spiritual perspective, I find the impulse a little at odds with my understanding of the fundamentally inclusive message of the Christian gospel. While they will claim to be "radically different" and "not of this world", what Bryan's leadership is doing is very much of the world - they are behaving no differently than many other institutions, both religious and secular, in drawing exclusive tribal boundaries to keep the foreigners and heretics out. I don't find that view of God particularly compelling, and I wonder what a radically inclusionary Christian institution might look like.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Eastern Ukraine: Irredentism Isn't What We Think It Is

I've read several interesting and insightful things about Eastern Ukraine recently. The first was posted a while back by Will Moore, who asked "Is Crimea's Ethnic Conflict Banal?" Picking up on work by John Mueller on Bosnia back in the 1990s Moore points out the likelihood that, far from being a "popular uprising," it is likely that the armed takeovers of Crimean (and now, eastern Ukrainian) buildings by various "local" groups were largely done by gangs of thugs who could be easily mobilized because they like exercising power and threatening (or using) violence on others. I found this argument persuasive back in the 1990s when Mueller first proposed it, and I think that Moore's application of it Ukraine is spot-on. It certainly fits the broader picture that seems to be emerging, which is one of Russian interference through intermediaries - who now seem to be rather well-armed for a "citizen militia".

The second piece was a well-considered article posted recently to Political Violence @ a Glance by Brantislav Slantchev. In it he puts together a key argument about Russia's motives in Ukraine:
As I have argued here and here, Putin’s regime is by now almost entirely legitimized by the idea of recovering Russia’s rightful place in the sun. His policies have explicitly aimed at overcoming what I call theCold War Syndrome – the purported illness that has afflicted Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union and that is to blame for all its current troubles at home and abroad. Briefly, with the disappearance of the military might of the USSR, Russia has been unable to resist the victorious West which has relentlessly advanced everywhere, pushing a new Iron Curtain ever closer to the Russian borders. The expansions of NATO and the EU, the increasing commercial and cultural penetration around the globe, globalization itself, all of this has marginalized Russia, depriving it of influence and forcing it into the humiliating role akin to that of former colonies of the West: exporter of raw materials to fund Western consumerism. Russia can only prosper if it counters these tendencies and establishes a zone of influence in Eurasia. It must halt the inexorable advance of the West, which has moved the Iron Curtain east, and this can only be done if it recovers its military posture.
His take-away from this argument is that sanctions are unlikely to reverse Russian behavior, and may even make matters worse. That's an important conclusion in itself, but Slantchev's argument struck me also for what it says about the likely future course of the conflict in Ukraine.

If Slantchev is right, then either destabilizing or dismembering Ukraine is central to Putin's domestic political legitimacy. Crimea was low-hanging fruit, but if Putin is trying to make the argument that Russia is returning to its "proper place" in the world then dominating Ukraine is a necessary step in such an argument - far more so than influencing the Stans or even beating up on small former Soviet republics like Georgia. If this is true, then there is a serious motivation gap here: Russia may care about the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine far more than either the US or Europe (many Americans can't even fine Ukraine on a map). That kind of motivational edge can be a powerful advantage.

What strikes me most about all of this is what it says about irredentism and our popular notions about ethnic conflict. I myself tend to be pretty sympathetic to ethnic separatism and irredentism, if only because I think that people ought to be governed by those they want to be governed by. But what we see playing out in eastern Ukraine today isn't about ethnic self-determination. Irredentism it may be, but irredentism as a tool in the service of elite power

Continued interference from Russia suggests that the conflict is about Russia's domestic politics, not the rights of various Ukrainian groups - and it is extremely unlikely that Putin is motivated by any coherent sense of "Russian nationalism" beyond wanting to bolster the strength of his own regime. The escalating violence on the ground, being driven to a large degree by self-appointed armed gangs, demonstrates that even if there are forces internal to Ukraine driving some of this they are not interested in what "the people" want. Any additional "elections" or "referenda" conducted from here on out will be about as legitimate as elections under the old Soviet Union, or perhaps a bit like some labor union "elections" is the bad old days - vote the "right way" or be subject to severe sanctions.

Ultimately what we're seeing in Ukraine is a slow-motion breakdown of political processes in favor of brute force. Russia, through threats and proxies, has indicated how it wants things to go and has signaled its willingness to use whatever means necessary to get the outcomes it likes - whether that involved annexing additional chunks of Ukraine, replacing the government in Kiev, or simply creating a long-running conflict that cripples the Ukrainian state. This may play very well in Russian domestic politics, as it looks like Russia is "regaining its strength". To the rest of the world, it simply signals a Russian government that - like its proxies in Donetsk and elsewhere - behaves thugishly and with no respect for the rule of law. It's good domestic politics and lousy foreign policy - just what we have come to expect in that part of the world.