Thursday, November 12, 2015

Going Out On a Limb on Race

Let me state the obvious up front: I'm a white man in a privileged position. I have tenure, rank, and an administrative position of some authority within a university. I have a social position within my community that is comfortable and oftentimes even respected.

So from some points of view, I may not be the best person to engage the current discussion about race, racism, and higher education. On the other hand, there are a lot of people like me running universities and colleges across the country. So if we don't engage, then solutions will be difficult to find. So I dip my foot in these waters tentatively, with humility and understanding that mine is a particular perspective.

A number of articles have been written of late that are well worth reading. There is Nicholas Kristof's excellent piece in today's NYT. There is a very good article in the Atlantic in defense of civility and against censorship. There is this blog post about racism written compellingly from a young black man's perspective.

In the midst of all of these conversations about clashing free speech and racism concerns, I appreciate these perspectives. In particular I appreciate the voice of the young blogger trying to explain what racism really is to those who never experience it. It is powerfully put and I believe sincere. He isn't attacking anyone in particular, but a broader problem in general. This is the kind of thing that can contribute to a conversation.

In order to actually push that conversation forward, however, it is not enough to hear from the victims of racism about the pain it causes. We need to know more - not about those who suffer from these indignities and injustices, but about those who perpetrate them.

Not all whites (or members of any group, for that matter) are racists. But some are. How do we address those who engage in these behaviors? How do we identify them, engage with them, and ultimately persuade them to change? That, it seems to me, is the real challenge. Beyond the protests and the screaming and the back-and-forth internet trolling, this is what real leadership (from wherever it emerges) needs to do.

Earlier today I likened the ongoing protests (some of which are occurring on my campus today, in solidarity with others) to a conflict. As a conflict scholar, the steps towards resolution are clear:

- Identify the essentials of the conflict. Who are the players? What are their interests, and what are they fighting about? What are the rules of the surrounding environment that shape how the conflict is conducted?

- Decide on the desired end goal. If the conflict were over, what would you want that to look like? What resolution do you seek, and what does that resolution look like for ALL of the actors involved?

- Evaluate and choose a strategy for achieving that goal. Can I get there through unilateral action, or do I need the cooperation of those with different views? Can I engineer a solution that meets my needs regardless of what the other side wants, or do I have to persuade others to join with me in a mutually-agreed settlement?

I don't think we've yet had much clear thinking about any of these things. Conflicts often arise between aggrieved students and university administrators or faculty, which is an example of the lamppost fallacy: tackling what you can see, rather than going where the problem really is. The fundamental conflict is between members of minority groups (blacks, latinos, transgender, etc.) and members of the majority group who want to discriminate against and oppress them. If that is the core of the conflict, there is no unilateral solution - neither group can wipe the other out, both must continue to live in the same society together. The question is, how?

I don't have any good answers. I don't know how you identify who the racists are, much less how you draw them into a political process designed to address their real interests and fashion a mutually acceptable solution. All I know is that until we do so, we are likely to be stuck in the ugly stalemate of today - sometimes quieter, sometimes louder, but with very little progress towards a better future.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Power on University Campuses

There has been a lot of struggle and conflict on college campuses lately over a variety of issues, particularly racial tensions and ongoing problems with minority and marginalized persons. These issues affect some campuses more than others, and some (Yale & Missouri) have become national flashpoints.

Today we get word that, one day after saying that he would NOT resign, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe has stepped down as President there.

What brought national attention to Wolfe's situation, and what may have led to his ouster, was a threatened strike by their football team (over 50% of which is African-American). The university stood to lose upwards of $1 million in TV revenues if it doesn't play next Saturday's game.

There you have about as stark a statement of power on campuses as I can think of. Student movements, even some fairly sizable ones, haven't accomplished much of anything. A Mizzou student has for over a week been on a hunger strike, vowing to starve himself to death. None of this moved the needle much. But when the football team threatens to cut into the university's revenue ... well, that's a different story.

For those that claim sports don't run Div I universities - do you still think so?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Defense Spending: We Used to Have a Real Debate

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).

That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:
[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers' lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don't tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, "Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?"
R. William Ayres You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between "liberals" and "conservatives" about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base...
There's a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don't think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.

The observation is this: we have long since ceased to talk about the defense budget. Once upon a time, there were significant policy differences and debates around the issue of defense spending as a component of both the US budget and US foreign policy. There were "hawks" and "doves" (and, to hear some tell it, "owls") who had different preferences about how much money the US should spend on defense and what that money should go towards. This debate was a significant part of the American political landscape, regularly featured in Presidential addresses and press conferences and almost always a topic for debates in Presidential election years. Candidates were asked their opinion, not only of the defense budget as a whole, but of individual weapons systems.

Today, despite broad public interest in the US federal budget, there is no discussion of defense spending at all. Zip. Zero. Zilch. From an economic perspective, this is astounding - depending on whose numbers you use defense spending takes up between 19% and 25% of the US federal budget, roughly equal to the entire expenditure on Social Security and larger than all other discretionary spending put together. Politicians will talk about Medicare & Medicaid reform (23%) and even Social Security reform (20%). But nobody talks about possibly cutting defense spending.

This is also crazy given the state of the world. According to the latest data from SIPRI, the United States in 2014 spent a little more than $600 billion on military expenditures. That is almost 50% more than the entire continent of Asia (including both China and India), more than 50% greater than all of Europe put together, and more than three times the combined expenditures of every single country in the Middle East (friend and foe alike). It dwarfs Russian military spending by a factor of more than 7, and Chinese spending by more than 2.5. The entire world in 2014 spent about $1.7 trillion on military expenditures; the US accounted for more than 30% of that total.

Even in the waning days of the Cold War, when we were outspending the Soviets, the margin wasn't this large. This isn't just being out front or staying ahead of the competition; this is utter and complete domination in the category of buying weapons.

And yet, to hear our politicians tell it, the US has never been less secure militarily than it is today. Most of this criticism is coming from blowhards running for President who would criticize the current administration if it said the sky is blue, and so shouldn't be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this is what the American people hear.

More importantly, there is no countervailing view. The Obama administration has shown no signs of suggesting that the US spend less, and there is no indication that anyone in Congress (Republican or Democrat) would be willing to vote that way anyway. There's a lot of vague, one-sided language about "keeping America safe" and "supporting our troops", but nothing like what you would call a discussion. It's pretty much just radio silence.

I framed this on FB as part of a broader political shift to the right, and I think that's partly true. But closer to the truth is that this silence represents the ultimate triumph of the military-industrial complex which President Eisenhower warned us about back in 1960. Those structures - the businesses and government agencies which together make up the nation's defense machine - have always done extremely well. But they used to have to at least compete for their share of public dollars in the public arena. Now, we just write them a (very large) check, quietly and without comment.

This goes far beyond liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican (since all are now singing from the same page of the hymnal). This is what it looks like to be an empire, simultaneously fearful of the world and utterly unconcerned about how it responds to those fears. We the people have conceded somewhere between 1/5 and 1/4 of the entire US government to a system that, from an economic point of view, is largely pointless. A small fraction of that $600 billion could be spent in myriad ways that would have a far greater positive impact on the American people. But we say nothing.

I don't expect this to change - not soon, not later, not in my lifetime. The systems that hold this in place have been decades in the making. They are powerful economically, politically, and (as my colleague pointed out above) philosophically. They are rooted in deep assumptions that have been developed over generations.

Because I don't expect this to change, I don't have any solutions to suggest. Really, I just find it sad that we have so abandoned one of the most fundamental questions of public policy. Maybe Mearsheimer had the right title, even if his argument was wrong - in this way, at least, I really do miss the Cold War.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Where Have All the Conservative Professors Gone?

I came across an article today asking "Where are all the conservative university professors?" This is a perennially interesting question, enough so that I got into an interesting FB conversation about it with a friend. On the off chance that anybody else could benefit from my side of that conversation, I'm going to reproduce my thoughts here.

In case you don't want to click the link above and read the attached article, here's a basic summary. What the author is looking at more specifically is why there aren't self-identified conservatives (or very many) on the faculties in humanities and social sciences departments. The article acknowledges that business and engineering are different animals, but since a lot of people equate "college education" with some pieces of the liberal arts, the question of how "liberal" they are is a relevant one, at least in the public mind.

I should stop and point out that there are real political scientists who have studied this question with actual data. You can find one of the better examples of this at this link; the research is written by a couple of friends of mine who are genuinely interested for scholarly, as opposed to op-ed, reasons. The article linked at the top of this post doesn't really get into data; it's more about rampant speculation.

That speculation boils down to this: current incentives for humanities and social science professors involve doing research that questions existing conventional wisdom, often in radical and new ways. This is means by which these disciplines advance knowledge, and it's also the path to success for professors who must "publish or perish". Because questioning things from radically new points of view and trashing conventional wisdom are seen as liberal, not conservative, traits it stands to reason that professors in these fields will likely be more liberal than conservative.

This is a plausible explanation, but only barely. I think there's some element of truth here. It is the case that "boundary-pushing" research in the humanities and social sciences encourages questioning things that are political and normative in nature. Similar cutting-edge research in engineering or medicine doesn't generally call into question preexisting social and political beliefs. Business is built on a set of assumptions which are fundamentally conservative (in the classic sense) to begin with, and so research within that paradigm is likewise unthreatening to conservative views. So it is reasonable to observe that there would be more political bias or impact in fields in which the subject is more inherently political and philosophical in nature. There is no such thing as "liberal engineering" or "conservative engineering" - there's just engineering, because designing circuits or aircraft isn't an ideological exercise. Interpreting Shakespeare, studying and analyzing history, and researching sociological phenomena all involve political & ideological issues.

All of this is only true if you understand "conservative" to mean what Edmund Burke meant: a respect for tradition and the past and a desire for change that is evolutionary and measured rather than radical. In this regard, modern humanist scholarship is indeed "non-conservative" in that it tends to reject what has come before and want to start fresh, rather than preserving and respecting inherited wisdom. By this standard, many who call themselves "conservatives" today aren't conservatives at all, which further muddies the waters.

I think the much better explanation for the original question - why so few conservative faculty in the liberal arts - is basic tribalism. People tend to sort themselves - where they live, what they do for a living, who they interact with - into groups that are comfortable. The fact that some (many?) humanities and social sciences departments ARE deeply liberal tends to drive conservatives away from those fields, because it's just not comfortable to be there. This is a complex phenomenon with a number of different vectors, as my colleagues who study this stuff will undoubtedly point out. But I wonder whether it doesn't have more to do with our social relations than with the nature of what we study as academics.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Pro-Gun Argument Isn't an Argument. It's All Gut Feelings and Symbols.

One of my favorite definitions to quote to students comes from a Monty Python sketch:
An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.
When we say that someone is making an argument in favor of something, that needs to include statements that lead via logic and evidence from one or more premises to the conclusion. Your premises may be wrong, there may be countervailing evidence, or your logical leaps may be too far. But this is the structure of arguments.

Much of what passes for political "dialogue" is not argument at all. There are no premises, there is no logic or evidence, there is only dogma couched as conclusions - usually framed in a way that they should be obvious to everyone, and that only the truly stupid could fail to see the "truth".

I have argued for some time that this constitutes most of the rhetoric from the NRA. It isn't logic or argumentation at all. Instead, the NRA appeals to tribal loyalty and bumper-sticker dogma that primarily relies on emotional symbols while denigrating anyone who doesn't agree with them.

I get a delightful range of things in my Facebook feed, including periodic reminders of this characteristic of the NRA. Here is one of the latest to cross my field of view:

This is the epitome of an emotional appeal. The "argument" here is that you're not a "man's man" if you don't own a gun. Why Mike Rowe gets to define manhood for everyone else I have no idea, but that's a separate question.

This is pretty standard dog-whistle stuff. Folks who are in the NRA tribe will "get it", and they can feel smug and superior towards those of us on the outside. Mr. Rowe has now given them license to question the manhood (whatever that means) of those who disagree. This couldn't get more petty if you set it on a kindergarten playground.

The tragedy here is that the more of this we see - the more this kind of tribal shouting becomes the only form of "communication" - the less possible it is to have an actual discussion. There's no room for dialogue here, no possibility of discussion, no acknowledgment that there might be other legitimate points of view. Mr. Rowe might as well just wear a shirt that says "We're Great, You Suck" and be done with it.

We were treated this past weekend to a visit from the bishop of our diocese. In a morning session before the service he concluded his remarks by noting that there are only two ways that people relate to each other. Either they try to get the better of each other - to advance their own interests and views at others' expense - or they interact in love and compassion. There are no other choices. The NRA has demonstrated time and again that it is only interested in the former, and that its vision of the world has no love in it. Which sounds like hell on earth to me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Faculty Facing Campus Gun Violence: We Don't Have To Be Afraid

In the wake of the Umpqua shooting, we are once again at the intersection of two of my passions in life: higher education and interpersonal conflict/self defense. Today's Chronicle of Higher Education has a very good piece on how the long string of university shootings is affecting faculty across the country:
As Campus Gun Violence Increases, So Do Professors' Fears
I've blogged recently about how one of the big impediments to a discussion of gun ownership in America is the failure of both sides to understand the others' fears. This article ought to be (but won't be) read by the NRA and anyone who wants to advocate for broader ownership and distribution of firearms, especially by teachers. You can't just hand these people guns and tell them, "There - don't you feel more safe?"

Arming students (or allowing students to arm themselves) isn't going to help either. There were students present at the Umpqua shooting who were armed - and, luckily for everyone, very well-trained. They kept their weapons holstered and concentrated on helping people get to safety. The presence of guns did not alter that course of events at all, even in the hands of "good guys" - although the heroism of some (armed and unarmed) did.

All of this is nothing new - I've written these same things, about different cases and in different words, many times. Here I want to respond to the faculty quoted in the Chronicle article above, because while I understand their fears I have a different perspective on them. Here's a quote from the article:
Many faculty members are thinking about such scenarios with increasing anxiety. They may crack a few jokes at a faculty meeting, or roll their eyes at the latest administration missive of how to stay safe in an "active shooter" scenario, but in the back of their minds there are questions. What would I do if someone walked into the classroom with a gun? Is that student who got angry about a bad grade potentially dangerous? Is my campus a safe place to work?
The overall tenor of the article is: isn't it terrible that faculty have to ask these questions, and isn't it understandable that they're terrified in facing them? My own response is: yes, it is terrible ... there are terrible things in the world, and this is one of them. And, more importantly, while it is understandable that facing these kinds of questions frightens teachers, that reaction is not necessary.

First, a reality check: we live in a world in which interpersonal violence is a possibility. We know from the data that the possibility is remote and, in our corner of the world, getting smaller all the time. That's good, and we should be working to make it an ever-rarer occurrence. We do that not by arming everyone to the teeth - we don't want a world of armed deterrence, we want a world in which conflicts are resolved in other ways. This will always be an asymptotic quest, but we get closer and closer to the zero axis all the time. So given a non-zero probability of being targeted by violence, we can and should declare violence a tragedy while not shying away from addressing it in every way possible.

Second, if we acknowledge that we live in a world in which violence is unlikely but possible then it makes sense to think about what we should do if it happens in our presence. I understand the psychological barriers to dealing with low-probability events, but we do these all the time in other contexts. Schools (in my part of the world, anyway) conduct tornado drills. My university is going to participate this Thursday in an earthquake drill, despite the fact that serious earthquakes in Ohio are almost unheard of. In driver's ed we teach students how to respond if their brakes fail, or if the hood of the car flips up unexpectedly - even though I've never seen either of those things happen in my life.

So we can and should learn to deal with the prospect of violence in our presence in a similar fashion. Understand what we can control and what we can't. Think ahead about the best courses of action. And practice. No skill read about in a pamphlet or listened to in a lecture ever worked. The only way we can be effective at anything is to do it, preferably a bunch of times.

I've written before about the benefits of martial arts training (including here, which remains my most-read blog post ever). I've also pointed out that self defense is a discipline, and as such must be studied and practiced like anything else. The benefit of such learning and practice is not merely that you acquire skills that can be used in an emergency. You also acquire a mindset of preparedness, which is far more important. Any good self defense class will tell you: your most important weapon is your mind.

The questions posed in the quote above, and throughout the Chronicle article, are questions I ask myself all the time. Most of the time when I walk into a classroom or a meeting, I take a moment to assess that space's defensive possibilities and weaknesses (especially in meetings, which often provide opportunities for the mind to wander). I consider approaches and alternative actions depending on various scenarios - who is the attacker targeting? What is he armed with? When do I hide, run, engage? I also evaluate people (students and otherwise) for signs of danger or instability.

For most of the faculty quoted in the article, facing these kinds of questions frightens them. I'm not frightened, not because I'm better or braver than my colleagues but simply because I've practiced. Fear in this case is very much in the eye of the beholder - while dealing with these kinds of questions is challenging, it is not necessarily frightening. We do not have to be afraid; fear is a default condition that can be changed.

There is a deeper level to dealing with this fear. I recognize that my modest skills and training do not guarantee survival 100% of the time in all situations. I may be able to escape, or I may be able to disarm or disable an attacker at close range. I certainly have a better-than-average chance of doing so, if only because the "average" here is very low. But I may also get shot, and I may also get killed. That's the reality.

How I would deal with that reality in the moment I don't know - none of us does until faced with it. But in the calm environment in which I live, I can at least contemplate my mortality. I can think about how I can influence and shape the narrative of events, even if the story includes my own death. "How do I want to die?" is not a question anybody relishes facing. But the stories we remember from some of these events are often from those willing to face that question - the veteran and father at Umpqua who was willing to put himself in harm's way, and while wounded kept repeating that he didn't want to die because it was his son's birthday.

I think there is a fear that thinking about such things will sully us, make us somehow worse people. But I think that's just the rationalization of fear - I think it makes us better people. The closer we get to the really big, important questions the more clearly we can see who we are and who we want to be.

So let us keep working to reduce violence at all levels. Let us certainly not do things - like arming swaths of our population - that will make matters worse. But let us also, in our everyday lives, stop and think about the realities of our world, prepare ourselves for what may come as best we can, and then move on. We will likely not see an end to violence in our lifetimes. But that does not have to rob of us of our peace, because fear is the one enemy we can conquer.

An Interesting Set of Facts About Guns and Violence Prevention

Amidst the American "debate" about responsible gun ownership in recent weeks, there have been some references from gun-rights advocates to Israel. It has been suggested, for example, that Israel suffers fewer shootings in schools (despite being surrounded by enemies) because they arm their teachers:

As usual, the facts are a little more complicated than the memes. It turns out, according to a Washington Post story in today's paper, that Israel has far more restrictive gun laws than the US does. Only about 3.5% of the Israeli population has a permit to own and carry a gun, and half of those work for security firms. The paperwork for a permit is far more extensive, and must include a justification acceptable to the state. Most Israelis would be turned down if they applied.

Were the United States to adopt Israel's laws on gun ownership the NRA would go ballistic. Yet Israelis understand what some of us don't seem to want to: having lots of untrained people running around with guns makes everyone less safe, not more. Perhaps Wayne LaPierre and his colleagues should take a trip to Israel. They might learn something useful.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fear, Anger, and Hatred: Our Never-Ending Suffering Over Guns

Lots of stuff has been written in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Oregon. My good friend Steve Saideman has been carrying lots of water on this issue, as have many others. Newspapers are filled with both stories and commentary. The President speaks, people opine, tempers flare, dogma is repeated. In the words of the late, great Yogi Berra: it’s déjà vu all over again.

So why write anything at all? I have no illusion that my words, read by relatively few, will change the world. But if there is any purpose at all to writing it is simply to continue the conversation. I don’t know whether things will get better or not. I do know that without the ongoing conversation, however painful, they definitely won’t. So here’s my 2 cents.

Regular readers of this space will know that I’m fond of borrowing a line from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to explain conflict dynamics. It’s simple, powerful, and easy to remember:

Fear -> Anger -> Hatred -> Suffering. This is the cycle we repeat, over and over again, like some nightmarish version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day.

I want to apply this dynamic to one of the most painful dimensions of the current discussion: the tribal shouting match over restrictions on firearms. The pain of every broadly-publicized mass shooting is amplified by the fear, anger, and hatred of this “discussion”, experienced over and over again with each new tragedy.

So what’s really going on here? Let me try to reflect on the dynamics of both sides. In so doing, I will freely admit that being closer to one side of the divide, I probably understand one point of view better than the other. I will nevertheless try to be fair to all, starting with two assumptions: that none of us thinks of ourselves as evil and that we are all flawed human beings deserving of compassion, dignity, and respect.

So what happens in the wake of each new gun-related tragedy? I believe the cycle of fear-anger-hatred is triggered in both “pro-gun” and “anti-gun” tribes, but because neither understands the other or regards the other as legitimate, we remain locked in a painful stalemate from which there is no clear way out.


Highly-publicized shootings trigger fear in both camps. For pro-gun folks, the fear is simple but also deep: they fear having all of their guns taken away. This is less of a practical fear than it is an emotional one: many in this camp see guns as culturally positive and would regard losing them as a loss not only of freedom but identity. Folks who don’t own guns have long ignored the depth of this feeling, or tried to argue it away on practical grounds, at their peril.
Full disclosure: I’m guilty of this myself. I’ve written any number of pieces (here, here, here) about guns and their realistic application to self-defense. For most folks to whom such arguments might be directed this misses the point, which is that guns make folks feel safer regardless of their practical impact. We can make fun of that feeling if we like, but it’s no less powerful for our attempts to denigrate it.
For anti-gun folks, public mass shootings also trigger fear. For some, it may be a visceral fear for their own lives or the lives of their loved ones – the sense that “if this happened there, it could happen anywhere, even in my community.” Given the low probability of such an event, I suspect that for many the fear is more diffuse: the dread of living in a nation that has lost its soul. The evil of these events is palpable in the innocence of the victims, but it is magnified many times by the angry responses of pro-gun forces who, in the wake of yet another tragedy, call for yet more guns as the solution. Put simply, mass shootings remind many people that they fear an overly-armed society with lots and lots of guns. Pro-NRA folks ignore this fear, or dismiss it as ridiculous, at their peril. You can repeat “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” all you want but the reality is that guns frighten people and the public shooting of innocent victims heightens that fear.

Public shootings make both camps afraid, but of very different things. Neither side understands the others’ fear, and both think that the fears of the other side are absurd. At worst, each thinks that the others’ expressed fears are really window dressing for something more nefarious – idol-worship and radical dog-eat-dog individualism on the part of pro-gun conservatives, totalitarian government-controls-all Orwellian fantasies by anti-gun liberals.

Anger & Hatred

Given that each side mocks the others’ fear, it is any wonder that attempts at “dialogue” quickly lead to anger? Folks in favor of more stringent gun controls want to see the possibility of change, and get angry when they see people on the other side not only blocking that change but mocking it in ways that appear to denigrate the victims of mass shootings (Bush is going to pay for that “stuff happens” comment for a while). Folks in favor of more widespread gun ownership get angry at what they perceive as an ongoing plot to deprive them of their rights, possibly as the first step towards a more totalitarian society. Both of these contain an element of the ridiculous, but the anger is no less real for that.

The problem with anger, of course, is that it clouds judgment. Angry people are even worse than usual at evaluating information, assessing options, and drawing conclusions. Anger focuses on people rather than facts or issues. The conflict becomes the problem rather than the problem being the problem, with both sides blaming the other.

Eventually, anger turns to hatred. Instead of gun violence being a problem to be solved by people working together, it becomes the battleground on which we fight. We call our opponents names, we denigrate their intelligence and their parentage, and we congratulate each other within our tribes on how clever our put-downs and insults are.

Some anonymous fellow left a comment on this blog a while back calling me a “special kind of stupid”. He (or she) and I have never met, and likely never will. It was a small action of hate, made in a moment of passion. I have little doubt that, in the back of his/her mind, this person was driven by fear and compensated for that fear by lashing out in a small way. C.S. Lewis reminds us that hatred is “often the compensation by which the frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear.”

Those moments and actions, these little compensations by which we assuage our own fears, add up. For some, the anger and the hatred become all-consuming. They define the limits of what someone sees. Gun violence is no longer about gun violence, it’s about them: NRA apologists with blood on their hands, fascist liberals ready to take everyone’s guns and throw us all in concentration camps.

Because hatred is a powerful motivator, those who experience it most are most motivated to act. In this regard, my friend Steve is right – politicians generally listen to the folks who are most mobilized, and in this case that has been the folks on the NRA/pro-gun side of the debate. Their hatred, their anger, and (I suspect) their fear are simply deeper and more lasting than their liberal counterparts. As long as the rules of the game are based on these things, they will continue to win the battle – but not the war. They will continue to suffer along with the rest of us.


Gun violence begets two tragedies with every new shooting. The first is the tragedy localized to that particular time and place: the victims of that particular shooting, their family members, and the community in which they live and move. The suffering of the people of Umpqua Community College and in the town of Rosewood, Oregon, is theirs. The rest of us can share by sympathy from afar. We may feel some of its echoes, but attenuated severely by distance.

The second tragedy is the one we inflict on ourselves: the endless, frustrating, fear-anger-hatred-fueled shouting match that occupies the landscape where “public discourse” should be. President Obama gave voice to some of that in his response, albeit from one particular side. NRA adherents and spokespeople have also taken to the airwaves and the internet, their fears heightened, their anger on alert. Let the ranting resume.

To be fair, there are players in this drama largely untouched by the suffering. Not everybody is driven by fear, anger, and hatred. Gun manufacturers in particular profit from all of this. Every time the national tragedy is renewed, their gun sales go up, ammunition sales go up, and they make out like bandits. Their support for the NRA and similar organizations is predicated simply on business calculations.

For the rest of us, we are confronted with these two tragedies: the local, periodic, unpredictable shootings of innocent people, and the national festival of bile and rage that ensues every time a random mass shooting occurs. We will not solve the first without addressing the second, and we will not succeed in the latter without breaking the cycle of fear, anger, and hatred. We inflict this suffering on ourselves, but we don’t know how to stop. And so it is indeed déjà vu all over again.

How do we go about this? Here I don’t have a lot of good ideas. My years of studying conflict tell me that moments of heightened anger and hatred are the worst times, not the best, for trying to resolve things. We need to have a dialogue, not right after a shooting but in the in-between times when people aren’t frightened and angry. We need to talk to each other honestly about our fears – without mocking, without snark, without denigration, but in respect and compassion. Over time, that’s the conversation that is likely to produce results.

This is not easy – in fact, it’s far harder and less likely than passing some new gun control legislation in the wake of a shooting. Fear is a powerful short-term motivator, and righteous anger feels good on all sides. There are many who benefit from our anger: not only gun manufacturers, but also politicians, pundits, and “professional interest groups”. What would happen to the NRA if we had a real national dialogue that produced a real national consensus? Donations would plummet, people would stop paying attention, and Wayne LaPierre’s salary and staff would be slashed. For him and many others (on both sides) who use the national shouting match as a means to their own ends, there is little interest in resolution. The battle itself is what they want. It pays their salaries, garners votes and volunteers for the next election, and keeps the whole system going.

If a real conversation is ever to take place, it will be in spite of those who now wield the loudest voices – the politicians, the pundits, the NRA and others – rather than because of them. We cannot expect leadership from any of these “leaders”. We have to do it ourselves.

That’s not a prescription, much less a call to action. I know well the powerful forces blocking such a path. I only know that the path is there, for anyone who wants to try it. I expect that few will, but I hope that some might.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

More on the Politics of Fear and Outrage

I had it in my mind to write a follow-up blog post about political parties and their use of Fear. So much of this is obviously nonsense and yet so many people - candidates, media, social media, and far too many ordinary citizens - are caught up in it. For myself, I will simply reject any party or candidate that runs on fear that The World Is Going To Hell - which means, for this coming cycle, I doubt I'll have very many candidates to support.

I may yet write that post. But in the meantime, Hank Green has beat me too it, and he's far more entertaining than I am. Please watch:

Monday, September 21, 2015

"They" Are Not All the Same - Ever

Ben Carson, in his quest for the White House and/or personal fame and fortune, has been treating the nation to the latest round of "let's demonize an entire group of people we don't know".

For those who missed it, Carson apparently said this on NBC's Meet the Press:
"I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that."
He later went on to expand on these comments in an interview with The Hill. He stuck to his guns and gave various reasons, which I won't repeat here. He admitted that the original question was a form of "gotcha" journalism, but expanded his argument to say:
However, he acknowledged the question “served a useful purpose by providing the opportunity to talk about what Sharia is and what their goals are.”
Here, of course, is the big mistake. It's ironic that a black man would make this mistake, but as a friend of mine is fond of saying: it's good that irony is so funny, because there's so darned much of it.

The mistake lies in the word "their", as in "their goals". With one little word, Carson wraps all Muslims up in a single, neat, tidy package of people who all apparently share the same goals, have the same views, and behave in the same way.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you play the stereotype card.

The contention, of course, is absurd. There is almost no generalization that can encapsulate all Muslims any more than there exists a general behavior that can be attributed to all Christians. How many American Catholics practice birth control? How many Protestants tithe? How many in all denominations get divorced, or remarry? There are a host of behaviors and beliefs that, when you look at what people actually say and actually do, vary widely even though people share the same religion.

The psychology behind all of this is well-understood. People who are part of "my" group - the folks on my side of the wall - are complex, interesting, and capable of a range of human variation. We differ from each other, and that's OK - maybe even a good thing. But folks on the "other" side of that wall - the outsiders - well, they're all the same. Just one big, monolithic mass. They're All Bad. They are THEM.

This is why I'm so fond of the term "tribalism". It's all about tribes, yours and mine and theirs.

Never mind that the evidence for monolithic belief and practice is non-existent. Never mind that people said this about Catholics - in the face of a real candidate for president - back in 1960. And never mind that JFK didn't take orders from the Pope, or impose Catholic doctrine on America. Because, really, Catholics are part of "us", just like Blacks are now part of "us" (but didn't use to be). Muslims - well, you know about them...

There is no difference at all between the thought pattern Carson has evidenced in these interviews and the thoughts of those convinced he shouldn't be President because he's black. We just have different labels for them. In the latter case, we call them racists. In his case, it's called Islamophobia. Potato, Po-tah-to.

This is absolutely rooted in the Politics of Fear. I don't know whether Carson actually believes this nonsense or not. But he knows that there are a bunch of Republican primary voters who do, the kind who can be whipped up into a frenzy and will show up to vote in low-turnout primary elections. And so he panders to the fearful and pours another spoonful of poison into the national well.

Thanks, Ben. Way to sell out the history of your own people in pursuit of personal gain.

Get Tough: The Fear-Based Politics of the Dirty Harry Fantasy

Last week's Republican candidate reality TV show put on display one of the most pervasive and persistent myths in American political culture. I call it the Dirty Harry doctrine, although someone else can undoubtedly come up with a better movie reference.

The Dirty Harry doctrine goes something like this: the US is the most powerful country in the world. But unless we demonstrate that power by "standing up to" various bad actors, our enemies tend to forget how powerful we are and will do bad things. But if we are tough, our enemies will back down and do what we want. If we don't "act tough", others will walk all over us.

This doctrine spreads itself to a general belief in the efficacy of implicit threats. Thus, Congressional Republicans talk about how they need to "stand up to" President Obama about this or that issue (health care, Planned Parenthood - pick one). Political candidates use the word "leadership" to mean "issuing nonspecific threats to cow others into submission", and their tribal fans eat it up. Even many pro-gun arguments are built on this same premise, that the threat of force solves all problems:

As I've pointed out before, these are emotional arguments. They feel good, which explains why they are so prevalent. Unfortunately, they have little bearing on reality.

Threats and intimidation - what people in my business call Deterrence and Compellance - only work under certain circumstances. They are not universally effective, and sometimes they make things worse. Anyone who walks around with only this one tool in their toolkit is pretty much guaranteed to fail much of the time, no matter what they're trying to do.

Take the assertion that a show of force in international affairs will change an enemy's behavior and get them to back down. There have been plenty of folks (mostly but not exclusively on the Republican side) arguing that the agreement with Iran is a bad idea, and that what is really needed to get Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons is a "get tough" approach, possibly including inflicting some actual damage to show them that we're serious.

What determines whether such a policy would work? Like all bargaining interactions, it's a function of actual power, perceived power, and perceived credibility. It's also a function of the motives and interests of both sides.

Japan attempted precisely this tactic in 1941. Its near-simultaneous attacks on US forces in the Philippines and at Pearl Harbor were designed not to defeat the United States outright but to convince the US to stay out of a war it wasn't yet involved in. The Japanese High Command believed that, if it could take away much of the US Navy's power in the Pacific, America would realize that it was dealing with a powerful and committed foe and we would back away from the fight, leaving Asia to the Japanese. Japan never wanted to invade the United States, and didn't much care about what we did within our own country - they just wanted us to stay out of their "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere".

This calculation, of course, was a spectacular failure for two reasons. First, the Japanese underestimated the real nature of power: industrial productive capacity, which America had in far greater quantity than Japan (or, indeed, than all of the Axis powers put together). Second and more important, Japan misjudged American resolve. The attacks caused a counter-reaction which drove the US from being somewhat concerned about Japan's behavior to being bent on its total and complete defeat.

How would Iran likely react to a "get tough" policy from the US? Iran clearly has the capacity to develop a nuclear weapons program even in the face of American sanctions. If Iran becomes convinced that the US is bent on the overthrow of its government, it has more motive to acquire nukes, as fast as possible. The Iranian people are likely to rally around their government, as nearly all people will do when presented with an outside threat. They may or may not like the Ayatollahs, but nobody reacts well to foreigners telling them what to do.

What about direct military action? The US' only practical option is to launch airstrikes on some specific targets. This might have the effect of slowing Iran's progress towards deployable nukes, but they would also seriously increase the motive for doing so. Airstrikes alone cannot stop Iran's nuclear program, and there are no other alternatives. Invade the country? Not a chance. Strike at Iranian sites with our own nuclear weapons? I can't imagine a faster way to get the US ostracized from the international community. Europe would abandon us in a heartbeat, and our economy would suffer far worse than in the recent collapse.

The point is, Iranian leaders know all of this. They have thought through all of these scenarios, just as American officials have. The reason we arrived at a negotiated solution is that leadership in Iran, the US, European countries, and Russia all came to the same conclusion: this is not only the best option, it's the only option.

And yet politicians want to sell us the "if only we had 'gotten tough' with them Iranians/Russians/what have you, things would be better" line. Their motives for doing so are clear: they traffic in the politics of fear. When people feel afraid, then emotional fantasies about how we're going to "get tough" on their watch make people feel better and therefore more likely to vote for them. It's shameless and ridiculous on all sides.

But as much as this is bad politics, it's worse for our soul. Fear clouds judgment, inflames our worst passions, and suppresses our best instincts. It makes us into worse people than we could be. It drives away, to borrow Lincoln's phrase, the better angels of our nature. Indulged in over time, it makes us far less than we are capable of.

At this moment in history, fear is the last thing most American should be feeling. In terms of traditional power, the United States is so far ahead of the rest of the world that the increment is hardly measurable. There are no serious threats to Americans' lives, jobs, communities, or culture. Iran is a regional power with regional ambitions at best, Russia is a shadow of its former self, and the Islamic State is just another minor insurgency with a savvy marketing campaign.

While we face serious challenges at home, things are far from dire. Our economy has a significant inequality problem, but it remains the richest and most productive in the world. The vast majority of American communities are safe, comfortable, nice places to live. Net migration of illegal Mexicans is actually flowing out of the country, not in - no "crisis" there. Violent crime is down in most places. Americans remain, on the whole, decent people who pull together when times are really difficult. There are problems that need to be addressed, and when we are in danger it is generally from ourselves. But a "dying civilization" or a "crumbling society" we are not.

Most of this, of course, doesn't have much to do with who occupies the White House. The government can nudge things in various directions, but the President does not determine outcomes. Blaming Obama for non-existent problems is wrong on two fronts: the problems aren't real, and even if they were the President didn't cause them. Especially not by simply "not being tough enough".

As Joseph de Maistre wrote in the 19th century, every country gets the government it deserves. If we allow ourselves to be governed by fear, if we continue to drink the spiked punch our "leaders" so desperately want to serve us, we will get exactly what we deserve. Moreover, fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we indulge in its pleasures, the more we see things to be afraid of everywhere.

So in our politics at all levels and in our daily lives, let's drop this "get tough" dogma. The Dirty Harry fantasy is the cry of the insecure bully ruled by fear. If you want to see different politics, or if you simply want to contribute to a better community, stop listening to the fear. If you attend to the better angels of your nature, you may be surprised at what takes its place.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

How to Mislead with Spiffy-Looking Graphs, or The Importance of Good Education

I ran across this graph today on my FB feed:

Now, I cannot easily or quickly verify the source of this data or figure out who the "Andrew Barr" named here is. But let me take these numbers at face value for the purposes of argument.

The data appears to make a remarkable comparison. At first glance, it appears to show that measles as a public health problem had largely died out long before the vaccine was introduced in the United States. This observation, if true, would call into question the relationship between vaccination and the suppression of the measles disease - precisely what the poster of this graph wanted to do.

But notice what is actually being compared here. This is not a graph of measles cases. It's a graph of mortality, normed per 100,000 population. It's not a graph of how much measles there is in the US population, but rather a graph of how deadly the disease is in a proportional sense over time.

In that light, it's not at all surprising to see the decline. Advances in modern medicine have permitted us to render many things which used to be fatal now much less so. Today, people who contract measles are much less likely to die than in those who caught the disease 100 years ago. That's a great thing, and the decline in mortality does in fact have little to do with vaccination.

The rate of measles, on the other hand, is another story entirely. Here's a graph of the actual number of measles cases in the US, in thousands, from 1954 to 2008:

This graph is based on CDC data; I retrieved it here. If you want to argue that CDC data are falsified by some devious government conspiracy, then the conversation is over and you might as well go elsewhere. Otherwise, we can continue.

Note what this graph shows. In the latter half of the 1950's and the early 1960s, the number of measles cases did decline, but was still up over 400,000 cases per year. From 1964 to 1968, the years following the introduction of the vaccine, that number collapses, and with two brief blips over 50,000 in the 1970s never recovers again. Today the number of cases is negligible, essentially reduced to a statistical zero.

The argument that "the measles vaccine didn't do anything" falls apart the moment you show the second graph. Of course, folks who want desperately to believe that vaccination is bad won't show you this graph - they won't even find it themselves.

This is why education is so important. We need to teach our children how to read graphs, how to understand the difference between a graph of total numbers and one normed per 100,000 population, and how to question the data presented to them and the conclusions drawn therefrom. There are lots of charlatans and snake-oil salesmen out there with pretty graphs and thundering voices trying to get us to buy their wares. The defense against this is strong education, from elementary school all the way up to college. We don't have to fall for this kind nonsense, however pretty it is.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Guns, Hair-Trigger Self Defense, and the Offense/Defense Balance

Regular readers of this space (there must be some out there) know that I am not a fan of firearms as a self-defense solution. While there are clearly cases in which firearms have produced good self-defense outcomes, on balance I think that they cause more problems (and cost more lives) than they save.

I know that there are plenty of folks out there who, for dogmatic reasons, will disagree with me. Some of them, if they were to read the preceding paragraph, would decide on the basis of those two sentences alone that I am not only wrong, but a communist/atheist/socialist/libtard out to take all guns away from everyone so that Obama can destroy America and rule over the new fascist dystopia he so desperately wants. Needless to say, I do not write for these people.

For those of you who might be interested in understanding why I regard guns as dangerous and destabilizing, I offer the following. This is not an exercise in "scenario gotcha" - there is always a different hypothetical that begins "What if I'm attacked in this situation...?" There are an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios, and I will freely concede that there is no one answer to all of them. What follows is a discussion for why guns, on balance, are more problematic than helpful.

I have long maintained that the study of interpersonal conflict and the study of international conflict (my primary field of expertise) have a lot in common. What I have been trying to say about the effect of guns on interpersonal violence has been long understood by those who study international conflict.

Many years ago, the imminent scholar Robert Jervis penned a seminal piece in the study of war (if you want to read the whole thing, you can download a copy here). Titled "Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma", Jervis explored the logic of when conflicts will escalate and when countries will cooperate in a world where there is no central government and every country is (in theory) afraid for its security against every other.

In exploring this question, Jervis introduces a really critical concept: the "offense-defense balance". Jervis explains the idea this way:
When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other's army and take its territory than it is to defend one's own. When the defense has the advantage, it is easier to protect and to hold than it is to move forward, destroy, and take.
This is a function of technology and tactics. In World War I the combination of fortifications, automatic machine guns, and trench warfare made taking territory almost impossible and defending it much easier. Vast numbers of lives were lost trying to take a few hundred yards of land in Belgium and France. The war made no sense, and was possible only because the military and political leaders of the day misunderstood the true offense-defense balance until it was too late.

Fast-forward to the start of WWII, and the tables had turned. The maturation of aircraft, the development of the tank, and the new doctrine of Blitzkrieg made maneuver the order of the day. It was much easier, and cheaper, for Germany to take territory than it was for France to defend it. That advantage made it much more likely that Germany would launch the war it wanted anyway.

The important thing about the offense-defense balance is that it has a strong effect on whether countries (or people) are likely to initiate violence or not. In Jervis' words, "whether it is better to attack or to defend influences short-run stability." When the offense has the advantage, war is more likely because in a crisis countries will fear that the other guy will launch a surprise attack and thereby win. There have been enough examples since 1945 (the 1967 Arab-Israeli war comes to mind) to keep this logic alive. Simply put, in a world in which the dominant technologies & doctrines are offense-oriented violence between states is much more likely. In a world in which defense is dominant, violence is less likely.

Some might want to argue that "countries aren't people" and therefore this logic doesn't apply to the conflict between mugger and victim, or between two men in a bar, or in any other conflict between two individuals. It is true that the analogy doesn't work whenever there are immediate mechanisms that can enforce security - a police presence nearby, for example. But most self-defense scenarios take place away from the protections of the government - that is, under conditions of temporary anarchy. No government, no central protecting force - you're on your own, much like countries in the world.

So what do guns do in an environment of immediate interpersonal insecurity? Guns are an inherently offense-dominant technology - that make it easier by orders of magnitude to hurt or kill the other person than it is for that person to defend themselves against an attack. There are in fact few ready defenses against a gunshot (kevlar body armor comes to mind, but it is expensive, not widely available, and impractical to wear in most situations).

In this sense, guns are to interpersonal violence what nuclear weapons are to countries - the weapon against which there is no effective defense. Guns are actually worse in one sense: a country cannot defend itself against a nuclear strike ("Star Wars" fantasies aside), but nuclear-armed states have a reasonable hope of being able to fire back after absorbing that first hit, thereby destroying the other side too. This creates mutual deterrence (MAD, or "Mutually Assured Destruction", as it became known in the Cold War), which creates its own kind of stability through a "balance of terror".

Guns are worse, because they lack this tendency to create mutual deterrence. If I shoot you first, and if my aim is good, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to fire back. I am not therefore deterred by the thought that my opening fire will get me shot in turn. If we are both armed (or if I think you might be), I have every incentive to fire first so that you cannot shoot back. My own self-preservation depends on how fast I can get off the first shot.

Jervis himself, in his 1978 article, foresaw this. Long before Michael Brown, #blacklivesmatter, or the "war on cops", he wrote this:
In another arena, the same dilemma applies to the policeman in a dark alley confronting a suspected criminal who appears to be holding a weapon. Though racism may indeed be present, the security dilemma can account for many of the tragic shootings of innocent people in ghettos.
I would modify this to suggest that the security dilemma rationalizes racism, and that the two feed off each other, but you get the point. This logic is in fact exactly the defense that police have been using in court to get away with shooting unarmed people.

If police have difficulty resolving this dilemma, how well will untrained or lightly-trained civilians do? The fact of the matter is that the only way you can use a gun to defend yourself, if push comes to shove, is to shoot the other guy first. Those that argue that arming everyone reduces the likelihood of violence ignore the unstable offense-dominance of guns. Guns can only be a deterrent if people are assured of their ability to shoot back - that is, if they can absorb the first strike.

Add to this the challenge of carrying guns in the modern environment. In most places guns must be concealed (in a purse, holster, etc.), increasing the time it takes to bring them to bear. Openly carried guns can make the carrier a target, further increasing the likelihood of violence. None of this pushes things towards more peaceful personal interactions, whether the problem is predators (in Jervis' parlance, the aggressor-defender model) or people simply being afraid of each other (the security dilemma).

The offense-defense balance problem is real. Every age has its dominant technologies, and these technologies make violence more or less likely. Small, cheap, easily accessible guns are unarguably offense-dominant, and as such they make violence more likely and more problematic between people even if those people merely seek to protect themselves. So let's stop referring to guns as tools of self-defense and call them what they really are: first-strike weapons.