Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

I’ve read several articles and posts recently featuring the same conceit: that COVID–19 and police violence are the “twin plagues” or “parallel plagues” of black America.  …

What we need here, if we’re going to continue to speak the language of plague, that is, the language of disease, is the distinction between acute and chronic affliction. I’m speaking metaphorically here, in terms of how whole populations are affected by some invasive, destructive force, whether it’s a literal biological disease or not. I’m thinking of the black population of America as a single body. And in relation to that body COVID–19 is an acute disorder. It has sprung up quickly, out of nowhere, and afflicted people intensely. It just might go away. (From my keyboard to God’s ears.)

Police violence, by contrast, is a chronic disorder. It goes on year after year after year, decade after decade after decade. …

If you think of the black population of this country as a body, then COVID–19 is indeed a terrible plague ravaging it. The fear, the expectation, of police violence isn’t like that: it’s instead a misery that the body (the whole body of black Americans) must suffer and suffer and suffer, with no end in sight. People who have chronic diseases know that what’s attacking them probably won’t kill them — but even if it doesn’t, it might make them wish they were dead. It frays their nerves. It disrupts their sleep. It damages their relationships and weakens their judgment. It makes them vulnerable to other afflictions that really could kill them.

If you’re a black person in America, walking down the streets of a city, the cops probably won’t stop you. But they might. If a cop stops you, he probably won’t kill you. But he might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. The constant awareness of that possibility is itself an affliction. …

We shouldn’t conflate the sudden onset of COVID–19 and the endless tension that arises from walking, or doing anything else, while black. But keeping them conceptually distinct, we can still see them as have this essential thing in common: they attack the bodies of black Americans, they attack the social body that is Black America.

Those of us who are white don’t know much, firsthand, about that chronic affliction. But you know, while the coronavirus itself might be acute, For all of us concern about it has become chronic. Buying groceries probably won’t make us ill. But it might. And if we get ill, we probably won’t die. But we might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. We’re learning how to live at tiptoe stance. Our nerves are fraying after just a few months. Imagine what it would be like to live this way all our lives long.

Alan Jacobs

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The effects of play deprivation and oversupervision may extend far beyond college. Steven Horwitz, an economist at Ball State University in Indiana, took the same research on play that we have reviewed in this chapter and worked out some possible consequences for the future of liberal democracies. He drew on the work of political scientists Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom, both of whom studied how self-governing communities resolve conflicts peacefully. Successful democracies do this by developing a variety of institutions and norms that enable people with different goals and conflicting desires to resolve their problems while rarely appealing to the police or the state to coerce their fellow citizens. This is the “art of association” that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he traveled through the United States in 1831.

Citizens of a democracy don’t suddenly develop this art on their eighteenth birthday. It takes many years to cultivate these skills, which overlap with the ones that Peter Gray maintains are learned during free play. Of greatest importance in free play is that it is always voluntary; anyone can quit at any time and disrupt the activity, so children must pay close attention to the needs and concerns of others if they want to keep the game going. They must work out conflicts over fairness on their own; no adult can be called upon to side with one child against another.

Horwitz points out that when adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association:

Denying children the freedom to explore on their own takes away important learning opportunities that help them to develop not just independence and responsibility, but a whole variety of social skills that are central to living with others in a free society. If this argument is correct, parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from “figure out how to solve this conflict on your own” to “invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises.” This is one of the “vulnerabilities of democracies” noted by Vincent Ostrom.

The consequences for democracies could be dire, particularly for a democracy such as the United States, which is already suffering from ever-rising cross-party hostility and declining trust in institutions. Here is what Horwitz fears could be in store:

A society that weakens children’s ability to learn these skills denies them what they need to smooth social interaction. The coarsening of social interaction that will result will create a world of more conflict and violence, and one in which people’s first instinct will be increasingly to invoke coercion by other parties to solve problems they ought to be able to solve themselves.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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This question—of how versus whether—has to do with the attention economy insofar as it offers a useful attitude toward despair, the very stuff the attention economy runs on. It also helps me distinguish what it is I really feel like running away from. I’ve already written that the “doing nothing” I propose is more than a weekend retreat. But that doesn’t mean I propose a permanent retreat either. Understanding the impossibility of a once-and-for-all exit—for most of us, anyway—sets the stage for a different kind of retreat, or refusal-in-place….

Here’s what I want to escape. To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users‘ themselves. Whipped into a permanent state of frenzy, people create and subject themselves to news cycles, complaining of anxiety at the same time that they check back ever more diligently. The logic of advertising and clicks dictates the media experience, which is exploitative by design, Media companies trying to keep up with each other create a kind of “arms race” of urgency that abuses our attention and leaves us no time to think. The result is something like the sleep-deprivation tactics the military uses on detainees, but on a larger scale. The years 2017 and 2018 were when I heard so many people say, “It’s just something new every day.”

But the storm is co-created. After the election, I also saw many acquaintances jumping into the melee, pouring out long, emotional, and hastily written diatribes online that inevitably got a lot of attention. I’m no exception; my most-liked Facebook post of all time was an anti-Trump screed. In my opinion, this kind of hyper-accelerated expression on social media is not exactly helpful (not to mention the huge amount of value it produces for Facebook). It’s not a form of communication driven by reflection and reason, but rather a reaction driven by fear and anger. Obviously these feelings are warranted, but their expression on social media so often feels like firecrackers setting off other firecrackers in a very small room that soon gets filled with smoke. Our aimless and desperate expressions on these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quickly outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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In order to make sense of America’s current predicament, you have to start by recognizing that the mid-twentieth century was a historical anomaly—a period of unusually low political polarization and cross-party animosity combined with generally high levels of social trust and trust in government. From the 1940s to around 1980, American politics was about as centrist and bipartisan as it has ever been. One reason is that, during and prior to this period, the country faced a series of common challenges and enemies, including the Great Depression, the Axis Powers during World War II, and the Soviets during the Cold War. Given the psychology of tribalism that we described in chapter 3, the loss of a common enemy after the collapse of the Soviet Union can be expected to lead to more intratribal conflict.

A second major reason is that, since the 1970s, Americans have been increasingly self-segregating into politically homogeneous communities, as Bill Bishop showed in his influential 2008 book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Subsequent research has shown that we live in increasingly economically and politically segregated communities right down to the city block. The two major political parties have sorted themselves along similar lines: as the Republican Party becomes disproportionately older, white, rural, male, and Christian, the Democratic Party is increasingly young, nonwhite, urban, female, and nonreligious. As political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin put it, “The result is that today, differences in party affiliation go hand in glove with differences in world view and individuals’ sense of social and cultural identity.”

A third major reason is the media environment, which has changed in ways that foster division. Long gone is the time when everybody watched one of three national television networks. By the 1990s, there was a cable news channel for most points on the political spectrum, and by the early 2000s there was a website or discussion group for every conceivable interest group and grievance. By the 2010s, most Americans were using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which make it easy to encase oneself within an echo chamber. And then there’s the “filter bubble,” in which search engines and YouTube algorithms are designed to give you more of what you seem to be interested in, leading conservatives and progressives into disconnected moral matrices backed up by mutually contradictory informational worlds. Both the physical and the electronic isolation from people we disagree with allow the forces of confirmation bias, groupthink, and tribalism to push us still further apart.

A fourth reason is the increasingly bitter hostility in Congress. The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for about sixty years, with only brief interruptions in the mid- to late-twentieth century, but their dominance ended in 1994, when the Republicans swept to victory under Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House. Gingrich then imposed a set of reforms intended to discourage his many new members from forging the sort of personal relationships across party lines that had been normal in previous decades. For example, Gingrich changed the work schedule to ensure that all business was done midweek, and then he encouraged his members not to move their families from their home districts, and instead fly to Washington for a few days each week. Gingrich wanted a more cohesive and combative Republican team, and he got it. The more combative norms then filtered up to the Senate as well (though in weaker form). With control shifting back and forth several times since 1995, and with so much at stake with each shift, norms of civility and possibilities for bipartisanship have nearly disappeared. As political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt put it, “Parties [have] come to view each other not as legitimate rivals but as dangerous enemies. Losing ceases to be an accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a catastrophe.”

These four trends, plus many more, have combined to produce a very unfortunate change in the dynamics of American politics, which political scientists call negative partisanship.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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There’s a rhetorical habit that is very prevalent and very bad. It involves: finding a ridiculous version of an argument you oppose, possibly by using Twitter’s search function; pointing to it; saying, “See! Look at these assholes!”

This is so bad it’s actually self-indicting, by which I mean, a person who indulges in this kind of straw-man “weirdo safari” is telling you very clearly that they are not worth your time. The instant you detect the habit, you should just close the tab.

There might—might!—be an exception, in which an idea truly has no serious defenders. But in that case, as a writer you really ought to ask: why am I wasting my breath? Does everything obvious need to be litigated? Wouldn’t it be more concise and convincing simply to say, “The idea has no serious defenders”?

Now I’m laughing, imagining the great new op-ed column by Robin Sloan in which, every week, it’s just a headline like, “Why the United States Cannot Purchase Greenland,” and then the text is:

The idea has no serious defenders.

Followed by white space.

It would be glorious!

— Robin Sloan

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I have seen the following argument made by fellow evangelicals countless times: If we know someone to be a liberal politician and we catch them in a lie, we can explain their lie as a natural and logical outgrowth of their belief that truth is a function of power. Whereas when a conservative Christian politician lies, we conclude that the lie was not actually a consequence of their belief but in spite of it. It seems that ideas have consequences, except when they have the wrong ones.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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While the secular age does not necessarily lead to philosophical relativism, it does lead to thin belief. By “thin belief” I mean a set of foundational ideas about the world that lack robust explanatory power. Their sources may be obscured from us, consciously or not. They may come in direct conflict with other beliefs we hold (more on that later). In a sense, all of our beliefs are part of a continuum from thick beliefs (which involve a deep understanding of the internal logic, origins, and context; embodied practice; and robust application of the belief) to thin beliefs (which can be as superficial as signaling your support for a political cause simply because you like its hashtag). We hold a thin belief when we fail to grasp its assorted justifications and reasonings, and therefore are unable to articulate it fully. We then struggle to consistently live according to it. Thin beliefs are easy to adopt and then toss away, so they are useful for crafting our self-image. Not that the beliefs themselves necessarily lack depth, tradition, passion, or truth. In fact, this is part of the great shame of thin belief: it may affect otherwise good beliefs, mistreating and misrepresenting them.

We can adopt thin beliefs about almost anything. Perhaps you become deeply convicted about the plight of Syrian refugees after the US president callously calls for them to be banned. His words strike you as offensive, inhumane, and cruel. And while you may still harbor some unspoken suspicions about Middle Easterners after 9/11, this issue feels like the perfect opportunity to show your goodwill. The next time you see a meme showing refugee children with a superimposed verse about caring for the “least of these,” you decide not only to like it but to share it with your friends. This signals what your stance is on the issue and maybe something about your personal character, your open-mindedness and concern for foreigners. An argument breaks out on your post, with some of your distant relatives and old high school friends arguing over whether Islam is a religion of peace and whether “moderate Muslims” exist. You jump in to defend your position, citing lines of argument that you’ve picked up from other viral images or a John Oliver clip you watched on YouTube. You care about this issue passionately. There is a tremendous moral urgency to your writing, and you are even willing to anger and lose friends over your stance—a stance you adopted fifteen minutes prior, after seeing a compelling viral image on Facebook. Meanwhile, the foundation of your belief goes unquestioned.

You could consider the procedural issue of risk analysis (how likely is it that one of these refugees turns out to be an ISIS member who commits a deadly terrorist attack?), but the moral source of your belief remains unspoken and unidentified. What ethical obligation do we have to our international neighbors? What does this mean for other global conflicts? What does this ethic mean for military interventions and global trade and climate agreements? What shape should a local community take, and how can and should it adapt to foreign newcomers? The web of complex ethical questions that shapes the debate over Syrian refugees matters a great deal, but it’s unlikely that you will explore these questions. Why? Aside from the technological pressure to move on to the “next thing,” there is also the feeling that there are just too many important issues for us to care about. The best we can do is stand for something. And once we commit to a cause, its momentum sweeps us along.

We’ve all felt this when arguing some controversial issue online. There is a moral urgency to defend our cause. And if we are honest, no small part of that urgency involves unarticulated fears about how losing this argument might reflect on our image. We need to defend refugees not only because they need defending but because we want to be the kind of people who are known for defending refugees. This becomes evident when we step back and realize that our online defense of refugees is highly unlikely to actually defend them in practice. But because this is a thin belief, this won’t bother us much. We’re already on to the next cause.

So, a political and moral cause is adopted uncritically. The adoption of the belief primarily takes the form of public expression (your concern for refugees is not likely to stay in the realm of quiet prayers). You are aware that this expression signals things about yourself to others. You defend this belief passionately, despite having little understanding of the deeper ethical motivations. And you know that ultimately your defense is for the benefit of you and your friends, a kind of image-crafting game we play. Meanwhile, refugees are still in crisis.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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