Amor Mundi: Democratic Facts
The folks over at “Bright Line Watch” ask leading political scientists what “bright lines” would need to be crossed to endanger American Democracy.
“In our expert surveys, including the most recent one, political scientists have drawn sharp distinctions between dimensions that are crucial to democracy such as clean and inclusive elections and others that they see as less crucial such as a common understanding of facts.
The good news is that on these most important dimensions, the experts see American democracy as performing well. Elections are basically fraud free, in their view, and rights of association are respected. On some other dimensions, the performance of U.S. democracy is weaker, but these are often aspects of democracy that experts view as less important. Politicians frequently impugn their opponents’ patriotism, for instance, but American democracy is not directly threatened by this lack of rhetorical restraint.”
“One disparity, however, is a little baffling. Ninety-five per cent of the scholars considered various protections for the freedom of speech as essential, yet just sixty-seven per cent thought that, in principle, it was necessary for political leaders across the parties “to generally share a common understanding of relevant facts.” This response is several percentage points lower than that of Trump supporters. It is considerably lower than that of Trump opponents, more than eighty per cent of whom affirmed the principle. A little arithmetic, and one is left wondering: if a third of the experts don’t think that a general agreement on the facts is crucial to liberal democracy, what do they suppose that freedom of speech is for?
Strictly speaking, free speech doesn’t always require a general agreement on facts—as in, say, the freedom of religious practice. (And non-democratic societies have protected religious license to a considerable extent without enforcing freedom of speech.) But the principle is meant to enable citizens to decide, through reasoned debate, on both the kind of society they want and on how to fix its shortcomings and failures. (In Bright Line’s first wave of questionnaires, the principle was stated as “government leaders recognize the validity of bureaucratic or scientific consensus about matters of public policy.”) Leaders may interpret differently the reasons that the top one per cent of Americans now control about two-fifths of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom ninety per cent control about a fifth—down a third from 1989; they may disagree about how, or whether it is wise, to mitigate the trend toward inequality. But democracies in which leaders would simply deny the trend are mocking what freedom of speech was intended to achieve. So why do so many experts seem relatively unconcerned?
That’s not an academic question, though one can imagine any number of reasons that political scientists, especially, might overthink the principle: doubt about the worth of a majority’s opinion, respect for clashing frames of reference or “paradigms,” resistance to fatuous calls for “bipartisanship,” lament over politicians and the media debasing public rhetoric. According to Siva Vaidhyanathan, of the University of Virginia, who is the author of the upcoming book “Anti-Social Media,” Facebook is coming to dominate the dissemination of news and keep people stewing in information filtered for self-reinforcing prejudices. There are also academic schools of thought that may produce qualifications that the study couldn’t detect: a postmodern insistence (or a dogmatic simplification of it) that truth might be taken ironically, skeptically, or as an act of interpretation; or residual ideas from behaviorist psychology, which held that people reflected the facts of their lives but could not much reflect on the facts of their lives.
More troubling, though, is the thought that the lack of concern derives from a growing complacency regarding democracy’s origins—and its staying power. The implicit social contract that underpins democracy didn’t come about spontaneously. It grew steadily, first in England, as a counterpart to the advances made by the scientists and the entrepreneurs of the Enlightenment, which, in turn, coaxed citizens to reject both the dogma of priests and the authority of princes. It was defended by such practical innovators as the tableware manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, who was not only a champion of abolitionism but Charles Darwin’s grandfather; and, in the American colonies, by such people as the inventor and small businessman Benjamin Franklin. Citizens didn’t always agree—the principle of tolerance was a tribute to inevitable differences in perspective—but that didn’t discredit the ideal of democracy’s reliance on facts. Indeed, self-government was only possible because citizens could argue themselves into founding the institutions that facilitated the changes that the facts warranted: an executive branch limited by a legislature and an independent judiciary, justified by a study of historical abuses by monarchs, for example. Principles of action derived from facts were, in short, what the commonwealth had, well, in common. This process couldn’t have worked if facts were treated as things that people just cherry-picked to justify their prejudices. (That’s why Kellyanne Conway’s phrase “alternative facts” seems so cautionary.)”
Revenge of the Editor
Mitchell Ivers is the Editorial Director for Threshold Editions, part of Simon & Schuster, the publishing house being sued by Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos accuses Simon & Schuster of breaching their contract by canceling his book Dangerous, in the wake of a scandal. The press argues that the book was a disaster, and to make its point it provides the copyedited version as Exhibit B to the NY State Court, where it is public. Ivers’ comments have gone viral because they repeatedly point out the lack of proof and argument in Yiannopoulos’ book.
“Careful that the egotistical boasting that your young audience finds humorous doesn’t make you seem juvenile to other readers–especially here…. Avoid parenthetical insults–they just diminish your authority. Throughout the book you’re best points seem to be lost in a sea of self-aggrandizement and scattershot thinking….These points are stronger without gratuitous insult and teat reference…. Let’s not call South Africa White…. Since this is inflammatory, don’t toss it off casually Use it only when you’re able to discuss it…. MAJOR POINT: Having sex with black people does not prove someone is [not] racist. You will have to address the charge of racism clearly and with greater depth, preferably early in the book when you discuss Leslie Jones more fully…. This section needs to be cut or drastically altered. To deny the existence of fake news entirely is preposterous. Too many people have seen—and fallen for–fake news stories for this section to have even a shred of credibility. DELETE…. This whole section is filled with assertions that don’t have the weight of fact. Understand the difference and back up every claim here, because this section will be hotly scrutinized.”
The Trolls Win
George Ciccariello-Maher has resigned his tenured position at Drexel University, yet another example of a university not supporting its faculty who express unpopular views. Ciccariello-Maher argues his comments on Twitter were taken out of context. Surely, which is one reason not to have conversations on Twitter. But such mistakes are not reason for Ciccariello-Maher to have been forced to resign his position, and Drexel has clearly refused to support him for economic and public relations reasons.
“Ciccariello-Maher went on to say that his situation illustrated the limits of tenure protections (he has tenure). “[T]enure is a crucial buffer against those who would use money to dictate the content of higher education. But in a neoliberal academy, such protections are far from absolute,” he wrote. “We are all a single outrage campaign away from having no rights at all, as my case and many others make clear. The difference between tenure-track and the untenured adjunct majority — which has far more to do with luck than merit — is a difference in degree not in kind.”
He added: “In the past year, the forces of resurgent white supremacy have tasted blood and are howling for more. Given the pressure they will continue to apply, university communities must form a common front against the most reprehensible forces in society and refuse to bow to their pressure, intimidation, and threats. Only then will universities stand any chance of survival.”…
In an essay in The Washington Post, Ciccariello-Maher acknowledged that he was receiving death threats, but said that Drexel was wrong to suspend him as a result of those threats. “By bowing to pressure from racist internet trolls, Drexel has sent the wrong signal: That you can control a university’s curriculum with anonymous threats of violence,” he wrote.”
Francine Prose writes about the rise of “sensitivity readers,” those people who will read your novel and determine if there is anything that might be deemed offensive.
Laura Moriarty must have been pleased when, this summer, her young adult novel, American Heart, got a starred review in Kirkus, the digital and print magazine that—like Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist—reviews books in advance of publication. These notices are important to publishers and, to some extent, can influence a book’s reception. The star alerts other reviewers, booksellers, and librarians: this book might be worth your attention.
Moriarty’s dystopian novel imagines a future in which Muslims are being herded into internment camps, a fact of minor importance to the novel’s white heroine, Sarah Mary, until she befriends an endangered Iranian Muslim, a professor named Sadaf. Increasingly fiery conflicts have erupted over books—especially children’s books and young adult fiction—in which writers create characters whose race, ethnicity, gender, or disability differ from the writer’s own. Moriarty is white and, at various points in the editing process, American Heart was sent out for “sensitivity reads.”
Sensitivity readers comb a manuscript for problems and mistakes ranging from thoughtlessness to ignorance to blatant racism. The blanket word is problematic: such and such a character or situation is problematic. Meanwhile, sensitivity reading has become a cottage industry. A quick online check reveals that you can have your novel sensitivity-read for a fee to be determined, starting at $250.
Kirkus, as is its custom, assigned the book to a reviewer (described by Kirkus’s editor-in-chief, Claiborne Smith, as “an observant Muslim person of color”) who not only had expertise in the field of young adult fiction but was also from the same community and of the same gender as the potentially problematic character. Simply put, a Muslim woman familiar with young adult fiction was assigned the book, which had already been vetted by a sensitivity reader; she liked it, and gave it a star.
A shooting star, it turned out. Posted September 7, the first reader review of American Heart on Goodreads, a “social-cataloguing website” owned by Amazon, was something of a rant:
fuck your white savior narratives
fuck using marginalized characters as a plot device to teach the white mc how to be a decent person
fuck you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer in order to be worthy of “humanity”
fuck this book and everyone who thought it would be a good fucking idea…
to my Muslim friends, i’m sorry this book and this mindset exists
After receiving more online criticism from readers, not all of whom seemed to have actually read the book, Kirkus removed the star from its American Heart review—a major demotion given that we have been trained from kindergarten to want stars, a reflex reinforced each time we’re invited to rate (with stars) everything from a Lyft ride to a haircut. The Kirkus review was reposted, in a revised and less enthusiastic form: “Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective world-building device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.
Casanova Meet Kant
Sean D. Kelly found in his lecture notes a line he thinks must have been inspired by his mentor Bert Dreyfuss: It said, “The goal of life, for Pascal, is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.” The ensuing mediation on aliveness is worth reading as you consider your New Year Resolutions.
“Think of the way that life really can become lifeless. You know what it’s like: rise, commute, work, lunch, work some more, maybe have a beer or go to the gym, watch TV. For a while the routine is nurturing and stabilizing; it is comfortable in its predictability. But soon the days seem to stretch out in an infinite line behind and before you. And eventually you are withering away inside them. They are not just devoid of meaning but ruthless in their insistence that they are that way. The life you are living announces it is no longer alive.
There are at least two natural, but equally flawed, responses to this announcement: constantly seek out newness or look for a stable, deeper meaning to your existing routine. In the 18th century, these responses were centered in Italy and Germany, respectively. Their descendants persevere today.
The Italian — Casanova was the paradigm — decides that what is missing from his life is spontaneity: He has died within his routine because it kills all his natural desires. To become alive again, he commits himself passionately to following his desires, take him where they may. He takes on many lovers — thrilling, consuming affairs! — but eventually he leaves each one for the next; he lives in the moment without a care for his past commitments or his future possibilities. His life moves from one raw excitement to another. Eventually, however, he becomes isolated, inconstant and unmoored. He hurts those around him. He becomes incapable of genuine connection with anyone and unsure of who he really is. He despairs.
The German takes a different approach. Shall we call him Kant? He decides that what is missing is a reason for his routine. He seeks it out. He tells himself a story, one that delivers a meaningful justification of his daily life. And then he enters into the routine once again, determined this time to live in the knowledge that no matter how deadening it becomes, it is justified and therefore must be pursued. It is his duty to do so. But even though he knows the why of what he is doing, he cannot escape the feeling that he is not living by doing it. The monotony re-establishes itself. He cannot escape the ruthless assertion of its insignificance. He despairs.
We see what these responses are aiming for — the aliveness they hope to achieve — by seeing how they ultimately fall short of their goal. To be alive is to have the passion of Casanova without its isolation, inconstancy and despair, or the resolute certainty of Kant, without its monotony and insignificance. Indeed, perhaps the best we can hope for is to point to the phenomenon in its absence: Aliveness is whatever is lacking when the monotony of the routine forces itself to the fore. But can we say something positive about what aliveness is?”
Brett Stephens likes many of President Trump’s policies. But he continues to believe Hillary Clinton would have been a better president. The reason is that Stephens understands the importance of trusted political institutions and a republican political culture. And he makes the case for why character matters.
The answer depends on your definition. Here’s one I’ve always liked: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” said the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. To which he added: “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
Conservatives used to believe in their truth. Want to “solve” poverty? All the welfare dollars in the world won’t help if two-parent families aren’t intact. Want to foster democracy abroad? It’s going to be rough going if too many voters reject the foundational concept of minority rights.
And want to preserve your own republican institutions? Then pay attention to the character of your leaders, the culture of governance and the political health of the public. It matters a lot more than lowering the top marginal income tax rate by a couple of percentage points.
This is the fatal mistake of conservatives who’ve decided the best way to deal with Trump’s personality — the lying, narcissism, bullying, bigotry, crassness, name calling, ignorance, paranoia, incompetence and pettiness — is to pretend it doesn’t matter. “Character Doesn’t Count” has become a de facto G.O.P. motto. “Virtue Doesn’t Matter” might be another.
But character does count, and virtue does matter, and Trump’s shortcomings prove it daily.
The Death of a Liberal
Marcus Raskin has died. Raskin was a founder for the Institute for Policy Studies. He was also one of the people who helped expose the Pentagon Papers. When he arrived in Washington DC in 1959, he got a job as an assistant to a number of liberal congressman and promptly sent a memo to all the liberal democrats in the House. It read:
“One may make certain generalizations about Americans and American life in the past six years. Americans are bored. They are apathetic about politics. They are afraid. They see no way to exercise control over their own destinies. They see insurmountable problems. They are alienated from the vast commitments their government has undertaken in defense of certain vague abstractions. They do not understand the technology of science, which seems more and more to control their very lives, and their very existence on earth. They have withdrawn from the awesome complexity and almost hopeless dread which is the general social and political scene. The American people have hoped that their leaders playing the role of ‘Big Daddy’ would take care of the many problems which presently grip the world, so that they themselves might withdraw from the necessity of social and political action.”
It is not surprising that when asked by Congressman Robert Kastenmeier to search out scholars to prepare liberal policy papers, Raskin asked Hannah Arendt to write up a paper on how to reinvigorate liberalism.
John Nichols offers one of the many recollections of Raskin in The Nation.
“Working with Kastenmeier, Raskin drew leading intellectuals into the process of establishing a “rational program” for postwar liberalism that might “serve as a basis for writing a suggested Democratic Party platform for 1960 and as a campaign text for liberal candidates.” They produced “The Liberal Papers,” an ambitious agenda that Commentary magazine described as an “indication of a resurgent citizenry in America.”
For the next six decades, until his death Sunday at age 83, Raskin advanced a resurgent and expansive citizenship as a preeminent advocate for peace and for economic and social justice. He argued, on Capitol Hill and university campuses, from union halls to the parks where mass rallies were held, that voters should have a far greater say with regard to foreign and domestic policy. His was a clear-eyed vision that recognized how an “endless war” footing cost Americans physically, economically, and morally, and it helped to shape the understanding of generations of activists, academics, and elected officials from city halls to the White House.”
Emily Temple looks at the large personal libraries of 10 famous persons. At the top of the list is Karl Lagerfeld with 300,000 books in one of the most astonishing private libraries ever imagined, let alone realized. And then, coming in at number 10, is Hannah Arendt.
“The Hannah Arendt collection at Bard College is made up of some “4,000 volumes, ephemera and pamphlets”—including over 900 featuring her annotations—that come directly from the New York City apartment she lived in until she died in 1975. I hope it was bigger than a one-bedroom. (For some reason, 4,000 seems to be a lucky number for libraries of literary types—other writers who had about that many books in their private collections include Virginia Woolf and Katherine Anne Porter.)”
Posted on 31 December 2017 | 8:00 am
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