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It’s incremental progress, I guess. The University of Minnesota will require masking in the Fall — actually, as of now.
The Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus appears to be much more easily transmitted, resulting in new CDC guidance on masking announced this week. This guidance recommends that in any county where the COVID transmission rate is shown to be substantial or high, individuals wear facial coverings while indoors, whether vaccinated or not.
Relying on this guidance and with the advice of our University public health experts, effective tomorrow, August 3, we are reinstituting the requirement that all students, staff, faculty, contractors, and visitors to our campuses, offices, and facilities, statewide, wear facial coverings while indoors, regardless of your vaccination status. Voluntary mask wearing today, August 2, is encouraged. Masks or facial coverings are not required outdoors.
Wearing a mask or facial covering indoors has been shown to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and, as we saw as a nation, virtually eliminate other airborne illnesses like the flu. This requirement applies to all of our campuses and offices statewide, whether a given location is in a substantial or high transmission county or not.
I hope they don’t expect me to be grateful. Dragging their feet about doing the basic, obvious things and then finally taking a small step in the right direction does not earn my praise. Now do a vaccine requirement next.
According to Lifesite News (as we all know, a highly reliable site),
Outer space to be solely the dominion of gays and trans. Now it sounds spectacularly fun, but I guess I’m excluded, not being either. They really are discriminating against us cis-het folk! I’m also curious about the sexual orientation of Branson and Bezos.
The story goes on:
According to a growing number of astronomers, physicists, and major scientific journals, anyone who is not sufficiently pro-LGBTQ+ should be denied a presence in the cosmos.
There is a movement afoot within NASA to rename the much anticipated, $8.8 billion yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Why? As a State Department official in the 1950s, James Webb opposed employing gays and lesbians, viewing them as security risks susceptible to blackmail.
Webb went on to become in 1961 the head of NASA, where he oversaw the Apollo program.
Because the race to beat the USSR to the moon was viewed as integral to winning the Cold War, the Apollo program had to be protected against vulnerabilities to Soviet interference. Webb was responsible for implementing federal policy that included purging gays and lesbians from the NASA workforce.
That’s rather thin gruel of evidence for the extraordinary claim that all the straight people will be
denied a presence in the cosmos. It’s a bit of a grand leap from suggesting that large space projects shouldn’t be named after bigots to whining that the straights have been banned from outer space.
You do know that the reason gay people were considered vulnerable to Soviet interference is because good ol’ American bigots would use information about people’s sexuality to find common cause with the nefarious Russkies and wreck our own programs, right? All they had to do was recognize that gay people could also be patriotic Americans to negate the threat, but Webb willingly went along with a plan to discriminate against gay folk, which suggests he shared that bigotry. It’s the presence of homophobes, like everyone at Lifesite news, that is the problem.
They also make the claim that
LGBT corruption: Making the hard sciences soft, squishy, citing the fact (which is a fact) that statements about, for instance, the biology of men and women are more complicated to interpret than a simplistic, dishonest TERF can comprehend.
Scientific American regularly publishes articles that are political, not scientific, where LGBT ideology trumps intellectual curiosity, intellectual honesty, and solid research. Recent editorial headlines include Why Anti-Trans Laws Are Anti-Science, A Nationwide Ban Is Needed for “Anti-Gay Therapy,” and Gender-Affirming Health Care Should Be a Right, Not a Crime — all of which belong in the opinion sections of The Advocate or LGBTQ Nation, not a science journal.
Nature has appended notices to articles and social media postings, declaring, “Nature recognizes that sex and gender are neither binary nor fixed,” or some variation on that theme.
Science and policy are intertwined, so of course a science journal is going to take a stand on the intersection of science with politics. It is true that “intellectual curiosity, intellectual honesty, and solid research” support the idea that anti-trans laws are anti-science, because they are, and that “anti-gay therapy” doesn’t work and does more harm than good, and fucking of course gender-affirming health care should be provided to everyone who needs it. What is wrong with these people that think respecting the diversity of human identities should be a crime? It is anti-science to think it’s bad that scientific evidence repudiates their narrow-minded views.
As for Nature…it is entirely reasonable that they would qualify statements about the nature of men’s and women’s sexual and gender nature with a reminder that those properties are more fluid and complex. They are rightly concerned that, for instance, actuarial statistics that classify people into male and female categories will be misinterpreted as evidence that sex is rigidly binary by, for instance, bigoted readers like Lifesite News.
Case in point: they try to discredit the petition to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope by implying that the people behind it are a bunch of weirdos.
The name-change petition was launched by the four astronomers, including one who identifies as ‘non-binary,’ an astrophysicist who uses the pronouns ‘she/they,’ and a professor of physics and astronomy who is also a core faculty member in women’s and gender studies who identifies as “queer and agender.” The petition now has amassed 1,250 signatories, according to Nature.
But that makes the point for those scientists! These non-binary astronomers exist, and are speaking out and demanding respect as human beings; they are saying that you don’t get to pretend they can only be pure, ideologically conservative men and pure, ideologically conservative women. They are different, and don’t fit into the traditional pair of bins, and they are protesting the fact that people like them were discriminated against! Meanwhile, Lifesite News is not contesting the fact of discrimination, implicitly acknowledging that Webb was biased against them, instead just trying to justify it because we were in a space race against the Soviet Union.
It was a stupid race, anyway. Think what we could have accomplished with less competition and more cooperation, and with the assistance of more brilliant minds that just happened to have sexual preferences James Webb, and other hidebound administrators, didn’t like.
Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press) by Adom Getatchew
“Ghana has saved herself by her exertions. She will shortly save Africa by her example.” This phrase, from an editorial in the Accra Daily Graphic on 7 March 1957, the morning after Independence Day, expressed two of the great aims of anti-colonial politics: freedom at home, and solidarity abroad. Its aptness for that particular historical moment belied its origins in William Pitt’s boast that, in the recently concluded Napoleonic wars, England had saved herself by her exertions, and was to shortly save Europe. The Daily Graphic piece, it seemed, had cleverly updated an old slogan, changing the words but leaving the syntax intact.
For many years, this was the model of an influential way of thinking about anti-colonial politics and ideas: it claimed that anti-colonial thinkers and politicians, in arguing their case against colonial rule, applied European ideas of nationhood, sovereignty and self-rule to their own circumstances, forcing colonisers to see that their own ideals, once universalised, meant freedom from colonial subjugation. In this view, anti-colonial arguments involved colonised people picking up the coloniser’s tools to fight for their own freedom. Adom Getatchew’s marvellous book provides a timely corrective to this misunderstanding, tracing a new narrative of the nature and significance of anti-colonial thought and politics over the middle decades of the 20th century. Challenging the standard view of decolonisation as a moment of European-style nation-building, Getatchew offers instead an account of anti-colonial theory and practice as “worldmaking”.
Anti-colonial worldmaking sought to remake the international political order in the wake of the age of empires, establishing an egalitarian world politics based on the principles of self-determination. To be sure, this involved the end of alien rule in the colonies and the building up of new nation-states, but for anti-colonial thinkers like Ghana’s first prime minister Kwame Nkrumah and others, this was but the first step; true self-determination and non-domination would require a transformation of the international realm and the establishment of international institutions, both associations of newly independent states and organisations including former colonisers.
The perspective of anti-colonial thinkers was global because the conditions that framed their predicament were global too – their worldmaking was a response to the centuries-long project of colonial worldmaking that had begun with Columbus and the transatlantic slave trade and culminated in the scramble for Africa. They understood that European imperialism was more than just the relation between coloniser and colonised, and operated as perhaps the first true world-system. As Nkrumah argued, the independence of Ghana “is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent”, because on a world map indelibly shaped by the arbitrary subdivisions of empires, and in a global economic system built on the transfer of resources from colony to metropole, only robust international institutions and organisations could ensure real – economic as well as political – independence. Without such institutions, newly independent states remained vulnerable to what Nkrumah called “neo-colonialism”: that form of continued subjugation that relies on more or less secretive forms of diplomatic and economic coercion even after the departure of colonial troops and bureaucracy.
Anti-colonial institution-building took a number of forms: the establishment of regional federations like the African Union and the West Indies Federation to lessen the vulnerability of smaller nations and promote economic self-sufficiency within regional blocs; the organisation of newly independent states at the UN, where the old idea of self-determination, an afterthought in the original UN charter, was reinvented as a universal human right; and most radically, the demands for a New International Economic Order that would decisively break with the legacy of imperial political economy, demanding an equitable distribution of the shared wealth of the planet as the economic parallel to political non-domination.
Why return to anti-colonial thought today? Getatchew makes a powerful argument that the study of anti-colonial worldmaking is of particular interest to us in a time when the nation state has “come to represent a political form incapable of realising the ideal of a democratic, egalitarian and anti-imperial future.” Although the anti-colonial cosmopolitanism of the thinkers she discusses – W. E. B. Du Bois, George Padmore and C. L. R. James – seems a distant goal in a time of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia, revisiting their vision of a politics where nation states band together in international bodies to transform not only the lives of their own citizens but those of people across the world might provide the spark of political imagination that is so sorely lacking in our thinking about a just international order. As Getatchew notes, “the task of building a world after empire remains ours as much as it was theirs.” Her book, like those of the authors she so lucidly presents, offers us vital tools for doing so.
This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
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It’s a travel day for me! I have to drive to Wisconsin to fetch my wife back and to say hello to a cute little ragamuffin for a bit, and then tomorrow I come back. I’m thinking once classes start and I have to deal every day with a swarm of potential plague carriers I’m going to have to throttle back time spent with unvaccinated grandchildren.
While I’m on the road, though, at least I can leave you a pretty diamond squid to look at, and you can always converse among yourselves on The Infinite Thread.
They’re kind of like wet spiders, aren’t they?
It’s true. Walmart and Disney are requiring vaccinations.
“The pandemic is not over, and the delta variant has led to an increase in infection rates across much of the U.S.,” Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said in a memo Friday. “We have made the decision to require all campus office associates and all market, regional and divisional associates who work in multiple facilities to be vaccinated by Oct. 4, unless they have an approved exception.”
Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota is half-assing it.
The university is not requiring vaccinations. The reason? “The state of Minnesota’s law concerning requiring vaccination has a broad exemption clause that includes people willing to provide a notarized statement that they have conscientiously held beliefs against vaccination.” Right. All you have to do is say you don’t believe in vaccinations in front of a notary, and you’re exempt. It’s not as if we could say that’s fine, no jab, no classes…oh, wait, we could.
They also say, “As the situation evolves, a mandate may be considered.” OK then, the situation has evolved, consider it. Consider it right fucking now.
They’ve also dropped the face-mask requirement. “If you are fully vaccinated, no masks are required in any University building, venue, or outdoors.” But if you’re not vaccinated, “the University expects you to wear a mask indoors”. Can we ask if students are vaccinated? No, of course not.
No one (other than myself and a few others) are wearing masks on campus. Classes start in less than a month — perhaps more importantly, student parties and the bar scene start up in less than a month, with a significant fraction of the student body unvaccinated and flaunting the perceived immortality of youth. Yet if you poll the students, they’ve got concerns.
55% of students indicated they wouldn't feel comfortable until more than 80% of students were *fully vaccinated and everyone was masked*.
If masks are not required, that number increases to 76%.
— Daniel Gillis (@DrDanielGillis) July 31, 2021
I’ve got concerns. I’ve been told I must teach an in-person class in the fall; I’ve asked the university administration if I can at least require masks in my classes, and have only heard silence.
I’ve written to both the president of the University of Minnesota warning them that they’re failing to meet their responsibilities, and to the chancellor of my campus to let them know that they’re compromising the safety of students and staff. There has been no response.
I’m just saying, if you send your child to the university, and they come down with a serious, debilitating illness (or worse), and you’ve got a lawyer looking for witnesses who told the university administrators in advance that their policies were inadequate and dangerous, well, you’ve got my name. But let’s all hope it doesn’t come to that.
The pandemic has meant most court hearings are now conducted online. For some of the judiciary, these virtual hearings are a great modernising development. Others are less enthusiastic. That is perhaps not surprising given that our courts are one of the most conservative of our institutions. Its priests appear in wigs and robes, its natural language is Latin, cameras and the press are largely shut out. In this context, trial by Skype is a polarising reform. But some judges complain that there is an insoluble problem when trials are held remotely: reading faces.
In a precedent-setting case at the start of the pandemic – known only as the matter of “P (A Child: Remote Hearing)” – a senior judge overturned a decision to hold a virtual trial. A local authority had accused a mother of child abuse by fabricating and inducing symptoms of illness in her daughter: a case, social services argued, of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
The judge ruled the virtual trial could not proceed because the postage stamp version of the mother on Skype was too small. He wanted to see her properly, not only while she was giving her evidence, but while she was sitting in the well of the court and reacting to the evidence against her. This assessment of outward appearance, the judge said, was crucial to judging.
The judgment in P stands for a long and largely unquestioned tradition that asserts judges can and should try to read people’s facial expressions and body language when reaching decisions. But increasingly, both the ethics and science behind this practice are being called into question.
In my first year of training as a barrister in the UK, I arrived at court to represent one of two parents involved in a bitter custody dispute over their young son. The judge – sensing the animosity in the room – warned both of them to be respectful when the other was speaking. He then expressed a sentiment that I have heard many judges repeat, something along these lines: “Judges often learn far more watching you while you are listening, than when you are speaking on oath.”
Not long after, in a domestic violence case in a different court, I learned what could happen when the warning wasn’t heeded. While listening to her ex-husband’s answers to questions, my client sighed, made faces and – worst of all – committed the crime of kissing her teeth: an acceptable way of expressing disapproval in her West African culture but a noise that is strangely hated in much of Europe (“le tchip” as it is known in French, is now banned in many schools both in France and in the UK).
When the court’s judgment was given, my client was described by the judge as a woman whose behaviour in court had not been consistent with that of a domestic abuse victim. By the narrowest of margins, however, and due to other evidence, the judge (seemingly grudgingly) found in her favour. I was relieved my client won her case, but I was troubled by the idea that even people who have been ruled to be victims may not have a courtroom demeanour that lives up to the imagined standard of what a victim should look like.
I couldn’t help wondering how juries in criminal trials approached similar questions. One of my former lecturers at law school, Professor Louise Ellison, has investigated how juries make decisions in rape cases. Her research suggests that many jurors may have little understanding of the factors that could influence a rape complainant’s demeanour in court. Although victims of trauma may present as calm for a number of reasons, Ellison’s jurors were struck and perplexed with what they perceived as “stoic” testimony by a complainant. Some speculated whether the witness’s measured pace and somewhat “flat” intonation meant that her answers had been rehearsed.
A complication for Ellison’s research is access to jurors. Her studies have been undertaken with actors in the roles of complainants. While criminal trials are held in public, jurors are forbidden, at risk of imprisonment, from revealing how they reached their verdicts. There is an anxiety as to how many mistrials might take place were jurors to reveal their deliberations. In one study, conducted with Ellison’s colleague Professor Vanessa Munro and published in the British Journal of Criminology in 2009, their mock jurors often said troubling things. One discussion focused on what the witness had chosen to wear to court – with a juror suggesting that a “dowdy” dress was a deliberate attempt to manipulate the jury: “she’s got no make-up on, her hair’s tied back, she looks like a frightened little woman. Who knows, in the office she could have black stockings on, four and a half inch heels, wearing loads of make-up.” Do these mirror the discussions of juries in real trials?
Some think the answers to these types of questions could do immense damage to the system: the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers, ever since it was enshrined in the Magna Carta, has long been seen as a safeguard against tyranny and a fundamental part of British justice.
There may, however, be ways of improving the system. Much like in other social situations, jurors can and do correct each other. And judges can also help. Ellison has argued for the extension of educative directions given by judges to juries. For example, in sexual offence cases, where there has been a delay between an offence and a police complaint, judges already have a standard direction to warn juries that victims may react in different ways: “Some may complain immediately. Others may feel, for example, afraid, shocked, ashamed, confused or even guilty and may not speak out until some time has passed.”
But what happens when judges themselves believe that there is a common standard of demeanour for honest witnesses or for “real” victims? What guidance could they give to juries on how to read a face?
The understanding of the connection between inward thought and outward appearance is centuries old: Aristotle considered that those who blinked too often were indecisive; Freud said that no one keeps a secret – “if his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore”.
Anyone who seeks to persuade a court may need to project confidence. Evidence suggests that people often equate it with credibility, despite the fact that habitual liars may fidget and blink less precisely for this reason.
But there are fixed aspects of our appearance over which we have no control. When Cesare Lombroso published L’Uomo Deliquente (The Criminal Man) in 1876, the practice of physiognomy was at its height. His theory that criminality, as an inherited genetic trait, could be identified by physical features such as heavy jaws or a sloping forehead, can be seen in the antagonists of much of 19th-century fiction. Lombroso claimed to be able to identify genius and insanity in the same way – arguing that George Eliot’s “masculine” face and big skull were evidence of what he described as both her genius and degenerative traits.
The belief that physical characteristics were associated with character traits would eventually find a home in fascist views on race, sex and eugenics, and are now almost universally discredited. But there was an attack on Lombroso’s methods in his own lifetime. Leo Tolstoy was reportedly disgusted by Lombroso’s ideas of the born criminal. Following a meeting between the two men, the Russian author wrote in his diary that Lombroso was an “ingenuous and limited old man” and then savaged his beliefs in a courtroom scene in his novel Resurrection. In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, in which much is written about what can be read in a face, the anarchist Karl Yundt also declares that “Lombroso is an ass”.
But while the practice of judging character by the immutable structure of a face is now seen as pseudo-science, faith in our ability to read secrets in its changing expressions survives. Pre-Covid, when the only face coverings worn in court were the niqab and burka, courts often directed women to remove them before giving evidence. Lady Hale, the former President of the Supreme Court, justified the practice in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, noting that even Quranic sources suggested that in court, they should be lifted. It was a balance, she said, to be struck between the right of religious expression and the entitlement to a fair trial: the use of a person’s facial expressions, body language and demeanour to assess credibility was said to be something we took for granted in this country. Lady Hale said she had, herself, with reluctance, once directed a woman in full purdah to remove a face covering. She felt that doing so had helped her see that the woman was at times lying – but she did not reveal what exactly she had seen beneath the veil.
The principles that judges use to read faces are rarely articulated because they are not rules of law at all. They fall under what is termed judgecraft: what one judicial training manual describes as encompassing “everything that you will not find in a book on law, evidence or procedure”. Should rules which may mean the difference between innocence and guilt be left so obscure?
When judges are too explicit in their analysis of a witness’s appearance, they risk charges of foolishness. Justice Caulfield’s description of Lady Archer is still remembered: when the Deputy Chairman of the Tory Party, Jeffrey Archer, sued the Daily Star for libel in 1987 for alleging that he had paid a sex worker, the court relied heavily on the evidence of his wife. In his summing up to the jury, Justice Caulfield described Lady Archer as a vision of "elegance, fragrance and vision" when assessing her credibility. He went on to ask whether Jeffrey Archer could really have been in need of "cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex". Archer won his case and received a record-breaking sum in damages, only to be jailed after a subsequent trial proved conclusively that he had asked a friend for a false alibi.
Still worse was a ruling in 2019, from an unidentified immigration judge who refused a gay asylum seeker’s appeal on the basis that he did not have the “demeanour” of a gay man. The decision was successfully appealed, but one wonders what happens in the many cases where an analysis of demeanour is made but not plainly recorded.
There is increasing disquiet amongst parts of the judiciary that the whole exercise of assessing demeanour is not only futile but dangerous. Lord Leggatt, who was recently sworn into the Supreme Court, observed growing scientific evidence that ordinary people cannot make effective use of demeanour in deciding whether or not to believe a witness. While he was still sitting in the Court of Appeal, he sat in a case in which it had been argued that the delay between the judge seeing a witness and the making of his final decision meant that the judge would have forgotten his appearance and demeanour. Lord Leggatt held that “to attach any significant weight to such impressions in assessing credibility risks making judgments which at best have no rational basis and at worst reflect conscious or unconscious biases and prejudices.”
Lord Leggatt’s words are increasingly being cited in more recent cases. Study after study supports the idea that ordinary people, even professionals such as police officers, are notably bad at using non-verbal cues to detect lies. A 2015 study is interesting for suggesting, however, that there may be far more reliable indicators of detecting lies than body language. In a study involving airport security officers, Professor Thomas Ormerod, a specialist in forensic psychology, found that his sample of officers could not simply identify travellers planted with false stories by attempting to look for “nervous” body language. Concerningly, the attempt to do so resulted in the officers disproportionately targeting particular ethnic groups.
Ormerod did find, however, that older techniques such as examining small verifiable details in an individual’s story, or testing individuals by asking them to report an event out of sequence, were extremely effective means of lie detection. The methods that worked tended to focus on what we say rather than how we say it.
And yet, even controlled experiments find that a tiny minority of people do have an uncanny ability to read people non-verbally. Law students are often told a story about Max Steuer, one of the best defence lawyers at the New York Bar in the first half of the 20th century. Then, as now, there was a cardinal rule for cross-examining witnesses: always ask closed “yes” or “no” questions – really statements disguised as questions. The idea was to bounce your own narrative off the witness. The corollary was to never ask open questions: when, what, how, why. Never give the other side’s witness a chance to give their story. And above all else never let them repeat it.
In December 1911, Steuer was about to cross-examine Kate Alterman, a young immigrant survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The fire had killed 146 of her fellow garment workers. It was, at that time, the deadliest industrial disaster New York had seen and the owners of the factory were indicted on manslaughter charges. The public mood was ugly. The owners were accused of having locked the fire escapes, stopping the women and girls working in the factory from slipping out for smoking breaks. They hired Steuer.
Before her cross-examination, Alterman gives her evidence, explaining the consequences of the locked doors. She recounts her desperate attempt to flee the factory with a friend who collapsed and would not get up, her hair and dress beginning to burn. She describes seeing the manager’s brother Bernstein jumping around “like a wildcat” just before he became engulfed in flames. She speaks of the crowds that were gathered around the locked doors, trying and failing to get out as the flames rose. When she finishes speaking there is absolute silence in the court room.
But Steuer sees or hears something in Alterman that no one else does. When he rises to question her, he breaks the cardinal rule. Instead of asking a short-focused question, he simply asks her to tell the court her story again.
After she finishes, Steuer asks her: “When Bernstein was jumping around, do you remember what that was like? Like a wildcat, wasn’t it?”
“Like a wildcat,” she answers.
“You left that out the second time.”
Even before he gets Alterman to recite her story a third time, it is obvious she has memorised a script. Steuer asks her when the prosecution taught it to her. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were acquitted.
If you read the transcripts of Alterman’s testimony, they are a compelling record of tragedy – and not dissimilar from the testimony of any other witness from the trial. But plainly Steuer saw or heard something that is lost in the printed word. His story is often told to illustrate how the practice of law cannot always be distilled into rules, and how testimony is not just about what is said: at times there is something diaphanous which can lead us to the truth, sparkling just below the surface.
I am no longer so sure. Some say Alterman did learn a script, but not necessarily because she was lying. As a young and recent Polish immigrant, she was simply frightened of making a mistake in her second language.
This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” asks Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, the 1956 musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Shaw’s play had made a more nuanced point, about a young woman having motives beyond merely bagging her man, but the musical’s lyrics, half a century later, poked fun all the same:
Why do they do everything their mothers do?
Why don’t they grow up, well, like their father instead?
Historically, the lives of women writers have been paradigmatic of the outlier’s double-bind: that the exception, however successful, can be used to prove the rule. The ways in which such pioneers did what the men around them traditionally got to do were by definition public and so, therefore, was the opprobrium they risked. Despite this, by the early 19th century in Europe at least, women were beginning to “grow up like” their literary “fathers”. Yet, two centuries on, the vicissitudes that their posthumous reputations continue to undergo crystallise the continuing problem that is cultural revisionism.
A living writer establishes, by her sheer presence, the need to acknowledge her existence. She meets up with literary friends, she critiques her peers’ work, her work appears at its moment of publication. But after her death, the work alone must bear the burden of whatever prejudices its author triggers in the current cultural gatekeepers. And books cannot answer back. It is not, in fact, the case that a text “speaks for itself”. Yet, ironically, belief that it does is precisely what encourages writers to emerge from constituencies the literary mainstream ignores or disparages.
Young Elizabeth Barrett, for example, living a provincial country-house life in the early 19th century, was determined to develop into the world-famous writer of substantial pioneering literary and socio-political influence that she indeed became. Even as a child she understood the anomaly, as she later reflected:
No woman was ever before such a poet as she wd be. As Homer was among men so wd she be among women...she wd be the feminine of Homer. Many persons wd be obliged to say that she was a little taller than Homer if anything. When she grew up she wd wear men’s clothes, & live in a Greek island, the sea melting into turquoises all around it.
Still, she was determined to “grow up like her father”, her first literary mentor, who celebrated and published her juvenilia, and let her read round his library. It was her mother, however, who took time out from having 12 babies to guide her reading, introducing her to “Mrs Wollstonecraft’s system” at 13. As she wrote in an unpublished later piece, turning discreetly to the third person:
Poor Beth had one great misfortune. She was born a woman. Now she despised nearly all the women in the world except Madame de Stael – She could not abide their littlenesses called delicacies, their pretty headaches, & soft mincing voices . . . One word Beth hated with her soul . . . & the word was “feminine”.
By the time the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning was in her early 30s, she was widely read and reviewed; by her mid-40s, internationally renowned. She’d been nominated as Britain’s first woman poet laureate (though it would take another 159 years for one to actually be appointed) and become a campaigning writer who changed British awareness of social issues including child labour, rape, American abolitionism and the Italian struggle for reunification. Among the writers she influenced were Emily Dickinson, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and the North American school of the 1840s from which Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne emerged. In short, she was a canonical figure.
Yet at 40, Barrett Browning had also married a younger and less established poet, Robert Browning, who would later develop his wife’s revolutionary poetic techniques, and whose reputation in the Anglosphere has been allowed to eclipse hers. Some 70 years after her death, her achievement would be largely wiped away from popular consciousness by another Broadway hit, Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street. This hugely successful 1931 melodrama, and the three film and seven TV remakes which followed, together established the caricature of the swooning lady poetess. By 1973, The Oxford Anthology of English Literature’s critic-editors (all male) could opine:
Miss Barrett . . . eloped with the best poet of the age. Her long poem Aurora Leigh (1856) was much admired, even by Ruskin, but is very bad. Quite bad too are the famous Sonnets from the Portuguese . . . Mrs Browning’s enthusiasms . . . gave her husband much grief.
The editorial team excluded her work from their anthology, along with that of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf, and all the Brontë novels. In total, less than 0.5 per cent of the volume was devoted to writing by women. (The same vanishingly small percentage, I notice, that in beer counts as alcohol-free.)
Such anthologies are staples of curricula on both sides of the Atlantic, and the intellectual fashions of the 70s have had a strong influence on today’s academics and teachers. “English Lit” is a core school subject across the Anglosphere; it’s from the ranks of English graduates that a large proportion of culture-makers – and the book-buying public – are traditionally drawn. So this wasn’t some academic spat, but a clearing-out of women from the literary canon.
At 13, Barrett Browning wrote in the introduction to her precocious first book, The Battle of Marathon:
Happily it is not now, as it was in the days of POPE. . . Now, even the female may drive her Pegasus through the realms of Parnassus, without being . . . traduced by her enemies as a pedant; without being abused in the Review, or criticised in society.
Perhaps she spoke too soon. Still, in the 70s and 80s, intellectual culture was shifting in more than one direction. As women’s writing became a specialism, Barrett Browning’s life and work were rediscovered, to an extent. The last full-length biography, until my own, was Margaret Forster’s in 1988. Academic studies appeared from feminist literary critics like Angela Leighton, Marjorie Stone and Germaine Greer, yet Barrett Browning’s position remained anomalous. Virago Press was founded in 1973 and transformed the mainstream experience of reading in Britain by publishing new books by women and reprinting canonical women’s writing. Yet Barrett Browning was not included in the “Modern Classics”.
In her lifetime she had, like Charles Dickens, both responded to and helped develop a widening Victorian readership. Dickens’ readers famously flocked to buy his serialised stories; Barrett Browning’s 1856 masterpiece Aurora Leigh similarly sold out multiple editions. This was the first account of a woman developing into adult personhood ever to be published in the west. It was far ahead of its time in condemning forced prostitution as rape, and advocating loving single parenthood. It was also written in the modern informal and narrative style its author, along with Alfred Tennyson and later Robert Browning, was pioneering. But it was a novel in verse; unfashionable in the second half of the 20th century, as it is today.
Poetry’s slide away from cultural centrality left Aurora Leigh and its author on the sidelines as women’s fiction was rediscovered; rather as Mary Shelley is regarded as a one-hit wonder because today’s tastes slide past the Walter Scott-like novels which followed Frankenstein. Yet the success of films like Ken Russell’s Gothic (a horror film about the Shelleys’ visit to Byron in Geneva), or 2009’s Bright Star (about John Keats) reveals 19th-century male poets do remain canonical figures in the culture, even if they are not actually widely read. Also like Mary Shelley, Barrett Browning’s good or bad luck was to marry one of these: in doing so she lost some of the traction of her own identity.
Scholars and biographers, while glossing over the practical literary assistance both women gave to their spouses – as copyist, editor, source of contacts – used to assume creative intervention by their menfolk. Today Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein notebooks, digitised by the British Library, demonstrate her authorship; while the timeline of authorship and publication prove it was Barrett Browning who initiated the style she and her husband came to share. Still, old assumptions remain in circulation. To correct them is not to deny that Robert Browning is a poet who displays brilliant nuance and almost visionary emotional apprehension. The point is that so is Barrett Browning: as readers discover if they can access her. Yet, symptomatic of the cumulative damage of reputational revision, while I worked on her biography it proved impossible to persuade any major list to publish a new readers’ edition. Books, indeed, cannot speak for themselves.
“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Rex Harrison carolled, some 140 years after Barrett Browning asked herself the same question. Her answer, like that of many other pioneering women writers of the 19th and early 20th century, was that women are more like men than the elective “littlenesses” associated with that “One word Beth hated with her soul . . . ‘feminine’” indicate. In Britain in 2021 this is hardly news, yet posthumous deletion of cultural history continues. That gatekeepers tend to reproduce culture in their own image is a truism; that they might also do so retrospectively is too easily forgotten. This matters because of the work that gets lost. And because history is our role model.
Fiona Sampson’s book “Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning” is published by Profile
This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
Jacques Derrida is a very fine writer, but incredibly hard to read. His sentences, though often beautiful, tend to be sinuous; and while his vocabulary can be exuberant, bountiful and exact, it is often clogged with the jargon of old-fashioned textbooks of philosophy – “transcendental”, “originary”, “philosopheme”, “ontology” and “aporia”, for instance, not to mention fragments of Latin and Greek. He also had a taste, which you may or may not share, for puns and typographical tricks in the manner of media theorist Marshall McLuhan. If you skimmed through one of his books without knowing anything about him, you might conclude that he’s a charlatan or a nerd, or both. You would put it back on the shelf and say, “Not for me, life’s too short.”
But you’ve probably heard a lot about Derrida, even if you never read a word. By the time of his death – in 2004, at the age of 74 – he was the most famous philosopher in the world, and his stock has barely declined since then. He is still adored by many, and touted as a prophet for troubled times, and he continues to supply ample grist to academic mills. But he has his detractors as well: back in 1992, some self-selected guardians of philosophical virtue wrote to The Times to proclaim that his work “does not meet accepted standards of quality and rigour”. A left-wing professor at Essex University called him “the Liberace of philosophy”, and a Cambridge conservative assured us that “Derrida himself doesn’t believe most of the nonsense he’s famous for.” These professorial paragons have since been joined by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi mass murderer, who denounced Derrida for attempting to “remove traditional meaning and replace it with a new meaning . . . feminist interpretation, Marxist philosophy, and so-called queer-theory.”
Peter Salmon cuts through the hullaballoo with his brief, well-written and rather moving intellectual biography, An Event, Perhaps. Derrida has often been seen as an exponent of effortless Parisian glamour, for which he is sometimes envied and sometimes mocked, but Salmon shows that he was never at ease as a cultural rock-star, and that privately he remained shy, patient, conscientious, attentive and generous. He was, after all, an outsider at several removes. He was born in Algiers in 1930, and his humble Jewish parents tried to Americanise him by calling him Jackie, after the actor Jackie Coogan who played a winsome waif in Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid. But he could not escape his origins, and when he came top of his class at the age of ten he was denounced as a “dirty Jew” and deprived of the customary honour of hoisting the school tricolour. He was excluded from his lycée in Algiers when its Jewish quota was cut in 1941, and though he was readmitted a year later, after the allied invasion of French North Africa, he did not settle down. He failed his leaving exam in 1948, but had better luck the following year, and at the age of 19 he won a scholarship to a top lycée in Paris.
Paris in 1949 was not an easy place for a solitary overseas student. Derrida failed his exams again, but in 1952 he was admitted to the exclusive but spartan École Normale Supérieure, which he found to be a place of “theoretical intimidation” and “tormented silence”. But he also met the writer and psychoanalyst Marguerite Aucouturier, who would be his wife and ally for the rest of his life, and in 1955 he got a scholarship to Harvard, where he taught himself English by studying the works of James Joyce. He fulfilled his military service obligation by teaching for two years at a school for army children in Algeria, and then returned to Paris, where he earned a living as a lowly university teacher, while devoting his spare time to writing. By now he was steeped in academic philosophy, French style: he had a thorough familiarity with the writings of the great dead philosophers, and expected the same of his readers. He worked amazingly hard over the next ten years, making forays from philosophy into poetry, drama, linguistics, ethnography and psychoanalysis, and ended up, as he would recall, in a state of “nervous exhaustion not far removed from despair”. In 1967, however, he brought out three large books – Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena, and Writing and Difference – and began to be noticed not only in France, with its philosophically educated public, but also in Britain and America.
By the 1980s everyone seemed to be talking about Derrida and his supposedly revolutionary doctrine of “deconstruction”. I myself tried to read several of his books, without getting very far, but they were now garnering prizes and prestige and I thought I’d better try again. I was working as a philosophy teacher at the time, and my colleagues agreed that we ought to put Derrida on the syllabus. When it came to teaching, however, they were not so keen. “He’s like the tar-baby,” said one: “touch him and you’ll never get free.” “He’s not a proper philosopher,” said another: “he doesn’t have a position on any of the big issues.” So it was down to me. I persevered with my reading, and my resistance dissipated: I felt I was beginning to get the point, and I managed to fulfil my quota of lectures. Since then, I must have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours reading Derrida, and getting to know certain passages by heart. Reader, I do not regret a minute.
My colleagues were not wrong. If you let Derrida into your head it will be hard to turf him out, and I can think of quite a few people who have been reduced to Derrida tribute acts as a result. And it’s true that you cannot pin him down to definite “positions”: he’s not exactly a Hegelian or a Marxist, for example, but he’s not anti-Hegelian or anti-Marxist either; nor can you tell if he’s a materialist or an immaterialist, a rationalist or an empiricist, a realist or an idealist. But that was precisely his point: he wanted to persuade us that such labels are impediments to philosophical inquiry. The great virtue of philosophy, as far as Derrida was concerned, is not that it provides us with proofs or refutations, but that it weans us off an irrational yearning for intellectual closure.
For better or for worse, I came to Derrida with a mind already reeling from Heidegger’s Being and Time. I was particularly taken with a section of the introduction, where Heidegger argued that we have a built-in tendency to misunderstand the process by which traditions are passed from one generation to the next. We come into possession of our traditions, he said, by actively interpreting them in the light of our own preoccupations; but we prefer to see the process the other way round, as if we were the passive receivers of external influence. In the case of philosophy, this meant that we conspire with each other to treat the great figures of the past, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Kant and Hegel, as monuments to be inspected and conserved, rather than incitements to fresh philosophical activity. The ringleaders of the conspiracy are, it would seem, the historians of philosophy, who have made it their business to squeeze the life out of philosophical texts by reducing them to simple summaries and assigning them to neat little cells in some pre-existing chart of philosophical opinions. They may imagine that they are treating philosophy’s past with reverence and respect, but in reality they are allowing their pithy paraphrases to become surrogates for the originals – agents not of remembrance but of neglect. Heidegger therefore called for a new approach to philosophy’s past: we must “break up a tradition that has become compacted”, as he put it, “and expose the cover-ups to which it has given rise.” Heidegger described his exercises in philosophical rescue-archaeology as Destruktion or “destruction . . . with a positive aim”.
When Derrida engaged in “deconstruction” he was, in effect, playing variations on Heidegger’s theme. (That at least is how it struck me.) He focused on one philosophical text after another, demonstrating case by case that they are far stranger and far more interesting than the historians of philosophy would have us believe: Plato turns out to be a poor Platonist, and Descartes is not much of a Cartesian, and Hegel is no good at Hegelianism. Derrida’s critics saw these encounters as attempts to denigrate philosophy or bring it into disrepute, and so too did some of his admirers: they thought that philosophy had always conducted itself like an arrogant aristocrat, and that Derrida was a person-of-the-people leading a popular insurrection in the name of less elevated forms of literature. (Salmon quotes Derrida’s American translator Barbara Johnson, who claimed, rather implausibly, that “philosophy is defined by its refusal to recognise itself as literature”, while “literature is defined as the rhetorical self-transgression of philosophy.”) But that gets Derrida completely wrong: his attitude towards philosophy was not hostile but infinitely affectionate, and that is why, like Heidegger before him, he sought to rescue it from false friends.
On occasion, Derrida appeared to go even further in his valorisation of the philosophical tradition. He seemed to follow Heidegger (and Hegel too for that matter) in seeing philosophy as a massive, unified enterprise which got underway in ancient Greece and has since functioned as the intellectual engine driving the progress of civilisation in Europe, and perhaps through the rest of the world. Back in 1963, for instance, he pronounced that “the founding concepts of philosophy are primarily Greek, and it would be impossible to philosophise … without them”, and in 1966 he spoke of “the history of philosophy, of the west, that is, of the world”, while claiming that “we have no language … which is foreign to this history”. His tone was perhaps ironic – but only up to a point: the notion of philosophy as the heart and soul of human culture functioned as a Derridean Aunt Sally, which he kept putting back on its pedestal so that he could have another go at knocking it down.
After a while I lost patience with these disquisitions about what “philosophy” really means; and I was relieved to find that Derrida had got bored with them too. Salmon traces the change to the early 1970s, when Derrida embarked on a vast exploration of the ramifications of patriarchy (or “phallocentrism”), after which he started writing about an enormous miscellany of new themes, without having to keep returning to the canonical heartlands of philosophy: the relations between politics and friendship, between Marxism and the future, between forgiveness and the unforgivable, between justice and law, between teaching and learning, between memory and mourning and between humans and animals.
Salmon guides us through these discussions with clarity, wit and self-deprecating humour – at one point, for instance, he wonders whether he has done enough to “fudge bits I don’t understand so well” and to conceal his dependence on Wikipedia. He is well aware that his postage-stamp summaries of dozens of thinkers touched on by Derrida go against the spirit of deconstruction, but many readers will thank him for them anyway, and they will also be pleased that he keeps his distance from the sort of groupies who, as he puts it, try to “sound hyper-French” when speaking their native English, and end up talking a “sub-Derridean word salad”.
Derrida was capable of spinning his ideas out at extraordinary length, but he could also come up with memorable turns of phrase, and Salmon quotes some excellent examples. “Surviving – that is the other name for mourning”, for instance, and “to have a friend . . . is to know in an intense way . . . that one of the two of us will see the other die.” As a less-than-perfect humanist I cherish Derrida’s remark that he “rightly passes for an atheist”, because “the constancy of God in my life is called by other names.” If that is too cute for your taste, try this: “if things were simple, then word would have got around.”
“An Event, Perhaps” by Peter Salmon is published by Verso
This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
Escape from the Ghetto (Golden Hare Books) by John Carr
Yellow Star Red Star (i2i Publishing) by Agnes Kaposi
In 1940, Chaim Herszman was a 13-year-old Polish Jew living in Lodz, and Agnes Kaposi was a seven-year-old Jew in Hungary’s second city, Debrecen. Kaposi’s father had lost his job because of being both a socialist and a Jew, and Herszman often relied on his fair complexion and non-Jewish looks to get him out of trouble in the streets. His Jewish friends laughed and called him Yoisel, which is Jesus in Yiddish.
Six years later, these children had seen things that no one should see and had lost most of their friends and relatives. Kaposi had been crammed into an Auschwitz-bound cattle truck, but her train, unlike dozens of others that left Budapest at the same time, never reached its destination. It was diverted because slave labour was required in Austria. That is why she lived to become Dr Agnes Kaposi, a distinguished engineer and only the third woman to be elected to the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Herszman had killed a German guard who was about to kill his brother. He thought: “I’m a 13-year-old who has just killed a man. And not just any man – a member of the master race.” He had to get away fast. It was the start of an extraordinary journey through Poland, Germany and France, in which he was required to do more killing and to see a lot of death. Finally in Britain, he fought in the British army, eventually setting up an office equipment business and changing his name to Henry Carr.
This year, two extraordinary books come out of these experiences. They are straightforward, unsentimental, matter-of-fact, and they show, more clearly than anything else I have read, the horror of war and persecution.
Kaposi, now 88, offers unadorned factual information. She does not tell you that something is horrifying. She gives you the detail, and you know. She takes you inside that cattle truck, lets you see what she saw. It contained 87 Jews and an oil drum with the top end sawn off, to serve as a toilet, which you had to use in full view of all the others. The oil drum soon overflowed, so Kaposi’s mother produced a ladle she had providently packed, and her father, to whom the carriage looked for leadership, organised a rota to ladle out its contents through a small gap near the door. He took the first duty himself, so that no one objected to taking their turn.
Only an engineer could have written the flat, precise passage in which Kaposi gives the calculations Adolph Eichmann must have made when he was given the task of ridding Hungary of its Jews: “Four trains over 51 days gave Eichmann 51 x 4 = 204 trains, each with 45 wagons, a total of 204 x 45 = 9,180 wagons . . . Excluding the Jews of Budapest, Eichmann must have estimated the number to be about 500,000, so transportation density would have been 500,000/9,180 – 54.5 Jews per wagon.” In the event there were fewer trains than Eichmann had planned for, so there was a “transportation density of 500,000/5,985 – 84 Jews per wagon.”
Henry Carr died in 1995, and Escape from the Ghetto is written in Henry’s voice by his eldest son John Carr – a leading authority on children’s use of the internet – from the notes he took while listening to his father. It’s the unfussy voice of the good thriller writer, and the book is full of page turners. You are always on the edge of your seat, wondering how on earth he is going to get out of that one.
Both Henry Carr and Kaposi are clear-sighted about themselves and those who were with them. It makes persecution all the more dreadful to recognise that those who are persecuted have human weaknesses as well as strengths. Kaposi recalls, with understanding but not with forgiveness, those who tried to secure their own survival at the expense of others. Henry Carr does not shrink from a dreadful story about himself. In occupied France, he listened to two Polish workers boasting about how they had hanged a Jew from a tree. He had to laugh, for he owed his survival to the fact that no one guessed he was a Jew. But later he told his boss that the two men were saying dreadful things about Germans. Four days later he found them dead on a scaffold.
The writing is light and self-deprecating, and neither of these books is undiluted misery. There are Carr’s pre-war football matches, in which sometimes Jews, Poles and Germans all joined in, fearful that their parents might find out how well the races were mixing. Kaposi recalls her grandmother making strudel on Sunday morning – “a ritual, and great fun”.
Carr’s book ends with the war. Kaposi’s, however, is more than a Holocaust memoir: it is an account of an extraordinary life. The end of the war brought peace of a kind, but also the dreary poverty and conformism of Stalinist Hungary, from which anti-Semitism had not been banished. Even the revolution of 1956 was not run entirely by the good guys, and there were anti-Semites among the revolutionaries too. The defeat of the revolution brought the certainty that there was no secure, happy future to be had in Hungary, and in 1956 the opportunity came for Kaposi and her husband Jancsi to leave. Their journey out of Hungary was almost as dangerous as her wartime experiences. Perhaps the nearest they came to disaster was while they were hiding in boxes in the back of a lorry. “A Soviet soldier mounted the lorry and bayoneted through a few of the boxes. He missed ours.”
And so at last to a new life in Britain. “We showed our gratitude to this wonderfully generous country by being loyal citizens.” Hungary rejected her because she is a Jew, and now she rejects Hungary. She has, she says, experienced no discrimination in Britain either as a Jew or as a foreigner, but “I could write a whole book about systematic discrimination against me as a woman.”
Agnes Kaposi and John Carr, both of whom (disclosure) I know slightly, are secular Jews, atheists and socialists. They do not write about great, soaring concepts, but about the grubby realities of persecution. Reading the two books together, however, one has a sense of the hell we made of the whole of Europe, especially (but not only) for Jews. Poland, Hungary, Germany, France, Austria – there was nowhere safe to go. There was persecution and blood everywhere. A world that makes children go through what Herszman and Kaposi experienced brings shame on everyone.
This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
I have just co-authored a new research paper suggesting that learning to perform magic tricks makes children more creative.
During the experiment, a group 10 to 11-year-old children completed a creativity test that involved coming up with multiple uses for an everyday object. They were then taught how to perform a simple trick in which they showed someone a cube with different coloured sides, asked the person to secretly choose a colour, and then magically revealed their person’s choice. Finally, they all completed the creativity test a second time. Compared to another group of children who took part in an art lesson, learning the trick significantly boosted the children’s creativity scores.
Magic tricks often involve lateral thinking and we suspect that learning to perform the illusions encouraged children to think outside of the box. There is a need to enhance creative thinking from a young age. Learning magic tricks would be a cost effective, practical, and fun way of teachers and parents boosting children’s creativity. Maybe in the future, magic will become part of the school curriculum!
The peer-reviewed work was carried out in collaboration with Amy Wiles and Professor Caroline Watt (Edinburgh University), and published in the academic journal PeerJ.
I am delighted to announce that I have co-authored a new book – David Copperfield’s History of Magic.
It’s written by David Copperfield, David Britland and myself, with photographs by Homer Liwag.
The book presents a personal tour of David’s amazing secret museum of magic in Las Vegas. Containing over 100 full colour photographs, the book takes you on a journey into a clandestine world of psychology, history and magic. The book is released on October 26th and is now available for pre-order.
USA: Click here
UK: Amazon UK
Last year I collaborated with The Good Thinking Society to set up the Good Magic Awards.
Our first award focused on performers who use magic tricks to improve the lives of others, including work with disadvantaged groups, hospital patients, and schools. The judges selected two great winners: Megan Swann (who presents a magic show that promotes environmental issues) and Breathe Magic (who support children with hemiplegia by helping them to learn tricks that improve physical and psychological wellbeing).
This year, the award will provide £2,000 to support a new and innovative project that promotes the art of magic. This might, for example, include developing a live or virtual performance, writing a magic-related book or essay, creating a podcast, devising a new form of illusion or presentation, or undertaking research into the history of magic.
Applicants need to be over 18 years old and currently residing in the UK, and nominations will close at 5pm (GMT) on 20th February 2021.
To enter, please head over to The Good Thinking Society now!
A few years ago I produced three videos containing ten magic-based science stunts. I thought that they might help educate and entertain children during lockdown, or indeed anyone with a curious disposition. Here they are…..
I am delighted to announce that the third issue of Hocus Pocus is out now!
This colourful comic explores magic and mystery, and this time we enter the spooky world of ghosts.
Discover the truth about Britain’s most haunted house, see a Victorian spirit manifest right before your eyes and encounter the ‘Ghost at 19Hz’.
As ever, Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts have done a wonderful job, and I am especially impressed with their optical illusion cover.
In this episode of the podcast, Sam discusses the recent social protests and civil unrest, in light of what we know about racism and police violence in America.
This is a transcript of a recorded podcast.
* * *
Welcome to the Making Sense podcast… This is Sam Harris.
OK…. Well, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for this podcast for more than a week—and have been unsure about whether to record it at all, frankly.
Conversation is the only tool we have for making progress, I firmly believe that. But many of the things we most need to talk about, seem impossible to talk about.
I think social media is a huge part of the problem. I’ve been saying for a few years now that, with social media, we’ve all been enrolled in a psychological experiment for which no one gave consent, and it’s not at all clear how it will turn out. And it’s still not clear how it will turn out, but it’s not looking good. It’s fairly disorienting out there. All information is becoming weaponized. All communication is becoming performative. And on the most important topics, it now seems to be fury and sanctimony and bad faith almost all the time.
We appear to be driving ourselves crazy. Actually, crazy. As in, incapable of coming into contact with reality, unable to distinguish fact from fiction—and then becoming totally destabilized by our own powers of imagination, and confirmation bias, and then lashing out at one other on that basis.
So I’d like to talk about the current moment and the current social unrest, and its possible political implications, and other cultural developments, and suggest what it might take to pull back from the brink here. I’m going to circle in on the topics of police violence and the problem of racism, because that really is at the center of this. There is so much to talk about here, and it’s so difficult to talk about. And there is so much we don’t know. And yet, most people are behaving as though every important question was answered a long time ago.
I’ve been watching our country seem to tear itself apart for weeks now, and perhaps lay the ground for much worse to come. And I’ve been resisting the temptation to say anything of substance—not because I don’t have anything to say, but because of my perception of the danger, frankly. And if that’s the way I feel, given the pains that I’ve taken to insulate myself from those concerns, I know that almost everyone with a public platform is terrified. Journalists, and editors, and executives, and celebrities are terrified that they might take one wrong step here, and never recover.
And this is really unhealthy—not just for individuals, but for society. Because, again, all we have between us and the total breakdown of civilization is a series of successful conversations. If we can’t reason with one another, there is no path forward, other than violence. Conversation or violence.
So, I’d like to talk about some of the things that concern me about the current state of our communication. Unfortunately, many things are compounding our problems at the moment. We have a global pandemic which is still very much with us. And it remains to be seen how much our half-hearted lockdown, and our ineptitude in testing, and our uncoordinated reopening, and now our plunge into social protest and civil unrest will cause the Covid-19 caseload to spike. We will definitely see. As many have pointed out, the virus doesn’t care about economics or politics. It only cares that we keep breathing down each other’s necks. And we’ve certainly been doing enough of that.
Of course, almost no one can think about Covid-19 right now. But I’d just like to point out that many of the costs of this pandemic and the knock-on effects in the economy, and now this protest movement, many of these costs are hidden from us. In addition to killing more than 100,000 people in the US, the pandemic has been a massive opportunity cost. The ongoing implosion of the economy is imposing tangible costs, yes, but it is also a massive opportunity cost. And now this civil unrest is compounding those problems—whatever the merits of these protests may be or will be, the opportunity costs of this moment are staggering. In addition to all the tangible effects of what’s happening—the injury and death, the lost businesses, the burned buildings, the neighborhoods that won’t recover for years in many cities, the educations put on hold, and the breakdown in public trust of almost every institution—just think about all the good and important things we cannot do—cannot even think of doing now—and perhaps won’t contemplate doing for many years to come, because we’ll be struggling to get back to that distant paradise we once called “normal life.”
Of course, normal life for many millions of Americans was nothing like a paradise. The disparities in wealth and health and opportunity that we have gotten used to in this country, and that so much of our politics and ways of doing business seem to take for granted, are just unconscionable. There is no excuse for this kind of inequality in the richest country on earth. What we’re seeing now is a response to that. But it’s a confused and confusing response. Worse, it’s a response that is systematically silencing honest conversation. And this makes it dangerous.
This isn’t just politics and human suffering on display. It’s philosophy. It’s ideas about truth—about what it means to say that something is “true.” What we’re witnessing in our streets and online and in the impossible conversations we’re attempting to have in our private lives is a breakdown in epistemology. How does anyone figure out what’s going on in the world? What is real? If we can’t agree about what is real, or likely to be real, we will never agree about how we should live together. And the problem is, we’re stuck with one other.
So, what’s happening here?
Well, again, it’s hard to say. What is happening when a police officer or a mayor takes a knee in front of a crowd of young people who have been berating him for being a cog in the machinery of systemic racism? Is this a profound moment of human bonding that transcends politics, or is it the precursor to the breakdown of society? Or is it both? It’s not entirely clear.
In the most concrete terms, we are experiencing widespread social unrest in response to what is widely believed to be an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at the black community by racist cops and racist policies. And this unrest has drawn a counter-response from law enforcement—much of which, ironically, is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem of police violence, both real and perceived. And many of the videos we’ve seen of the police cracking down on peaceful protesters are hideous. Some of this footage has been unbelievable. And this is one of many vicious circles that we must find some way to interrupt.
Again, there is so much to be confused about here. We’ve now seen endless video of police inflicting senseless violence on truly peaceful protesters, and yet we have also seen video of the police standing idly by while looters completely destroy businesses. What explains this? Is there a policy that led to this bizarre inversion of priorities? Are the police angry at the protesters for vilifying them, and simultaneously trying to teach society a lesson by letting crime and mayhem spread elsewhere in the city? Or is it just less risky to collide with peaceful protesters? Or is the whole spectacle itself a lie? How representative are these videos of what’s actually going on? Is there much less chaos actually occurring than is being advertised to us?
Again, it’s very hard to know.
What’s easy to know is that civil discourse has broken down. It seems to me that we’ve long been in a situation where the craziest voices on both ends of the political spectrum have been amplifying one another and threatening to produce something truly dangerous. And now I think they have. The amount of misinformation in the air—the degree to which even serious people seem to be ruled by false assumptions and non sequiturs—is just astonishing.
And it’s important to keep in mind that, with the presidential election coming in November, the stakes are really high. As most of you know, I consider four more years of Trump to be an existential threat to our democracy. And I believe that the last two weeks have been very good for him, politically, even when everything else seemed to go very badly for him. I know the polls don’t say this. A large majority of people disapprove of his handling this crisis so far. But I think we all know now to take polls with a grain of salt. There is the very real problem of preference falsification—especially in an environment of intense social pressure. People will often say what they think is socially acceptable, and then think, or say, or do something very different in private—like when they’re alone in a voting booth.
Trump has presided over the complete dismantling of American influence in the world and the destruction of our economy. I know the stock market has looked good, but the stock market has become totally uncoupled from the economy. According to the stock market, the future is just as bright now as it was in January of this year, before most of us had even heard of a novel coronavirus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. And a lot can happen in the next few months. The last two weeks feel like a decade. And my concern is that if Trump now gets to be the law-and-order President, that may be his path to re-election, if such a path exists. Of course, this crisis has revealed, yet again, how unfit he is to be President. The man couldn’t strike a credible note of reconciliation if the fate of the country depended on it—and the fate of the country has depended on it. I also think it’s possible that these protests wouldn’t be happening, but for the fact that Trump is President. Whether or not the problem of racism has gotten worse in our society, having Trump as President surely makes it seem like it has. It has been such a repudiation of the Obama presidency that, for many people, it has made it seem that white supremacy is now ascendant. So, all the more reason to get rid of Trump in November.
But before this social unrest, our focus was on how incompetent Trump was in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now he has been given a very different battle to fight. A battle against leftwing orthodoxy, which is growing more stifling by the minute, and civil unrest. If our social order frays sufficiently, restoring it will be the only thing that most people care about in November. Just think of what an act of domestic terrorism would do politically now. Things can change very, very quickly. And to all a concern for basic law and order “racist”, isn’t going to wash.
Trust in institutions has totally broken down. We’ve been under a very precarious quarantine for more than 3 months, which almost the entire medical profession has insisted is necessary. Doctors and public health officials have castigated people on the political Right for protesting this lockdown. People have been unable to be with their loved ones in their last hours of life. They’ve been unable to hold funerals for them. But now we have doctors and public officials by the thousands, signing open letters, making public statements, saying it’s fine to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the largest protests our nation has ever seen. The degree to which this has undermined confidence in public health messaging is hard to exaggerate. Whatever your politics, this has been just a mortifying piece of hypocrisy. Especially so, because the pandemic has been hitting the African American community hardest of all. How many people will die because of these protests? It’s a totally rational question to ask, but the question itself is taboo now.
So, it seems to me that almost everything appears upside down at the moment.
Before I get into details on police violence, first let me try to close the door to a few misunderstandings.
Let’s start with the proximate cause of all this: The killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. I’ll have more to say about this in a minute, but nothing I say should detract from the following observation: That video was absolutely sickening, and it revealed a degree of police negligence and incompetence and callousness that everyone was right to be horrified by. In particular, the actions of Derek Chauvin, the cop who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, his actions were so reckless and so likely to cause harm that there’s no question he should be prosecuted. And he is being prosecuted. He’s been indicted for 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, and I suspect he will spend many, many years in prison. And, this is not to say “the system is working.” It certainly seems likely that without the cell phone video, and the public outrage, Chauvin might have gotten away with it—to say nothing of the other cops with him, who are also now being prosecuted. If this is true, we clearly need a better mechanism with which to police the police.
So, as I said, I’ll return to this topic, because I think most people are drawing the wrong conclusions from this video, and from videos like it, but let me just echo everyone’s outrage over what happened. This is precisely the kind of police behavior that everyone should find abhorrent.
On the general topic of racism in America, I want to make a few similarly clear, preemptive statements:
Racism is still a problem in American society. No question. And slavery—which was racism’s most evil expression—was this country’s founding sin. We should also add the near-total eradication of the Native Americans to that ledger of evil. Any morally sane person who learns the details of these historical injustices finds them shocking, whatever their race. And the legacy of these crimes—crimes that were perpetrated for centuries—remains a cause for serious moral concern today. I have no doubt about this. And nothing I’m about to say, should suggest otherwise.
And I don’t think it’s an accident that the two groups I just mentioned, African Americans and Native Americans, suffer the worst from inequality in America today. How could the history of racial discrimination in this country not have had lasting effects, given the nature of that history? And if anything good comes out of the current crisis, it will be that we manage to find a new commitment to reducing inequality in all its dimensions. The real debate to have is about how to do this, economically and politically. But the status quo that many of us take for granted to is a betrayal of our values, whether we realize it or not. If it’s not a betrayal or your values now, it will be a betrayal of your values when you become a better person. And if you don’t manage that, it will be a betrayal of your kid’s values when they’re old enough to understand the world they are living in. The difference between being very lucky in our society, and very unlucky, should not be as enormous as it is.
However, the question that interests me, given what has been true of the past and is now true of the present, is what should we do next? What should we do to build a healthier society?
What should we do next? Tomorrow… next week…. Obviously, I don’t have the answers. But I am very worried that many of the things we’re doing now, and seem poised to do, will only make our problems worse. And I’m especially worried that it has become so difficult to talk about this. I’m just trying to have conversations. I’m just trying to figure these things out in real time, with other people. And there is no question that conversation itself has become dangerous.
Think about the politics of this. Endless imagery of people burning and looting independent businesses that were struggling to survive, and seeing the owners of these businesses beaten by mobs, cannot be good for the cause of social justice. Looting and burning businesses, and assaulting their owners, isn’t social justice, or even social protest. It’s crime. And having imagery of these crimes that highlight black involvement circulate endlessly on Fox News and on social media cannot be good for the black community. But it might yet be good for Trump.
And it could well kick open the door to a level of authoritarianism that many of us who have been very worried about Trump barely considered possible. It’s always seemed somewhat paranoid to me to wonder whether we’re living in Weimar Germany. I’ve had many conversations about this. I had Timothy Snyder on the podcast, who’s been worrying about the prospect of tyranny in the US for several years now. I’ve known, in the abstract, that democracies can destroy themselves. But the idea that it could happen here still seemed totally outlandish to me. It doesn’t anymore.
Of course, what we’ve been seeing in the streets isn’t just one thing. Some people are protesting for reasons that I fully defend. They’re outraged by specific instances of police violence, like the killing of George Floyd, and they’re worried about creeping authoritarianism—which we really should be worried about now. And they’re convinced that our politics is broken, because it is broken, and they are deeply concerned that our response to the pandemic and the implosion of our economy will do nothing to address the widening inequality in our society. And they recognize that we have a President who is an incompetent, divisive, conman and a crackpot at a time when we actually need wise leadership.
All of that is hard to put on a sign, but it’s all worth protesting.
However, it seems to me that most protesters are seeing this moment exclusively through the lens of identity politics—and racial politics in particular. And some of them are even celebrating the breakdown of law and order, or at least remaining nonjudgmental about it. And you could see, in the early days of this protest, news anchors take that line, on CNN, for instance. Talking about the history of social protest, “Sometimes it has to be violent, right? What, do you think all of these protests need to be nonviolent?” Those words came out of Chris Cuomo’s mouth, and Don Lemon’s mouth. Many people have been circulating a half quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about riots being “the language of the unheard.” They’re leaving out the part where he made it clear that he believed riots harmed the cause of the black community and helped the cause of racists.
There are now calls to defund and even to abolish the police. This may be psychologically understandable when you’ve spent half your day on Twitter watching videos of cops beating peaceful protesters. Those videos are infuriating. And I’ll have a lot more to say about police violence in a minute. But if you think a society without cops is a society you would want to live in, you have lost your mind. Giving a monopoly on violence to the state is just about the best thing we have ever done as a species. It ranks right up there with keeping our shit out of our food. Having a police force that can deter crime, and solve crimes when they occur, and deliver violent criminals to a functioning justice system, is the necessary precondition for almost anything else of value in society.
We need police reform, of course. There are serious questions to ask about the culture of policing—its hiring practices, training, the militarization of so many police forces, outside oversight, how police departments deal with corruption, the way the police unions keep bad cops on the job, and yes, the problem of racist cops. But the idea that any serious person thinks we can do without the police—or that less trained and less vetted cops will magically be better than more trained and more vetted ones—this just reveals that our conversation on these topics has run completely off the rails. Yes, we should give more resources to community services. We should have psychologists or social workers make first contact with the homeless or the mentally ill. Perhaps we’re giving cops jobs they shouldn’t be doing. All of that makes sense to rethink. But the idea that what we’re witnessing now is a matter of the cops being over-resourced—that we’ve given them too much training, that we’ve made the job too attractive—so that the people we’re recruiting are of too high a quality. That doesn’t make any sense.
What’s been alarming here is that we’re seeing prominent people—in government, in media, in Hollywood, in sports—speak and act as though the breakdown of civil society, and of society itself, is a form of progress and any desire for law enforcement is itself a form of racist oppression. At one point the woman who’s running the City Council in Minneapolis, which just decided to abolish the police force, was asked by a journalist, I believe on CNN, “What do I do if someone’s breaking into my house in the middle of the night? Who do I call?” And her first response to that question was, “You need to recognize what a statement of privilege that question is.” She’s since had to walk that back, because it’s one of the most galling and embarrassing things a public official has ever said, but this is how close the Democratic Party is to sounding completely insane. You cannot say that if someone is breaking into your house, and you’re terrified, and you want a police force that can respond, that fear is a symptom of “white privilege.” This is where Democratic politics goes to die.
Again, what is alarming about this is that this woke analysis of the breakdown of law and order will only encourage an increasingly authoritarian response, as well as the acceptance of that response by many millions of Americans.
If you step back, you will notice that there is a kind of ecstasy of ideological conformity in the air. And it’s destroying institutions. It’s destroying the very institutions we rely on to get our information—universities, the press. The New York Times in recent days, seems to be preparing for a self-immolation in recent days. No one wants to say or even think anything that makes anyone uncomfortable—certainly not anyone who has more wokeness points than they do. It’s just become too dangerous. There are people being fired for tweeting “All Lives Matter.” #AllLivesMatter, in the current environment, is being read as a naked declaration of white supremacy. That is how weird this moment is. A soccer player on the LA Galaxy was fired for something his wife tweeted…
Of course, there are real problems of inequality and despair at the bottom of these protests. People who have never found a secure or satisfying place in the world—or young people who fear they never will—people who have seen their economic prospects simply vanish, and people who have had painful encounters with racism and racist cops—people by the millions are now surrendering themselves to a kind of religious awakening. But like most religious awakenings, this movement is not showing itself eager to make honest contact with reality.
On top of that, we find extraordinarily privileged people, whatever the color of their skin—people who have been living wonderful lives in their gated communities or 5th avenue apartments—and who feel damn guilty about it—they are supporting this movement uncritically, for many reasons. Of course, they care about other people—I’m sure most of them have the same concerns about inequality that I do—but they are also supporting this movement because it promises a perfect expiation of their sins. If you have millions of dollars, and shoot botox into your face, and vacation on St. Bart’s, and you’re liberal—the easiest way to sleep at night is to be as woke as AOC and like every one of her tweets.
The problem isn’t just with the looting, and the arson, and the violence. There are problems with these peaceful protests themselves.
Of course, I’m not questioning anyone’s right to protest. Even our deranged president can pay lip service to that right—which he did as the DC police were violently dispersing a peaceful protest so that he could get his picture taken in front of that church, awkwardly holding a bible, as though he had never held a book in life.
The problem with the protests is that they are animated, to a remarkable degree, by confusion and misinformation. And I’ll explain why I think that’s the case. And, of course, this will be controversial. Needless to say, many people will consider the color of my skin to be disqualifying here. I could have invited any number of great, black intellectuals onto the podcast to make these points for me. But that struck me as a form of cowardice. Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster, these guys might not agree with everything I’m about to say, but any one of them could walk the tightrope I’m now stepping out on far more credibly than I can.
But, you see, that’s part of the problem. The perception that the color of a person’s skin, or even his life experience, matters for this discussion is a pernicious illusion. For the discussion we really need to have, the color of a person’s skin, and even his life experience, simply does not matter. It cannot matter. We have to break this spell that the politics of identity has cast over everything.
As I’ve already acknowledged, there is a legacy of racism in the United States that we’re still struggling to outgrow. That is obvious. There are real racists out there. And there are ways in which racism became institutionalized long ago. Many of you will remember that during the crack epidemic the penalties for crack and powder cocaine were quite different. And this led black drug offenders to be locked up for much longer than white ones. Now, whether the motivation for that policy was consciously racist or not, I don’t know, but it was effectively racist. Nothing I’m about to say entails a denial of these sorts of facts. There just seems to be no question that boys who grow up with their fathers in prison start life with a significant strike against them. So criminal justice reform is absolutely essential.
And I’m not denying that many black people, perhaps most, have interactions with cops, and others in positions of power, or even random strangers, that seem unambiguously racist. Sometimes this is because they are actually in the presence of racism, and perhaps sometimes it only seems that way. I’ve had unpleasant encounters with cops, and customs officers, and TSA screeners, and bureaucrats of every kind, and even with people working in stores or restaurants. People aren’t always nice or ethical. But being white, and living in a majority white society, I’ve never had to worry about whether any of these collisions were the result of racism. And I can well imagine that in some of these situations, had I been black, I would have come away feeling that I had encountered yet another racist in the wild. So I consider myself very lucky to have gone through life not having to think about any of that. Surely that’s one form of white privilege.
So, nothing I’m going to say denies that we should condemn racism—whether interpersonal or institutional—and we should condemn it wherever we find it. But as a society, we simply can’t afford to find and condemn racism where it doesn’t exist. And we should be increasingly aware of the costs of doing that. The more progress we make on issues of race, the less racism there will be to find, and the more likely we’ll find ourselves chasing after its ghost.
The truth is, we have made considerable progress on the problem of racism in America. This isn’t 1920, and it isn’t 1960. We had a two-term black president. We have black congressmen and women. We have black mayors and black chiefs of police. There are major cities, like Detroit and Atlanta, going on their fifth or sixth consecutive black mayor. Having more and more black people in positions of real power, in what is still a majority white society, is progress on the problem of racism. And the truth is, it might not even solve the problem we’re talking about. When Freddy Gray was killed in Baltimore, virtually everyone who could have been held accountable for his death was black. The problem of police misconduct and reform is complicated, as we’re about to see. But obviously, there is more work to do on the problem of racism. And, more important, there is much more work to do to remedy the inequalities in our society that are so correlated with race, and will still be correlated with race, even after the last racist has been driven from our shores.
The question of how much of today’s inequality is due to existing racism—whether racist people or racist policies—is a genuinely difficult question to answer. And to answer it, we need to distinguish the past from the present.
Take wealth inequality, for example: The median white family has a net worth of around $170,000—these data are a couple of years old, but they’re probably pretty close to what’s true now. The median black family has a net worth of around $17,000. So we have a tenfold difference in median wealth. (That’s the median, not the mean: Half of white families are below 170,000 and half above; half of black families are below 17,000 and half above. And we’re talking about wealth here, not income.)
This disparity in wealth persists even for people whose incomes are in the top 10 percent of the income distribution. For whites in the top 10 percent for income, the median net worth is $1.8 million; for blacks it’s around $350,000. There are probably many things that account for this disparity in wealth. It seems that black families that make it to the top of the income distribution fall out of it more easily than white families do. But it’s also undeniable that black families have less intergenerational wealth accumulated through inheritance.
How much of this is inequality due to the legacy of slavery? And how much of it is due to an ensuing century of racist policies? I’m prepared to believe quite a lot. And it strikes me as totally legitimate to think about paying reparations as a possible remedy here. Of course, one will then need to talk about reparations for the Native Americans. And then one wonders where this all ends. And what about blacks who aren’t descended from slaves, but who still suffered the consequences of racism in the US? In listening to people like John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes discuss this topic, I’m inclined to think that reparations is probably unworkable as a policy. But the truth is that I’m genuinely unsure about this.
Whatever we decide about the specific burdens of the past, we have to ask, how much of current wealth inequality is due to existing racism and to existing policies that make it harder for black families to build wealth? And the only way to get answers to those questions is to have a dispassionate discussion about facts.
The problem with the social activism we are now seeing—what John McWhorter has called “the new religion of anti-Racism”—is that it finds racism nearly everywhere, even where it manifestly does not exist. And this is incredibly damaging to the cause of achieving real equality in our society. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the evil and injustice of slavery and its aftermath. But it is possible to exaggerate how much racism currently exists at an Ivy League university, or in Silicon Valley, or at the Oscars. And those exaggerations are toxic—and, perversely, they may produce more real racism. It seems to me that false claims of victimhood can diminish the social stature of any group, even a group that has a long history of real victimization.
The imprecision here—the bad-faith arguments, the double standards, the goal-post shifting, the idiotic opinion pieces in the New York Times, the defenestrations on social media, the general hysteria that the cult of wokeness has produced—I think this is all extremely harmful to civil society, and to effective liberal politics, and to the welfare of African Americans.
So, with that as preamble, let’s return to the tragic death of George Floyd.
As I said, I believe that any sane person who watches that video will feel that they have witnessed a totally unjustified killing. So, people of any race, are right to be horrified by what happened there. But now I want to ask a few questions, and I want us to try to consider them dispassionately. And I really want you to watch your mind while you do this. There are very likely to be few tripwires installed there, and I’m about to hit them. So just do your best to remain calm.
Does the killing of George Floyd prove that we have a problem of racism in the United States?
Does it even suggest that we have a problem of racism in the United States?
In other words, do we have reason to believe that, had Floyd been white, he wouldn’t have died in a similar way?
Do the dozen or so other videos that have emerged in recent years, of black men being killed by cops, do they prove, or even suggest, that there is an epidemic of lethal police violence directed especially at black men and that this violence is motivated by racism?
Most people seem to think that the answers to these questions are so obvious that to even pose them as I just did is obscene. The answer is YES, and it’s a yes that now needs to be shouted in the streets.
The problem, however, is that if you take even 5 minutes to look at the data on crime and police violence, the answer appears to be “no,” in every case, albeit with one important caveat. I’m not talking about how the police behaved in 1970 or even 1990. But in the last 25 years, violent crime has come down significantly in the US, and so has the police use of deadly force. And as you’re about to see, the police used more deadly force against white people—both in absolute numbers, and in terms of their contribution to crime and violence in our society. But the public perception is, of course, completely different.
In a city like Los Angeles, 2019 was a 30-year low for police shootings. Think about that…. Do the people who were protesting in Los Angeles, peacefully and violently, do the people who were ransacking and burning businesses by the hundreds—in many cases, businesses that will not return to their neighborhoods—do the people who caused so much damage to the city, that certain neighborhoods, ironically the neighborhoods that are disproportionately black, will take years, probably decades to recover, do the celebrities who supported them, and even bailed them out of jail—do any of these people know that 2019 was the 30-year low for police shootings in Los Angeles?
Before I step out further over the abyss here, let me reiterate: Many of you are going to feel a visceral negative reaction to what I’m about to say. You’re not going to like the way it sounds. You’re especially not going to like the way it sounds coming from a white guy. This feeling of not liking, this feeling of outrage, this feeling of disgust—this feeling of “Sam, what the fuck is wrong with you, why are you even touching this topic?”—this feeling isn’t an argument. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the basis for your believing anything to be true or false about the world.
Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that I or anyone else needs to respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that you should respect. In fact, it is something that you should be on your guard for. Perhaps more than any other property of your mind, this feeling can mislead you.
If you care about justice—and you absolutely should—you should care about facts and the ability to discuss them openly. Justice requires contact with reality. It simply isn’t the case—it cannot be the case—that the most pressing claims on our sense of justice need come from those who claim to be the most offended by conversation itself.
So, I’m going to speak the language of facts right now, in so far as we know them, all the while knowing that these facts run very much counter to most people’s assumptions. Many of the things you think you know about crime and violence in our society are almost certainly wrong. And that should matter to you.
So just take a moment and think this through with me.
How many people are killed each year in America by cops? If you don’t know, guess. See if you have any intuitions for these numbers. Because your intuitions are determining how you interpret horrific videos of the sort we saw coming out of Minneapolis.
The answer for many years running is about 1000. One thousand people are killed by cops in America each year. There are about 50 to 60 million encounters between civilians and cops each year, and about 10 million arrests. That’s down from a high of over 14 million arrests annually throughout the 1990’s. So, of the 10 million occasions where a person attracts the attention of the police, and the police decide to make an arrest, about 1000 of those people die as a result. (I’m sure a few people get killed even when no arrest was attempted, but that has to be a truly tiny number.) So, without knowing anything else about the situation, if the cops decide to arrest you, it would be reasonable to think that your chance of dying is around 1/10,000. Of course, in the United States, it’s higher than it is in other countries. So I’m not saying that this number is acceptable. But it is what it is for a reason, as we’re about to see.
Now, there are a few generic things I’d like to point here before we get further into the data. They should be uncontroversial.
First, it’s almost certainly the case that of these 1000 officer-caused deaths each year, some are entirely justified—it may even be true that most are entirely justified—and some are entirely unjustified, and some are much harder to judge. And that will be true next year. And the year after that.
Of the unjustified killings, there are vast differences between them. Many have nothing in common but for the fact that a cop killed someone unnecessarily. It might have been a terrible misunderstanding, or incompetence, or just bad luck, and in certain cases it could be a cop who decides to murder someone because he’s become enraged, or he’s just a psychopath. And it is certainly possible that racial bias accounts for some number of these unjustified killings.
Another point that should be uncontroversial—but may sound a little tone-deaf in the current environment, where we’ve inundated with videos of police violence in response to these protests. But this has to be acknowledged whenever we’re discussing this topic: Cops have a very hard job. In fact, in the current environment, they have an almost impossible job.
If you’re making 10 million arrests every year, some number of people will decide not to cooperate. There can be many reasons for this. A person could be mentally ill, or drunk, or on drugs. Of course, rather often the person is an actual criminal who doesn’t want to be arrested.
Among innocent people, and perhaps this getting more common these days, a person might feel that resisting arrest is the right thing to do, ethically or politically or as a matter of affirming his identity. After all, put yourself in his shoes, he did nothing wrong. Why are the cops arresting him? I don’t know if we have data on the numbers of people who resist arrest by race. But I can well imagine that if it’s common for African Americans to believe that the only reason they have been singled out for arrest is due to racism on the part of the police, that could lead to greater levels of non-compliance. Which seems very likely to lead to more unnecessary injury and death. This is certainly one reason why it is wise to have the racial composition of a police force mirror that of the community it’s policing. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that this will reduce lethal violence from the side of the police. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that black and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. But it would surely change the perception of the community that racism is a likely explanation for police behavior, which itself might reduce conflict.
When a cop goes hands on a person in an attempt to control his movements or make an arrest, that person’s resistance poses a problem that most people don’t understand. If you haven’t studied this topic. If you don’t know what it physically takes to restrain and immobilize a non-compliant person who may be bigger and stronger than you are, and if you haven’t thought through the implications of having a gun on your belt while attempting to do that—a gun that can be grabbed and used against you, or against a member of the public—then your intuitions about what makes sense here, tactically and ethically, are very likely to be bad.
If you haven’t trained with firearms under stress. If you don’t know how suddenly situations can change. If you haven’t experienced how quickly another person can close the distance on you, and how little time you have to decide to draw your weapon. If you don’t know how hard it is to shoot a moving target, or even a stationary one, when your heart is beating out of your chest. You very likely have totally unreasonable ideas about what we can expect from cops in situations like these. [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]
And there is another fact that looms over all this like the angel of Death, literally: Most cops do not get the training they need. They don’t get the hand-to-hand training they need—they don’t have good skills to subdue people without harming them. All you need to do is watch YouTube videos of botched arrests to see this. The martial arts community stands in perpetual astonishment at the kinds of things cops do and fail to do once they start fighting with suspects. Cops also don’t get the firearms training they need. Of course, there are elite units in many police departments, but most cops do not have the training they need to do the job they’re being asked to do.
It is also true, no doubt, that some cops are racist bullies. And there are corrupt police departments that cover for these guys, and cover up police misconduct generally, whether it was borne of racism or not.
But the truth is that even if we got rid of all bad cops, which we absolutely should do, and there were only good people left, and we got all these good people the best possible training, and we gave them the best culture in which to think about their role in society, and we gave them the best methods for de-escalating potentially violent situations—which we absolutely must do—and we scrubbed all the dumb laws from our books, so that when cops were required to enforce the law, they were only risking their lives and the lives of civilians for reasons that we deem necessary and just—so the war on drugs is obviously over—even under these conditions of perfect progress, we are still guaranteed to have some number of cases each year where a cop kills a civilian in a way that is totally unjustified, and therefore tragic. Every year, there will be some number of families who will be able to say that the cops killed their son or daughter, or father or mother, or brother or sister. And videos of these killings will occasionally surface, and they will be horrific. This seems guaranteed to happen.
So, while we need to make all these improvements, we still need to understand that there are very likely always to going to be videos of cops doing something inexplicable, or inexplicably stupid, that results in an innocent person’s death, or a not-so-innocent person’s death. And sometimes the cop will be white and the victim will be black. We have 10 million arrests each year. And we now live in a panopticon where practically everything is videotaped.
I’m about to get further into the details of what we know about police violence, but I want to just put it to you now: If we’re going to let the health of race relations in this country, or the relationship between the community and the police, depend on whether we ever see a terrible video of police misconduct again, the project of healing these wounds in our society is doomed.
About a week into these protests I heard Van Jones on CNN say, “If we see one more video of a cop brutalizing a black man, this country could go over the edge.” He said this, not as indication of how dangerously inflamed people have become. He seemed to be saying it as an ultimatum to the police. With 10 million arrests a year, arrests that have to take place in the most highly armed society in the developed world, I hope you understand how unreasonable that ultimatum is.
We have to put these videos into context. And we have to acknowledge how different they are from one another. Some of them are easy to interpret. But some are quite obviously being interpreted incorrectly by most people—especially by activists. And there are a range of cases—some have video associated with them and some don’t—that are now part of a litany of anti-racist outrage, and the names of the dead are intoned as though they were all evidence of the same injustice. And yet, they are not.
Walter Scott was stopped for a broken taillight and got out of his car and tried to flee. There might have been a brief struggle over the officer’s taser, that part of the video isn’t clear. But what is clear is that he was shot in the back multiple times as he was running away. That was insane. There was zero reason for the officer to feel that his life was under threat at the point he opened fire. And for that unjustified shooting, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I’m not sure that’s long enough. That seemed like straight-up murder.
The George Floyd video, while even more disturbing to watch, is harder to interpret. I don’t know anything about Derek Chauvin, the cop who knelt on his neck. It’s quite possible that he’s a terrible person who should have never been a cop. He seems to have a significant number of complaints against him—though, as far as I know, the details of those complaints haven’t been released. And he might be a racist on top of being a bad cop. Or he might be a guy who was totally in over his head and thought you could restrain someone indefinitely by keeping a knee on their neck indefinitely. I don’t know. I’m sure more facts will come out. But whoever he is, I find it very unlikely that he was intending to kill George Floyd. Think about it. He was surrounded by irate witnesses and being filmed. Unless he was aspiring to become the most notorious murderer in human history, it seems very unlikely that he was intending to commit murder in that moment. It’s possible, of course. But it doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation for his behavior.
What I believe we saw on that video was the result of a tragic level of negligence and poor training on the part of those cops. Or terrible recruitment—it’s possible that none of these guys should have ever been cops. I think for one of them, it was only his fourth day on the job. Just imagine that. Just imagine all things you don’t know as a new cop. It could also be a function of bad luck in terms of Floyd’s underlying health. It’s been reported that he was complaining of being unable to breath before Chauvin pinned him with his knee. The knee on his neck might not have been the only thing that caused his death. It could have also been the weight of the other officer pinning him down.
This is almost certainly what happened in the cast of Eric Garner. Half the people on earth believe they witnessed a cop choke Eric Garner to death in that video. That does not appear to be what happened. When Eric Garner is saying “I can’t breathe” he’s not being choked. He’s being held down on the pavement by several officers. Being forced down on your stomach under the weight of several people can kill a person, especially someone with lung or heart disease. In the case of Eric Garner, it is absolutely clear that the cop who briefly attempted to choke him was no longer choking him. If you doubt that, watch the video again.
And if you are recoiling now from my interpretation of these videos, you really should watch the killing of Tony Timpa. It’s also terribly disturbing, but it removes the variable of race and it removes any implication of intent to harm on the part of the cops about as clearly as you could ask. It really is worth watching as a corrective to our natural interpretation of these other videos.
Tony Timpa was a white man in Dallas, who was suffering some mental health emergency and cocaine intoxication. And he actually called 911 himself. What we see is the bodycam footage from the police, which shows that he was already in handcuffs when they arrived—a security guard had cuffed him. And then the cops take over, and they restrain Timpa on the ground, by rolling him onto a stomach and putting their weight on him, very much like in the case of Eric Garner. And they keep their weight on him—one cop has a knee on his upper back, which is definitely much less aggressive than a knee on the neck—but they crush the life out of him all the same, over the course of 13 minutes. He’s not being choked. The cops are not being rough. There’s no animus between them and Timpa. It was not a hostile arrest. They clearly believe that they’re responding to a mental health emergency. But they keep him down on his belly, under their weight, and they’re cracking jokes as he loses consciousness. Now, your knowledge that he’s going to be dead by the end of this video, make their jokes seem pretty callous. But this was about as benign an imposition of force by cops as you’re going to see. The crucial insight you will have watching this video, is that the officers not only had no intent to kill Tony Timpa, they don’t take his pleading seriously because they have no doubt that what they’re doing is perfectly safe—perfectly within protocol. They’ve probably done this hundreds of times before.
If you watch that video—and, again, fair warning, it is disturbing—but imagine how disturbing it would have been to our society if Tony Timpa had been black. If the only thing you changed about the video was the color of Timpa’s skin, then that video would have detonated like a nuclear bomb in our society, exactly as the George Floyd video did. In fact, in one way it is worse, or would have been perceived to be worse. I mean, just imagine white cops telling jokes as they crushed the life out of a black Tony Timpa… Given the nature of our conversation about violence, given the way we perceive videos of this kind, there is no way that people would have seen that as anything other than a lynching. And yet, it would not have been a lynching.
Now, I obviously have no idea what was in the minds of cops in Minneapolis. And perhaps we’ll learn at trial. Perhaps a tape of Chauvin using the N-word in another context will surface, bringing in a credible allegation of racism. It seems to me that Chauvin is going to have a very hard time making sense of his actions. But most people who saw that video believe they have seen, with their own eyes, beyond any possibility of doubt, a racist cop intentionally murder an innocent man. That’s not what the video necessarily shows.
As I said, these videos can be hard to interpret, even while seeming very easy to interpret. And these cases, whether we have associated video or not, are very different. Michael Brown is reported to have punched a cop in the face and attempted to get his gun. As far as I know, there’s no video of that encounter. But, if true, that is an entirely different situation. If you’re attacking a cop, trying to get his gun, that is a life and death struggle that almost by definition for the cop, and it most cases justifies the use of lethal force. And honestly, it seems that no one within a thousand miles of Black Lives Matter is willing to make these distinctions. An attitude of anti-racist moral outrage is not the best lens through which to interpret evidence of police misconduct.
I’ve seen many videos of people getting arrested. And I’ve seen the outraged public reaction to what appears to be inappropriate use of force by the cops. One overwhelming fact that comes through is that people, whatever the color of their skin, don’t understand how to behave around cops so as to keep themselves safe. People have to stop resisting arrest. This may seem obvious, but judging from most of these videos, and from the public reaction to them, this must be a totally arcane piece of information. When a cop wants to take you into custody, you don’t get to decide whether or not you should be arrested. When a cop wants to take you into custody, for whatever reason, it’s not a negotiation. And if you turn it into a wrestling match, you’re very likely to get injured or killed.
This is a point I once belabored in a podcast with Glenn Loury, and it became essentially a public service announcement. And I’ve gone back and listened to those comments, and I want to repeat them here. This is something that everyone really needs to understand. And it’s something that Black Lives Matter should be teaching explicitly: If you put your hands on a cop—if you start wrestling with a cop, or grabbing him because he’s arresting your friend, or pushing him, or striking him, or using your hands in way that can possibly be interpreted as your reaching for a gun—you are likely to get shot in the United States, whatever the color of your skin.
As I said, when you’re with a cop, there is always a gun out in the open. And any physical struggle has to be perceived by him as a fight for the gun. A cop doesn’t know what you’re going to do if you overpower him, so he has to assume the worst. Most cops are not confident in their ability to physically control a person without shooting him—for good reason, because they’re not well trained to do that, and they’re continually confronting people who are bigger, or younger, or more athletic, or more aggressive than they are. Cops are not superheroes. They’re ordinary people with insufficient training, and once things turn physical they cannot afford to give a person who is now assaulting a police officer the benefit of the doubt.
This is something that most people seem totally confused about. If they see a video of somebody trying to punch a cop in the face and the person’s unarmed, many people think the cop should just punch back, and any use of deadly force would be totally disproportionate. But that’s not how violence works. It’s not the cop’s job to be the best bare-knuckled boxer on Earth so he doesn’t have to use his gun. A cop can’t risk getting repeatedly hit in the face and knocked out, because there’s always a gun in play. This is the cop’s perception of the world, and it’s a justifiable one, given the dynamics of human violence.
You might think cops shouldn’t carry guns. Why can’t we just be like England? That’s a point that can be debated. But it requires considerable thought in a country where there are over 300 million guns on the street. The United States is not England.
Again, really focus on what is happening when a cop is attempting to arrest a person. It’s not up to you to decide whether or not you should be arrested. Does it matter that you know you didn’t do anything wrong? No. And how could that fact be effectively communicated in the moment by your not following police commands? I’m going to ask that again: How could the fact that you’re innocent, that you’re not a threat to cop, that you’re not about to suddenly attack him or produce a weapon of your own, how could those things be effectively communicated at the moment he’s attempting to arrest you by your resisting arrest?
Unless you called the cops yourself, you never know what situation you’re in. If I’m walking down the street, I don’t know if the cop who is approaching me didn’t get a call that some guy who looks like Ben Stiller just committed an armed robbery. I know I didn’t do anything, but I don’t know what’s in the cop’s head. The time to find out what’s going on—the time to complain about racist cops, the time to yell at them and tell them they’re all going to get fired for their stupidity and misconduct—is after cooperating, at the police station, in the presence of a lawyer, preferably. But to not comply in the heat of the moment, when a guy with the gun is issuing commands—this raises your risk astronomically, and it’s something that most people, it seems, just do not intuitively understand, even when they’re not in the heat of the moment themselves, but just watching video of other people getting arrested.
Ok. End of public-service announcement.
The main problem with using individual cases, where black men and women have been killed by cops, to conclude that there is an epidemic of racist police violence in our society, is that you can find nearly identical cases of white suspects being killed by cops, and there are actually more of them.
In 2016, John McWhorter wrote a piece in Time Magazine about this.
Here’s a snippet of what he wrote:
“The heart of the indignation over these murders is a conviction that racist bias plays a decisive part in these encounters. That has seemed plausible to me, and I have recently challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose, and others.”
So, McWhorter issued that challenge, as he said, and he was presented with the cases [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]. But there’s no song about these people, admonishing us to say their names. And the list of white names is longer, and I don’t know any of them, other than Tony Timpa. I know the black names. In addition to the ones I just read from McWhorter’s article, I know the names of Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, and now, of course, I know the name of George Floyd. And I’m aware of many of the details of these cases where black men and women have been killed by cops. I know the name of Breonna Taylor. I can’t name a single white person killed by cops in circumstances like these—other than Timpa—and I just read McWhorter’s article where he lists many of them.
So, this is also a distortion in the media. The media is not showing us videos of white people being killed by cops; activists are not demanding that they do this. I’m sure white supremacists talk about this stuff a lot, who knows? But in terms of the story we’re telling ourselves in the mainstream, we are not actually talking about the data on lethal police violence.
So back to the data: Again, cops kill around 1000 people every year in the United States. About 25 percent are black. About 50 percent are white. The data on police homicide are all over the place. The federal government does not have a single repository for data of this kind. But they have been pretty carefully tracked by outside sources, like the Washington Post, for the last 5 years. These ratios appear stable over time. Again, many of these killings are justifiable, we’re talking about career criminals who are often armed and, in many cases, trying to kill the cops. Those aren’t the cases we’re worried about. We’re worried about the unjustifiable homicides.
Now, some people will think that these numbers still represent an outrageous injustice. Afterall, African Americans are only 13 percent of the population. So, at most, they should be 13 percent of the victims of police violence, not 25 percent. Any departure from the baseline population must be due to racism.
Ok. Well, that sounds plausible, but consider a few more facts:
If you have 13 percent of the population responsible for 50 percent of the murders—and in some cities committing 2/3rds of all violent crime—what percent of police attention should it attract? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not just 13 percent. Given that the overwhelming majority of their victims are black, I’m pretty sure that most black people wouldn’t set the dial at 13 percent either.
And here we arrive at the core of the problem. The story of crime in America is overwhelmingly the story of black-on-black crime. It is also, in part, a story of black-on-white crime. For more than a generation, crime in America really hasn’t been a story of much white-on-black crime. [Some listeners mistook my meaning here. I’m not denying that most violent crime is intraracial. So, it’s true that most white homicide victims are killed by white offenders. Per capita, however, the white crime rate is much lower than the black crime rate. And there is more black-on-white crime than white-on-black crime.—SH]
The murder rate has come down steadily since the early 1990’s, with only minor upticks. But, nationwide, blacks are still 6 times more likely to get murdered than whites, and in some cities their risk is double that. And around 95 percent of the murders are committed by members of the African American community. [While reported in 2015, these data were more than a decade old. Looking at more recent data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.—SH]
The weekend these protests and riots were kicking off nationwide—when our entire country seemed to be tearing itself apart over a perceived epidemic of racist police violence against the black community, 92 people were shot, and 27 killed, in Chicago alone—one city. This is almost entirely a story of black men killing members of their own community. And this is far more representative of the kind of violence that the black community needs to worry about. And, ironically, it’s clear that one remedy for this violence is, or would be, effective policing.
These are simply the facts of crime in our society as we best understand them. And the police have to figure out how to respond to these facts, professionally and ethically. The question is, are they doing that? And, obviously, there’s considerable doubt that they’re doing that, professionally and ethically.
Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who’s work I discussed on the podcast with Glenn Loury, studied police encounters involving black and white suspects and the use of force.
His paper is titled, this from 2016, “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.”
Fryer is black, and he went into this research with the expectation that the data would confirm that there’s an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at black men. But he didn’t find that. However, he did find support for the suspicion that black people suffer more nonlethal violence at the hands of cops than whites do.
So let’s look at this.
The study examined data from 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. Generally, Fryer found that there is 25 percent greater likelihood that the police would go hands on black suspects than white ones—cuffing them, or forcing them to ground, or using other non-lethal force.
Specifically, in New York City, in encounters where white and black citizens were matched for other characteristics, they found that:
This is more or less the full continuum of violence short of using lethal force. And it seems, from the data we have, that blacks receive more of it than whites. What accounts for this disparity? Racism? Maybe. However, as I said, it’s inconvenient to note that other data suggest that black cops and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. I’m not sure how an ambient level of racism explains that.
Are there other explanations? Well, again, could it be that blacks are less cooperative with the police. If so, that’s worth understanding. A culture of resisting arrest would be a very bad thing to cultivate, given that the only response to such resistance is for the police to increase their use of force.
Whatever is true here is something we should want to understand. And it’s all too easy to see how an increased number of encounters with cops, due to their policing in the highest crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black, and an increased number of traffic stops in those neighborhoods, and an increased propensity for cops to go hands-on these suspects, with or without an arrest, for whatever reason—it’s easy to see how all of this could be the basis for a perception of racism, whether or not racism is the underlying motivation.
It is totally humiliating to be arrested or manhandled by a cop. And, given the level of crime in the black community, a disproportionate number of innocent black men seem guaranteed to have this experience. It’s totally understandable that this would make them bitter and mistrustful of the police. This is another vicious circle that we must find some way to interrupt.
But Fryer also found that black suspects are around 25 percent less likely to be shot than white suspects are. And in the most egregious situations, where officers were not first attacked, but nevertheless fired their weapons at a suspect, they were more likely to do this when the suspect was white.
Again, the data are incomplete. This doesn’t not cover every city in the country. And a larger study tomorrow might paint a different picture. But, as far as I know, the best data we have suggest that for, whatever reason, whites are more likely to be killed by cops once an arrest is attempted. And a more recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by David Johnson and colleagues found similar results. And it is simply undeniable that more whites are killed by cops each year, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to their contributions to crime and violence in our society.
Can you hear how these facts should be grinding in that well-oiled machine of woke outrage? Our society is in serious trouble now. We are being crushed under the weight of a global pandemic and our response to it has been totally inept. On top of that, we’re being squeezed by the growing pressure of what might become a full-on economic depression. And the streets are now filled with people who imagine, on the basis of seeing some horrific videos, that there is an epidemic of racist cops murdering African Americans. Look at what this belief is doing to our politics. And these videos will keep coming. And the truth is they could probably be matched 2 for 1 with videos of white people being killed by cops. What percentage of people protesting understand that the disparity runs this way? In light of the belief that the disparity must run the other way, people are now quite happy to risk getting beaten and arrested by cops themselves, and to even loot and burn businesses. And most people and institutions are supporting this civil unrest from the sidelines, because they too imagine that cops are killing black people in extraordinary numbers. And all of this is calling forth an authoritarian response from Trump—and leading to more examples of police violence caught on video.
As I hope I’ve made clear, we need police reform—there’s no question about this. And some of the recent footage of the police attacking peaceful protests is outrageous. Nothing I just said should signify that I’m unaware of that. From what I’ve seen—and by the time I release this podcast, the character of all this might have changed—but, from what I’ve seen, the police were dangerously passive in the face of looting and real crime, at least in the beginning. In many cities, they just stood and watched society unravel. And then they were far too aggressive in the face of genuinely peaceful protests. This is a terrible combination. It is the worst combination. There’s no better way to increase cynicism and anger and fear, on all sides.
But racializing how we speak about the problem of police violence, where race isn’t actually the relevant variable—again, think of Tony Timpa— this has highly negative effects. First, it keeps us from talking about the real problems with police tactics. For instance, we had the recent case of Breonna Taylor who was killed in a so-called “no knock” raid of her home. As occasionally happens, in this carnival of moral error we call “the war on drugs,” the police had the wrong address, and they kicked in the wrong door. And they wound up killing a totally innocent woman. But this had nothing to do with race. The problem is not, as some commentators have alleged, that it’s not safe to be “sleeping while black.” The problem is that these no-knock raids are an obscenely dangerous way of enforcing despicably stupid laws. White people die under precisely these same circumstances, and very likely in greater numbers (I don’t have data specifically on no-knock raids, but we can assume that the ratio is probably conserved here).
Think about how crazy this policy is in a nation where gun ownership is so widespread. If someone kicks in your door in the middle of the night, and you’re a gun owner, of course you’re going to reach for your gun. That’s why you have a gun in the first place. The fact that people bearing down on you and your family out of the darkness might have yelled “police” (or might have not yelled “police”; it’s alleged in some of these cases that they don’t yell anything)—the fact that someone yells “police” isn’t necessarily convincing. Anyone can yell “police.” And, again, think of the psychology of this: If the police have the wrong house, and you know there is no reason on earth that real cops would take an interest in you, especially in the middle of the night, because you haven’t done anything (you’re not the guy running a meth lab)—and now you’re reaching for your gun in the dark—of course, someone is likely to get killed. This is not a racial issue. It’s a terrible policy.
Unfortunately, the process of police reform isn’t straightforward—and it is made massively more complicated by what’s happening now. Yes, we will be urging police reform in a very big way now, that much seems clear. But Roland Fryer has also shown that investigations of the cops, in a climate where viral videos and racial politics are operating, have dramatic effects, many of which are negative.
He studied the aftermath of the investigations into police misconduct that followed the killings Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Lequan McDonald, and found that, for reasons that seem pretty easy to intuit, proactive police contact with civilians decreases drastically, sometimes by as much 100 percent, once these investigations get started. This is now called “The Ferguson Effect.” The police still answer 911 calls, but they don’t investigate suspicious activity in the same way. They don’t want to wind up on YouTube. And when they alter their behavior like this, homicides go up. Fryer estimates that the effects of these few investigations translated into 1000 extra homicides, and almost 40,000 more felonies, over the next 24 months in the US. And, of course, most of the victims of those crimes were black. One shudders to imagine the size of the Ferguson effect we’re about to see nationwide… I’m sure the morale among cops has never been lower. I think it’s almost guaranteed that cops by the thousands will be leaving the force. And it will be much more difficult to recruit good people.
Who is going to want to be a cop now? Who could be idealist about occupying that role in society? It seems to me that the population of people who will become cops now will be more or less indistinguishable from the population of people who become prison guards. I’m pretty sure there’s a difference there, and I think we’re likely to see that difference expressed in the future. It’s a grim picture, unless we do something very creative here.
So there’s a real question about how we can reform police departments, and get rid of bad cops, without negatively impacting the performance of good cops? That’s a riddle we have to solve—or at least we have to understand what the trade-offs are here.
Why is all of this happening now? Police killings of civilians have gone way down. And they are rare events. They are 1/10,000 level events, if measured by arrests. 1/50-60,000 level events if measured by police encounters. And the number of unarmed people who are killed is smaller still. Around 50 last year, again, more were white than black. And not all unarmed victims are innocent. Some get killed in the act of attacking the cops. [EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE]
Again, the data don’t tell a clean story, or the whole story. I see no reason to doubt that blacks get more attention from the cops—though, honestly, given the distribution of crime in our society, I don’t know what the alternative to that would be. And once the cops get involved, blacks are more likely to get roughed up, which is bad. But, again, it simply isn’t clear that racism is the cause. And contrary to everyone’s expectations, whites seem more likely to get killed by cops. Actually, one factor seems to be that whites are 7 times more likely to commit “suicide by cop” (and 3 times more likely to commit suicide generally). What’s going on there? Who knows?
There’s a lot we don’t understand about these data. But ask yourself, would our society seem less racist if the disparity ran the other way? Is less physical contact, but a greater likelihood of getting shot and killed a form of white privilege? Is a higher level of suicide by cop, and suicide generally, a form of white privilege? We have a problem here that, read either way, you can tell a starkly racist narrative.
We need ethical, professional policing, of course. But the places with the highest crime in our society need the most of it. Is there any doubt about that? In a city like Milwaukee, blacks are 12 times more likely to get murdered than whites [Not sure where I came by this number, probably a lecture or podcast. It appears the rate is closer to 20 times more likely and 22 times more likely in Wisconsin as a whole—SH], again, they are being killed by other African Americans, nearly 100 percent of the time. I think the lowest figure I’ve seen is 93 percent of the time. [As noted above, more recent data suggest that it’s closer to 90 percent]. What should the police do about this? And what are they likely to do now that our entire country has been convulsed over one horrific case of police misconduct?
We need to lower the temperature on this conversation, and many other conversations, and understand what is actually happening in our society.
But instead of doing this, we now have a whole generation of social activists who seem eager to play a game of chicken with the forces of chaos. Everything I said about the problem of inequality and the need for reform stands. But I think that what we are witnessing in our streets, and on social media, and even in the mainstream press, is a version of mass hysteria. And the next horrific video of a black person being killed by cops won’t be evidence to the contrary. And there will be another video. There are 10 million arrests every year. There will always be another video.
And the media has turned these videos into a form of political pornography. And this has deranged us. We’re now unable to speak or even think about facts. The media has been poisoned by bad incentives, in this regard, and social media doubly so.
In the mainstream of this protest movement, it’s very common to hear that the only problem with what is happening in our streets, apart from what the cops are doing, is that some criminal behavior at the margins—a little bit of looting, a little bit of violence—has distracted us from an otherwise necessary and inspiring response to an epidemic of racism. Most people in the media have taken exactly this line. People like Anderson Cooper on CNN or the editorial page of the New York Times or public figures like President Obama or Vice President Biden. The most prominent liberal voices believe that the protests themselves make perfect moral and political sense, and that movements like Black Lives Matter are guaranteed to be on the right side of history. How could anyone who is concerned about inequality and injustice in our society see things any other way? How could anyone who isn’t himself racist not support Black Lives Matter?
But, of course, there’s a difference between slogans and reality. There’s a difference between the branding of a movement and its actual aims. And this can be genuinely confusing. That’s why propaganda works. For instance, many people assume there’s nothing wrong with ANTIFA, because this group of total maniacs has branded itself as “anti-fascist.” What could be wrong with being anti-fascist? Are you pro fascism?
There’s a similar problem with Black Lives Matter—though, happily, unlike ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter actually seems committed to peaceful protest, which is hugely important. So the problem I’m discussing is more ideological, and it’s much bigger than Black Lives Matter—though BLM is its most visible symbol of this movement. The wider issue is that we are in the midst of a public hysteria and moral panic. And it has been made possible by a near total unwillingness, particularly on the Left, among people who value their careers and their livelihoods and their reputations, and fear being hounded into oblivion online—this is nearly everyone left-of-center politically. People are simply refusing to speak honestly about the problem of race and racism in America.
We are making ourselves sick. We are damaging our society. And by protesting the wrong thing, even the slightly wrong thing, and unleashing an explosion of cynical criminality in the process—looting that doesn’t even have the pretense of protest—the Left is empowering Trump, whatever the polls currently show. And if we are worried about Trump’s authoritarian ambitions, as I think we really should be, this is important to understand. He recently had what looked like paramilitary troops guarding the White House. I don’t know if we found out who those guys actually were, but that was genuinely alarming. But how are Democrats calls to “abolish the police” going to play to half the country that just watched so many cities get looted? We have to vote Trump out of office and restore the integrity of our institutions. And we have to make the political case for major reforms to deal with the problem of inequality—a problem which affects the black community most of all.
We need police reform; we need criminal justice reform; we need tax reform; we need health care reform; we need environmental reform—we need all of these things and more. And to be just, these policies will need to reduce the inequality in our society. If we did this, African Americans would benefit, perhaps more than any other group. But it’s not at all clear that progress along these dimensions primarily entails us finding and eradicating more racism in our society.
Just ask yourself, what would real progress on the problem of racism look like? What would utter progress look like?
Here’s what I think it would look like: More and more people (and ultimately all people) would care less and less (and ultimately not at all) about race. As I’ve said before in various places, skin color would become like hair color in its political and moral significance—which is to say that it would have none.
Now, maybe you don’t agree with that aspiration. Maybe you think that tribalism based on skin color can’t be outgrown or shouldn’t be outgrown. Well, if you think that, I’m afraid I don’t know what to say to you. It’s not that there’s nothing to say, it’s just there is so much we disagree about, morally and politically, that I don’t know where to begin. So that debate, if it can even be had, will have to be left for another time.
For the purposes of this conversation, I have to assume that you agree with me about the goal here, which is to say that you share the hope that there will come a time where the color of a person’s skin really doesn’t matter. What would that be like?
Well, how many blondes got into Harvard this year? Does anyone know? What percentage of the police in San Diego are brunette? Do we have enough red heads in senior management in our Fortune 500 companies? No one is asking these questions, and there is a reason for that. No one cares. And we are right not to care.
Imagine a world in which people cared about hair color to the degree that we currently care—or seem to care, or imagine that others care, or allege that they secretly care—about skin color. Imagine a world in which discrimination by hair color was a thing, and it took centuries to overcome, and it remains a persistent source of private pain and public grievance throughout society, even where it no longer exists. What an insane misuse of human energy that would be. What an absolute catastrophe.
The analogy isn’t perfect, for a variety of reasons, but it’s good enough for us to understand what life would be like if the spell of racism and anti-racism were truly broken. The future we want is not one in which we have all become passionate anti-racists. It’s not a future in which we are forever on our guard against the slightest insult—the bad joke, the awkward compliment, the tweet that didn’t age well. We want to get to a world in which skin color and other superficial characteristics of a person become morally and politically irrelevant. And if you don’t agree with that, what did you think Martin Luther King Jr was talking about?
And, finally, if you’re on the Left and don’t agree with this vision of a post-racial future, please observe that the people who agree with you, the people who believe that there is no overcoming race, and that racial identity is indissoluble, and that skin color really matters and will always matter—these people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis and other total assholes. And these are also people I can’t figure out how to talk to, much less persuade.
So the question for the rest of us—those of us who want to build a world populated by human beings, merely—the question is, how do we get there? How does racial difference become uninteresting? Can it become uninteresting by more and more people taking a greater interest in it? Can it become uninteresting by becoming a permanent political identity? Can it become uninteresting by our having thousands of institutions whose funding (and, therefore, very survival) depends on it remaining interesting until the end of the world?
Can it become less significant by being granted more and more significance? By becoming a fetish, a sacred object, ringed on all sides by taboos? Can race become less significant if you can lose your reputation and even your livelihood, at any moment, by saying one wrong word about it?
I think these questions answer themselves. To outgrow our obsession with racial difference, we have outgrow our obsession with race. And you don’t do that by maintaining your obsession with it.
Now, you might agree with me about the goal and about how a post-racial society would seem, but you might disagree about the path to get there—the question of what to do next. In fact, one podcast listener wrote to me recently to say that while he accepted my notion of a post-racial future, he thinks it’s just far too soon to talk about putting racial politics behind us. He asked me to imagine just how absurd it would have been to tell Martin Luther King Jr, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, that the path beyond racism requires that he become less and less obsessed with race.
That seems like a fair point, but Coleman Hughes has drawn my attention to a string of MLK quotes that seem to be just as transcendent of racial identity politics as I’m hoping to be here. You can see these quotations on his Twitter feed. None of those statements by King would make sense coming out of Black Lives Matter at the moment.
In any case, as I said, I think we are living in a very different time than Martin Luther King was. And what I see all around me is evidence of the fact that we were paying an intolerable price for confusion about racism, and social justice generally—and the importance of identity, generally—and this is happening in an environment where the path to success and power for historically disadvantaged groups isn’t generally barred by white racists who won’t vote for them, or hire them, or celebrate their achievements, or buy their products, and it isn’t generally barred by laws and policies and norms that are unfair. There is surely still some of that. But there must be less of it now than there ever was.
The real burden on the black community is the continued legacy of inequality—with respect to wealth, and education, and health, and social order—levels of crime, in particular, and resulting levels of incarceration, and single-parent families—and it seems very unlikely that these disparities, whatever their origin in the past, can be solved by focusing on problem of lingering racism, especially where it doesn’t exist. And the current problem of police violence seems a perfect case in point.
And yet now we’re inundated with messages from every well-intentioned company and organization singing from the same book of hymns. Black Lives Matter is everywhere. Of course, black lives matter. But the messaging of this movement about the reality of police violence is wrong, and it’s creating a public hysteria.
I just got a message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science talking about fear of the other. The quote from the email: “Left unchecked, racism, sexism, homophobia, and fear of the other can enter any organization or community – and destroy the foundations upon which we must build our future.” Ok, fine. But is that really the concern in the scientific community right now, “unchecked racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Is that really what ails science in the year 2020? I don’t think so.
I’ll tell you the fear of the other that does seem warranted, everywhere, right now. It’s the other who has rendered him or herself incapable of dialogue. It’s the other who will not listen to reason, who has no interest in facts, who can’t join a conversation that converges on the truth, because he knows in advance what the truth must be. We should fear the other who thinks that dogmatism and cognitive bias aren’t something to be corrected for, because they’re the very foundations of his epistemology. We should fear the other who can’t distinguish activism from journalism or politics from science. Or worse, can make these distinctions, but refuses to. And we’re all capable of becoming this person. If only for minutes or hours at a time. And this is a bug in our operating system, not a feature. We have to continually correct for it.
One of the most shocking things that many of us learned when the Covid-19 pandemic was first landing on our shores, and we were weighing the pros and cons of closing the schools, was that for tens of millions of American kids, going to school represents the only guarantee of a decent meal on any given day. I’m pretty confident that most of the kids we’re talking about here aren’t white. And whatever you think about the opportunities in this country and whatever individual success stories you can call to mind, there is no question that some of us start on third base, or second base. Everyone has a lot to deal with, of course. Life is hard. But not everyone is a single mom, or single grandparent, struggling to raise kids in the inner city, all the while trying to keep them from getting murdered. The disparities in our society are absolutely heartbreaking and unacceptable. And we need to have a rational discussion about their actual causes and solutions.
We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. And the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments—a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.
Ok… Well, perhaps that was more of an exhortation than I intended, but it certainly felt like I needed to say it. I hope it was useful. And the conversations will continue on this podcast.
Stay safe, everyone.
Dear Making Sense and Waking Up subscribers—
Those of you who have been listening to my podcast or following me on Twitter know that I’m quite worried about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Barring some extraordinarily good luck, I believe that we have some very rough months ahead of us. Health concerns aside, it now seems inevitable that we will experience considerable economic uncertainty as a wave of illness disrupts normal life in a hundred countries simultaneously.
As you know, both the Waking Up app and the Making Sense podcast are subscription services. However, it has always been my policy that money should never be the reason why someone can’t get access to them. As we collectively respond to this global emergency, please know that if you can no longer afford a subscription to Waking Up or Making Sense, you need only send an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, and you’ll receive a free account when your subscription expires.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have found work that I love to do, along with a community of people willing to support it—and I feel especially good knowing that I can be of use to many of you at a time like this. I’m also very happy that both Waking Up and Making Sense are supported by a wonderful team of employees and contractors who can work from home indefinitely.
So please don’t forget: The work we are doing is for you, whether you can pay for it or not. And don’t hesitate to be in touch if you need help.
Wishing you all health and happiness,
As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.
I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.
Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.
I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.
The post A few thoughts on the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy appeared first on Sam Harris.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”
There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.
I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).
One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.
But why Higher Ed?
As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?
Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.
*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.
Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!
The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).
Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:
Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed
The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)
Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities
Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood
I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!
The post Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson in Vancouver (Night One) appeared first on Sam Harris.
The post Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson in Vancouver (Night Two) appeared first on Sam Harris.
[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]
After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.
Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?
Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.
Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?
In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.
What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?
Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.
Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.
First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.
Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?
Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.
So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?
Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?
Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.
This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.
*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).
Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.
Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.
Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):
I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.
Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.
These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.
The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.
The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.
MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901
In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.
For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.
But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.
At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.
Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.
And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.
[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]
Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.
This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.
The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.
Let’s begin, shall we?
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If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.
If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.
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Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:
When and where does our class meet?
What assignments do we have and when are they due?
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How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?
3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.
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You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.
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How much wood a woodchuck can chuck
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Please contact your TA for assistance.
Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.
PRESS RELEASE MARCH 12 2013
Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial
On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).
The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.
In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of. The sue was an immediate media security event. Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law. In effect, he has his own concierge security service.
Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside. Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.
The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.
For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.
Best regards / Mvh,
UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)
I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.
Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)
Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.
Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.
He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.
This is indeed a very disappointing decision.
Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.
The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that
In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.
Editor “Charb” said,
We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.
Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.
UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.