Debate; Avoid Distraction

Earlier this week on Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok reports on a fascinating piece of research into how the Chinese government pays people to post to social media sites to build support for the government.  The paper is by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts.

A key insight: the effort is not to debate issues, but to distract people.  Says the paper:

Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument. Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up…

Adds Tabarrok:

Debate is about appealing to an individual’s reason; debate is thus implicitly individualistic, respectful of rights and epistemically egalitarian. (As I argued earlier, respect for the truth is tied to individualism because any person may have truth and reason on their side.) Authoritarians don’t care about these things and so they lie and distract with impunity and without shame. In this case, the distraction is done subtly.

In these times, we need to be sure to debate issues.  And we need to be sure to avoid being distracted.

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Red Lines

From the New York Times today, reporting on Barack Obama’s final press conference:

“There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room.

Mr. Obama continued: “I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise. I’d put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press. And for me at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else, when they love this country.”

 All of his red lines seemed to refer to positions taken in the past by Mr. Trump.

  • Systematic discrimination.
  • Explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise.
  • Institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press.
  • Efforts to round up kids … who are for all practical purposes American kids.

That’s a pretty great list of fundamental issues: issues that are outside the bounds of legitimate politics.  I’m glad President Obama has named these as ones on which he would engage the next President.

I note that health care is not on the list.  I presume that’s because President Obama considers it an important issue, but not a “core values” one.  Nor is climate change.  And you can think of many other issues that he has made central to his policy agenda.  He’s saying that the red line issues are more fundamental

They form a great list of “red line issues” for all of us.  Take note.

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Collins’ Vote More Crucial Than Ever

Guest Column in the Brunswick Times Record, January 13, 2017

Because Republicans have only a two-vote plurality in the U.S. Senate, I am going to be paying close attention to Maine’s own Sen. Susan Collins.

One reason is that she is one of my Senators from the state of Maine. She represents me: she speaks and acts for me and for all other Mainers. But there’s another reason. At any moment over the next two years, just she and any one other Republican Senator are what give Mitch McConnell his power as the Senate Majority leader. Whatever the Republican Party is about to do with its control of the House of Representatives, and the Presidency as well as the Senate, just Senator Collins and one other Republican Senator are likely to be able to put a stop to it by saying no.

President-Elect Trump has named his nominees for many of his cabinet posts: a nominee for Secretary of Education (Betsy DeVos) who is an opponent of public education; a nominee for Attorney General (Jeff Sessions) who has appalling record on civil rights; a nominee for Secretary of the Treasury (Steven Mnuchin) straight from Wall Street; a nominee for Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson) who has been a business crony of Vladimir Putin; a nominee for Energy Secretary (Rick Perry) who wanted to eliminate the Department but couldn’t remember its name; a nominee for Secretary of Labor (Andrew Puzder) who opposes the minimum wage; a Director of the EPA (Scott Pruitt) who is a close ally of big oil and coal: Senator Collins and just one other Republican Senator could deny confirmation to any or all of these threats to the common welfare.

And then there is likely the legislative agenda I’ll be watching.

Consider the Affordable Care Act: the health care policy that ensures all Americans can have health care? I was disappointed that Sen. Collins didn’t vote for the ACA when it passed Congress in 2010. The Obama administration took a Republican approach first tried in Massachusetts as its template for guaranteeing health care for all Americans in a hope that its bill would find bipartisan support. Sen. Collins was the last hope for a Republican supporter, but she stuck with Mitch McConnell on that one.

Now the Republican leaders vow to scuttle the Affordable Care Act without having any meaningful alternative except to return care for the nation’s health to large insurance companies. I’m hoping Sen. Collins will stand against repeal of the Affordable Care Act to insure that my family and yours can have a right to affordable health insurance.

Donald Trump will likely soon name a nominee for the vacant position on the Supreme Court. I’ll be watching to see whether Sen. Collins insists that the nominee has a record showing respect and advocacy for the civil rights for all Americans, whatever their race or ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

Or take climate change. The Republican Party and now President elect Trump oppose any meaningful action to slow the human-caused warming of the planet. We’re likely now to see proposals to weaken environmental protections and to allow much more exploitation of coal and oil. Will Sen. Collins stand up to protect future generations from a super-heated earth? I’ll be watching. She’ll be a critical vote on this issue, too.

I know I need to do much more than watch. It isn’t only Sen. Collins who bears responsibility for what happens next at this critical juncture in our nation’s life. So, too do Sen. King and Representatives Pingree and Poliquin.

But then so, too, do you and me. We all bear responsibility for what happens next in the great story of this grand old republic. We all need to pay attention, be informed, write our Senators and Representatives, voice our hopes, and recommit ourselves to truth telling and caring for one another. We all need to show up and stand up. “With liberty and justice for all” — that is what we promise one another when we rise to Pledge Allegiance. We all need to be stepping up to that challenge. Liberty and justice for all will be our future only if we all stand behind these commitments with all our hearts and minds.

Sen. Collins simply has a special responsibility because her vote and just one other could be the margin between what can make America true to its promises or what can lead us down a very wrong path.

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Commitments for the Trump Era

January 6, 2017

Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been thinking a good deal about how I should act towards this unwelcome person vested with the authority of the presidency. I’ve read a great deal from others, much of it worrying about specific things that may or may not come to pass. Gradually, a few principles to guide my own posture, attention, advocacy and action have come into view. I’m setting them down here to record my thinking at this particular time, before he takes office, and also to make them available to others.

  1. I begin with an understanding that Donald Trump is unfit to be President. The problem is not that he is inexperienced, uninformed and prejudiced, though he is all of these. Rather, he is unfit in character. He feels no commitment to evidence or truth telling. He is unable to show even a smidgen of empathy to others. He has no ability to pay attention at length or focus in depth. He insists on the adulation of others. In evidence over the whole of his well-documented adult life, these features of his character will not change with experience. They make him unacceptable as a President. These features will not be altered or restrained by those he chooses as advisors. It would be reckless to expect the office to change him.

      One consequence is that I want to pay little attention to what he says. Much of what he says is intended (not necessarily consciously) to inflame and incite. It will only be distracting to real issues to pay attention to whatever he says in tweets and parries.

  1. My second commitment is to pay close attention to those he invests with authority: the Cabinet Secretaries, Department heads, White House advisors and Congressional leaders. These are the people who can make things happen if things are to happen. By himself, the President can do little. It is those who choose to be his allies that I want to watch carefully. It is to them I want to respond in word and deed.
  1. I will feel an obligation to speaking truthfully and to hold others to a standard of truthfulness. I will feel an obligation to speak with civility and generosity. These are commitments I have had for many years, but I need to renew these. Two things follow from this.

      I need not only to read but to support institutions (newspapers, magazines, etc.) that I believe seek and speak the truth. I need to be wary of becoming a free rider on those sources to which I can gain unpaid access via the Internet. I need to give them active support.

      At the same time, I need to be sure I pay attention to the best of the opposition. Some time ago, I resolved to pay more attention to those with whom I disagreed. I try to read regularly opinions, perspectives and policy arguments of those with whom I part company, even on what seem like fundamental matters. This commitment must continue.

  1. I need to keep fresh a short list of the most important issues in play. I need to pay attention to these, even when they slip from sight in the news, and I need to stay focused on the actions that might advance those causes or set them back. I cannot/should not trust the news media to do my focusing for me.
  1. I need to pay attention to the Congress. Many of the bad things that could come to pass will only happen with Congressional action. I need to hold members of Congress accountable for their votes and for their refusals to vote. I need to write and call them regularly to voice my views on the issues most important to me.
  1. I need to insist on adherence to the law. Because there is little I can do as an individual in that regard beyond speaking out, this will mean giving tangible support to those organizations that press for the rule of law. I need to insist that organizations I care about be treated lawfully and equitably, and at the same time I need to insist that those organizations I support tell the truth and act lawfully and ethically.
  1. Finally, I know that there may be issues on which I may be compelled to stand for a change in the law, even perhaps to commit civil disobedience. I need to support organizations that do this, too, when necessary.   Civil disobedience is a not a path to be embarked upon quickly or rashly, but only when the stakes are very high and when other avenues have been shown ineffective.

      The organizations that will lead efforts in civil disobedience are unlikely to be the same organizations that insist on adherence to the law. I need to be thoughtful about the organizations to which I give support.

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A Turn In These Times

December 5, 2016

When I began this blog in the spring of 2010, my intention was to write mostly about higher education matters.  I’ve largely stuck to that.  Most of the exceptions have to do with satisfying my curiosity about word etymology.

Over the last year or two, I’ve written less in this place.  I am further in both time and place from college and university life, and other concerns have captured my attention.  I also blog about religious/Quaker matters, for example, at River View Friend.  And I am more heavily involved in discussions of the future of Topsham, Maine, where I live.  And now this country has elected a most unsuitable President.

I’ve considered laying down this blog, but I’m now resolved, instead, to widen its focus.  This blog has largely served as a public journal, a place to record my thoughts, to share them with others if they should be interested, and to hold myself accountable by giving myself a way to see whether I still agree with things I’ve written months or years ago.

I’ll still write occasionally about higher education matters, but beginning now and for an indefinite future, the Observatory will concern itself with a broader spectrum of concerns.


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Naming on Campus

December 2, 2016


Calhoun College, Yale University

At Earlham, a prominent building is called Carpenter Hall, but almost no one remembers who Carpenter was. And that’s so for most buildings on campuses all across the United States.  But sometimes it does matter, as it does at Yale with Calhoun College.

When I was a graduate student at Yale, I had friends who lived in Calhoun, one of Yale’s residential colleges for undergraduates. I didn’t think much about the name.  It was only later that I read Calhoun and realized what a critical intellectual spokesperson he was for slavery.  In recent years, Yale has come under pressure to remove Calhoun’s name and replace it with something more suitable.  Last April, Yale President Peter Salovey announced Calhoun’s name would stay put.  Renaming Calhoun College could have the effect of hiding the legacy of slavery, he argued.  “More than a decision about a name, we must focus on understanding the past and present, and preparing our students for the future,” he added.  No doubt he also worried that if Yale removed Calhoun’s name, there would be calls to change the name of other Yale buildings

But still there was clamoring to remove Calhoun’s name.

Salovey appointed a committee–The Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming–to come up with a procedure and some guiding principles to consider proposals to remove a historical name from a campus building, space, or structure.  That committee has now made its report, and Salovey and the Yale Corporation (Yale’s governing board) have approved it.

It’s a terrific report.  It says that there should be a presumption against renaming, but it does acknowledge that there may be circumstances when name removal or change is appropriate.  And it puts forward a series of questions (the Quaker in me wants to say queries) to be asked in considering such proposals.  For example: “Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?” and “Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?”

These questions don’t draw bright lines, but taken together they do lift up the questions and considerations that ought to come into play in making renaming decisions.

So will Calhoun College be renamed?  Given what the report reminds us about Calhoun, I’d say that is a likely upshot.  But there will be another committee that uses the new principles/questions to make a recommendation about that specific issue.  In early 2017.

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A Code of Conduct for the Trump Era?

December 1, 2016

Yesterday’s Inside Higher Education carried a story about a proposed “anti-authoritarian code of conduct” proposed by Rachel Barney, a professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Toronto.  I read the proposed code with interest, but also found myself with some misgivings.

Neither the Rachel Barney proposal nor the IHE story make any reference to the American Association of University Professors Statement on Professional Ethics.  First adopted in 1966, and subsequently revised in 1987 and 2009, it is to this statement that I would first look for guidance about professional rights and responsibilities.  In its statements on tenure and academic freedom, on academic governance, on freedom of expression and speech codes (and much else), the AAUP has established itself as an organization with the standing and gravitas to voice the rights and responsibilities of members of the academy.  (The IHE story did make mention of a recent statement by AAUP resolution condemning hate crimes.)

The AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics is, I believe, a fine statement.  So why the need for a new code?  A colleague remarked, in support of considering the Barney proposal that “the AAUP code and other codes were not drafted with current circumstances in mind.” But that seems to me to speak against the proposal.  We shouldn’t trim our ethics to suit circumstances; a good code of ethics ought to speak generally to all times and circumstances.

Is something lacking in the AAUP Statement that it ought to have included?  To my reading, the Blarney proposal covers substantially the same ground with a few important exceptions.  Both speak to truthfulness, free inquiry and academic freedom, fairness and non-discrimination.  The AAUP statement is more general and timeless; the Barney statement more toned to current times.  In that choice, I prefer more general and timeless codes: they don’t look like they were written to combat a particular political movement or person; they speak to all times and circumstances.

I want to lift up this statement in Barney’s: “I will not be shy about my commitment to academic values: truth, objectivity, free inquiry and rational debate. I will challenge others when they engage in behavior contrary to these values.”  The corresponding sentences in the the AAUP statement reads “Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty.”  Perhaps there are shades of difference between these two, but I applaud the unabashed use of the word “truth” in both.  Recent academic fashion has not favored that word.

There are two statements in the Barney proposal that deviate from the AAUP Code:

  • I will not aid in the marginalization, exclusion or deportation of my undocumented students and colleagues.
  • I will not aid in government surveillance. I will not inform.

By contrast, the AAUP statement has this to say:  “As members of their community, professors have the rights and obligations of other citizens. Professors measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to their profession, and to their institution.”

Barney is lifting up issues that are matters of law that bear on all citizens.  I like how the AAUP statement addresses that.

When and whether we should cooperate with government officials is not something that is different for scholar/teachers than it is for other citizens.  Matters of immigration and surveillance are very much in play in American politics.  I have strong leadings about both matters, ones that almost surely align with Rachel Barney’s.  I would be reluctant to cooperate with government officials on both.  I might even flatly refuse cooperation, but I don’t think I would view that as part of my professional ethics.  Rather, I think it would be a political stance, even perhaps an act of civil disobedience.  I don’t think we well serve the cause of professional ethics by mixing in matters of political disagreement, no matter how strongly we feel about them.


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