Sunday, August 06, 2017

An internal screed circulated inside Google complaining about its "diversity" policies has generated an enormous amount of noise, both for and against (including by some opponents who seem determined to prove it accurate).  Most interesting to me is the document's claim that dissenting views about these policies are actively suppressed within Google.  As I pointed out a couple of years ago, such suppression is usually a symptom of an unaccountable organization, insulated enough from performance standards that it can be hijacked by political agenda-pushers with impunity.  One wouldn't normally think of Google that way, but in fact it makes almost all its money from its Internet advertising business, and many of its other technologies--employing the majority of its employees--may therefore be developing an unaccountable culture similar to that of nonprofit organizations, where various abstract ideals--including political ones pushed by internal factions for their own reasons--compete to replace the bottom line as the primary decision-making factor.

As for the public reaction to the episode, I'm frankly amazed at the number of people--on both sides of the issue--who seem to think that how Google evaluates its current and prospective engineers is a public policy matter, subject to political approval in the same way as, say, oil pipeline proposals.  One could argue that this is a natural extension of non-discrimination law, which first gradually expanded to include such concepts as "disparate impact", which effectively restricts how employers may evaluate job candidates in the name of achieving racial parity in hiring.  But I can't recall a previous instance where such concepts were applied in a white-collar professional context, where evaluation of talent is so crucial to success.  (Imagine, for instance, if medical practices were required to tailor their hiring and evaluation standards to suit current political conventions.)  I personally don't care whether Google adopts an outstanding, average or catastrophically bad set of hiring criteria for its technical employees.  But I shudder to think what will happen to the US economy if companies in general are forbidden to focus on competence in hiring even for positions requiring advanced skills and training.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The second ICBW podcast is now available for your listening...er...pleasure.  We discuss the latest Washington follies, and wonk out on medical care and "AI risk".  Part one can be found here, and part two here.  As always, readers are welcome to add to the discussion via comments on this post.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

David Brooks' latest column on class in America is typical of his keen social insight, but perhaps most interesting for what it tactfully omits, rather than what it actually says.  Most of the attention has focused on his discussion of the cultural signals that upper-middle-class Americans use to identify themselves--and thus, implicitly, to exclude everyone else--in both social and workplace contexts.  But the column actually begins with a look at how hard America's elite class works to pass its status on to its children, particularly by pouring enormous resources into education.

And that's where the tactful elision comes in.  Historically, aristocracies have always constructed elaborate systems of social signals to distinguish themselves from commoners, for a simple reason:  such signals are far easier to pass on to descendants reliably than the kinds of traits--intelligence, talent, discipline, diligence--that would allow those children to attain elite status based on merit alone.  Consider accent, for instance--long at the core of the British class system's social sorting process.  The most worthless wastrel can be taught a posh accent simply by being raised among others speaking in it, while only a few talented mimics are capable of overcoming a childhood steeped in lower-class argot.  Americans, as it happens, aren't nearly as attuned as the British to the subtleties of speech--most Americans can't pinpoint a countryman's place of birth more precisely than, say, "South" or "not South", let alone his social status, by listening to his accent.  So members of the American elite instead instill class markers in their children based on domains they're more deeply immersed in:  pop culture and politics.

Of course, America's upper-middle class thinks of itself as meritocratic--college-educated, industrious, talented and ambitious.  And that was largely true of the high achievers of the postwar and baby-boom generations, most of whom climbed the ladder of success on their own merits.  But much of today's upper-middle class is third- or fourth-generation, and regression to the mean is an awfully hard trend to combat, even with the best schools and neighborhoods.  And that's why this aristocracy, like the ones before it, is--as Brooks deftly observes--forced to fall back on cultural signals, rather than truly admirable traits, as its class markers.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

What nobody seems to have noticed about this past Friday night's bombshell about a Republican "opposition researcher" trying to obtain the contents of Hillary Clinton's private email server from Russian hackers, while claiming high-level connections in the Trump campaign, is its striking similarity to another recent story about the 2016 election:  that of the so-called "Steele memo".  Consider:
  • Both stories center on a middleman figure of questionable ethics who is nominally independent of a presidential campaign, but in practice clearly associated with it.
  • In both cases, that middleman, seeking to obtain damaging information about the opposing candidate, is happy to reach out to highly dubious sources--even at the cost of being manipulated by Russian intelligence agencies.  (This aspect of the Steele memo is rarely noted, presumably because it is widely assumed that the Russian government was entirely on Trump's side, and therefore uninterested in planting damaging information about him with Westerners.  Even if the first part of that assumption is true--and it's actually a matter of hot debate within the US intelligence community--the value to the Russians of demonstrating an ability to create and control a flow of damaging information about Trump in the event of a Trump victory should be completely obvious.)
  • In both cases, the effort foundered for lack of confirmable information, and yet took on a life of its own later on, with large segments of the press acting exactly as if the operation had in fact been a complete success, and a great deal of verifiable, damaging information obtained.
At this point, there's really no need to belabor the obvious point that the mainstream press has yet again demonstrated itself to be hopelessly partisan, adopting diametrically opposite interpretations of parallel fact patterns in a way that consistently favors the Democrats and harms Republicans.  A more interesting lesson, I think, is the extent to which partisans of both parties treat the rules around "opposition research" as a kind of kabuki theater, in which nominally independent surrogates for the parties handle the unsavory business of digging up dirt on opponents--sometimes by extremely disreputable means--while maintaining only just enough distance to satisfy legal and political obligations. 

In this sense, opposition research is similar to gerrymandering, large-donor fundraising, manipulation of ease or difficulty of voting, and many other seamy aspects of US politics:  partisanship in the US is so strong, and respect for democratic principles so weak, that "fair play" rules--such as the ones that impose limits and transparency on campaign expenditures--are uniformly treated as mere formalities to be circumvented by one's own side, and perhaps occasionally used as legal weapons with which to harass the other side.  Until those attitudes change--an unlikely prospect, given how deep-seated they are in the American body politic--American democracy will no doubt continue to be plagued with its current rampant levels of corruption and dysfunction.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fourteen years ago, I noted that the primary function of high culture has always been to allow society's elite to use their wealth and leisure to distinguish themselves from the "philistines" beneath them on the social ladder.  By using their position to educate themselves in the finer points of high culture, I argued, members of the elite can signal their status to each other, and exclude the less sophisticated from their circle.  I identified Matthew Arnold as one of the early advocates of this use of high culture, but observed that a modernist bohemian variant of it thrived in contemporary America.

Since then, though, a rather odd thing has happened--even odder for the complete lack of notice it's received:  highbrow culture has effectively disappeared from American society.  Magazines like the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker, which were not long ago full of dense book reviews of even denser academic tomes on serious artistic and cultural topics, are now dominated by political screeds and fluffy pop culture roundups.  The self-important urban intellectuals Woody Allen used to lampoon, who once dropped references to great authors and obscure foreign films, now banter about subscription TV series and mass-market movies on Twitter.  And an imploding academia, obsessed with inclusiveness and identity politics, generates its endless stream of impenetrable humanities papers primarily on contemporary politics and pop culture, and not even on modern avant-garde art--let alone the classics.

Although the cause of this collapse is uncertain, I have a hypothesis: that this dumbing-down of intellectual elitism is a natural consequence of the expansion of the elite during the 1990s boom to encompass both the wealthy and the white-collar upper-middle class. An "elite" that encompasses twenty to thirty percent of the population can't possibly distinguish itself by deep cultural erudition, and must inevitably make do with cruder class distinctions, such as tastes in television and preferred pop culture references.  For the "serious" writers and academics who seek to make a living fostering and directing the shared culture of this elite, it is therefore no longer effective to champion obscure, inaccessible artists that their target audience has neither the time nor the inclination to study and appreciate.  Instead, they must focus on the level of cultural knowledge this audience is capable of collectively absorbing:  low-to-middlebrow commentary on low-to-middlebrow fare.

Monday, June 05, 2017

We have a new treat for our readers:  the inaugural ICBW podcast is now available for your listening pleasure (or whatever other emotional response it happens to produce in you).  In part one, found here, LTEC and I cover two topics:  Trump and the current state of the university.  In part two, found here, we discuss the strangely polarized, or tribal, character of modern political thought.  Comments are, as always, welcome.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Henry Farrell's article in Democracy Journal on the British Labour party and its recent Corbyn troubles includes a remarkable omission:  it manages to discuss radical party leader Jeremy's Corbyn's rise in the context of the last several decades' history of internal Labour party politics without even once mentioning the name, "Michael Foot".  In one sense, the omission is understandable--after all, if one wants to blame Corbyn's disastrous ascendance on a series of changes in Labor's procedural rules, as Farrell does, then it's hard to explain how an equally disastrous proto-Corbyn could have risen to party leadership before any of those procedural reforms were enacted (not to mention his being the primary motivation for those reforms in the first place).  But  to someone familiar with the history, Farrell's analysis looks like a textbook case of denial, conjuring up an implausible theory to avoid confronting the deeper issues that have allowed two different unelectable radicals to seize control of the party within 35 years.

These deeper issues stem from an interesting property of the "left" and "right" coalitions I discussed recently in the context of the Trump phenomenon:  their constituent factions are not always in mutually harmonious balance.  At its healthiest, a coalition is a collection of constituencies that are each granted policy primacy in the areas that are their respective priorities.  The so called Reagan coalition, for example, offered law and order and military strength to its white blue-collar constituency, deregulation and tax cuts to its business constituency, and culturally conservative positions to its religious constituency.  The Obama coalition similarly offered identity politics to its minority constituency, cultural liberalism to its young urban constituency, and credentialist, crony-capitalist economic policies to its white-collar professional constituency.

At times of political weakness, however, a coalition can become unbalanced, with defections leaving one core constituency dominant.  This effect can snowball, with activists pushing the coalition farther and farther in the directions favored by its remaining stalwarts, chasing even more members of other constituencies away.  In the early 1960s, for instance, the post-Eisenhower revival of the old New Deal coalition under Kennedy and Johnson reduced the "right" coalition to little more than its business wing, which then promoted arch-libertarian Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination, with disastrous results. 

Similarly, the decline of organized labor in the industrialized world has left the affluent white-collar professional class as by far the dominant political force in the "left" coalition in most countries.  In Britain, when Margaret Thatcher smashed the unions, the Labour party rallied around academic far-leftist Michael Foot; and again today, having lost much of the working class to the populist right, it rallies around far-leftist Jeremy Corbyn.  Whether the "left" coalition in the US, having lost much of its non-minority blue-collar constituency to Donald Trump, will now follow the British Labour party's lead into political radicalism, will be the one of the more interesting political questions of the Trump era.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

It's annual prediction posting time!  On the happy occasion of 2016's end, we first revisit last year's predictions, before launching into next year's...
  • The US economy will stall this year, as trouble abroad (in China, Canada, and other oil-based economies) hurts exports and the Fed's tentative forays into non-zero interest rates burst various mild bubbles in the stock and other asset markets.  The stock market and real estate markets will fall, interest rates will remain very low, and the price of oil will not rebound significantly from its current lows.
As usual, I was early on this one--eight years into the business cycle, another recession is inevitable, but predicting its exact timing is very difficult.  The previous year, I expected it to occur within the subsequent three years, and took a chance on it being in 2016.  Perhaps this will be the year (see below)...
  • Immigrant-related issues will continue to distract the continent from the greater threat of disintegration due to the incoherence of its monetary union.  Hence bailouts of bankrupt southern members will continue as a quid pro quo for cooperation in stemming the flow of Middle Eastern and African migrants.  Meanwhile, rightist, populist, nativist parties will continue to surge across the continent, jettisoning many of the domestic and foreign policies anchored into place by the previously-dominant bureaucracy/union/activist/corporatist coalition.  (Hostility to Israel will of course be one of the few policies to survive the purge.)
My most accurate prediction of the year, I'd say.
  • Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will narrowly win the presidential election over Republican nominee Marco Rubio, with the crucial Republican-vote-diverting assistance of third-party candidate Donald Trump.  However, the Republicans will maintain their Congressional majorities--just barely, in the case of the Senate.
I completely botched my presidential prediction, of course, but I'm in pretty good company in doing so.  And my congressional prediction was spot-on.
  • The stalemate in Syria will continue mostly unchanged, tying down the main pro-Assad participants (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) as well as the anti-Assad ones (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) while the US largely stays on the sidelines.  ISIS will continue to weaken under the pressure of its many enemies, and its big terrorist "successes" of 2015 will be repeated very sparsely if at all.  On the other hand, Israel will find itself increasingly drawn into the fray in support of the Sunni rebel side, as the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah axis intensifies its drive to establish a front along Israel's Golan Heights border with Syria. Finally, the Kurds will once again be in the region's crosshairs, as Iran, Turkey and ISIS all increase their pressure on them, each for its own reasons.  The Obama administration will sit that one out as well, leaving the Kurds in a precarious state.
Generally in the right direction, but a bit off on magnitude.  Russian scorched earth tactics have been more effective against the Syrian rebels, ISIS has managed to generate more terrorist attacks against the West, Israel has been more hands-off in Syria, and the Kurds have been under less pressure, than I predicted.
  • The current "stabbing intifada", consisting mostly of random Palestinians spontaneously attacking random Israelis with knives, will evolve into a complex game in which the Palestinian Authority attempts to carefully calibrate the level of violence so as to keep Hamas and other radical groups occupied without provoking a major Israeli crackdown.  Ultimately this strategy will fail, and at some point Israel, responding to one or more high-casualty attacks, will launch a major "lawn-mowing" operation in the West Bank to round up terrorist organizations hiding out in PA-run areas.  World condemnation will follow, although European vituperation will be milder than usual, as a result of the new terrorist-hostile political environment there, as well as greater Israeli willingness to take active measures to counter European meddling.
The small-scale attacks appear to have eventually subsided, due to some extent to surprisingly effective Israeli countermeasures.  
  • Disney will announce that following the huge success of "Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens", Star Wars Episode 8 will be entitled, "The Force Has Breakfast".
Personally, I like my title better...

And now for this year's shots in the dark:
  • All that stuff I predicted about last year's economy will apply this year.  (Or next year--see above.)  If you object that such a prediction is non-actionable, keep in mind Bernard Baruch's (possibly apocryphal) aphorism:  "I made my money by selling too soon"...
  • The right-wing resurgence in Europe will continue in 2017, with several more countries electing new nationalist, anti-immigration governments.  Brexit negotiations will begin in earnest, but will not complete this year.  Continuing sporadic terror attacks will be joined by increasingly frequent and more severe incidents of nativist violence against immigrants.
  • Donald Trump's first year in office will be very similar to his predecessor's:  lots of "I won" bluster, but very few legislative accomplishments, apart from one or two bipartisan ones driven by Congress with Democratic cooperation.  (The Republicans will not abolish the Senate filibuster, although they'll keep the limitations on it instituted by the previous Democratic Senate.)  Neither Obamacare nor immigration will be addressed legislatively, although many of the Obama administration's executive actions in these areas will be reversed.  Reaction to Trump's usual bombastic pronouncements will be overwhelmingly partisan, and his approval ratings will therefore track his partisan support, which will hover within the 40-50-percent range. 
  • Trump's foreign policy will sound radically different from his predecessor's, but will in practice be similarly quiescent and timid, at least militarily--although thankfully without the open courtship of avowed enemies (with the exception of Putin's Russia) and sabotage against pro-US friends.  For example, despite the new pro-Israel tone, US reaction to the recent anti-Israel UN resolution will be much more muted than the current torrent of threats suggests.  Any funding cuts or formal status changes to the US' UN membership will be confined to ineffective token gestures, and the US embassy will end up not moving to Jerusalem this year. 
  • Both ISIS and the Syrian rebellion will continue to weaken, but will not yet disappear by the end of 2017.  As the Assad regime consolidates its hold, pro-Iranian proxies will be freed up for increased attacks on Israel, and Sunni radicals as well, seeking a less ruthless target, will start turning towards Israel in earnest.  Some minor attacks will occur, to which Israel will respond harshly.  Meanwhile, the corruption investigation against Bibi Netanyahu will take many months to complete, and likely won't be completed by the end of this year.  In any event, ultimately no charges will be laid.
  • Venezuela will collapse further into failed-state status in the Zimbabwe mold, with a corrupt and incompetent government using brute force to suppress opposition amid continuing economic collapse.  Meanwhile, the American opening to Cuba will do nothing for its population's destitution, and economic failure will lead to significant popular unrest in Russia, Iran and Egypt.
  • The next Star Wars film will not be named either "The Force Gets Dressed" or "Rogue Two".
As always, readers are encouraged to add their own predictions as comments on this post.  Until you've tried it, you can't really appreciate the truth of Niels Bohr's aphorism:  "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future"...

Monday, December 12, 2016

In December 1996, a Florida couple with Democratic party ties illegally intercepted and recorded a cellphone conversation in which House Speaker Newt Gingrich discussed strategies for handling the Congressional ethics charges he was facing, and provided it to a Democratic congressman, who passed it on to a Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.  The tape was also later leaked to the press, most likely by one of those members of Congress or someone on their staff.  The Florida couple were eventually charged and fined, and Gingrich paid a penalty to resolve the Ethics Committee's complaints against him.

In June 2004, a newspaper and television station successfully sued to unseal the court records of the divorce proceedings of Illinois senatorial candidate Jack Ryan and his wife Jeri.  The records had been sealed by mutual agreement, and both parties opposed the unsealing, but a judge ruled that the public's right to know outweighed the privacy of the parties to the divorce, including the divorced couple's minor-age son.  The records turned out to be highly embarrassing to Ryan, who ultimately lost his Senate race--to, of all people, a fellow named Barack Obama.

In May 2012, some comments by presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser were surreptitiously video-recorded, and the contents of the recording passed on to a journalist for a left-wing magazine.  (It was later revealed that the video was recorded by a member of the catering staff at the event, although in a second surreptitious video recording, a Democratic party operative claimed--with unknown credibility--that the Romney video recording was actually an "opposition research" project carefully planned by his organization.)  The private comments proved to be highly embarrassing to Romney, and appear to have contributed to his later loss in the presidential election that year.

These events, along with many similar ones in the recent past, provide some important context for the recent controversy over the Russian government allegedly trying to interfere in the US presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.  For the precedents clearly illustrate that
  • Embarrassing and damaging private information about politicians often becomes public by less-than-admirable means, at the hands of people who don't always have purely high-minded and disinterested motives.
  • Even when such information is obtained unethically or illegally, the issue of punishing and deterring unethical or illegal behavior can and should be separated from the question of whether the information so obtained should be made public. 
  • There is a broad consensus that the democratic process is generally better served by such information being made public--regardless of the moral quality of either the means of, or the motivation for, publication--than by suppressing it out of respect for the privacy or well-being of public figures and their families.
The Russian "interference" story fits very well with these past precedents.  Foreign hackers connected with the Russian government allegedly compromised Democratic Party email servers, then published their most embarrassing contents via Wikileaks, with the intention (according to the CIA--the FBI apparently reached a very different conclusion) of helping Donald Trump win the presidential election.  Based on past examples, then, we should consider the exposure of this private information to be a generally good thing, and stop sounding the alarm about the impending doom of American democracy at the hands of Russian intelligence.  After all, embarrassing private details about American politicians are revealed all the time, by all sorts of people with all sorts of motives, and we generally consider such revelations to be beneficial, not detrimental, to democracy.

Now, there are certainly aspects to this story that are very concerning.  For one, that the Democratic Party--or for that matter virtually every public-sector, nonprofit-sector or private-sector organization in the country--is so easily penetrated by foreign government cyberespionage agencies is without question grounds for great concern, although obviously more of a technical security matter than a political one.  It has also been noted that both the Trump and Clinton inner circles during and after the election were populated by a disturbing number of top people who have at one time or another had personal or commercial interests directly linked to one or another foreign government.  Congressional investigation into whether any of these past ties are sufficient to jeopardize American national security would certainly be most welcome.  Finally, it's to be expected that at least some of the released emails were doctored or fabricated by the Russians for effect, and some definitive findings regarding their authenticity would be useful--again for the sake of a better-informed public.

But the idea that unsavory characters revealing embarrassing information about candidates for public office endangers the very survival of American democracy would be unthinkable were the information in question not, as it happens, helpful to a character as despised as Donald Trump (or harmful to one as beloved as Barack Obama).  There's no evidence that the published emails had any significant impact on the election or on general trust in government among Americans.  And as the above examples illustrate, the hyperventilation in the press about this whole episode smacks more of partisan bias than serious concern for democracy and the national interest.   

Sunday, October 09, 2016

At first glance, the kerfuffle over Donald Trump's crude remarks about women 10 years ago makes little sense:  his long history of making such remarks has been discussed repeatedly over the course of the campaign, to little effect; his opponent's husband's history of sexual indiscretions and disrespect towards women is far worse, and has been so fully condoned for so long by his opponent's supporters that their criticism of Trump now reeks of hypocrisy; and he's so manifestly and direly unfit for the presidency in so many obvious ways that his boorishness really ought to be a mere afterthought by comparison.  So why now, suddenly, have these decade-old salacious comments become a huge issue for the Trump campaign?

In fact, the question itself is premised on a deep, widespread misconception about the nature of political scandals.  Contrary to popular belief, scandals are a symptom, not a cause, of political weakness.  In the modern political environment, any politician's opponents can be relied upon to maintain a continuous stream of accusations, innuendos and condemnations related to some real or imagined misdeed or objectionable statement by their target.  A politically strong public figure can parry these volleys with relative ease, refuting them or even turning them back against the accusers.  If a politician weakens politically, though--if, say, his or her support appears, based on polling, to be in substantial decline--then these attacks begin to "stick", and the result is a "scandal". 

Note that the substance of the scandal is irrelevant:  a sufficiently strong politician can, for instance, drunkenly drive a woman off a bridge to her death and abandon her there, and survive the ordeal with only minimal political damage.  A weakened politician, on the other hand, can be knocked over with a metaphorical feather:  an expensive haircut, repeating one line too often at a debate, looking a bit goofy while riding a tank.

In the case of Trump, he was able to brush off lurid tales of his disgusting personal life for as long as his poll numbers remained strong.  But as his popularity started to fade in early October, following a weak debate performance, he became politically vulnerable, and embarrassments he had previously been able to brush off suddenly blossomed into "scandals".  It remains to be seen whether he can survive them at least until the election, but whether he does so depends on whether his declining base of support resists further deterioration--not vice versa.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The issue of police treatment of African-Americans, most recently highlighted by Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the national anthem, is unquestionably a serious one.  If even as distinguished--and as staunchly pro-police--a figure as Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina can attest to having repeatedly been ill-treated by police officers unaware of his position, then we can safely conclude that the perception of police hostility among American Blacks is both widespread and at least partially grounded in actual experience.

It is also safe to conclude that this experience, and the resulting general distrust of the police, has existed for many decades.  We can therefore ask why expressions of rage among African-Americans, even spilling over into violence, have suddenly spiked over the last year or so, after two decades of relative calm, and despite evidence of gradual improvement in police treatment of African-Americans during that interval.  The unsettling answer can be gleaned from the long history of violent Black protest movements: their cyclical rise is driven not only by internal dynamics within the Black community, but also by active encouragement on the part of politically motivated establishment institutions such as the press, the intellectual class and mainstream politicians.

Intellectual celebration of Black lawlessness goes back at least as far as Norman Mailer's seminal 1957 essay, "The White Negro", in which Mailer lauds "hipsters" who self-consciously identify with Blacks' perceived rejection of middle-class values and embrace their supposedly more primitive, and hence more authentic, culture.  By 1970, this phenomenon had gone upscale, with Tom Wolfe lampooning it in his famous essay "Radical Chic", about a party thrown by composer Leonard Bernstein and his affluent, cultured guests for a representative of the Black Panther movement.  (That movement is still widely honored today, despite its ugly history of the most brutal violence and criminality.)

It's not clear how much this sort of encouragement from the intellectual and cultural communities affected the strength and violence of Black radicalism during the 1960s through the 1980s.  Certainly rabble-rousers such as Malcolm X, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan originally rose to prominence within the Black community without significant mainstream assistance.  (Whether the Black Panthers would have lasted as long as they did without radical campus activists enthusiastically abetting their activities and defending them against criminal charges, is an interesting question.)  But by the late 1980s, racial provocateurs such as Sharpton had developed a symbiotic relationship with sympathizers in the press and political establishment, who rewarded their bombast with attention and credibility as legitimate Black leaders--the whole phenomenon again being ruthlessly lampooned by Tom Wolfe in his famous novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Shortly thereafter, white music producers began promoting "gangsta rap" to primarily young white audiences as an "authentic" African-American musical form that portrayed Blacks admiringly as violent criminals.  Thoughtful Black critics like Stanley Crouch denounced it as a "minstrel update" catering to the contemporary equivalents of Mailer's primitivism-seeking hipsters.  But Mailer-esque public intellectuals, oblivious to the ugly precedents, hailed the medium's brutally obscene portrait of the modern Black condition as insightful and true rather than insulting and false.

Then, starting around the mid-to-late 1990s, something quite remarkable happened:  there began a nearly-two-decade period during which Black militancy and its public celebration declined dramatically.  (A list of mass racial violence incidents in the US, for instance, shows strikingly fewer incidents during this period.)  I've written previously about the numerous possible factors influencing this decline, and it's impossible to say which of them--if any--had the most significant impact.  But an accompanying development--quite possibly a direct effect--was an overall strongly positive trend in Black circumstances:  a steep reduction in crime that rejuvenated many predominantly Black urban neighborhoods; a significant rise in Black household income, and continuation of previous improvements in majority attitudes towards integration and Blacks in general.

The reversal of this trend towards racial reconciliation began with the economic downturn of 2008 and the election of former radical activist Barack Obama to the presidency.  The former wiped out a significant portion of Blacks' substantial economic gains during the previous decade and a half, while the latter elevated to the country's most powerful bully pulpit a man who made no secret of his enthusiasm for fomenting racial confrontation and conflict in the name of combatting racism.  Once elected, the president and members of his administration encouraged racial resentment at every turn, suggesting political opponents were motivated primarily by racism, consistently taking the side of angry Blacks in controversial cases--such as Colin Kaepernick's--involving highly charged racial confrontations, and enacting activist policies on race that implicitly imputed racial discrimination to the entire nation's cities and educational systems
Radicals in academia and the mainstream press followed the president's cue, initiating fresh rounds of purges of "political incorrectness" and enforcing a dogma of racial essentialism that discredits dissenting arguments using the invented pejorative category of "white privilege". 

It was out of this toxic stew of radical racialism that there arose a new generation of Black apologists for rioting and violence--all of them heavily promoted by mainstream liberal-to-left-wing publishers and news sources--such as Ta-Nehisi Coates (Atlantic Monthly), Shaun King (Daily Kos, New York Daily News), Marc Lamont Hill  (CNN, MSNBC, Huffington Post) and Deray McKesson (Huffington Post, The Guardian).  Like the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, these prominent activists all appear to have absorbed their radicalism in academic settings, rather than on ghetto streets.  (The BLM list of demands reads like a boilerplate manifesto issued by radical protestors of any color on just about any university campus anywhere in the country.)  Far more assimilated than their predecessors, these new Black militants speak the language of modern academic radicalism with native fluency, affecting outrage at alleged "oppression" while basking in the awards, attention and employment lavished upon them by academics, intellectuals, campus activists and journalists alike.

Now, it should be said that their rage is most likely completely genuine.  As Ellis Cose has documented, middle-class Blacks, despite their relatively comfortable--even privileged--status, are often even angrier about racial issues than their less economically and socially successful counterparts in the Black working class.  Middle-class Blacks' comfortable assimilation into majority middle-class society makes instances of its incompleteness even more jarring and infuriating: occasional tiny slights seem much worse, and perceived instances of unfairness much more galling, for someone who has effectively bet his or her life and livelihood on society's fulfillment of the promise of equality by choosing to assimilate, than for someone who hasn't staked so much on the prospect of full acceptance by the majority.

But again, these resentments are nothing new--Cose wrote about them over two decades ago.  What has changed is the reception that they are likely to get.  Whereas 15 years ago, a discredited troublemaker like Al Sharpton would have been laughed off any mainstream news broadcast, today he hosts his own cable news show, while CNN hosts raise their own hands in solidarity with Ferguson protestors, and universities throughout the country eagerly capitulate to disruptive protests and forcible takeovers of campus property in the name of "racial justice". With these mainstream supporters of racial militancy making it abundantly clear that aggressive (and perhaps even violent) racial confrontation will receive a warm public welcome from them, those disposed towards violent action have readily answered the call with riots, threats and disruptions, all solemnly excused in turn as necessary and understandable by their academic and journalistic allies. 

We can only hope that the public's memory of the more peaceful and prosperous preceding two decades eventually overcomes these radicals'--and their mainstream fans'--enthusiasm for further self-righteous mayhem, and that voices of reconciliation and unity (such as the Seattle Seahawks') prevail over the forces of divisive racial confrontation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The now-failed coup in Turkey has generated an enormous amount of commentary from US-based foreign policy experts, but the sampling of it that I've perused has consistently displayed one rather striking characteristic:  the assumption that US readers would be first and foremost concerned with the effects of the coup on Turkish democracy.  I have literally not seen a single analysis of the coup attempt that has so much as mentioned its possible consequences for US interests in the region, except insofar as those interests may be intertwined with the resiliency (or lack thereof) of Turkish democratic institutions.  This is especially remarkable in light of the near-universal judgment that Turkey's democracy was more or less doomed regardless, given that President Erdogan's authoritarian (perhaps even totalitarian) inclinations are well established; that the generals involved in the coup were unlikely to be anything approaching small-d democrats themselves; and that the coup's failure will only hasten Erdogan's and Turkey's slide into dictatorship.  If democracy was, and continues to be, effectively a dead letter in Turkey--with the coup, whether it succeeds or fails, unlikely to alter that fate--then why would its (non-) effect on Turkish democracy be viewed as the key criterion by which to assess its consequences?

To understand the answer to this question requires an understanding of the Cold War-era partisan divide over US foreign policy.  As I've explained previously, the overwhelmingly predominant issue in international relations since the end of the Second World War has been the size, role and desirability of American global power.  In the US, this became a partisan issue with the rise of the New Left in the late 1960s, which took over the Democratic party and aligned it firmly in the "against" camp on the issue.  The New Left took an essentially anti-American position on the Cold War, using as a pretext various alleged American sins against "human rights" around the world.  (Their real motivation, of course, stemmed from the collective interests of the "left" coalition:  reduced power for the military and military industries; devaluing of patriotism compared to cultural cosmopolitanism; and enhanced status for left coalition-aligned internationalist institutions such academia, the diplomatic corps and NGOs.) 

The pro-US-power domestic "right" coalition justified its continued support for American global strength--which coincided with its own collective interests--by invoking the Soviet threat to US security, as it had since the beginning of the Cold War and the advent of Soviet nuclear weapons.  But in the 1980s, in response to the "human rights" critique, a new, "neoconservative" style of justification for US power claimed the moral high ground for the US as primary evangelist for democracy around the world.  With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991--eliminating the major threat to US security--this neoconservative pretext for advancing US power globally became the primary one.  The "left" coalition, in response, shifted its arguments against US power more towards advocacy of internationalism and "balance of power" equilibrium-maintenance--the so-called "neorealist" approach.

Needless to say, simplistic and partisan foreign policy positions masked by superficial cover stories are unlikely to lead to highly successful foreign policies.  The "neoconservative" approach, for example, failed utterly to promote democracy over a half-decade of costly occupation in Iraq, while the "neorealist" approach has generated seven years of successive (effectively intentional) foreign policy failures under the Obama administration.  Yet neither side has found its way towards expressing its goals straightforwardly in terms of US power--the "left" coalition because its goal of weakening the US for its own sake would be so wildly unpopular if explicitly embraced, and the "right" coalition because its goal of expanding US power for its own sake (especially at a substantial cost in blood and treasure) is only slightly more popular. 

Hence when an international development such as the coup in Turkey occurs, nobody dares even suggest that America's interest would be best served by one or another outcome, lest the public interpret such a statement as implying either willingness to sacrifice money or lives to achieve that outcome, or else support for the opposite outcome through inaction.  Instead, we hear about the coup's dire implications for Turkish democracy, without the merest hint as to whether or why the American people should care in the least about its future.

That's unfortunate, because a clearheaded understanding of US interests would be a crucial first step towards formulating a sensible US foreign policy.  And if foreign policy experts won't provide us with that--perhaps because they're utterly incapable of it--then American foreign policy will continue to serve only disguised-partisan rather than national interests, at the expense of the nation as a whole.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau's now-famous, possibly-not-so-impromptu, not-entirely-accurate explanation of quantum computing has unfortunately distracted attention from the real news behind the viral video:  the announcement of $50 million in federal government funding for the Perimeter Institute, a research center affiliated with the University of Waterloo.  Ignored amidst the Trudeaumania is the key question:  will the money be well spent?

The Perimeter Institute is devoted to theoretical physics, an area whose enormous prestige, dating back to the days of Einstein and greatly enhanced by the terrifying grandeur of nuclear weapons, has gradually decayed over many decades.  It hasn't had a true worldview-overturning breakthrough since the subatomic particle revolution of the 1960s, and has since spent several decades wrestling with a grand theoretical framework--string theory--which has yet to demonstrate any significant explanatory power.  Once able to command cosmological-scale research budgets to build enormous experimental contraptions with which to smash particles together and announce suspiciously in-line-with-theory results, the field has found itself receiving less and less of the research funding pie, as more and more of it gets siphoned off by more fashionable fields with more recent tales of great impact.

Then, suddenly, along came quantum computing.  In 1994, a computer scientist named Peter Shor discovered that a computer working according to the principles of quantum mechanics, rather than the classical physics that governs conventional computers, could--in theory, at least--break widely used cryptographic systems that are otherwise believed impervious to practical attacks.  Now, this isn't a very practically useful result, unless you happen to be a spy agency interested in decrypting other people's secrets.  The main consequence for most people is that they'll have to upgrade their software at some point in the future so that it uses cryptography that even a quantum computer can't break.  (And as it happens, such cryptography doesn't appear to be all that hard to come up with.)  Indeed, there's very little, beyond breaking the current generation of cryptography, that quantum computing appears to be particularly useful for.  But it has two very important things going for it:  the words "quantum" and "computing".

To the average person, the word "quantum" summons visions of impossibly complex, incomprehensible theories accessible only to the most brilliant scientific minds.  (To quote Bernard Shaw, back in 1938,  “You have nothing to do but mention the quantum theory, and people will take your voice for the voice of science, and believe anything.”)  It's no coincidence that Trudeau, a politician with a reputation for thin intellect even by politician standards, chose to explain something with the word "quantum" in it--and that everyone was wowed by the spectacle.

As for "computing", no word screams "practical" (not to mention economically promising) quite as loudly.  If you wanted to tie your abstruse, largely useless theoretical field of study to something eminently useful and profitable, you could do worse than try to figure out a way to connect it somehow with computing.  And thanks to Peter Shor, quantum physicists have been able to do exactly that.

The result is a cash-strapped, out-of-fashion physics researcher's dream:  a field tailor-made for a pretty-boy politician to make a grand show of handing a large wad of taxpayers' money to, while enhancing his gravitas and convincing an already-credulous press corps of his sound policy sense.  I'm pretty sure that Shor had nothing like that in mind when he came up with his algorithm--but I also doubt that the delighted physicists at the Perimeter Institute waste too much time worrying about that, as they contemplate the many ways they might spend their unwisely-bestowed windfall.