Category Archives: Random Blogging

A Lesson On Know-Nothingness

Paul Krugman recently delivered a lesson on “Know Nothingness”--both as historical reference and descriptive term:

If you’re a student of history, you might be comparing that person to a member of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors. More likely, however, you’re suggesting that said person is willfully ignorant, someone who rejects facts that might conflict with his or her prejudices.

The sad thing is that America is currently ruled by people who fit both definitions.

The parallels between anti-immigrant hysteria in the mid-19th century and today are too obvious to require enumeration. Krugman does, however, enumerate several, pointing out that the countries considered “shitholes” in the 19th Century –especially Germany and Ireland–differ from those in Trump’s dark-skinned category today.

It isn’t just bigotry, of course. It’s profound ignorance.

But today’s Republicans — for this isn’t just about Donald Trump, it’s about a whole party — aren’t just Know-Nothings, they’re also know-nothings. The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening.

One result of this embrace of ignorance is a remarkable estrangement between modern conservatives and highly educated Americans, especially but not only college faculty. The right insists that the scarcity of self-identified conservatives in the academy is evidence of discrimination against their views, of political correctness run wild.

Those of us who work in the academy know firsthand that this accusation of discrimination is utter bullshit.

Case in point: my office in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs is on the same floor as that of professors in the Kelley School of Business. When I first joined the faculty, twenty years ago, a majority of those professors self-identified as fiscally-conservative Republicans. They continue to be conservative, but very few of them are still Republicans. When the party rejected science, evidence and scholarly research, they left.  As Krugman says of the science professorate, “When the more or less official position of your party is that climate change is a hoax and evolution never happened, you won’t get much support from people who take evidence seriously.”

But conservatives don’t see the rejection of their orthodoxies by people who know what they’re talking about as a sign that they might need to rethink. Instead, they’ve soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.

Krugman then points to research showing the growing importance of “clusters of highly skilled workers” who create what he calls “virtuous circles of growth and innovation.” Those clusters disproportionately emerge around universities.  In 2016, voters largely divided along educational lines, with the better-educated, rising regions carried by Hillary Clinton, and more rural, under-educated and less skilled regions going for Trump.

The anti-education, anti-evidence, anti-science voters who remain in the GOP are also disproportionately likely to express tribal, White Christian beliefs: creationism, rather than evolution, America as (their version of) a Christian Nation.

Newsweek recently reported

Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly support President Donald Trump because they believe he’ll cause the world to end.

Many have questioned why devout evangelicals support Trump, a man who has bragged about sexual assault, lies perpetually and once admitted he never asks God for forgiveness. Trump’s lack of knowledge of the Bible is also well-known.

Nevertheless, many evangelical Christians believe that Trump was chosen by God to usher in a new era, a part of history called the “end times”….  the time when Jesus returns to Earth and judges all people.

Are people who hold these beliefs representative of Christianity? No. Are they rare on most university faculties ? Yes, and for obvious reasons.

When knowledge and expertise are devalued, when empirical evidence is scorned, when the weighty and complex search for meaning that characterizes serious religiosity is replaced with superstition, rejection of reason and fear of the Other, the know-nothings have won.

 

Theater And The Absurd

When the whole world seems nuts–when every morning we wake to some bit of news that causes us to shake our heads and mutter “What the f**k are they thinking??”–the arts become even more essential than they are in more normal times.

(And they’re pretty darn essential in normal times. Assuming there really are normal times, rather than times that are simply a bit less harrowing than others.)

I share this bit of non-wisdom as an introduction to a new theater venture in Indianapolis, where I live.

Indianapolis is already home to a thriving arts community, including performing arts;  this new theater company  (full disclosure: I have joined its Board of Directors) will add a distinctive perspective–a feminist point of view.

Summit Performance Indianapolis was established by two supremely talented young women who are determined to produce top quality theatre exploring the lives and experiences of women.

Summit’s focus is threefold: to employ women of diverse backgrounds as playwrights, theatrical designers, artisans, actors, and staff; to create high quality theatre productions centered on social issues of the moment; and to use these productions as springboards to inspire an ongoing dialogue about those issues in the Indianapolis community through performance talk-backs, guest speakers, and town hall discussions.

The company will be housed in the Phoenix Theatre’s brand new, state-of-the-art facility on  the Glick Peace Walk (a key stretch of the city’s widely-lauded Cultural Trail).  Its two founders are among central Indiana’s most experienced theatre artists: Georgeanna Smith Wade and Lauren Briggeman.  Its goals are lofty: Summit Performance Indianapolis not only aspires to be a pillar of quality entertainment and a cultural hub, but also, in the wake of #metoo and #timesup, to serve as a necessary forum for women’s voices.

If you are curious, you can find more information on the theater’s Facebook Page.

Tumultuous times tend to produce new, exploratory arts outlets. Whether that art is visual,  musical or theatrical, it satisfies a very human need to engage with the social changes we are experiencing, and to understand the disruption that comes with the uprooting of the tried and true. The arts are a way we come to terms with the ever-changing world we inhabit; they help us recognize the truths and passions of others–and perhaps more importantly, of ourselves.

At some point–assuming our insane “Commander in Chief” doesn’t start a nuclear war–Americans will become more comfortable with the reality that women and men are just human beings with different plumbing, who should be seen as the individuals we are. Women’s voices, after all, are human voices, some pathetic, some strong, some profound, some wise, some not.

Until very recently, social structures have ensured that females of the species would have very different life experiences than their male peers. Theater is an ideal place to explore those differences and remind us all that–in the wider scheme of things–they were imposed upon humans whose actual differences are pretty superficial. Theater is a place to listen to, and learn from each other–and to internalize those messages.

It will be fascinating to see how Summit Performance develops. To those of you in Central Indiana, I say–stay tuned!

Computational Propaganda, Part Two

After each new Trump travesty, my friends and family have taken to asking each other the same question: “Who the hell could still support this buffoon? How stupid would someone have to be to drink this particular Kool-aid?”

A recent study conducted by Oxford University apparently answers that (not-so-rhetorical) question.

Low-quality, extremist, sensationalist and conspiratorial news published in the US was overwhelmingly consumed and shared by rightwing social network users, according to a new study from the University of Oxford.

The study, from the university’s “computational propaganda project”, looked at the most significant sources of “junk news” shared in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address this January, and tried to find out who was sharing them and why.

“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the researchers concluded. On Facebook, the skew was even greater. There, “extreme hard right pages – distinct from Republican pages – share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”

The researchers monitored 13,500 politically-active US Twitter users, and a separate group of 48,000 public Facebook pages, and looked at the external websites that they were sharing.

The findings speak to the level of polarisation common across the US political divide. “The two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap,” the researchers write.

The study did not find a high percentage of social media penetration by the Russians, but it did identify clear political preferences of those who consumed junk news.

But there was a clear skew in who shared links from the 91 sites the researchers had manually coded as “junk news” (based on breaching at least three of five quality standards including “professionalism”, “bias” and “credibility”). “The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together. This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news.”

There has always been a credulous segment of the American public; given our embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy, it shouldn’t surprise us that a percentage of voters unhappy with their position in the polity would “choose the news” that confirmed their biases. As a colleague of mine recently wrote (citations omitted),

The flourishing of scientific polling and the increased sophistication of social science research methods have provided scholars with an opportunity to put these concerns to the test, and the results have largely confirmed the worst fears of political philosophers. Foundational studies of voters and elections published in the mid-20th Century documented voters’ ignorance, wishful thinking, and reliance on simple cues like partisanship, and nearly 8 decades of subsequent research has largely confirmed those conclusions.The democratic polity is not now and has never been made up of highly knowledgeable, informed and engaged civic citizens.

And there are plenty of charlatans, would-be power-brokers and snake-oil salesmen ready to lead the willing down the garden path…..

Despair, Rage, Anxiety

I think I’m getting emotional whiplash.

When I read an inspiring “call to arms” from someone like Rev. William Barber (yesterday’s post), I feel hopeful. Then I stumble across an article like this one from a publication called Eudaimonia & Co., titled “Why We’re Underestimating America’s Collapse.”

When we take a hard look at US collapse, we see a number of social pathologies on the rise. Not just any kind. Not even troubling, worrying, and dangerous ones. But strange and bizarre ones. Unique ones. Singular and gruesomely weird ones I’ve never really seen before, and outside of a dystopia written by Dickens and Orwell, nor have you, and neither has history. They suggest that whatever “numbers” we use to represent decline — shrinking real incomes, inequality, and so on —we are in fact grossly underestimating what pundits call the “human toll”, but which sensible human beings like you and I should simply think of as the overwhelming despair, rage, and anxiety of living in a collapsing society.

The author’s first example is our epidemic of school shootings–when he wrote it, we’d had 11 school shootings in the prior 23 days.

America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the phenomenon of regular school shootings appears to be a unique feature of American collapse — it just doesn’t happen in any other country — and that is what I mean by “social pathologies of collapse”: a new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society.

Then there’s the opiod epidemic, which he asserts is also unique to the U.S.  He says such epidemics don’t occur elsewhere, “ especially not ones so vicious and widespread they shrink life expectancy.”

His third example is the phenomenon of “nomadic retirees”. These are older Americans who live in their cars, going place to place, season after season, chasing low-wage work.

Now, you might say — “well, poor people have always chased seasonal work!” But that is not really the point: absolute powerlessness and complete indignity is. In no other country I can see do retirees who should have been able to save up enough to live on now living in their cars in order to find work just to go on eating.

Our lack of health care gets a predictable call-out; life expectancy in Costa Rica is higher than in the United States, because Costa Rica has universal healthcare.  But he ends with an even more depressing observation.

How did America’s elderly end up cheated of dignity? After all, even desperately poor countries have “informal social support systems” — otherwise known as families and communities. But in America, there is the catastrophic collapse of social bonds. Extreme capitalism has blown apart American society so totally that people cannot even care for one another as much as they do in places like Pakistan and Nigeria. Social bonds, relationships themselves, have become unaffordable luxuries, more so than even in poor countries: this is yet another social pathology unique to American collapse…

Americans appear to be quite happy simply watching one another die, in all the ways above. They just don’t appear to be too disturbed, moved, or even affected by the four pathologies above: their kids killing each other, their social bonds collapsing, being powerless to live with dignity,or having to numb the pain of it all away.

This is a dramatically dystopian view of our country. The author, one Umair, concludes that ours is “a predatory society,” and he has chosen examples–he has cherry-picked examples–that support his thesis.

I’m not prepared to accept his diagnosis.But it is hard to argue that his examples aren’t significant, compelling–and horrific. Or–unrepresentative though they may be– that they don’t have a ring of truth.

Should the world follow the American model — extreme capitalism, no public investment, cruelty as a way of life, the perversion of everyday virtue — then these new social pathologies will follow, too. They are new diseases of the body social that have emerged from the diet of junk food — junk media, junk science, junk culture, junk punditry, junk economics, people treating one another and their society like junk — that America has fed upon for too long.

Somewhere between the hellscape that Umair apparently lives in and the resistance that William Barber proposes to lead is a more balanced picture. For every sociopath Umair describes, I know a loving, caring, engaged citizen. For every pathology he identifies, I can point to a countervailing virtue.

But he sure made me think. And drink.

Poor People’s Campaign

Dr. William Barber is the impressive and impassioned clergyman who began the “Moral Monday” movement in North Carolina–a movement that has since spread to other states. I regretted missing his speech when he came to Indiana recently, and was interested to see this article about the lessons of Martin Luther King day in The Nation.

After quoting King’s admonition that we either go up together or go down together, Barber summed up America’s current situation:

King did not live to see another 24 hours of that pivotal year in American history, but 50 years later we face a similar collective crisis as we begin 2018. Extremists who’ve hijacked the Republican Party worked in concert with a charlatan to deconstruct the federal government, but a resistance made itself public in 2017, making clear that we are still the majority in this nation. Congress and many of our state legislatures refuse to represent the will of the majority. In the face of this basic subversion of democracy, we do well to remember that “either we go up together, or we go down together.” King’s assessment is more crucial than ever: Nothing would be more tragic than to turn back now.

Fifty years after Dr. King and many others launched a Poor People’s Campaign to demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor, inequality in our nation has reached extremes we have not seen since the Gilded Age. As the Dow climbs and the wealthiest Americans get a massive tax break, 15 million more Americans are poor today than in 1968. In the same time period, the rate of extreme poverty has nearly doubled. Because of the systemic racism of voter suppression, which has been implemented in 23 of the nation’s poorest states since 2010, our political system is held captive by extremists who deny workers health care and a living wage, undermine the equal-protection clause of the constitution, attack public education, and encourage poor white people to blame people of color and immigrants for their problems. All the while, more and more of our collective resources are dedicated to a war without end.

Barber writes that a Presidency as flawed and unpopular as Trump’s will not last long, but he acknowledges the immense amount of harm being done in the meantime–especially in the nation’s courts, where lifetime appointments are being made at a pace far exceeding that of preceding administrations.

Barber details the numerous voter suppression tactics of a GOP that “cheats when it can’t win in a fair fight.” And he has nothing but scorn for the white Evangelicals who have traded integrity for power:

So-called “white evangelicals” and their Christian nationalism have become the apologists and enablers of political extremism. Their voices are so loud when joining the course of those who hate gay people, women, and brown and black-skinned immigrants, but so quiet on issues of poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, and the war economy. This is a form of modern heresy and theological malpractice, taught all over the country.

He also has a lot to say about the recent tax “reform” bill, the efforts to further erode America’s already inadequate social welfare network, and about the importance of building multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalitions. But his most important message is one that should resonate with all of us: this is no time to quit. It’s no time to stop resisting.

I have dedicated myself to a new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival that is going deep into Southern communities and reclaiming the moral narrative that was bought by the religious right in the 20th century.

In 2018, we are determined to see the South rise again—not in the redemption that white supremacists have long awaited with Confederate flags, but in the future that George White, the last African-American representative to Congress during Reconstruction, foresaw when he said, “This may be the Negro’s farewell to Congress, but Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again.”…

And when we change the South, we will shift the power balance in this nation.

In Alabama, African-American turnout defeated Roy Moore. If anyone can move the South, it’s William Barber, with his eloquence, his passion, his organizing genius –and his repeated insistence that we should never give up.