Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Hate Eruption

Asian women have been mowed down in Georgia. Unarmed Black men continue to be killed or maimed by police and self-appointed “good guys with guns.” Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents have proliferated. A new report links these eruptions to a surge in White Supremacy propaganda.

Not even a once-in-a-century pandemic could prevent white supremacist groups from deluging American cities with extremist propaganda in 2020. Banners were hung from freeway overpasses. Stickers were slapped onto street signs. Fliers were dropped onto the windshields of parked cars.

An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study published Wednesday recorded 5,125 incidents of white supremacist physical propaganda last year, marking the highest level of cases reported since the non-profit began tracking such data five years ago. The findings average to about 14 incidents per day—and are nearly double the 2,724 cases reported in 2019.

The data highlights the stunning growth of new splinter movements that did not exist when President Donald Trump took office. At least 30 white supremacist groups disseminated propaganda in the U.S. in 2020, but three of them—Patriot Front, New Jersey European Heritage Association and Nationalist Social Club—were responsible for 92% of the activity, according to the ADL. All of them were founded within the past three years.

This research gives us a lot to unpack.

First and foremost, these findings support the accumulating evidence that the Republican Party, now for all intents and purposes the Trump Party, has become little more than a White Supremacy Party. The politicization of hate–the partisan retreat into full-scale culture war–is incredibly worrisome. Equally troubling, the language of hate is amplified daily by media outlets that can only be considered GOP PR appendages rather than genuine journalistic endeavors.

Those of us who insist that language matters–that “mere words” may not be the sticks and stones that break your bones but nevertheless can incentivize actions inflicting bodily harm–find ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Giving government the right to suppress any idea (even, in Justice Holmes’ memorable phrase, the “idea we hate”) would be incredibly dangerous and even counterproductive. The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment was based upon recognition that giving government that power would be more dangerous than even the expression of truly horrible ideas, and efforts at suppression more often than not simply give oxygen to such materials.

That leaves those of us who are horrified by the surge in hateful incitement with only the tool of social opprobrium, often derided as “political correctness” or even “cancel culture.” Although in the age of social media, criticism of language deemed bigoted or stereotyping can certainly go too far (in the jargon of the day, be too “woke”), expressing disapproval is arguably less damaging to the social fabric than ignoring the dissemination of hateful and hurtful characterizations.

Perhaps, in a weird way, the increasingly overt expressions of animus and bigotry may force us to confront some unpalatable realities. Surface niceties allowed many of us to assume that we’d made much more progress than we had. Just as the Trump presidency reminded Americans that the absence of honest, competent governance really hurts us all, the explosion of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other hatreds reminds the rest of us that we humans have to live together on a small and endangered planet, and that we need to find ways to cooperate and co-exist.

You can’t lance an invisible boil, and you can’t solve a problem until you recognize how extensive it is.

 

 

Testosterone And Government

Okay, today’s post is a bit “off the wall,” so indulge me…

 I was fascinated to read the results of a recent study linking testosterone to aggressive behavior and selfishness. The results confirmed previous research findings  that associated selfishness with testosterone. Evidently, testosterone acts to decrease activity in the brain’s temporoparietal junction, which is a region associated with generosity, and “reduces consideration of the needs and desires of others, which leads to more selfish behaviors.” 

The more testosterone, the greater these effects.

The researchers are careful to note that their findings don’t necessarily suggest testosterone inherently makes people selfish, but that testosterone “reduced concern for the profits of others.”

While this study only looked at healthy, young adult males — and thus may or may not apply to other ages and genders — it does add to the pile of studies suggesting increased testosterone can lead to decreased consideration for the needs of others. What this study also reveals are the neural mechanisms by which that happens.

These results encouraged me to consider a number of (highly speculative) theories.

In early human history, men who produced ample amounts of testosterone were undoubtedly advantaged–their aggressiveness would have paid off in the hunt, and more successful hunters would be advantaged in the competition for the most attractive and fertile women.

Early men were thus socially dominant, and that male dominance continued–undoubtedly assisted by high levels of testosterone that gave business “movers and shakers” an aggressive edge, and contributed to the high status enjoyed by warriors of various types.

Women, of course, were disadvantaged for eons by our fertility; without the ability to control our reproduction, women have been relegated to a homemaking role and hampered in efforts to enter the workforce.

These roles were cemented into society through the various cultural influences that accepted them as givens: religions that preached about women’s submission, social mores that stressed expected aspects of femininity and masculinity.

That all began to change with the invention of reliable birth control and the development of economies that no longer rely on workers’ brute strength. When the value of an individual to the workforce depends primarily upon intellect and the ability to work well with others, enhanced aggressiveness and “decreased consideration for the needs of others” are no longer assets.

The metrics by which we evaluate the competence of government are also undergoing change. Those of us who believe that good governance requires compassion and unifying social policies look longingly at the Jacinda Arderns and Angela Merkels of the world, and view blustering bullies like Vladimir Putin, Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump as unfortunate–and dangerous– throwbacks.

Perhaps–on balance– women are better equipped to govern the world we currently inhabit.

That said, these speculations are obviously far too broad-brush. There are plenty of belligerent and selfish women and I encounter increasing numbers of thoughtful, caring men. Furthermore, testosterone is only one small element of nature in the still-hazy relationship between nature and nurture. 

Still, it is interesting to step back and view the arc of history and social change through a biological lens–and to consider whether the development of methods to balance people’s hormones would lead to world peace or, in the alternative, to an unintended dystopia…

Misinformation And A Shared Reality

Kathleen Hall Jamison is a towering figure in academic journalism–she has authored numerous books and articles on the relationship between media and politics, and she founded and still oversees Factcheck.org.

Politico recently ran an interview with Jamison in which she made some important distinctions–between truth and fact, and between consequential and inconsequential misinformation.

Journalism is the reporting of fact. Truth is a more fraught concept. In common with most people, Jamison says she hears the word “truth” with a capital T. The word thus capitalized tends to confirm finality: I have discovered the Truth and need not investigate further.

We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

Rather than speaking of Truth-with-a-capital-T, Jamison is more comfortable saying that “there is knowledge that is more or less certain”–what I’d call “facts on the ground.”

She also provides a clear-headed summary of the situation in which Americans currently find ourselves.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

When it comes to the distinction between information that is and is not consequential, Jamison gives a shout-out to the judiciary, noting that the courts have established rules for determining what constitutes relevant evidence and determining its credibility. Those mechanisms allowed the courts to arrive at a common conclusion when faced with the false assertions of the Trump campaign. We aren’t without tools for determining what is knowable and what is not.

That said, Jamison’s concern is with consequential facts.

With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential.

So how do we understand what is consequential? She provides an excellent analogy:

If you’re going to teach kids civics, I don’t care whether they know when Paul Revere rode. I don’t even care if they know that Paul Revere rode. In fact, I don’t care whether Paul Revere rode.

I do care that they understand there are three branches of government. I care that they understand that there are checks and balances built into our system. I care that they understand we have a veto—and what that means, when you exercise it, and how you override it. I care that they understand that there’s an independent Supreme Court; that we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government. Those are consequential. They are consequential because if you understand them, you act and think differently about our system of government. The willingness to protect our system is, in part, a function of understanding our system, and understanding that our system has presuppositional facts—consequential facts—under it. If I don’t understand those things, then if the Supreme Court issues a series of unpopular decisions that I don’t like, I’m more likely to say that maybe we should get rid of the Supreme Court.

It all comes back to operating in a shared reality. That’s especially important to our ability to communicate, and to be contributing citizens in  a functional political system.

Cities

A reader recently sent me an article from Governing addressing an issue near and dear to me: are people moving out of cities in significant numbers? Has the pandemic increased those numbers?

I’d seen a couple of New York Times articles about an exodus from New York City to “healthier” outlying areas, and of course, there is an ongoing debate about the sustainability of the national population shift from small town America to the nation’s cities. The article addressed two highly pertinent questions: are lots of people really leaving cities, and why do people move anywhere?

As most readers of this blog have figured out by now, I’m a “city girl.” (Well, “girl” might be stretching things…) I’m a huge fan of urban life, and a believer in the social and intellectual benefits of density and diversity, so I was interested in an article that looked at what the evidence suggested, rather than what various theories have propounded. And the article actually started by distinguishing theory from reality

There’s an old joke about economists that I’ve always liked. A junior professor goes to his senior colleague with a brilliant new idea. The older man dismisses it. “That may be fine in practice,” he sniffs, “but it will never work in theory.”

Economists are like that, at least many of them. They don’t like to have reality intrude on their abstractions. One of the best examples has to do with mobility. Years ago, I read an article by a prominent economist downplaying the problem of a small-town factory that spews out pollution. What’s the big deal, he asked. There must be another town nearby without a soot-belching factory. The residents of the first town could just move over there. Pretty soon the polluter would get the idea.

It works in theory. But it isn’t the way most people behave. They don’t like the idea of uprooting themselves. This may be because they don’t want to leave their friends and relatives, because they cling to hometown memories and traditions, or maybe because they just don’t feel like cleaning out the garage. In any case, they don’t move. Or if they do, they don’t go far away.

The article acknowledged the predictions that have been worrying me–the economic forecasts of an “outpouring of affluent Americans from virus-plagued cities to safer rural climes.” One libertarian predicted a flood of “fresh college graduates and new parents” lighting out for Mayberry, accompanied by employees no longer tethered to corporate buildings downtown. (This rosy scenario overlooks the fact that COVID is currently ravaging the nation’s “Mayberries.”)

So what does the evidence show?

There has been an outflow from many urban neighborhoods, but it hasn’t been very large. Last June, a careful study by the Pew Research Center found that 3 percent of Americans reported moving permanently or temporarily for reasons related to the coronavirus. In November, the number was up to 5 percent. That’s not a trivial number of people, but it’s far short of a national exodus…

It’s also interesting to see where those folks are going. The largest destination of people leaving San Francisco last year was across the bay, to Oakland and surrounding Alameda County. The three next most common destinations were all in the Bay Area as well. Other targets were Denver; Portland, Oregon; and Austin, Texas–not Mayberry.

Most people who did move cited economic reasons–job loss, especially–not the pandemic.

Most cities that lost population in 2020 didn’t lose it because of people leaving. They shed population because newcomers weren’t coming. In New York City, according to a McKinsey study, the ratio of arriving workers to departing ones was down 27 percent. This, too, is only common sense. Why would you move into New York when jobs were disappearing there? Similar numbers apply to Los Angeles, Boston and Seattle.

This has the makings of a significant event. Nearly all the big cities that gained or held onto population numbers in the past decade did so because of immigrants arriving from outside the United States. If they stop coming for an extended length of time, big-city populations could drop significantly even if the mass exodus continues to be a myth.

The racist assault on immigration has had an effect on cities. As the article notes, America’s most vibrant cities have become enclaves of affluent professionals and modestly paid service workers–the bulk of whom have been immigrants. If the immigrants stop coming,  we’re likely to see a shortage of urban workers and a decline in demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods. That could make central cities more attractive, and not just to immigrants– it could fuel added arrivals by young professionals. Or…??

I’m sure economists will have a theory…

Bubbles

The current, extreme polarization of the American public obviously cannot be attributed to any one cause. Differences in race, religion, gender, education, culture, experience– all of those things contribute to the way any particular individual sees the world.

But if I were pressed to identify a single culprit–a single source of today’s dysfunction–I would have to point a finger at our fragmented “Wild West” information environment. And research supports that accusation.

Americans are divided – that much is obvious after a contentious presidential election and transition, and in the midst of a politicized pandemic that has prompted a wide range of reactions.

But in addition to the familiar fault line of political partisanship, a look back at Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways project finds there have consistently been dramatic divides between different groups of Americans based on where people get their information about what is going on in the world.

Pew’s Pathway Project found–unsurprisingly–that Republicans who looked to former President Donald Trump for their news were more likely to believe false or unproven claims about the pandemic and the election.

And while Americans widely agree that misinformation is a major problem, they do not see eye to eye about what actually constitutes misinformation. In many cases, one person’s truth is another’s fiction.

The Pathways project explored Americans’ news habits and attitudes, and traced how those habits influenced what they believed to be true. The project focused on claims about the Coronavirus and the 2020 election; it drew its conclusions from 10 different surveys conducted on Pew’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of U.S. adults. Each survey consisted of about 9,000 or more U.S. adults, so the “n” (as researchers like to call the number of people participating in any particular study) was sufficient to produce very reliable results.

Over the course of the year, as part of the project, the Center published more than 50 individual analyses and made data from more than 580 survey questions available to the public in an interactive data tool. We now have the opportunity to look back at the findings over the full course of the year and gather together the key takeaways that emerged.

The report that did emerge can be accessed at the link. It explored key findings in five separate areas: evidence pointing to media “echo chambers” on the left and the right, and the identity and characteristics of the Americans who consistently turned to those echo chambers: Trump’s role as a source of news;  Americans’ concerns about and views of what constitutes misinformation; the distinctive characteristics of Americans who rely on social media for their news; and a final chapter tracing changes in these beliefs and attitudes over time.

The entire report is nuanced and substantive, as is most research from Pew, but the “take away” is obvious: Americans today occupy information “bubbles” that allow them to inhabit wildly different realities.

This most recent study builds on what most thoughtful Americans have come to recognize over the past few years, and what prior studies have documented. One study that has received wide dissemination found that watching only Fox News made people less Informed than those who watched no news at all. The study found NPR and the Sunday morning television shows to be most informative.

There are fact-checking sites, and media bias sites that rate the reliability of news sources–but these sources are only useful when people access them. Ideologues of the Left and Right, who engage in confirmation bias, rarely do.

The Pew study builds on a number of others, and together they pose a critical question: since the law cannot draw a line between propaganda and truth without eviscerating the First Amendment, how do we overcome the vast informational trust chasm that the Internet has generated?