“We Agree …”

“We agree much more than you think.” This was Niels Bohr‘s kind way of indicating profound disagreement with a colleague’s point of view.  The genial physicist knew that the literal truth of that statement – after all, all scientists would agree on basic mathematical principles, for example – would camouflage his rebuke and foster a continued, friendly dialogue.

Bohr was perhaps the greatest scientific and collaborator mentor of the twentieth century. Although his talks were notoriously digressive and hard to follow, his spoken manner was otherwise congenial, drawing talent to his laboratories and conferences. People responded well to him. The phrase “we agree” is an excellent way to indicate that your relationship with someone is important. A lot can be accomplished on that basis alone.

Saudi Students and “Veblen Goods”

I’ve had a number of superb students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University from that country. This is awful news.

From Inside Higher Ed this morning:

Saudi Arabian students in Canada are caught in diplomatic crossfire.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education is making plans to transfer students out of Canada to institutions in other countries after a diplomatic meltdown between the two countries sparked by Canada’s criticism of the kingdom’s arrest and detention of human rights activists.

A spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s education ministry said on Twitter that the ministry is “working on preparing and implementing an emergency plan to facilitate the transfer of our students to other countries.”

CNN reported that 7,000 Saudi students on government scholarships in Canada will be relocated.

Dan Drezner of the Washington Post has three “not mutually exclusive” explanations for the Saudi action:

– Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is “trying to demonstrate that he is in control [in his country], even if these sanctions will not lead to any Canadian concessions.” …

– “Another possibility is that these sanctions are less about compelling Canada and more about deterring other Western countries from criticizing Saudi Arabia.”

There is one final, more speculative explanation. There has been some recent international relations research into “prestige goods” or “Veblen goods,” things that states spend costly sums of money on with little tangible return. … As I explained this summer: “Veblen goods are positional goods, in which demand increases along with price because the good is seen as a display of prestige. Veblen goods can explain why some countries choose to invest in aircraft carriers or space programs when they should be allocating scarce resources elsewhere.” …

Maybe, just maybe, economic sanctions themselves have become a kind of Veblen good. Not many countries have the resources to impose economic sanctions of any kind on another state in world politics. The United States sanctions a lot, the European Union sanctions some, so do Russia and China, and then . . . crickets.

Except for Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia is seen as a country that can sanction others, it starts to look more like a great power. The very fact that these sanctions are costly is what makes them such a compelling Veblen good. According to this logic, it does not matter whether they work: Most sanctions fail anyway. What makes them successful is that Mohammed has demonstrated that he can impose them in the first place.

reposted from basil.CA

The Bad Mess at Evergreen

The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington has earned its renown as an experimental – indeed avant-garde – institution; its ‘progressive’ bona-fides have been warranted as well. Back in the day, I explored the possibility of taking a faculty position in entrepreneurship there. Although it didn’t come through, this institution has remained close to my heart.

A recent controversy at Evergreen has made national news and has placed at least one professor as well as students and staff in potential peril. From the New York Times:

[Professor Bret] Weinstein, who identifies himself as “deeply progressive,” is just the kind of teacher that students at one of the most left-wing colleges in the country would admire. Instead, he has become a victim of an increasingly widespread campaign by leftist students against anyone who dares challenge ideological orthodoxy on campus.

This professor’s crime? He had the gall to challenge a day of racial segregation.

A bit of background: The “Day of Absence” is an Evergreen tradition that stretches back to the 1970s. As Mr. Weinstein explained on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, “in previous years students and faculty of color organized a day on which they met off campus — a symbolic act based on the Douglas Turner Ward play in which all the black residents of a Southern town fail to show up one morning.” This year, the script was flipped: “White students, staff and faculty will be invited to leave campus for the day’s activities,” reported the student newspaper on the change. The decision was made after students of color “voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election.”

Mr. Weinstein thought this was wrong. The biology professor said as much in a letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles,” he wrote, “and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.” The first instance, he argued, “is a forceful call to consciousness.” The second “is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”

Seattle’s The Stranger reports on the “campus lockdown” ordered at Evergreen late this week “after local law enforcement officials received a call with a “direct threat to campus safety'”:

Student activists say they’ve been unfairly maligned. “While it is probably true that some of our strategies were very passionate, they were also peaceful,” an Evergreen student, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote in an e-mail. “And while it might be true there was some ‘harassment’ (a subjective term), it was on the lines of condemnation and scorn, rather than threats and stalking.”

One student, who asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns, said death threats to campus activists followed Weinstein’s media appearances. “A swastika appeared on campus. Student personal information was published on 4chan channels and other neo-Nazi and violent racist internet communities,” the student told The Stranger.

Said another student: “Calling these people ‘Weinstein supporters’ would be irresponsible of me. These people are mostly organized racists from off campus that use internet presence, anonymity, and misinformation to disrupt a narrative, and the threat of violence to suppress those who would fight back.”

Professor Weinstein fears that his and other students have been placed at risk:

On Twitter, [he] claimed that his student supporters were being threatened online by his critics. He subsequently tweeted: “I’m told people are doxing those that protested against me. I don’t know if it’s true. If it is, *please stop.* No good can come from that.” The biology instructor also said that Evergreen campus police warned him that he was “not safe on campus. They can not protect me.”

Student demonstrators refuted Weinstein’s claims that their supporters had attempted to dox the teacher’s supporters. They believe the media’s focus on Weinstein is a distraction from their chief concern: ongoing issues revolving around racism, sexism, and transphobia at Evergreen.

Many of Weinstein’s faculty colleagues want him punished.

Look at Bret Weinstein’s “Rate My Professors” page.

Here are some of the demands from students who objected to Weinstein’s published statements .

A member of the State Legislature has introduced a bill to de-fund and privatize Evergreen.

As a professor and as a person with many fond memories of the energetic intellectual and moral debates I shared or witnessed as a young student at SUNY/Buffalo and Stanford University, I find this Evergreen mess dismaying to the point of heartbreak.

cross-posted from basil.CA

A succinct explanation of “hate speech”

NYU Journalism Professor has been alarmed by USA President Donald Trump – which is unlikely to surprise readers of this blog.

Professor Rosen is hardly more sanguine about the journalists who “cover” him. This is from a recent twitter thread you can find at at @jayrosen_nyu.

The most basic tool a critic has is not to complain or object, but to describe. Here is my latest attempt to describe what is going wrong in the press treatment of Donald Trump. I wrote it as a Twitter thread — a series of connected thoughts — on the occasion of his first 100 days.

The title is: “The everyday language of news distorts the reality of Trump.” For among my conclusions from watching press coverage of the first 100 days: Normal language will be used for what it is not in any way normal. Ready? Here goes…

On day 100 of Trump-in-power a thread about failed descriptors that keep the press from rendering the situation in its various extremes.

Forced to choose between inventing a language for a presidency without precedent and distorting the picture by relying on normal terms, the newswriters have frequently chosen inaccuracy by means of a received language, even though they know there’s nothing normal here.

With no details — and no evidence of planning or deliberation — calling a page of bullet points his tax “plan” misdescribes what he did.

It might seem harmlessly routine for PBS Newshour to announce a look back at Trump’s “foreign policy accomplishments and setbacks,” except there is no evidence that he HAS a foreign policy, and lots of evidence he does not.

The most you can say is: stuff happened, and he reacted.

It goes further. Even to say the president has views is a distortion. There are particles and waves but these do not amount to “positions.” Every report on his ‘flip-flopping’ suffers by the implication that he had some sort of position in the first place. Nope. He just said stuff.

Talk of “a steep learning curve” credits him with learning. Got any evidence of that? Reacting, yes… but learning?

My point is the press is running into trouble with basic description because the thing being described violates baseline expectations.

Now flip it around. Just as thoughtless use of normal terms distorts an extreme situation, using accurate terms may sound ‘too extreme.’ An example I’ve used: many things he does can only be explained via Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But that is off limits to newsrooms.

As Josh Marshall has written, “He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance.”

When extreme facts about a president cannot be rendered in news space without the speaker sounding extreme, the facts had better watch out. And it’s this dynamic that creates ‘normalization’ by news: an accurate account feels less believable because the reality is so whacked.

But all is not lost! Here, NBC’s Chuck Todd describes an extreme situation with Trump, but stays within the language of news. Watch the clip: it’s way better than you might think. pic.twitter.com/AeqaCv5kH2

The Hobo Ethical Code

This is beautiful. From Open Culture:

1. Decide your own life; don’t let another person run or rule you.

2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.

3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.

4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.

5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.

6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.

7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.

8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.

9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.

10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.

11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.

12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.

13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children; expose all molesters to authorities…they are the worst garbage to infest any society.

14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.

15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

Hence, teaching manners matters

In a blog post this morning called “A Raging Snowflake,” my good friend Clarissa writes:

Remember the Oppressed Tiffany, a very special snowflake whose “narrative was erased by the entire field of academia” when a hapless prof asked her to work on her writing?

The administration of her college is now going to humiliate the entire teaching faculty by forcing them to attend classes on microaggressions to appease the raging snowflake. Serves them right for not figuring out that their job is not to teach the snowflakes but to praise them slavishly and exuberantly without pause.

I normally tend to agree with Clarissa but need to part ways with her here. The unnamed professor apparently announced his/her suspicions – that the student had plagiarized an assignment – to the entire class. There is never a reason to humiliate a student that way, IMHO, even if you have proof of such wrongdoing, and there doesn’t seem to have been any in this case.

Below is a photograph of part of the assignment. The professor indicates that this student could not have used the word “hence.” I might have been offended by that remark, too!

hence

I am not certain that this teacher was trying to “marginalize” a Latina student. The prof was, though, certainly being a real oaf and, in those moments, a terrible teacher.

And, too, who the heck doesn’t know the word “hence” – in an academic environment? I teach students from all over the world, and practically to a person the word “hence” is in their vocabulary, and if anything used too often.

By the way, you should read Clarissa’s blog every day. She is very prolific, opinionated, brilliant, and vivid. A joy.

h/t Clarissa

Prime Yourself

There needs to be two of you: you and “you prime.” The latter is an heuristic entity brought into being by you for the purpose of protecting and orienting you.TigersAtBronxZoo

Your “you prime” makes the hard decisions – saying no to friends, curtailing vampiric commitments, enforcing skeptical habits of mind, and keeping you safe – when you are, for any reason, disinclined to do so.

This little bit of as-if – this guardian phantasm – is a nifty trick, I have found, and good mental hygiene.

Battle

In the New York Times obituary section recently I came upon one for Jacob Neusner, a scholar (and polemicist) who published more than 900 books in his lifetime. I calculated – on the back of a napkin, as it were – that Professor Neusner wrote approximately 10,000 publishable words every gosh-darn day for 50 years – over and above all the other words he wrote, including professional and personal correspondence, of which there must have been a ton. And he did this while mastering numerous complex disciplines (and languages) and raising a family. 

The Times obit quotes an admiring detractor:

[Neusner] is perhaps most widely known for his irascible, sometimes quite nasty and often pugnacious personality, his famous excoriating reviews, sometimes book-length critiques, and his fallings-out with almost every institution he worked in, almost every teacher who taught him, many of his students — as well as the errors that scar his many translations and publications.

A friend notes:

It seems that it would be better to be known for writing only 450 books, without the nasty and pugnacious part.

I doubt that Professor Neusner would have taken that deal, for many reasons. Here is the main one, I think: Along with study Neusner seemed to learn about topics via contention with others, which, happily for him, also fertilized his prose. (Churchill is said to have learned about a topic primarily by writing about it.)

Decades ago I had the pleasure of working with the formidable philosopher Sidney Hook. Up until his death at 86 he was still picking fights with both luminaries and unknowns. I have thought a lot about why he took aim at the latter, when there was little clear imperative, and even less interest among his readers, for Hook to do so. I believe he wanted to stay sharp rhetorically, and, as important, he wanted to make sure he had not missed anything.

Satire and Critique

From the very smart libertarian blog “Hit and Run,” presented without comment, except to note that all’s well that ends well (if it does end well):

Last Thursday an Ohio jury acquitted Anthony Novak, a 27-year-old man whom Parma police arrested last spring for making fun of them. After hearing one day of testimony, the jurors unanimously concluded that Novak did not “disrupt public services,” a felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison, when he created a parody of the Parma Police Department’s Facebook page.

Novak’s fake Facebook page, which changed the department’s slogan from “We know crime” to “We no crime,” included a job notice saying that anyone who passed a “15 question multiple choice definition test followed by a hearing test” would be “be accepted as an officer” but that the department “is strongly encouraging minorities to not apply.” …

When they arrested Novak in March, Parma police complained that his jokes were “derogatory” and “inflammatory.” …

Novak plans to sue the police department and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office for violating his First Amendment rights. … Elizabeth Bonham, staff attorney with the ACLU of Ohio, thinks Novak has a strong case. She told The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer Novak’s actions were “so clearly protected by the First Amendment that the criminal proceedings shouldn’t have even come this far.”

reposted from basil.CA