Yes, We Should Shame and Punish Racists

Contra Graham below, I do not think Donald Sterling should’ve been treated lightly. My disagreement with him stems from his assertion that “the goal” is to convince racists to not be racists. I do not think that is the appropriate aspiration in all cases, including this one.

It clearly is not the NBA’s goal. The NBA’s goal is to disassociate from racists. This is not only wise in an immediate instrumental sense — the players were going to strike if Sterling was not suspended, putting the playoffs in jeopardy — but in broader relational sense. It is not sensible for me to join the Westboro Baptist Church in order to patiently sit with them and try to persuade them to change their minds. It is nonsensical for at least two reasons. First is that voluntary association is a legitimating act. Second is that it is extremely unlikely to be successful.

Reams of research suggest that political views seldom change. When they do it is usually as the result of new exposure: having to directly view someone else’s plight for the first time. Donald Sterling’s problem is not his under-exposure to African-American athletes and their supporters. “Raising awareness” of the problem with his behavior is not likely to help him change his mind. In such circumstances patient explanation and “debunking” frequently exacerbate the problem.

Moreover, Sterling has shown no interest at all in having an open discussion. To my knowledge he has not publicly acknowledged this situation, nor has he apologized. His wife — co-owner of the team and also a racist — is suing Sterling’s former mistress for leaking the tape. These people are trying to use their enormous fortune to materially harm the lives of those who object to their execrable behavior. I’m sorry but there’s no way to reason with people in an environment such as this.

So persuasion is usually wasted effort and may worsen the problem. There is another goal: punishment. Clearly the NBA wishes to punish Sterling materially as well as disassociating from him and shaming him, and this is appropriate. I do not think it matters that this was a private conversation as the purpose of the conversation was for Sterling to instruct someone over whom he had a great deal of influence to actively discriminate against others. Sterling’s talk was not idle, in other words, and he had many, many priors. Punishment for its own sake is appropriate in cases where people have harmed others.

While I admire Graham’s eagerness to raise the status of deliberation, and I share his skepticism of the motivations behind society’s tendency to veer from one Two Minutes Hate to another, I think in this case (and cases like it) his patience is unwise. If nothing else it legitimizes beliefs that ought not be legitimized by treating them as worth consideration.

Alain Renais, RIP

I have not seen all or even most of his films, but La Guerre est Finie is one of my favorites of the 1960s and an immediate precursor of the soixante-huitard movement that it (barely) preceded.

Perhaps other Jilters will have more thoughts on Renais legacy. He was 91.

No Work Makes Jack A Malcontented Boy

In “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” John Maynard Keynes wrote that by 2030 or so humans could spend most of their time pursuing leisure:

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

In many respects this echoed Marx nearly eighty-five years earlier, in The German Ideology:

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

For contemporary treatments of similar ideas see John Quiggin and Ronald Dworkin. (Both of these are well worth reading in full.)

You may accept these goals or dismiss them. I would just like to note that we’ve basically achieved them, at the societal level. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American spends 3.19 hours per day working. Obviously this mostly means that the distribution of working hours is highly unequal as is the renumeration from work. And the U.S. is hardly the world in this respect.

Still, if you squint hard enough from a high enough perch, we might be working about as much as we should be from a Utopian perspective. Even if you tack on the 1.74 hours per day we spend on “household activities” — from food preparation to lawn care — we’re basically in the realm that Marx envisioned. We spend 2.83 hours per day watching television. Marx really was a 19th century thinker whose outlook does not map easily onto 21st century realities but again: it’s worth knowing where we stand.

Our biggest crisis remains a jobs crisis, locally and globally. People seem to want to work even if their most basic needs are met. They want to work even if it means they would have to forego hunting in the morning or fishing in the afternoon or blogging in the evening. They seem to want to acquire and consume and improve their lives ever more. Keynes viewed this as avarice — a bit strange for him to say, given his relatively luxurious lifestyle — but maybe it isn’t. And if it isn’t then some basic planks of Utopian political theory might need re-thinking.

(Getting to) The Politics of the Future

A couple of quick additions to my previous post on Thatcher and punk rock. First is perhaps the greatest stunt a punk band ever pulled (in a quite strong field): convincing at least some folks in the upper reaches of the US and UK intelligence services that a Soviet plot was underway (ht Adam). An enjoyable read despite Buzzfeed’s Buzzfeediness.

More substantive is Jonny Thakkar’s recent long article on Thatcherism: where it came from, what it meant, and whether it was essentially inevitable. I’ve been a big fan of Thakkar ever since I discovered The Point a few years back, and strongly recommend searching its archive. Lots of good stuff in there. This article, I think, conveys a lot of the intention behind my meager post (and much more too). Take this as a morsel:

[O]ne of the greatest mysteries of the last three decades has been why leftist parties, so quick to criticize neoliberal policies in opposition, have consistently pursued them once in power. Since 1979, when Thatcher was first elected, almost all Western governments, left and right, have, to greater or lesser degrees, privatized public services and utilities while lowering taxes on corporate and individual incomes; inequality has risen inexorably; and the common perception is that citizens have become more consumerist and individualistic. In coming to terms with the failure of their elected representatives to arrest these trends, leftists have tended to cry corruption or cowardice; but the phenomena in question are too universal to be explained by personal vice alone. Either politics in general is just a cynical masquerade conducted by the rich and for the rich—a tempting explanation, to be sure—or there is something about the contemporary situation that makes it virtually impossible to resist neoliberalism. There must be various factors at work, but one of them is surely the absence of a compelling counter-ideal to neoliberalism in recent leftist thought. In the last three decades intellectuals and activists have mostly directed their attention towards foreign policy, climate change or identity politics rather than economic questions; when they have engaged directly with neoliberalism, it has typically been to offer what should technically be called conservative complaints, seeking to slow or reverse change rather than to suggest any new direction or ideal.

It is this sentiment, or something like it, that I was trying to get across. Mark Blyth stresses similar points at various times in his uneven, but well worth reading, Austerity. I’d put more emphasis on material conditions and less on a lack of counter-ideals, and I don’t think all of politics is rent-capture, but basically I think this a question that demands an answer. And I haven’t heard a good one.

Like it or not, neoliberalism is the closest thing we’ve gotten to a real global revolution with real global labor and capital integration. The best anti-neoliberalism counterfactual isn’t very appealing. And the effects should have been predictable: the wealthy in the global North have benefited (in many cases) as have the poor in the global South (in at least some cases). The middle class hasn’t disappeared… it’s grown enormously. It’s just that the new entrants aren’t from the U.S. or U.K., so for many of us it looks like stagnation. If you doubt my portrayal of the empirics, go check out Branko Milanovic’s extensive research on these questions.

Constructing a meaningful left politics out of this is very difficult. It must either eschew internationalism or eschew nationalist egalitarianism in the short run, and the short run might not be all that short. Neither is easy to do, for philosophical and practical reasons. The left can work for a more redistributionary tax code, but as Thomas Piketty — remember that name… you’ll see it a lot over the next 6 months — tells us in his landmark analyses into national inequality, that is a mere palliative; not a cure. More radical solutions, such as nationalizing finance, are non-starters politically and probably are not even desirable on the merits. (Do you really want financial power and state power to be even closer together?) The same is true of traditional right politics, which has been even more thoroughly discredited.

I have not yet decided what I believe to be the appropriate path forward. Thakkar recommends Platonic socialism — and bizarrely claims that simply not working somehow reduces inequality — but I can’t see it as a positive political program even if I accepted all of its premises, which I most certainly do not. I do know that I am grateful for durable political institutions undergirded by fairly strong norms of liberty, equality, and fraternity in whatever order they may appear. I know that “muddling through” is an underrated political strategy. And I know that even if neoliberalism was inevitable or even desirable c. 1980 does not make it so now. The religious battle over Reagan and Thatcher — angels or demons? — serves no positive function any longer. If your politics reduces to “banks are bad” or “government is bad” or “country X is bad” then you’re at least a generation out of date in your political thinking.

The task at hand is to construct social, political, and economic realities that extend the quite-meaningful gains we’ve made since industrial revolution, to do so with our eye on time horizons that extend further than the present day. We cannot pretend that gains we’ve made are not real; they are. We likewise cannot accept that we could not or should not do better.

A Test Designed to Provoke an Emotional Response

For several years now Black Mirror has been my favorite television show despite the fact that U.S. audiences could only view it using, erm, “less-legal” methods. Apparently the show is now airing on something called the Audience Network on DirecTV and I’d encourage folks to give it a try.

Slate has a Slate-y take on the series, but here is the gist of what you need to know: each episode has a completely different cast and crew. There is no recurring plot. There are no returning characters. The writers and directors are all different from show-to-show as well. The only consistency is the techno-dystopian theme of each episode, which has some resonance in the age of Snowden and Facebook face-recognition algorithms.

In some ways Black Mirror‘s closest analogue is The Twilight Zone, but with one key difference: there is little surreal or absurdist about the premise of the episodes. The show is futuristic but just barely: the worlds in the show look functionally the same as our own, except that technology is extrapolated two or three short steps beyond where it presently is. There are no phasers or teleportation devices, just slightly better artificial intelligence. In some episodes the entire narrative is possible given existing technology. The show’s name refers both to an unpowered LCD screen and to an Arcade Fire song… tangible things that presently exist.

Refreshingly, the show also refuses to be dystopian in any one particular way. The first episode involves a terrorist plot to humiliate a head of state. Another imagines one possible future of Google Glass: the ability to revisit video of every event in your life’s past… no more need for hazy memories to settle a he-said-she-said dispute. To bear the loss of a loved one why not download a lifetime’s social network data into a replicant body? It’d be like they never left. In several cases the characters believe they have overcome part of the human condition via technology, only to realize that problems frequently require something other than a technical solution.

But that is not the fault of the technology. The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, is an avid user of Twitter and a casual technology optimist. His chosen medium is television, not print. The takeaway from the show is not to turn off the smartphone, disconnect from Facebook, and re-learn your penmanship. The technology is never the real problem. The people are. It is a point that frequently gets lost in discussions over the relationship between technology and society. And that is why the show is such a needed interjection into the culture.


Laughing at White Supremacists: Race and Bad Science

A video has been making the rounds in which Craig Cobb, a white supremacist who was leading the charge to create a neo-Nazi enclave in North Dakota undergoes a DNA test for a talk show, only to find out that he is “14% sub-Saharan African.” As of this post it has 120,000 views on youtube and has been featured on  TheGrio, The Daily Mail, The LA Times and The Huffington Post, where it is described as (maybe) “the best thing ever.”

Of course everyone loves the video. It bears a striking resemblance to what is probably Dave Chappelle’s best sketch of all time, about a blind white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby who doesn’t know he’s black. But in this case it’s a real white supremacist, so there’s the added bonus of social justice schadenfreude at watching him get his comeuppance.

As someone who studies health politics I find this video wildly annoying. Why, you ask?

It’s portraying Cobb as a villain for thinking race is biological and then proving him wrong by using science to tell him what his biological race is. It’s essentially accepting his presumptions of race as biology and racial purity to prove that he isn’t racially pure. But…race isn’t biological. And perpetuating the idea that it is is a way bigger problem than some racist nut out in North Dakota repeatedly being barred from creating an all-white town.

What is biological race? Well, according to the zoological definition, it exists when you can distinguish a group of organisms based on genetic difference. Humans of what we think of as different “races” do not differ anywhere near enough genetically to be distinguished in this way. And even our socially created definitions of race have differed dramatically across time – so a Craig Cobb of 100 years ago might have been even “more” black, because Southern or Eastern European ancestry might have been included in his black tally. As recently as 1930, these results would have made Cobb 100% “negro” according to the US census’s “one drop rule,” which asserted that anyone with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black. Does it seem like this is getting silly? That’s because race biology is.

This isn’t just an issue of bad science, biological understandings of race do real harm to racial minorities, particularly in the healthcare system. Take for example, spirometers, which are used to measure lung function. They’re actually calibrated to account for a presumed difference in black and white lung capacities (with black capacity presumed to be 10-15% lower). Some even have a switch for “race” built in. The problem? These assumptions are based on bad race-biology science and they aren’t accurate. As a result, black patients have to be sicker to get the same treatment, not to mention to qualify for worker’s comp or insurance/compensation for their illness.

Assumptions about biological race can also lead to delayed or incorrect diagnoses, as in the case of a young black girl whose cystic fibrosis – a disease predominantly associated with Caucasian patients – went undiagnosed for years until a passing doctor, glancing at only her x-ray, asked her primary physician “who’s the girl with cystic fibrosis?”

Thinking about race in this way also shapes how we understand the causes of disease. With the rise of genetics, biological/genetic race is increasingly studied as a possible cause or risk-factor for disease. This goes on despite the fact that – and here I have to quote someone who understands genetics better than I do – “the environmental conditions that interact with putative polymorphic variations to trigger the onset of disease, not those variations themselves, would likely be the targets of intervention (or the cause of disease per se).”

Not surprisingly, this focus on genetics can obscure the social and environmental causes of many race-based disparities in health. As Dorothy Roberts explains:

“A renewed trust in inherent racial differences provides a convenient but false explanation for persistent inequalities despite the end of de jure discrimination. It is also the perfect complement to social policies that implement the claim that racism has ceased to be the cause of African Americans’ unequal status.” (Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention, 64)

The acceptance of race biology via genetics also means money is spent on finding race-specific genes when it could be more effectively spent treating the condition or addressing known (often social/environmental) causes and risk-factors. Conditions like hypertension and asthma for example, have repeatedly been linked to racial minorities’ greater exposure to stress and pollution. Still, genetics labs are established purely to identify the gene that’s causing high rates of asthma among black and Puerto Rican youth. Peer reviewed studies in medical journals have linked postpartum depression to poverty, lower levels of education, a lack of social support, and stress, all of which are more common among women of color. So of course in 2013 the National Institute of Mental Health funded a million dollar study aiming to identify the “biomarkers” for postpartum depression in African American women.

To wit, race isn’t biological, let’s stop talking/acting/researching/funding as if it is.

For much much more on this check out one of my favorite books by one of my favorite scholars: Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts

For a shorter read on race Biology, check out this May 2013 article by Merlin Chowkwanyun in The Atlantic