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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Leftover Evidence

So, this is what it is like living in the Misinformation Age.

I've long struggled to understand what moves people to reject evidence in favor of conspiracy. And science fiction has, once again, helped me understand the roots behind this social issue. That's kinda a thing for me. It's why I read and watch science fiction.

This time it was the television adaptation of The Leftovers that provided insight. It's a beautiful but heartrending show about a future in which 2% of the population disappears in an unexplained event. In the aftermath, people are left to get on with their lives. But understandably, many many people cannot do that. They cannot live in a world where something so powerful and horrible happened yet cannot be explained. 

Cults, conspiracies, and pseudoscience play an important role in the stories that unfold on the show. 

The embrace of misinformation does not make characters bad people. Those characters are simply not able to accept that their world works in ways so far beyond their capacity to understand. So instead, they invent theories or believe the theories of others - theories that make the complex simple, that explain the unexplainable.  

So yeah, the show's relevance has more than endured.

Tom PerrottaDamon Lindelof, and the show's team of writers demonstrate an understanding of human behavior that many dismiss as irrational. And maybe it is. I don't know, but the important thing is that this behavior is surprisingly common: 
When faced with a world that is too complex to understand, many people will invent a world they can understand. They will reject any evidence that contradicts the world they've accepted, and what's more, they will see people who try to present such evidence as pawns of a conspiracy to cover up "their truth." 

Last week, we marked the anniversary of a group's violent attempt to stop the certification of a presidential election because they believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, powerful people corrupted the race for president in multiple states. And in the year since many have spun new theories that the violence itself was a government-led attack... or not an attack. That all depends on who you ask and what time of day it is.

But that's not all. Angry activists are telling school boards that history lessons on race and policy are indoctrination efforts by leftist radicals who have taken over the education system.

Large segments of the public dismiss scientific accounts of the human contributions to climate change.

Others remain convinced that the entire global medical community is lying about the severity and spread of COVID-19.

A growing population has accepted the Great Replacement Theory's assertion that diversity in affluent nations is a plot by a secretive group to replace white people. 

These are just a handful of places in our public discourse where people dismiss clear evidence that the challenges we face as a society are complex and dynamic. People dismiss that evidence in favor of conspiracy theories rife with misinformation.

The right-wing retelling of events from January 6th, 2021 pushed me to better understand this phenomenon. When presented with the clear reality that Trump supporters had gathered in D.C. and carried out a violent and catastrophic attack, other Trump supporters have worked very hard to find an alternative to that reality. 

  • It wasn't violent
  • It wasn't Trump supporters
  • FBI agents were planted in the crowd and incited the violence
  • No one broke into the Capitol
  • The prosecution of the participants is a witch hunt
These are just some of the ways Trump supporters have tried to explain away a reality that is at odds with how they understand the world. In their view, no one who agrees with them could do the things we all saw. So, they tell themselves stories - stories of a world where the FBI worked together with leftist radicals in disguise, or maybe stories of how the video footage was faked, or stories in which they themselves have never seen the footage - footage they've actually watched, but no they haven't because it doesn't exist. 

The people who support Trump believe that everyone who shares their opinion on that issue is on the correct side of every issue. They see themselves as "the good guys," and people who disagree are the bad guys - bad guys with powerful secret players backing their position. 

It's a simple story of good versus bad that washes away anything difficult to understand, but believing the story means dismissing anything that disrupts the narrative.   

If, as another example, you tell yourself the story that man-made climate change is a hoax, what do you do when the scientific community presents evidence that man-made climate change is a crisis we need to act on immediately? 

Well, just invent a chapter in which scientists are "in it for the money" and part of a global conspiracy to rob nations of their energy independence. Never mind that scientists don't earn the kind of money that would justify this. Ignore the fact that there are a lot of incentives for a scientist to come forward with evidence of such a conspiracy. Forget that the concept of "energy independence" is a euphemism for "which corporations get to sell oil to Americans." Ignore the complexity and stick to the story.

The story makes people feel certain. It sidesteps complexity and leaves gray areas behind, allowing for a more black and white explanation.

People want to know they are right, that the decisions they make are the good ones. This is why presenting evidence that demands the acceptance of uncertainty often lands on deaf ears. 

I won't pretend to have an easy solution, but I do find comfort in developing an understanding of what is clearly a complex problem. 

Friday, January 07, 2022

Shaking Faith

 I was 10-years-old in 1986.

Since then, corporate profits in the US have grown 1,428.41%


The S&P 500 stock market index has grown 1,918.10%

The median household income has grown 19.60%.


Monday, January 03, 2022

Revisiting a Violent Transition of Power

--Older Post Revised on 1/2/2022--

As we prepare for the one-year anniversary of the first time America failed to have a peaceful transition of power, supporters of the former president need to remember the following:

It’s not enough to hear you disavow those who violently stormed the Capitol. 

We need you to acknowledge that the former president's embrace of far-right antidemocratic extremists did immeasurable harm to the nation.  

Here’s why we need such an explicit rejection: When we told you this was coming, you dismissed us as dupes or pawns. 

For years, at family reunions, during backyard bull sessions, in comment threads, you've been telling us our worst fears were a figment of the mainstream media's imagination – a propaganda campaign led by the political class – a plot conceived to get your guy out of office by any means necessary. 

You've yelled at us, called us hateful, and said we were foolish to suggest that the Former President was abusing his power or undermining democratic norms. 

When we presented proof, you told us the proof was a lie. You told us we were suckers to fall for the lie.

And now it's settled. He is the monster we were warning you about. 

  • He gathered a crowd of extremists on the day Congress was set to certify the election results.
  • He assembled the crowd near the Capitol.
  • He told them they had been robbed.
    • "All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they're doing." 
  • He told them they had to fight.
    • "And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."
  • He told his followers their country was being destroyed.
    • "We're going to have somebody in there that should not be in there and our country will be destroyed and we're not going to stand for that."
  • He said they had to stop that from happening.
    • "We must stop the steal."
  • He told them they could never win if they showed weakness.
    • "Because you'll never take back our country with weakness."
  • And then he sent them marching to the Capitol as the legislators and his vice president were in the middle of the certification process.

The crowd beat a cop as they sang the National Anthem. They waved flags emblazoned with their leader’s name. They broke windows to gain entry to the Capitol. They chanted calls for a public execution. They stopped a session of Congress. And they did it because the Former President told them to do it. 

He used his power as our nation's leader to make that happen.

Allow me to repeat this: You don’t get to act surprised. We told you it was going to happen. You just wouldn’t listen.

And as a follow-up: You don't get to deny what happened. The guilty pleas are flowing now. This was perpetrated by proud Trump supporters who thought violence was an appropriate way to seat a president. 

You've tried to deny what happened. You've tried to downplay the severity. You said we were wrong. You told us we had been lied to by the media and the “faux-experts.” You said you were wiser, smarter, better Americans than us. 

But you weren’t. We were right. We were the ones defending democracy. And now you're angry because we are going to require you to acknowledge that. 

Everything we've been saying about the former president was proven true last year. He cultivated a basket of deplorables: Followers willing to spread lies, publicly espouse hateful views, call for violence, and yes, willing to assault law enforcement officers to hold onto political power. 

If you try to justify, diminish, or dismiss the disgraceful actions of the former president and his followers, we will reject your anti-democratic ideas. We will shame you and label you unamerican. If you attempt to use force to back your views, we will fight back and we will win. The law and decency are on our side. 

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Rittenhouse and Recklessness

I am in regular contact with a person who holds very different views from me on the Rittenhouse case. 

I don't wanna get too deep into a debate with them on the topic, but I've been engaging the topic over the last month because it is something I think about a lot. 

I'm raising two boys, and Rittenhouse made the choices he did when he was just a kid (he's still a kid in my eyes). Even when a child is practicing self-defense, however, taking the lives of other people is bound to shake that child to their very core. It is not a situation I would ever want my boys to be in. 

That's my personal stake in the case. There are other reasons I care about the issues raised by the case, but youth violence and recklessness hit close to home.

Beyond that, I got a very well-balanced analysis of the case just before the jury started deliberating. After hearing it, I was expecting a not-guilty verdict. The analysis came from the New York Times podcast The Daily. The TV media reported something vastly different than what I learned from that podcast. Julie Bosman, the reporter, made it clear that Rittenhouse stayed overnight in Kenosha regularly - was staying with his best friend that night. She explained that the gun never crossed state lines. She explained why the gun charge got thrown out. Bosman also walked through the events of the entire day leading up to the deaths. The charges brought against Rittenhouse were never going to stick. 

But two people died, another was wounded, and Rittenhouse has to live with the knowledge that he has killed people. 

There is nothing to celebrate or honor. There are no heroes that emerged from these events. And I am troubled to see narratives that suggest otherwise.

Anyone who portrays Rittenhouse as a hero or as brave is promoting a message to my boys. It is a message I firmly reject and I will teach my boys to reject it as well. The message is that the threat of deadly violence is a legitimate response to property damage or political unrest. 

I know there are people who think it is appropriate to protect property with lethal force. I think those people are wrong. Even if the action is legal, it is morally wrong. I think people who disagree are greedy cowards. 

The only time I believe it is acceptable to kill someone is if you are protecting your life or the life of another. And admittedly, by that logic, Rittenhouse was justified in pulling the trigger. He was protecting his life.

But he should not have brought an assault rifle to a protest. He should not have waited until the protest ended and mostly provocateurs remained. It's legal what he did, sure, but it was reckless. It was foolish. 

It was the kind of recklessness I see in a lot of teenagers (drunk driving, vandalizing, drag racing, throwing rocks off a highway overpass, trying drugs, etc.). But teenagers normally don't have access to assault rifles. They shouldn't, legal or not. Someone in Rittenhouse's life needed to tell him, "You should not bring a gun to the protest. If things get out of hand, you don't have the training or the maturity to make good decisions. Leave the gun at home." 

But no one told him that. There were actually some adults who encouraged him, and that upsets me. They enabled Rittenhouse's recklessness. 

Imagine Rebel Without a Cause if Jim's dad had encouraged Jim to defend his honor and win the chickie run. The audience certainly would have seen Jim's dad as partially responsible for Buzz's death, because Jim's dad is an adult. We don't hold Jim fully responsible because he was a child. But adults encouraging reckless behavior are a very real danger to the kids who look up to them. 

Now, the people who confronted Rittenhouse were reckless as well. I'm not giving them a pass, but they were adults, and two of them are dead now. It feels wrong to do anything beyond acknowledging their recklessness.

I am trying to thread a needle here. I recognize the events from that night in Kenosha would have very different results if Rittenhouse had been there protecting the safety of the protesters or if his skin was a different color. I recognize that the anger of the protesters was legitimate and they were standing up for the safety of members of their community. Those issues are important. A lot of ink has been spilled addressing them, and we should not be done deliberating those issues. 

As we are able to gain perspective on these events, however, we should be able to have the conversation about youth violence and recklessness on its own. It is not more important than other issues the Rittenhouse case highlights, but it is not unimportant. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Stop trying to make CRT happen

This debate about education that you want me to engage in has become deeply frustrating.

From the New York Post
I understand you want me to see something that you see. You want me to recognize it as something serious - maybe even dangerous. So, I get it is important to you that I listen and take your arguments seriously. 

I get that.

But when I take your arguments seriously enough to respond with my views, time and time again, you have ignored my responses. 

You believe that what you have learned from your sources outweighs anything I have to say on the issue. As a result, there is no conversation. You are not willing to consider what I have to say. 

So, I don’t understand why you keep trying to engage me. 

You’re now sending poorly sourced photo collages that attempt to link the AG’s daughter’s marriage to ideas you don’t like in education. 

The first time you did that, I sent a point-by-point rebuttal. 

The second collage didn’t offer anything new. 

You just sent the same theory, but this time you followed it with a leading question: “Conflict… maybe?”

No. There’s no conflict. I already explained why there’s no conflict.

But here I go again…

The suggestion of links to CRT is completely manufactured. The AG’s son-in-law founded a firm that contributes to social-emotional learning programs. 

Sure, a bunch of conservatives have objected to social-emotional learning. But just because conservatives don’t like it, doesn’t make it CRT. 

And there it is! I keep coming back to this non-conversation. I shouldn’t, but I do because I find it troubling to see how you have been drawn into this movement to delegitimize education. 

via GIPHY

I’m sure you don’t see what you’re doing as an effort to delegitimize education, but on more than one occasion you have said (or written) that parents should have the final say in what gets taught in school.

Let me clear: That is absolutely wrong. 

Parents are not education professionals. The people who decide what gets taught in school should be education professionals. Anyone who says otherwise is working to delegitimize education. 

Want proof?

Look at the debate in the Virginia governor’s race right now. The GOP candidate just put out a campaign ad featuring a mother who was upset that the governor vetoed a bill that would allow parents to opt their kids out of reading books that parents don’t want their children reading. The mother in the ad spearheaded the effort to get that bill passed.

The book at the center of that mother’s complaint was the Nobel-prize winning novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, and the child who complained about it was a high school senior in AP English. He claimed the brutal descriptions of slavery gave him nightmares. 

I do not want that kid’s parents to have any say in what gets taught in the public schools. They are dangerously ignorant people who couldn’t figure out how to help their 17-year-old AP English student son navigate a literary telling of slavery. They are the type of people who would get up and read the most shocking parts of Morrison’s book out of context in front of a school board meeting and they would use the shock to insist that the material has no place in the public schools. 

Those parents’ effort to use legislation to keep a book out of their child’s hands is what gives me nightmares. 

And the Virginia state legislature passed the bill! Twice!! It had to be vetoed (twice) to keep the book a required part of the AP English curriculum. They attempted to move mountains just to keep American author Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel out of their child’s hands. 

And those parents are not part of a grassroots movement. They are well-known Republican activists. Their son worked (briefly) for the Trump administration

And here’s where we get to another part of this mess that troubles me. You have been led to believe that this is a grassroots movement of frustrated parents who are being denied a voice. You think these parents arrived at these positions independently and they are simply concerned about their kids’ schools. And what’s worse than that, in your view, is that the powerful school boards are silencing these parents. They are using the incredible power of their school board appointments to shut these parents out of the decision-making process. 

Put aside the fact that such a view grossly overestimates the role of a school board. Instead, pay attention to the oddly consistent message that these diverse groups of parents are sharing across the country. That should be enough to clue you in that this is not a grassroots movement. It is a well-funded political movement with leaders who have deftly coordinated on-the-ground community organizers. Organizations in the movement include Citizens Renewing America, the Manhattan Institute, Parents Defending Education, Turning Point USA, and Prager University (not an actual university, btw). These organizations have assembled toolkits that provide talking points and strategies for making these wedge issues the only thing that a school board can deal with, and they launched these efforts while school districts were trying to figure out how to safely reopen. 

You think parents are frustrated? Imagine school administrators trying to open their institutions at the tail end of a pandemic only to have parents interrupt every public meeting with shouting arguments about a fringe issue. Oh, I’m sorry those parents weren’t all greeted with open arms, but their new pet issue wasn’t the only business on the agenda. 

This is all to say, I think you have an incomplete understanding of the issue and I am frustrated that when I try to show you the bigger picture, you respond with some version of “But the children! Won’t anybody think of the children?”

It’s fear mongering, and that isn’t what should drive conversations about education. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Rage-peddling click farmers paraphrasing what they skimmed in retired editions of history books

I shared this photo of a mural I found here in Pamplona a few days ago.

It expresses, with exceptional concision, a view I have been trying to articulate for years now. 

I don't see it as necessarily anti-capitalist. I see it as a statement of fact. 

Unchecked capitalism paired with imperialist governments led to the installation of unstable governments in the developing world that allow for the exploitation of resources. This has, in turn, led to failed states, wars, warlords, corruption, and eventually to a migrant crisis. 

It was not an accident. It was the intent of powerful people to obtain resources from people with less power. And I benefit from it. The comfort I enjoy as a westerner in a developed economy comes, at least in part, from the exploitation of people I am unlikely to ever meet. 

My comfort and the knowledge of its source make me uncomfortable. I see that as a good thing. I would like more people to experience that discomfort because discomfort moves people to act.  

The problem is that people will resist any effort to disrupt their comfort.

For example, this morning I woke up to find this response to my photo in the comments:  

That you would post that message....shows your astounding lack of understanding of history in any way, shape or context. Your done [Sic].

It was tempting to ignore this. After all, there is no way I am going to reach this person. No way I am going to change their mind. They have already dismissed me. 

But I decided to write up a response anyway. The comment gave me an opportunity to put into words my thoughts about the current state of political discourse. Here's what I wrote:

I really appreciate this comment. I appreciate it because it so perfectly encapsulates the rhetorical approach of today’s conservative movement – if you can even categorize what today’s conservatives are doing as a movement.

It’s a perfect expression of the knee-jerk outrage that has defined the right since 2010. And your empty insistence that expressing a contrary political point of view somehow disqualifies me from the conversation… that was the cherry on top. Just the little reminder that #CancelCulture has its roots in 1980s conservativism (Heavy Metal, Hip Hop, Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, etc. etc.)

I don’t envy you or other people trying to keep progressives at bay. You all had such a good run, and your comment harkens back to a time when conservatives actually had counterarguments. I remember how good William F. Buckley Jr. was at making progressive values look foolish. You had Friedman and Stigler – Nobel laureates. You had thought leaders who would have provided you with an actual example of history that countered the point made by the leftist mural I shared.

The thought leaders who could have helped, however, have all left: Brooks, Kristol, Noonan, Krauthammer. You’ve lost all your conservative thinkers. All you have left are rage-peddling click farmers paraphrasing what they skimmed in retired editions of history books while they dive down comment-thread rabbit holes on poorly moderated discussion boards.

If you wanted people to take you seriously, you would have something more specific than the word “history” to counter this mural’s claim that migrants in Europe are fleeing wars that are the result of thoughtless borders drawn by empires that have since retreated from the developing world. Or that migrants in the US are fleeing failing states that are descendants of puppet governments installed so Western interests could exploit resources without having to worry about regulations or, you know, the people who actually live in those nations.

You would cite historical events that counter that clear and well-supported telling of modern history if you had a leg to stand on. But instead, you shake your fist and insist that you know something you won’t share because… because what? I’m supposed to know it already? Is that how you would defend your absent argument?

Well, in the words of my generation: Whatever…

I guess I’m done.

That's what I wrote, but to be clear: I'm not done. I'm just getting started.  

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Getting back on the bike


Some of you may know I'm on sabbatical leave from Sacramento State this spring. 

It's nice. Eligibility for sabbatical is an incredible job benefit.

There are, of course, expectations associated with the leave.

To earn this time, I had to propose a project. I proposed a series of papers on my work coordinating the writing assessment of juniors at Sac State. 

The project is progressing, but I'm learning (or relearning) a lot of not-so-obvious things about writing along the way.  

I'm getting close to finishing the first paper and that one feeds into the others. Overall I feel good about things. But it was not easy getting here. I'm working on these scholarly papers, and it took until last week for me to rediscover my flow - a.k.a. that focused mental state conducive to productivity described by the Hungarian-American scholar Csíkszentmihályi.

I think most of us know it's frustrating when you have a lot to say but have a hard time putting it into words. But I like writing. A lot. I've got that 'mediocre white guy confidence' that lets me enjoy reading my own words back to myself (see 15 years of self-indulgent blogging). 

The thing is, writing scholarship requires a lot of different types of mental activity to sync up. And I was out of practice. 

Which is hard to imagine when you think about what I do. I teach writing and 'how-to-teach-writing.' But that work is not the same as writing scholarship. 

Don't get me wrong. I really like my job. Working at a comprehensive regional university is aligned with my life goals and ethics. But that kind of setting asks me to do a lot of teaching and administrative service. I plan classes, assess student work, advise students, chair some meetings, attend other meetings, and coordinate a large-scale assessment program. 

There isn't much time for scholarly writing. And that shit ain't like riding a bike. I couldn't just hop back on and get back at it. I had to rediscover a lot.

It's a good reminder of what I'm asking my students to do (especially the grad students). It's also an excellent argument for sabbatical leave and protected writing time... and, yes, it probably also a good argument for being disciplined about my scholarly writing goals even when things are busy.   

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Argument Conservatives Must Concede - updated after a year

--Revised on 1/2/2022--

As we prepare for the one-year anniversary of the first time America failed to have a peaceful transition of power, supporters of the former president need to remember the following:

It’s not enough to hear you disavow those who violently stormed the Capitol. 

We need you, as conservatives, to acknowledge that the former president did immeasurable harm to the nation.  

Here’s why we need such an explicit rejection: When we told you this was coming, you dismissed us as dupes or pawns. 

For years, at family reunions, during backyard bull sessions, in comment threads, you've been telling us our worst fears were a figment of the mainstream media's imagination – a propaganda campaign led by the political class – a plot conceived to get your guy out of office by any means necessary. 

You've yelled at us, called us hateful, and said we were foolish to suggest that the Former President was abusing his power or undermining democratic norms. 

When we presented proof, you told us the proof was a lie. You told us we were suckers to fall for the lie.

And now it's settled. He is the monster we were warning you about. 

  • He gathered a crowd of his followers on the day Congress was set to certify the election results.
  • He assembled the crowd near the Capitol.
  • He told them they had been robbed.
    • "All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they're doing." 
  • He told them they had to fight.
    • "And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."
  • He told his followers their country was being destroyed.
    • "We're going to have somebody in there that should not be in there and our country will be destroyed and we're not going to stand for that."
  • He said they had to stop that from happening.
    • "We must stop the steal."
  • He told them they could never win if they showed weakness.
    • "Because you'll never take back our country with weakness."
  • And then he sent them marching to the Capitol as the legislators and his vice president were in the middle of the certification process.

The crowd beat a cop as they sang the National Anthem. They waved flags emblazoned with their leader’s name. They broke windows to gain entry to the Capitol. They chanted calls for a public execution. They stopped a session of Congress. And they did it because the Former President told them to do it. 

He used his power as our nation's leader to make that happen.

Allow me to repeat this: You don’t get to act surprised. We told you it was going to happen. You just wouldn’t listen.

And as a follow-up: You don't get to deny what happened. The guilty pleas are flowing now. This was perpetrated by proud Trump supporters who thought violence was an appropriate way to seat a president. 

You've tried to deny what happened. You've tried to downplay the severity. You said we were wrong. You told us we had been lied to by the media and the “faux-experts.” You said you were wiser, smarter, better Americans than us. 

But you weren’t. We were right. We were the ones defending democracy. And now you're angry because we are going to require you to acknowledge that. 

Everything we've been saying about the former president was proven true last year. He cultivated a basket of deplorables: Followers willing to spread lies, publicly espouse hateful views, call for violence, and yes, willing to thwart the will of the people to hold onto political power. 

If you try to justify, diminish, or dismiss the disgraceful actions of the former president and his followers, we will reject your anti-democratic ideas. We will shame you and label you unamerican. If you attempt to use force to back your views, we will fight back and we will win. The law and decency are on our side.