Nancy Isenberg, White Trash [Review]

Attention Conservation Notice: An ambitious but sprawling book that, amazingly, silences the people it claims to describe while also doing good work in de-mystifying colonial-era myths. (Originally published 15 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Error of 2017.)

Class and race intersect in many ways. Until November 8, the most common contemporary invocations of such intersectionality came from the Left to justify and explain the grievances of members of their coalition. Sometime around 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on Election Day’s night, though, the discourse changed radically, and it was suddenly the intersection of Whiteness and Working-Classness that obsessed observers–including myself.

Like many people, I turned to three books implicitly or explicitly on this subject: Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

Of the three, Hochschild’s is probably the most readable, Cramer’s the most perceptive and theoretical, and Isenberg’s the least useful. Hochschild and Cramer focus their attention on the contemporary intersection of identities and relate it directly to political action (or inaction). Isenberg’s book, however, is vastly more ambitious. It attempts to deliver a 400-year history of its subject, and, to give it credit, the first 250 years of that history are genuinely revelatory. (One can never again really give credence to Louis Hartz’s liberalism thesis after reading how the English upper classes viewed the New World as a cesspool in which to deposit their refuse classes.) In that sense, however, it is indeed an “untold” story (or at least a story not told often enough).

Yet the book suffers from too many flaws, many of which are structural. Its ambition is fatally undermined by the fact that it must rely on the testimony  largely of people outside the class of “white trash”; we rarely hear people in that category speaking for themselves even though they do. (In fact, there is an entire genre of music that mourns, celebrates, documents, and valorizes precisely this group.)  The contrast with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is stark: we are presented with enormous quantities of travelers’ reflections on encountering people who seem not quite human, reams of testimony about official actions that punished (or sometimes rewarded) members of the class, and, finally, a conclusion that literally quotes Mario Cuomo as often as it does a member of the group.

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Stalin and the Scientists, Joseph Ings [Review]

Somehow, reading about the Soviet history has become my hobby. Readers should therefore appreciate in advance that my comments here are from a particular standpoint. And I should also note that I have no love for the Soviet state: I think that Ronald Reagan was more right than wrong when he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”

But.

I also grew up in the shadow of the Cold War in the American Midwest. The demotic understanding of the USSR was that they were the bad guys–pre-1991, they were bad guys who wanted to kill (enslave? humiliate?) us, and post-1991 they were the bad guys who lost because their system was bad. The sophisticated explanation, based on a mishmash of Orwell, Chambers, and Koestler (often as translated through third- and fourth-hand impressions of those texts), was that Soviet society was a particular kind of evil, a melange of the gray and the violent.

Reprogramming myself from that perspective began with, surprisingly enough, a Time-Life book called, simply, The Soviet Union. I encountered this on my middle-school library’s shelves, which meant that this had to have happened post-collapse (1993 or 1994). I think I read it eight or nine times; I know for certain I stole it from the library (a sin, to be sure, but I don’t think that I’ve deprived anyone of its circulation!).  I was enthralled by the portrait of Soviet normalcy it portrayed: people getting married, people going to work, people attending poetry readings (a novel thought in more than one way), people engaging in “hero projects” to build the trans-Siberian railroad, and so on. The overwhelming takeaways were that the Soviets were … normal. Poor. Constricted. But normal. Everyday people made their life there, and considered other ways of living strange.

Heady stuff at 12 years of age

I know now about the fine variations in Soviet strategies of rule–the distinctions between 1937, 1957, and 1977 in the USSR are almost as familiar to me now as the parallel changes in, say, British life would be. But it’s in the spirit of that first shock that a culture could exist on so fundamentally different lines that I continue to read about Soviet history. In essence, I’m still trying to square the puzzle of my childhood: how could people living in a system so different from mine nevertheless seem so similar?

Simon Ings’s Stalin and the Scientists speaks more to my chosen career now (although I wish for a companion volume: Stalin and the Social Scientists). How did Soviets at the height of Stalinism do science? Ings’s answer is: cautiously, but with more dedication than one would expect.

Ings’s world of Soviet science focuses on the mixture of the political and the scientific. As he writes (xiv), “In the end, only obedience mattered. Stalin believed that science should serve the state.” For a political scientist, I will confess to a slight frisson at the idea that STEM should be so subordinated to the political; contemporary American discourse makes the opposite claim (frequently to its demerit). Of course, the result of this was awful: “It was counterproductive. It was tantamount to wrecking.” (xv) This led to a bizarre paradox: “By the time Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the Soviet Union boasted the largeest and best-funded scientific establishment in history. It was at once the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world.” (xv)

This was the system that produced both the first artificial satellite and Trofim Lysenko’s counter-Darwin explanation of evolution, both the first man in space and the waste of Kazakhstan’s virgin lands. So what happened?

At this point,  I have links to share. To learn more about the Soviet science system, I recommend:

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Analyzing the End of the World

Via the excellent What the End of the World Looked Like (click on picture for ink)

Originally published 14 October 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

A message to participants in my class on The Politics of the End of the World.

How should we understand the “end of the world”? Answering this question matters. We can imagine plentiful ends of the world. This might seem like an oxymoron: how can there be more than one end of the world? On reflection, however, ends of the world are all around us (and behind us and in front of us). There have been several different “ends of the world” for life on Earth: the BBC lists five major extinction events, for example. Moreover, ends of the lines for species are commonplace: roughly 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are extinct. And if we turn to the future, we can mark out several different physical impending ends of the world, from the cessation of Earth’s ability to sustain life to the dissolution of stars to, in a hundred billion years or so, the likely heat death of the universe. All of these, and more, rank as “ends of the world” from one vantage point or another.

So the first task we have to do is establish the vantage point that we want to take in discussing various ends of the world. In doing so, we don’t want to participate in the sleight of hand that STEM-y types often unconsciously (or not) engage in: the equation of “the end of the world” with some physical or biological process that leads to the death of the human species, or near enough as to make no difference. We also want to consider the social processes that can lead to ends of the world. Sometimes, these are equally cataclysmic. Consider the fate of Yiddish-speaking civilization. Despite the valiant efforts of survivors and revivalists, Yiddish culture was largely extinguished during the Holocaust (the site is propaganda, but the point at the link isn’t really). If we take the broader point that the death of a language means the end of the worldview and culture associated with that language (a debatable point, but a not unreasonable one!), then we are faced with the fact that more than 90 percent of these social worlds have ended or will soon.

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Notes for Undergraduate Success

Originally published 17 October 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Some notes prepared for an undergraduate group-mentoring session.

There’s no great mystery to college success. All–or almost all–professors want you to succeed. All–or almost all–students want you to succeed. All–or almost all–of the people in your life want you to succeed. The only things you have to do in order to succeed is to build on that foundation in order to put the time and effort in to mastering course material, figuring out what you want to study, establishing how that relates to your goals for success later on in life, defining what “success” means to you, paying for college somehow, having a social life, broadening your horizons…

Well, you get the idea. At the 100,000-foot level, college success is pretty simple. You’re among the most favored people in the history of the human species. But up close and personal, the fact that you can afford to spend four (or however many…) years investing in yourself and your society doesn’t change the fact that succeeding in college is still hard.

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Phoenix, Arizona: A Quasi-Conspiracy Theory About Names

Originally published 7 August 2016, but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017. I’m reposting here.

Like many people on the Internet, I enjoy selected conspiracy theories (for the record, my favorite remains the ones concerning Denver Airport). Read what follows in that spirit–except that I’m also quasi-serious.

I think the name of Phoenix, Arizona, reflects crypto-Confederate propaganda hiding in plain sight. My evidence for this is entirely circumstantial, but it seems a much better story than the received wisdom that it commemorates the rebirth of civilization on a site originally settled by the Hohokam people.

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The Starbucks Curse: A Research Design Thought Experiment

Originally published 13 December 2016 and then re-published following the Great Server Error of 2016,

Answering research questions is one of the hardest and most valuable skills we can impart to students. But we often do this by teaching good research design–demonstrating the ideal, illustrating it with examples of designs that approximate the ideal, and then inviting students to imagine their own ideal research designs.

There are many pedagogical benefits to this method, but it overlooks a central fact: good research design is rare for good reasons.

People, including students and faculty, live in a world in which truth-claims are supported by research designs that wouldn’t pass muster with even the most generous reviewers. We can do a much better service by pointing out how to make a bad research design.

I present one here: The Starbucks Curse.

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Conspiracy Thinking In The Age of Trump

Originally written for Formichewhich published an Italian translation.

Americans long held up the quality of their democracy as a standard for the rest of the world to follow. In many political science metrics, other democracies are—literally—measured against American democracy to determine their quality; in theorizing about how “democracy” works, American institutions are routinely adduced as an unproblematic model. One of the supposed strengths of American institutions was that the sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories that appeared in other countries were, allegedly, never influential in the United States.

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Indulging Predators or Divorcing Research from Researchers?

(What follows is speculative, and I reserve the right to retract it if I’m, well, wrong.)

One of the many ways in which institutions have been shown to have abused the trust placed in them concerns the manner in which universities have conspired to enable and to protect male professors who sexually prey upon women in their orbits.

The fact that (almost always) male professors have long been able to act with near-total impunity toward their (almost always) female victims is unambiguously bad. The fact that institutions are being forced to reconsider their positions and policies toward these tendencies is unambiguously good. The further fact that taking sexual harassment seriously will help to sustain careers and (more important) the wellbeing of women is even better. And the fact that we cannot undo the harms that have been done is a call for serious reflection and unambiguous regret.

These cases have also demonstrated, again, that sexual predation and violence is endemic, and flourishes wherever trust exists to be abused. Consider the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s analysis of sexual assault cases involving doctors and patients, for instance. Parallel discussions involving campus sexual assault (usually stylized as student-against-student) have reshaped, however incompletely and imperfectly, the way that universities as institutions deal with such issues among the studentry.

But there remains a question about how we will deal with scholars as scholars once we have determined that they have committed sexual abuse. This will, over time, play out in myriad ways, from debating whether to rename scholarships, named chairs, and prizes given in the name of scholars found to be responsible of committing such abuses, to deciding whether professors and graduate students can socialize in the presence of alcohol. One core problem, however, will be this: scholars produce work that exists independent of themselves, and we will want to decide on whether their theorems, proofs, articles, and theories should continue to be employed, taught, cited, and honored after the scholar who produced them is found to be a predator.

For a long time, the answer was “no”. If you were a male professor and a “star”, your university, discipline, and colleagues would sanction what seems (to me, a relatively young male professor) to be a wholly unimaingable (but creepily, aggressively, violently real) level of sexual predation. For “stars”, you could earn sobriquets like being a “bad boy” or live by excuses like “he’s from an older generation,” but lurking in the background was always the reasoning that, at some level, being a really, really good physicist meant that you could also be a sexual predator. Your scholarship could outweigh–could serve as penance or an indulgence for–your sins.

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Is Democracy Bunk?

Attention conservation notice: Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have written a very good book that deserves a wide audience. Their critique of behavioralist and liberal (Manchester not FOX) verities raise real doubts about how political scientists and others study and justify democracy. Their points also matter for prominent IR theories of foreign policy behavior. Their book suffers from a lack of comparative perspective, an overreliance on cross-sectional observational data, and some presentist biases in their history–all of which argue for more, not less, research in their program.

***

High school civics teachers across the United States preach a happy catechism of the virtues of American democracy. The people form a body of free citizens. Endowed with the power to vote, these citizens choose representatives to advance their interest in lawmaking and enforcing the laws. Those representatives act according to the will of the people, and should they disobey, they will be replaced through the peaceful revolution of the ballot box by a new representative who will serve the people’s bidding. Democracy thereby constitutes a self-correcting machine for the translation of the wishes of the people into the best possible policy.

In Democracy for Realists (2016, Princeton University Press), Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels refute that litany. In place of the happy vision’s individual citizens calculating whether the government of the day has succeeded, they describe a world in which individuals invent facts to justify the positions their group identifications has supplied them with. In place of a citizenry rationally deciding that the government of the day is competent despite setbacks beyond its control, they show that even an exemplary president is apt to lose if some event beyond his or her control causes a spike in prices or joblessness. And instead of a democratic system correcting its errors and improving the policies it produces, they depict instead a myopic Leviathan randomly lurching from policy to policy, reversing itself on a whim, responding only to the tyranny of popular opinion.

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Pop culture and International Relations: Stop geeking out

Attention conservation notice: Semi-structured thoughts on an emerging genre of IR/political science studies.

Disclaimer: I reserve the right to distance myself from any and all ideas in this essay.

I’ve been reading stacks of books about popular culture and international relations recently. Let me grossly simplify the warrants that such pieces often provide for the time that their authors spent writing them and the time they want their readers to spend consuming them:

  • Popular culture/science fiction provides a great way to introduce students to concepts in international relations and political science.
  • Popular culture/science fiction changes the way that people think about IR/political science already, so we should understand what it is saying.
  • Popular culture/science fiction gives us greater shades of meaning about how people think about core topics in IR, like war, peace, and even the nuclear taboo.
  • Fictional universes enable scholars to engage in theorizing that gets at the core of topics related to social science, thereby potentially helping us to understand the real world.

These are strong claims, and they merit attention–if popular culture matters to a lot of people (and it does), and if popular culture tells us something about how people see the world (which seems plausible to me!), then it follows that IR and political science as a field are paying too little attention to a major part of the constitution of world politics.

Yet despite my great sympathy toward these projects, I find many of the actual engagements along these lines deeply lacking.

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