11.15.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 156

Here are some excerpts from a book I recently read, "Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit," by Chris Matthews.
But the news of Kennedy’s decision to run struck many antiwar activists as both threat and insult to those already in the fight. I had this reaction myself. Despite having spoken out boldly against Johnson’s war, Bobby Kennedy had for months refused to match Gene McCarthy’s courage by committing himself as a candidate. That’s the way I saw it as a grad student in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For me, along with others of my generation facing the draft, Gene McCarthy had become a hero. 

Let me put this feeling of ours in the simplest, most human terms. McCarthy galvanized us and claimed our loyalty by being the lone grown-up with the courage to assert that the Vietnam War was ill-conceived and that he, Gene McCarthy, meant to stop it. In this escalating conflict between sons and fathers—Gene, a guy of my own dad’s era, was on our side. He told us we were right, and not just selfishly opposing a war because we were personally afraid to fight in it. We understood the patriotic call to duty our dads and uncles had answered in World War II, but Vietnam was different. They wouldn’t admit it. McCarthy had.


11.13.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 155

Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy," by Ta-Nehisi Coates:



Toward the end of the Civil War, having witnessed the effectiveness of the Union’s “colored troops,” a flailing Confederacy began considering an attempt to recruit blacks into its army. But in the nineteenth century, the idea of the soldier was heavily entwined with the notion of masculinity and citizenship. How could an army constituted to defend slavery, with all of its assumptions about black inferiority, turn around and declare that blacks were worthy of being invited into Confederate ranks? As it happened, they could not. “The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of our revolution,” observed Georgia politician Howell Cobb. “And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” There could be no win for white supremacy here. If blacks proved to be the cowards that “the whole theory of slavery” painted them as, the battle would literally be lost. But much worse, should they fight effectively—and prove themselves capable of “good Negro government”—then the larger war could never be won. 

The central thread of this book is eight articles written during the eight years of the first black presidency—a period of Good Negro Government. Obama was elected amid widespread panic and, in his eight years, emerged as a caretaker and measured architect. He established the framework of a national healthcare system from a conservative model. He prevented an economic collapse and neglected to prosecute those largely responsible for that collapse. He ended state-sanctioned torture but continued the generational war in the Middle East. His family—the charming and beautiful wife, the lovely daughters, the dogs—seemed pulled from the Brooks Brothers catalogue. He was not a revolutionary. He steered clear of major scandal, corruption, and bribery. He was deliberate to a fault, saw himself as the keeper of his country’s sacred legacy, and if he was bothered by his country’s sins, he ultimately believed it to be a force for good in the world. In short, Obama, his family, and his administration were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth. 

And that was always the problem. 

One strain of African American thought holds that it is a violent black recklessness—the black gangster, the black rioter—that strikes the ultimate terror in white America. Perhaps it does, in the most individual sense. But in the collective sense, what this country really fears is black respectability, Good Negro Government. It applauds, even celebrates, Good Negro Government in the unthreatening abstract—The Cosby Show, for instance. But when it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in any way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative-action charges begin, and birtherism emerges. And this is because, at its core, those American myths have never been colorless. They cannot be extricated from the “whole theory of slavery,” which holds that an entire class of people carry peonage in their blood. That peon class provided the foundation on which all those myths and conceptions were built. And as much as we can theoretically imagine a seamless black integration into the American myth, the white part of this country remembers the myth as it was conceived. 

I think the old fear of Good Negro Government has much explanatory power for what might seem a shocking turn—the election of Donald Trump. It has been said that the first black presidency was mostly “symbolic,” a dismissal that deeply underestimates the power of symbols. Symbols don’t just represent reality but can become tools to change it. The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency—that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle—assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries. And it was that fear that gave the symbols Donald Trump deployed—the symbols of racism—enough potency to make him president, and thus put him in position to injure the world. 

There is a basic assumption in this country, one black people are not immune to, which holds that if blacks comport themselves in a way that accords with middle-class values, if they are polite, educated, and virtuous, then all the fruits of America will be open to them. In its most vulgar form, this theory of personal Good Negro Government denies the existence of racism and white supremacy as meaningful forces in American life. In its more nuanced and reputable form, the theory pitches itself as an equal complement to anti-racism. But the argument made in much of this book is that Good Negro Government—personal and political—often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat.

11.08.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 154

Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived," by Antonin Scalia.

 

One’s work is not to be taken lightly. Not only because it is a necessary means of putting bread on the table, but because it is perhaps the single most influential factor (apart from your own free will) in determining what kind of people you will be. There is a profound spiritual connection between a human being and his or her work. What we do for a living is at once and the same time an expression of our identity, and a formation of it. It is less true that we are what we eat than that we are what we do to eat. 


11.06.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 153

Here is an excerpt from a book I recently read, "The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic," by Mike Duncan.

But though there were no formal parties, it is true that there were now two broadly opposing worldviews floating in the political ether waiting to be tapped as needed. As the crisis over the Lex Agraria revealed, it was no longer a specific issue that mattered so much as the urgent necessity to triumph over rivals. Reflecting on the recurrent civil wars of the Late Republic, Sallust said, “It is this spirit which has commonly ruined great nations, when one party desires to triumph over another by any and every means and to avenge itself on the vanquished with excessive cruelty.” Accepting defeat was no longer an option.

11.05.2018

Lazy Linking, 209th in an Occasional Series

Stuff I liked lately on the Internets:

209.1 B/c of a lack of faculty diversity, students of color are far less likely to seek out professors to mentor them bit.ly/2Q16Wvr @chronicle

209.2 Tech firms have claimed data on workforce diversity is "proprietary"; as w/banking sector, is it time for federal regulation to force disclosure as a public good? bit.ly/2CRd6dZ @ssrn

209.3 @AshleeEats wonders if Amazon Go is the future of retail shopping without fear of implicit bias cnet.co/2QbjZLf @cnet

209.4 Witness in Harvard lawsuit astutely differentiates btwn "Harvard is discriminating against Asians" and "affirmative action is a bad idea" bit.ly/2Q6TQwZ @chronicle

209.5 Death of Maryland football player is just one tragic symptom of a very sick culture, for which univ president is losing his job bit.ly/2Prd6bt @chronicle

11.02.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 152

Here's an excerpt from an article I recently read, "Faith Is the Diversity Issue Ignored by Colleges. Here’s Why That Needs to Change," in the Chronicle for Higher Education.



It is important to know, for example, that religion is the dimension of diversity that our Founding Fathers came closest to getting right. Those straight white male slaveholders somehow managed to create a constitutional system that protects freedom of religion, bars the federal government from establishing a single church, prevents religious tests for those running for public office, and offers more than a few poetic lines about the importance of building a religiously diverse democracy. This history is especially relevant at a time when exclusionary talk regarding Muslims emanates from the highest office in the land. It helps students ask and answer the question, "What are America’s ideals with respect to religious minorities?"



10.30.2018

The Many Perspectives Contained in a Single Ecosystem

I teach a class called Quantitative Tools for Consulting.  The phrase "quantitative tools" is literally in the title of the class, and it's what I do for a living, so you'd think I'd hold high regard for quantitative analysis.  And I do.

But I know that in most things that my work gets deployed for - whether seeking funding, advocating for an issue, evaluating a policy - the analysis itself doesn't have primacy.  It's not like all the decision-makers are waiting around a table for me to plop my report in the middle so they can say "ah, the coefficient is 0.4," "the aggregate number is $3.7 billion," or "the ROI is 127%," followed by "now we all know what to do!"