Friday, July 3, 2015

Evil and the Agent-Structure Problem of American Racism

I was listening to the "Do You Like Prince Movies" podcast while biking today, and it got me thinking.  Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris noted that Hollywood tends to depict people who have messed up lives by having them eat out of Chinese takeout cartons.  This is anti-takeout-ist they noted.  Eating out of takeout cartons is not wrong!

Anyhow, their conversation eventually turned to the appearance of President Obama on the Marc Maron podcast.  Alex expressed his frustration with the discussion of the murders in the Charleston event as evil, that it allows us to shrug and move on, rather than consider why the event happened.  And this got me thinking while I biked along a particularly beautiful part of Ottawa about evil and the agent-structure problem of Racism in the U.S.
As a quick caveat, I am not an expert on any of what I am about to discuss.  I am starting to realize how apt the name of my blog is as something that is spewed is not filtered.  Something that is semi-spewed is only partially filtered.

I don't want to be too social science-y, but when I think of the Charleston event, I don't want to let anyone off easily.  That is, if we blame society or politics, we focus on the social/political structures at the expense of agency--that this one individual had free will and chose poorly, so very badly.  If we focus on the individual, that the perpetrator was insane or racist or whatever, we tend to gloss over the conditions that enabled him and even encouraged him to kill nine innocent people.  The reality is that both matter and both... can be understood and perhaps even treated via social science.

Observers/pundits/folks trying to make sense of events like this prefer to privilege one side or the other, the actor or the structural conditions, and get upset when people focus on another aspect.  Nobody is wrong for focusing on the agent or on the social/political structures, but they are wrong for dismissing the arguments of others who focus on the other part of the problem.

I do think that focusing on "evil" is a problematic approach because it takes us away from agents and structures.  There can be "evil" within individuals and within institutions, but we need to explain why there is variance--some people and institutions are more "evil" than others--as the variance provides us with leverage so we can figure out causes and conditions that facilitate the bad stuff and then develop ways to mitigate/reduce. 

Why focus on agents?  Because lots of people exist within a set of norms (what is appropriate behavior, what is expected behavior) and institutions and yet few pick up a gun and shoot a bunch of people (too many, but still not only a few).

Why focus on social structures and political institutions?  Because an individual who is somehow messed up may act out in any number of ways.  Why target African-Americans?  Something in this guy's social scene/growing up/whatever helped direct the blame for his circumstances towards African-Americans.  Why was he able to kill so many people so quickly?  He lives in a society where access to guns is easy and where the focus is on gun rights and not on gun responsibility.

Obviously, there is more to both sides of this problem, and that is where social science comes in--figuring out as much of this as possible not so that we can eliminate evil (even I am not that naive or optimistic) but so that we can reduce the harm caused by these agents and these structures.

And to both illustrate the agent-structure problem and to have something pretty to offset the ugliness of racial divisions, I present a picture from the aforementioned bike ride.






Thrity Years Has Not Diminished the Ride

1985, 1955, 2015, 1885.  These are important dates in American movie history... as today is apparently the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Back to the Future.  I watched the first movie last night and plan to watch the sequels over the next couple of nights.

I have watched pieces of each semi-recently, and saw the original many times.  But watching last night, I realized many things:
  • Such great casting.  The tale of Michael J. Fox coming in late, after many scenes had been shot with Eric Stolz, is well known.  But no one could have done Doc Brown like Christopher Lloyd.  Lea Thompson melted many a teenage boy and was otherwise both funny and dramatic as called for.  Her reaction to kissing Marty was wonderful--I had forgotten about that.  Crispin Glover may be somewhat crazy but he was so very good in all versions of George: awkward, creeper; middle-age failure; cool Dad.  Tom Wilson, my personal comedian, is the perfect bully. 
  • So many small pieces that worked so well. The movie opens on a bunch of clocks, including this one, the foreshadows the climax nicely:
  • My favorite line, which I messed up on twitter:  I am your density!
  • Which comes after a great, great moment where George walks into the dinner, asks for a milk! Chocolate!  Immediately receives the sliding glass and takes a swig.  Great comedy, and not easy as you can see at about 1:40 of this blooper reel:


  • Doc's reactions to various challenges to his plan are priceless.
  • It was only this time, watching after all these years and so many times, to realize how thoroughly unreliable the Dolorean was as a vehicle (just the driving, the stalling, hard to start part, not the time travel part).  Which is perfect, given how lousy the car was.
  • Huey Lewis, as head of the band competition committee, complaining about how loud Marty's band was.
  • Marty overplaying the guitar solo.
  • The racism!  Yes, Biff's buddies of bullies were bigots!!!  When they throw Marty in the trunk of a car, it turns out to be the band's car.  One bully utters a slur when confronted by the one bandmate.  
  • This movie was more rapey than I remembered as not only does Marty's plan have him being too aggressive for Lorraine so that George can be the hero, but Biff actually tries to rape Lorraine!  And then at the dance, some other dude tries to force his way with Lorraine, with George slowly and finally confronting him.  Not a cool school at all.
  • Great writing: "have you no concept of time!"
  • I may need to watch again, as Jennifer, Marty's girlfriend, seems to be wearing the same clothes as when we last saw her.
Anyhow, I plan to watch the next two in the next two days or so, but who knows?  I mean, my future is not written yet.




Thursday, July 2, 2015

Canada Day Celebrated!

Twas a wet and windy day for much of Canada, but things dried off so that we could enjoy the festivities.  We have lived in Ottawa for three years, but this was our first time going downtown to celebrate.  Perhaps we were deterred by the crowds and the traffic, but it was well worth it.  It was great to be among so many happy, silly, loud Canadians as they celebrated their country.

The day had some extra meaning in the aftermath of last year's terrorist attack.  I am pretty sure that this picture is different from one that would have been taken in previous years.  People left their flags to honor perhaps all of Canada's war dead but probably specifically to honor Nathan Cirillo, who was a soldier serving as part of the honor guard for the War Memorial.





Of course, that just made it even more annoying, disturbing, and offensive to see a truck with 9/11 Truther crap and two idiots promoting their racist, ignorant, insulting mindlessness just a few steps down from here.   I have absolutely no tolerance for that crap, and to see folks trying to use this day to celebrate Canada to promote their utter bs pissed me off.  In general, I have little time for conspiracy theorists whose beliefs are not theories but unfalsifiable beliefs.  When it comes to 9/11 truthers, I just have utter contempt.

Anyhow, the day got better after that as we watched a concert briefly.  It was in Confederation Park, which is across the Rideau Canal from the National Defence Headquarters (that is what is behind the stage) and across the street from City Hall.  We missed out on the deep fried oreos (they seem to have closed up by the time we got there), but the music was good.




How else to end the night?  Fireworks, of course.  We had a good standing position on Wellington Street and Bank Street.  The young Canadians sang Oh Canada with great enthusiasm, but not well timed with the others singing the same song.  It felt as if the anthem was being sung a la Row, Row, Row Your Boat, as the three or four different groups of singers seemed to have started at different times.  Anyhow, it was a great day to hang out in Ottawa with friends and Mrs. Spew.  I hope you had a great Canada Day.





Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Canada Rocks!

Vox celebrates Canada Day with a list of the ways Canada rocks, but it is incomplete.  As someone who has been an immigrant (with a citizenship application in process) here, let me add to the list:*
*  Of Vox's list, the only quibbles I have are "Canada's kids are among smartest" when it should be that they test well, and that the clean air bit is offset by the lack of serious policy on climate change.
  1. Canada is a great country for immigrants.  Not only have I been welcomed despite my strange American accent, but the country is incredibly diverse thanks to a fairly open door policy.  Of course, things are not perfect as we see some xenophobia here and there, and the selection criteria for immigrants can be politicized, but overall, Canada, like the US, gets this right far better than most of the world.  
  2.  While the slogan/maxim of "peace, order, and good government" gets contested by those who are not fans of the current government, we should not take for granted that Canada has very little organized violence.  The Vox piece deals with assaults and murder (and not car/computer theft!) but omits a Canadian miracle--that the Quebec separatist movement was only modestly violent for a brief period of time but has not been at all ever since.  While there have been some confrontations between First Nations and the government, they, too, have not been very violent.  Only nine countries are viewed as less corrupt than Canada, which is amazing given the corruption stories out of Montreal.
  3. Yes, it had marriage equality ten years earlier
  4. While College Spew didn't take advantage of it, university education is damn cheap here.  The students complain about the rising costs, but tuition is still very low.  If Canada had more of a tradition of parents covering the cost and more means testing for aid, the students would have little to complain about.  Oh, and when the Canadian dollar is not dropping, professor pay is quite excellent.
  5. It is a great place to do research.  Not only does the Social Science and Humanities Research Council have an acceptance rate that is something like three times better than the US's NSF, there is no discussion in parliament about how to politicize the grants or cut funds for political science.
  6. It is a great place to do research, part two.  I have had incredibly access to those in the government and especially in the military.  While the former are quite open and honest off the record, the latter have been, with one notable exception, very forthcoming on the record.  It has made my research not only far easier but so very interesting. 
  7. It is an amazingly beautiful country.
  8. Speaking of which, the skiing is great.  Last year, I had great experiences at Sunshine Villeage and Whistler.  I am hoping that my next book tour, Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada's War in Afghanistan, will take me to these and other ski areas.
  9. The students are terrific While I pooh-poohed above the relative rankings, I have greatly enjoyed teaching here for thirteen years now.  The students often have impressive experience that feed into the classroom, they are quite curious about the world, ask excellent questions, push me to think harder, and have been of tremendous help when I have asked for it.  Oh, and very little grade whining.
  10. Winters are long, which is bad, but it means that we all appreciate summer so very much.  
  11. And the summers have been chock full of ultimate.  Both Montreal and Ottawa have wide and deep communities of frisbee players that have tolerated my lousy defense and caught my throws.  I have seen more of both cities as I have driven all over the place to get to games.  
I can go on, but I have to prepare for my first real Canada Day, as I am going downtown this afternoon with my wife to meet up with some friends to be in the middle of things.  I will conclude with this: Canadians have been so very kind, helpful, generous, funny and neighborly to us since we moved here.  I am so very grateful for that, which is why I am embracing so very fully Canada Day this year.



Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Diversity vs Merit? Storifying a Strong Criticism of a Weak Critique

Andrew Coyne wrote a fairly lame piece about the Liberal promise to have a diverse cabinet--that 50% of the ministers would be women.  Well, I am glad I didn't take it on, as Lauren Dobson-Hughes took it apart nicely so we don't have to do so:

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Next Fights

My previous post was on focusing on the policy victory and not the games down the road.  But there are other fights to be had.  This map from the NYT illustrates the challenge:




It did not translate that well, but the idea here is where there are "laws protecting against sexual orientation- and gender-identity based discrimination" in public sector employment, private sector employment, housing and public accommodations  respectively.  The pattern is obvious--best to be in the Northeast or West or mid-midwest (Min, Wis, Iowa, Illinois).

Much room to perfect the union.... alas.


It's About the Policies, Stupid!

Bill Clinton famously had the line "It's About the Economy, Stupid!" from James Carville when he ran for President.  I am reminded of that as I see tweets and stories about people wondering whether this last week of great victories for various progressive causes--the lowering of the Confederate flag, the decision that keeps Obamacare intact, the fair housing decision, and the Marriage Equality decision--might hurt the Democrats in the next elections.  The idea is that the disgruntled Conservatives can mobilize their base better with all of these accumulated grievances whereas the left may not show up because they got what they wanted.

And I just want to yell "FFS!!!"  Why?  Because we choose politicians and parties to get the policies we want that affect people's lives.  This past week, in the shadows of the awful event in Charleston and subsequent arsons of black churches elsewhere, was a great week for the policies people have been fighting for.  So, these are wins that affect people's lives and not pyrrhic victories.  Embrace and enjoy the progress.

Oh, and, by the way, one of the points I made a few days ago is that winning some battles can give us hope.  That it may actually encourage some more activism since victory is now seen as being possible.  The union is far short of being perfect, that the task of perfecting the union goes on and on. 

Again, I think the next fight is to reverse #voterfraudfraud as well as to do something to improve the quality of policing and confidence in the police, which probably means focusing on restraint.  Is the glass half full or half empty?  The answer, as always, is yes.  But let's enjoy this week and use it to think about making improvements rather than worrying that better policy might undermine a smidge the political strategies of tomorrow.

Learning the Art of Having No Shame

Twitter folks were surprised last night to find that two of the actors behind the Iraq war are going to be teaching a course: "The War in Iraq: A Study in Decision-Making".  The two "profs": are Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz.  Libby was convicted of perjury as he was partially responsible for outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent since her husband, Joseph Wilson, did not rubber stamp some of the more than questionable evidence that Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons.  Wolfowitz was the number two guy at the Pentagon and chief cheerleader of the Iraq war.  While I am appalled at the hubris involved in this "course," I am not surprised since these folks have long demonstrated that they lack self-awareness and lack shame.  

So, I asked what would folks ask if they were in this class?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Footie FTW!

Today was my first time at a real soccer game: Women's World Cup in Ottawa Quarter-Finals with USA vs China.  I wanted to see one game over the course of this series, and gambled that the quarterfinals would provide me with the best chance to see the USA or Canada.  And it worked out.  I went to the game with my niece, a colleague and his wife.  We had a great time as the US won!!  Not a bad way to celebrate marriage equality day.  The highlights are here.



Anthem Time to Start
Despite the 1-0 score, the game was  dominated by the American women.  They kept the ball in the Chinese side of the field.  They could not finish, as they kicked and headed many chances over the cross bar.  This was very frustrating, but it seemed inevitable that the US would score.  And they did on a great cross and header.


Another frustrating header



I am not a soccer expert as I don't even watch much on TV except for the years where the World Cup (Men and Women) and occasionally the Olympics are on.  But the one thing I did notice that was seconded by my more knowledgeable colleague, David Long, is that the American forward was out of position nearly the entire game.  She was almost always offsides which helped to stifle more than a few attacks.

End of game handshake line
Julie Johnston stuck out, dominating on defense and making many good plays on offense, including the cross that produced the goal.  Indeed, the American defense lived up to its billing.  It will be interesting to see if they can handle the German attack.

Besides some soccer lessons, I also learned that standing up at a game is forbidden, more or less.  I got poked by the woman behind me whenever I stood up.  And I only stood up when the folks in front of me stood up.  Very strange. 

My wife, my niece and I spent the afternoon walking around downtown Ottawa as I played tour guide to them.  Twas a fun day, and I did enjoy standing in front of a Supreme Court today even if it was not the right one.  Great day for the USA with greater justice and equal protection for all and then a nice win to put some icing on the cake.









A Method By Any Other Name

One of my big pet peeves is when a person using quantitative methods refers to their stuff as "empirical", suggesting that other methods are not empirical but somehow imaginary.  This is an oldie but a goodie in the olde methods wars because empirical means:
Empirical evidence (also empirical data, sense experience, empirical knowledge, or the a posteriori) is a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation or experimentation. The term comes from the Greek word for experience... Notice there is nothing in there about counting and using math.  There are folks in my school who do this, but it is not their fault--they are economists (we cannot hold such folks responsible for their social skills [just teasing]).  In political science, this still happens, and mostly because of old habits, I think.  

There is work in political science that is not empirical: game theory, formal modeling, political theory.  But most of the work published is empirical in one way or another.  Similarly, some folks will use the word systematic as if to suggest all quantitative work is systematic and all non-quant is not.  Believe me, as I have reviewed much quant stuff (and written some), not all of it is that systematic.  And much work using comparative case studies is quite systematic and some not.  Systematic is a variable, not a constant, for any method.  Same goes for rigorous (thanks to @alb202) for reminding me of that one.

This is, of course, mostly a debate for grad students, as mature political scientists realize that each method has strengths and weaknesses, and that the best work often involves mixing methods.  Indeed, the one trend I noticed over the past ten years or so of the job market is that many of the most successful candidates are those that use multiple methods.  

My career path has crossed the supposed quant/qual barrier, as my early work was entirely qualitative (comparative case studies) and then I found a handy dataset for asking a variety of questions, producing some of my most cited work, and then I found myself doing more qualitative work as I interviewed military officers, government officials and others about their country's Afghanistan operations.  My current projects, as I ramp up the next big qualitative project, include a bunch of different quant projects of varying degrees of complexity (the heavy lifting of the quant techniques is being done by younger, savvier co-authors).

Maybe I am too dismissive, perhaps the quant/qual wars are taking place somewhere outside of the PSR threads.  There are probably departments where the fight still resonates quite a bit.   From my vantage point, where I see glimpses of the job market, and where jobs are the most precious resource in our business, the mixed methods folks doing so well is very suggestive to me.  It is certainly the case that journals have certain tendencies (that the very scarce resource that is an APSR article is still distributed in a particular way).   The good news is that the quant and qual people can join together in being threatened by the experiment zealots.... or they could until a few weeks ago.

All I know is that when I hear empirical, it makes me think of the key move the Realists made in IR, as they try to define everything as as Idealist.  There are lots of names in this game, and lots of gaming of names.  Which means I can invoke Omar.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Slipping Down that Slippery Slope

Of course, we now see people saying that taking the Confederate flag down is starting us down a slippery slope.  My response: slippery slope is a dumb argument.  How so?

First, while there are waves and momentum in politics, there are plenty of discrete decisions to be had.  That making one decision does not make anything else automatic.  Even precedent-setting Supreme Court decisions do not necessarily knock down all dominoes, as there can (and always is) resistance to implementation, varied interpretations, the possibility of new legislation, and, of course, new SC decisions that modify or reverse the precedent. 

So, anyone saying that taking down the confederate flag will lead to its banishment is simply wrong.  The 1st amendment will stand in the way, big time.  And rightly so.  People can say what they want, even if it is stuff we find offensive.  We can ban the confederate flag from public spaces in a limited way--that governments should not hoist a symbol of slavery.  But people will still be able to carry their personal flags, their confederate fanny packs and belt buckles and whatever wherever they go (the Nazis can march in Skokie, etc). Oh, and people can point at them and say "traitors" as that is there right, too.  Oh, and the Fox stuff of the next step being the American flag is just so silly.  Just count how many candidates for President do not wear a flag pin.  Exactly.

Second, sometimes sliding down a slippery slope can be fun.  I mean, have you seen my skiing pictures?  If this week's events lead to the renaming of military bases away from Confederate generals and towards Medal of Honor winners or other American heroes, that is a win.  If we take down busts of KKK leaders from State Houses (Tennessee seems to be in the act of doing that), that is a win. If we stop venerating those who led the fight to uphold slavery, that is a win

None of this solves or fixes racism either in the South or the North, but one aspect of institutional racism has been the whitewashing of history, making heroes out of those who engaged in treason in support of one of the most awful "technologies" or "strategies" or economic processes or whatever you want to call slavery.  Slavery has been and always will be America's original sin. 

When folks like Lincoln and Obama say that we need to keep striving to perfect the union, it means both that the country will never be perfect but that the effort to improve it must always continue.  I have gotten into arguments with Mrs. Spew and College Spew about "progress"--that things are better.  To be clear, they have also gotten worse--mass incarceration to name the most egregious regression.  But I harp on progress because things have gotten better, not to say that the effort needs to stop but that the fight can and should go on since it is not hopeless.  That improvements can be made.  No single decision, vote, or law will be the one that means the fight is over, that the war is won.  But those individual wins not only can improve the conditions of those who have been oppressed and discriminated against but also might just give some momentum for the next battle.

For instance, I hope this week's progress can provide some energy as we need to fight #voterfraudfraud both because it is evil and because it gets in the way of making yet more progress.  Better representation is fundamental as politicians do respond to voters and not just big interest groups and big lobbies, as we have seen this past week.

We shall see how much of what has changed this week will stick.  But if we can put the Confederate stuff where it belongs, in a museum, and revise the revised histories, then this momentum (a.k.a. slippery slope) will be not only a fun ride but an important dynamic in the longer struggle.  You can call it a slippery slope, but I will call it progress.