What’s with conservative columnists?

In the past couple weeks, liberal twitter has been lit up with interesting discussions of conservative columnists in mainstream news sources, particularly the NYT.  While, on the surface, this seems like an esoteric discussion for journalists and political science professors to obsess about on social media, David Roberts has a great piece in Vox about why this is indicative of deep problems within conservatism today:

These writers [Brooks, Douthat, Stephens, Weiss] are, to a (wo)man, alienated from the animating force in US conservatism, which is Trumpism. They command no divisions. They have nothing to do with what is going on in American politics today.

They might serve the purpose of challenging liberal thinking, but they do not serve the purpose of exposing NYT readers to the people and the movement from which they are allegedly alienated.

If Bennet wants to do that, he needs to be clear-eyed about what the right is today…

The signal feature of the 2016 election is that it settled the question of whether US conservatism — the actual movement, I mean, not the people in Washington think tanks who claim to be its spokespeople — is animated by a set of shared ideals and policies. It is not.

For many years, many people have convinced themselves otherwise. A lot of people believe to this day that the Tea Party uprising and the subsequent eight years of hysterical, unremitting, norm-violating opposition to Barack Obama was about small-government philosophy and a devotion to low taxes and less regulation, and had nothing to do with social backlash against a black, cosmopolitan, urban law professor and his diverse, rising coalition.

But that kind of credulity can only stretch so far, and Donald Trump has stretched it to the snapping point…

There cannot be an intellectual Trumpism — a Trumpist philosophy, a Trumpist argument — because Trump is devoted only to Trump, only to bringing himself glory and defeating his perceived enemies. For now, his interests overlap (mostly) with the interests of the white, suburban and rural conservative base. The only conceivable motivation to support him is tribal; the only argument a tribalist needs to reward himself and punish his enemies is, “We won.”

That means anyone who is devoted to the conservative intellectual tradition, anyone who thinks of themselves as a conservative through devotion to small government and traditional morality, has had to peel off. There is no way to pretend that Trump represents that tradition; he himself does not even try… [emphases mine]

What Trump revealed, in the most dramatic way possible, is that the conservative base in the US today is driven not by ideology but by white resentment. That’s the underlying thread. Trump may lurch back and forth on policy — or more often, demonstrate an almost cosmic ignorance of policy — but he speaks to, and in the voice of, America’s angry whites, who want their imagined old America back. He is the prototypical Fox News viewer, tossing off endless insults, conspiracy theories, and furious aggrievement.

What’s happening in the US today is not a contest of governing philosophies. Trump doesn’t have one, and his administration barely tries to pretend it does. It’s not a philosophy or a plan that won — it was a team, a tribe. They are living it uprewarding their friends and ratfucking everything the other team did before them.

More broadly, what’s going on in American politics is a contest between those who believe America is an idea and those who believe America is a people, a particular culture — white, Christian, and patriarchal. Trump represents those who want that culture restored to primacy.

How can the NYT opinion page expose its readers to that?…

Most importantly, the NYT sees the opinion page as a contest of ideas. And fundamentally, what Trumpist conservatives are advocating for are not ideas, but a demographic, a tribe.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Love this from  Parkland student who tried to be nice to the Nikolas Cruz:

This deeply dangerous sentiment, expressed under the #WalkUpNotOut hashtag, implies that acts of school violence can be prevented if students befriend disturbed and potentially dangerous classmates. The idea that we are to blame, even implicitly, for the murders of our friends and teachers is a slap in the face to all Stoneman Douglas victims and survivors…

This is not to say that children should reject their more socially awkward or isolated peers — not at all. As a former peer counselor and current teacher’s assistant, I strongly believe in and have seen the benefits of reaching out to those who need kindness most.

But students should not be expected to cure the ills of our genuinely troubled classmates, or even our friends, because we first and foremost go to school to learn. The implication that Mr. Cruz’s mental health problems could have been solved if only he had been loved more by his fellow students is both a gross misunderstanding of how these diseases work and a dangerous suggestion that puts children on the front line.

It is not the obligation of children to befriend classmates who have demonstrated aggressive, unpredictable or violent tendencies. It is the responsibility of the school administration and guidance department to seek out those students and get them the help that they need, even if it is extremely specialized attention that canno4) t be provided at the same institution.

2) Apparently, human ability to metabolize caffeine comes in three genetic variants.  Pretty sure I’m a fast metabolizer.

3) Excellent Wired story on modern technology and the ever-changing boundaries of when a preemie can survive and what the implications may be.

4) Of course, Trump’s talk of executing drug dealers is Trump at his worst.

5) Speaking of the worst.  It’s pretty clear that there aren’t many worse humans than new National Security Adviser, John Bolton.  No wonder Trump likes him.  This NYT article nicely lays out what a pathetic human being he is.

6) When I first saw this NYT headline, I thought it was a metaphor, “A People in Limbo: Many Living Entirely on the Water.” It’s not (okay, it is, but also reality).  A totally amazing must-read/must-see visual essay.

7) The University of Virginia women’s basketball coach has had to give up her job so that she can actually adopt her Senagalese-born adoptive daughter.  And the hold-up is not Senegal, but US immigration authorities.  Shame on them.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it could not discuss Boyle’s case because of privacy laws, but officials said the agency aims to process cases efficiently and “considers the welfare of the child to be paramount.”

“We are committed to acting in the best interests of the children and families while upholding the integrity of our country’s immigration system,” spokeswoman Joanne Ferreira said in an email.

Apparently, they decided the “paramount” welfare of the child in this case involves leaving the home she knows in America to live in Senegal indefinitely?  Or somehow adopting African children will undermine the “integrity” of our immigration system?  Ugh.

8) And, hey, speaking of the U.S. Government doing wrong… how about telling teachers they get grants for paying for their education if they work in high-need areas, but then turning those grants into multi-thousand dollar loans due to inconsequential paperwork issues.  What is wrong with people?!

9) The whole NFL cheerleader thing annoys me as it is just clearly the idea that there should be female “eye-candy” at football games.   And then these ridiculous rules they place on the cheerleaders like they are some model of 19th century Victorian virtue.  Like the New Orleans Saints’ cheerleader who was fired for posting a photo of herself in a one-piece swimsuit on a friends-only Instagram account.  Please!  (The photos are so tame).

10) I was quite intrigued with this latest finding on education, marriage, and turnout.  This is something I’ll be sharing with my classes for some time to come:

A large literature finds a positive relationship between marriage and turnout. However, previous research has ignored the characteristics of the partner. This paper contributes by studying how a partner’s education level is associated with individual turnout. The data cover the US for a time period of more than 40 years, as well as 24 European countries over a time period of 12 years. Including the partner’s education level in a model of who votes shows that the partner effect on voting may have been misinterpreted in the previous literature. The relationship between having a partner and turnout is not as general as it is often assumed. Instead of a small positive effect for a large proportion of the population (married people), there is a substantively larger association between turnout and a small proportion of the population, namely, the less-educated individuals who have a highly educated partner. [emphasis mine]

11) Good argument on how we need to re-think tenure decisions in academia.  And, yeah, more good evidence that we really shouldn’t be using student evaluations as currently constituted.  I do really like the idea of re-thinking these based on some of the more innovative student survey approaches in K-12.

12) Ezra Klein’s lengthy take on the history of “the science” of race and IQ was really, really good.

The only people who hate science more than Republicans

Our court system.  (Okay, and yes I’m being a little hard on Republicans because I like catchy titles).  Great summary of just how backwards our court system is on this from Radley Balko.  As his article title states, “Bad science puts innocent people in jail — and keeps them there.”  Sadly, our system values permanence so much more highly than actually getting it right.  Once a decision has been made– no matter how incredibly stupid and misguided the decision appears on later grounds– it is really, really hard to overturn.  And this is, sadly, often the case in cases that get science really, really wrong:

Since the onset in the 1990s of DNA testing — which, unlike most fields of forensics, was born in the scientific community — we’ve learned that many forensic specialities aren’t nearly as accurate as their practitioners have claimed. Studies from the National Academy of Sciences and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have concluded that there’s insufficient research to support the claims of the broad field of “pattern matching” forensics, which includes analyses of such things as hair fiber, bite marks, “tool marks” and tire tread.

These forensic specialties were never subjected to the rigors of scientific inquiry — double-blind testing, peer review — before they were accepted in courtrooms. Most are entirely subjective: An analyst will look at two marks or patterns and determine whether they’re a “match.” Most of these disciplines can’t even calculate a margin of error…

The scientific process is slow and deliberate: A study is published. Other studies verify, contradict or refine its results. There’s no set point at which science declares a theory proven or disproven. It’s about the process itself and the gradual accumulation of knowledge.

Courts work under a different set of rules. Statutes of limitations toll, procedural rules impose deadlines, and there’s an emphasis on finality. With science, revision and correction are part of the process — it’s okay to be wrong. The criminal justice system tends to operate as if its very legitimacy requires the certainty of a closed tomb… [emphasis mine].

At the trial level, juries hear far too much dubious science, whether it’s an unproven field like bite mark matching or blood splatter analysis, exaggerated claims in a field like hair fiber analysis, or analysts testifying outside their area of expertise. It’s difficult to say how many convictions have involved faulty or suspect forensics, but the FBI estimated in 2015 that its hair fiber analysts had testified in about 3,000 cases — and that’s merely one subspecialty of forensics, and only at the federal level. Extrapolating from the database of DNA exonerations, the Innocence Project estimates that bad forensics contributes to about 45 percent of wrongful convictions.

But flawed evidence presented at trial is only part of the problem. Even once a field of forensics or a particular expert has been discredited, the courts have made it extremely difficult for those convicted by bad science to get a new trial…

Our courts strive for finality because, the thinking goes, if verdicts can be overturned on a whim, the public will lose faith in the integrity of the system. And if the courts were to truly reckon with the mess wrought by bad forensics, we’d see a lot of overturned verdicts, certainly enough to sow doubt about the system.

But refusing to rectify unjust verdicts doesn’t preserve the integrity of our system, only the appearance of it. Meanwhile, innocent people remain behind bars.

It is encouraging that so many people are taking criminal justice reform seriously now.  But this is an under-appreciated aspect of criminal justice in desperate need of reform.  Let’s make sure we get it right, too.


Sock it to me

Really enjoyed this NYT “Smarter Living” feature on the great difficulty for most people in hearing negative feedback.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that I am far better than average at taking negative feedback.  Not because I’m special; but because I’m an academic.  You want to get published?  Then you will get plenty of negative feedback and you need to use it in a constructive manner.  A huge part of doing your job right is soliciting negative feedback and using it to become better.  Though, this is strictly in the academic publishing domain, I’d like to think my necessary thick skin there, carries over to other domains.  But I’m probably wrong.  Anyway:

We’ve all been there: Your boss asks for a meeting, and you know it’s not going to be great. You messed up a project, or dropped the ball on a presentation, or whatever else goes wrong in the modern office, and it’s time for you to hear about it.

The anxiety leading up to that meeting is almost paralyzing, and you already can tell that this conversation is going to wreck your week.

But what if we could train ourselves to crave that negative feedback? And that instead of anxiously worrying about those meetings, we could excitedly anticipate them?

This is the idea behind a fascinating episode of the TED podcast “WorkLife With Adam Grant” that dives into why we hate hearing negative feedback.

When we’re confronted with it, Adam explains, we have a physiological response: We tense up, our breathing gets shallower and our ego becomes so threatened it begins to limit the information that is let into our brains. We regulate to avoid taking in harsh critiques.

Interesting argument for why we hate negative feedback:

Essentially, it’s because all of us are so awful at delivering negative feedback. It’s a self-reinforcing vicious circle that trains us to avoid what would make us better at work and in life.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because a few months ago we talked about seeking out people who will give you unvarnished, honest and, most important, genuinely helpful feedback.

The solution to this problem on both sides — whether you’re receiving the feedback or giving it — boils down to trusting that everyone is participating in good faith.  [emphasis in original]

When you’re delivering negative feedback, do so honestly and openly, and frame the conversation as a difficult-yet-necessary means to an end of improving the receiver’s performance (and mean it!). Don’t sugarcoat it, either. Those “praise sandwiches” in which we surround a bad review with halfhearted, superficial compliments don’t help either side.

And, you know what, again, I’m pretty sure that I am far better than average at giving negative feedback.  It’s also a huge part of my job so I’ve got a lot of experience at it.  There’s the academic writing side where that is a critical feature of peer review, plus, of course, grading.  And I think in both cases the audience for the feedback generally does understand that you are acting in good faith, so that really helps.

So, this is the part where you tell me what I’m doing wrong with my blog (I know– more!) and how it should be better :-).

Keep the 2nd Amendment


As you probably know, I think the 2nd Amendment is frivolous, horribly mis-interpreted by the conservative Supreme Court and decidedly a net negative for American society.  That said, I also think it would be very misguided for liberals to argue for abolishing it in the current political atmosphere.  That’s just what retired SC Justice John Paul Stevens argued in a recent Op-Ed, however.  Matt Yglesias and Laurence Tribe both with good takes in response, the essence of which is– it might ultimately be a good policy idea to abolish the amendment, but it’s a horrible idea politically.


Trying to repeal the amendment simply sets up the gun control movement for failure, since the political barriers to amending the Constitution are so high. And to prioritize an amendment is in fact to cede the constitutional argument to the NRA and falsely imply that the existing text and precedents don’t allow for sensible gun control…

Stevens writes that though he disagrees with the ruling, the fact that it stands as precedent means that reformers must now push to amend the Constitution.

The fact of the matter, however, is that even post-Heller, DC’s gun laws are incredibly strict by national standards:

  • Assault weapons are banned, as are magazines with a capacity over 10 rounds.
  • Open carry is prohibited, as are assault weapons.
  • Background checks are required for private sales.
  • All weapons must be registered with the police department, and registration is contingent on a background check and completion of an online training course.
  • There is a 10-day waiting period to buy a gun and a 30-day waiting period to buy successive guns.

All of this passes constitutional muster under the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of the Constitution. And this suite of restrictions is far more ambitious than anything currently being considered at the federal level, where recent efforts have been limited to (failed) efforts to enact a universal background check rule and where the big cause of the March for Our Lives was an assault weapons ban that even many Democrats currently oppose…

In other words, absolutely nothing on the current agenda implicates the Heller precedent in any way. Suggesting that a constitutional amendment is needed simply creates a nearly insurmountable roadblock to progress — constitutional amendments need to be ratified by 38 states — and distracts from the already difficult problems of political organizing.[emphases mine]  And if at some point constitutional law does become relevant again, there are lots of ways of address that short of an amendment drive…

The idea that liberals want a “gun ban” or to come into people’s homes and seize their weapons looms large in the political debate and is a frequent talking point deployed by the NRA and NRA-aligned politicians…

This is a politically powerful concept that, in practice, serves the interests of gun rights extremists. Despite his call for “common ground,” for example, Marco Rubio’s actual voting record in the United States Senate features support for a successful filibuster of the 2013 Manchin-Toomey bill that would simply have required universal background checks for gun purchasers. And Rubio’s home state of Florida is one of several that attempted to pass so-called “gun gag” laws that prevent pediatricians from discussing household gun possession as a child health risk.

Many of these NRA positions have very little public support, including among gun owners, but perpetuating an image of a gun policy debate that’s relentlessly polarized between a group that wants a “gun ban” and the NRA helps maintain loyalty to politicians who back extreme views.

And, inconveniently for pragmatically minded liberals, while it’s true that there is no “gun ban” proposal in Congress, it’s clear there are some people who hold that view. But that’s where the Heller precedent can be useful. Under currently prevailing constitutional doctrine, it is literally impossible for any congressional or state legislative majority to ban guns. People who favor moderate gun control measures but worry about more draconian steps can vote for politicians who favor moderate gun control measures secure in the knowledge that draconian stuff is off the table. By contrast, talking about Second Amendment repeal accomplishes the reverse — raising the suspicion that Congress is poised to pass something far more extreme than actually has any support on Capitol Hill.

And Tribe:

For years, that lobby’s most effective way to shoot down proposed firearms regulations has been to insist, falsely, that any new prohibition would lead to the eventual ban of all firearms. It is easy for those who revile our lax gun laws to lose sight of how many Americans cherish the right of law-abiding citizens to keep guns at home for self-defense or hunting.

The NRA’s strongest rallying cry has been: “They’re coming for our beloved Second Amendment.” Enter Stevens, stage left, boldly calling for the amendment’s demise, thereby giving aid and comfort to the gun lobby’s favorite argument.

The kids have been savvy enough to know better. They have reminded everyone that the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, even as interpreted by a conservative Supreme Court and the right-leaning lower federal courts, is far from absolute: It permits Congress and the states to outlaw what the court in District of Columbia v. Hellercalled “dangerous and unusual weapons” and those “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes,” and to comprehensively regulate gun sales and the places guns can be carried. Over the past decade, the court has let stand bans on semiautomatic assault rifles, limits on the sale of large magazines and restrictions on the number of guns a person can stockpile. It has left no doubt that Congress can require universal gun registration, that states can forbid gun sales to anyone under 21, and that government can red-flag potentially dangerous purchasers, ban concealed carry and enact sweeping safety measures. Relying on that legal reality, the young have reassured Americans fearful of confiscation that they do not seek the repeal of the Second Amendment.

So, sure I wish the 2nd amendment had never existed.  It sure doesn’t make us any more free.  And I wish we didn’t have a society with a minority passionately attached to their right to own a gun.  But we do.  And in this world, pursuing a repeal of the 2nd amendment is basically a horrible idea for liberals.  There’s lots we can do within Heller.  Let’s focus on that.

Those radical, anti-gun, know-nothing students

Well, it turns out those crazy students who aren’t old enough to know any better have a series of eminently reasonable proposals for gun control that 1) might actually make a modest difference, and 2) are clearly on the correct side of current Supreme Court interpretations of the 2nd Amendment.  Drum:

The folks at March For Our Lives have released their five-point list of fanatical, half-baked, 2nd-Amendment-busting demands:

  1. Fund more gun violence research. We actually made a step in this direction when President Trump signed the 2018 budget, which clarifies that the 1996 Dickey Amendment doesn’t prohibit the CDC from conducting gun research.
  2. Unleash the ATF. Let them store their background-check records on a computer, for example.
  3. Universal background checks. In theory, everyone is in favor of this. In theory.
  4. High-capacity magazine ban. This has long been my favorite. MFOL is calling for a 10-round limit. I’d make it six, myself.
  5. Assault weapons ban. The gun folks are right when they say it’s tricky to define “assault weapon,” but it’s not actually impossible.

This stuff is just plum crazy, isn’t it? Those kids have gone off their—

Wait. That’s it? That’s really…very reasonable, isn’t it? It’s also politically plausible. And legal too, since the Supreme Court has already ruled on all these things. They’ve really done their homework, haven’t they? Maybe we should listen to them.

Might not be a perfect wish-list, but it’s a pretty damn good one.  I especially like the idea of letting law enforcement have more power to actually keep track of guns.  Rather than the first step to gun confiscation as all the gun nuts believe, it’s an important step towards solving more crimes and cutting down on gun trafficking.

The Evangelical rot

Michael Gerson’s Atlantic cover story on the disgusting moral decay and corruption of modern-day Evangelicals is so, so good.  Read it!  So many parts worth quoting.  Here’s a couple of my favorites– first the anti-science bent:

Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. [emphases mine] “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goesnot suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

And a great section on the moral compromises– especially on race– of wholeheartedly endorsing Trump:

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise. Falwell, Graham, and others are providing religious cover for moral squalor—winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints. Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites. And this, even by purely political standards, undermines the causes they embrace. Turning a blind eye to the exploitation of women certainly doesn’t help in making pro-life arguments. It materially undermines the movement, which must ultimately change not only the composition of the courts but the views of the public. Having given politics pride of place, these evangelical leaders have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.

But setting matters of decency aside, evangelicals are risking their faith’s reputation on matters of race. Trump has, after all, attributed Kenyan citizenship to Obama, stereotyped Mexican migrants as murderers and rapists, claimed unfair treatment in federal court based on a judge’s Mexican heritage, attempted an unconstitutional Muslim ban, equivocated on the Charlottesville protests, claimed (according to The New York Times) that Nigerians would never “go back to their huts” after seeing America, and dismissed Haitian and African immigrants as undesirable compared with Norwegians.

For some of Trump’s political allies, racist language and arguments are part of his appeal. For evangelical leaders, they should be sources of anguish. Given America’s history of slavery and segregation, racial prejudice is a special category of moral wrong. Fighting racism galvanized the religious conscience of 19th-century evangelicals and 20th-century African American civil-rights activists. Perpetuating racism indicted many white Christians in the South and elsewhere as hypocrites. Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country. Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most-basic requirements of their faith.

Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.

Lots more great stuff in the article.  Well worth your time.

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