Abstract Concepts, Pejorative Terms, and Peace Science

Last November I had the honor of giving a Presidential Address to the Peace Science Society (International).  A print article version of the address, “Tilting at a Windmill?  The Conceptual Problem in Peace Science,” was just published in Conflict Management & Peace Science <ungated proof here>.

No tilting!

No tilting!

The title indicates that I may be a privileged, self-deluded old fart who foolishly pontificates about appropriate conduct, blissfully unaware of the absence of import and relevance of his views.  I obviously do not think so, but the problem, of course, is that I am not the one to judge.  That task lies with the community of researchers who are doing peace science.

The subtitle indicates the topic: I make a case for the importance of peace scientists using abstract concepts that politicos (politicians, pundits, and journalists) do not use when describing the events and behavior that we study.  The trouble, I argue, is that the terms used in public discourse are necessarily pejorative: politicos are professional wordsmiths who literally use words to mobilize support across politically salient cleavages.  And they will, and should, dominate public conversation.

If this sounds interesting, then I hope you take 20 minutes to download and read the article. I demonstrate the pejorative nature of these terms using searches on Google Images, and then illustrate how we can improve by rewriting a few sentences from an article, replacing the words politicos use with more abstract concepts.  And, of course, there are counter-arguments to my claim that researchers should cede the definition of terms of public debate to politics, and I try to engage them.

I am something of a pessimist by nature, and thus expect that the address will become an example the other image evoked by Don Quioxite’s tilting: vain effort that has no impact.  Time will tell.


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Subpoena the Email, Text & Social Media Messages of Hempstead Jail Staff

There is one thing that Waller County DA Elton Mathis can do to break the Blue Wall of Silence I discussed in a post yesterday, and reach a firm conclusion about the cause of Sandra Bland’s death in the Hempstead jail: subpoena the email, text and social messages exchanged among everyone who works at the jail from the time of Ms Bland’s arrival at the jail through two days after her death.[1]  Collect the cell phone records, Facebook, What’s App, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter DMs, Instagram, and whatever other platforms folks use to communicate these days.

Social Media

Social Media

If those records demonstrate that the personnel at the jail communicated with one another not at all about Ms Bland, or only to express concern, shock and/or anger that Ms Bland took her life in their jail, we will learn that she committed suicide.

But if Ms Bland kept up her taunting throughout the weekend, and someone at the jail lost their cool and “throttled” her to “shut her up” (or any other scenario where one of her jailers caused her demise), then at least some of those messages will paint a very different picture.

I do not expect that Mr Mathis will do this.  Indeed, it may not even occur to him.  But if it does occur to him, he will surely be reluctant to pry loose the personal communications of a group of people upon whom he and the court rely to deliver defendants to the courtroom, likely make donations to his re-election campaign, and are otherwise his professional colleagues.


Rather than a reasonably definitive account of what happened to Ms Bland we are likely going to be left with the standard, incomplete picture, which will contain inconsistencies and reflect all too well the fallible nature of these inquests, and the exercise of interests by the parties involved.  And onlookers will read into it what they wish, two profiles looking at one another, or a candle holder.

It need not be that way.


[1] To be perfectly clear, I am not proposing that Mr Mathis subpoena all communications by Hempstead jail personnel.  Only those communications with one another.

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#SandraBland, #DWB, #VRA, For Profit Policing, Warrior Cops, the Blue Wall of Silence and All That

The unfolding #SandraBland case pulls together so many of the racial and law enforcement problems in contemporary America that it makes one’s head spin.  In this long post I pull together the many elements that her unreasonable incarceration and tragic death already illuminate: white repression of African Americans; racial profiling and for-profit-policing; the warrior cop; and the blue wall of silence.


Waller County, TX

To begin, let’s consider the history of Waller County, Texas.  It is a microcosm of the history of white racial hegemony in the US, and Ms Bland is but the latest in a long line of activists who have challenged white authority in Waller County.

In 2010 Waller, which is west of Houston, had a population of ~43,000, 45% of whom identify as white, 29% Hispanic, and 24% African American.  But a static snapshot tells us little compared with a consideration of how it got there from the vantage of the 1850s.

The Texas State Handbook of History has a useful entry for learning about Waller County.  Cotton dominated the county economy during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  “By 1845 the east bank of the Brazos had become a prosperous, cotton-exporting plantation area; about 200 whites owned more than 1,000 slaves.”  As happened throughout the country, following the Civil War white folks turned to violence to prevent freed slaves from joining them as political, economic and social equals.

Though according to some reports the white citizens of Hempstead established a good relationship with the occupying soldiers, the city’s peace was disturbed by a race riot in 1868. The area’s majority black population became active in local politics during Reconstruction, and a number of blacks were elected to county and state offices. After Waller County was established in 1873, a majority of the county’s voters supported the Republican candidates in every presidential election from 1872 to 1896.

That is, white folks drove African Americans from Hempstead, but the large population of freed slaves were able to flex electoral muscles for the final quarter of the 19th Century.

White folks in Waller County thus set to the task of stripping their black neighbors of the right to vote, re-establishing their hegemony by 1912.

The county’s black majority population regularly delivered Republican victories in local, state, and national elections during much of the late nineteenth century, but in the 1880s a White Man’s Party was organized to reduce black political participation, and some elections were marked by violence. As a result, the county’s Republican vote dropped by 50 percent between 1896 and 1900; although 1,493 Republican votes were cast in the Presidential election of 1896, in 1900 the Republican ticket received only 760 votes. The 1903 state white primary law all but eliminated blacks as a political power in the county, and in the Presidential election of 1912, only 144 Republican ballots were cast.

“This is all ancient history,” a critic might object.  But, the critic is mistaken:

There has been a history of controversies regarding the reluctance of county officials to allow students attending historically-black Prairie View A&M University to vote in Waller County.

Ms Bland has been described as a civil rights activist, active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  When she stopped by a Texas State Trooper she was returning to her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, from Illinois to begin a new job.  Here, again, is the official Texas history of Waller:

The town of Prairie View experienced particularly rapid growth as Prairie View A&M’s enrollment expanded, and by 1990 it was the largest population center in the county. The school’s growth has also shaped the social and political development of the county. In the 1960s Prairie View students boycotted Hempstead businesses to force integration. Black voters became a more potent political force in 1976, after students at Prairie View A&M successfully challenged obstacles to their local voting registration.

In 2008 judges ordered Waller County to assist Prairie View students to register (see here and here).  Ancient history, right?

Ms Bland was 29 when she died in the county Sheriff’s jail in Hempstead.  In 2008 she was 22.  It is hardly a leap to suspect that a civil rights activist would be familiar with the history of voter suppression that targeted not only members of her race, but her fellow students in particular.

"THP-New Badge" by Hartmann352 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“THP-New Badge” by Hartmann352 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Driving While Black & For Profit Policing

Texas Highway Patrol State Trooper Brian Encinia “pulled over Bland for allegedly failing to use her signal while changing lanes.”  On the dashcam video released by the state we can hear Ms Bland explain:

I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me. So I moved over and you stopped me.

This is pretty clearly a case of driving while black (DWB)—watch from 1:45 to 2:13 of the full video to see the pullover—and quite likely an example of for-profit-policing.  DWB has been a widely acknowledged problem for decades, and dates back to the pre-civil rights era of Jim Crow in the South and Sundown Towns throughout the rest of the country.  While this harassment used to portend a severe risk of violence, today it is much more tempered, though still fraught with the potential for abusive violence.  Indeed, it has shifted from an exclusive practice of intimidation to a revenue generating practice with a side serving of intimidation.

The national attention that Michael Brown’s killing brought to the city of Ferguson, MO’s use of traffic tickets to help fund local government played a major role in bringing this problem to light.  In addition to the revenue generated by fines, these stops can also generate windfalls to the police via the stop and seize programs that former Attorney General Eric Holder put some limitations on a few months back.

But why would police target African Americans (and other people of color) in particular?  One reason is racial profiling with respect to crime.  But that isn’t a story about generating revenue.  To understand that we need to recognize the income (and wealth) differences across racial and ethnic groups in the US.  Any cop with experience wants to avoid writing traffic tickets to people who might “lawyer up”.  The primary determinant of that likelihood is income.

Why not focus on older, beat up cars to meet one’s quota?  I am confident studies of traffic stops would reveal that they do.  But that ignores the incentive of the asset forfeiture programs.  Ignoring mid level to high priced vehicles would allow potential assets to go unclaimed.  When we add racial profiling to the mix, we get the DWB phenomenon where drivers like Ms Bland are pulled over for failing to observe a traffic law that most drivers routinely violate.

But what might make us believe that fines play a non-trivial role in the Waller County budget?  This is the US, and we have the Internet, so I decided to look.  You can read the Waller County Adopted Budget FY 2015 yourself (PDF).

In both 2012 and 2013 80% of the county revenues came from ad valorem (property and sales) taxes.  The official state history of the county informs us that

In the 1980s the county had only ten manufacturing firms, generally specializing in metal fabrication and drilling equipment and supplies, and three banks. Most nonagricultural workers were employed in oil and gas extraction, service industries, and construction. In 1982 about 81 percent of the land was in farms and ranches.

The only manufacturer of consequence there today is Igloo, the plastic cooler company. The ad valorem tax base is not what one would consider robust.

Of the remaining 20% of revenues, what do you suspect is the largest contributor?  That’s right: criminal and civil fines and fees, accounting for 4.1% in 2012 and 3.8% in 2013.  If it waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we are prudent to consider it a duck.


The Warrior Cop / Aggressive Police Tactics

To be sure, police work is dangerous.  Today Hayward, CA Police Sergeant Scott Lunger was shot and killed during a traffic stop.  One of the many reasons I did not seek a career in law enforcement was due to uncertainty about my ability to exercise appropriate discretion.  But risk to bodily harm and life does not justify the aggressive tactics currently in use throughout so many police agencies in the US today.

As retired police officer Seth Stoughton put it recently, “modern policing has developed a “warrior” problem.”

In this worldview, officers are warriors combating unknown and unpredictable—but highly lethal—enemies. They learn to be afraid. Officers don’t use that word, of course. Vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, or observant are the terms that appear most often in police publications. But officers learn to be vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, and observant because they are afraid, and they afraid because they’re taught to be.

As a result, officers learn to treat every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making. Every individual, every situation — no exceptions.

If you have watched the video of Mr Encinia escalate his interaction with Ms Bland “in response to” what a police press statement describe as her becoming “argumentative and uncooperative” you know that Mr Encinia’s interaction with her fits this description. Stoughton explains:

Counterintuitively, the warrior mentality also makes policing less safe for both officers and civilians. Officers learn to both verbally and physically control the space they operate in. They learn that it is essential to set the proper tone for an encounter, and the tone that best preserves officer safety is widely thought to be one of “unquestioned command.” Even actingfriendly, officers are told, can make them a target. But like the use of physical force, the assertive manner in which officers set the tone of encounter can also set the stage for a negative response or a violent interaction—one that was, from the start, avoidable. From the warrior perspective, the solution is simple: the people with whom officers interact must accede, respecting officers’ authority by doing what they are told. The failure to comply is confirmation that the individual is an enemy for the warrior to vanquish, physically if necessary.

That passage is chilling in its prophecy.  At the start of the video Mr Encinia is professional but curt,  adopting a physical and vocal demeanor that indicates that he expects Ms Bland to show deference to his authority. He is setting the tone of the encounter.  When Ms Bland does not play according to his expectation, he escalates vocally.  That begins when Ms Bland declines to put out her cigarette.

Mr Encinia: “Step out of the car.”  He then opens the car door.

Ms Bland: “You do not have the right.”

Mr Encinia interrupts – “I do have the right, step out of the car or I will remove you.

M. Bland: “I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself.”

Mr Encinia: “Step out or I will remove you.”

They go back and forth like that and Encinia asserts that he is giving her “a lawful order” and then reaches into the car and starts to pull her out.  Ms Bland resists–it is unclear what their physical interaction is, but she may have slapped his arm and he jumps back and then plunges back in, almost shouting at her to “Get out of the car.”  She objects, saying “Don’t touch me. I am not under arrest.” and appears to be moving her arms to prevent him from getting a grip on her.   Mr Encinia asserts that she is under arrest, prompting Ms Bland to demand “What for?” Mr Encinia then calls for backup and continues to try to wrest Ms Bland from her driver’s seat, demanding that she “Get out of the car.”

Shortly thereafter Encinia infamously grabbed his taser and points it at Ms Bland and shouts: “I will light you up!”

Speaking broadly, this is undoubtedly how he was trained, though the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a statement that Encinia “did not follow the department’s “procedures regarding traffic stops” as well as its “courtesy policy”.”  Redardless, Mr Encinia adopted the warrior perspective.  Contrast the interaction with Ms Bland with the tail end of his interaction with another, compliant (and possibly white) driver who he let off with a warning for an unknown violation (see the start of the full video).  Encinia pulls Ms Bland over less than 90 seconds later.  He was out making traffic stops that day.

And you needn’t take Stoughton’s word about the warrior cop.  This is Sunil Dutta, a 17-year-LAPD veteran, in a WaPo article titled “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me. It’s not the police, but the people they stop, who can prevent a detention from turning into a tragedy.”

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

The warrior cop is a major part of law enforcement in America today, and it is one of a number of major challenges we face if we are to eliminate illegal arrests for “contempt of cop,” and the beatings and shootings that all too often are fatal.


Cameras and Filming Cops

Though I have yet to see commentary about it, Mr Encinia’s approach to video recording is  disturbing.

After Mr Encinia threatened her with the taser Ms Bland reluctantly complies and exits the vehicle.

Ms Bland: “Wow.  You doing all this just for a failure to signal?”  as she walks toward the rear of her vehicle, holding her phone in the air.  Ms Bland walks off camera onto the sidewalk, and Mr Encinia follows her.

Mr Encinia: “Get off the phone.”

Ms Bland: “I’m not on the phone.  I have a right to record.  We’re on public property.”

Mr Encinia: “Put your phone down!”

Ms Bland: “Sorry?”

Mr Encinia: “Put your phone down. Right now!”

She reluctantly walks to the trunk of her car and puts the phone on it, then steps back onto the sidewalk, and the two are again off camera.

Ms Bland taunts Mr Encinia, asking “Do you feel good about yourself now?” and variations on that theme.  He hollers at her to “Turn around.  Turn around now!”  She asks him why he is arresting her, and he continues to demand that she turn around, slipping in that “I gave you a lawful order” as she keeps asking why.

Mr Encinia: “You are not being compliant.”

It is unclear whether he grabbed her and spun her around, but Ms Bland suddenly exclaims: “You’ve gotta be kidding me.  This is bullshit.  This is complete bullshit.” and we see her enter the frame as Mr Encinia disappears from view, and she appears to have her hands pinned behind her back.

She begins to taunt him about being scared of a female, and they disappear from view.  He then begins shouting “Stop moving! Stop moving!” and she exclaims in surprise “Are you serious!?!”  Encinia tells her that she was going to get a warning, “but now you are going to jail.”  She calls him a “pussy” several times.

He then retrieves the paperwork and points to it.  “This here is a warning.” Then points at her. “You created the problem.”  It is as if LAPD officer Dutta wrote the script.


What happens next if off camera, but he repeatedly shouts at the top of his lungs “Stop!” while she complains that he is hurting her wrists, claims not to be moving, and whimpers and cries in pain.  It is very stressful to listen to.

Mr Encinia: “You are yanking around.  When you pull away from me, you are resisting arrest!”

Ms Bland continues to protest, saying “This is bullshit” and “For changing lanes.”

At that moment a female officer can be heard joining Encinia and Bland.  We then hear Ms Bland say “I bet you feel real good now.  You just knocked my head into the ground, mother fucker.”  She continues to berate him.

Mr Encinia: “Good.  Good.”

Slate has put together a mix of the dashcam video with a bystander’s phone video that begins shortly after the female officer arrived.  It begins with Ms Bland on the ground, the female officer kneeling on her to hold her down.

Female Officer: “[inaudible] for resisting”

Mr Encinia: “I want you to wait right here.”

Ms Bland: “I can’t go nowhere with a fucking knee in my back.  Duh.”

As Mr Encinia walks back to his patrol car he shouts at the bystander “You need to leave” three times.  The bystander asks whether he is on public property and keeps recording.  Mr Encinia chooses not to further challenge the bystander.

Why was Ms Bland arrested?  “on a charge of assaulting a public servant” (read the charge here).  That is patently ridiculous, unless they want to argue that she “verbally assaulted” Mr Encinia.

It is, of course, perfectly legal to video record the police in public.  Both Ms Bland and the bystander were aware of this, and had a sense for how to respond when Mr Encinia challenged them.  Mr Encinia’s efforts to stop the recording suggest that even in the heat of the moment he was aware that he was out of bounds.  After all, earlier this month a Texas police officer’s body camera vindicated him in a deadly shooting.  Cops going about their job lawfully should welcome video that will corroborate their account.

Of course, as the Slate video demonstrates, Mr Encinia’s verbal account of the arrest to dispatch is not consistent with the evidence.  You can read accounts that challenge the legality of his conduct here and here.


The Blue Wall of Silence

Yesterday’s news cycle brought us not one, but two stories about whistle blowing law enforcement officers who defied the blue wall of silence (BWoS), and lost their jobs because of it. The Chicago Sun Times reported about an internal affairs investigator who refused to cover up unjustified police shootings while The Miami Herald reported about a prison guard who could not stomach a cover-up of his fellow officer gouging out a mentally challenged inmate’s eye.  Today 538.com reported on an NYPD officer who blew the whistle on abuses by fellow officers who were “trying to meet their quotas.”  Last month a former Baltimore police officer described routine abuse and physical violence meted out by that city’s finest against people of color, and back in January a different former Baltimore cop explained how he was driven from the force for refusing to go along hiding the abuse of others on the force.

Hoary paeans to the heroism of police aside, researchers have linked the rise of the BWoS to the success of police unions during the mid-20th century, and concomitant decline of civilian authority.  This phenomenon was most recently illustrated in the conflict between NYPD and Mayor Deblasio, but has been a prominent aspect of policing since the 1950s.

This problem all but ensures that if Ms Bland did not take her own life, those who did are unlikely to face justice for the murder.  This fact is hard for Americans to swallow, but the BWoS is a fact, and whistle blowers like Frank Serpico and Joe Darby and those reported upon above who violate the BWoS are few and far between.


Why Incarcerated?

In closing, I have not touched on Ms Bland’s death in the county jail, which Sheriff Glenn Smith and the county coroner have called a suicide, and Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis is investigating as a possible murder.  The Texas Department of Public Safety issued a finding (PDF) that the jail failed to observe proper suicide prevention protocol during Ms Bland’s incarceration, and Fox News is reporting that Ms Bland allegedly claimed to have considered suicide in the past.

Given my concerns about the BWoS I am primarily interested to know more about why Ms Bland was incarcerated rather then released.  Did she seek to post bond? (she did)  Did she request legal representation?  If not, was she seeking to draw attention to injustice be refusing to cooperate with the system, invoking the “Jail-In” tactic initiated by Florida A&M students in 1960, which Martin Luther King, Jr and the SCLC would borrow for the 1963 Birmingham campaign?  I hope reporters ask, and get answers to, these questions.

It is possible that Ms Bland fell victim to a vengeful system that sought to “show her who was boss” and remind her of the importance of “respecting authority.”  She certainly did on the street, next to her vehicle at the hands of Mr Encinia.  But did the “authority play” abuse continue once she landed in Sheriff Smith’s Hempstead jail?  Was she being held “incommunicado”?

If so, as painful as it will be to friends and family to countenance, suicide is a conceivable outcome.  To be sure, it far from a likely or probable outcome: the odds are strongly against a suicide, regardless of whether one has had such thoughts in life prior to being held in isolation.  But the public, law enforcement, and politicians dramatically underestimate the profound alienation and psychological trauma that confinement can induce.  Indeed, the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program relied not just upon water boarding and other physical discomfort, but the intentional inducement of hopelessness, precisely the sort of abuse a vengeful group might heap upon one who they believe has broken the code of conduct and needs to be taught a lesson.

As such, should the District Attorney’s office rule that Ms Bland’s death was a suicide, that determination will not in any way exonerate the prison officials in Sheriff Smith’s jail.  It will raise lots of questions beyond the negligence that the Texas Department of Public Safety has already declared.  They are questions I worry may never be asked, much less get answered.


Correction: I was unaware she had discussed bond with Joe Booker and spoken with her sister on Fri July 10th.

Update: the original post did not include the contempt of cop” point.

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Trolling for Resurrection: The Death Throes of a Network, or the Success of Science

The recent pontification in Perspectives on Politics of some of the IR Security trolls (Desch/Walt,) is drawing attention, and though I should not feed the trolls, I can be challenged when it comes to self control.


Dan Drezner thinks this is useful fodder for discussion.

You should read the whole thing if you’re a political scientist or someone who wants to see more political science used in policy discussions. I’m not entirely persuaded by Desch’s claim that political science’s emphasis on method has led to marginalization, for reasons I’ve outlined before. Still, it’s a debate worth having.

I disagree.  To explain why I make three points.

1. What these trolls want has long existed.

2. The impact of science on policy ain’t like they imagine (short or long run).

3. This trolling is part of the death throes of an old elite network, which is being dismantled by science.

Engaging the Public

To begin I must dispense with the falsehood that there is a decline in political scientists’s engagement with the public.   Ahhh, the death of the public intellectual canard.[1]

Desch claims to document a decline “in social scientists’ willingness to engage in policy-relevant scholarship over time.”  He explains:

My theory is that social science, at least as it has been practiced in the United States since the early twentieth century, has tried to balance two impulses: To be a rigorous science and a relevant social enterprise.

What we apparently have, it seems, is a failure to strike a balance.

So, what’s the problem?  Is access to outlets that produce content for policy makers drying up?  Do Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs still publish? How about the New York Review of Books? The London Review of Books?  The New Yorker?  Has the Council on Foreign Relations shuttered its doors?  Do major newspapers still publish Op Eds?  Have the IR security folks been shut out of having their work published there?

And thus the first canard is revealed.  The IR security folks want to “speak truth to power,” and the institutions that they have used for decades to do so are alive and well.

Yet Desch and other perestroikans are not only decrying the “death of the public intellectual.”  Another complaint, it seems, is that the scientific turn of the discipline (referred to as narrowing by privileging technique, neo-positivism, and so on) produces greater distance between the work done in the discipline and the public sphere.  Quoting the lamentations of several scholars, he observes that their

common concern is that a social science guided primarily by internally-oriented research agendas and assessed by self-generated metrics of excellence is not likely to encourage members of the guild to speak to broader audiences nor gauge scholarly excellence by broader relevance criteria of social or political import.

Here is Rick Wilson on the public accessibility of political science research:

A lot of our best basic research often seems esoteric and is rarely approachable to those outside our own specialization. But this need not be the case. Some disciplines are excellent at promoting their work and getting the word out. Consider the search for the Higgs boson and the hoopla when it was found. Most of us don’t know what the Higgs boson is and why it matters (much less being able to see it). Yet we all know it is important and it was a remarkable scientific achievement. The physics community did a great job making their work accessible.

Rick puts his money where his mouth is, creating engaging videos on his YouTube channel Politricks that describe technical research in accessible language, much like Steven Levitt  at Freakonomics.[2]  Daniel Blocq has a great example.

But the key take-away is that scholars like Desch apparently do not understand how science impacts policy.  Hint: surveying policymakers and asking them how much they value the research published in academic journals provides zero useful information.  That’s an example of the drunk looking for lost keys under the lamp.

How Science Impacts Policy

Science can impact public plocy both in the short run and over the long run.  All discussion of this issue I have seen ignores the long run, so I address it momentarily.  First, however, the short run.

Wilson’s point, above, is wonderful because it both notes how scientific work enters the public sphere and observes that our ability to DIY is expanding.  The DIY option is new.  Scientific disciplines have for decades primarily relied on science reporters to make their work known to the public.  I addressed this in my Presidential Address (preprint PDF) to the Peace Science Society (International).

I have the impression that some (many?) [of us expect policymakers to engage our scholarship directly], but to me this is silly. Has any science become influential due to non-expert consumption of its peer review publications? Of course not. Journals like Nature, Science, and The New England Journal of Medicine have press releases for a reason, and we are starting to see some of that in political science. More generally, we must (find agents to) translate our technical work into publicly digestible form, and in the conclusion I briefly touch on this issue.

I need here to make a brief aside.  In the address I make the controversial claim that those of us who study peace and war must avoid the concepts that politicians, pundits and reporters (whom I call politicos) use to engage in public debate about conflicts.  In brief, I note that politicos use words to mobilize, and thus the terms that they use necessarily become politicized, inseparable from the cleavages in the conflicts they are used to characterize.  To the extent that we uncritically use those same terms, we tend to (1) limit generalization and (2) when we then enter the public domain our terms carry that baggage.  To resolve this problem I call upon us to self-consciously adopt abstract terms free from political baggage (read the essay here; PDF)

This is what I have to say in that Conclusion.

We are idea-smiths, and the concepts that we employ are central to our craft. Our collective output has a far-reaching impact, but it occurs in the long run. Politicos, on the other hand, are exercising power in real time and the short run. Peace scientists should and will engage public debate, conduct research funded by governments, and consult with policy-makers. When we wear that hat it would be counter-productive to employ the specialized language we use to communicate with one another and expect those audiences to follow.  Just as we require our students to learn to adopt different definitions of words depending on context, we too must expect it of ourselves. We have invested heavily in intellectual capital and are well overqualified to be able to move back and forth across specialized v. politico discourse. Arguments that if we want our research to be relevant to policymakers we must theorize using the terms used by politicos are folly.

Desch and others apparently expect us to build theories using the terms and debates that politicians use.  Perhaps these people imagine that we will “define the terms of debate.”  What nonsense.  It will fail in the short run (do not compete with a politician’s bully pulpit) and likely limits the generality of our theories.

So when I read people decrying the collapse of public engagement and the increasing irrelevance of the type of research peace scientists like myself do, I get more than a bit grumpy.  Consider first the short run.

In closing I wish to observe an exciting development that will facilitate our ability to engage and influence policymakers. The Monkey Cage of The Washington Post is edited by political scientists, and publishes content exclusively produced by political scientists and other social scientists who study politics. Two of the contributors at The Upshot of The New York Times are political scientists, and the blog Political Violence @ a Glance has a wide readership outside of academia. The data journalism site fivethirtyeight.com got its start producing ensemble forecasts of US Presidential elections.  In short, there is considerable reason for optimism that peace [and political] science will increasingly gain relevance in public affairs.

Researchers like Rick Wilson, Erik Voeten (see his response to Desch), Daniel Blocq and many, many others get it.

Turning to the long run, I am unable to improve upon John Maynard Keynes’s presentation:

the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.  Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

Our students go out and become decision makers, taking with them the simplified, accessible versions of our abstract theories and, hopefully, an appreciation for the value of scientific research.

Do the “little ideas” produced by “technique oriented” “neo-positivist” peace scientists impact policy?  In his book on the historical decline of violence Steven Pinker’s discussion of the democratic peace includes a 2008 exchange on The Daily Show during which Jon Stewart tries to persuade Tony Blair that the 1982 UK-Argentine conflict contradicts the democratic peace.

Nope.  No policy relevance whatsoever for the “small ideas” that emerge from “technique oriented” peace scientists.

But the key point is that nobody believes that Blair, Clinton, Bush or Stewart have read Russett & Oneal, Fearon, BdM^2S^2, or even Desch (PDF).  The transmission of that research to the public sphere occurred slowly through the myriad diverse processes of public engagement and teaching that, apparently, are hidden from the view of perestroikans.

Turning to personal experience, work I published in JCR in 1995, and a student I supervised in the early 00s, played a role in the US government’s ICEWS project, a DARPA initiative that produced what the perestroikans would characterize as a “technically complex” system that is now used on a daily basis by Central Commands in the US military.  What’s the “little idea” in that JCR article?  That understanding the behavior of states and dissidents in conflict requires a shift away from the structures of polities, economies and societies and modeling the interaction of the actors, a la Richardson Arms Race models, and models of verbal interaction from social psychology.

Undergraduate students in my human rights course are exposed to the idea that science can be useful for understanding human rights violations.  One such student went on to earn a PhD at Illinois (I served as an external member on his committee), and then became a researcher at Amnesty International.  He brought with him the “little idea” that the scientific approach to data collection and analysis was useful to the practice of human rights and ultimately raised the funding to launch, and then managed, AI’s first foray into satellite imagery, a tool that has become, almost 10 years later, standard.

And I am but one “technique oriented,” “irrelevant” peace scientist.  Imagine what the policy impact of the full set of our “little ideas” and their impact on our students must look like.

This, then, is the remarkable irony of the drivel from these perestroikans: precisely as the impact of political science is on the rise they are decrying the growing “irrelevance” of contemporary political science.[3]

To review, it is not true that there are few channels by which political scientists can engage the public sphere, nor is it true that the success of so-called “technique oriented” “neo-positivism” has increasingly made the discipline less policy relevant.  How, then, might we explain the bleating of these perestroikans that the sky is falling?  Here is Desch:

My objective is to document how these trends in political science are marginalizing the sub-field of security studies, which has historically sought both scholarly rigor and real-world relevance.

Yet given the continued existence of the standard outlets and institutions these folks have used to influence “the beltway,” what marginalization is he referring to?  Reproductive failure.

When a Network’s Offspring don’t Thrive


I am uncertain how much of the broad perestroika movement is a response to poor reproductive success, but I suspect it plays a substantial role.  With respect to the IR Security portion of that movement there is no doubt.  In October 1993 John Mearsheimer wrote a letter to David Lake decrying UCSD’s “hostility to security studies.”[4]  Here are the opening two paragraphs:[5]


Mearsheimer asks why UCSD hadn’t hired a single “security expert” in the recent past, and opines that “there are two main sources of this hostility, one ideological, the other methodological.”

UCSDhostileMearsheimer closed by asking Lake to share the letter with his UCSD colleagues, and said he would share it with other members of the IR security field.  That produced several replies, and back in the day that led to photocopies of the set getting passed around.  You can read a collection of many of those letters here (pdf).

It is worth noting that UCSD interviewed, but did not extend an offer to, Desch (a Mearsheimer student) back in 1990 or 1991, and that Walt is one of those who joined the exchange, defending Mearsheimer’s letter.

Desch’s and Walt’s contributions to the current issue of Perspectives on Politics is thus the latest version of a verbal, public objection by IR scholars at famous, influential private universities who cannot fathom that their offspring do not thrive.  The arguments have varied little over the decades, and they are no more likely to change the field today than they have since the 1990s.

Reproductive failure has to suck.  I have invested heavily in my PhD students, and been very fortunate.  But here’s the thing.  It has never occurred to me to consider myself entitled to place my students anywhere.  Where does such a sense of entitlement come from?  Is it just something that folks from/at elite universities develop?

The quasi-public attack on hiring at UCSD gave way to raising the ideas bandied about in those letters in articles by Walt, Mearsheimer and Desch, (here, here, here) among others.  Yawn.

As for the “big ideas” canard, here’s a thought experiment.  Who among them would have recognized the “big idea” in John Nash’s highly abstract, “technical” (it was expressed using mathematics!) breakthrough?

So called “big ideas” turn out to be whatever a given group of High Priests declare them to be.  The IR Security perestroikans are fighting to sustain their crumbling status as High Priests.

I guess this is little but the OxBridge problem, USA Stylee.  That is, where admittance to the elite OxBridge club remains largely a function of class in the UK, in the US it is largely a function of race (white) and strong academic performance in high school and college along with excellent test scores and the ability to cultivate sponsors to write letters.  Graduates of the elite universities understandably expect to have professional success.  After all, they spent most of their intellectual lives among the small set of “smartest in the group” and they did work their butts off.  When their professional success falls short of expectations, the status inconsistency must be difficult.

And casual observation demonstrates that those I know among the Perestroikan movement hold PhDs from elite universities.  This casts the movement in a new light: its formation was likely dominated by status-deprived political scientists who reached out to their advisors to sign on to their movement.  Indeed, Desch, was a Lieutenant in the Perestroikan movement (he is interviewed in this 2001 article in The Chronicle for Higher Education <gated>), and  Mearsheimer signed on, as did the others who wrote in support of Mearsheimer’s critiques of hiring at UCSD.

The arguments Desch and Walt recycle in the current issue of Perspectives on Politics, then, are little more than the self-interested, false narrative about the collapse of “big ideas” and declining public engagement which imagines outlets do not exist for the theoretical output of political scientists to enter the public domain.  And that is why I disagree with Drezner that they warrant reading and discussion.  Do not feed the trolls.

Science is little more than an agreement among its practitioners to expose all causal claims to logical theorizing, evaluating the resultant implications with relevant evidence, and making publicly available all of the information required to evaluate both the logic and empirical evaluation. It is the best human practice for developing causal explanation, and its ascent in political science needs to be celebrated.  Whether one earned their PhD at an elite university or a non-elite public university like myself is not pertinent when it comes to making scientific claims.  That fact undermines a hierarchy that used to return value to those who participate in its reproduction.  Not surprisingly, the losers scramble to sustain that status quo.

One issue that seems to me to be missing from much perestroikan discussion is an account of whether they are interested in causal explanation.  In the broader field many perestroikans clearly are not, and much of what most perestroikans do strikes me as non-causal critique and analysis.  Speaking personally, I have learned much of value by availing myself of such work.  But the IR Security perestroikans seem to want to provide causal explanation.  Yet, they decry science.  It is truly baffling.

They demand to remain arbiters of “important questions,” “public engagement,” and who knows what else.  Members of the community founded Foreign Policy and International Security to ensure that they have fora in which to practice their craft.  As far as I can tell those outlets are alive and well, even if their ability to secure positions in the profession for their students declines.

There is, in fact, no decline in the institutions that permit elite-university trained political scientists to trade on their network with classmates and fellow alums who obtain positions at such institutions to “speak truth to power.”  Nor is it true that political science is experiencing a decline in its relevance, much less that “technique oriented” “neo-positivist” political science has little relevance.

It is true, however, that the intellectual off-spring of a number of faculty at elite universities have struggled to earn tenure track positions (or tenure) at PhD granting programs.  Whether this pattern is limited to the IR Security perestroikans or generalizes to the whole perestroikan community I cannot say.  But as sure as the sun will rise in the east next year we can anticipate the folks like Desch, Mearsheimer and Walt will periodically troll the discipline in a desperate attempt to reverse their demise.


Correction: scrubbed a footnote that relied on dated information.

[1] Here’s a question: why should the public pay universities to employ pundits with PhDs?  I don’t know either.

[2] Wilson has also written several useful posts about political science and the US government here, here, here and here.

[3] Perhaps you are wondering whether I have any sort of track record about such prognostication.  I do.  Consider the ICEWS project today in the context of this piece from 2008.

[4] Back in the day search committee chairs would snail mail a form letter announcing their search to a large swath of faculty who produced students that might make good candidates.  Mearsheimer is responding to such a letter sent to him by Lake.

[5] The “Batman” framing is unintentional: this was scanned back in the day, and my PDF copy is crooked.

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Breaking Down Racism in Amy Schumer’s Comedy

Fair warning: this is a somewhat lengthy post.  In my view there is much more poor analysis than useful discussion about comedy, so I am using this instance to speak broadly to that issue.

People have been calling out racism in Amy Schumer‘s work (e.g., The Daily Dot and WaPo), and I find some of the discussion poor enough to write about it.  To tip my hat, I agree that Schumer’s comedy has been tone deaf to intersectionality, and that she thus works well as a poster child for that critique of white feminists.  That critique, though, misses an important thing she has done well: create characters who help white people see the racism in American society.

Amy Schumer's Dumb White Girl (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

Amy Schumer’s Dumb White Girl
(Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

To criticize her failure without recognizing her success vis-a-vis discussions of race is an important error of omission.

Audience, Audience, Audience

First, let’s review the charges.  Anne Thériault writes:

Take, for example, a bit where she says, “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual!” No matter how you parse this joke, it’s racist and awful. It’s not a smart critique of rape culture. It’s a white woman blithely saying that all Latino men are rapists.

Thériault is correct that it is not a smart critique of rape culture.  She is also correct that Schumer’s character is a white woman blithely saying that all Latino men are rapists.  rest assured, in this taped show Schumer is on her game.  She has worked that material dozens (perhaps scores) of times (this point will become important below).  And it is false that no matter how one parses it the joke is “racist and awful.”  Indeed, what is remarkable is that Thériault doesn’t get it!  And, yes, I know those are “fighting words.”  So let me explain.

To accept Thériault’s argument we must believe that art is not read: that there is a single, true reading of art.  I assume you, dear reader, do not take such an assumption seriously.  Yet, I am just one of these apologists for racist (rape) jokes, right?  Nope.  Bear with me.

Thériault’s assessment ignores the first rule of comedy (indeed, all communication): audience, audience, audience.  If you accept this rule, then there is no one reading.  The reading is a function of both the speaker and the person/people in the audience.  Stand-up comics get this.  They don’t always succeed observing it (as we’ll soon see).  But they all get it.

To appreciate the importance of this foundational rule, let me illustrate with a fictitious example.

Imagine that a group of Ku Klux Klan members are gathered in a field, and a man wearing bed sheets calls the others to attention and begins the rally with a joke talking about a cop who pulls over a “darkie” and shouts:

Get out of the car!  There was a robbery and the nigger looked just like you!  Allright, put your hands up, pull your pants down and spread your cheeks!

No matter how one parses it, that joke is “racist and awful,” right?

If you are familiar with Richard Pryor’s 1974 record That Nigger’s Crazy you might recognize it as a line from track 10, “Niggers v Police” (listen here).  The joke brings the house down at a show that was recorded at Don CorneliusSoul Train nightclub.  The routine works for a black comic working a predominantly black audience.  Take a moment to listen to the clip.[1]

The very same words, then, given different speakers and different audiences, can work as the punchline to a racist joke shared among white supremacists and a not racist joke that plays on the shared pain of African Americans in a racist society.  The speaker and the audience, and their shared experiences, matter.  Any assessment of a joke must take into account this interplay.

Recognizing audience, audience, audience does not mean we must embrace “one person’s joke is another’s insult” platitudes that imply analysis is infeasible.  Rather it permits analysis, and unfortunately some of what is being leveled at Schumer fails to engage it.

To return to Thériault’s critique of the Hispanic/consensual joke, Schumer is playing a character who helps white folks laugh at (recognize) racism in America.  The joke works because (1) Schumer’s audience is overwhelmingly white and (2) she is playing an asshat of a woman who says racist shit, thus pointing out the racism white Americans exhibit and condone.

To fully understand this, we need to explore a second rule of comedy.

Breaking Tension

One of the best sources of human laughter is broken tension.  Many stand-up comics trade on this by showing us unflattering sides of ourselves and permitting us to laugh at it, thus making it OK to recognize.  Schumer’s jokes work in that audience because they are of the “I can’t believe she said that!” variety.

Now, racist jokes among white supremacists also work via this principle.  If an Aryan Nation leader says something outrageously insulting about members of a despised minority group, his flunkies laugh because (1) it is an outrageous statement of a shared understanding and (2) it is an act of power that recreates norms of dominance.

Schumer’s joke, however, does precisely the opposite.  The white members of her audience are confronted with uncomfortably outrageous statements that they know some of their co-ethnics believe/say, and they know that they tend to stand idly by in such circumstances and not call out their co-worker, neighbor, Uncle, etc.  That is the source of the tension, and Schumer has honed her craft such that she can deliver the line in an appropriate audience, and it works.

When we remove the line from the context of its audience, pay attention only to the race of the comedian and scrutinize the line we are at risk to making Thériault’s error.  And make no mistake.  Thériault is flat out wrong about this joke.

The same is true of the “Jungle Fever” bit that WaPo criticizes (watch the video).  She is playing the same character, at a different show, that again played to an overwhelmingly white audience.

That said, Schumer inexplicably trotted that character out at a recent MTV Movie Awards show, and has been quite properly criticized for it.  Here is Thériault’s account:

she said, “Gone Girl, how good was Gone Girl? Such a good movie. If you didn’t see it, it’s the story of what one crazed white woman, or all Latinas do, if you cheat on them. That’s a fact.” Yes, that’s right — a woman being hailed as a feminist icon made a joke about how Latinas are crazy.

The. Joke. Bombed.

It is a horrifying misstep, and a great example of the fundamental importance of the first principle.  The audience at the MTV Movie Awards is not overwhlemingly white, and as a result, there is no joke to work: too many people in the audience have no tension to break wrt their failure to speak up when their co-ethnics engage in blatantly racist behavior.  If you watch the clip, Jennifer Lopez in particular appears confused and to be thinking “WTF?!?”

The key point is that the joke would have worked in front of the audiences she taped her two shows for.  That she could fail to appreciate the MTV Movie Awards was not that audience is a disappointing surprise (to me).

Today Colorlines quoted Thériault when discussing another sketch.

“Amy Schumer frequently makes jokes that perpetuate stereotypes rather than dismantle them … It’s hard not to feel like Schumer is only here for women who look like her.”

An oft-cited example of this is her video “Milk Milk Lemonade.” In it, she raps about the function of women’s body parts, while using the twerking, Lycra-clad bodies of black and brown women as props.

It seems to me that there is room for reasonable people to disagree about this video.  I, quite possibly mistakenly, viewed it as a satire of both white artists like Miley Cyrus who cluelessly appropriate black culture and male objectification of female body parts.

I may be giving Schumer too much credit.  The sketch is definitely the latter, and it is possible she is as clueless as Cyrus.  I sincerely hope not.  And I assume that folks aren’t naive enough to believe that white folks can’t lampoon their brethren’s clueless appropriation/consumption of black culture.

Though I’m not the first king of controversy
I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley,
To do Black Music so selfishly and use it to get myself wealthy

Eminem, Without Me

That said, Thériault is quite correct criticizing Schumer for being there only for women who look like her.  That is a reasonable critique.  Yet it sets aside the valuable aspect of Schumer’s use of race.

Conversations Within and Across Races

For decades I have been bothered by my white brothers and sisters ability to see race and racism, and thus to discuss it (see here and here).  If you want to make white folks uncomfortable, bring up race/racism, especially in a group that includes people of color.  As such, I appreciate that aspect of Schumer’s race jokes.

I don't even see race.

In a recent post Steve Saideman observed that fear limits white folks’ comfort discussing race:

people are careful about talking about race because they don’t want to offend anyone and don’t want to be accused of being racist.  Whether it is something being taken out of context, like Obama’s mention of the n-word (notice that I don’t spell it out) in the Marc Maron interview, or just musing aloud might lead to something that one might regret saying, fear matters a great deal in how/whether people talk about this stuff.

Schumer has used her character to help white audiences laugh at themselves and their co-ethnics (among many other things), and in the process developed a successful career.  These critiques miss that point completely.  And that’s a shame.

To return to my opening point, Schumer has done nothing of which I am aware to advance dialogue across races, and her performance at the recent MTV Movie Awards suggest that she is not, at present, well suited to that task.  So if one wishes to criticize Schumer for her failures to engage and embrace intersectionality, I am on board.

But to only criticize her as a racist is an incomplete analysis, and to suggest that she and Donald Trump are birds of a feather, as WaPo did, is facile and does not survive scrutiny.

Colorlines noted that Schumer initially reacted defensively to such charges, but this week offered an apology and explained that she “is evolving as an artist.”  Here is Schumer on 28 June:

Stick with me and trust me that I am joking. I go in and out of playing an irreverent idiot. That includes making dumb jokes involving race …You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy’ but you are wrong. It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it. Even if you personally did not. I am not going to start joking about safe material…. Trust me. I am not racist.

It is an explanation, and it is dismissive.  But it is correct.  Like Colorlines, I am pleased to see her drop the dismissiveness.  Click here to read her tweet today.

In my opinion, despite the positive shift, she doesn’t yet get it.  She falls back on the tired “that was two years ago” and then says “now that I have a larger audience, and more influence” I’m not doing those jokes anymore.  That’s kinda sorta on target, but also misses the point.  In the crucible, with her first movie opening in 10 days, she cannot figure out how to point out the strength of the work, while noting its weakness.  That she flubbed so badly this spring at the MTV Awards makes matters worse.

Going Viral & Public Shaming

All of this permits me to close with some reflections of some of the poor analysis of the public shaming that happens in response to racist or sexist comments gone viral.[2]  Some people, including comics like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, are pedaling the idea that it has become too risky to speak publicly.[3]  At one level that’s nonsense, but on another level, it’s true.

The truth stems from the potential cost involved: people have had their careers upended by a single tweet, FB post, and so on.  This is new, and Monica Lewinsky’s Ted Talk is pretty interesting.

The part that is nonsense stems from the notion that these events occur at random.  They do not.  They occur when someone fails to understand the audience, audience, audience principle.  Social media and blogs have produced an unprecedented change in the audience with which we interact.  It literally becomes anyone with access to the Internet.  And few of us are trained to consider the  audience, audience, audience principle.  Phil Schrodt has a useful discussion on this point.

That even a successful comedian like Amy Schumer can struggle so with  audience, audience, audience is notice that engaging the global commons is non-trivial.  But do not blame the technology, or “random forces” out there.  When someone shoots themselves in the foot, they are at fault.  They failed to recognize that their ideas would be poorly received in the global commons, thinking instead that they were communicating only with a smaller group of folks where experience had taught them the ideas were likely to be well received.  With luck this scrutiny of Schumer can help some of us better understand.


[1]As Pryor notes in his later shows, early in his career he attracted overwhelmingly black audiences, such as this night.  As an aside, check out this interactive site on Richard Pryor’s life. His work has profoundly influenced me.  And if you are unfamiliar with his standup comedy, please check it out.  There are some great boxed sets out there.  I could go on, and on…

[2] I am confounding two distinguishable conversations: social media and public shaming as well as the chill on speech on college campuses in the US.  These overlap, yet are distinct, and in the interest of brevity(!) I am ignoring the distinctions.

[3] I am distinguishing this from the uncoordinated attacks of the MRA movement, which are a distinct phenomenon, despite there being some of the same broad processes at work.

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The Counter-Enlightenment and the Confederate Flag

Today I drove through northern Florida and southern Georgia and the national discussion about the confederate battle flag was never too far from my mind.  I was listening to Steven Pinker’s book about the historic decline of violence, and was struck by the relevance of this passage to our current national discussion.

The counter-Enlightenment was the wellspring of a family of movements that gained strength during 19th century… [some of which] became political ideologies that led to horrendous reversals in the trend of declining violence.  One of them was a militant form of nationalism that came to be known as “blood and soil”–the notion that an ethnic group and the land from which it originated form an organic whole with unique moral qualities, and that its grandeur and glory are more precious than the lives and happiness of its individual members (p. 188).


Confederate flag supporters rally in Montgomery, AL (June 27, 2015) . Source: AL.com

He continues:

Another was romantic militarism, the idea that (as Mueller has summarized it) “war is noble, uplifting, virtuous, glorious, heroic, exciting, beautiful, holy, thrilling (p. 188).

A third strand viewed history as “a glorious struggle between races, culminating in the subjugation of inferior races…” (p. 188).  Pinker also quote Isiah Berlin (PDF):

Aggressive nationalism, self-identification with the interest of class, the culture or race, or the forces of progress… [defined] a doctrine of self-realization based on defiant rejection of the central theses of the Enlightenment.

I was reminded of the photo above and video below of a group of southern white folks protesting the Alabama Governor’s recent decision to remove the flags from the Capitol grounds by singing “Dixie” (to listen, click image below or here).  Though I am in the south, I do not “wish I were in Dixie.”

Confederate Flag Supporters Sing "Dixie"

While naked ideologies of “racial superiority” are effectively banished to the fringe, the “blood & soil” and “romantic militarism” counter-Enlightenment ideologies are alive and well, and not only in the south (e.g., many discussions about conflict with “militant Islam” and”Support our Troops“).  Thus, while the white, southern folks who long for “Dixie” are genuine “dead-enders,” those of us who are children of the Enlightenment should labor under no illusion that the political conflict with the counter-Enlightenment is over and that we have won.



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How to Help White Folks Discuss Race?

Last Monday Erica Chenoweth, Christian Davenport and I had an informal discussion about race in America.  We posted it to YouTube.[1] Two days later The New York Times carried a story / video titled “A Conversation with White People about Race.”  The Times reporters wrote:

Because we live in New York, where there is no shortage of opinions, we didn’t think it would be too hard to find white people willing to speak publicly on this topic. We were wrong.

Big surprise, right?  My experience is that most white folks are reluctant to speak about race, so I expect that they would be especially unlikely to do so “on the record” in a video that the Times is going to publish for all to see.


We noted that problem in our discussion, and wondered what might be done to be make white folks more willing to discuss, and see, race and especially institutional racism.  We identified one potentially useful approach to help white folks who want to engage their white family, friends and neighbors.

As Erica wrote when she posted the video to Facebook, “Be forewarned that at least for my part, this is much more musing than analysis.”  I’ll double that.  But, for what it is worth, this is what we came up with on this issue.


We decided that at least three things likely contribute to white Americans’s discomfort discussing institutional racism.

1. Cognitive Dissonance: humans tend to become psychologically stressed, and even angry, when confronted with information that is at odds with their current beliefs / understanding.  We tend to discount, ignore or object to such information, thereby eliminating that stress.

2. Compassion Fatigue: media coverage of complex problems that focus attention on the negative consequences of the problems and little attention to potential solutions tends to make consumers of media tune out when that problem is raised.

3. Culpability/Guilt Avoidance: humans naturally prefer to avoid culpability / guilt for a wrong, and we all know that racism is a biased system foisted by whites upon people of color.  It follows that if racism is a thing of the past, I, as a white person, am not culpable, but if institutional racism still exists, then my culpability / guilt is something to be considered, explored, negotiated.

These strike us as three good reasons why so many white folks tend to be uncomfortable raising race and institutional racism.

What To Do: Got A Solution?

Erica suggested that the best approach is to start a conversation by explaining that you used to view things just like they do, to “meet them where they’re at, and then walk them through the transformation you had.”

Interestingly, James Loewen takes this approach in his book Sundown Towns, a book about the racial cleansing[2] and discriminatory housing practices, circa 1890-1960, that produced contemporary segregation patterns throughout the country.  The title references the explosion of these signs outside towns throughout the Midwest during that period.[3]


He includes a section in the Introduction titled “My Own Ignorance,”[4] and writes:

This backlash against African Americans was not limited to the South but was national. Neither the public nor most historians realize that the same earthquake struck the North, too.

Initially, I too thought sundown towns, being so extreme, must be extremely rare. Having learned of perhaps a dozen sundown towns and counties—Anna and Edina; Cicero and Berwyn, suburbs of Chicago; Darien, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City; Cedar Key, Florida; Forsyth County, Georgia; Alba and Vidor, Texas; and two or three others—I imagined there might be 50 such towns in the United States. I thought a book about them would be easy to research and write. I was wrong.

He continues…

Coming of age in central Illinois, however, I never asked why the little towns clustered about my home city had no black residents. After all, I reasoned, some communities are not on major highways, rivers, or rail lines; are not near African American population concentrations; and have not offered much in the way of employment. Probably
they never attracted African American residents. I had no idea that almost all all-white towns and counties in Illinois were all-white on purpose.  The idea that intentional sundown towns were everywhere in America, or at least everywhere in the Midwest, hit me between the eyes two years into this research—on October 12, 2001.

Loewen, who is white, knows he is telling people about a history they have not known.  So in the Introduction to his book he gets personal, confesses his own ignorance, and then describes his own journey from ignorance to come to learn an unpleasant history that sheds new light on understanding race in contemporary America.  Perhaps we can all learn from this example.

Because it may interest you, I conclude with the final three paragraphs from Loewen’s Introduction.

To summarize, waves of ethnic cleansing swept across the United States between about 1890 and 1940, leaving thousands of sundown towns in their wake. Thousands of sundown suburbs formed even later, some as late as the 1960s. As recently as the 1970s, elite suburbs like Edina, Minnesota, would openly turn away Jewish and black would-be home buyers. Some towns and suburbs were still sundown when this book went to press in 2005.

At this point you may be shocked: how could it happen that in 1909 whites in Anna, Illinois, might run every African American resident out of their community, never to return? That many other towns across the United States could take similar actions as late as 1954? That Hawthorne, California, had a sign at its city limits in the 1930s that said, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne”? Or that Minden and Gardnerville, Nevada, sounded a whistle at 6 PM to tell all American Indians to get out of town before sundown?

To understand how so many sundown towns formed in the United States, we must examine the era—1890 to 1940—that gave rise to them.


[1] I must have clicked something b/c my camera dominates the screen throughout, which is an error for which I apologize.  The speaker is supposed to be full screen.

[2] A few historical headlines about a few of the “cleansings.”  Elliott Jaspin’s book, Buried in the Bitter Waters, provides a highly readable account of several of these events.





[3] Similar signs targeting Asian and Hispanic Americans were common throughout the West.




[4] You can download the Intro chapter here (PDF).

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