Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Like facts, non-facts do not speak for themselves

So, Obama has decided to call the birthers bluff and is issuing the long-form version of his birth certificate because, as the White House communications directors blogged: "it may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country." Even the president himself has spoken directly on the issue and chastised those caught up in the birther issue (i.e. the media) by saying, "we don't have time for this silliness."

Early (left-leaning) opinions on the rationale behind the president's move are mixed. Some see this as a sign of the president showing further weakness by legitimizing the stance of birthers such as Trump. By even discussing the issue, he has strengthened the loonies. Indeed, the Donald is crowing right now that he "played a big role" in resolving the issue. For the detractors of Obama's move, the consequences of Obama's decision can be summed thus: "Weak Obama allows Trump to look sane (for asking) and strong (for forcing a decision)."

The alternative opinion is that Obama has cannily placed a wedge into the middle of the right. Instead of ignoring a growing issue (45% of Republicans think he is a foreigner for God's sake), Obama has finally given them what they asked for. By settling the issue, the remaining birthers will be forced back to the fringe of Serious Debate. As a bonus, they may still hold onto their looniness and force Republican candidates to take a position on the issue, and thus alienate independents. For Obama's supporters, the move can be summed up as: "Crafty Obama has suddenly made birtherism look crazy again and the Republican candidates are boxed in by the fact that they have to accept that Obama has given them what they wanted, while still telling the base that the base isn't crazy."

So which interpretation is correct? Has Obama bought into the crazies' narrative and thus made himself look weak and reactive again, or has he settled the issue and, as a result, outmaneuvered the Republicans and forced them to fight among themselves over an issue which will suddenly look bonkers again? Which is the right interpretation?

The answer is we don't know, and that we can't know until after this issue has been discussed. At some point, there will be a consensus agreement that this was a strong or a weak move, and the source of the agreement will come from how successfully Obama makes the case that the pro-Obama interpretation is the "fact" of the matter. And, as I hope to demonstrate, the answer is so uncertain precisely because of the fact that Obama did somewhat legitimize the issue by reacting to it, but also de-legitimized it by rejecting it. In order to win, he needs to keep hammering on the second point. Because his enemies will certainly keep hammering on the first.

The birther issue and the President's response are a really good example of the rhetorical element of politics: how narratives are created and the meaning of political actions established. For decades political science ignored rhetoric and focused on material incentives, power, and ideas (in an abstract sense). In the last few years there has been a growing literature on how these things come together and how the words and symbols political actors deploy can been analyzed as a strategic resource in their own right. Just because someone is strong, does not mean people will accept their power; just because an idea is good or true, does not mean people will update their beliefs. Very often, actors must use words and symbolic acts to broaden their own possibilities for action and by limiting those of their opponent. Simply by getting an opponent to agree that there is a problem in the way that you define it ("climate change is an economic issue, not a security one"; or, "there is too much government spending") you can limit what your opponent can offer as a reasonable and/or authentic response. In short, as Krebs and Jackson note, frames often imply implications.

This is why Obama's strategy is tricky. He has attempted to reject the overall right-wing frame of the issue, but is not offering an alternative frame through which to understand the actions. It is important he do so. Rejecting a frame which is a very challenging act and one that his opponents will not take sitting down. They will either go full-bore and say this certificate doesn't count, Obama took too long etc. (as many already have), or they will re-frame again and say that Obama has accepted their frame by releasing his certificate. Failure by Obama's opponents to choose one of these options will mean that they will end up looking crazy and/or mean-spirited. This is a strong incentive not to just accept Obama's act. In other words, Obama's release of this certificate cannot just end the debate - it can only trigger a new one.

Obama's act does not speak for itself; it needs active cheerleaders who will say, "this is what this means, and why." It will take a concrete strategy of saying that the old frame ("Obama may be an alien") is no longer the frame through which this debate should be understood. However, in order to do this a new frame which can capably collect all of these events (accusations, denials, media reports, the final release of the certificate) into one simple narrative needs to be deployed. Such a frame cannot be anything but antagonistic to his opponents ("these people are either mad or genuinely wicked and this whole process should be understood this way"). By aggressively denouncing his detractors Obama might look strong and truly create a wedge issue ("Obama called me crazy! Do you [generic Republican contender] agree? Yes or no?!"). On the other hand, if he just releases this and then forgets about it (or more typically, hopes the issue will just go away), his opponents will get to frame his actions again, and show that Obama is easily bullied.

In short, the "success" of Obama's move cannot be assessed because the definition of success will be contested itself over the next few weeks and months. Based on the political naivety of the Democrats ("people are rational and just need the facts") and their unwillingness to pick a fight, I suspect that the detractor camp is right: this is a bad move on Obama's part. But only because the Right in this country has understood a truly sophisticated 'fact'.

That facts, or non-facts, do not speak for themselves.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Paragraph Paranoia

One glaring feature of adult life in general is the lack of clearly defined markers for success and mechanisms for the delivery of positive feedback on that success. This is also true of writing a dissertation, or indeed all grad school after the coursework stage. Whereas during classes, you have a paper to write, on which you get a grade, usually delivered promptly a week or so after the end of semester, the dissertationer has nothing. Nothing. Not until the dissertation defence, which may be three or more years in the future. One of the implications of this is that it is crucial to define your own measures of success or progress. Mine has become "the paragraph". One problem with using paragraphs is that value is not monotonically increasing in volume, i.e. at some point writing more doesn't help you. The paragraphs have to be good as well. But you as the dissertation-writer cannot assess the quality of your paragraphs, first because your writing seems tropical-island-lagoon clear to you even if it is mud-bespattered Hegel to everyone else, and second because paragraphs have an emergent quality; a collection of them together can be worth more than the sum of its parts. A day in which two dynamite paras were lovingly chiseled from the Carrara marble of your thoughts might be thought a success. But what if these do not fit into the wider structure of the paper? Or if the paper itself will not be any good? From such paranoia lassitude and despair arise. It seems like a solution is not to worry about how good the paragraphs are, but then you are left in the bizarre situation of writing but not caring about it. Naive and idealistic observers would say that the dissertation committee provides feedback. But this feedback, if it is forthcoming at all, is almost never fine-grained enough to be applicable to individual paragraphs. All that is left is to drift in the leaky rowboat of our intelligence, alone.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Editing Elegy

The process of editing a PhD dissertation:

The grad student stared at the computer screen. The paragraph sat there, too plump and florid, like an overweight tourist wearing a tasteless Hawaiian shirt. The point, the meaning, of the paragraph had to be preserved, for it was vital to the argument being made in the rest of the section. But it had to be made more directly, in fewer words. And, he noted bleakly, there had better not be any clauses in the passive voice or the wrath of numerous committee members would pour down upon him in the form of exhortatory blood-hued margin notes.

He deleted a clarifying sentence. Was that clarification necessary? Would someone reading the previous sentence know, guess, or even not care, that there was a potential ambiguity? The theoretical position should be obvious to anyone familiar with recent debates in "the field". And yet, it was possible that it would be taken as a caricature, a cliched stance, whereas the dissertationer was firmly convinced that his was a more nuanced and subtle appreciation of the issues involved. Maybe it would be better to leave that clarifying sentence in, just so that the sheer sophistication of the analysis not be missed. He hit "undo".

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dissertationer's Lament

In a new series, I wax self-pityingly about my continued frustrations writing my dissertation. The dissertationer is not under the same pressures as other people. Strict work times, manual labor, attentive taskmaster bosses, responsibility for others; all of these are irrelevant to an ABD graduate student. I will be exploring what the stresses unique to this, in some sense pampered, creature are over the next few posts.

Tired metaphors are all that come to mind when trying to represent the problems of trying to write a dissertation. Haunting and badgering the writer at every step are contradictory impulses. Intellectual honesty dictates not only that what we do is right (as it seems to us), but that we are stringent and careful about the claims we make. Qualifications should abound. However, clarity of communication requires simplification and condensation. The shorter you can make your communication of your point, the better. Qualifications get lost, forgotton, or pruned in the quest for clarity.

The vicious demon of self-doubt jolts your typing hands and tries to move your attention away, towards something less challenging to your sense of self and the equilibrium of your composure. "Is it good?", it asks. "Will anyone like it?" Almost as bad as this generalized worry, even if it is good enough for some, maybe it will not be good enough to impress the crucial coalition of interests that will both get it published in a relatively specialized outlet and be appealing enough to a general audience that you will be hired at a department where the majority are barely aware that your subfield exists. Better than confronting the possibility of writing a bad paragraph, says the demon, read another article, or better, a blog post, or watch a youtube video, because each post or video doesn't take so long. Afterwards, you can get back to the serious business of chiselling pixels of wisdom from the glowing white screen. Except that this calculation repeats.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why tipping is irrational.

Or, the generative effect of the reification of rules of behavior.

1) Tipping after service can be defended on a rational basis if we assume repeated play. That is, if you expect to return to the place and encounter the same service person again, a post-service tip on this occasion could be reasonably expected to induce or maintain good service next time.

2) if it becomes common knowledge that tips are standard behavior, then a post-service tip might become necessary to avoid being the subject of retribution on subsequent visits.

3) But there is more to it than this. People will have an emotional reaction to not leaving a tip, as if they will be shamed or as if they are doing something slightly immoral - physiological signs include nervousness, increased heart rate, etc. Also, others will start to enforce compliance to the standard even when it is irrelevant to their own interests. Claims about tipping are conducted in moral language, using phrases like 's/he deserves it'. Appeals will be made to the potential non-tipper appearing cheap (i.e. not generous) - a status or identity challenge. Worse, these appeals can come from inside the potential non-tipper without needing to be explicit.

4) So, behavior that could have been initially started off on a rational basis is maintained and enforced and perpetuated via completely non-rational mechanisms.

5) In a situation where repeat business is unlikely, tipping is irrational, unless it is done to avoid retribution from one's peers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Physics Envy?

The social sciences are all supposed to want to be like the natural sciences and especially physics because, variously, they have great data, they can do experiments, they have complicated maths, they can predict with accuracy events in controlled settings, etc. etc. I've read this sort of thing before but here is a quote from a post about Stephen Hawking which brings the emulation of physics into a new light:

"M-theory suffers from the same flaws that string theories did. First is the problem of empirical accessibility. Membranes, like strings, are supposedly very, very tiny—as small compared with a proton as a proton is compared with the solar system. This is the so-called Planck scale, 10^–33 centimeters. Gaining the kind of experimental confirmation of membranes or strings that we have for, say, quarks would require a particle accelerator 1,000 light-years around, scaling up from our current technology. Our entire solar system is only one light-day around, and the Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful accelerator, is 27 kilometers in circumference."

So, basically, they have posited (i.e. made up) a bunch of theoretical entities the existence of which it is completely impossible to determine. And this explains everything. But that's alright because it is logical:

Hawking recognized long ago that a final theory—because it would probably involve particles at the Planck scale—might never be experimentally confirmable. "It is not likely that we shall have accelerators powerful enough" to test a unified theory "within the foreseeable future—or indeed, ever," he said in his 1980 speech at Cambridge. He nonetheless hoped that in lieu of empirical evidence physicists would discover a theory so logically inevitable that it excluded all alternatives.

Maybe rational choice should be driving at more becoming more tautologous rather than less. Then it would be more like physics.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Disinterestedness and Charity in Reviewing,

Or Advice to 1st Year Grad Students.
From an old guardian column:

As the novelist Richard Ford has said, "Writing even a bad book is hard work." Nobody who has struggled in front of a screen or paper for three years deserves a pasting written in half a day by a 23-year-old, though the pasting might be justified in terms of what exists on the page.