Tag Archives: Current events

‘Plenitude’ and American politics

I’d never encountered the word “plenitude” until a recent post at Reason pointed me to this fantastic 1998 essay, “The Politics of Plenitude,” by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken.

What is plenitude? For McCracken, it’s “a matter of lifestyle, belief, behavior, and an ever-increasing variety of observable ways of living and being that are continually coming into existence. Plenitude is everywhere among us, especially in our culture and our politics, where it is the source of gross misunderstanding and profound conflict.”  So it’s “diversity,” if you like, though that useful word has been twisted beyond its original meaning in the public’s mind. (McCracken touches on why.)

The problem with plentitude from the right:

The right acts as if the many groups thrown off by plenitude harbor an anarchic tendency, that people have become gays, feminists, or Deadheads in order to escape morality. This is not the logic of plenitude. These people have reinvented themselves merely to escape amorality, not all morality. New communities set to work immediately in the creation of new moralities. Chaos does not ensue; convention, even orthodoxy, returns. Liminality is the slingshot that allows new groups to free themselves from the gravitational field of the old moralities they must escape. But liminality is almost never the condition that prevails once this liberation has been accomplished.

And the problem with plentitude from the left:

The only real plenitude that counts in the left’s scheme is that which has an explicitly oppositional quality. Thus, women’s groups are “diversity,” but country and western line dancing groups are not. Both of these groups may equally engage the individuals within them, both may represent a very substantial shift in cultural categories and social rules, both may mark differences that will continually breed differences, but it is only when the group is explicitly at odds with the mainstream that it qualifies as interesting. …

There is a deliberate narrowness to the left’s definition of plenitude. It is interesting to observe, for example, that the “Diversity Librarian” at the University of Michigan is responsible for collecting only in the following areas: minority studies, sexual orientation studies, and multicultural studies. This so diminishes the scope of the problem as to invite astonishment. Diversity overflows these categories. Real diversity happens everywhere–outside the designated political categories of the left, and its intellectual categories as well.

Much like Brink Lindsey’s excellent book The Age of Abundance, McCracken’s essay pinpoints how  the cheerleaders of America’s deeply flawed red vs. blue political system always miss the forest for the trees. Read the whole thing.


The practical problem with ‘truth vigilantism’

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s  blog posts on “truth vigilantism” have certainly generated a lot of discussion.

What is “truth vigilantism”? It’s the theory that reporters for the Times should aggressively fact-check “false” assertions made by politicians or other newsmakers in the course of reporting on them — even, apparently, if the assertion is an opinion, hyperbole or  statements that are difficult to submit to a truth test.

I thought The Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto had the best response to the dust-up:

Brisbane’s examples make clear that when he poses the question whether the Times should become a “truth vigilante,” what he is asking is whether the entire paper should become an opinion section–whether the Times’s news pages should emulate (editorial columnist Paul) Krugman, albeit perhaps with a somewhat softer tone (“misleading interpretation” instead of “complete fabrication”).

To hear Brisbane tell it, there is a demand for such a transformation. He writes that he gets emails from “readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight” and who “worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.”

If that kind of “judgment” is what they want, they can get it from Krugman and the paper’s other columnists and editorialists. Why do those readers feel something is lacking in the paper if reporters are more restrained about expressing their opinions than opinion writers are?

Exactly right. Those complaining to the Times about this seem to think that ostensibly unbiased reporters, who juggle multiple assignments across various beats, locations and time zones, should act more like hyperfocused partisan bloggers, who live to parse political speech down to the subatomic level. If you think charges of “media bias” are pervasive now, they’d be much more difficult to refute if news organizations adopted this policy.

But bias is the least of the problems with “truth vigilantism.” By far the biggest is this: Few organizations have the time, or the bodies, to do it, especially in today’s downsized, Web-driven newsrooms ruled by a culture of “first and fastest.” As Jack Shafer of Reuters points out:

But to be fair to Brisbane — and I promise not to make this a habit — I think he was asking how fully reporters must tweeze every utterance spoken by newsmakers. Politics teems with gray areas and half-truths. If a reporter were to investigate every assertion of fact — assuming that that’s possible on deadline — the story he was supposed to be working on would dissolve into pixel dust. Infinite skepticism is swell, but it requires infinite fact-checking, and who has time for that?

Holding our leaders accountable is important, but fact-checking must be practical, and it must draw a careful distinction between actual misrepresentations of facts and mere expressions of opinion, no matter how poorly framed or obnoxious they seem.

Thankfully, Jill Abramson, the Times‘ executive editor, seems to get it. She wrote this as an addendum to Brisbane’s second blog post on the matter:

We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness. Some voices crying out for “facts” really only want to hear their own version of the facts.

Good point. There are plenty of problems with independent fact-checking organizations like Polifact. It would be a shame if great news organizations like The New York Times start heading in the same direction.

The small-group process in education: Useless?

Does forcing students to work on projects in small groups make for a better educational experience? Maybe not:

Donald R. Bacon, a business professor at the University of Denver, studied group projects there and found a perverse dynamic: Many of the groups that functioned most smoothly were those in which the least learning occurred. That’s because students divided up the tasks in ways they felt comfortable with. The math whiz would do the statistical work, the English minor drafted the analysis. Then there’s the most common complaint about groups: Some shoulder all the work, the rest do nothing.

“I understand that teamwork is important, but in my opinion they need to do more to deal with the problem of slackers,” says Justin Triplett, a 2010 Radford graduate who is completing his first year in the university’s M.B.A. program. From his perch as a teaching assistant, he estimates that a third of students in the business school don’t engage with their coursework. At Radford, seniors in business put in an average of 3.64 hours a week preparing for class, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement.

I hated the small-group process in college,  so I’m enjoying some schadenfreude reading that it probably doesn’t work.

Is survivalism really anti-humanism?

Virginia Postrel, in her final Commerce & Culture column for The Wall Street Journal, explodes some of the assumptions behind survivalism and what drives it in these deeply uncertain times. Along the way, she reveals how trade and the specialization of labor have benefited civilization:

Here we get a hint of the survivalist instinct’s fundamental error. In focusing on extreme situations, it forgets about the capacities built up during less-stressful times. Self-sufficiency limits knowledge and productive skills to whatever a single individual or locality can comprehend. Specialization and trade allow the system to expand those capabilities almost without limit. What looks like ignorance permits the growth of knowledge.

Carried to their logical conclusions, survivalist arguments would sever the very connections that make modern societies like Japan prosperous and resilient. If Japan were an isolationist nation of rice farmers, its suffering would indeed have fewer effects on our distant shores. We wouldn’t notice the absence of its people or what they produce, because we would have never gained from their efforts nor they from ours.

Read the whole thing.

Welcome to the United States of Umbrage, LLC

Americans can certainly be touchy about our perceived differences.

It’s understandable, given our history. “All men are created equal” has been a point of noisy, bloody contention from the beginning.

But in an America that’s radically different from the slave-holding, immigrant-bashing nation of the past, is constant vigilance against ethnic offense always a good thing?

As this classic 2002 article from Reason‘s Tim Cavanaugh points out, our  industriousness extends beyond cars, steel or hamburgers. We’re also pretty good at manufacturing bad feelings toward each other under the well-intentioned rubric of “anti-discrimination.”

Some good points from the article:

  • “Call it the anti-defamation industry, the anti-discrimination lobby, or maybe the umbrage market.”
  • “An anti-discrimination group has little motive to report improvement, or even stasis, in cultural relations, because that would lessen the perceived need for the group.”
  • “This may explain why anti-discrimination is a growth industry even — or especially — while identity politics fades into history, more Americans decline to identify themselves by ethnicity, and actual discrimination is, by virtually all measures, at historically low levels.”

The piece is long, but well worth your time.

Densely populated cities: Not so great after all

Urbanization enthusiasts gush about the benefits of dense development, or about the remarkable, low-carbon-footprint survival skills of the citizens of megacities like Lagos.

However, urban theorist Joel Kotkin makes the case that many people who live in those places would rather be living somewhere else:

But essentially megacities in developing countries should be seen for what they are: a tragic replaying of the worst aspects of the mass urbanization that occurred earlier in the West. They play to the nostalgic tendency among urbanists to look back with fondness on the crowded cities of early 20th Century North America and Europe.

Kotkin points out that during the past 50 years, Americans have steadily moved away from heavily populated urban cores to more manageable, human-scaled suburban areas. Why, he wonders, do the experts think things should go differently in the developing world?

If you like urbanism — and contrarian thinking — give Kotkin’s piece a read.

In Spy vs. Spy, the Russians still win

The arrest of 10 members of what the authorities are calling a sophisticated ring of deep-cover Russian agents is a reminder of an important historical fact: The Russians have always been much better at the spy game than us amateurs in the West.

From the nerdy efficiency of Klaus Fuchs, who worked on the USA’s first atomic bomb and then passed vital information to the Russians, to the cultured cunning of British spies Kim Philby, Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, who did incalculable damage to the West from their perches atop the diplomatic and intelligence services, the Soviet Union scored a series of audacious espionage triumphs from the 1940s through the 1960s.  (If you’d like to learn more about Philby, MacLean and Burgess, The Cambridge Spies is an outstanding place to start.)

Even in the Cold War’s latter days, the Soviets were able to achieve the kind of deep penetrations that eluded America and the West. U.S. Navy officer John Walker sold the U.S.S.R. more than a million encrypted messages. Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen betrayed the identities of dozens of agents, leading to the execution of many of them.

(At the time of his arrest, Hanssen was living near us in Vienna, Va. I used to take strolls through a park that was one of his “dead drop” locations. And Ames? His prime signaling spot — a chalk-marked mailbox at the corner of 37th and R Streets Northwest near Georgetown — is right in the middle of one of my favorite walking areas in D.C.)

So how damaging will these recent spying revelations prove to be? Journalistic opinions differ, but Eric O’Neill, the FBI agent who brought down Hanssen (Ryan Phillippe played him in 2007′s excellent Breach), tells ABC News that it’s “probably one of the most severe spy cases in American history.”

Considering the history, that’s not reassuring.