The Incredible Lightness of Banning … Donald Trump from My News Feed

I use Feedly to aggregate stories from about 80 publications, ranging from The New Yorker to Neatorama. On any given day, I scan 200 or 300 stories from this news feed. I select 50 or 60 of these stories to “Read Later” and use IFTTT to post them automatically to the Reading Room of my Jeremiadus website. The website currently archives nearly 9,000 stories, on pretty much any subject you can imagine, under the broad umbrellas of politics, science, literature, philosophy, and culture.

One would think the breadth of this feed would extend even beyond the prehensile reach of Donald Trump. But one would be wrong. Of these 9,000 stories, nearly 3,000 reference Trump somewhere in the article. This Trump tilt is not the result of my own selection bias. If anything, my instinct is to choose stories that eschew, ignore, abrogate, elide, defenestrate, and abandon Donald Trump. And yet there he is.

Today, Feedly launched a “mute” feature, allowing users to filter any word or term from their news feed. I “muted” Donald Trump and Feedly “banned” 1,300 recent articles from the publications I track. My world instantly lightened.

Trump is batshit crazy. We know this. But the weight slipping from my shoulders and from my mind has little do with his deranged clown act. The political antics of the Keystone Cop Republicans aren’t really even the source of my distress. The problem is that any time a story invokes Trump and the creepy dementors he has unleashed upon us, we all become rubber-necking assholes craning our necks and bugging our eyes to get the best view possible of the carnage unfolding on the road beside us. We become vampiric, pustule-sucking warlocks, slurping the toxins, getting off on the whole sordid mess.

There is nothing redeemable about the situation. Trump dirties himself daily, but of course our tragedy as a nation is that he dirties all of us. He brings us to our knees. How are we to think about this?

In the 21st century, we lead accidental lives. We appreciate the randomness of existence, but succumb to this randomness, rather than making use of it. We are overwhelmed by noise and can locate no signal. We are awash in images and words, with no ability to parse their meaning, to source them to an underlying reality about which we can (mostly) agree (most of the time). These images and words themselves, recursively, constitute their own reality, a slipstream that pulls us further away from each other, and from ourselves, until our shouts are merely echoes, globules of emotion, randomly firing synapses, ejaculations of judgment.

Fuck you! … fuck you! … haha … haha … 

Trump is obviously a fully accidental species of human, a cratering self-inebriate, careening from one random moment to the next. He is a walking, talking meme. Entirely noise. Entirely unparseable. He truly doesn’t matter, because he possesses no meaning beyond himself. If he were to disappear, we would never miss him, but in the meantime he is all we can think about. So I am thrilled to be able to mute this deranged, minimally human person from my life.

We don’t need to agree about what is true. We only need to agree about what is false.

Consider the drunken sailor of random walk fame, whose problematic journey home inspires the mathematics underlying basic probability and resolves itself empirically in the fibrillations we associate with Brownian motion. Our challenge politically – and it is always a challenge but one now amplified to the nth degree by the random behaviors and speech irruptions of Donald Trump – is our compulsion to locate agency, and causation, in the actions of individuals. We are responsible for ourselves, a truism that has become ontological – we only know we exist because we believe we have free will and that we can own, understand, and account for our thoughts and actions as individuals. Cogito ergo sum.

Leaving aside for the moment the internally dubious merits of this Cartesian formula, the 21st extension of its logic has led us to a place where what we know about ourselves as thinking, acting individuals presumes no access to or understanding of what others know about themselves. Which sticks us in the middle of the radically subjective shit storm that has allowed Donald Trump to commandeer the ship of state. We each travel alone, in darkness. Meaningless beyond ourselves. And so free to judge without standards and without consequence.

But randomness is not the problem. Randomness is, in fact, the solution. Because, of course, truth emerges probabilistically. Form is itself the product of thousands and millions of inebriate movements. Meaninglessness resolves itself into meaning via randomness. Truth and causation will always remain elusive, but with a focus on the actions, not of single individuals, but of thousands and millions of individuals, we can make sense of our policy choices less subjectively, less reactively, less reductively and with a more humble sense of our individual cogito-ing selves in relation to the transpersonal dynamics of populations and of ecosystems, which are forever contingent and in flux.

The current healthcare debate illustrates the choices and the stakes of the decision to embrace risk, uncertainty, and randomness – as the idea of insurance itself, and the much-maligned but indispensable discipline of actuarial science, tell us we must. The Republican health care legislation backed by Trump obviously has nothing to do with actuarial science and population health (which would make single-payer a no-brainer) and everything to do with crude Old Testament impulses to reward and punish according to the code of the vendetta and to extract the pound of flesh as one would the barrel of oil or the lump of coal.

Which returns us to the drunken sailor of yore, whose journey is poignantly asymptotic. On his own, we know from probability theory, the inebriate sailor’s odds of returning home may be slim to none. But with a population of thousands or millions of drunken sailors, we can reliably predict how many will find their homes again, and at what intervals, without knowing for sure which specific sailors they will be. A profound and soothing thought.

With my Feedly mute feature, I can erase Donald Trump, misanthropic carnival barker who cannot leave home. Public welfare issues that matter in politics remain for me to ponder, clarified and restored by his absence.

Freedom From "Fear Porn": In Defense of Cosmopolitan Elites, Polyglot Cultures, and Global Integration

Much has already been written about Donald Trump’s speech to the Polish people earlier today. This speech, written (presumably) by White House fear-mongers Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, adopts a dark and legitimately creepy Saruman-like vibe similar to Trump’s inaugural address. James Fallows commented on the shift in tone of this speech from famous (and infamous) addresses of previous presidents to foreign nations that optimistically emphasized shared ideals about the rule of law and the importance of inclusive legal concepts of fairness and justice, freedom of expression and religious toleration, as our final bulwark against the depredations of war and intolerance. By contrast, both Fallows and Bloomberg journalist Marc Champion noticed the insistent focus in the Trump speech on dark, exclusive and ominously tribal themes (and memes) of threat and danger, of European ethnic and Catholic-Christian religious identity imperiled by Islamic fanatics and cosmopolitan elites,  of the mystical communion of faith, family, tradition, and nation – the precepts of Judeo-Christian western civilization – renewed upon the mantle of a crusade against its foes.

Even the wacky libertarians at Mises Wire have today indirectly voiced their concerns about this blunt-force and mythologized vision of national unity. As Mises Wire editor Ryan McMaken emphasizes, however we may bemoan the painful divisions within our nation, the United States has never in any true sense been “one nation” united by a common religion, language, and culture. McMaken points to obvious fault-lines in national life that have organized and given shape to cultural conflict – between pre-Columbian inhabitants of north America and European settlers; between annexed Hispanic populations and European ranchers, farmers, and miners; between free-labor states and slave states; between industrial and agrarian populations; between polyglot immigrants and English-speaking natives; between established Protestant sects and insurgent religions (before Islam, there were rising populations of Catholics, Jews, and Mormons); between migrant African-Americans and settled European urban working-class enclaves.

Of course, the nation’s ability to absorb these cultural conflicts – which is the renewable source of our energy, strength, and resilience – could not be more opposed to the small-minded, tendentious, and self-enraptured vision of the Trump speech today in Warsaw. The Trump vision (which is of course really the vision of his “Steves”) owes far more to an infatuation with an idea of “Western Civilization” – based on primitive, medieval concepts of control, fidelity, allegiance and honor, and made relevant through transposition into the familiar (but empty) tropes of  “family, faith, and freedom,” and of  “small-town, traditional values.” Of course, anyone who has traveled through small-town and rural America will quickly disabuse themselves of the idea that escaping from decadent metropolitan fleshpots deposits us in a bucolic scene of chastity and virtue. Rural America sits on a decrepit tax base with fragile prospects for economic growth and greatly enfeebled institutions insufficient to support its aging, immobile populations and unable to provide the basis for the sort of flourishing of generations any culture requires.

Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon have latched on to the “clash of civilizations” meme as if the Christian West has in the most recent millennium never stopped being at war with neutered cosmopolitan elites and ululating Islamic hordes, In his fantastic book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a controversial (in a good way) history of the exponential decline of violence over time, another Steve – Harvard polymath Steven Pinker – gives us a framework for thinking about the unhinged ignorance of Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon – and puts the lie to this idea that there is some kind of organic continuity between Catholic Europe in the the Middle Ages and Western Civilization in the 21st century.

Pinker’s book actually offers any number of angles for thinking about our current cultural conflicts, including a concise (although now somewhat dated) assessment of the more authentically and persistently “medieval” aspects of Islamic culture that allow unabashedly cruel and violent habits to persist, without reducing these practices to some essential “evil” within Islam itself. Pinker also invokes and dismisses the Samuel Huntington “clash of civilizations” argument that fuels the crusading militancy of the White House Steves.

But I would like to close by simply allowing Steven Pinker to pose some questions about the comparative iniquities and evils of city life and rural life captured by the demographic and political arc of “western civilization” in the past thousand years. For our purposes, the value of these questions is the extent to which they free our minds from what we might loosely call the “fear porn” so liberally peddled by the paleo wing of the Republican Party.

Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.


Robby George’s Primer on Natural Law: Let’s Break It Down

In 2007, Professor Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, delivered the John Dewey Lecture in Philosophy at Harvard Law School. George himself received his legal education at Harvard, and was there introduced to ideas about the relationship between law and morality, the study of which, as he happily tells us, became his life’s vocation.

George’s 2007 lecture, entitled “Natural Law” (and subsequently published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy), for our purposes serves beautifully as a primer on the intellectual foundations of philosophies of natural law. The lecture is broad and basic enough to initiate the unwashed, yet sufficiently subtle and nuanced to entice those already fluent with natural law and other Western moral philosophical traditions (specifically, utilitarianism and deontology).

I hope to further distill from this natural law primer the ideas on which the logical coherence of natural law philosophy depends. From that foundation, I’ll launch an exploration of the political and moral challenges presented to us in the 21st century by natural law philosophy’s subordination, itself, to the precepts of revealed religion.

George’s language in this lecture/essay is probably more turgid and formal than it needs to be, even for an august institution such as Harvard, but as we shall see, this pontifical style conforms to the vaulted sense of purpose that generally characterizes Catholic moral philosophy (for other examples, read pretty much anything from First Things, the Catholic-inspired journal of religion and public affairs). One of the challenges in addressing this elaborate, high-sounding (almost Counter-Reformation Baroque) language is to avoid its seductions and attend to how easily its curlicues can blandish us into a kind of nodding, soporific submission that muffles some of the philosophy’s underlying nastiness. Anyway, let’s get into it.

[Note: Those who wish to probe a bit further into the political and legal meaning of natural law philosophy should review the article entitled “Natural Law Theories,” authored by Robby George’s Oxford University dissertation adviser, John Finnis, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The two essays track each other closely.]

Key Terms

Natural Law philosophy both absorbs (from revelation and scripture) and communicates (into public discourse and legal practice) a quite specific understanding of the human individual as the summit of God’s creation, shaped in the image of God himself. The vocabulary of natural law philosophy organizes itself around this concept of the imago Dei. Here are some key terms, all of which we’ll consider throughout this series of essays: Revelation, Creator, Creation, Nature, Imago Dei, Individuality, Reason, Freedom, Human Dignity, Character, Virtue, Self-Evidence.

Natural Law Defined

Human Flourishing. George associates rights and justice with an account of human flourishing that encompasses intrinsically (and presumably exclusively – an important point to which we shall later return) human goods. George’s stipulations affirm a concept of humanity – the flourishing – as a noble end in itself, to which both individualism and collectivism risk becoming dangerous subjunctives that reduce human individuals and human associations to merely instrumental currencies of value or exchange. In this balance between our inner life and individual fulfillment and our external relationships and social happiness, George locates an Aristotelian golden mean toward which we must constantly strive, with natural law the carpenter level that trues our behavior in relation to this moral constant.

Practical Reason. George emphasizes, repeatedly, that reason is the means by which humans can identify and pursue the goods that support the flourishing of the species (with the exercise of one’s rational faculties itself one of the highest types of flourishing). George specifically emphasizes the singular gift to humans of “practical reason”, the quality of mind that allows us to discern the goods humans all seek, as well as the virtues attached to this seeking, and the flexibility to accommodate and adapt to the diverse circumstances of our existence in order to pursue these goods. Fair enough. But natural law philosophy here pivots momentously, by conflating reason and nature.

Nature and Reason. The background to this conflation of reason and nature is the crazy-complicated intramural philosophical conversation about the naturalistic fallacy. For our purposes, we need only emphasize that within the tradition of natural law philosophy (following Aquinas), nature refers to the intrinsic essence of a living creature, generally associated with its capacities. In this sense, human nature refers to the rational capacities that we use to locate and pursue “intelligible, intrinsic” goods. So the term natural law itself might more accurately mean “the laws of reason”, or “the laws that direct and secure our pursuit, via reason, of intelligible, intrinsic human goods.” And the idea of natural rights (a concept that flows in and out of the conversation about natural law) refers to “the rights of reason”, or “our rights to the intelligible, intrinsic human goods toward which reason directs us.”

Imago Dei. Why does this conflation of nature and reason matter? Because for philosophers of natural law, reason is a highest-order capacity specific and unique to humans, one not possessed by other creatures, a capacity that we alone share with the God that created us. Robby George adds to our rational faculties an additional, distinctly human, attribute: the capacity for “freedom,” by which he means free will, freely choosing. Together, reason and freedom constitute our nature as humans. They grant to us capacities for deliberation, judgment, and choice. Both ontologically and epistemologically, we can imagine the operation of these capacities as pure mind apprehending itself and the world. And for George, this unique human potential to step outside of ourselves is what allows us to escape from the dependent status of other creatures enmeshed in the web of causation and to become ourselves, like God, uncaused causers. “These capacities are God-like [and] constitute a certain sharing – limited, to be sure, but real – in divine power. This is what is meant, I believe, by the otherwise extraordinarily puzzling Biblical teaching that man is made in the very image and likeness of God.” (NL, 176)

Creator. George takes pains to emphasize that the logic of natural law philosophy does not require a belief in a Creator God, but his own belief in such a God suffuses the Natural Law essay and, truly, imparts to this essay its most intellectually radical and significant moments, when George identifies the creative potential of practical reason and free will as a God-like, “awesome” power (a term he uses more than once, inadvertently summoning, in my mind, concepts of power associated with the Bush “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003).

Human Dignity. Consistent with Catholic theology, natural law moral philosophy cleaves mind from body, spirit from flesh, attaching mind/spirit to the Creator God and body/flesh to God’s Creation. The ultimate value emerging from this dichotomy is the Catholic trope of human dignity, most clearly enunciated during the Second Vatican Council, and at the heart of the New Natural Law postulated by Catholic philosophers in the aftermath of Vatican II. For Robby George, human dignity derives from the human capacity for rationally motivated action (based on deliberation, judgment, and choice) free from the influence of external forces (reasons) or internal emotions. The Catholic concept of human dignity specifically refers to “religious liberty” as free exercise of one’s conscience with regard to spiritual matters. From legal and political perspectives, however, just laws and virtuous behaviors generally acknowledge and support the objective reality and intrinsic dignity and value of each human person, and this more general sense of the term is mostly how George discusses human dignity in the Natural Law essay.

Character and Virtue. With free choice, we not only constitute/create a “reality” in the external world, we constitute/create ourselves as possessing a distinct, unique “character” we own and for which are responsible with reference to our words and deeds. As Robby George states, “morally significant choosing leads to a focus on virtues as habits born of upright choosing.” (NL, 186) The culminating evidence of human dignity and human flourishing, then, is the upright behavior of rational individuals, according to a catalog of virtues, freely understood and freely chosen. Everything else is a falling away.

Promethean Individuality. Robby George’s primer on natural law absorbs and reinforces conventional Western ideas about individuality that probably owe more to the Enlightenment project (and less to Aquinas and the teachings of the Catholic Church) than he would like to admit. By anchoring these ideas to the Biblical concept of Imago Dei, however, he apotheosizes the individual human as a freely choosing, creative, God-like power. An uncaused Causer. The promethean echoes here are notable, but for our purposes, the most important implication concerns how natural law sets humans, who alone share reason with God, in opposition to the natural world, which does not reason or possess consciousness as we ordinarily think about these ideas.

Creation. Three important points regarding Creation (or what we might otherwise call Nature), as distinct from Creator.

Capacities. The idea of capacities as the source of a creature’s nature (as in, it is the nature of a human to reason or a wildebeest to run in a herd) helps us to think about how we can imagine the created world itself, taking it in its own terms (without any reference to a Creator God), as the tablature for the inscription of the laws of nature.

Civil Society and Positive Law. Natural law, loosened from a necessary dependence on revealed religion in the past 500 years, may have provided the Christian West with an emergent flexibility that opened a space for civil society and positive law that still (despite the influence on Western thought of Averroes), remains unavailable to Islamic cultures.

Revelation and Common Goods. When framed in the context of a revelation-dependent philosophy of natural law, which in Genesis radically separates the Creator from the Creation, we can see how the natural world provides the stage on which God-like humans act to fulfill the mandate to subdue the earth. It is far less clear, indeed doubtful, that the concept of a common good, as Robby George describes it, entails the goods of natural world itself.

Self-Evidence and Causation

Robby George does not use the term self-evident in his Natural Law lecture. But the idea of self-evidence is central to natural law philosophy as conceived by Aquinas (and as expressed as a way of thinking about fundamental truths in the American Declaration of Independence).

If one thinks about natural law as the laws of nature inscribed upon the Creation, generally, without reference to the rational, free will of a Creator, one might be able to deduce quite a bit of existential truth from these inscriptions. But Robby George and other natural law philosophers remain Scripture-dependent for the ways in which they constitute self-evidence, and this entirely handicaps their enterprise.

The problem, ultimately, is the need to establish a ground of being, the Uncaused Cause, to which self-evident truths can appeal, and Scripture (along with the idea of a Creator God in whose image humans have been created, in opposition to the rest of Creation) is preposterously inadequate to provide this existential foundation. Not least because in a world governed by complexity (morally and biologically and otherwise), the idea of causation itself begins to break down.

Next: Thomist Antecedents of Natural Law Philosophy

Thinking Hard About Racism in the United States

Harriet Tubman Series, Panel #4 (Jacob Lawrence, 1940)

Casual Racism

Bill Maher’s comedic use of the term “house nigger” inspired another round of hand-wringing about casual racism. In the aftermath, Ice Cube showed up on Real Time and offered a clear-eyed perspective on the situation. This is what Ice Cube said to Bill Maher. “It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again…. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.” Which is fair enough. But without defending the casual and gratuitous use of incendiary racial language, I’m also thinking online brush fires that ignite when someone uses racially (in)sensitive language don’t really help us to think properly about racism. Indeed, these brush fires can become smoke screens that misdirect our attention from racism’s enduring (and decidedly non-casual) psychological and institutional foundations. Racism is not really about language, and is certainly not caused by language (we should not confuse casual with causal).

Autonomous Individuality

The underlying emotional and psychological dynamics that do cause, institutionalize, and perpetuate racism are incredibly complicated (see, for example, Joel Kovel’s fascinating and disturbing White Racism: A Psychohistory, with its echoes of Norman O. Brown, first published in 1971). Owning up to and eradicating the racially disparate and unjust outcomes in our society requires honesty and introspection that is very difficult to summon. We are simply not used to thinking about the deeper psychological and broader social sources of inequity and injustice. Instead, we default to rote images of the individual as autonomous agent, actor, and author of her life’s drama (a foundation concept in natural law moral philosophy). We default to conflated behavioral-linguistic perspectives on social change. That our words constitute (cause / determine) reality. While heuristically satisfying, this default approach to understanding and addressing our most pervasive and deeply rooted social problems, almost by definition, will fail because the concept of autonomous individuality itself is deeply flawed.

Brownian Motion

We are not our own islands (as Melville would have it, isolatoes). We live in a Brownian world, energized and propelled by random, colliding interactions at every level of our existence – environmental, biological, social, and personal. This Brownian perspective applies no less to the specific behaviors and speech acts of individual humans than it does to the collisions of various populations. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all constantly iterate and endlessly revise ourselves. We are all rough drafts. Works in progress. We say and do stuff that we later regret, and while it’s entirely appropriate to call bullshit when someone with a public profile messes up, the important result is not the punishment inflicted, but the lesson learned. The arc of one’s life, the direction, matters far more than specific speech acts, which from a Brownian perspective, actually do mostly constitute “noise” and not “signal”. At the same time, a Brownian perspective on how order and structure emerges from randomness, flux, chaos, and messiness can tell us a lot about how emotional responses to racial difference become reflexes that cement racist instincts into rigid social and political habits and institutions.

Grasping Complexity

We intuitively grasp this truth, that we are, in a sense, both less and greater than the sum our parts as individuals. Which is why so many people who probably actually are racist by even the loosest personal definition of the term (they spew racial epithets, eye with suspicion those who possess different skin color, instinctively assume other races receive preferential treatment that harms them) will still vehemently deny they are racist. While these people may generally accept the “autonomous individual” premises of Western traditions, they resist the implication that “racism” defines their own individuality in some essential way (even while they might be happy to assume others, from other group identities, are “essentially” flawed or marred or defective). They appreciate their own complexity, even as they may deny this complexity to others.

Life Outcomes

If the goal, then, is to reduce the impact of racism, we need to focus less on specific behaviors of individuals and more on life outcomes of groups. How does racism influence these life outcomes – family stability, emotional health, higher education, professional success, stable income, community status? What would a world in which racism less directly affected life outcomes look like? What is the best way to remove barriers and create openings for populations most directly and persistently harmed by racism? How would these methods account for the more complex and messy roots of racism? One approach would be to adopt explicitly public health and “population health” lenses to help us think more deeply and creatively about what it would mean to stall vicious cycles that perpetuate racism and its effects and set in motion virtuous cycles that would loosen the grip of concepts and constructs of race on society.

Population Health

A population health perspective can more fully and cleanly account for and absorb both the external “motional” patterns of groups (as they slide, glide, and collide in relation to each other), along with the internal “emotional” patterns of individuals within groups, that benefit from and are harmed by racism. “Population health” refers to a shift in focus from individual health outcomes and personal health determinants (e.g., diet, exercise, genetics) to the social determinants of health. The population health perspective defines health not merely as the absence of disease or infirmity for an individual, but as the measurable, collective capacities of people to “adapt to, respond to, or control life’s challenges and changes.” A major challenge for population health advocates is to reduce inequities and gaps in the health of populations produced by environmental, economic, and cultural circumstances. Population-based health care would recognize gun violence, stop-and-frisk policing, incarceration, homelessness, dental insurance, and childcare all to be examples of social determinants of health. The data-driven Healthy People 2020 initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services nicely illustrates the conceptual framework for thinking about population health and public health.

Emotional Stress

A vast body of data illustrates the negative impacts of racism on physical and emotional health. Most profoundly (among the many ways we can document racial inequity), racism embeds and embodies disproportionate amounts of emotional stress within minority communities. By almost every measure, minorities, simply by virtue of their skin color, face obstacles in any particular moment of their day that will produce extra quantities of tension and pressure (measured by cortisol response). The negative impact of these moments is accretive and amounts to asking racial minorities to carry a backpack that becomes incrementally heavier each day during their journey through life. The cascading, flooding impact of this pervasive stress on life outcomes within minority communities is pernicious and extreme, with costs that extend well beyond these communities. And while we might also say that the history of the races in the United States has made all of us crazy, clearly our institutions and policies have perfected the art of burden-shifting so that the costs of this craziness are still borne by those among us whose ancestors were the initial victims of racial injustice.

Toward a (Partial, Halting, Tentative) Vision of Racial Equity

Because it rests on solid research and technical foundations, the population health approach offers robust tools for accelerating progress toward racial equity based on public health and social cost notions of the harms inflicted by racism. And because it steers clear of some of the more hot-button and easily exploited and abused impacts of individual behaviors and speech acts, the population health approach creates opportunities for building and sustaining broad foundations of public and political support for the goals of racial equity and racial justice. Finally, in helping us to escape from the heuristic trap of the autonomous individual, the population health approach frees us to consider the complex, shifting, and fractal nature of the interdependencies that characterize our relationship to ourselves and to the worlds we inhabit.

Casual Racism and Gratuitous Harm

As for Bill Maher’s linguistic gaffe, it seems fair to say that people should not use racial terms of abuse, simply because this language is gratuitously harmful. There are not circumstances one can easily imagine that justify the distress caused by the use of racial epithets (although ironically, controversial speech in the service of comedy may, sometimes, be one of those justifications). Language ownership and control may be contentious issues, but dignity and respect and memory are not.

The Salvaging: American Academic Philosophy Implodes

This brushfire engulfing Hypatia (the feminist journal of philosophy) is so intriguing. The article (“In Defense of Transracialism“) itself is fascinating, with its argument for imagining race as flexibly as we have begun to imagine gender. But no more fascinating than the response to the article (let’s call it an article-da-fe), particularly this “open” (although perhaps better viewed as “closed”)  letter to the journal, which urges the Hypatia editors to assume the fetal position, yank the article, and submit to all manner of degrading apologies and corrective re-education steps.

The Article

There is nothing particularly upsetting about the bio/onto/logical premise of the Rebecca Tuvel essay: that the fluidity of gender might apply to race. I’ve puzzled this matter a lot, although more generally with regard to the spectrum of skin tones, body types, hair styles, and facial features that loosely organize themselves around categories of “racial identity.” We discuss and assume the reasonableness of exploding the gender binary, a division between males and females which actually has a genetic, and a procreative, basis. The argument for blowing up the racial duality (or trinity, or quaternity, or what have you) is prima facie even more compelling, precisely because there is no comparably genetic basis for determining race. Honestly, one would have expected a spirited conversation on this irony to have taken root in the academy years ago.

The politics of gender and racial fluidity argue with equally compelling force for accepting this logic. Racial discrimination and gender discrimination both subsist upon what are essentially culturally embedded phylogenetic assumptions. Anyone who accepts the concept of implicit bias (as well as many who don’t) would have to agree that we all live with, encounter, engage, react to, and judge other humans through the use of heuristics that require virtually instantaneous, blunt-force clumping – into static, value-laden groups – of complex, diverse individuals, each of whom possesses their own unique intersectionality (a term that absolutely doesn’t require merely a negative construction, and in the context of the Tuvel transracial argument, assumes an unfortunate dependence on only oppressive and discriminatory experiences of identity that is incredibly self-defeating for whatever goals we might impute to philosophies of feminism, race, and intersectionality).

The Response

The open letter to the Hypatia editors, with signatures from nearly 1,000 academically and independently affiliated scholars (and from quite a few interested bystanders) is both chilling and comical.

Chilling because the letter discloses so clearly the paranoid, oxygen-deprived misery of the academic world. The lack of air for curious, playful inquiry. The absence of humor. And irony. The terminal fear that exists within an environment that is way too cloistered and self-referential and contingent. In which professional and financial security is so tenuous that literally every spoken or written word assumes a life-or-death meaning. In which “harm” and “danger” are omnipresent. In which no speech utterance can be taken on its own terms and allowed to find its way without subjection to the most tedious and depressing inquisitorial prosecution. When I read this letter, why did I keep thinking of The Name of the Rose (or, more poignantly, The Handmaid’s Tale)?

Comical (although sadly so) because the letter instantly memorializes itself as a Chaucer-worthy parody of feminist and intersectional rhetoric and so presents itself to the world as a rite of self-immolation. WHY Why why is this necessary? I now study, virtually full-time, the philosophical and organizational machinations of the white male overlords (among whom I suppose I count myself) who one might reasonably view as the true enemy, and clear target for the wrath, of feminist and intersectionalist scholars and activists. Do the authors and signators of this letter appreciate the catastrophic World Cup dimensions of their rhetorical own goal? Why should Charles Koch and Robert Mercer pour money into the coffers of war-on-women right-wing think tanks and lobbying organizations when incredibly self-centered and self-maligning academics will do their work for them?

The Blind Spot

I acknowledge that my interest in the debate about how we construct and build beliefs and institutions around gender and racial identity is extrinsic. Which probably accounts for my blind spot. I focus on and appreciate the liberating and healthy effects on human society and human existence, as a whole, of release from the influence and effects of rigidly defined identity categories. I love the idea that we are all, as individuals, marvelously intersectional, in a good way. That each one of us is related across uncountable dimensions to others among us in the world, but also absolutely unique and irreplaceable.

My blind spot was my failure to realize the logic of academic discourse in an insecure, unsupportive, fear-driven climate is the logic of defeat, in which one cannot even trust one’s friends and allies (poor Rebecca Tuvel who has been crucified, despite contorting the argument of her transracial defense to anticipate and accommodate the concerns and objections of her colleagues – seriously, we’re really not allowed to remember that for most of her life, Caitlyn Jenner was known as Bruce Jenner?). In this climate, truly exciting ideas about identity fluidity and intersectionality only lead to an endless regress of parcelization and enclosure of what we might ideally view as a cultural commons. We build fences (and fences within the fences) to secure and affirm our identities, only to discover how each fence summons a new set of enemies and a new set of grievances, while the identities we fortify dissolve and recede and slip from our view.

The Banality of Campus Speech Controversies

We may be reaching peak meltdown in the current campus “free speech” conflagration. The political correctness / free speech crisis has been a manufactured trope of the conservative right for decades, certainly dating back to the swirl surrounding Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education nearly three decades ago. But the crescendo of conservative consternation in the age of Trump and Twitter is laughably hyper-inflated and transparently staged.

For sure, the current political environment has surfaced campus hot spots that deserve scrutiny and introspection. In particular, the odd behavioral dynamics that can characterize (barely) post-adolescent populations sequestered within (essentially) closed communities have made problematic the vagaries of institutional control, due process, and proportional response when it comes to student (and faculty) misconduct cases – sexual and otherwise.

But the attention given recent challenges at Berkeley and Middlebury to the free speech “rights” of provocative speakers – Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray – is beyond ludicrous. Let’s consider the facts of these cases; the definitional haze extending beyond these facts; the identities of those manipulating and distorting and generally mangling these facts to trigger maximal emotional fallout; and the reality obscured by this fallout.


Speaker smackdowns on college campuses are exceedingly rare. While the Berkeley and Middlebury incidents were unfortunate, they were also each sui generis moments that bore little resemblance to each other and that provide no serious basis for generalization except for those who already know how they will fit the data into their political map of the world. Generally speaking (so to speak), invited speakers can say whatever it is they have to say without disruption or controversy.

Milo Yiannapoulos is a professional agitator and attention whore with nothing of substance or interest to say to anyone who cares about ideas, truth, problem-solving or other lofty goals associated with a liberal education. Milo arrived at Berkeley hoping and assuming that mayhem would ensue. The shit show he ignited perfectly fits the definition of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Those organizing his appearance always intended for it to end before it started – with a stampede.

As for the Middlebury incident, the Charles Murray debacle (and it was definitely an unfortunate and unnecessary debacle) involved an aging and prolix policy wonk who surely does occupy the world of ideas, no matter how deranged and twisted they might seem to most people. Murray presumably wanted to be heard and deserved to be heard. But given the manifold differences that separate them, there is no possible universe in which Milo Yiannapoulos and Charles Murray would appear together on the same stage.


Yes, protesting students (and non-students) at Berkeley and Middlebury could not have more stupidly (and perfectly) conformed to the narrative envisioned by campus conservatives (and their sponsors). The students were not wrong to protest; they simply would have been far more successful in achieving their goals (to the degree they could identify their goals) with a less is more strategy.

At Middlebury, for example, the image of student protesters simply standing (or sitting) silently with their backs to Charles Murray would have been incredibly effective theater. Unfortunately, when students turned their backs and shouted down Murray, they didn’t undermine Murray and his ideas. The students merely undermined themselves.

But given the inflected spatial and emotional boundaries of college and university campuses, important questions arise that stand in the way of immediate judgment or generalization.

  • Many of the protesters at both venues were not enrolled students. Are the campuses public spaces or private spaces?
  • College students, generally, are young and boisterous. In these liminally uncertain protest environments, do we consider these students impulsive and emotionally challenged adolescents or fully realized and responsible adults?
  • Education can be (and should be) a many-splendored thing that activates and places at risk the entire person, not just an abstracted concept of mind. Are student actions and reactions in these liminal settings and situations part of an ongoing learning experience that requires some (hopefully controlled or limited) acts of stupidity that produce more sublime moments of self-awareness and self-correction? Or are these students notionally fixed and predetermined agents entirely in command of their actions and so entirely responsible for the consequences of those actions?

The haze of hysteria surrounding these specific events conceals from us a simple truth. The issues at stake in these manufactured narratives have little to do with free speech, political correctness, marginalized and enfeebled conservative viewpoints, and the collapse of western civilization, and everything to do with how campuses encourage students to think about and explore the interplay between freedom and license, judgment and tolerance, and words and deeds. A hugely important matter left hanging concerns the proper role of college and university administrations in managing and framing and adjudicating these fraught situations – how schools can imagine such moments as opportunities, not threats.


The conservative victim narrative is also laughable. As Jane Mayer and others have fully disclosed, massive amounts of private money exist to support conservative causes, spotlight their ideas, and hail their champions. Most college administrations will take money from anyone with deep pockets, and the most prestigious and wealthiest (and most “liberal”) institutions have been hollowed out and privatized from within through the infusion of conservative cash to support largely unaccountable intellectual “beachheads” on behalf of free market and culture warrior agendas.

Are relatively few students politically or culturally conservative? Perhaps. But that does not mean that an unbridled “liberal” or “progressive” or “communist” radicalism sweeps the halls of higher education. Of course, more indifference or opposition to economic or cultural conservatism will exist at elite universities and liberal arts colleges (e.g., Harvard, Oberlin) than at schools with a strong regional or religious or vocational identity (e.g., University of Alabama, Brigham Young, Drexel University). But most students do not deeply understand or care about abstract debates concerning and contesting lofty ideals. Most students are not, and do not want to be, social justice warriors.


The daily rhythm and reality on nearly every college and university campus is incredibly prosaic and pedestrian. Millions of students go to class, study in libraries, write papers, take tests. They are not at college to change the world. They are at college to detect or divine or deduce – partially and haltingly – their own identity and their own future, which they ponder and conjure with anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and doubt.

The controversies surrounding matters of intellectual freedom on college campuses can take on a life of their own because these semi-closed environments are generally so institutionally self-referential and disconnected from their surrounding communities. Because education is largely about words and language, colleges and universities tend to be discourse communities, not actual communities. So of course words and language matter, and deserve to be taken seriously.

But “taken seriously” does not mean everything must be politicized and adjudicated and litigated. Is language and diction unnecessarily fraught in the classroom? Do professors or students spend too much time worrying about topical minefields or hazards of word choice? I’m not sure anyone knows. But we might do well to de-escalate and de-politicize the conversation about these important (and interesting!) matters.

The reality is that campuses are contingent and liminal places because their populations are unformed, peripatetic, and transient. Students come and go. The (tenured) faculty and administration abide. The institutions themselves must do a much better job of conceptualizing how the education mission can accommodate and make productive use of the developmental and identity dramas that inform student life and student consciousness. The best way to accomplish these goals might be to consider students not as discrete, self-contained, fixed moral entities, but as works in progress.