Monday, February 26, 2024

What walk?

I really like the concept of the book review in the context of the social sciences. Academics read books published by each other, and then write reviews for everyone to read. Writing down your analysis of a book is beneficial for your comprehension and memory as a researcher. Other scholars learn other criticisms of a text they may not have previously identified. The author of the book gains valuable feedback they can incorporate into future works. Everyone benefits.

In a class I am taking this semester, we are tasked with reading a book almost every week, and submitting a 500-1000 word "memo" with strengths we drew from the text along with criticism. This memo serves as a proto-review, allowing us, a group of fourteen undergrads, to pretend as if we were sophisticated social science researchers. It's fun!

We recently read a book called Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture by Neil Gross, a sociologist at Colby College. I've included an abridged version of the memo I turned in below. 

Neil Gross’ book profiles three police chiefs in three different cities. He opens with an anecdote of an officer who chases a car down a dark street, causing an almost-deadly standoff with a young Black man after the cop repeatedly escalates. The situation is diffused when a parent comes out of the house. He turns this story into an embarrassing personal anecdote, explaining that he's a cop too, and that’s why he’s researching this. His chiefs are admirable — Eric Jones of Stockton, CA, wholeheartedly embraces the ideas of procedural justice, the idea that we need to give the members of his community a voice in policing [insert footnote on procedural justice]. Mike Butler of Longmont, CO, came to deeply believe in restorative justice — where with the consent of the victim, the perpetrators can apologize and make up for their misdeeds. Ex-military Lou Dekmar of LaGrange, GA comes to the department to clean up shop — he hates messily run departments, and tries to make the police department more effective with shockingly high levels of racial sensitivity. 

The ultimate point of the book is that the culture of police departments is a major determinant in their effectiveness and in policing bias, and that the frame police view themselves in affects how they carry out their jobs. Some police have an adversarial approach to their job, while others may come to view themselves as defenders of democracy (pg. 139). Gross also tries to make it clear that change starts from the top of the organizational hierarchy. This may be the fault of the book, despite having a strong point. If the leader of the police organization does not direct the organization towards a more sensitive and community-oriented form of policing, it is unlikely that the department will shift on its own.

A deeper thread underlying the book is that despite the reform he identifies being incremental, it is still important. He does not explicitly state this until the end of the book (pg. 223), but he justifies the slow pace of reform as a derivative of a "utilitarian calculus." Their pacing, Gross argues, is crucial for maintaining progress. 

Gross' book probably qualifies as an "airport book," despite being written by an academic and including ostensibly researched claims. He could have strengthened his claims by interweaving data to demonstrate that departments improved. He mentions some statistics, like the homicide closure rate in LaGrange, but they do not explicitly bolster his arguments. The ability of leaders in an organization to create change and be effective is a well documented phenomenon, and often expounded upon in classes at the business school. Look at Microsoft — Satya Nadella brought slow-moving Microsoft from the brink of irrelevancy into a rapidly-growing and hyper-competitive business. Police departments are ultimately not so dissimilar from corporations. Managerial malaise is guaranteed to spread to the rank-and-file, and highly inspired leaders can propel lethargic organizations to unexpected success. 

The book’s weaknesses stem from Gross’ deep-rooted belief that cops are good. He approaches the entire book from a pro-cop stance, and tries to make the cops in his book look good. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — there is no shortage of criticism directed towards the police, but Gross seems particularly invested in views towards the police. Gross chooses to focus on what makes good departments good, instead of what makes bad departments bad. An approach from both sides might be useful. 

The weaknesses extend into Gross’ provided policy analysis. Rosa Brooks, a legal scholar, wrote that Gross over-relies on the “Good Police Chief as deus ex machina.” I found this in my search for a term to describe the hero complex that Gross gives the chiefs in his book. Gross himself points the failure point of his idea — chiefs may neglect to nurture successors (pg. 224-225), and as a result their positive legacy ends at their retirement. To expect that all 18,000 American police departments will find a chief who is either enlightened (Jones), spiritually awakened (Butler), or internationally traveled in military service (Dekmar) is unrealistic. 

Gross does not delve into any policy proposal that may bring this to a state-wide or national scale. How can we export the model of any of these chiefs to other police departments? In 2015, the Obama administration released The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Higher education is one of the six strategies listed — Gross simply glides over the fact that his three chiefs are college-educated. He ignores large police departments, with 300-thousand-person Stockton being the largest in his book. Unions are hardly touched on. He brings them in while discussing Jones’ positive union relations. The other time is when he explains that police union pre-emption in Georgia  is precisely why Dekmar was able to clean up shop in LaGrange (pg. 179).

The government has a tool to force police departments into order, the consent decree. But “big government” shows of force are unlikely to create a more positive police culture. 

Barring any major societal shifts, completely abolishing or “re-imagining” police is unlikely, both politically and practically. Changing cop culture may require changing the culture around cops. Gross buries this, but his positive portrayals of Edna, Robbie, and Drake show that we need more cops who care. We need less cops who sign up for the power trip of a gun and badge, and more police who see their role as integral to the democratic fabric of the nation, and to truly protect and serve the citizens, not themselves. Where do we get those officers? Megan McArdle of the Washington Post called for a "West Point for cops." This institution would research what works best in policing and transmit that information to the next generation of service-minded officers. 

After reading Walk the Walk, Matt Yglesias proposed lifting the Teach For America model for a “Police For America.” This program would bring educated young people to police departments struggling to fill their ranks, bringing honest, curious, civically-minded recruits to departments. Beyond their service, Police For America recruits will take their practical knowledge to the rest of their careers. Modeling after the very successful Teach for America, which improves student outcomes, is a fantastic idea. 

Monday, February 19, 2024


Sociology is easily described as making sure you realize there is a forest when you analyze the trees, on the scale of understanding a society. This leads to you having to understand both scales, but you don't miss that there is a forest, nor do you miss that there are trees. Forest research is easy (in countries like the US) — there are often statistics for public access and myriad other data collection methods that explain the big picture. Researching trees is harder, especially when those trees are humans. You have to convince each tree to speak with you, and even when they do, they could be lying. 

Ethnographic research tries to solve this dilemma. Ethnographers immerse themselves in social setting they are studying, gain trust with the subjects, and try to best understand their perspectives, behaviors, and interactions within their cultural and social contexts. Ethnographic research is lauded in many sociological settings — it is very challenging, and researchers who can do it successfully are very talented and can extract incredibly valuable insight. 

In my Urban Inequality class, we read Forrest Stuart's book, Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy. It is about young men in South Side Chicago who try to make a living off of drill music. The implications of the book is that gang violence is trumped up by musicians trying to make the best of dire circumstances. 

Alice Goffman was another one of these talented ethnographers. Born to Erving Goffman, a notable 20th-century sociologist, she came to do deep research on underserved populations to try to better understand them. Her first book, based off of her dissertation (as is typical) was called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, a book about over-policing, poverty, and incarceration experienced by young black men and their families in Northern Philadelphia. My sociology professor told us about the book in class. The book is incredibly gripping — Goffman writes master prose, and the book keeps the reader fully focused throughout. Goffman really goes deep. She becomes enmeshed with a group of gang members, who call themselves the 6th Street Boys, following them and other members of their community around their every day lives. 

At the end of her book, Goffman includes perhaps the most insane ethnography epilogue (New Republic) of all times. One of the affilitates of the 6th Street Boys, Chuck, had been shot and killed by a rival, and they needed to avenge him by killing someone back. Goffman is deep in the group. They trust her very deeply, and assume she is just one of them. They discuss the roles in the plot to avenge Chuck. One of them will have the gun, the other keep lookout, and someone has to drive. Goffman is the driver. 

When they get to the target scene, one of the affiliates sees someone he thinks is his target. He tells Goffman to stay with the car, and goes to avenge Chuck. He discovers he has the wrong guy, and doesn't kill him. But still. Goffman was going to drive the getaway car, and not only that, but published that she was going to drive the getaway car in a murder plot! From the earlier New Republic article:

To her credit, although in a rather disquieting way, Goffman does not claim that she did it for science.  “I did not get into the car with Mike because I wanted to learn firsthand about violence,” she wrote.  “I got into the car because . . . I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” “Looking back,” she added, “I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a man to die—not simply to understand the desire for vengeance in others, but to feel it in my bones.” That might be a revelatory passage in a memoir, or a plot point in a sequel to The Departed, but it is an alarming confession from an ethnographer. 

The book instantaneously became controversial. Some were astonished — Goffman had done it. She had truly "gone native," integrated with the group she is researching. Some were appalled — Goffman was either about to do or was doing a felony! Legal scholars were shocked. Goffman had probably broken the law. An anonymous person published a 32,000 word essay on Pastebin accusing her of academic dishonesty, and that much of her book was made up. And it seems, to some extent, that her book perhaps was partially made up. Non-anonymous researchers bring up the same points. 

Goffman is an interesting researcher, although, perhaps no longer. She was denied tenure from the University of Wisconsin in 2019, although this may be due to the years long drama ensuing from her book that prevented her from conducting any more novel research. Her sociology appealed to a large contingency of people, who were fascinated by the research of other groups like what Goffman did. Another story about Goffman, recounted by my professor, is from her time as a Robert Wood Johnson fellow at the University of Michigan. She did a study of poor Black people in the East Side of Detroit, where people live in abject poverty and atrocious conditions. In presentations, she would describe the desperation these people were in, that they would eat pigeons just to get by. 

But Goffman's style brought up questions for me that I had for the other book we read in class. There are ethical dilemmas to doing fieldwork in dangerous areas with crime-affiliated people. That is not my problem though. My problem is that I understand that research like this is valuable — but why is it valuable? Stuart's book concludes with this idea that we need to create positive channels for artists like the people he profiles to have an outlet for their creative energy. His policy proposals to the issues he brings up in his book are best described as laughable, While Stuart’s book was a great read, I found myself continually searching for some instructive nature the book could add to the policy debate. The real thing that the book highlights is that the model right now doesn’t work. The solution will certainly require forceful desegregation of Chicago — taking a brush and completely blurring the North / South divide. People don’t choose gang life because they are inherently thugs. Being a driller seemed to those in the book to be the best option, and it very well could have been. They are geographically locked out of the economy, boxed in by other gangs, and continuously failed by all their institutions. Education, government, police. To stop gangs would require to stop poverty. Stopping poverty won’t be solved just by giving drillers a booth at the local community center.

Goffman is a more extreme example. What information does her book give us? What does it tell us about society? Her book seems orientalist, almost, as if she is researching some extraterrestrial beings. And to those sitting in the ivory towers of prestigious private universities, poor people in North Philly may as well be extraterrestrial. Are we researching people in North Philadelphia because we think they are cool? Or are we researching them to figure out how to improve the world? 

If the point of sociology is to look at the world as if it were a snow globe that you could shake and play on repeat, I want nothing to do with it. I am interested in a sociology that considers its place as one that understands and informs. To me, it does not seem like we need to dive deep into the psyche of a criminal to ultimately find out that criminals are criminals and do criminal activity. Sociology isn't a Ripley's Believe It Or Not. The point should be to make a difference — not just point out that one exists.

Friday, February 16, 2024


Note: One change this blog has underwent is that the learnings are not always learned the day they are posted. I do try to include something novel I learned (or learned about) in every post.

Much of the world traditionally was ruled by a series of sometimes sprawling, polyglot empires with slightly porous borders. Notable empires include the Habsburgs, Mongols, the Ottomans, or the Holy Roman Empire. Empires didn't necessarily have to have a monarch — Britain was an empire, albeit a "constitutional" one, until it shed its colonial holdings to become the nation state it is today. Empires rose and fell, and often concerned themselves with geographical expansion. 

The empire model had a few flaws. People often did not want to be in the empire, the empire did not have the power to administer regions it had conquest, or other reasons. Ibn Khaldun, the early sociologist, would blame it on the cyclical nature of group feeling. As an empire came to power, later generations would be weaker, fat off the profits of those before them, and become more concerned with protecting what they had. 

Creating a nation state was a pretty popular idea in the early 1900s. Nation states could be bound together by a few different forces. They could be bound together by ethnicity, a common language, and sometimes religion, although they never fashioned themselves as a religious grouping. The mandates after World War I were ultimately mandates to create nations. The process was not so linear but it did create a state in all cases except for Palestine. 

Creating a state is pretty complex, especially when the place you are being told to create a state in is not exactly cohesive. Iraq is a notable example of this non-cohesion. 

The fact that Iraq is not exactly one coherent place by ethnicity, language, or even religion is incredibly inconvenient if you are trying to administer a place that you are calling Iraq. But how do you define Iraq? How do you define any nation, really?

In Iraq, there were two competing forms of nationalism: waṭanī and qawmī. In summary, waṭanī nationalism describes Iraq as a nation defined geographically (within the somewhat arbitrary lines drawn by the Europeans). Qawmī nationalism defines Iraq as an Arab nation, considering Arab culture, history, and language as the markers of Iraq. Orit Bashkin's "Hybrid Nationalisms: Waṭanī and Qawmī Visions in Iraq Under ʿabd Al-Karim Qasim, 1958—61" discusses the two concepts. When Abd Al-Karim Qasim took power in 1958 from the Sunni Arab Hashemite king, he changed the framing of Iraq. Instead of religious rule by the Sunni Arab minority, Qasim wanted a populist nation that sort of worshipped itself.

The new regime cultivated a "secular religion," or a new national language of myths, symbols, liturgies, and rituals. In Qasim's populist nationalism, the people were to worship their own peoplehood and to glorify their Iraqi national identity through the construction of national monuments and public festivals. The state became very involved in cultural production, relying on cultural agents (writers, journalists, poets, and painters) affiliated with the Iraqi left to legitimate the regime and popularize its perceptions of nationalism. The Hashimite monarchy, especially after 1954, had brutally suppressed intellectual activity, and many Iraqi authors and writers had been jailed or exiled. After July 1958, professors who had been deemed radical by the monarchic authorities resumed their university positions, and works by artists and writers formerly considered subversive were appointed by the state to various positions, from top ministerial posts to minor roles in the government's unions.

The Qasim government used history to highlight this concept that there was an Iraq, and that it did have a common history. But Bashkin points out that this was not entirely the invention of the waṭanī leftists. In fact, the Iraqi Museum was founded in 1926, and many other "signs of nationalism" came to be prior to 1958. 

The most notable is qawmī is probably Saddam Hussein. He was an Arab nationalist, in contrast to just a regular old nationalist. Iraq was an Arab country in a larger fabric of Arab countries. Saddam Hussein took this very seriously, you could say. He was often determined to kill neighboring non-Arabs — just ask the Kurds!

My question is if this analysis can be applied to other countries, and if they are waṭanī or qawmī. I think the United States is constantly in flux, and that in theory it is meant to be waṭanī, but in practice, many people want it to become qawmī. The United States is fully invented though — it has no real history compared to the rest of the world (thanks to annihilating the natives). Qawmīsm seems like it is not popular in the West – if you are doing too much of it, then you may face the wrath. Iran sees itself as qawmī, and uses that as a tool to recruit movements for its axis of resistance. 

Are either models a lasting model to create a permanent asabiyya, to use the Khalduni term? I personally don't think so. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Unpanacean public housing

Mixed income "social housing" in Maryland

I am in this Discord with a bunch of older (than me) people in Ann Arbor. We are all interested in local politics, and before Twitter was bought by Elon Musk and became X, we would frequently post on the #a2council hashtag. One person shared this article: "What if public housing were for everyone?" from Vox. The central story of the article is that in Montgomery County, Maryland, north of D.C., county leaders decided that they could simply invest in housing themselves — building new, in collaboration with developers, creating mixed-income communities subsidized by the county. 

That's a smart idea. The author writes that "government, when it wants to, can make attractive bids." In theory, governments can take part in markets. Heavy handed government intervention can skew markets — for example, if the government of Montgomery County spent millions of dollars building housing blocks in most rural areas of the county, because that is where cheap land is available, they might be screwed. But if they do as they are doing now, and subsidize mixed income development, they might actually accomplish something. 

The article opens up with mention of a few different places.

Governments have successfully addressed housing shortages through publicly developed housing in places like ViennaFinland, and Singapore in the past, but these examples have typically inspired little attention in the US — which has more restrictive welfare policies and a bias toward private homeownership.

I think that while some of these places have in fact ameliorated portions of their housing shortages, they are not perfect. A recent article from the New York Times lavishing praise on Vienna pointed out that Vienna has a two year waitlist for one of its infamous social housing units. Vienna also builds new housing at a much higher rate than expensive American metros. More housing almost undeniably makes for better affordability. There is less competition for every unit, lowering prices. A myriad of studies have proven this. Vienna built about 16,000 new units in 2021, for a population of about 1.9M. More housing I compared a metric of housing production I just invented — people per new housing unit. A lower number means the city is producing more housing per person, and seems correlated with housing affordability. For Vienna, their rate is 119 (2021). For all of Austria, 126 (2021). For New York, their rate is almost 3x that of Vienna at 326! The Los Angeles metro area is even worse, at 415 people per new unit. 

The point is that there is no solution to the housing crisis that does not involve immense amounts of building. In Vienna, 1100 square feet is considered sufficient for a family of four. American families are unlikely to put up with that. In Vienna, 95% of new housing units are built in buildings with three or more units. Much of the United States is zoned to prohibit that. The building code requirements that make family-oriented units possible in Vienna aren't possible in the United States. Onerous two-stair requirements make apartments considered normal across the rest of the world completely infeasible in the United States. 

The reason that social housing works is that opportunity cost does not always exist for governments, especially in wealthy areas in the United States. Jumpstarting social housing through a large municipal bond like Montgomery County is one option. But Boston leaders' discovery that mixed-income projects make money, just less than 20%, is not extremely relevant. Just because a profit does not actually lose money does not mean doesn't lose money relatively. Investors won't put up capital for a project that makes them less money than a project with a similar risk profile that makes them more money. Innovative financial solutions to the housing crisis can be a powerful tool for improving the housing market for those worse off in the United States. The money has to come from somewhere to subsidize the units. Creating a low-interest bonding system to fund limited-profit housing is a smart idea, but isn't possible if you can't build cheap housing in the first place. 

Also unclear is if social housing will help support those with extremely low incomes, below 30% of the area median income. 

Other leaders, like in Boston and Atlanta, told me they’re exploring how they could “layer” the mixed-income social housing model with additional subsidies to make them more accessible to lower-income renters.

The money has to come from somewhere! In my opinion, there are two prongs to the housing crisis. 

Prong A is on the supply side. We have put up an immense amount of barriers to the production of housing. This system has created expensive housing. In the face of low subsidies for those worse off, we have doubled down on the restrictive system, tightening zoning and introducing asking private developers to make subsidized units, a profoundly neoliberal idea. This has been a resoundingly vicious cycle. We need to tear through this cycle, tearing down the structures that literally separate neighborhoods into rich and poor. 

Prong B is on the demand side. No matter how hard you try to make housing cheaper, some people still live in poverty for a range of reasons. Fortunately, we know how to solve poverty. Simply give people money, and they will become less poor. The problem is that the money has to come from somewhere. Good thing Prong A is completely free — lets get to it. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Normie-fy your takes

I recently listened to this podcast called "How to be a (realistic) climate optimist" from Vox featuring Hannah Ritchie, deputy editor of Ritchie talks about how some of the things that we think about as climate action are actually not exactly effective climate action. Eating local or using plastic straws are brought up as examples. The real big sources of emissions, Ritchie points out, are things like the type of food we eat1. Where it comes from is negligible. How we travel has a big impact. Whether we drive, walk, or fly changes our emissions significantly.

However, Ritchie brings up something interesting along 21:30. Although she has her own opinions on what we should do about climate as a person, as a professional she refuses to involve herself in policy debates. She does not distinguish between policy and politics — they're all one and the same because joining one reduces her credibility as a scientist who focuses on climate change. She says that detractors will claim she has an agenda, and abstaining from political commentary allows her to eschew that. 

Whether or not what Ritchie is saying is true is not what I want to focus on, however. What I do want to focus on is that she does call for politicians to call for fixing climate change, and that they should be able to use the data that scientists produce to inform the policy priorities they create. This is a reasonable ask. 

However, most people are not weird, and do not have detailed policy preferences. When asked, they simply decide on the spot whether something is good or not. Ask someone a simple question like, "do you think that solar panels are good," and they would probably say "yes." Ask them something like "do you think that goat grazing is an acceptable method of under-panel grass trimming" and they might look at you like you came from Mars. Most people do not think about the climate all the time. Whether the weather is weird or not does impact them, but more in the sense that they may have gone on a walk last week when it was 60F instead of staying inside like the previous Thursday.

Climate activists seem particularly averse to "selling" their movement, perhaps because of all of the doom and gloom that climate news seems to bring. Constantly reading about how the oceans will rise and swallow the coasts and destroy all island nations certainly does not help optimism. I am not saying that all of that may happen, but when you come to someone claiming the apocalypse is befalling them, and that they must cease all normal operations to return to a zero degree world when life just seems kinda... normal? will get you few allies. Weirdos like myself who are already "in the weeds" 2 might join along, but most people just don't care! This isn't top of mind for them, it does not immediately affect them, and if you do not explain issues in the terms that people understand, they won't be interested in coming along with you. 

I think a good example of this is the debate around liquified natural gas. Natural gas has a big marketing push behind it. Calling it clean natural gas is bizarre. It is not exactly clean, but it is cleaner, and while it is natural... so is oil. Regardless, many climate activists are very against having liquified natural gas terminals in the United States and are adamant that we must prevent any from opening and shut down any existing ones. Matt Yglesias brings this up in a recent blog post. Climate activists did not stop to think, hey, would blocking this reduce carbon emissions on a whole? Instead, they simply took that more LNG terminals = more emissions at face value, and moved on. But LNG terminals don't exist in a vacuum. Surely there is not unlimited demand for LNG terminals! Also, blocking LNG terminals might raise energy prices, which seems relatively bad for pro-climate policy. Training people to believe that pro-climate = more expensive seems like a failure of a plan!

The messaging that people use to explain climate change seems like a problem with solutions. You just have to explain it to people in a way they understand. Instead of making it seem like solving the climate crisis requires you do to strange things like let food rot in a box in your kitchen or backyard or that you must drink out of a disgusting mushy paper straw or that you must pay $30,000 to build a solar panel on your roof, you could simply explain things in a way that normal people understand. Solving the climate crisis can save you money — solar and wind energy have cratered in price, and are now cheaper than coal or natural gas. We can cut red tape to increase investment in American workers by slashing obstacles to deploying clean energy. If the government backs nascent industries in renewable energy production, we can create new jobs at many income ranges. Backing these industries will stick it to oil super majors, who are fat on profits from low competition. 

I just think that people do not think beyond their bubbles. In a vacuum, this is not really a concern. People have generally existed in their bubbles. But now, the bubble of Trumpian ideas is older and much more likely to vote. If your bubble is too small, you need to burst it from the inside and help those in the other bubble to join you beyond the cave. There are so many other things that could use normie-fication. Banning cars is a take completely beyond the pale. It immediately turns people off, making them into opponents. Banning zoning is another bizarre take (one that I have made!). Most people are normal, and do not think like (abstract) you. Empathize with them to explain the policy issues you think we have. 

Note: I know I did not make two posts yesterday like promised. In sha Allah this week!

1 One popular environmental thing is reducing food waste. Ritchie brings this up during the podcast as well. This is something I am interested in — is reducing food waste actually an effective and easy way to reduce emissions? Perhaps. Composting is easy, if you like collecting food waste and ensuring it rots. According to the EPA, food waste comprises about 24 percent of municipal solid waste in landfills, but contributes an estimated 58 percent of released methane emissions.
2 Good pun, huh...

Tuesday, February 6, 2024


 Programming note: I know that I missed last week. In sha Allah I will post twice this week.

Emasculation means to deprive a man of his male role or identity. Depending on who you ask, it can mean some more vulgar things (removal of male organs) or some more polite things (like the removal of anthers from a flower to prevent self-pollination). 

Recently, I made a mistake, and assumed that the feeling of emasculation disproportionately affects men, and that the inverse does not happen to women altogether that much. I discovered that that assumption, like many gender-based assumptions, was pretty ignorant and less correct than I assumed. 

I then tried to describe emasculation as it would apply to women. The definition of this term would be to deprive a woman of her female role or identity. This is certainly possible — women do have feelings and can certainly be deprived of their female role or identity. I called it effeminization, but I then realized that that isn't a word. There is a word similar to emasculate that describes feminine traits — effeminate. But effiminate is an adjective, and emasculate is a verb. I even asked ChatGPT, and it had no better ideas than myself.

Strange, I thought. They both come from similar roots. "Effeminate" comes from Latin ex + femina, and "emasculate" comes from Latin ex + masculus. I looked into this deeper — I found a really old dictionary from the early 19th century, which includes a definition for emasculate as an adjective! Hmm, interesting, I thought. I found a usage of it in a sermon which describes Romanist theology as "emasculate." I don't know the context for that, but it is interesting. 

I think the reason why emasculate came to its common form as a verb and effeminate remained an adjective is due to their original usages. Emasculate literally meant to remove the male organs, while effeminate was and always has been a derogatory descriptor for someone with feminine characteristics. 

Why we don't have a term to describe the deprivation of female characteristics is interesting. Removing female organs is a bit harder (not impossible, unfortunately, people do it!). Perhaps the reason is sexism — people care a lot about the masculine feelings of men, but the feminine feelings of women are less important to society as a whole.

Friday, January 26, 2024

News vs. opinion vs. analysis

Newspapers have three basic products that they sell. 

The first is news: this is reporting on things that are happening. This can look different based on who the newspaper is trying to sell news to. A business newspaper writes up news on business, a local paper on local happenings, or the New York Times on literally anything alongside an overemphasis on New York City (more on this later). Selling news can be made better by figuring out how you can get news earlier — beating the other papers to the scoop creates value. In-depth news can also create value (also more on this later).

The second is opinion. Businesses do have opinions, and one of newspapers' goals is often to carry out the opinions of their owners ("News overworld"). Early newspapers didn't distinguish between news and opinion, they simply published their opinions as news. This went away with the penny press. Newspapers would prefer that you did not think about this, but it is a part of their goal. They want you to think in a specific way or to agree on certain terms, and have an editorial team and an editorial board who decide what the official opinions of the newspaper are. Opinion, which is still journalism, is meant to give perspective on the first product of news. Opinion sections try to appear more objective by publishing opposite-to-the-editorials (op-eds) that disagree with the editorial board or add some value in some way.

The third product is more hazy, and is where newspapers have created a lot of value: analysis. Analysis is very hard. It is easy to reproduce news from the happenings around you. Local newspapers love to write articles such as "Man Bites Dog" or "Criminal Kills Victim." These are easy to write, get plenty of attention, and require little analysis. A more advanced article would be "Man Bites Dog After Wife Killed By Criminal." At this point, we are doing some kind of analysis. We are explaining that the reason why the man bit the dog is potentially out of insanity after his wife was murdered. If you didn't have a skilled journalist who explained this connection, you would have to have figured it out on your own, or you may not have learned it. Analysis isn't exactly opinion though — analysis can be done without injecting opinion. That does not make it bias-free. You can never truly eliminate bias. 

All three forms of news product are filled with bias. News is supposed to be objective, and while in theory it can be, it is unlikely that it becomes so. What you choose to report on is important. Amenona Hartocollis, Harvard alum NYT reporter, wrote a bazillion articles about Claudine Gay and her antisemitism controversy. From Can We Still Govern by Don Moynihan:

Another problem in the Times is that writers about higher education aren’t actual experts on higher education. In many cases, they treat higher education purely from a culture war perspective, building on narratives of woke students and besieged conservatives. For example, Anemona Hartocollis, the Harvard alum reporter who is writing obsessively about Gay wrote warm personal profiles of a Princeton professor disciplined for having sex with students and then lying about it and his wife (a former student). She also wrote sympathetically about Ilya Shapiro, the conservative who resigned from Georgetown after being investigated for denigrating a Supreme Court nominee as a “lesser Black women.” The reporter later treated Shapiro as an expert on Black history, despite the fact he is now working with Rufo at the Manhattan Institute in their anti-DEI campaign.

Sometimes, bias is welcome. An art-oriented reader of the Financial Times may be very irritated that they do not consider the creatives' perspective on global affairs. FT does not care, because they report on the global affairs from the finance perspective, and unabashedly do so. Sometimes bias is more insidious. The sources you use, the people you talk to, the way you present their statements in prose all introduce bias to reporting. Bias does not come directly from the "news" aspect — it comes from trying to create value from the news.

For the same reason, opinion is obviously biased. Opinions are meant to be convincing, so they are supposed to understand their readers and figure out how to convince them of something. You can vary in your level of convincingness. There is at least 40,000 words worth of controversy surrounding the diversity of opinions that the NYT presents to its readers, for example. You can make assumptions about your readers. In my opinion, good opinion writing does not make assumptions about your readers' opinions. You can make assumptions about their knowledge — for example, while writing about zoning you may assume that your audience knows some basic information about the structure of US government. Assuming your readers' values is tenuous but sometimes necessary. To use the zoning example again, an assumption that I regularly make is assuming that my readers want to make life better for people with low-to-moderate incomes. I see this as simply "supporting good things," but not everyone agrees on what my definition of "good" is. 

Analysis can be biased in the same way the news deliberation can be biased, so I will not go into depth again. However, I think the biggest issue with analysis is that it often sucks. Analysis is hard, and worse, uninteresting to many readers, so the incentives are skewed against it. In a similar way, this creates bias. The biases of what generates revenue impact what newspapers produce.

What really bothers me is when analysis is decent but is also biased. This is what grinds my gears about The Economist. They have very intelligent journalists and editors, and create fantastic analysis. It just so happens that they have accepted certain assumptions, such as that the West and its allies are always correct, so they do not consider some angles. The Economist is also very transparent, though. They don't really try to say that they are completely unbiased. They will tell you that they support (classic) liberal values, and that they want a world with a lot more of that. 

The New York Times is not one such paper. They do not try to tell you that they have biases, rather ignoring them. They do, especially at the editorial level, make assumptions, however. The Times makes a lot of choices on what to report on. Claudine Gay resigning gets 27 articles, a witch hunt against Palestinian students and their allies gets zero. Opinion columnists at the Times have a variety of perspectives, but on a topic like Israel and Palestine, foreign affairs columnists spread the gamut from two states to a middle finger. 

One of my favorite columnists at the New York Times is Ezra Klein. He has a lot of good ideas. He founded Vox. His main topic of interest is how do we a) make a better world b) get everyone to go along with it. Over the past couple years, he has spoken a lot about domestic issues, but he did stumble into the debate on Israel's war on Gaza several times. 

I listened to the "'I Have No Idea How This Ends. I’ve Never Seen It So Broken.'" episode of The Ezra Klein Show, which was actually very interesting. Klein interviews Thomas Friedman, another NYT columnist. They both self-identify as supporters of Israel, and were being very critical of Israel for a whole hour. But there were still some incredibly frustrating flashpoints that illuminated the blind spots that Klein (and Friedman) hold. They discuss South Africa's hypocrisy on several points relating to calling war a genocide (South Africa has not condemned the Russian invasion and has hosted Hemedti of the Sudanese RSF), then Klein points out that some criticism should be directed towards the US and what we support. He mentions a poll of Gazans asking how many of them have a family member who was killed or injured (64%) and another survey of Gaza's buildings to see how many of them have been destroyed (50%):

And it’s sometimes hard for me, as somebody who’s fundamentally sympathetic to Israel and who believes that America should support Israel in areas of legitimate self defense, to look at what has been done in Gaza and see something that we should still be supporting. I mentioned that poll about how many Gazans have lost a family member. But here’s another. There’s this analysis of satellite data by two researchers, found about half of all structures in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. It is very, very hard for me to believe — and I have heard nothing from the Israeli side that makes me believe it — that that was necessary to stop Hamas or make Israel safer as opposed to a kind of collective punishment that we would condemn elsewhere and properly so.

Even more blind is what Friedman, his interviewee, responds with:

So not only do I share your view, but thousands of casualties ago, I did a column called ‘Time for Some Tough Love’ by Biden to Israel on exactly this issue, urging the U.S. to support a cease-fire in return for the hostages. And get out of Gaza, and let’s get NATO and American troops on the border. But this has to stop.

It has to stop because it is unjust. It’s horrific. And it’s going to — besides devastate Palestinians, it’s going to be a stain on Israel that it will regret, I think, one day.

Maybe, just maybe, there is a reason behind this. Maybe there is a reason why Israel is doing this sort of collective punishment against Palestinians. Y

ou could say that Israel is reacting to Hamas' attack on 10/7 (which wasn't just Hamas), and that if an equal proportion of Americans died on 9/11 (~40,000, by my math), our attacks would have been just as brutal. Is that some sort of justification? I would say no. Lying to people about weapons of mass destruction then invading Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands, is a stain on our country. But why did we do it? Did we do it because we hate terrorists so much, so we had to find them and kill them all? Or did we do it because our own actions meddling in the Middle East created an environment so untenable that it gave pockets for radicalists like Al-Qaeda to come to fruition, leading them to attack the US, and that our pre-existing biases against people from the region (Muslims, to be specific) allowed us to quickly justify enormous attacks that murdered innocents? 

Maybe Israelis don't like Palestinians. This isn't because of Netanyahu. It didn't just start three months ago, or in when Hamas took power in 2006, or when the Oslo Accords failed in the 90s. It didn't even start in 1967, or 1948. Just look at how Israel treats everyday Palestinians. You could say that Gaza is a terrorist hotbed, and as a result, it makes sense to treat everyone there with suspicion. What about the West Bank? There is no Hamas there. Why does Israel treat them like that? It is deeper than just Hamas attacking or Netanyahu ignoring. Moshe Dayan, former defense minister of Israel, eulogizing a farmer killed in a kibbutz near Gaza:

Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.

The Israelis know that they live on land the Palestinians owned. This is not me editorializing, rather me pointing out that this is literally what Dayan is saying. The Israelis kicked Palestinians out of homes they have the deeds and the keys to, and declared that to be their property. 

Friedman calls the Palestinian Authority corrupt and feckless. He never stops to analyze why they may be corrupt and feckless, and what the alternative is. Is the alternative to the PA a friendly technocrat who will simply bend the will of occupied people to support their occupier? Friedman seems to think so. Friedman points out that the PA's collaboration with the Shin Bet (the Israeli FBI) has prevented a lot more Israeli death (true). Collaboration with the Shin Bet has also certainly kept Mahmoud Abbas in power at the PA. The Shin Bet would definitely not step in to help the Palestinians being killed by their occupier neighbors.

Friedman talks about how Netanyahu is really bad (true):

So Netanyahu insists on coming to Congress. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will not invite him. And he manipulates the Congress to get himself invited through the Republicans.

I did a column at that time. It was rather controversial. I said, you AIPAC can manipulate Congress to get Bibi an invitation to speak at the U.S. Congress. But you know where Bibi can’t speak? He can’t speak at the University of Wisconsin.

I wrote in that column, Ezra, that if Bibi Netanyahu were to try to speak at the University of Wisconsin, they would have to bring out the National Guard. Today, Ezra, they’d have to bring out the 82nd Airborne.

Yes, of course Netanyahu cannot speak at the University of Wisconsin. Not because the university would prohibit him, but because it would be so ridiculous that thousands of people would travel there just to protest a global symbol of occupation casually speaking as if he is simply sharing some friendly opinions. 

There is so much more that happens in this article that is just bizarre. Friedman brings up the Muslim Brotherhood:

(Biden) also believes, I think, that Hamas is ISIS, a really evil organization, that not only Israel is telling him needs to be destroyed but, quietly, every pro-American Arab leader is telling him the same thing. We tend to assume that Biden is only acting because of what Israel is saying. But I guarantee you there are a lot of Arab leaders who do not want to see Yahya Sinwar walk out of Gaza alive.

A lot of Arab leaders who? Since when did we weight the requests of dictators heavily? Why do we privilege the requests of tyrants? This is just bizarre. 

Let’s remember, Egypt’s government wiped out, quite violently, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is Hamas is just the Palestinian equivalent of that. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. do not allow any manifestations of the Muslim Brotherhood.

??? The Muslim Brotherhood led many peaceful protests in 2011. As a result, Egypt has locked 60,000 members in prison and caused many others to be political refugees. Why do we even care what Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. permit? Those are not liberal, free countries. Hell, women couldn't even DRIVE in Saudi Arabia until 2017! That's really recent!! What the heck!!!

I am disappointed when I hear undeniably intelligent people say things that are just entirely ridiculous. Interrogate your assumptions. When journalists let their biases get in the way, they create bad journalism. It's okay to believe things that others don't agree with. But justifying your biases instead of interrogating them fails you in the "the free exercise of a sound conscience" that the New York Times claims to care about.