Saturday, August 27, 2016

Self-Parodist Attacks U. Chicago "Safe Spaces" Letter, Pratfalls

Vox has a new essay by Kevin Gannon about that mean old letter from the University of Chicago from Dean of Students Jay Ellison rejecting outright "safe spaces" and other shibboleths adopted elsewhere in the country by other universities. "Safe spaces" and no-platforming being the opposite of free inquiry and free speech, they comprise a prima facie antithesis of what the university stands for. Gannon comes to tell us they are all wrong. This is really a power trip, you see:
I’ve been teaching on the college level for 18 years, and I also direct my university’s Teaching and Learning Center, so I’ve been following the debate over "trigger warnings," "safe spaces," and the purported scourge of "political correctness" for quite a while. Despite the apocalyptic tone that often accompanies screeds against supposedly coddled students and their trigger-free safe spaces, the issues involved strike me as far more complicated than the overheated rhetoric suggests.

As with any conversation about teaching and learning, context and nuance matter greatly — but they’re not present in most of the critics’ attempted takedowns of trigger warnings (better called "content advisories," in my estimation) or safe spaces.
"Nuance", of course, has nothing to do with shouting down or outright censoring dissenting views, thanks to Title IX rules engineered to suppress anything that stresses students. The man pays lip service to academic freedom (emboldening mine)...
Academic freedom is the sine qua non of higher education. Students ought to be challenged, even made uncomfortable, in order to learn in deep and meaningful ways. And, of course, collegiate education is where students must encounter perspectives different from their own. No one who genuinely believes in higher education is going to dispute any of that. And that’s what this dean and the anti-trigger-warnings, no-safe-spaces crowd are counting on — that the surface veneer of reasonableness in these admonitions to the class of 2020 will obscure the rotten pedagogy and logical fallacies that infest this entire screed.
... but then proceeds to show he lacks even the slightest grasp of what logical fallacies might actually look like — because his essay is shot through with them. Indeed, it's a stew of politically-minded cant, name-calling in service of academic intellectual rigor mortis. Stealing from Facebook friend Pat Kambhampati, a few particulars, with additional editing and annotations of my own:

  1. Question the messenger instead of the message.
    Even the timing of this missive raises questions. Why go full blast against this purported scourge of wimpy, touchy-feely educational malpractice right up front? Is there a safe-spaces petition percolating in the ranks of the first-years? Are the dean and the university worried that people will lose respect for the almighty maroon if they didn’t stake out the tough-guy intellectual turf from the beginning? Did they sit around and ask themselves what Milton Friedman would have done?
  2. Dismiss the arguments because the other person lacks the correct Lived Experience.
    The greatest threat to genuine academic freedom comes from within. Coddled students who are used to getting trophies for everything don’t want to engage with stuff they don’t like, so they wrap themselves in entitlement and demand trigger warnings to protect their feelz. Or they want safe spaces to hide from the big, bad world. Or they want the university to cancel a lecture because the speaker is from the wrong demographic. And if universities don’t make a stand against this foolishness, Western Civilization itself will collapse.

    That’s a comforting narrative to the academic elite who feel like they’re faced with an existential crisis. Rather than seeing themselves as clinging to the last vestiges of the 1950s, they get to paint themselves as staunch advocates of all that is good and worthy. And there’s an audience for this fiction — people still read Allan Bloom. But as critiques of inequality have shown time and again, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
    What this really amounts to is a total failure to address the arguments raised by the U. Chicago letter. Gannon here claims that so long as you're the right aggrieved group, it's perfectly acceptable to demand protection from foreign or even hostile ideas. Is the point of the university to teach critical thinking skills, or orthodoxy? Gannon knows which side he falls on.
  3. Claim empathy for one group of people. Then any attacks are attacks upon a special group of people.
    If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do?
    Sure, if the point is to infantilize them.
  4. Donald Trump is the reason we can't have nice things:
    Sure, Charles Murray has a right to his views. But is it okay for us to use student fees paid in part by African-American students to bring him to campus, fĂȘte him, and give him a rostrum to tell those students they’re doomed by genetics to be inferior to whites? Well, he makes a strong argument and isn’t bound by conventional "niceties." Yes, that’s true. But that’s also the reason people claim to like Donald Trump, and I don’t see universities lining up to bring him in as a guest lecturer.
  5. Because, virtue signaling:
    As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value — and it isn’t them.

    The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset — in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom; it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.
    Yes, the "entitlement" is, demanding faculty and students have or develop some grownup resilience instead of acting like spoiled children. What Gannon risibly mocks as "Do it this way" means, be willing to consider and even adopt new ideas, or even those you may find repulsive for whatever reason.
  6. You misspelled "enraged":
    Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community.
    Again, so long as you're one of the right complainers, censorship and ideological blinders are just dandy.
Summarizing, it strikes me likely that someone like Gannon hasn't gone through the full Laura Kipnis treatment, which is why he's so strident. He appears to me to be pretty young; give it time.

The Horseshoe Effect: Ghostbusters 2016 Vs. The 2016 Hugo Awards

For comparison:

Aspect2016 GhostbustersSad/Rabid Puppies 2016 Hugo Awards Nominees
Potential AudienceGeneral moviegoing publicHugo voters (any member of the World Science Fiction Convention)
Actual AudienceSJWs, bitter feminist divisionOld-school science fiction (circa 1930) nostalgiacs, brownshirts
Ham-Handed Entryist(s)Paul FeigVox Day (Theodore Beale), et al.
Genius Bit Of Marketing To The SubgroupPlaying Jezebel, Slate, etc. like a drumcrickets
Why This BackfiredDon't lecture your audience.The same
More on the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Plumbing The Mind Of Obamacare's True Believer

I had the occasion to read two Sarah Kliff pieces on Vox in as many days, and while I can't recommend them for overall content, I do read them as a certain "tell" as to how Obamacare true believers are processing the late news that Aetna will be exiting most exchanges, representing eleven states, as well as Humana paring back its participation from 15 to 11 states. This was no surprise given Aetna warned the Department of Justice that blocking its proposed merger with Humana would result in it exiting Obamacare exchanges.

Kliff is not entirely delusional, as these grafs attest:
The marketplaces' failures to attract a robust group of health plans to many areas suggests that Obamacare’s insurance expansion is on the path to looking like other safety net programs we know, offering limited services to a predominantly low-income population.

"The exchange population — 85 percent of which qualifies for financial assistance — looks a lot like the Medicaid population," says Michael Adelberg, who previously served as the administration’s acting director of the exchange policy. "And with it, we’re seeing the start of the ‘Medicaid-ization’ of exchange plans: narrow networks with no frills."
Which is largely to say, the Medicaid expansion has been a "success", to the extent it has signed new people eligible under the new guidelines. However,
All available evidence suggests that the law is helping these people gain access to medical services that were previously out of reach — and there isn’t much reason to think this will change. Even when there are large premium spikes, more than 80 percent of marketplace enrollees have subsidies that ensure their monthly fees remain affordable.
So, recapping,
  1. Subsidies pasting over skyrocketing premiums are Jim dandy, i.e. if someone else pays the freight, the problem of absurd costs no longer exists, Q.E.D.
  2. This is true no matter how many insurers exist in these markets. 
The second point is the more important one, because if the number of providers goes to zero, the subsidy will not matter. This elemental fact is apparently lost on her. Kliff is likewise completely baffled by the bureaucratic monster she otherwise endorses (emboldening mine, as usual):
It is the considerable burden our fragmented system puts on patients to coordinate their own care.

I'm not talking about the work of managing one's health, the work that diabetics do to monitor their blood sugar or the healthy eating choices a doctor might recommend for an overweight patient. This can be a significant burden in its own right.

What I didn't understand was the burden patients face in managing the health care system: a massive web of doctors, insurers, pharmacies, and other siloed actors that seem intent on not talking with one another. That unenviable task gets left to the patient, the secret glue that holds the system together.
Kliff naively believes that a cobbled-together system of shreds and patches and bureaucratic fumbling will do otherwise, especially when the payer is some combination of state and private entities. In that case, the most important person in this equation is always the payer, with the beneficiary coming in second, -ish. "Glue" is what we do to unfortunate race horses.

Update: Comes this Vox podcast starting Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Sarah Kliff in which they gabble on about how Obamacare isn't failing somehow (h/t Catherine Siena). The chirpy, twee tone about collapsing numbers of providers (and, what they don't mention, rising costs) reminds me of teenagers who broke a window without getting caught. No remorse, no apologies, no regrets; their earnest intentions, apparently, are enough.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Wrong Jailers

Last Thursday, the Department of Justice announced it would cease using private prisons, an advance for those of us who think private incentives to imprison people have no place in a free society. Of course, this doesn't end them everywhere; the ACLU has a petition to terminate private prisons for captured illegal immigrants, a contract let by the Department of Homeland Security. And then of course there are the various states using them (the ACLU cites Texas and Louisiana as two that do), though such prisoners are a minority of the overall population.

But private prisons are by no means the only entities pushing to imprison people, as this 2015 Reason essay makes clear. In a review of a Washington Post story reporting that private prison companies CCA and GEO "have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts", Ed Krayewski writes "there's a far larger lobbies [sic] invested in large prison populations—corrections officers and their associated unions":
The California prison guards union, for example, poured millions of dollars to influence policy in California alone—it spent $22 million on campaign donations since 1989, more than CCA and GEO have combined, and continues to push for prison expansions. The National Fraternal Order of Police, meanwhile, spent $5 million on lobbying efforts since 1989, more than GEO did. That's not to mention the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which includes a "Corrections Union" and lobbies on behalf of all kinds of policies that seek to turn citizens into revenue sources for public employees. They've spent $187 million on campaign donations since 1989, making a far stronger case to be labeled the biggest lobby nobody's talking about than private prisons.
The AFSCME corrections union represents Federal prison guards, and a quick visit to their page makes clear their opposition to private prisons.  If, per the AFSCME, private prisoners represent 22,600 individuals, 12% of the overall population, we can assert a similar sized increase in the ranks of unionized jailers. Which is to say, the union itself has an interest in keeping people imprisoned, and has spent large sums doing so. The jobs it represents involve keeping people in cages, yet we hear nothing from the ACLU about ending public employee unions and their pernicious effects. Just as police unions remain the most strident foe of policing reform, prison guard unions make an awkward bedfellow when ending the War On Drugs is on the table. The modern left cannot see past its historical romanticizing of unions, and so this will not happen.

But let us return to the recent DOJ announcement. All those prisoners will be transferred to Federal jails, with union jailers. If convicts are serving time in whole or in part because of unnecessarily harsh laws and practices advocated by CCA et al. lobbying efforts, in what world is it just that the AFSCME should benefit from that? Isn't that so much tainted fruit? This vital question remains unexplored by the ACLU, who appear mainly concerned the Feds not employ the wrong jailers.

Update: A prescient blog post from Mimesis Law about the ACLU:
How different things are now, when the ACLU is at the head of the movement to restrict our rights. When a public university expels college students for saying something racist, the ACLU applauds. And when the federal government proposes a law to criminalize revenge porn, it’s down to party.

According to the civil rights advocates of today, one little tweak – a mens rea component – is all that’s needed to make the law constitutionally kosher. Never mind that revenge porn is speech. Never mind that it doesn’t fall into a category of exempt speech and is therefore constitutionally protected. Revenge porn is bad, and the ACLU opposes bad things, especially trendy bad things that intersect with feminism.
A lot more there, but the ACLU's complicity with rights suppression is of a piece with their increasingly liberal — not in the older sense — political outlook. I stopped giving to them years ago for this very reason.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Witch Caster Semenya Must Be Burned

Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Thompson have another discussion piece at The New Yorker covering track and field events at the 2016 Summer Olympics. A hot topic this year is the woman Caster Semenya:
N.T.: ... [L]et’s move to the athletes, and one of the most important to watch: Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance star, who has what are called “intersex conditions.” She has always identified as a woman, but she has many of the physiological features of a man, including internal testes and an exceptionally high testosterone level. Do you think she should be allowed to compete as a woman?

M.G.: Of course not! And why do I say of course not? Because not a single track-and-field fan that I’m aware of disagrees with me. I cannot tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into over the past two weeks about this, and I’ve been astonished at how many people fail to appreciate the athletic significance of this. Remember, this is a competitive issue, not a human-rights issue. No one is saying that Semenya isn’t a woman, a human being, and an individual deserving of our full respect.
Gladwell justifies banning Semenya because her body produces too much testosterone:
David Epstein wrote a characteristically brilliant piece for Scientific American last week in which he quoted the philosopher Bernard Suits, who once described sports as “the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.” And that’s what’s at issue here. Semenya is equipped with an extraordinary and anomalous genetic advantage. The previous policy of international track was that she could compete as a woman if she took medication to lower her testosterone to “normal” levels. That restriction has now been lifted. And so we have a situation where one woman, born with the biological equivalent of a turbocharger, is now being allowed to “compete” against the ninety-nine per cent of women who have no such advantage.
 Imagine walking this idea back to other sports. Basketball, particularly, would change dramatically: the 99th percentile of the general population is somewhere between 6'2" and 6'3" (PDF), yet the average center from the 2015 draft is 6'11". Football weeds out an astonishing 300 out of a potential one million or so high school candidates; what are we to say to those who didn't make it? Change the rules so big men can't play? And horse racing: Secretariat's twenty-two pound heart, nearly three times that of an average horse, fueled his astonishing runs, such as the 1973 Belmont Stakes:

Should we thus take ultrasounds of every race horse to determine heart size, and disqualify outliers? Sports generally are a game of populations, with competition excluding the unfit. That is, they celebrate genetic freaks. "The voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles" does not and should never include the gifts of birth. In that, Semenya mounts a direct attack on liberal sexual blank slatism that confuses absence with prejudice, all the while tickling the nerve centers of the right energizing anti-doping frenzies. It's a wonder she wasn't burned at the stake.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Ghostbusters' Lesson: Don't Insult Your Potential Audience

The first industry piece labeling the Ghostbusters reboot a failure comes from The Hollywood Reporter, noting the film's $70M loss, and rescinding an earlier commitment to a sequel (emboldening mine):
As of Aug. 7, Ghostbusters had earned just under $180 million at the global box office, including $117 million domestic. The film still hasn't opened in a few markets, including France, Japan and Mexico, but box-office experts say it will have trouble getting to $225 million despite a hefty net production budget of $144 million plus a big marketing spend. The studio has said break-even would be $300 million.

Sony hardly is alone in suffering from audience rejection of sequels this summer. But film chief Tom Rothman and his team, along with partner Village Roadshow, had high hopes for launching a live-action Ghostbusters "universe." Now they are preparing for steep losses (think $70 million-plus) and an uncertain future for the franchise.

Sony won't comment on whether it has banished a sequel to the netherworld, but perhaps tellingly, a rep says the studio actively is pursuing an animated Ghostbusters feature that could hit theaters in 2019 and an animated TV series, Ghostbusters: Ecto Force, which is eyeing an early 2018 bow. Both are being guided by Reitman, who firmly is back in charge of the Ghostbusters empire via Ghost Corps., a subsidiary with a mandate to expand the brand across platforms. (It was former Sony film chief Amy Pascal who first embraced Feig's vision for the live-action reboot, not Reitman or Rothman.)
Given the early marketing heavily rested on highly politicized narrowcasting, is anyone surprised by this? It's significant that, in recovering its losses, Sony now expects other, ancillary markets (foreign box office and licensing) to take up the slack, and moreover, has handed the franchise reins back to original creator Ivan Reitman. The lesson here seems to be, take your licks and shut up if you drop a turd on screen. Given Reitman's track record, we can pretty safely assert he won't act on Reporter writer Caryn James' analysis that Ghostbusters wasn't feminist enough, i.e. alienating and loud.

Update 2016-08-14: Brad Torgerson:
Wagging your finger at people is never, ever a winning marketing strategy. Wagging your finger at the crowds is liable to have the crowds showing you a collective finger of their own — and it ‘aint the index finger. Because people like what they like, and they don’t like what they don’t like. De gustibus. You want to freight your product with all kinds of social justice ornamentation? Fine. Just be aware of the fact that you’re putting a stone around that product’s neck. Don’t be shocked when it sinks to the bottom, never to rise. It’s not the audience’s fault. It’s your fault for thinking the audience wanted or needed you to shove your politics up their collective ass.
This, also, is the problem with a good number of religious films and other sorts of crank-ery.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Literacy, The Tool Of The Patriarchy

You can't make this stuff up:
Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. . . . One pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture. […]
Reductress is funny because so much of this is predictable, but every now and then, something even more absurd escapes the cesspit, something that crosses under even the lowest bar you could think of. The field would appear ripe for a Trey Parker/Matt Stone musical on the subject. We are here in territory well beyond Poe's Law.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Ghostbusters Box Office Declines, Yet Still Meets Expectations

So the latest Ghostbusters franchise is exceeding studio expectations in its third weekend, bagging $10M, declining to seventh place but not out of the top ten, for a cumulative box office of $106M; likewise, the early reports are that the toys are selling well (though whether that holds up after the cubicle dwellers all have theirs remains an open question). I still don't plan on seeing the thing unless it hits cable or something; Mollie Hemingway's question of whether Sony tanked the film's marketing intentionally, in my mind, remains both relevant and insightful.