There’s one aspect of the surveillance state that I expect Congress to fix soon. Namely, putting the expiration of provisions like those in the Patriot Act - temporarily protecting America for fourteen years and counting - in lame duck “news dump” sessions at the end of the year. Because as it stands now even seemingly innocuous dates can come at inconvenient political moments.
Barack Obama found that out in 2008 when he was in the midst of the tightest Democratic nomination contest in memory. While it was in doubt he opposed surveillance so resolutely that he threatened to filibuster over it. Then once he had the nomination he decided it wasn’t so bad after all as long as he kept a close eye on it. After he became president he realized it was actually kind of awesome.
The action is on the Republican side this time around, though party dynamics need to be taken into account. State snooping wasn’t a big issue for the GOP in 2008 because a Republican was president, which as we all know means issues like domestic spying, deficits, foreign policy and so on are politely ignored by conservatives - or at most subject to astringent harrumphing. Now that a Democrat is president it’s all a Constitutional crisis. Of course, since domestic surveillance has historically been used more systematically against the left than the right (via, “according to a report the Congressional Black Caucus” etc), much of this is just for form’s sake. But at least it’s more than nothing.
The converse is somewhat true as well: some progressives who voiced principled opposition to the surveillance state have softened that stance - and sometimes even rationalized support for it - once a Democrat won the White House. Similarly, in contrast to ostentatiously loud conservatives, progressives might seem abnormally quiet. I suspect, though, that 2008 taught a lot of progressives that senior Democrats aren’t stalwart defenders of civil liberties. Some pay lip service, but ultimately the fix is in. The whip counts get done, everything is set in place for passage, and then there will be an ineffectual show of opposition. One would have to be kind of foolish to witness all that and still trust in party leadership, no?
The heavier use of surveillance against the left means liberals have more of a stake on the issue; they just aren’t (or don’t know how to be) up in arms about it. Recent history has produced real uncertainty over how exactly they can effectively express their discontent.
Anyway, the current beneficiary of surveillance expiration dates is Rand Paul. He’s now a declared presidential candidate, so he’s saying all the right things. Earlier this month he not only thundered “the president [which one, Senator?] created this vast dragnet” but promised to unilaterally end the practice if you’ll just elect him president. (Bonus fun quote: “Your phone records are yours.” This must have been news to AT&T.)
He still has to cast votes in his day job, though, and that’s kind of a problem. Last November he pretty much singlehandedly assured the passage of the USA Freedom Act - Sam Spade had these guys pegged - on the grounds that killing reform would allow him to fight for even MOAR AND BETTER FREEDOMSES in 2015.1 OK great, so 2015 is here and the latest expiration date is now on the radar. According to the National Journal article “Paul has said he will fight to block the reauthorization,” so get ready for the charades to begin.
Here’s your basic road map for the near future. Much like Chris Dodd in 2008, Rand Paul will say all kinds of dramatic things about self-government and freedom and so on. He may even, like Dodd, threaten a filibuster because he feels so gosh darn strongly about it. Then the expiration date will loom, we will all hear about how the terrorist killers are going to murder our children in their sleep, super patriot Rand Paul will suddenly find himself unable to muster enough votes to do anything, he will dramatically introduce amendments that get voted down, and just prior to passage he will stride to the Senate floor and quote some Thomas Paine or Ben Franklin, or perhaps Neil Peart.
This isn’t leadership, it’s “leadership” - doing enough to appear active but not enough to risk success. That’s how surveillance reauthorizations happen. Those who are in an awkward position will be permitted to do just enough to fail. The wheels for passage turn quietly in the background, there’s token resistance, and in the end the thing gets done. On the plus side we’ll get to see some mild irritation from the base, watch the Cato Institute play act its disappointment, and there will be a certain amount of discomfort (to be determined by Ted Cruz). Enjoy the show, just please don’t be under any illusions in the coming weeks when you hear Rand Paul yelp about liberty.
Stay tuned for future episodes, soon to be scheduled for 3 PM on Christmas Eve.
1. It seems to have been largely forgotten that Hillary Clinton ended up voting against the FISA Amendments Act. While it came across as little more than a jab at a political rival (when has she shown up on the issue before or since?), it actually makes her a more credible civil libertarian than Paul. At least she’s cast one vote in the right direction. It probably won’t be a campaign issue, and if it is, it might put her on defense depending on how much fearmongering is happening. But as it stands right now she’s got a more substantive record on the issue, even if by accident.
The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s report on “A Rape on Campus” covers a lot of ground, but the part that jumped out at me the most dealt with confirmation bias. As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig put it, “Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the investigative journalist and true-crime writer who penned the essay, set out with an answer in search of a question, a conclusion about systematic indifference to rape which she needed the right story to backfill.” That desire seemed to short-circuit both the writing and the editing process.
Since the report only focused on the one story, it’s probably tempting to read it as a tale of a singular, albeit massive, failure. Rolling Stone certainly seems to want to treat it that way. According to Managing Editor Will Dana, “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things.” He offers a false choice between doing nothing at all and razing the whole thing to the ground - but there is some territory between those two extremes. For just two examples, they could re-examine the work of those who failed most spectacularly, and they could look at weaknesses in their fact checking process.
As the author, Erdely bears primary responsibility for the failures of the piece. Since RS will continue to employ her, perhaps some scrutiny of her earlier stories is in order. Last December Mollie Hemingway flagged one that, as she accurately describes it, reads like a bad Lifetime movie. Since it wasn’t an RS piece the magazine might not be able to fact check it as easily, but given the magnitude of the errors here it might be worthwhile to take a closer look. Has Erdley relied heavily on single source reporting in the past, or sacrificed accuracy for sensationalism in any other articles? If nothing else it might spare the publication further bad publicity.
That said, the dramatic calls on the right for her ouster are a bit much. As commenter VikingLS put it (emphasis added):
How does this work, exactly? How does Rolling Stone gain its credibility back when its response to this disaster is basically, “Hey, mistakes were made”?The same way that The Weekly Standard didn’t suffer from its part in advocating for the Iraq War. They give their readers the stories they want to believe. Whether those stories turn out to be true is beside the point.
(It’s striking that just days before the RS retraction, Judy Miller was writing in the Wall Street Journal - deceptively, of course - about how her prewar Iraq reporting was totally fine. Yet Miller fails up to Fox News and the WSJ for the far more consequential act of helping to grease the skids for a war of aggression. You can prosper with specious journalism as long as you do so in a politically appropriate manner.)
Sean Woods, the principal editor on the story, said “Sabrina’s a writer I’ve worked with for so long, have so much faith in, that I really trusted her judgment in finding Jackie credible…I asked her a lot about that, and she always said she found her completely credible.” I understand the importance of having a decent work environment, part of which entails good feelings among employees. But isn’t it possible to respect reporters’ work, to think highly of their quality after having observed it over years, even to have warm feelings toward them - can’t all that exist without relying on faith and trust for quality control?
To the extent that Woods and Dana were reluctant to take what Erdley could have perceived as an adversarial approach, their editing may have suffered. Perhaps their previous work could use a little more scrutiny as well, then. It wouldn’t have to be some kind of public mortification of the flesh, just an in-house study of how that reluctance might have crept into other stories. It would be a little surprising if this were the absolutely very first time such a thing had happened.
Like confirmation bias, this is an issue at every publication - not just those that have a reputation for leaning one way or the other. How do you make a newsroom work when you need to reconcile two seemingly contradictory needs - the need for the team to have at least ostensibly friendly feelings towards each other and the need for a rigorous editing process that can sometimes be contentious? RS could use this as an opportunity to lead the way on new approaches.
The same is true for fact checking. Consider these quotes from the report:
- Magazine fact-checking departments typically employ younger reporters or college graduates.
- In this case, the fact-checker assigned to “A Rape on Campus” had been checking stories as a freelancer for about three years, and had been on staff for one and a half years.
- [From the fact checker of the piece:] I pushed…They came to the conclusion that they were comfortable
- The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story’s checker justifiably doubted.
Which led to this: “several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.” Fact checking is an unglamorous job usually delegated to younger, less experienced employees. Yet they are the ones in charge of assertively questioning the work of more established journalists? With that kind of power differential how much latitude do they have?
Verbiage about colleagues notwithstanding, these people are not peers. Fact checkers are much farther down the food chain than superstar reporters and long-serving editors. While they might not have any trouble correcting simple and trivial factual errors (X graduated with a BS and not a BA), anything that questions a narrative - especially one, like here, that has confirmation bias - is much more likely to be brushed aside.
It isn’t hard to imagine a recently-hired freelancer pushing back and hearing, who are you to question our decades of blah blah blah? There certainly isn’t much incentive to do so from a job security perspective, either. In that situation I’d have done exactly what the fact-checker did: raise the issue, then let it go if the powers that be didn’t think they needed to pursue it. And I don’t know what the answer to that is, either. I don’t know how you elevate fact checkers’ position or make them better able to pursue troublesome issues without being labeled a malcontent or having someone pull rank.
The point, though, is that these are questions that could be profitably discussed. If Dana and the rest of the editorial staff at RS thinks there is no reason to even consider them - if doing so is called a complete overhaul and therefore not subject to debate - then what will emerge from this is the status quo. Probably a more vigilant status quo in Rolling Stone’s case since they won’t be eager to repeat this experience any time soon, but still one that will leave underlying flaws in place.
It’s good that the magazine was willing to have a thorough and independent report of its failures. That shouldn’t put the whole episode to rest, though. The magazine’s leaders need to not just take their lumps but answer some hard questions. It might be the only chance they have to salvage some kind of silver lining out of the whole mess.
Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (either RFRA or RIFRA, sometimes even in the same article) has prompted supporters to insist it’s not about bigotry at all. As you might expect, the further to the right you get, the more obvious the bigotry is. Erick Erickson railed against gays and invoked Satan, while Michael van der Galien positively trembled at the thought of Tim Cook shoving his stiff, thick, beautiful anti-discrimination laws down his throat.
David Brooks, meanwhile, tried out the thoughtful conservative approach - fretting over an environment in which it’s generally believed that “Claims of religious liberty are covers for anti-gay bigotry….If orthodox Christians are suddenly written out of polite society as modern-day Bull Connors, this would only halt progress, polarize the debate and lead to a bloody war of all against all.” Later on he does acknowledge that such liberty is not untrammeled: “Discrimination is always wrong. In cases of actual bigotry, the hammer comes down.” But that just raises the obvious question: Does the RFRA allow discrimination?
Well, it allows citizens there to break the law claiming religious belief, then claim the RFRA as a defense. Its defenders point out that it can be used in all kinds of circumstances, but frankly that comes across as a little slippery and disingenuous. The politics surrounding its passage make it pretty clear the RFRA is about letting those who live in counties with anti-discrimination laws discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Efforts to obscure that notwithstanding, this seems to be well inside the discrimination wrong/hammer comes down area - yet Brooks is more concerned about the social status of the ones doing the discriminating.
He seems strangely detached from the issue; near the end of his column he writes about the controversy as “philosophic clashes,” as though it’s all an academic issue - not one that will have an impact on actual lives. If he knows anyone who has good reason to anticipate being affected by the law, he hides it well. (Lives being turned into abstractions is something of a feature in Brooks’ writing.)
Erickson and company, meanwhile, dispensed with Brooks’ ambiguities by going for a pure religious freedom argument. They don’t bother considering discrimination at all. People have freedom to run businesses according to their stated religious beliefs, period. Which of course opens a can of worms that none of them have cared to look into yet: Such a strictly principle-based approach could be used to justify racial bias as well.
That’s not a purely theoretical concern, either. In the not-too-distant past religious belief has been used to justify segregation and bans on interracial marriage. (To say nothing of the biblical justifications for slavery even earlier.) So the question for those that put religious liberty above all is, what about those issues as well? If religious belief is a sufficient claim to discriminate against gays, why is it not also sufficient to discriminate against blacks?
If conservatives think it should be illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, does that mean they support what Erickson calls people “forcing you to violate your conscience”? There are religiously devout people who sincerely believe in, and think there is a sound scriptural basis for, racial separation. If religious liberty really is supreme then no one should be able to prevent a restaurant run by such a person from having a whites-only counter, right?
If they don’t believe that, then they believe some level of state coercion is acceptable - forcing, say, restaurants to seat all customers and not just whites. The question then becomes, what level of coercion is acceptable? But they don’t want to have that conversation because once they start it they can no longer cry about liberty and freedom. It puts them where Brooks is, and Brooks isn’t in a very tenable position either.
Loudly proclaiming one’s love of pure, unadulterated freedom and liberty sounds great, but it often seems to end up in some pretty ugly places. As Roy Edroso pointed out, Rand Paul doesn’t seem to have made his peace with 50 year old civil rights legislation for much the same reason. If you make any concessions to the terrible ways it can work out in reality, you lose the soaring rhetoric. Hang on to the rhetoric, and even if you’re not a bigot you’ll have to spend a lot of time defending them. That’s not a good look for most people.
Now that Starbucks is winding down its somewhat poorly received Race Together campaign, we’re starting to hear from its supporters. Soledad O’Brien defended it, saying (emphasis in original) “there was something aggressively interested in challenging people to have a conversation who were not the kind of people who generally have these conversations.”
The problem is that not all conversations are equal, though. Tressie McMillan Cottom responded to the initiative with a great piece about the quality of the discussions that would be on the menu. As she writes, people don’t really have a problem talking about race at all - if the talk is about sharing one’s opinions or feelings. She also notes that some of those opinions might not be very enlightened, either: “There is no reporting yet on whether Starbucks issued a training module on ‘when the customer is always right and the customer wants to be right and racist’.”
Which is both hilarious and true. After all, “I’m sick of all these uppity Negroes” is a conversation about race! Is Starbucks comfortable hosting that conversation in its stores? Are baristas instructed to steer the conversation in a certain direction or discourage certain viewpoints? If so then fine, but the company should also advertise its position on the subject - not bill it as a completely open-ended discussion.
Sharing opinions about race doesn’t strike me as likely to promote more enlightened views on the subject, especially given the context. There won’t be much complexity in a discussion held while people are in line for a cup of coffee. How exactly will there be nuance in a thirty second snippet of talk? What kind of insight can be shared so quickly on such a huge topic that might prove thought provoking or that might challenge pre-existing beliefs?
Big businesses are notoriously risk-averse. They don’t look to invite controversy. Yet discussions about race that go beyond platitudes tend to get very animated very quickly. If the discussion they want to have is along the lines of “deep down inside we’re all the same,” well fine - but generic calls for diversity or equality aren’t going to change much of anything. Everyone this side of the Grand Wizard is on board with that. Those discussions don’t get interesting until we start talking about how it translates into practice. Starbucks saying it wants to talk about race might give it a halo for some (like O’Brien), but for others (like Cottom) it isn’t very edifying unless we are also talking about racism.
And what might a conversation about racism look like? How about this: are there ongoing negative effects from slavery or has that terrible legacy been entirely remediated? One could argue that the passage of civil rights legislation, voting rights laws and so on have created a level playing field. Or one could argue that slavery echoes through our history via Jim Crow, redlining, and so on - down to the present day in the form of stop-and-frisk laws, punitive fining, and so on.
How about this: The United States paid reparations to Japanese-American citizens sent to internment camps during World War II. Are reparations to African-Americans for a few hundred years of slavery appropriate? I bet that would make for a lively discussion in the coffee line! And of course for these kinds of discussions it isn’t enough to just sound off, it’s good to have supporting material. It also requires a certain familiarity with that topic, not just a gut-level belief in how the world works. And, as Cottom points out, it’s also the kind of thing she gets paid to cover. Expertise doesn’t just happen, and we shouldn’t expect those who have invested in expertise to share it for free any more than we would for, say, a plumber. (Or maybe Starbucks is developing a socialist streak?)
This isn’t about Starbucks not having the kind of conversations I’d like it to have. I mean, it is but it isn’t. Any discussion worth having on the subject will be contentious, and any discussion that isn’t will be superficial. Starbucks seems to be trying to thread a very fine needle: Getting credit for raising an uncomfortable issue and encouraging discussion on it, but without actually addressing any of the substance of the controversy.
Which could make the situation worse instead of better. After all, if people spend a minute or two chatting about “hey what’s it like to be black?” or whatever, and then congratulate themselves that they’ve done something, it crowds out room in the discourse for consideration of the much thornier issues. Marginalizing those subjects even more than they already are (it’s possible!) is no trivial thing. In fact, trying to prevent that from happening is something worth being aggressively interested in.
In James Gleick’s book Chaos he writes about a paper titled Period Three Implies Chaos. Very roughly, the idea is that even seemingly simple systems can start behaving unpredictably by the third iteration. The responses to David Brooks’ column Tuesday makes it seem like there may be a similar phenomenon with political commentary. Writing about poverty, Brooks described “feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown.” The causes? “It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms” - norms which have been subverted by what he calls nonjudgmentalism.
Elizabeth Bruenig responded to Brooks, and on that point actually agreed: “if Brooks images that improving social norms is just a sliver of the solution, then he’s right,” but she also basically says, slow down there cowboy. Brooks breezes past the whole money and better policy part, Bruenig focuses on it. She doesn’t weigh in on norms (which is what a nonjudgmental approach would do), just puts them on the periphery.
The traditional conservative criticism of liberal antipoverty sentiment is that it exists in a haze of moral relativism. Hey man it’s all the same if a kid grows up in a stable two parent family or a single parent one with an endless, bewildering parade of shady partners. Bruenig specifically does not do that. She notes approvingly that poor people want to get married at the same rate as the rich, and otherwise notes the presence of sound values.
Bruenig isn’t saying that it’s all the same, just that Brooks’ prescription as a very small part of the solution. Exhorting lower income people to make good choices is fine, but won’t have nearly the impact that well designed programs will. She just points out that programs like SNAP and child allowances have an overall good effect on the very problems Brooks frets about. The biggest problems with them is that they are routinely demonized on the right as fostering dependency, and that conservative leaders have spent decades using singular or apocryphal stories about them as being characteristic of the programs as a whole.
So here’s where it stands at that point. Brooks: (mumble mumble policy money) we must focus on norms! (Perhaps not coincidentally, Brooks’ preferred approach doesn’t require us to do anything but talk.) Bruenig: Sure we do, but hey what was that first part again? At which point period three and chaos arrives in the form of Kevin Williamson. He begins with a variant of a long-running right wing talking point, that America has the richest poor in the world. Which even if it’s true doesn’t ameliorate the anxiety and uncertainty low income people swim about in like a fish in water.
He then goes on a vaguely creepy trip through Bruenig’s biography. Everything he links to is public, but as I read through his litany I thought, this dude is taking an unseemly interest in her. Your mileage may vary but it seemed a little off to me.
Amazingly, Williamson’s non-sequiturs are the strongest part of his post. When he tries to stay on topic he does even worse. He uses his own story of growing up poor as a rebuttal to Bruenig’s data, which is hardly persuasive. Lived experience is important of course, but extrapolating it to everyone is silly. It can be an effective rhetorical technique - witness the persistence of welfare queens and strapping young bucks in the conservative imagination - but if one is seriously trying to refute an argument based on data it’s incredibly weak.
He finishes by claiming, incorrectly, that she is making the case for moral relativism. Her point about moral compasses was that low income people report similar values and aspirations as other groups, not that every single poor person is a paragon of virtue. This seems to be a pretty simple point. If you are poor you will probably want similar things for yourself and your family as everyone else, but the fact of poverty itself will put you in a position to accept or tolerate circumstances you might not be obliged to otherwise. Staying with a less than ideal partner in order to have additional income or child care support, for instance.
Her point is that encouraging good decision making is a comparative drop in the bucket when measured against policies that make real resources available to low income people. If you’re going to devote, say, a New York Times op-ed to poverty, make exhortation the parenthetical aside and policy the focus of the piece, not the other way around. Doesn’t seem like a difficult concept to grasp, but Williamson misses it entirely.
Seeing the discussion fall apart so quickly - point, counterpoint, argle bargle - is a reason to put less stock in the idea of epistemic closure on the left. If this is the kind of dialogue on offer from the right, what benefit is there in engaging with it? National Review Online is one of the pre-eminent sites for conservative analysis, and this is an all too typical example of the quality of the work there. It doesn’t come across as a good faith effort to address the issue but as a quickly assembled grab bag of personal attacks and straw men. Steering clear of that is not an unwillingness to encounter contrary ideas as much as an unwillingness to engage with incipient madness.