Milder Despotism


A Modest Proposal: Don’t Be A Jerk

Only in the age of Twitter could the universalizable maxim “don’t be a jerk” somehow become a #slatepitch. With the increasing ideological segmentation of the American public, being nice to each other is more important than ever. But with incivility on the rise, some would make the argument that those of us worried about the rise of incivility in American life are nothing more than hand-waving monsters who wish not to debate issues on their merits.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes in “Civility, Outrage” of the problems of us civility-trolls:

1.) It’s just an aesthetic.

What I mean by this is that ‘civility’ isn’t actually hooked into a common sense of etiquette or formal public behavior anymore… it’s more about adopting the style of a particular class of discussion than anything else. When people call for civility, what they mean is that you should take whatever it is that’s being said, and rephrase it and reorient yourself until it comes off as similar in style to a kind of salon-esque neutral debate between equal arguers.

Bruenig has some correct arguments: civility is not always warranted, and civility-mongerers sometimes come off as, she says, pushing a mode of argument in which “all arguments [are] potentially equal in merit.” This calls to mind the internet saying “the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” There are some arguments that we want to signal to our friends are so far out of bounds that it’s not even important to address them seriously.

The problem is that polarization and incivility are on the rise. It’s not an argument made by Bruenig, but it often seems in the era of internet outrage that the interlocutors most accused of incivility are those who are the ones being uncharitable towards pretty widely-accepted ideas. Civility is not always warranted, but we should be civility maximalists so as to reach as wide an audience for our arguments as possible.

Bruenig is also right in saying that some civility-mongers’ motivating emotion is outrage. Plainly, it sucks to be called an asshole, a moral monster, or a peddler of bullshit. Perhaps there are an enlightened class of sociopaths for whom, so convinced of their righteousness, insults trigger nothing in their brains. Most people are not this way. Incivility triggers emotions.

Which brings us to, I think, the biggest problem with Bruenig’s argument. Civility is not merely an aesthetic. Incivility injects emotion into discourse, and emotion clouds our thinking. Mother Jones science correspondent Chris Mooney, in putting a spin on some new research, reported:

In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science… The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

The use of incivility in discourse, in other words, does not help to convince anyone. It’s designed to inflame passion. Its use is more performance art than argumentation. It serves to rally those already predisposed to your “side” while shutting out those predisposed to the “other side.”

Incivility is pretty firmly on the rise in American society, and most people think serious problems have arisen. A yearly survey on civility finds that 81% of Americans believe an increase in incivility is leading to an increase in physical violence:

I think most of these people are wrong. I could call them intellectually-challenged asshats, to boot, but as discussed, that would likely make it likely that my argument falls on deaf ears. Instead, I could try to convince them that incivility is a milder problem than they think it is, even if it is dramatically on the rise.

Perhaps in some golden age of the 1950s that maybe didn’t even exist - perhaps in Pleasantville - we were on the wrong end of the civility bell curve. I think it’s clear that we’re no longer there, and the amount of incivility in society is possibly doing harm to our mental well-being, our moral fiber, and our public policy.


The Progressive Case Against Paying College Athletes

It is an historical accident that the sports that are popular in America are the sports that are popular in America. There is nothing intrinsic to the American character or humanity itself that makes us prefer American football to soccer, curling, or jai alai. Preferences are wholly fungible. But for the fact that the corporate and marketing nexus of the powerful and privileged united to push American football upon the populace in the mid-20th century, we might have easily seen amateur leagues of volleyball or table tennis become the marketing machine that American football is.

We’ve also seen that it’s clear that certain American preferences - like ours for contact over non-contact sports - are unambiguously harming our citizens. American football, in particular, is indisputably bad for the athletes who play it. If we could wave a magic wand and make swimming or cricket the cultural force that American football is, we would be failing our fellow citizens not to do so.

So from the perspective of social justice, the push to pay college-enrolled student-athletes is an odd one. The only players who would benefit are males who play American football and basketball. When it comes to sports, those two subsidize everything else:

If athletic departments must compete to pay student-athletes, those other sports that are subsidized are going to begin to disappear. There’s simply no two ways around it. They are, plainly, a drain on college finances. More than that, scholarships offered in other sports would begin to disappear. A certain number of scholarships for female athletes are required, but many others aren’t. NCAA division I schools may offer twelve softball scholarships, for example, that are not required. When resources must be diverted toward the revenue-generating male sports, you can guaran-damn-tee that those other sports will begin to disappear.

And why should people born with a natural athletic proclivity that suits them to basketball or football be privileged over those born with a proclivity for softball or swimming? The current system of subsidization brings more justice to the luck lottery. It’s an historical accident that basketball and football are popular; we shouldn’t allow that historical accident to preclude differently-abled rollers in the genetic lottery from enjoying a fully-realized athletic life.

There are many possible solutions here. We could mandate more scholarships in the subsidized sports. We could mandate that operational expenses be split among more than the two money-making sports. We could put strings on federal money that would mandate salary ceilings for coaches or maximum administrative costs for athletic departments. But in the end, the money has to come from somewhere. If it’s not coming from the other sports, it’s coming from other expense streams, and that might mean cuts to social justice programs in other departments: Women’s Studies, Peace Studies, or others. Quite frankly, we can’t trust university administrators to preserve progressive institutions in the face of budget cuts.

On the surface, it seems like participants of major college athletics are getting a raw deal. And moreso, it should offend our progressive sense of justice because minorities are disproportionately the ones getting less than “market value” for their talents. Their “real” value, we’re told, is not reflected in their compensation - as if the market of aesthetic preferences of the American public reflects any kind of justice at all. Current aesthetic preferences are really nothing more than the nexus of winners of a genetic lottery enjoying the spoils of an historical accident of the corporate-media sports marketing machine. The male major-sport athletes are already compensated with scholarships, and their scholarships are by and large much larger than scholarships in the other sports.

What the amateur system does is place a price ceiling on the talents of genetic-lottery winners and redistribute the winnings among the less privileged. Paying college athletes would end the redistributive athletics system. Let’s not succumb to these market-based temptations.


Green Day or Iraq? A reconsideration

As former supporter of both the Iraq War and Green Day, let me say: ten years on, one of these is much less regrettable than the other. Sure, both Iraq and Green Day are messes now, but we can at least look fondly back on one and not the other.

Iraq’s greatest hit:

I watched this live and was incredibly inspired. And as a high school senior with emerging political views, it seemed at the time that the war was going to turn out to be worth it.

Green Day’s greatest hit:

Not going to say this is the best song on the album. Not by a long shot. But it’s still pretty kickin’. The video is kind of cringe-inducing, because of what Billie Joe has become now, but still a solid pop-punk jam.

Most Mixed Emotions on Iraq:

Landing that plane was pretty awesome. But, uh, “Mission Accomplished” is still something that kinda hangs in the air to this day.

Most Mixed Emotions on Green Day:

Yeah they put a bit of “rock opera” into this album. This resulted in some embarrassing music videos. Like, very embarrassing. Cringe-inducing, again. But the songs behind some of these are pretty solid. “Jesus of Suburbia” has some really good parts. The other “operatic” song, Homecoming, might have better highs and better lows.

We’re not even mentioning all the other standout moments from American Idiot. Whatsername is a stellar album closer. Holiday and Boulevard of Broken Dreams are both very good songs. Letterbomb might be one of the tightest and best songs Green Day have ever written.

The Iraq War was (probably) a mistake. American Idiot was and still is a very good album.

Come on guys.


The definitive ranking of Green Day albums:
1. Kerplunk!
2. Dookie
3. American Idiot
4. Nimrod
5. Warning (had a mid-’00s revival among Green Day fans who grew to appreciate Billie Joe’s brief desire to be Elvis Costello)
6. Insomniac
7. 39Smooth
8. 21st Century Breakdown
9. Whatever those other new ones are


This is a bad analogy, featuring Jonathan Chait

Moors. Or Moops, depending on which source document you consult.

It is hard to summarize the liberal response to the right’s bizarre new revisionism except as the kind of stammering, bug-eyed disbelief that occurs when somebody is forced to defend a factual proposition that everybody knows is true. It is exactly as if conservatives are now insisting not just that we must follow the misprint on the card, but that the people who invaded Spain in the eighth century were actually called “the Moops.” I’m sure that if the vast network of right-wing activist organizations were as dedicated to establishing this argument as they were to attacking Obamacare, they could actually pull together an equally strong defense. Maybe there was a document, somewhere, that spelled it “Moops.” Maybe there are complex ambiguities involving the evolution of different letters.

No. It’s as if the Spanish intercepted some letters amongst the gathering Moor army, referring to themselves as Moors, and they assumed the Moors were coming. Then the Moors invaded Spain and built a giant monument that said “Spain: Conquered By The Moops.” When asked, they said “Oh. Yeah, our bad. We meant to say ‘Moors’ but actually we got the stone wrong on that one letter.” And instead of fixing it, they just insisted that it actually said “Moors,” and enacted an edict that said anyone who referred to it as “Moops” wasn’t eligible for tax-financed paella.

This is a bad analogy and I’ve spent far too much time on it.


If this blindsided you you were wearing blinders.

It didn’t even hurt.

On my knees, face cradled in my hands in disbelief moments after Damien Lillard’s shot hit nothing but net, I realized this loss didn’t hurt. Houston didn’t harbor any real championship aspirations; fandom is in some sense an exercise in consciously irrational exuberance, but no one who watched this team thought they’d be able to put together four perfect performances. There were a few weeks of sublime basketball post-All-Star break that lulled us into a sense that maybe this team had found out how to put it all together before coasting into the playoffs, and they’d find that on/off switch again.

Losing to the Blazers is simply the concrete acknowledgement that they played some good basketball this season but don’t actually have that on/off switch. This should just be about managing expectations for Houston. They didn’t have enough shooting, they didn’t have a deep enough bench, they didn’t have enough coaching, and they didn’t have the on-ball defenders to slow a methodical Blazers offense. Those all became clear in the first two games of the series, and the adjustments necessary to fix those are adjustments that need an offseason to make, not in the middle of a playoff series.

The loss sucks, but it was not much more than a culmination of all the errors we’d seen over the course of the season. It hurt less than Utah ‘97, when we all watched Dream’s last go-round. It hurt less than Dallas ‘05, when we thought we were seeing the Yao/McGrady duo take off after going up 2-0 on Dallas’ home floor. And it hurt less than Utah ‘07, when they went up 2-0 only to lose game 7 on their home floor and I broke countless TV remotes wondering why Yao Ming was having such trouble scoring on Mehmet F’n Okur while Tracy McGrady’s heroics went unrewarded because this was supposed to be the year.

It took awhile, but we saw that Dwight Howard is everything we need him to be and more. What is frustrating is that this season - and this series - didn’t really reveal if Dwight Howard and James Harden are an ideal fit together. The Howard/Harden pick-and-roll has been devastatingly effective, but in limited time. Couch psychology is dangerous, but it just seems like either Howard or Harden or both of them don’t particularly like running pick-and-rolls with each other. If I were a just god of basketball, I’d lock them both in a gym all summer and just have them run the play over and over.

If this series was played 100 times, I’d expect the Rockets to win most of them. That’s not to take anything away from the Blazers and it’s not an argument for saying “regress to the mean” and attempt to stick to the status quo. But to treat the patient you have to diagnose correctly. The Rockets outscored the Blazers cumulatively over the series and lost four games to two. Part of that was late-game decisionmaking and coaching. Part of that, I might suspect, is the high variance of reliance on the three-point shot. On a long enough time horizon it all evens out, but if you take an average three-point shooting team that shoots a lot of threes, the lower percentage of three-point shots can make teams prone to struggling when they’re not falling. The Rockets shot 35.8% from deep during the season and 31.8% from deep against the Blazers. (Portland was slightly above average in defending the 3-point shot during the regular season.) We could say “regress to the mean” and the Rockets win this series.

But the point of this first round playoff exit isn’t about the first round playoff exit. Bringing James Harden and Dwight Howard together wasn’t supposed to result in a team that fights through a tough first round and likely gets beaten by better teams in the second or third rounds. The point of Harden and Howard is championship contention. Portland laid bare the most glaring faults of this Rockets team. What we need now is an offseason of addressing those faults and coming back stronger.

This first-round exit is disappointing, but the team was felled by flaws that were obvious all season long. Hopefully Daryl Morey sees that too - and uses this as an important data point for guiding this offseason.

“At the end of my visit to Pediatric Alternatives, I found that I liked Dr. Kenet Lansman. I could tell that she was bright and caring and open-minded, and most impressively, she tried to think creatively about how to keep her patients healthy. She’s right that there is an epidemic of chronic autoimmune illnesses and autism among children, and a mounting body of research suggests that our aggressive pursuit of germs—both in our environment and in the human body—might have something to do with it”

Mother Jones discovers their morally charitable side when profiling an anti-vaccination pediatrician. This is refreshing! Normally, when we encounter people we disagree with, we want to paint them with a brush of moral condemnation. But this throws theory of causality and autonomy out the window.

The anti-vaccine pediatrician is, in my estimation, more morally problematic than most useful idiots in modern society that routinely receive condemnation from the partisan political pundits; but I could be wrong about that, so I’m hesitant to use strong moral language here. Strong moral language inhibits introspection and openness generally.

tl;dr we should all take a chill pill.

“It’s only an “amazing shift,” though, only if you assume that pluralism is only for the truly powerless — that larger religious groups can never be disfavored or pressured by legislation, and that the rights of unpopular minorities are only important when the minority in question is too small to have any influence worth worrying about.”

- Ross Douthat, “Pluralism and Power

This is important. Dominant culture in America has moved and is moving quickly from one of intolerance - on race, on sexuality, on gender, on religion - to one of tolerance. As such, some of the laws that have historically been used to protect minorities from intolerance and discrimination could be used to protect majorities - or dominant, accepted minorities like Catholics - from intolerance and discrimination. 

This quickly gets us into the loop of “should we tolerate the intolerant?”


The best sentence I read in 2013

Perfect description of us cosmopolitan millenials:

We are not relativists, despite our shitty late-’90s/early-aughts liberal arts educations, which only taught us to vote for Obama and write thinkpieces.

From Jay Caspian Kang:


Get Lucky: The Oklahoma City Model


Take four top draft picks on a bottom-feeding team, season with growing pains and bargain-bin veterans, and marinate for three years. That’s the Oklahoma City recipe for a perennial fifty-win contender in the NBA, and one that other franchises explicity wish to duplicate.

It’s turning out to be harder than it looks.

Here’s the thing: teams with a reputation as cellar-dwellers tend to have that reputation for a reason. There have been countless teams that had long runs of top draft picks that weren’t able to create contenders. We may need to coin a term based off of the Cleveland Cavaliers to exemplify when the “Oklahoma City model” goes wrong.

imageCleveland has had a better run of draft picks than Oklahoma City had in building their contender. The Thunder picked at the 2, 3, 4 and 5 spots in the draft over three years. Cleveland has had two #1 overall picks and two #4 overall picks in three years. In Kevin Durant’s fourth year with the Thunder, they won 50 games in a competitive Western Conference and made the playoffs. It’s Kyrie Irving’s fourth year with the Cavaliers, and they sit at 7-13 - which improbably puts them on the playoff bubble in a pathetic Eastern Conference, but doesn’t put them on track to look like a 50-win team any time soon.

Cleveland’s picks have been used on Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett. Irving is a potential superstar who has stagnated, Thompson looked like a bust but has rounded into form, and Waiters and Bennett look like a mess this season. It could be that Cleveland’s youngsters just need a bit more seasoning before becoming playoff material. After all, there’s only one Kevin Durant - a transcendent scorer who almost immediately became one of the best players in the league.

This is actually the fallacy of the Oklahoma City model: there is only one Kevin Durant. The Oklahoma City Model might just be “draft one of the best players in the league” - which everyone already knew was a recipe for success.

The “Oklahoma City Model” for small-market success became a fad because Oklahoma City became successful, but we’ve seen all kinds of models for success over the years. We can look at the Indiana Pacers’ best-in-the-NBA success right now - a team that hasn’t had a draft pick above the 10th slot since 1990 - for a much different “model.” Indiana drafted well with the picks they had, made key trades - Kawhi Leonard-for-George Hill, T.J. Ford-and-change-for-Roy Hibbert and others - and made key veteran signings like David West to build a roster.

NBA general managers are self-interested creatures. It’s easier to explain a few years of losing with “following the Oklahoma City model” than to admit that it’s just plain really hard to build a contender when you don’t have one or more of the best players in the league. Bottoming out and getting a bunch of high draft picks is explained as a strategy with more sophistication to it than just getting lucky on one of the best players. What’s more explained by luck - landing a transcendent player with a top-5 draft pick, or assembling a roster of unheralded mid-rounders and free agents that can become one of the best teams in the league?


"It’s not safe for you in this zoo."

This whole Kanye West interview is fantastic, but this rant in part six is illuminating.

"The way papparazzi talk to me and my family is disrespectful. We bring something of joy to the world. When people hear my music, they have a good time, and I should be respected as such when I walk down the street. Don’t ask me a question about something you saw in the tabloids. Don’t try to antagonize me. Because you know what? It’s not safe for you in this zoo."