King Lear and charismatic leadership

Recently, various highly factionalized media worked their audience into a froth by reporting that New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park” had Julius Caesar represented as Trump. That these media were successful shows people are willing to get outraged on the basis of no or mis-information. Shakespeare’s Caesar is neither a villain nor a tyrant.

And it’s the wrong Shakespeare anyway for a Trump comparison. Shakespeare was deeply ambivalent about what we would now consider democratic discourse (look at how quickly Marc Antony turns the crowd, or Coriolanus’ inability to maintain popularity). But he wasn’t ambivalent about leaders who insist on hyperbolic displays of personal loyalty. They are the source of tragedy.

The truly Shakespearean moment recently was Trump’s cabinet meeting, which he seemed to think would gain him popularity with his base, since it was his entire cabinet expressing perfect loyalty to him. And anyone even a little familiar with Shakespeare immediately thought of the scene in King Lear when Lear demands professions of loyalty. Trump isn’t Caesar; he’s Lear.

Lear’s insistence on loyalty meant that he rejected the person who was speaking the truth to him, and the consequence was tragedy. It isn’t exactly news, at least among people familiar with the history of persuasion and leadership, that leaders who surround themselves with people who make the leader feel great (or who worship the leader) make bad decisions. Ian Kershaw’s elegant Fatal Choices makes the point vividly, showing how leaders like Mussolini, Hitler, or Hirohito skidded into increasingly bad decisions because they treated dissent as disloyalty.

In business schools, this kind of leadership is called “charismatic,” and it is often presented as an unequivocal good—something that is surely making Max Weber (who initially described it in 1916) turn in his grave. Weber identified three sources of power for leaders: tradition, legal, and charismatic, and Hannah Arendt (the scholar of totalitarianism) added a fourth: someone whose authority comes from having demonstrated context-specific knowledge. Weber argued that charismatic leadership is the most volatile.

In business schools, charismatic leadership is praised because it motivates followers to go above and beyond; followers who believe in the leader are less likely to resist. And, while that might seem like an unequivocal good, it’s only good if the leader is leading the institution in a good direction. If the direction is bad, then disaster just happens faster.

Charismatic leadership is a relationship that requires complete acquiescence and submission on the part of the followers. It assumes that there is a limited amount of power available (thus, the more power that others have, the less there is for the leader to have). And so the charismatic leader is threatened by others taking leadership roles, pointing out her errors, or having expertise to which she should submit. It is a relationship of pure hierarchy, simultaneously robust and fragile, because it can withstand an extraordinary amount of disconfirming evidence (that the leader is not actually all that good, does not have the requisite traits, is out of her depth, is making bad decisions) by simply rejecting them; it is fragile, however, insofar as the admission of a serious flaw on the part of the leader destroys the relationship entirely. A leader who relies on legitimacy isn’t weakened by disagreement (and might even be strengthened by it), but a charismatic leader is.

Hence, leaders who rely on legitimacy encourage disagreement and dissent because that leader’s authority is strengthened by the expertise, contributions, and criticism of others, but charismatic leaders insist on loyalty.

Charismatic leadership is praised in many areas because it leads to blind loyalty, and blind loyalty certainly does make an organization that has people working feverishly toward the leaders’ ends. But what if those ends aren’t good?

Whether charismatic leadership is the best model for business is more disputed than best sellers on leadership might lead one to believe. There is no dispute, however, that it’s a model of leadership profoundly at odds with a democratic society. It is deeply authoritarian, since the authority of the leader is the basis of decision-making, and dissent is disloyalty.

Lear demanded oaths of blind loyalty, and, as often happens under those circumstances, the person who was committed to the truth wouldn’t take such an oath. And that person was the hero.

“Just Write!” and the Rhetoric of Self-Help

There is a paradox regarding the large number of scholars who get stalled in writing—and a large number do get stalled at some point (50% of graduate students drop out)—they got far enough to get stalled because, for some long period of time, they were able to write. People who can’t write a second book, or a first one, or a dissertation, are people who wrote well enough and often enough to get to the point that they needed to write a dissertation, first book, second book, grant, and so on. So, what happened?

The advice they’re likely to be given is, “Just write.” And the reason we give that advice (advice I gave for years) is that we have the sense that they’re overthinking things, that, when they sit down to write, they’re thinking about failure, and success, and shame, and all the things that might go wrong, and all the ways what they’re writing might be inadequate, and all the negative reactions they might get for what they’ve written. So, we say, “Just write,” meaning, “Don’t think about those things right now.”

The project of writing may seem overwhelming because existentially risky, and the fear created by all the anxiety and uncertainty is paralyzing. It can seem impossibly complicated, and so we give simple advice because we believe that persuading them to adopt a simpler view of the task ahead will enable them to write something. Once they’ve written something, once they’re unstuck, then they can write something more, and then revise, and then write more. Seeing that they have written will give them the confidence they need to keep writing.

And I think that advice often works, hence the (deserved) success of books like Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day or Destination Dissertation. They simplify the task initially, and present the tasks involved in ways that are more precise than accurate, but with the admirable goal of keeping people moving. Many people find those books useful, and that’s great. But many people don’t, and I think the unhappy consequence of the “you just have to do this” rhetoric is that there is an odd shaming that happens to people for whom that advice doesn’t work. And, while it’s great that it works for a lot of people, there are a lot for whom it doesn’t, and I’m not happy that they feel shamed.

These books have, as Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson have argued, characteristics typical of the self-help genre (“The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books”), especially in that it presents dissertation writing as “a series of linear steps” with “hidden rules” that the author reveals. While I am not as critical of those books, or of the genre of self-help, as Kamler and Thomson, I think their basic point is worth taking seriously: that this advice misleads students because it presents dissertation writing as a set of practices and habits rather than cognitive challenges and developments.

Academic writing is hard because it’s hard. Learning to master the postures, steps, and dances of developing a plausible research question, identifying and mastering appropriate sources, determining necessary kinds of support, managing a potentially sprawling project, and positioning a new or even controversial claim in an existing scholarly conversation—all of that is hard and requires cognitive changes, not just writing practices.

Telling people academic writing “just” requires anything (“just write,” “just write every day,” “just ignore your fears,”) is a polite and sometimes useful fiction. And self-help books’ reliance on simple steps and hidden rules is, I’d suggest, not necessarily or manipulative, but based in the sense that telling people something hard is actually hard can discourage them. If you lie, and thereby motivate them to try doing it, then they might realize that, while hard, it isn’t impossible.

I think the implicit analogy is to something like telling a person who needs to exercise that they should “just get up off the couch.” Telling people that improving their health will be a long and slow process with many setbacks is unlikely to motivate someone to start the process; it makes the goal seem impossible, and unrewarding. Telling someone that getting healthier is simple, and they “just” need to increase their exercise slightly, or reduce portion size slightly, or do one thing differently will at least get them started. Having gotten a little healthier might inspire them to do more, but, even if it doesn’t, they are getting a little better.

But that’s the wrong analogy.

A scholar who is having difficulty writing is not analogous to someone who needs to get up off the couch: it’s a person with a long record of successes as a writer. That is what we (and people who are stuck) so often lose track of when we give the “just write” advice. They are not a person sitting on a couch; they are someone with an exercise practice that has always worked for them in the past and it isn’t working now.

The better analogy, I would suggest, is a sprinter who is now trying to run a marathon. Sprinting has worked for them in the past, and many academics have a writing process that is akin to sprinting—chunks of time in which we do nothing but write, and try to get as much done as quickly as we can. Writing a dissertation or book, on the other hand, is more like running a marathon.

It would be unethical to tell a sprinter who is unable to run a marathon that she should “just run.” She has been running; she’s quite good at it. But the way that she has been running is not working for this new distance. And if she does try to run a marathon the way she has always run short races, she will hurt herself.

My intuition is that people who have trouble writing are people who have always used the sprinting method, and have simply managed to develop the motivational strategies to spring for longer, or collapse from time to time while on the race, and pick themselves up. Often, it seems to me, that motivation relies on panic and negative self-talk—they manage to binge write because otherwise, they tell themselves, they are a failure.

So I’m not saying that “Just write” is bad advice, but that it only works for some people, for people who do find that polite fiction motivating. For others, though, telling them “just write” is exactly like telling a person in a panic attack “just calm down” or someone depressed “just cheer up.”

The “just write” comes from a concern that lack of confidence will paralyze a student. But I think we might be solving the wrong problem.

Part of the problem is the myth of positive thinking, which has taken on an almost magical quality for some people. There is a notion that you should only think positive thoughts, as though thinking negative things brings on bad events. Since thinking clearly about how hard it is to write a book, dissertation, or grant (and, specifically, thinking clearly about how we might have habits or processes that inhibit our success) is thinking about “bad” things, about how things might go wrong or what troubles we might have, the myth of positive thinking says you shouldn’t do it. You should, instead, just imagine success.

This is a myth. It isn’t just a myth, but pernicious, destructive nonsense. A (sometimes secular) descendant of the positive psychology elegantly described by Bowler in Blessed, this is magical thinking pure and simple, and perfectly contrary to what research shows about how positive thinking actually affects motivation.

But here I should be clear. Some people who advocate wishful thinking do so because believe that the only other possibility is wallowing in self-loathing and a sense that the task is impossible, and they believe that telling students that academic writing is hard will necessarily lead to their believing it is impossible. In other words, there is an assumption that there is a binary between thinking only and entirely about positive outcomes or thinking only and entirely about tragic outcomes. The former is empowering and the latter is paralyzing. That narrative is wrong on all three counts—positive thinking is not necessarily enabling, moments of despair are not necessarily disabling, and our attitude toward our own challenges is not usefully described as a binary between pure optimism and pure despair. Left out of that binary is being hopefully strategic: aware of possible failures, mindful of hurdles, with confidence in our resilience as much as in our talents.

As to the first, studies clearly show that refusing to think negative thoughts about possible outcomes is actively harmful, and frequently impairs achievement. That’s important to remember: telling students they shouldn’t think about their own flaws, the challenges ahead of them, and how things might go wrong is not helping them, and it is making it less likely they will do what they need to do.

Gabriele Oettingen’s considerable research shows that (summarized in the very helpful book Rethinking Positive Thinking), while wishful thinking can be useful for maintaining hope in a bad situation or identifying long-term goals, it inhibits action. Fantasizing about how wonderful a dissertation or book will be doesn’t inspire us to write either; for many people, it makes the actual sometimes gritty work so much more unattractive in comparison that it’s impossible to write. The fantasy is far more fun than writing a crummy first draft. Similarly, Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets shows that success depends on acknowledging what has gone wrong and identifying how one might grow and change to get a different outcome in the future.

Similarly, a sense that the task is so hard as to be impossible is not inevitably and necessarily disabling. It is, however, inevitable. It is dishonest to tell students that we never feel that what we’re trying to do can’t be done or isn’t worth doing, because so many of us do. And most of us got (and get) through it. Sometimes it took time, therapy, medication, changing things in our personal lives, changing jobs, changing projects, all of the above. But I don’t know any productive scholar free from times of slogging through the slough of despond.

That sense that we are not up to the task should not be confused with clinical depression, and that is an important point. Attached to the myth of positive thinking is the equally false myth that clinical depression is just an extreme form of negative thinking, and something into which we can allow ourselves to sink through negativity. Clinical depression is a physiological condition that you cannot think yourself into or out of. And acknowledging to our students and colleagues that academic writing sometimes seems difficult, impossible, and/or pointless is not going to magically transmit to them or us a physiological condition. It will not give them clinical depression anymore than it will give them diabetes.

The “just write” advice almost certainly works for some people in some situations, as does the “just write every day” or “just freewrite” or “just start with your thesis” or any of the other practices and rules that begin with “just.” They work for someone somewhere and maybe they work for everyone some of the time, and they always strike me as sensible enough to try (and even advise). But we shouldn’t pretend that they’re magical, and someone “just” needs to do them.

In my experience, academic writing gets easier, but it’s never easy. The hardest writing is probably finishing a dissertation while writing job materials—nothing after that is so hard. But it’s always hard. If we tell students that it’s easy, or that it gets easy, even if we do so with the intention of keeping them moving, we do them a disservice. If they believe us, if they believe that we find it easy, then, when it gets hard, as it necessarily will, they have to conclude that there is something wrong with them. They are unhappily likely to conclude that they have been exposed for the imposter they always worried they were.

Saying the difficulties of academic writing can be solved by “these three tricks” is like telling a depressed person to cheer up or an anxious person to calm down–it works for some people, and good for them, but it doesn’t work for an awful lot of people. Telling a depressed person that being less depressed is complicated isn’t some kind of magically bad curse; it’s an acknowledgement of the complexities of experience. So, the polite fiction that academic writing is easy, and “just” requires certain practices, is magical thinking as useful as the notion that an anxious person just needs to calm down. We need to stop saying it.

Or, at least, we should, when we say just write (like “calm down”), be clear that it’s advice that might work, but also might not. And if “just write” doesn’t work, then we can talk about “just write…something.”

In my experience, people who find the “just write” advice useless find it too abstract. So, I think we need to be clear that scholarly productivity is, for most people, hard, and it’s find that a person finds it hard. And it takes practice, so there are some things a person might “just write”:

  • the methods section;
  • descriptions of an incident, moment in a text, interaction, or some other very, very specific epitome of their problem (Pirsig’s brick in the wall of the opera house);
  • summaries of their secondary materials with a discussion of how each text is and is not sufficient for their research;
  • a collection of data;
  • the threads from one datum to another;
  • a letter to their favorite undergrad teacher about their current research;
  • a description of their anxieties about their project;
  • an imitation of an introduction, abstract, conclusion, or transition paragraph they like written by a junior scholar.

I’m not presenting that list as a magical solution. It would be odd for me to say that simplistic advice is not helpful and then give a list of the five (or seven, or ten) things we “just” have to do to become (or teach others to become) skilled and productive academic writers. What we have to do is acknowledge that the project requires significant and complicated cognitive changes: that, for most of us, scholarly writing is hard because it’s hard. Let’s be honest about that.






Arguments from identity and the easy demagoguery of everyday commenting

I recently had a piece published on Salon, and it was thrilling. the comments quickly skeeved off into the direction of whether “liberals” or “republicans” are better people. That was frustrating.

My argument about demagoguery has several parts:

  1. demagoguery shifts the stasis (as rhetoricians say) from policy arguments to identity arguments, relying on the assumption that all that matters is whether advocates/critics of a policy are ingroup or outgroup.
  2. therefore, in a culture of demagoguery all arguments about policy end up relying on two points: which group is better, and what group an advocate is in—in other words, it’s all identity politics.
  3. so, all arguments end up being deductive arguments from identity.
  4. this part is barely mentioned in either book I’ve done on the issue, but that reasoning on identity is done by homogenizing the outgroup, so if a person seems to be a member of this group, you can attribute to them everything any other member of that group has said or done.

There are other characteristics, but these are the ones that seemed especially important in the comment section on the article.

And here I have to go back to some really old work, and say that I think we remain muddled on how public discourse operates—we flop around among models of expression, deliberation, and purchasing.

Lay theories of public deliberation aren’t expected to be entirely consistent—as social psychologists have noted, we all toggle between naïve realism and skepticism in our everyday lives. But I think there are important consequences of our failing to realize that we flop around among various models of arguing and various models of knowing.

There is a basic premise: major policy decisions shouldn’t be made on the basis of some kind of model of us versus them when we’re talking about a culture that includes us and them. The idea that only group is entitled to determine policy isn’t democratic, sensible, or Christian.

If we want a thriving community (or nation state or world or even club) then we want enough disagreement that we can prevent the problems associated with what is often called groupthink—when a bunch of like-minded and ingroup people agree that what they think and who they are is, obviously, the best.

It’s clearly demonstrated the people have trouble admitting error, and therefore, if we want to make good decisions, we need people who will tell us we’re wrong. Good decisions rely on people contributing from various perspectives—not just people like us.

That’s the deliberative model of public argument: that the point of Congress and state legislatures is that they would consider various points of view, the impacts on all communities, and then come to a decision. If we look at public decision-making from that perspective (what’s often called the deliberative model), then we would ensure that there is diverse representation in deliberative assemblies, such as the state legislature or Congress. (The notion that the best decisions involve various perspectives is a given in successful business decision-making models.)

There is another model: the expressive model. For many people, there is no such thing as persuasion, and public discourse is all about people expressing their opinions (usually their statements of commitments to their group). Public discourse isn’t about deliberation or communal reasoning—it’s a bunch of people shouting in a stadium, and the group that has the people who shout the loudest win. You don’t go into that stadium intending to listen carefully to what other people are shouting in order to come to a new understanding of your own views: you come to shout out the others.

I can’t think of a time when this model of public discourse led to a community coming to a good decision.

The third model is that ideas/policies are products sold just like shampoo. The hope is that the market is rational, and so if a particular shampoo sells the best, it is the best product. This is a problematic model in many ways, not the least of which is that it’s circular. The market is assumed to be rational because it represents what people value, and it’s assumed that people’s values are rational. This is an almost religious belief in that it can’t be supported empirically, and has often been falsified (bubbles). The problem with the market model is three-fold: people buy products on the basis of short-term benefits and inadequate information, whereas policy decisions should be made in light of long-term consequences; second, it makes voters passive, who can whinge about a candidate not being adequately sold (instead of seeing it as being our responsibility to inform ourselves about candidates); finally, if I buy the wrong shampoo, my hair falls out, but if I buy the wrong candidate, my community is harmed.

The activity of market always represents short-term choices, and assessments of “marketability” tend to be about short-term gains. Unless you have a circular argument (the market choice is rational because the market choice is defined as rational—which a surprising amount of people on this issue assume), then the market does not represent the long-term best interest of the people (think bubbles). In addition, the market, by definition, cannot represent the values of those without the resources to participate (future generations, for instance). The market is always the tragedy of the commons.

(You never get a defense of the inherent rationality of the market that isn’t logically circular, doesn’t assume the just world hypothesis, or doesn’t appeal to prosperity gospel.)

While I believe that the deliberative model is best for community decision-making, I think a healthy public sphere has places where each of these models is practiced. It’s fine if someone’s facebook page (or twitter feed) is entirely expressive. But, on the whole, there should be a place where people try to deliberate with one another, or, at least, acknowledge in the abstract that the inclusion of people with them they disagree is valuable. The problem is that people are spending all of their time in expressive public spheres, and making decisions on the basis of group identity.

I was definitely one of the people who thought that the digitally-connected world would be the Habermasian public sphere, and that isn’t how it played out. I think there were moments (in the 80s) when it seemed to be something like what Habermas described—a realm in which argument and not identity mattered. But, what became clear is that identity does matter.

And so here is what I came to believe: in good arguments there are a lot of data. And identity is a datum. But that’s all it is. It isn’t a premise: it’s a datum.

[As an aside, I have to say that sometimes I think that public deliberation could be wonderful were we to understand five points: 1) a premise and datum are not the same thing; 2) don’t put always or never or necessarily into someone else’s argument; 3) treat others as you want to be treated; 4) there isn’t a binary between certainty and sloppy relativism; 5) a claim can be false and/or illogical even if the evidence for the claim is true.}

But, what happens in a lot of public discourse is that people assume that you can deduct the goodness of an argument from the goodness of the person making the argument, and you can make that determination on the basis of cues. That is, if a person says something that, for you, cues that they are a member of a particular group, you can assume that they believe all the things you think members of that group believe. If that particular group is one you share, then you’ll attribute all sorts of wonderful qualities and beliefs to them; if it’s an outgroup for you, then you’ll attribute all sorts of stupid beliefs, bad motives, and bad behavior to them.

That last point is simultaneously simple and complicated. We tend to homogenize the outgroup, and so if an outgroup member says that squirrels are awesome, and another outgroup member says that little dogs are the best, we’ll assume that second person thinks squirrels are awesome. People who are particularly drawn to thinking in terms of us versus them will take mere criticism of the ingroup as sufficient proof that the critic is a member of the outgroup, and will then attribute to that person all the things that are supposed to be true of outgroup members.

This is deductive reasoning—inferring beliefs of individuals from our assumptions about what those people believe. It’s pervasive in toxic publics.

And, no, it isn’t particular to any one “side” of the political spectrum. But, the fact that that question even comes up—who does this more?—is a sign of how uselessly committed to group loyalty our political world has become.

Democracy presumes that there is no single person, or single group, that knows all that is necessary to make good policy decisions. And that means that, while it isn’t necessary that people in a democracy believe that all views are equally valid (or even that all views are valid), it is necessary that we believe that we have something to learn from people with whom we disagree—we cannot delegitimate everyone who disagrees with us and continue to claim that we believe in democracy. (For me, this tendency to dismiss every other point of view as corrupt, servile, or in other ways illegitimate is especially troubling in people who self-identify as democratic socialists—c’mon, folks, it isn’t democratic if it’s a one-party system.) The tendency to insist that only one point of view if legitimate is profoundly anti-democratic—it assumes that the ideal situation is a one-party system. And that’s authoritarianism. And it has never ended well.



Comey’s testimony and identity politics

Comey, being a careful person, documented his deeply problematic meetings with Trump in the moment, and he’s released a statement with all anyone needs to know—Trump used his power to fire Comey in order to try to coerce him into closing down an investigation.

But that isn’t how it will play out in the hearing tomorrow.

For many years now (at least since the rise of Fox News), the GOP Political Correctness Machine has so consistently engaged in projection that you can tell the weakest point of a GOP candidate by noticing what accusations the Fox media (and other water carriers, as Limbaugh called himself) make about their opponents (think about their attack on Kerry for his war record).

For years, they’ve been flinging the accusation of political correctness at their opposition, and it’s a great example of projection.

Originally, the term came from the way that the Stalinist propaganda machine would decide what was the correct line to take on some event: Nazis are evil, Nazis are okay, Nazis are evil. To be politically correct meant that you were in line with what the higher-ups said was the right line to take on a political issue. And it was even better if you could pivot quickly.

To be politically correct means that you don’t have principles that operate across groups (adultery is bad whether it’s a GOP, Libertarian, Dem, Green), but that you know what your beliefs are supposed to be. And the GOP is all about political correctness in that sense—that’s why they accuse others of it so often. Michelle Obama dishonored the office of First Lady by wearing a sleeveless dress—that was presented as a principle. But, that they hadn’t objected to Nancy Reagan’s sleeveless dresses, nor the current First Lady’s problematic sartorial choices long ago shows it was never about the principle. They pivoted to condemn Obama and then pivoted again not to condemn Trump.

So, what will be the politically correct thing to say about Comey?

While large numbers of people across the political spectrum make policy judgments on the basis of their perceptions of identity (if “good” people support a policy, it must be a “good” policy), loyalty to the group is more a value among people who self-identify as conservative (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind). Authoritarians also tend to reason from ingroup membership, and authoritarians are more likely self-identify as conservative (Hetherington and Weiler’s Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics has a good summary of the research on this; so does John Jost’s work in political psychology).

In other words, the GOP Political Correctness Machine has also been engaged in projection in its making one of the politically correct things to say that lefties engage in identity politics. They’re all about identity politics.

So, what we can expect is that the politically correct Congresscritters will attack Comey’s identity. They’ll dodge any of his claims of what happened in favor of questions that enable them to present him as a bad person, especially as one disloyal to GOP values.

Of course the head of the FBI should not be a loyal Republican. The very same people who will condemn him for that disloyalty would fling themselves around in outrage were a Congress with a Dem majority and/or President to insist that he be loyal to Dems.

So, let’s be clear: this isn’t about a principle that operates across groups. This is purely and simply about factional politics. This is about loyalty only being a value when it’s a loyalty to their group.

It will be identity politics.




Charismatic leadership and this last week

I am hopeful about the last week, and that might seem odd.

Train wrecks in public deliberation happen when political issues become factional ones, so that decisions are weighed entirely in terms of whether the ingroup or outgroup wins. And decisions that hurt the outgroup, even if they hurt the ingroup more, are seen as wins. In those moments, it’s common for some narcissist to arise and become the object of a charismatic leadership relationship.

Under those circumstances, the leader’s claims about policies are irrelevant—all that matters are his (almost always) performances of decisive leadership. It doesn’t matter whether his decisions turn out to be right—what matters is that they were decisive. In these circumstances, rejecting expert advice, refusing to take time to come to a decision, refusing to listen to anyone who disagrees, turning away from disconfirming evidence—all those things contribute to the sense that the leader is decisive, and therefore good.

Of course, as far as actual evidence about that kind of leadership, it’s a disaster. ( Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mussolini—all got their power from charismatic leadership. Not all people who draw power from the charismatic leadership are disasters for their countries (or regions) but everyone who only draws power from charismatic leadership is.

Here’s the difference. Every effective leader in the media-dominated world must be charismatic. But having charisma, and drawing power exclusively from charismatic leadership are not points on a continuum—they are orthogonal (despite what writing on leadership says). A charismatic leader is one who’s power comes entirely from his (again, almost always his) presenting himself as supernaturally wise and powerful and therefore above the normal standards of fairness, consistency, or reason. The charismatic leader being inconsistent, being unable to give reasons, violating all promises—all those things increase his power.

So, how do you know if a charismatic leader is following bad policies? You don’t. You can’t. That he appears to be following risky and unwise policies enhances his positions as a charismatic leader, and calls on you to demonstrate your commitment to him by continuing to believe him despite his engaging in policies all the experts say is wrong, that contradict what he said he’d do, and that might seem ill-considered. You must like that he is playing from the gut.

Once someone has entered in the charismatic leadership relationship, there is no way to admit that he is a shitty leader without your admitting that you’re a shitty judge of character. Charismatic leadership is inherently toxic in that it connects the followers sense of self-worth to the possibly arbitrary policy agenda of the person they have decided really represents them.

In really nasty situations—ones in which demagoguery has become the norm for political discourse–, than all the ambitious political figures try to enact charismatic leadership. Anyone who doesn’t is seen as not “Presidential” (aka, media coverage of the 2016 Presidential election). One problem we have to admit is that the dominant media love themselves some charismatic leadership—it’s great for ratings.

Communities in which charismatic leadership is the dominant relationship between voters and a leader don’t generally end well. They usually end up in an unnecessary war (the Sicilian Expedition, Napoleonic wars, or WWII) if there is a single leader who is mastering all the available energy. If it’s a situation with a lot of rhetors drawing power from the charismatic leadership relationship you might have tremendous cultural commitment to an obviously unwise policy (the US commitment to slavery and, later, segregation, or current homophobic policies).

Trump is in the former category. He is not a person to give up power, and he doesn’t play well with others (and that’s what his base likes about him). He has already shown that he will enact policies that harm his base, and they have shown they don’t care. This isn’t about some kind of rational commitment on their part to his policy agenda. You can tell that because, if you ask them, they say, BUT THE DEMS DID SOMETHING. This isn’t about policies—this is about being on the winning side.

That’s an interestingly irrational argument. Let’s say that the question is whether Trump fired Comey because Comey was pursuing Trump’s reliance on Russia’s having interfered with the election. True believers will say, THIS DEM FIRED SOMEONE. That’s completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if Clinton or Obama engaged in human sacrifice at every full moon and therefore fired someone. For Trump true believers, the question (every question) is an opportunity to prove that Trump is better than others, and so any bad (even if irrelevant) action on the part of THEM is proof that he is good.

And so they don’t see that doesn’t answer the question at all. Clinton might have kicked puppies and fired someone, and that’s actually irrelevant to whether Trump fired Comey because Comey was going to expose Trump’s reliance on Russia having interfered with the election. Both could be true.

In a charismatic leadership relationship, the followers don’t care if their leader did something bad; they only care whether (in some weird calculus in their minds) their leader can be positioned as better than the other.

And that’s how charismatic leaders screw over their followers. And they always do. Trump has done it faster than most, and his followers have shown themselves to be the most charismatic followers ever since they haven’t balked. He said he would release his returns, and didn’t. He said he would jail Hillary, and he didn’t. He said Obama’s birth certificate was an issue, and then he said it wasn’t. He said he would rid the government of lobbyists, and he filled his administration with them. He said he would end corruption, and he and his family are explicitly using his position to profit them more. He said he didn’t fire Comey because of Russia, and he said he did.

And his base stands by him.

They were thrown under the bus long ago, and there is no circumstance under which they will admit that. And you know that because, those of you with them in your FB feed know that they don’t even try to defend him. They say, BUT THE DEMS….

And they can’t defend what he’s done in terms of what he said he’d do, or what they said he’d do. They can’t only say his team is better than that team.

So, how do we get out of it?

Unhappily, one way is war. The charismatic leader (again, not the leader who is charismatic, but the leader whose power comes entirely from the charismatic relationship) leads people into a stupid war (and, given enough power, they always do) and it’s a disaster (because leaders who depend entirely on charismatic leadership are disastrous in war). The war is a disaster, and many people (not all) decide that was bad. Unfortunately, they generally either say the leader wasn’t wrong, or they pretend they never supported the guy in the first place.

Another is that the leader is representing a minority group, and gets shut down by the legal or traditional authorities (the other two sources of power that Weber identified). That’s what happened with the various rhetors who tried to play charistmatic leadership on behalf of white supremacy in the US South. The Supreme Court shut them down.

We have a Supreme Court that has a majority that is fine with authoritarianism, so that will not play well for democracy.

One of the premises of charismatic leadership is that normal rules of fairness don’t apply. The narrative is that the ingroup has been SO victimized by all these fairness rules, or innovation has been SO hampered by all these rules about how to treat labor, not being able to destroy the environment, you can’t scam investors, and “political correctness” that means you can’t just buy your way into the policies you want! The whole notion that balancing innovation and fairness might involve complicated compromises can be rejected in favor of all the decisions being thrown into the lap of the charismatic leader whose judgment will instantly solve the dilemma. In other words, decisions are complicated—a good leader sees the instantly obvious answer. (Notice that Trump has backtracked even on this, without any fallout from his base.)

Short of a disastrous war that shows the leader wrong (and even that doesn’t always workd), the best way to undercut charismatic leadership is for ingroup rhetors to condemn the leader on procedural or policy grounds. That is, while outgroup rhetors should condemn the leader, it won’t work for too long because one of the first acts of the charismatic leader is to shut down or marginalize that criticism—ingroup members never hear it.

Trump has Fox and the GOP Noise Machine on his side. And the major argument that those sources make is that their listeners shouldn’t listen to any potentially disconfirming information. And you know how well it works. You all have friends or family members who repeat talking points from biased sources but who won’t look at anything that might disagree with them on the grounds that those sources must be biased.

They don’t care about biased sources—that’s all they listen to, read, or watch. The like biased sources.

They only object to sources that might complicate their biases. That’s important to note, as people can start to flip when they realize that they’re being suckered. And Fox suckers them. If Fox really were telling them the truth, then there’d be no harm in looking at other information. The more that Fox tries to tell people not to look at other sources, the more it’s acknowledging its version of the “truth” can’t withstand actual analysis of evidence.

Fox isn’t conservative. It has no coherent political philosophy other than being GOP (which, like the Dems, has flopped all over the place on policy). There are conservatives, and they’re beginning to fall away from Trump, and that gives me hope.

Oddly enough, what also gives me hope is that Trump is overplaying his hand. What sometimes undoes a charismatic leader is that his own belief in himself means that he doesn’t really believe he can permanently alienate any group, and so he just does whatever he wants thinking he can charm or bluff people back into his entourage regardless of his having screwed them over.

So, there are two hopeful signs in the last week. First, Trump has a problem is that many of the people on whom he relies hate him, and feel used by him. (
And that number seems to be increasing. Trump, for all his ability to generate extraordinary public loyalty, doesn’t seem to have much ability to generate personal loyalty, and he never has.

That makes the actively bizarre relationship of him and his First Lady interesting. There has never been a First Lady who has signalled so much animosity toward her husband, and he has only one daughter who can manage to show public affection to him. It doesn’t matter because it shows he’s a bad person or blah blah blah. It matters because it shows that Trump, who will thrown anyone under the bus, has managed to gather around him people with his same ethics. That’s a good thing for democracy. When the time comes that it looks as though spilling the beans on him is a good choice, there will be many people willing to do it.

The second hopeful sign is that outlets like The Economist, Forbes, and Wall Street Journal are publishing scathing articles about his incompetence. Neoliberal free-market fetishists will put up with anything other than random incompetence. (They’ll even tolerate strategic incompetence, such as the Bush Administration.)

But here is one more unhappy point. What does in people like Trump is overreach. And so, at best, we have months of his continuing to behave badly, the GOP Propaganda Machine spinning it as fine, and the most of the GOP political figures selling their soul to Trump penny by penny. And they will try to consolidate their power (as every authoritarian government does) through voter suppression.

So, this is all about 2018, and every reasonable person voting against any figure who has supported Trump.

Blue lies matter

There is an odd moment in the description of the dinner that fired-FBI Director James Comey and Donald Trump had at the White House in January: “As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies.” (

Or, in other words, Trump wanted Comey to talk about how wonderful and popular Trump is. And I want to know which rallies.

That last point matters because some of the rallies weren’t all that well-attended, including the most famous: the inauguration. Did they talk about the crowd at the inauguration? Trump has had a lot of trouble letting go of his lie about the crowd size, and he was, by all accounts, testing the loyalty of Comey that evening. Comey apparently thinks he failed the loyalty test because he wouldn’t explicitly pledge his loyalty to Trump, but I think the explicit request for a loyalty pledge came about because Comey had already failed the first loyalty test. And it’s a test most GOP political figures and all of his supporters are passing with ease, and that should worry us: it’s whether they will take Trump’s lies, and make them what are called “blue lies.”

“Blue lies” is the term some social psychologists use for what they call “pro-social lies”—that is, lies that help maintain a flattering narrative or sense of identity about the ingroup. They’re the group equivalent of “white” lies (“Of course you don’t look fat in that dress!”) And, like a lot of “white” lies, they can be inconsequential—we might decide to tell a person she gave a great speech even if she didn’t simply because the speech is over and there’s nothing she can do about it anyway. Or we might tell a friend that the ex who dumped him was a total jerk anyway, and a complete fool, and our friend is completely in the right. A “blue” lie is a kid on a team saying that they lost just because the ref was out to get them, or that they actually played really well, or it’s members of a choir telling one another they did a great job even though no one got within a yard of the same key.

The inauguration had the best attendance of any inauguration; Trump didn’t (and did) fire Comey over the Russian investigation; Comey promised Trump three times he wasn’t under investigation; there were huge numbers of votes illegally cast by non-citizens; Trump hasn’t had (and has had) financial dealings with Russia—all of those are being handled as blue lies by politicians and media figures who propagate GOP talking points. And that’s troubling, because it means that lies that function almost exclusively to satisfy Trump’s ego are being given the powerful social force typically given to blue lies.

Social psychologists call these lies “pro-social” because, supposedly, they benefit the social group. But, as is clear from the white and blue lies mentioned above, that isn’t necessarily their consequence. We don’t necessarily tell a white lie because we don’t want to hurt someone—sometimes the lie will hurt them a lot in the long run, and we know it—but because we don’t want to hurt their ego right now, largely because we don’t want the conflict or drama that might ensue.

For instance, if a dress really is unflattering, and the person has a chance to change it, then the kind thing to do is to tell them—ideally, in an affirming way. If the person is going to give the speech again, or might need to give other speeches, then it might be helpful for someone to pass along some constructive criticism. If our friend keeps getting dumped because he’s doing something toxic or destructive in a relationship, such as always feeling like a victim, then lying about the situation and encouraging him to feel even more victimized is not helping. That isn’t to say that people have to tell the truth right here and now, or that everyone has to. The most helpful strategy might be to be comforting in the moment, and later having a more honest conversation. But it is saying that white lies prevent deliberation about an incident. It might be fine to prevent deliberation at that moment because it will happen elsewhere, or it might be that deliberation isn’t really necessary (the dress is a bridesmaid dress your friend must wear, and there’s no way to make it more flattering).

A parent might lie to a child about how well a game went, knowing that the coach will be more honest, and team members might similarly lie to one another without any particular harm for similar reasons. But, if there is no one to tell the truth, and if the lying will ensure that the friend will continue to get dumped, the team will continue to lose, the person will continue to make bad speeches that are bad in the same way, then the lies are harmful. If all or most of our information about something is blue or white lies, then we can’t deliberate effectively enough to make different choices in the future.

One of the characteristics I noticed in train wrecks in public deliberation was the prevalence of blue lies. It seems to me that these lies functioned in three ways (sometimes all three at once).

First, and most obviously, the lies that people told and shared helped them feel better about their group, often by reconciling some kind of cognitive dissonance, rationalizing a poor choice in the past, or excusing a decision to which they were already committed (e.g,. the Civil War was not about slavery, Germany lost WWI because of a Jewish stab in the back when it was just about to win). And, after a while, people forget that these are group-affirming polite fictions, and only pay attention to their power to affirm the group.

Second, these lies came to constitute group identity, so that being willing to commit to them in public came to serve as a signal of group identity and loyalty. You show that you are a true Chesterian by insisting that bunnies are never fluffy. If you reject that belief, then your identity as a Chesterian is suspect—these lies are constitutive of group identity.

In the antebellum slave states, you weren’t a “Southerner” unless you supported slavery (which explains the bizarre usage still sometimes in action, when people use “Southerner” and “supporter of slavery” synonymously, as though the millions of people living in the south who objected to slavery didn’t exist). For the purpose of showing ingroup membership and loyalty, it’s actively helpful for the statements to be obviously untrue or easily falsifiable. For instance, in the antebellum era, one blue lie was that slaveholders didn’t rape slaves—that was not just false, but obviously so, and yet it was a falsehood supported through threats of violence; you simply did not mention it. Now, it’s a point of loyalty in some circles to insist on the blue lie that the Civil War was not about slavery. That’s an easily falsified claim (simply looking at pro-secession rhetoric or statements causes shows that the CSA repeatedly identified their main motive as preserving slavery) and I have often found that people who make the statement refuse to look at the pro-secession rhetoric. Their insistence on the “true” causes isn’t something they’re willing to reconsider, and they know they’d have to if they looked at the evidence. They are more concerned with demonstrating loyalty to their group than thinking about whether the group might have screwed up.

And that brings up the third function of these lies. As time goes on, people often forget that the blue lies were lies (although, as mentioned above about the pro-secession rhetoric, their aversion to looking at possibly disconfirming evidence suggests to me that they know it deep in their heart of hearts). The ability of the ingroup to get its lies to become the truth for a larger group becomes an important demonstration of power. It is pleasurable simply because it is simultaneously a demonstration of power and an effective threat. “The Civil War was not about slavery” was one of those lies that, told initially by people who had, until after they lost, insisted it was about slavery; their ability to get that lie into the official histories of the event showed their power. Kenneth Greenberg (Honor and Slavery) tells an amazing story of a slaveholder who knowingly falsely accused a slave of having stolen something. He whipped the slave till the slave confessed. Then whipped the slave back into denial, and back into confession. It never anything to do with the theft—it had to do with the slaveholder’s demonstration that he controlled what could and couldn’t be said. Like the villain O’Brien’s forcing Winston Smith into saying that two plus two is five, this ability to force others into acquiescing on a blue lie is a consequence and demonstration of power.

(For some people, and this is an important point: it is the pleasure in having power.)

For the first function—making a group feel better about their past poor decisions or mistakes—the content of the lie matters, but it doesn’t for the other two. The lies don’t have to be useful lies, or, more accurately, may be most useful when the content of them is pretty nearly arbitrary. In fact, they function better as demonstrations of loyalty and power when the lies flip back and forth.

Of course, under those circumstances, they don’t function at all as useful bases for policy decisions. For instance, one of the blue lies during the buildup to the Iraq invasion was that the invasion was supported by the majority of the world’s powers and another was that only the US and UK had the balls to take on the invasion. Both of those were blue lines insofar as they were pro-Bush Administration and the GOP, and they were put forward by the same people, and they prevented even an intra-GOP debate over the need and solvency of the invasion plan. If everyone agreed we were justified, then we didn’t need to worry about whether the invasion would further alienate various Middle Eastern countries (or countries in general). We didn’t need to have a foreign policy oriented toward regaining goodwill. If, however, we were relatively isolated in our sense that the war was justified and necessary, then regaining goodwill was crucial to be able to benefit from even a successful deposing of Saddam Hussein. Those two different lies implied two different policy directions. Since the pro-invasion rhetors wouldn’t consistently hold to one or the other, there was no possibility of developing a plan that would respond to either contingency.

Similarly, it was common for proslavery rhetors to insist (sometimes in the same document) that slavery was eternal, and slavery would die out on its own. Both of those were dicta in the proslavery statement of creed, and each of those implied different policies for slave states as far as the long term. And neither could be debated, and therefore there couldn’t be a plan that would manage either contingency.

Thus, blue lies prohibit deliberation, and that’s probably why they’re associated with train wrecks. Blue lies rationalize precisely the decisions that got communities into bad situations in the first place (slaves love slavery! segregation is required by Christianity! everyone looks on the US as a liberator!).  In the case of the contradictory blue lies (slaves love slavery, slaves are always about to engage in race war) they prevent a community from looking carefully at those contradictory premises, and so they enable the community to recommit to a bad policy (e.g., the war on drugs).  The blue lie that we could have won in Vietnam if the liberal press hadn’t weakened our will was particularly promoted in the same group that agitated for invading Iraq—because they believed the US could have succeeded, the most important disconfirming example for their policy was simply renarrated.

So, blue lines increase ingroup loyalty, and they enable ingroup ideological policing, and they tank deliberation. That’s bad enough. But what’s happening with Trump’s lies is even worse than that. It’s the way that Trump’s lies are becoming blue lies for the GOP and its propagandists.

The blue lies mentioned above made a large group feel better, as in the lie that we were about to win Vietnam, which is often a sincere gesture to avoid dishonoring those who died or were severely wounded in the conflict; it functions to remove a stain from America and America’s military. The blue lies about slaves loving slavery functioned to make the entire class of supporters of slavery feel better about themselves and to demonstrate their informational power. That Germany could have won were it not for the Jewish press was comforting for the large number of Germans who felt shamed by its loss in WWI.

Trump’s lies don’t help a group. They are entirely about his ego, his achievements, and his ability to whip people to confession and denial and back. They are tests of his power over others, and their willingness to submit to whatever he wants to say at the moment. Loyalty to him is loyalty to the lies he tells himself. They don’t benefit others, except to the extent that those others see themselves as entirely dependent and submissive to him and his truth.

Trump’s lies demonstrate his ability to get anyone, even the GOP and media outlets that previously condemned him, to change their version of events at his whim. And it’s working. Republicans continue to support him, despite his having broken so many promises that he has resorted to scrubbing away evidence he ever made them.

I don’t know whether he’s conscious of that, and I don’t care. What matters is that that lies that have become blue lies for the GOP and major media are lies that function primarily (perhaps only) to make him feel better about himself, to get others to demonstrate loyalty to him, and to demonstrate his own power.

What matters is that, for whatever reason, the GOP and its propagandists have stopped flirting with authoritarianism. This is authoritarianism.


Violence and rhetoric

I have a PhD in Rhetoric. I have several times ended up running a composition program, which meant managing 20-60 people, and I now direct a thriving writing center, and that means managing a staff of about 100. I have never had a management class. I have never had training in what to do when your staff is worried they might be killed on the way to work.

And this is now my concern.


There were a lot of requirements for my getting a PhD in Rhetoric. I had to take six courses in the history of rhetoric, another six or so classes in various things (including an entire course on Victorian novels), pass a 90 minute oral exam that involved being able to describe in detail such thrilling authors as Geoffrey of Vinsauf or Pierre de la Ramee (Petrus Ramus to the Latinophiles among you), achieve translation fluency in two languages (at least one a “hard” language), and write a dissertation (about 50k words on a topic).

And, from that training, I went on to management positions. Along the way, I have tried to pick up skills involving performance management, giving useful criticism, onboarding, developing a performance improvement plan. But, let’s be blunt, achieving a translation fluency of German has not been something on which I’ve often drawn when trying to figure out how to fire someone, and so my training was less than ideal. Since most of my current staff is undergraduates, and I only manage them indirectly (I spend most of my time running around the university trying to persuade supportive but fiscally-strapped administrators to give us money), my current management style is mostly to help the people involved in direct administration to be as effective as they can. And I try to get more money. I’m not claiming to be an ideal manager, but I am saying I am giving it my best effort.

Several years ago, an undergraduate committed suicide in the main library on my campus. Since he used a gun, and since there was much confusion, that incident involved a lot of my day locked down in my office in a building that was rumored to have an active shooter (it didn’t). I was behind a 1950s desk that was up against a metal filing cabinet filled with papers and a metal double-walled mail chute. I spent the time cleaning out my files and updating Facebook because friends were worried. I was willing to grant that there might be an active shooter, but, other than working to get some undergrads in the hallway into a safe space, I was satisfied with my safety and so wasn’t especially worried.

Today there was a stabbing attack that was fairly random, several hundred feet from where I was, but it was in a space through my employees walk. And so I may not sleep.

I have never been trained for management, but I like to think I have done a lot to rectify that because I can see the value in giving useful feedback, knowing how to write an ask, making sure timesheets are correct. This year I have had to find out what to do if ICE comes to my workplace and tries to drag off a student or employee, and now I have to get more training on what to do with a staff that can reasonably be worried about their safety while walking through the center of a college campus.

This isn’t about whether guns should or shouldn’t be allowed on campus. This should not be another opportunity for people with serious mental health issues to rationalize their not getting help by yodelling false flag. This certainly shouldn’t be another salvo in the war as to whether they are better than us. It isn’t about whether the assailant is a person of color, or mentally ill, or a member of them.

When this kind of act happens, the impulse is to identify the group membership of the assailant, all in service of insisting that this incident proves that they are the cause of all evil. He’s a dem, or Muslim, or white, or not white, or conservative, or Christian. His having done this things proves that dems, Muslims, whites, non whites, conservatives, or Christians, or whatever are evil.

That kind of rhetoric, demagoguery really, doesn’t help. It’s the problem. He is a consequence of that kind of rhetoric. I don’t know anything about the assailant, but I’ll guess mentally ill. And I’ll guess that he has been hanging out in an informational enclave that is full of rhetoric about how evil THEY are, and how WE are in danger of extermination. Perhaps the people promoting that rhetoric meant it metaphorically, perhaps they didn’t think much about what exactly they meant, and they just wanted to get more clicks, viewers, or ad revenues. Perhaps they meant it.

But, perhaps he only consumed mainstream media. Is that really so different? How far does one have to go in mainstream media to find hyperbolic claims about a war on the ingroup? Whether or not he was hearing voices in his head, he could have heard voices in the media telling him that some group was trying to exterminate his kind. He certainly wouldn’t have to go far to find rhetoric saying that we are in a war against them, and the only solution is to exterminate them. And so, perhaps, he did.

That might not be what happened in this case, but it might be. It certainly is what did happen when Jim Adkisson shot up a Unitarian Church, or when Dylann Roof shot up a black church. We have an awful lot of media (including mainstream media like Fox) that are all “they’re trying to kill us” all the time. And that has to have a consequence.

Yet, instead of the media deeply invested (and profiting from) their rhetoric of “THERE IS A WAR AGAINST US” having to rethink their implicit promotion of violence, I have to think about what to do tomorrow to make my staff concentrate on their jobs when we all now know that they might have been killed today.



A crank theory about individualism as an epistemology

It’s striking to me that a certain sort of person will blissfully reject disconfirming scholarship or expertise on the grounds that it appears to be contradicted by a single experience of theirs. That same sort of person will, if you make an explicit generalization (“most people in Europe are multilingual”), consider your point refuted if they give you a single example (“my cousin Terry only speaks English”). I say disconfirming because these same people don’t do this if the scholarship or generalization confirms what they believe. These people tend to make decisions entirely on the basis of their personal experience, and the experiences of their friends. And, it seems to me, they’re singularly prone to getting scammed, following harmful health fads (such as ephedra), misunderstanding the argument about vaccines, denying climate change. I’ve watched people (and sometimes myself) try to persuade them with studies, citations, and expert opinion, and it doesn’t work. And we aren’t trying (as they often think) to persuade them that they didn’t have the experience they did, or that what they’re claiming happened never happened, but just that their experience isn’t the end of the argument. Yet we get nowhere.

I’m not opposed to arguing from personal experience, or bringing in personal experience when assessing other kinds of data—this whole piece is based in personal experience. I don’t think experts are always right, nor that common sense is necessarily wrong. I think we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of which is right and which is wrong, as though it’s a binary. I think one of the reasons that we have problems with arguments about vaccinations and climate change is that this isn’t argument about claims (is this claim good or bad) but about epistemology. I think that people who value a certain model of identity (that an authentic individual is a person of certainty and clarity) tend to value a highly individualized version naïve realism (the notion that the truth about any situation is always easily obvious to a person of good sense and few prejudices).

If that’s right, then we need to stop arguing about what studies say, and we need to argue about epistemology, and the way a lot of scientists argue (a binary of naïve realism or rampant subjectivism) is just making it all worse.

Why Christians should not endorse the “sincerely held religious belief” standard…

….unless they’re racists who wish we hadn’t ended segregation.

It has become a talking point in certain circles that there should not be restrictions on what people with “sincerely held religious beliefs” can do, even if they’re governmental employees. If it’s your sincerely held religious belief that, for instance, homosexuality is wrong, you should not be “forced” to bake a cake for a gay marriage, or, as a government employee, sign a marriage certificate for such a marriage. This is presented as a fairness and tolerance argument.

It seems to be tolerant because you’re allowing people to act on “sincerely held” religious beliefs. I think the major political figures know what they’re doing (they don’t mean to allow all people to act on those beliefs), but I think a lot of reasonable people look at this as a way to be respectful and tolerant. What those people don’t know is that this is an argument for segregation. It’s also an argument for shariah law.

What people don’t understand is that the most appalling things in our history, such as slavery, genocide of Native Americans, and segregation, were all enacted by people who sincerely believed they were commanded by Scripture to do those things. People who think “sincerely held religious” beliefs won’t lead to awful things don’t know about groups like Christian Identity, who argue for appalling racist policies on the grounds of sincerely held religious beliefs.

I think it’s important to look carefully at just how bad that “sincerely held” standard is.


Here’s why it seems to be reasonable: it looks like it’s fair. It isn’t saying “my religion is good and yours is bad” (it actually is, but that’s below); it seems to be tolerant of all religions, so it’s tolerant.

But let’s stop here for a second.

This argument is assuming that people who act on “non-religious” values don’t deserve the same consideration as people who claim a religious belief. So, the very premise of this argument is that people who are religious should be treated better than non-religious people. It’s an explicit rejection of fairness across groups—religious people are saying that, because we’re religious, we should treat nonreligious people in a way we wouldn’t want to be treated.

Or, in other words, although we’re claiming to be religious, we aren’t claiming to follow Christ. I’ll come back to that.

The fairness issue gets even uglier when you look at how its advocates behave when confronted with religions other than theirs.

This policy is being sold as a tolerant and respectful thing to do, and it’s framed entirely in terms of liberty. And, therefore perfectly reasonable people, who don’t happen to pay a lot of attention to the history of religious discrimination in our country, and who are wickedly (sometimes I think deliberately) misinformed about the history of segregation, think it’s tolerant, respectful, reasonable, and fair.

It isn’t tolerant, respectful, reasonable, or about liberty. And it is nowhere near fair. It’s about the government giving members of one religion the ability to treat others in a way they would never tolerate. It’s about privileging one political/religious agenda.
Here’s simply one point. I work in a state where I cannot ban guns from my classroom, even were I Quaker or Amish. The “sincerely held religious belief” of Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists never come into play here. They have to pay taxes for war, after all. I’m religiously opposed to the Death Penalty, but I have to pay for it, and I’m struck from juries because I don’t believe in it. If that last thing isn’t religious discrimination, I don’t know what is–I am banned from being on a jury for murder trials because of my religion. My religion says that homosexual marriages are marriages; people claiming religious freedom haven’t been staying up nights worrying about the fact that they’ve denied me that religious freedom for years. That isn’t snark—that’s an important point. If something is a principle as opposed to a useful argument to get your way then you stand by that principle even if it makes something happen that you don’t want to happen.

So, when was the last time that the people now claiming to support religious freedom supported the freedom of a religion with which they disagreed? How hard did they argue for Quakers?

“Conservative Christians” want Kim Davis, as a government employee, to be able to do only those things in her job that fit with her interpretation of her religion, but they don’t want pacifists to be able to ban guns from their classrooms. Were the defenders of Kim Davis acting on the principle of “government employees should not be required to act against their sincerely held religious beliefs,” then they would include all religious beliefs in their legislation. In fact, if you look, they specify gay marriage. So, this isn’t about religious freedom, this is about gay marriage.

That means that this isn’t about the principle of religious freedom, but about one kind of person of faith getting privileged treatment. This is not even a little about fairness.

I think that a lot of the people I see (and read) repeating the “religious freedom” point just don’t know a lot of people of different religions, and so they don’t imagine things from those points of view. They don’t even know much about Christianity. They don’t know, for instance, that my commitment to marriage equality is a religious belief.

Allowing someone like Kim Davis to refuse to allow certain kinds of marriages means my government is violating my sincerely held religious beliefs. Passing a law that requires guns in classrooms violates the sincerely held religious beliefs of many teachers. Ending segregation violated the sincerely held religious beliefs of many Christians.

Many political figures support the “freedom” of a teacher to lead prayer until the moment they imagine that teacher being Muslim. It’s fine if someone on the street fails to think that way, but when political figures with considerable power think that way, then they are either failing in the major job responsibility they have (to think from various perspectives about policies they support), or they’re engaged in strategic misnaming. They never meant religious freedom—they meant the freedom for people like them to force their religion on others; they meant theocracy.

And I think it’s the second because, so often, when people point out that the “right” they are promoting would have to be extended to Muslims, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, major figures suddenly argue that the US is and must always be a “Christian” country. There’s a longer argument there, but here I’ll just mention that the argument they make for that case is internally inconsistent (they don’t use terms like “founders” or “Christian” consistently) and contradicted by the historical record.

Here’s simply one example. People with access to google will sometimes argue that the government should promote the celebration of Christmas because the Founders were Christian. And those same people sometimes include the seventeenth century New England Puritans in their definition of “founder.” But the New England Puritans weren’t the first people to settle what would later become the US, they weren’t the first Europeans to do so, they weren’t the first Europeans to settle what would later become the thirteen colonies, they weren’t even the first English to settle what would later become the thirteen colonies, and they prohibited the celebration of Christmas.

So, really, it’s a group of people arguing (badly) that the government should promote their political agenda.

Well, okay, that’s what everyone does. The difference is that this group is pretending that their political agenda is the only sincerely held religious one. They aren’t arguing for fairness across religious beliefs; they’re pretending only their religion counts. And they don’t even know the history of their religion.

There are two problems with that argument. One I’ll mention now, and the other I’ll get to later. The one I’ll mention now is simply this: let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Don’t lie. If you want to argue for theocracy, go for it. But don’t argue for theocracy under the cover of religious freedom. The two are opposites.

It is a hobby horse of mine that we teach the history of civil rights movements in the US so badly, and this is an example of why it matters. Everyone loves the people who engaged in the Greensboro sit-in, but they don’t realize that was a private property (Woolworth’s). If you think “sincerely held religious belief” should be sufficient grounds for a private business refusing service, then you endorse segregation. If SCOTUS thought the way you think they should, we would still have race-based segregation.

That’s what segregation was—it was a practice defended by appeals to religion. You can see this in the major arguments for segregation, such as Theodore Bilbo’s Take Your Choice, texts going back to defenses of slavery (it was rare for someone to defend segregation and not slavery), and the numerous pro-segregation sermons and doctrinal statements (Haynes’ Curse of Noah traces out the importance of Genesis IX in both slavery and segregation).

Take, for example, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, a SCOTUS case in which an owner of a drive-in barbeque place argued that it was his right to refuse to serve nonwhites. He said he had that right because the federal law didn’t apply to him (a technical issue easily solved—it did), property rights (another easily solved issue), and his religious freedom.

In that era, the religious freedom issue was also easily solved. The tendency of SCOTUS was to say that religious freedom was a private issue, and so could be relatively easily trounced in the public by other concerns, especially fairness (more on that below). Also, courts tended to rule on the basis of mainstream religious beliefs. If you read the transcript of testimony, you would notice that the judge refuses to take Bessinger’s reading of the Bible as a basis of authority. When Bessinger tries to support his claim with a newspaper clipping, the judge cuts it short. And the judge never worries about Bessinger’s personal reading of Scripture.

And so he shut down the head of the National Association for the Advancement of White People and all the other bigots who wanted to refuse to serve African Americans. He did so because he rejected Bessinger’s religious expertise.

But, had he used the standard of “sincerely held religious belief,” then he would have had to rule in favor of Bessinger, because all Bessinger would have had to do was to show that his reading of Scripture was sincere, not reasonable.

Notice this exchange:

Q: And is it—in your treatment with every individual everyday, do you follow this?

Bessinger: Well, I certainly think I try to. I mean I do as much as I possibly can. What I mean by that, I certainly hope I am living that life, that is what your question is.

Q: Is it your belief to that effect?

Bessinger: Absolutely.

Q: Do you have any beliefs concerning segregation of the races, is that intwined or intermingled with or part of your beliefs as a Christian?

Bessinger: Yes, sir, that is very much part of my belief as a Christian, mixing of the races certainly is.

Q: By races you refer to what, sir?

Bessinger: By races, I refer to the race as the black race, the white race, and the yellow race.

Q: What is the Biblical basis, if any, for such a belief?

Bessinger: Well in the Old Testament God commanded the Hebrews not to mix with other peoples and races.

Anyone even a little bit familiar with the history of racism in the US is, at this point, saying, Oh, really, not this shit again, because Bessinger is mentioning one of the racist proof texts. But people who only know the triumphalist version want to read Bessinger as some crank.

Nope. He was mainstream. Segregation was a religious issue, with many proof texts, and he mentioned one. He could have mentioned Genesis IX, or various passages about not planting certain seeds in with others, or God having placed peoples in different parts of the world. There were a lot of proof texts people had for segregation (more than current bigots have about homosexuality, in fact, since some of those texts are about pederasty).

The court rejected his religious freedom argument because he didn’t cite external authorities (the testimony goes into an argument about a newspaper clipping he presented). And, I’d like to think, all the people now supporting the “sincerely held religious belief” argument would be appalled at the sorts of proof texts people like him provided.

But law is always an issue of principle.

And, if the principle is sincerely held religious belief, he met that standard.

So, people who want to say that Kim Davis can do what she wants are saying that Bessinger should have been able to refuse to serve African Americans. They are (unintentionally, I think) endorsing the principle that segregation was right. That’s worth taking some time to consider. If Davis is right, then so was Bessinger.

If we should allow Davis to refuse to allow some people to marry because she thinks that kind of marriage is a violation of Scripture, and our only standard is personal belief, then we have to say that the courts should have ruled that the people who believed that states could refuse to allow whites and nonwhites to marry, and businesses could refuse to serve nonwhites, and school districts could insist on segregated schools—those were all sincerely held religious beliefs. Arguing for Kim Davis is arguing for Bessinger; it’s arguing for segregation. It’s also arguing for county clerks refusing to allow bi-racial marriages, marriage after divorce, marriage of anyone wearing mixed fibers, dealing with anyone with a tattoo or who eats shellfish.

Bessinger sincerely thought he was violating Scripture by serving nonwhites in the same place he served whites. And he thought that because a tremendous amount of southern religion promoted that view. He wasn’t a crank; he was acting on what was a commonplace in southern religious discourse.

I said earlier that the “sincerely held religious principle” is important in two ways: if it’s a principle for us, then we really hold all religions to it; if we aren’t going to do that (which would mean allowing communities to enact segregation, sharia law, gay marriage, Satan worship), then this is an argument pretending to be about fairness that is actually an argument for theocracy.

The “sincerely held religious principle” either means that communities imposing sharia law is okay, as is segregation, pacifists not allowing guns in classrooms, my serving on death penalty juries despite what prosecutors want, a teacher insisting the class pray to Satan, and all sorts of other practices, or we only mean “sincerely held religious principles with which we agree.” In that case, we’re violating the notion that we should treat others as we want to be treated.

So, in service of what is supposed to be a religious argument, Christians have to violate one of the basic precepts of our religion.
That is, it seems to me, an important problem, since, if we reject the notion of “do unto others” we are also rejecting the person said that we should act on that principle. Either we allow segregation or we reject Christ.

Or maybe it means that the “sincerely held religious belief” is a disastrously bad way to base public policy.

Compromise and Purity, Pt. II

Clinton’s loss against Trump was shocking to many people, as has been the loss of Congress and the governorships. There is a narrative about that loss that is circulating, and I think it’s simultaneously persuasive and harmful. Narratives imply policy, and if our narratives are wrong, we end up with the wrong policies. I think we’re in danger of that now. I think our narratives imply that “the left” should become more purely left, either by all agreeing on a set of core goals or a single political agenda. That policy agenda can also seem to be right—to motivate people you can’t have a wishy-washy agenda.

Here’s the narrative as to what happened:

  • The Dem establishment obviously bungled because it promoted Clinton instead of Sanders.
  • That claim has two sub-claims: that Clinton only won because of the DNC support, and that it’s absolutely clear that Sanders would have won.
  • The Dems have consistently lost at every level for twenty years because they have moved toward third-way neoliberalism.
  • The DNC needs to move toward a single motivating political agenda, and it should be a more democratic socialist one, or it needs to be a more neoliberal one.
  • Or, the DNC needs to create a big tent in which we treat one another with respect and compassion and find shared ground.

Those are plausible claims, and that’s why people believe them. I’m going to argue that these claims are untrue, but, when I say that, I’m often heard to be arguing that the opposite of these claims are true—that, if it isn’t obvious that Sanders was a better choice, then I’m saying it’s obvious that Clinton was. I’m not. I’m arguing for walking away from narratives about what some set of us being obviously right and some of us being obviously wrong. I think some of us are wrong, but not obviously wrong.

Even though I disagree with those claims, I think the people who believe them aren’t idiots, or bad or stupid people, and the people who refuse to believe those claims aren’t necessarily any better than the people who do. I think they’re bad premises, but I don’t think the people who believe them are bad people, and I’m willing to admit I might be wrong.

And, in fact, that’s my whole argument: I think Dems need to imagine a world in which we agree to disagree in an inclusive sense, in which we agree to disagree while working toward common policy goals—and those goals are ones on which we agree to disagree. That is, we all support some policies we don’t like, and we each get some policies we do like. It’s taken me a long time to come around to that point of view, as I think it’s counterintuitive, but I think it’s right.

Or, in other words, the space between those assumptions about the 2016 election seeming to be true and yet their being false is the space of very important political work among good people with good motives and good reasons. I’d like to help us do that work.

I think dems need to find a world in which we act on the bases of inclusion, fairness, compassion, and long-term consequences. It is not a world in which we like each other, or even agree on premises. It is a world in which people who really dislike each other agree to treat each other well. It is a democracy.

That is a world in which we try to transcend the call of putting the ingroup first, and in which we aspire to treat the Other as we would want to be treated. I think that is a world toward which lefties aspire, and so this is about how to achieve that, but it begins with a long discussion about how not to achieve it.

And my argument as to how to achieve it is so controversial that I think I have to plead for people to continue to read. There are, conventionally, four ways that political parties succeed:

  • they agree on a political agenda;
  • they agree on a set of principles;
  • they agree hating some group/s;
  • they decide to work together although they loathe one another.

I’m going to argue that lefties need to do the last.

Not a popular argument, I’ll grant, and not one I really want to make, but I honestly think it’s the right one. To make that argument, I first need to show what’s wrong with the five points listed above about 2016, and that’s complicated because those are all points of view that can seem really reasonable. They are, I think, reasonable, but wrong. They aren’t obviously wrong, and the people who make them aren’t idiots, but I still think they’re wrong.

Making that argument requires making arguments about arguments, and also about political deliberation, and about fallacies of niceness. So, here goes.

I. A premise about argument: Or, saying “You are not obviously right is not the same as saying you are obviously wrong.”

I think we need to begin by rethinking conventional American notions about policy argumentation itself, in three ways: first, we need to reject the notion that feeling certain that you are right necessarily implies everyone else being obviously wrong (that is, lefties should be smarter than appealing to naïve realism); second, we need to stop assuming that policies necessarily follow from group identity (and so the most important arguments are about identity); third, we need to stop thinking that the solution to failure is greater purity.

In the abstract, lefties reject naïve realism and endorse various epistemologies of skepticism. In fact, however, humans live our lives in a world in which things are generally as they look, and lefties are not immune to invoking a kind of naïve realist argument about how any kind of realism is obviously wrong. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for lefties to cite studies in science to say that it’s been proven that people always fall back on confirmation bias, and are never objective. Then why cite the science? Aren’t the scientists themselves prone to confirmation bias? It makes sense to cite science to show that science isn’t some direct and unmediated contact with a stable reality (that is, to make a negative or refutative case), but it doesn’t make sense to use science to make an affirmative case about rejecting science.

I was particularly confused in the summer of 2016 by people whom I knew endorsed a social construction of knowledge epistemology, and who also said that Sanders or Clinton would OBVIOUSLY win and everyone who disagreed with them was an idiot. They weren’t just an idiot, but a dupe of someone or something, or doofusly ignoring their obvious best interest (if you’re really a progressive, if you’re really a feminist), often coupled with “How could you support THAT person?” arguments. If we really believe that there is not unmediated perception, and we believe that biases are inherent, and that we are all subject to our own constructions of ourselves, what does it mean to characterize every person who disagrees with us as obviously wrong?

I’m not arguing that we are obligated to say all points of view are equally valid. I am saying that, if we really believe the epistemology we claim to believe, then we are obligated to admit that we exist in a range of certainty/uncertainty, and that we are always obliged to argue about where we are on that range. We are obliged to argue with one another, and that means engaging their evidence, and not either simply repeating our own assertions or accusing them of bad motives.

There is also the problem that lefties are not always immune to the notion that the degree to which one feels certain is a sign of how much evidence we have, and that we should only enact policies about which feel certain. In addition, it’s common for us to think that, if you feel strongly about something, you must feel equally strongly that the people who disagree with you are bad and wrong. And, so, the first point is to try to distinguish between believing that other people are wrong and those same people are obviously wrong and bad. The notion that policies are either obviously right or obviously wrong assumes that decisions fall into a binary.

Thinking that someone else is reasonable and being what we think is right aren’t necessarily the same thing. We can be passionate, certain, and wrong. And, in fact, we’re always wrong, in some way or about some thing, but we are still certain. Saying that we are (perhaps have to be) certain and wrong at the same time isn’t endorsing the notion that all points of view are equally valid. It does mean that making any decision involves assessing the relevant information, like figuring out whether to take an umbrella on a given day. Important decisions are never questions of absolutely clear or random choice; we live in a world in which we’re always making decisions on the bases of various probabilities, and so there is rarely a binary between whether one should take an umbrella or not. Decisions aren’t binaries—they’re about the probabilities.

If the weather prediction is a 60% chance of rain, I would be a jerk to make fun of someone who made a different decision from me—whether I chose to take an umbrella or not. It wouldn’t necessarily be unreasonable to take an umbrella or not. Politics is always a realm in which we are making decisions between 30% and 70%. We should think about politics as questions of probability, like taking an umbrella. But we don’t. And, really, lefties of all people should be especially open to the argument that no single person can see things from all perspectives, and that nuance is important. Let’s not be jerks.