ALittleNegative

oh hey nu2017

Apparently prospies are following the northwestern tag and asking current students stuff because I see it all over my dash. Ask me things too! About history or political science or film or CRC or res colleges or life or anything else!


Agreeing in the debates

First post-debate thought: I think what the candidates agree on is one of the most important things about the debates, because consensus among both candidates tables issues for discussion. We’re going to get a lot less discussion on whether drone strikes are moral, or whether the Libya intervention was a good thing because they agreed on those issues. When they agree there’s no longer a way for a candidate to score points, and so those issues become irrelevant.


Affirmative Action: Not Actually That Great, Guys

This post is in response to the Daily Northwestern’s editorial yesterday about affirmative action. The writer reiterated many of the right’s talking points: that it’s reverse racism, it’s another instance where rich white people are being victimized, Martin Luther King wouldn’t have wanted it this way, etc. She encountered a shitstorm of righteous anger. Blog posts. 200 comments on her article. A good but especially righteous Protest article.

(This is a post about affirmative action in education, not hiring practices. The SCOTUS case is about the former, and I know more about education than work.)

I can understand a lot of the anger. Much of it has to do with the spectacle of someone who’s white, who’s probably privileged (she’s at northwestern, after all) complaining about the terrible injustice people rich white people are suffering. I remember a conversation I once eavesdropped on at lunch where one person was talking to another (both white) about all of the issues and injustices facing schools: unequal funding, violence, drug use, and the other one sits down and says “yes! You’re so right. especially affirmative action, right?”

The fact that that person could, without irony, put affirmative action, the act of a few white people being deprived of spots at colleges in order to let the school claim to be a little more diverse, not only on the same plane as, but actually above, problems like widespread school violence and radically unequal funding is frankly jaw-dropping and represents what got my hackles up about this editorial.

At the same time, I feel bad for the girl who’s currently going under a shitstorm of criticism for questioning affirmative action. She’s a freshman guys. Sure she went about it completely the wrong way, and raised nothing more than right-wing talkshow memes, but there’s something in there. Some of this outrage is over the top. I get it, affirmative action is under threat, the supreme court is about to rule on it, the tendency is to close ranks.

What most of these articles ignore is that affirmative action is far from perfect. We know this. We recognize it, even if we don’t necessarily want to say it. In fact, it’s probably one of the weakest attempts to tackle the problem of educational equality we could have cooked up, and the energy devoted to sustaining it could be redirected to more difficult, but ultimately better attempts.

Affirmative action only helps the top tier of students, and ignores the great mass at the middle and bottom. It means that an already elite student has a shot at getting a university somewhat over his head. It doesn’t do anything for students who are going to community college, or the many who aren’t going to college at all. Affirmative action is the difference between a student going to UCLA or to Harvard. It’s not the difference between a student not going to school and going to school. Giving the top group a boost is a step forward, but it’s never going to do anything substantial to break the achievement gap. They were the ones who were probably going to succeed anyway. If you abandon half the group you’re trying to help, you’re not going to enact substantial change at all.

Defining affirmative action along racial, rather than socio-economic lines is also problematic. The idea that president Obama’s kids could conceivably get a boost, and a child from a poor white family, growing up in poverty with bad schools wouldn’t is a great example of what’s wrong with affirmative action [someone pointed out that Obama’s kids are a bad example, because they’re rich, and famous, and legacy. If you replace the reference to Obama with “the children of a wealthy upper-class black family with a tradition of going to college” my point still stands, I think.] Defining it along the lines of socio-economic class would also refocus affirmative action on the core idea: it’s not about (shouldn’t be about) giving any and all people of color an advantage, it’s about making sure that people who aren’t getting an equal opportunity get one. Right now, kids who aren’t getting a fair shake are overwhelmingly people of color.

There are benefits to it, to be fair. I can go to school and see (some) faces that don’t look just like mine, and hear viewpoints that are different, and that’s excellent. We all benefit from this. Jan Jaro makes this point well in his Daily counterpoint. The other impression he gives in his column is one that I think is at the root of the problem of affirmative action. Reading his column makes it sound like affirmative action is working great, and if we only had another fifty years, we’d close that achievement gap. I don’t think that’s true at all, and I think keeping affirmative action in place gives us a way to duck more difficult and meaningful questions that would close that gap a lot quicker and more completely.

Affirmative action is a bandaid for a larger problem we can all see: the achievement gap. Unless you think that there is something biologically or culturally wrong with students of color, you realize that achievement gaps are the result of the educational system, and the social and economic structure of our country. Failings with the ways we fund and run schools in poor areas, serving mostly students of color. Everybody knows property taxes are a terrible way to determine school funding (let’s pick a method of funding that explicitly determines money to schools based on how rich their students are!). Kids who live with violence around them aren’t going to do as well in schools as other kids, we know this. We know that kids who come from homes where parents can’t find jobs are going to be at a disadvantage. Students coming from deprived inner cities are not magically going to have all of their problems fixed when a few of them get a bump on their SATs a decade into their schooling. Unfortunately doing things like changing the way we pay for education, or lifting an economically ravaged underclass out of poverty, or trying to break cycles of violence is all a lot harder and a lot more expensive than deciding that we’re going to give a few black and hispanic kids a few acceptances at top colleges and calling it even.

So do I think we should we start dismantling affirmative action tomorrow? No. The central thrust of the daily piece is still idiotic. Let’s not lose sight of the real injustice here (hint: it’s not affirmative action). What I am saying is that affirmative action should not be our end goal, and that it’s a very flawed stepping stone. If the supreme court upholds it, or more likely, kicks the can down the road, we should not be satisfied and sit back, confident that we fixed racial inequality. If it’s struck down, a more difficult but better use of energies might be enacting more meaningful changes.

You’re not doing anyone a favor if you’re not willing to talk about affirmative action, and if you attack anyone who does. You’re stifling discussion. It deserves to be talked about. There is so much more we could do.


Three Thoughts on Romney’s Latest Debacle

If you haven’t been following at home, Mother Jones just came up with a huge scoop: a video of Romney speaking privately to a group of donors. In the video he rails against the 43% of Americans who don’t pay income tax as victims and lazy dependents who will vote Democrat no matter what, and that it’s not his job to try to teach them to live on their own. Other similarly terrible things at the source.

He’s also just flat-out wrong.

1) The majority of the people in the country who don’t pay income taxes are seniors or students. Not exactly what most people have in mind when they think of “lazy dependent victims”.

Chart from Slate

2) They don’t all vote democrat, certainly not overwhelmingly. Here’s a fun graph that shows that the ten states with the highest percentage of people who don’t pay income tax are: all ten are southern Republican strongholds.

Chart from Tax Foundation

3) Pundits so far seem to be concentrating on how off-base Romney is (and let’s be honest, he’s just echoing what much of the GOP in general thinks), but even the portion of people who don’t pay income taxes and aren’t seniors deserve a better shake. Certainly there are always going to be some people who just don’t want to work, but consider:

-there aren’t enough jobs out there

-it’s hard to pay income tax when you don’t have any income

The problem is that Romney is attacking people without jobs, instead of the reason they don’t have jobs. He’s standing in front of a bunch of millionaires and saying “How dare these people not be able to find a job?”, when he should be talking about the economy. If he was actually honest and discussed the reason they aren’t able to pay income tax, rather than callously attacking them to rally rich donors who want to feel like he’ll hold off the hordes of unwashed for them, he might actually contribute something to the political discussion.


Some Thoughts On the Protests

I’m not attempting to justify the protests going on throughout the Middle East, and at this point I’m not sure to what extent the protests are still about the film, and not just general anti-American sentiment anymore, but I thought I’d take a stab at pointing out why the film has made so many people so mad.

Most news articles so far have explained out that any depiction of Muhammad at all is considered blasphemous, and therefore an incredibly offensive one like in this film is doubly bad (and whatever else you can say about this, the film is objectively offensive). However I think the most important thing we have to keep in mind when we try to understand these attacks is differing conceptions of free speech. In Egypt at least, where the protests started, films must be approved by the government. That means that films are at least stamped by something of a seal of government approval, and a film that is completely opposite to the interests of the government or the people would probably not be made. It’s not much of a leap to go from understanding that to understanding that in the mind of a protester who doesn’t know a whole lot about the US, that this movie is at least tacitly supported by the US government, or the american people.

We take free speech for granted as one of our most fundamental rights, and the US has one of the most liberal free speech policies in the world. Unfortunately we can’t assume that everyone else has that background. Your average protester in the Middle East probably knows that in the US there is free speech, but whether or not they understand exactly what that means, whether they understand that that means that literally anything can be said, even if it’s against the government’s interests is another question.

I was reading the US embassy in Cairo’s twitter, (the one that led to that infamous Romney mis-step) [link, scroll back to the 11th or so] and the conversations they were having with Egyptians were fascinating and confirmed most of what I just speculated. Those Egyptians who were tweeting at the embassy were probably at the more moderate end of the spectrum (since they were tweeting and not busy tearing down flags), but they were still incensed, and most of the complaints were along the lines of “what do you mean you don’t support the movie? how could the US government allow this to be made if it doesn’t support it?”. A vague understanding of American free speech laws generally didn’t carry over into the understanding that the US can simultaneously think a film is loathsome and contrary to American interests and still allow it to be made.

None of this should excuse the actions of those protesters who turned to violence. But I think it can help to put things in perspective if we try to think through why these protesters are so enraged, and understanding on both sides is in especially short supply right now. It would be a shame if one episode of misunderstanding, one clash between different cultural values was the reason that we turned away from the Middle East at a time when there’s an awful lot of potential for good. It’s worth stepping back and considering: as far as I know, no American has yet been killed in these protests (the attacks in Benghazi don’t seem to have been caused by the film or the protests). Some damage to property and flags and pride has been inflicted. The Middle East and the Arab Spring are too important and too promising from a security perspective and a democracy perspective to turn away from because of wounded pride.

Addendum: I thought it was interesting that another one of the questions most frequently raised was “what about holocaust denial?”. Most of those tweeting didn’t realize that it was legal and protected in the US (probably getting the situation in Europe and the US confused) but the argument does carry a bit of weight. I think the Holocaust is certainly a cut above blasphemy, but if you start restricting free speech at all, where do you draw the line? They are different magnitudes, but I think it’s a slippery slope. I think it just confirms the US’s hardline stance on free speech as the correct one.

Update: the original Atlantic mag article I was looking for that mentioned Egypt’s government control of film-making seems to have disappeared or been buried under the deluge of coverage, but here’s a good one from CNN that mentions it. This article also raises the point that president Morsi himself called for legal actions against the film, betraying that he doesn’t quite understand our 1st amendment either.


Mitt Romney might be buying twitter followers. 140Elect, a site focusing on twitter in the election, is pointing that his new followers/day count went up like 15x over the last couple days, even though he’s not being mentioned or retweeted any more (meaning all those new followers aren’t engaging with him at all). If you look at the newest people in his followers list, they’re overwhelmingly new accounts with bios and pictures, but who have only a couple tweets and are following only Romney. Pretty suspicious.
The last time I remember reading about politicians buying twitter followers, it was the corrupt institutional party in Mexico. Not company you want to be in.
I can understand why Romney might want to - Obama currently leads him 17million to 750k in followers.  To put that in perspective, Romney only has 3x as many followers as this joke twitter for England’s Big Ben, which tweets exclusively “BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG”. Until this surge, he had less followers than Roger Ebert. His Klout score (admittedly somewhat bullshit) is the same as one of my favorite photographers, who you’ve probably never heard of.
Link
(Since I started writing this, it looks like Romney’s follower counts have evened out a bit, and the top of the list looks like mostly real accounts. Even though the others have been buried, I saw pages and pages of what could only be twitter bot accounts earlier.) View Larger

Mitt Romney might be buying twitter followers. 140Elect, a site focusing on twitter in the election, is pointing that his new followers/day count went up like 15x over the last couple days, even though he’s not being mentioned or retweeted any more (meaning all those new followers aren’t engaging with him at all). If you look at the newest people in his followers list, they’re overwhelmingly new accounts with bios and pictures, but who have only a couple tweets and are following only Romney. Pretty suspicious.

The last time I remember reading about politicians buying twitter followers, it was the corrupt institutional party in Mexico. Not company you want to be in.

I can understand why Romney might want to - Obama currently leads him 17million to 750k in followers.  To put that in perspective, Romney only has 3x as many followers as this joke twitter for England’s Big Ben, which tweets exclusively “BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG”. Until this surge, he had less followers than Roger Ebert. His Klout score (admittedly somewhat bullshit) is the same as one of my favorite photographers, who you’ve probably never heard of.

Link

(Since I started writing this, it looks like Romney’s follower counts have evened out a bit, and the top of the list looks like mostly real accounts. Even though the others have been buried, I saw pages and pages of what could only be twitter bot accounts earlier.)


I’m going to put in a plug for The Listserve, one of the more delightful experiments in audience participation I’ve come across. It’s an email lottery where one randomly selected subscriber gets to send one email of whatever they want to all of the other subscribers (currently around twenty thousand, although they say they’re aiming for a million).
There’s been everything from a cryptic, misspelled recommendation to buy a bulldozer, to someone describing the life and times of their African Grey Parrot named Bagel, to one of my all-time favorites: “We’re all going to be worm food in a hundred years, and you might as well accept it. Also here’s my secret pizza crust recipe!”
Link View Larger

I’m going to put in a plug for The Listserve, one of the more delightful experiments in audience participation I’ve come across. It’s an email lottery where one randomly selected subscriber gets to send one email of whatever they want to all of the other subscribers (currently around twenty thousand, although they say they’re aiming for a million).

There’s been everything from a cryptic, misspelled recommendation to buy a bulldozer, to someone describing the life and times of their African Grey Parrot named Bagel, to one of my all-time favorites: “We’re all going to be worm food in a hundred years, and you might as well accept it. Also here’s my secret pizza crust recipe!”

Link