The Winds of Privilege

March 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

One day last summer on Long Beach Island, I was riding my bike to the fish store. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful ride. I was pedaling along almost effortlessly. Just a couple of weeks of getting around by bicycle – no car, no subways – had made a difference.

I got some scallops – always fresh on LBI and always delicious – and headed home. But on the way back, I suddenly noticed that I was pushing against a headwind. By the time I got home, I had broken a sweat. The funny thing was that on the way up, with a strong breeze at my back easing my ride, I hadn’t noticed the wind factor at all.

(Not me, and not Long Beach Island.)

Privilege is like cycling with the wind. It’s invisible to the privileged.

The picture below has been making the rounds of the leftish hemisphere of the Internet. It shows Republican legislators discussing the health care bill – Ryancare, Trumpcare, GOPcare, the AHCA, whatever. It’s the bill they promised to vote on yesterday and then didn’t. One of the issues under discussion was whether “essential benefits” would include maternity services.


Mike Pence (that’s him in the center) tweeted the photo, adding “Appreciated joining @POTUS for meeting with the Freedom Caucus again today. This is it. #PassTheBill 2:21 PM - 23 Mar 2017.”

What’s striking is not that a men-only conference is deciding on health care legislation about women. It’s that none of them noticed. If they hadn’t been so utterly clueless, one of them would have suggested bringing in a few token women for the photo op. (I suspect that some of them later regretted their insensitivity – not to women, but to “optics.”)

In July 2016, Pew Research (here) did a survey on perceptions of gender discrimination. The question offered two choices
  • Significant obstacles still make it harder for women to get ahead than men
  • Obstacles that made it harder for women to get ahead are largely gone.
The results are not all that surprising.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

A gender gap cuts across party lines, though it cuts most deeply in Republican territory, where twice as many men as women think that obstacles to women’s success are history. That GOP stag party deciding on maternity benefits is fairly representative of the party, though as the survey shows, ideology is purer among those at the top. Besides, the boys in the photo are the Freedom Caucus. If Pew had surveyed Tea Partistas, the 75% bar in the graph would be even higher.

Half the Republican women think that women face significant obstacles, but the issue may not be high on their list. After all, ninety percent of them voted for Trump (or perhaps against Hillary). If you’re going to vote for a serial pussy-grabber, that headwind you’re pedaling against can’t be very important.

The BBC, in its story (here) on the Pence photo, also included this companion picture from Saudi Arabia – the group that was launching the Qassim Girls Council.


Also seated, though not seen in the photo, were five other members of the council. All men.



Ignorance, Bliss, and Political News

March 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I can’t listen to the news anymore,” I said, “It’s too depressing.” The guy I said this to has been in journalism most of his adult life, so I’m sure he hasn’t cut back. If anything, he’s binge newsing these days. But I’m not alone. Google “news depressing” and you get nearly 40 million pages to choose from.


(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Arthur Brooks thinks so too in his Times op-ed today.

in the past couple of years, I have noticed a happiness pattern that relates to politics. Namely, the people most in the know tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention.

Does an interest in politics lead to depression?  Is political ignorance bliss? When Arthur Brooks thinks what I think, I have to check my personal reactions and impressions against better information. Brooks provides some.

I analyzed the 2014 data from the General Social Survey. . . The results were significant. Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views, being “very interested in politics” drove up the likelihood of reporting being “not too happy” about life by about eight percentage points.

I went to see for myself. I didn’t control for all those variables – I figured the cell sizes would get very small. But the overall picture I got from the GSS was very different from what Brooks said.



(GSS respondents have three choices on the Happiness variable: Very Happy, Pretty Happy, Not Too Happy. I have left out the middle group.)

I don’t know why I didn’t find what Brooks found. Nor am I not sure what to make of the results. Unhappiness is highest among both the most interested and the least. Does this suggest “moderation in all things (or at least all things political interest)”?

Maybe 2014 was a strange year. The GSS had asked a similar question about political interest in three previous years. The sample size is larger, and the data spans sixteen years.


This time the trend is clear, and it clearly contradicts Brooks. As political interest decreases the percent who are “not too happy” increases, and the percent who are “very happy” increases.

But even if the correlation went the way Brooks thinks it does, his explanation makes a huge leap of logic. The news is depressing, he says, because it shifts our “locus of control” from internal to external. It creates “a belief that external forces (such as politics) have a large impact on one’s life.”

An external locus of control brings unhappiness.. . . . An external locus is correlated with worse academic achievement, more stress and higher levels of depression.

To be sure, an external locus of control is not necessarily inaccurate. . . . However, the external locus of control can also be based on an illusion that something affects us — meaning that the resulting unhappiness is unnecessary.


Brooks assumes that what news junkies get from the political news is information about things that will affect their lives. That’s a big assumption. My impression is that for many news watchers, the political news is like sports. They root for their preferred politicos and policies in the same way they root for their team– not because a victory directly affects their lives but just because they want their side to win. The support for banning Muslims in order to keep America safe from terrorism is strongest in places where people’s lives are least likely to affected by a terrorist attack.

Unlike sports news, political news often has a moral component. We want to see our team triumph not just because winning is fun but because in this case it is morally right. People might hate the Yankees or the Cowboys, but nobody is chanting for them to be locked up for their sins. The partisan news shows specialize in stories that provoke moral outrage, and these are the shows most likely to be watched by those with a strong interest in politics.

But even if Brooks is wrong about the data, and even if he is wrong that paying attention to the news shifts our locus of control to external, his advice about locus of control seems sensible.

Get involved in a tangible way — volunteering, donating money or even running for office. This transforms you from victim of political circumstance to problem solver.


How Do You Solve a Problem Like Murray . . . uh?

March 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do you do when someone like Charles Murray is invited to speak at your college? By “someone like Charles Murray,” I mean, well, let me quote a letter signed by more than 60 Middlebury faculty and sent to the college president. (The “as you know” in the second paragraph is a nice touch.)


Dear President Patton,

We the undersigned faculty respectfully request that you, as our president, cancel your introductory remarks at the Charles Murray event on Thursday.

Mr. Murray is, as you know, a discredited ideologue paid by the American Enterprise Institute to promote public policies targeting people of color, women and the poor.

Some students went further than requesting that the president cancel her intro. They went to the lecture and excercized the “heckler’s veto,” shouting and chanting so loudly and continuously that Murray could not be heard. The protestors had in effect cancelled the lecture. (InsideHigherEd )

As I’ve said before (here and here), these protests are not about being afraid of hearing objectionable ideas and arguments. If a professor put Murray’s Coming Apart on the syllabus, I doubt that students would protest. They’d do the reading, and on the exam they’d write a snappy critique. I also doubt that the students were really worried that Murray might persuade some of their peers with his seductive message.

For the students involved, it’s not about ideas, it’s about evil – the presence of evil on campus. The great thing about labeling something as evil – e.g., Saddam Hussein, the axis of evil, ISIS – is that it allows you to ignore all the usual restraints and rules.  After all, you’re not just fighting an enemy. You’re fighting evil. 

The campus left doesn’t toss around the word evil, but a similar absolutism often attaches to racism. If you can label someone a racist, you can jettison the usual liberal principles. “No free speech for racists” (also fascists). Fighting racism (or whatever evil) by whatever means is a moral imperative.

But how much ground will you gain in that fight by shouting down a speaker? My own view is: not much, certainly not enough to justify violating principles of free speech. But although the heckler’s veto may not do much to further the cause, it can bring a feeling of having done something against evil. The effect is not practical – helping to bring some desired change in the external world; it’s emotional – bringing a sense of righteousness to the heckler.

The question is why students attribute so much importance to a campus lecture – why, in Jonathan Haidt’s inelegant coinage, they “catastrophize.” Is Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury of world-shattering importance? Well, yes, if the Middlebury is your world. And for students at residential, somewhat isolated schools, the campus is their world.* They don’t get out much.

Of course, even at schools like Middlebury, “no free speech for. . .”  is a minority view. College students generally favor free speech, even if that includes ideas that are “offensive and biased.”  Here’s the full Gallup question:

If you had to choose, do you think it is more important for colleges to
  • create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people, (or to)
  • create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?

College students went for free speech more than did the average American.


The General Social Survey gets similar results on its item about banning a racist from giving a speech in the community. The college educated are more liberal than others. The percent who would ban a racist speaker his risen somewhat in the past four decades from about 22% to about 27%, but the overwhelming majority favor letting the racist speak.


It’s a mistake to think that the dominant view on US campuses favors political correctness over free speech as some handwringing writers on the right seem to think. (Catastrophizing is not the exclusive province of the left.) But a handful of students, representing a minority view of free speech, can still make enough noise to cancel a speech and make headlines.

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* Not all schools are like Middlebury. Here at Montclair, many students, most perhaps, live at home and commute. Even the ones who live in the dorms go home on weekends. (The weekend begins roughly at 2:00 on Thursday.) They have jobs. They hang out with friends (including boyfriends and girlfriends), from their home towns or other non-campus places.