Fire From The Maddened Crowd

I’ve put off writing about the shooting of Congressor Steve Scalise and others — apart from the stray comment on social media — but it happened at the intersection of several of my interests and I don’t think most people are quite processing it fully. Where others might want to toss it in the ‘crazy shit’ box and move on, I want to unpack it and get a better look.

Not a tragedy

I have seen the shooting described as a tragedy. Matter of fact, the Virginia Democrats sent out an email describing it as a “terrible tragedy”. Of course, I do not condone the shooting, but it was hardly a tragedy. A tragedy is an event that happens despite our best efforts. This happened because of the GOP’s best efforts. Our understanding of the event has to acknowledge that fact.

There is a pretty clear causal logic here: the GOP has long argued that an expansive read of the Second Amendment is justified because guns are necessary to protect against tyranny. Their threshold for tyranny is low enough to include the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, so it should not be surprising that when the GOP took control of the government and began a program of extraordinary peril to broad swathes of public, some people then viewed those policies as a form of tyranny. And the GOP has been nothing but clear on this point: if you see tyranny, you should take up arms to fight it.

I say this not to endorse the shooting, but simply to say that it is evidence that the system is working as intended. No doubt that intention was based in part on a prejudice that no liberal snowflake would ever have the backbone to pull the trigger. Now that they see they are wrong, GOP legislators are scrambling to reconcile their platform with the now-obvious threat. Mo Brooks, bless his heart, cedes not an inch of ground.

“What we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly,” the Alabama congressman told reporters when pressed on whether he was reconsidering his position on gun control.

He scores points for logical consistency, but the obvious flaw in his argument is that he is no longer in a position to decide what counts as ‘proper’. Brooks wants to cast his party as a defender of rights, but rights are always asserted against the government — which his party now unfortunately controls. A tyrannical government will almost never see itself as tyrannical, and will always see anti-tyranny as improper.

Other GOP legislators are taking the obvious tack, and blaming the shooting on mental illness:

“I don’t see this as gun control issue,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who leads the archconservative House Freedom Caucus, said. “I think to default to that would be a missed opportunity […] ultimately to understand that the mental health component is an important thing for us to address.”

No points awarded here: it is far less brave and honest than Brooks’s view. Again, the problem is that the GOP endorses armed resistance against tyranny, but is in no position to define legitimate resistance. While it would be terribly convenient to their platform if the shooter were mentally ill, that only disqualifies the shooter’s political agenda if he was too mentally ill to vote — which we know was not the case.

Mental illness as effect

So far so good — I think many people inclined to read this far will readily agree with most of what I have written. But it’s worse than you think. For starters, the mental illness argument seems to be intended to delegitimize any opposition to the GOP — as if the shooter was himself incarnate all that is wrong with the left — while absolving the GOP of any responsibility for the shooting.

But the presumption that mental illness arises for reasons specific to the person, some genetic defect or family history, neglects the extent to which mental illness is a response to violence, particularly violence condoned or performed by the government. Look at how people of color talk about their experience of white supremacy: more and more, they are using language that echoes psychological and psychiatric clinical descriptions of mental illness. They talk about anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, PTSD — not because they were born that way, but because they were born into a society that does them profound violence. Now ask: how is it not mental illness that so many white people are inured and insensate to the violence against colored people? I will come back to that question in a moment.

To spell it out: our government’s policies are violent enough to affect the mental health of many of the people hurt by those policies. It is nonsense for the government to then accuse those people of mental illness as if that invalidates their concerns. When some of these people turn violent, attempting to focus on treatment of mental illness is saying nothing more useful than, “Let’s make society safe for unlimited government violence”. That’s bass-ackwards and also not going to be particularly effective. So, yeah: it’s entirely possible for most people on the left to be mentally ill, because mental illness is how normal, healthy brains sometimes respond to violence.

 Violence as cause

To understand government violence properly, we need a better understanding of violence generally. When we say something is violence, what does that mean? A rough notion is that it causes people harm — but then we need a definition of ‘harm’, and it ends up being very turtlesy most of the way down.

When I was in grad school, I got the bright idea to try to rewrite a famous paper in political science by focusing on violence, instead of the economic uncertainty in the original. I thought the author was ignoring some deep violence in his argument, and that it made more sense to look at the violence. That meant I had to find a good scholarly definition of violence, and it turns out there is really only one in English-language scholarship.

That definition comes from a guy named Johan Galtung, who defined violence as the deliberate reduction in potential being of another person (I’m paraphrasing). If this seems obscure, it might help to ask why psychological abuse of children counts as violence: the answer, per Galtung, is that it wrecks the child’s power to imagine herself as something else, as some potential other, better person. It limits who that child can be. Violence as ‘reduction in being’ turned out to be very powerful tool for Galtung, because it allowed him to talk about all kinds of violence — structural, systemic, latent, etc. — other than the plain physical forms that most readily come to mind.

One of the most shattering things I read in in this project was a discussion of the Columbine school shooting by Willem Schinkel, in his Aspects of Violence. Drawing heavily from Galtung, Schinkel talks about the environment that the shooters grew up in — the extreme uniformity of it, even outside of the oppressive conformity of high school. This, he says, gave them very little by way of potential — the rigidity of their social context was a form of violence, and gave them very few options. Gun violence was one of their few options, one of the few models they had for other ways of being.

That’s not to excuse the shootings, but simply to say: violence rarely comes from nowhere. It is no coincidence that schools are the site of so many shootings: schools are most people’s first and most intensive experience of government control over their lives. In most schools, that control ranges from unpleasant to suffocating. Schools often limit their students’ potential being, as much as they expand it.

I know full well there are many great teachers in our schools and nearly all of them want what’s best for their students. But the system itself is one of structural violence against many students. Every time a school is strapped for cash, that’s a class that can’t be offered or an extracurricular that gets shut down, and some kid sees a little part of their possible self die.

To come back to my theme: if that first, intense experience with government is positive, you are more likely to be an active citizen and to think of government in a favorable way. No wonder the GOP hates public schools: starve the schools and you can raise a generation of citizens who think government is a trainwreck. The collateral damage is that one in a million of those citizens is going to be so broken — some even before they graduate — that they gun up and shoot a bunch of kids. As fervently as I support gun control, I know it still won’t fully address the actual cause of the violence.

Violence as a system

The paper I wrote — Violence and International Relations — was such a success that it became my dissertation topic. At the same time, I encountered baffling pushback from classmates and teachers. It very slowly dawned on me that maybe the reason we didn’t talk about violence in my classes was that we were part of the problem. American academia is very much part of the American establishment, built on a vast complex of structural and systemic violence. My professors had zero incentive to confront that violence, so they put my ass on the street.

One of the ways the system sustains itself is that we are conditioned to think of government violence as okey-dokey. This shows up in political science and in the public at large as an unwillingness to name government violence as violence. One of my committee members actually told me that capital punishment was not ‘violence’, because they are convicted first. He has a job. I don’t. And when Gabriel Giffords was shot, a highly respected political scientist wrote a blog post titled, “On the Rarity of Political Violence” — as if the United States didn’t execute and imprison more people than any other country in the world.

For the Scalise shooting, there’s this Charlie Pierce article, “When White People Realize American Politics Are Violent”, which manages to avoid naming a single violent thing that the American government does to its own people. Slavery is violent and political. Mass incarceration is violent and political. Police killings are violent and political. I honestly don’t understand how this is difficult: anything the state does is political, so any violence the state commits is political. It’s way less abstract than 2 + 2 = 4.

And so far, I have mostly talked about the violence that the government does to American bodies. I have said nothing about the extensive violence our government does to a vast horizon of potential being. If your view of yourself includes a possibility of getting married, and the government says you can’t, that is violence against you. The fight for gay marriage was a fight against government violence. Likewise, when the government watched as the 2008 recession wiped out people’s savings and left them homeless, but then bailed out the banks that were repossessing their houses — that was a form of violence. How much less potential did those lives have in 2010 than they did in 2007? You can only just begin to measure it in trillions of dollars. I end up agreeing vigorously with this guy:

“I’m never surprised by mass shootings in America. Considering how brutalized and under pressure most people are and how easy it is to get guns, I’m surprised every day there ISN’T a mass shooting.”

Unlike Europe, the civilizing process is incomplete in the United States, and there’s lots of historical and contingent reasons that mostly boil down to our original sin, slavery. As a result, we still have lots and lots of violence, and that violence is the main thing wrong with our country. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, ageism — name a thing wrong with American society, and you will find it comes to ground in government violence, whether sanctioned or performed. The American government. Our government. If that seems hard to believe, I strongly encourage you to ponder why the Scalise shooting seems so awful and the things the government does — from no better motive — are okay. The answer might be that you are so dependent on the illusory security the state provides — like any capitalist enterprise, it spends a lot time trying to convince you that you have wants and needs you don’t actually have — so dependent that you are inured even to the violence it causes to you, as well as others. I know I was.

And yes, I left grad school with an extremely dim view of the American state. (I also, for what it’s worth, picked up some robust mental illness — anxiety, depression — along the way.) But it’s not all doom and gloom! I am pretty sure I found a solution — the solution. I said earlier that government violence can make people mentally ill, implying that government policies can have profound, even organic effects on people’s brains. Well, if the potential is there for harm, it is also there for good. Stephen Pinker wrote a whole book arguing that the historical decrease in human violence is due to the fact that political development shapes peoples minds for better. Politics can make violence unthinkable. And Pinker is a psychologist. Or a neurologist. Or a linguist? (I’m too lazy to google it.) Point being: this is a pretty amazing claim from a leading student of the mind.

Pinker’s argument hinges mightily on the work of German sociologist Norbert Elias, specifically his work on the ‘civilizing’ process. Loyal readers will know I am a big fan of Elias, and his work was a cornerstone of my proposed dissertation. The short version is that as the modern state formed in late medieval Europe, the rulers of those states began to centralize their power by demanding better and better behavior from their subordinates, as a way to control them. This included routine rules like not raping and murdering as much, but also things like what forks to use on what dishes and what sorts of foods were acceptable and what to wear and when and where to poop. Most of what we considered ‘civilized’ behavior in the West dates back to this period, and it turns out that all these rules taught people better control over their impulses, especially when those impulses were violent. For most of us, we don’t kill people not because it’s against the law; we don’t kill people because it’s just simply not done.

What Elias did not predict and Pinker missed is that state violence is also decreasing, and has been for a hundred years or so. That sounds bonkers in a bracket that includes WWII, but consider that slavery was mostly abolished, capital punishment is nearly abolished, torture was almost abolished, and conscription is less and less common. Human and civil rights — the exact opposite of state violence — are more widely credible and more widely observed. Neither Pinker nor Elias can explain that decline: there’s nothing in the civilizing process that suggests states should relinquish their power to enslave, kill, torture, or conscript.

My argument — and I’m pretty sure it’s correct — is that as people became more and more civilized, they came to expect that same good behavior from their leaders. This was especially true in democracies, for obvious reasons, but even true in less-than-democratic societies. Even most authoritarians can’t quite gin up medieval levels of violence (Bashar Al Assad might be a glaring exception). I called this the ‘civilizing trap’ because it’s more important in academia to have good names for your ideas than it is to have good ideas. But I got the boot before I could do the research to confirm it. Why would the establishment not want to see that question explored? I don’t know, it’s not my problem any more.

My sense is that the GOP’s agenda has it exactly backwards: they believe that private political violence is the best check on government political violence, but these are the same people who cheered loudly when Trump promised to bring back torture. So not only do they lack the capacity to recognize meaningful state violence, they are pursuing an agenda that guarantees more private violence as well. Not that the shooting of Scalise was their fault, but c’mon: what did you expect? There is zero evidence that a well-armed society leads to less government violence. There are, on the other hand, tons of evidence that the only consistent means to reduce government violence is the disapproval of the public expressed in social norms and laws. We can literally think the guns away.

Responding to violence

So what does that mean for us, who got this far? Three things: first, we have to be eyes-wide-open in our view of state violence. We cannot let ourselves be accustomed or inured to it, and we must resist it as much as possible. The men with guns are there to diminish you, more than protect you. It’s not a matter of voting for the lesser of two evils: both parties, in this century and before, have been vigorous champions of the state’s capacity for violence. We hardly even talk about it, except as it pertains to “issues”. But violence is the issue. Government violence is the issue. We need to press that in public and popular discourse. Unfortunately for the current trajectory of the left, that means not getting too caught up in the lines between racism and sexism and classism and so on, but seeing that beneath them all is the violence of the state. It is this violence that we must stop — that we must make unthinkable, if we are to survive.

Second, we can’t get distracted by the more dramatic but far less consequential violence of regular folks, mentally ill or not. We have to focus on reducing state political violence, as a cause of private political violence. The guy who shot Steve Scalise was nothing against the awesome violence of the American state, which asserted an infinitesmal fraction of its power by shooting him dead right back. Again, that’s not to condone what he did. But in the bigger picture, it just doesn’t matter compared to government violence, and solving the government violence problem will go a hell of a long way towards solving the private violence problem.

Third, and this part may be hard to ponder: there may be a time constraint in this project. Our political apparatus was not designed for the tensions our society suffers, and they may pull that machine apart sooner than most people imagine. You can already see the cracks, and there are people who believe the Scalise shooting was the first shot in a civil war. I don’t know that I agree, but if that war is coming, the only way to prevent it — and to prevent the left from losing it, because we will definitely lose a shooting war — is to make violence unacceptable and unthinkable.

More immediately, my guess is that we will see more shootings of elected officials, and these will be used to justify new policies of violence — of drastic curtailment of our rights — by the government. We must not accept the narrative that these shootings are somehow our fault, that we must suffer for them. The government — those in government — must accept and account for its own role in the proliferation and promotion of violence.

Does Donald Trump Have Free Will?

Discussions of free will tend to attribute it to human beings in abstract, or humanity as a whole. I want to look very specifically at a single human being — Donald Trump — and ask whether he has free will.

If you think Donald Trump is doing a great job, the question is irrelevant. Of course he has free will — or maybe he’s possessed by the ghost of Ronald Reagan. Does it matter?

Whether or not Trump has free will is a question implied by his critics. The many people arguing that he is mentally ill or demented or senile are implying that he does not have free will, at least not full and unimpaired free will. On the one hand, these claims are an attempt to explain why Trump is not mentally suited to the Presidency, and argue for his removal under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. On the other hand, they excuse his behavior and blame it on some organic process in his brain.

The other argument against Trump is that by unimpaired free will he deliberately chooses antisocial behavior. Many mental health advocates and disabled people take umbrage at the implication that Trump’s behavior is due to some sort of mental health problem or mental disability, and prefer to blame Trump on Trump. They (correctly) point out that you don’t have to be crazy to be an a–hole. By this argument, Trump should be impeached under Article 2 of the Constitution, insofar as his bad behavior includes high crimes and misdemeanors.

There is merit to both of these approaches, but the problem is that they view Trump’s behavior in a very narrow snapshot. This narrow view does not take into account the full social context nor personal history that informs Trump’s behavior. By taking a broader view that includes those aspects, I want to show how it is possible to be both mentally ill and possess free will; how Trump can be senile but also fully accountable for his actions.

In rough terms, free will is the ability to choose your own choices. The SEP fills it out a little more: “‘Free Will’ is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” (You can read there a cogent summary of philosophical debates over free will.)

Free will as a philosophical problem tends to be viewed as an intrinsic property of humans — as though somewhere in your brain is a fold of tissue or a tangle of neurons that controls free will. And yet neurology experiments to identify the exercise of free will tend to come up with contradictory evidence. There are many people who believe free will is simply fiction.

If free will is a fiction, it is a social fiction adopted from great need. It is hard to imagine a society without a concept of free will. That society would either be horrifically fascist or horrifically anarchic. Whether or not it has a material basis in our neurology, free will is an idea that we find very useful.

Insofar as it is an idea that orders our lives, free will is real whether or not it exists independently of society. Ideas are real, or can be — not in a material sense, that you can touch them, but in these sense that they have observable effects in the world. Another such idea is love; try to imagine a Valentine’s Day based solely on the biologic aspects of our idea of love. For that matter, try to imagine a Valentine’s Day without free will.

Another way to approach free will as a social idea is to imagine a person on a desert island (as in deserted — without other people). Imagine that he has somehow never had contact with other people. He has grown up without any sense of society or human interaction. Does he have free will? In the social sense, this question is meaningless.

Were you or I on that desert island, we would carry with us our ideas about society. We would carry in our heads mental models of how the people we know would expect us to behave. We would likely behave according to those expectations even if we had no hope of rescue: not eating human corpses that fall out of the sky, not having sex with the local animals, not pooping wherever the urge struck us (or at least feeling guilty about doing so).

These expectations would be very durable, at least until time or despair wore them away. Were we to be then rescued, our rescuers would think we had gone insane — that is, we had lost our ability to choose rationally. They would think we had lost our free will.

In the social sense, our free will is constrained by the people whose influence makes up our mental map of society. If you every time you put a dish in the dishwasher, you hear your mom saying, “Put the dish in the dishwasher”, you can understand what I mean. You have free will in the sense that you are choosing between your instinct not to clean up or your memory of your what you mom insisted you do, but you also had no choice about your mother’s voice being burned into your synapses.

Even if you don’t hear their voices, your mental model of society includes many people who have affected your life — family, teachers, friends, even people you see on TV or read about. If you have bad people in the model, it is easy to make bad choices. If you have good people, it is easy to make good choices. If you have no people, you have no choices. Your free will is never really exercised independently from the people in your life, at least in the social sense.

So when I see Donald Trump described as “lonely, angry and not happy with much of anyone”, what I get is that his social model is full of people helping him make bad choices. Or worse, not helping him make any choice at all: I fear many of these people simply affirm and indulge his instincts. It also means he is being judged, criticized, and ridiculed by a society that he literally cannot imagine. To the extent that he has no access to that social reality, his situation is far worse than being stranded on a desert island.

But here’s the thing: Trump chose his island. With his wealth and position, he had every opportunity to bring good people into his orbit — whether that means real friends who would call him on his bullshit or family to help him recognize his decline or even just a good therapist. And he chose instead people who would reflect his own ego and instinct back, and not help him make good choices.

Even if he’s mentally ill or senile, the fact is he chose to surround himself with people who can’t help him recognize that fact and deal with it. Imagine The Notebook except the lady with Alzheimer’s is Donald Trump and James Garner reads him The Art of the Deal. It sounds like hell, but Trump wrote, directed, and produced it himself.

Consider that we have no problem locking up young black men from impoverished neighborhoods for dealing drugs. We do this on the premise that they freely choose to deal drugs, even though they might have been born into a social context where many people and most role models are drug dealers. They had no choice of their social model, and that model constrained them to almost exclusively bad decisions, but we treat them as if they had access to a wealth of possibility.

Trump had that wealth of possibility, and he still chose a terrible social context. So I am inclined to hold him accountable for his behavior, no matter the proximate cause of that behavior. The ultimate cause is that he has — for decades — surrounded himself with sycophants who only reflect his own ego, people who would bend to his will rather than exercise their own. Whether he is mentally ill or senile is irrelevant, because he showed no interest in making good choices when he was not mentally ill or senile. And he owns the choices he has made, far more so than he owns any building with his name on it.

Whatever his high crimes and misdemeanors in office, Trump’s original sin was choosing himself over other people. And did that of his own free will.

White Privilege Versus White Power

A few years ago, I discovered I had ‘privilege’. It turns out being a white middle-class cis-hetero male comes with all sorts of perks and benefits, which are often denied to other people. Who knew?

Of course, I sort of knew. I just didn’t have a name for it. And the use of the word privilege I think is helpful in understanding and addressing the disparity in those benefits for women, minorities, and other marginalized people. I can see that I have all sorts of privilege, which structure my relationship with people who do not have the same privileges.

I see that some white people disagree, even those inclined to be allies of oppressed people. Sticking with racism as a specific case, it is quite common to see conversations like this (especially online):

White person: I think racism is a real problem but [something awkward]
Person of color: You are wrong because you are speaking from privilege.
White person: What are you talking about? I am not a racist.

Usually there is more energy to these conversations, but the gist is the same. Granted, where the problem of racial justice is concerned, my white privilege is obviously a disadvantage in understanding racism. I can never really get what it means to be a  person of color in this country.

On the other hand, white privilege is a clear advantage when it comes to the experience of being a racist in this country. I may not understand quite what the machine does, but I have a pretty good idea of how it works.

And in the conversations (arguments?) I’ve summarized above, the difference of perspective is the source of disagreement. Unpacking the idea of privilege and understanding those perspectives might help allies be better allies.

As I say, I can readily accept that I have privilege. My experience of that privilege — and racism more generally —  is as a sort of power, in the power-to sense, as well as in the power-over sense. That is, white privilege gives me power to do things that people of color cannot, as well as giving me power over those people. In fact, my experience of racism is so defined by power-to that it is very hard for me to see the power-over side.

Judging mostly by social media, this is where a lot of white people get hung up on the idea of privilege. They misinterpret it as being solely power-over, which they vehemently deny because it is not something they feel or even want. It is uncomfortable.

To recast the conversation, the white person is saying “I want to end racism.” The person of color is saying, “racism is the power that you have as a white person”, and the white person responds, “I do not want that power”. If I understand privilege only as power-over people of color, privilege is then a zero-sum game: I have to give it up to be an ally. If I don’t see myself as having that power, it leaves me powerless to help.

This is not only true for would-be allies. It is very true, I think, for the way indifferent white people hear the word “privilege”. The point of the ‘my family didn’t own slaves’ defense is to deny power-over, and thus deny the power-to end racial oppression. My family didn’t own slaves, but I can still accept that I have power-over people of color, because I have looked carefully at my experience and seen how the power-to that I enjoy is the product of a society organized in ways that give white people power-over people of color.

In general, it is a very common mistake to see power-over as the source of power-to. Instead, it’s more often the other way around: power-to begets power-over. And yes, white peoples’ power-over slaves made this country what it is. But since Emancipation, the main vector of oppression in the U.S. has been the gross disparities in power-to. People intent on sustaining white power structures then use those disparities to assert power-over people of color. Do not doubt: there are some people who want power-over, and will fight to keep it.

Ally-inclined whites can fight back without giving up their power-to. In fact, I think white privilege is crucial to the victory against white power. Peggy McIntosh, in her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, is very clear that not all white privilege is negative. She lists the ways in which being a white person gives her privilege, and the list is mostly a series of choices allowed her by society. Few of those choices hurt people of color, except that they are often denied to people of color.

Ending white privilege is then a matter of giving people of color the power-to make the same choices. I don’t mean power-to make the same choices that white people make, in the sense of modeling their lives on white lives. This is another hang-up for ally-inclined whites because, as McIntosh explains:

“…whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us.'”

Empowering people of color has to mean giving them the same control over their lives as white people enjoy, the same mass of possibility — and especially the power to choose differently from white people. Ally-inclined whites must expand their view of the normal and ideal life to include the sorts of lives that people of color choose to live independent of white power-over. Ending that power-over means working — using power-to — to ensure that people of color really do have those choices available.

In a perfect world, people of color would already have the power-to realize those choices without white people’s help. But in that world, there would also be no power-over. In the society we live in, I doubt people of color can get there on their own. White people have to choose their lives in ways that help people of color choose theirs, to ensure they have power-to.

Accepting white help I think means recognizing that for ally-inclined white people, the experience of racism is primarily an experience of power-to, even as people of color experience it as power-over. This does not mean denying the experience of power-over or power-to, but simply understanding the two sides of this particular coin.

The benefit of reframing the disagreement between people of color and ally-inclined whites is that it becomes easier to see how white privilege can be used to destroy white power. We are then no longer hung up on the experience of racism is, but rather about what choices white people must make to ensure people of color enjoy the same power to choose for themselves.

My Comments To The FCC – Again

I previously posted my comments about net neutrality to the FCC. Alas, this is again an issue, and again the FCC is soliciting comments.

If you aren’t familiar with the net neutrality debate, watch the latest John Oliver explainer. You can submit your comments here – just click on ‘express’. Here are mine, slightly revised from last time:


In 2012, I published an article titled, “The Spread of TCP/IP: How the Internet Became the Internet” — available here, It’s paywalled — sorry — but I can send you a copy.

Because of this research, I think I might be the world’s leading expert on the early international politics of the Internet. My research was mostly talking to the folks who built the early precursors of the Internet — ARPANET, NSFNET, etc. — and figuring out why they were doing what they were doing. Almost everyone involved was doing it because they wanted a network that they could use.

In fact, the Internet is what it is because _users_ built it. The phrase ‘net neutrality’ alludes to a decision made early on — and embedded in TCP/IP — to empower network users over network owners. The decision was made in the name of ‘academic freedom’, but the decision has come to affect billions of people. The decisions embedded in the Internet give users an unprecedented level of intellectual freedom, and are what makes the Internet such a powerful technology.

And whenever the users’ vision of the Internet faced the owners’ vision — in DECNET, X.25, OSI, and other protocols — the users’ vision won. This is a contest that has been going on for decades. Our net neutrality debate is just the latest attempt by telecoms to get a bite of that apple — to build a network that reflects the owners’ interests, not the users.

If the FCC decides to create a tiered system of Internet service, along the lines of what the telecoms propose, it will undo that decision to give users control of the network. The result would still be a network of sorts, but not the Internet — at least not in spirit.

Because the Internet is so popular with users worldwide, it seems likely that many of them will try to preserve it as is, in stretches of the network outside the FCC’s jurisdiction. This could lead to the creation of a parallel Internet, or the U.S. being relegated to a backwater of the world’s Internet. I don’t know how likely these things are, but they seem possible enough to be a risk worth weighing.

And while I am not an expert on Internet economics, it seems likely that many foreign companies — and maybe even some U.S. companies — will refuse the constraints of an owner-controlled Internet. So it also seems possible that this could the U.S. jobs, deny US consumers access to products and services, and erode the U.S.’s leading position in the Internet marketplace.

In any case, I think the decision to end net neutrality is a bad one for the Internet. I think it harms the basic principle that makes the Internet such a useful and powerful technology. Ending net neutrality would be a major step backward for Internet users in this country, and the world more generally. Title II protection for net neutrality is essential to the interests of the American people, American companies, and Internet users worldwide.

Thank you for taking the time to read my comments, and for your consideration of this important question.


Miles Townes

The Evolution of Florida Man

If you don’t know who or what Florida Man is, you can check out his Twitter or just read about him on Wikipedia. The question here is why Florida Man?

The Wikipedia article notes that Florida’s open-records laws make it easier for journalists to write stories about random criminal weirdos — although that defense is from the Miami Herald, which maybe has a dog in the fight. Carl Hiaasen, native Floridian and long-time Herald columnist, has a less charitable take:

We do have this vortex of depravity in Florida. Strange things happen all over the country, bizarre and disturbing things. But Dave Barry will tell you the same thing: The sheer weight and volume of weirdness is unique to South Florida and now really all of Florida, all the way up to the Panhandle.

As a native Floridian, I agree with Hiaasen. Nowhere else I have lived has the deep antisocial tendencies that Florida does.

And why? Hiaasen’s theory — which I can’t find a link to — is basically that Florida is a magnet for weird people, that the weird ones are disproportionately likely to move down there from wherever.

There’s a sociological argument to be made that this is true, insofar as moving away from your home community requires you to disconnect from the social context of your life. A person with diminished social capacity is going to find that disconnect easier and more attractive than a person with normal social capacity.

Yes, there are some normal people in Florida, but the bias towards antisocial means that the weirdos are somewhat more prevalent than in other states. This increases the prevalence of single-actor weirdness, but also greatly increases the likelihood that two weirdos will meet up and do something weird together (or to each other). If this were a statistical model, the interaction term would be highly significant.

And it’s not that every person in Florida is antisocial — just that a larger proportion than other states we consider ‘normal’. And because Florida has such a big population, that translates to a big population of weirdos. Alaska, as best I can tell, also has a disproportionate share of weirdos, but because the total population is small the total number of weirdos and weirdo incidents is much less than Florida.

The weirdo-magnet theory works whether you believe diminished social capacity is a nature problem or a nurture problem. Probably some of both, but I tend to believe it is more a nurture problem: the antisocial weirdos don’t learn the requisite social skills and thus aren’t able to teach them to their offspring.

It’s also true for old people, as well as young. It is entirely possible for a person to conform to social norms for most of his working life, then retire to a life of social dysfunction in sunny Florida. I would argue that this phenomenon best explains why Florida’s government does so little to check antisocial behavior: oldsters who no longer give a damn about anybody are a crucial voting bloc.

Were the State of Florida – the government – more functional, it could play a major role in teaching residents and citizens the social skills necessary to live in civilization. Instead the state does pretty much the opposite, a negative feedback loop driving social dysfunction.

For centuries the state – in the general usage of the term – has been the vehicle for Western civilization, the vessel in which we have learned to live with one another. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the start of the Thirty Years’ War, a period of brutal political and social upheaval that ended the Holy Roman Empire’s domination of Europe and forged the modern system of sovereign nation-states.

That system has a checkered record, for sure, but there is also good evidence that the nation-state has made human civilization much less violent than it had previously been. The state has spent the last four hundred years teaching people to think about their actions, to behave with greater respect and less malice toward one another, and punishing transgressors. In the same way that Florida selects for weirdos, the nation-state selects for normal people — in fact, the state defines what counts as normal.

Not every weirdo in Europe was killed outright in this process — although many were. But Europe, through its colonies, had a relief valve for the weirdos, shipping them to places like… here. The Pilgrims and Puritans came to this land because they were religious minorities fleeing King Charles I (and that some later returned to England to fight against the king in the civil war).

And for centuries since, this country has welcomed misfits and rejects from Europe and elsewhere in the world. Again, it’s not that everyone is badly socialized — but enough are that we stand out in Western civilization. We have lagged behind consistently: you can measure it by our human rights record, our inequality, our social welfare spending, our propensity for war.

And because of our power and prominence, the weirdness of American society has global consequence. The U.S. is, in effect, the Florida of the industrialized world.

There is no better proof of this than President Trump. While Trump may seem too brash or blustery for New York, he is well within the normal curve for Florida. It is no coincidence that he spends most weekends in Florida — not New York. He was born up north, but his soul belongs down there.

We elected Florida Man because we are Florida Man. It’s easy for Americans to laugh at the weirdos in Florida, but a lot harder to get laughed at by the rest of the world. It’s important to ask — and understand — why.

Pilots, Passengers, and Power Politics

Many people have explored the economic factors leading to the beating of Dr. David Dao on United Flight 3411 last week. I want to address the political causes, as an instance of a more general political process.

By political, I mean the rules that United employees followed, invoked, and broke in the course of the incident. It is useful to ask where these rules come from and why they matter.

Although lots of early takes held that the rules allowed United to remove a passenger for basically no reason, there is a compelling argument that United broke their own Contract of Carriage and violated Federal regulations in the incident. Even if it is not a legally correct argument, in the eyes of a court, United likely will settle rather than take that chance. So we might never see a definitive answer.

Those early reactions were based not on close knowledge of formal rules, but rather general knowledge of an informal rule: that aircrew, especially pilots, have final and absolute authority over whether their passengers fly or not.

Savvy travelers know this, and use it to their advantage. People who fly with guitars or other large, valuable items know to ask the pilot’s permission to carry them on, rather than risk them in the cargo hold — even if the gate agent says otherwise.

On the other hand, this power is often used in arbitrary ways. Harper’s Magazine recently ran a list of reasons why passengers have been removed from aircraft for being or seeming Muslim. The list includes, among other things: “asked for a glass of water”; “asked for a second Diet Coke”; “saved seats for friends”; “read a book”; “solved an algebraic equation“; and “prayed for a safe flight”. In fact, passengers have been kicked off of flights for smelling alcohol on their pilot and reporting it.

We would not tolerate this caprice most anywhere else, except that we grant pilots extraordinary authority to make these decisions. Like the Dao case, courts might well find that pilots exceeded their authority and discriminated unlawfully in some of these cases. If nothing else, it should be obvious that a pilot who doesn’t get algebra is probably not smart enough to fly a plane safely.

The rule that gives pilots this sort of authority makes sense to us because we perceive flying as dangerous. In this case, pilots have a specific sort of power to ensure our safety, from their skill and training in flying the plane. We quite readily translate that capacity into power over us, the passengers.

There is a school of thought in politics that says people gain power over us because they take it by force; that the most powerful people, in the sense of their ability to use violence, are leaders in the natural order of things. This is wrong: almost always, people gain power-over from power-to. Even in brutally repressive regimes — like North Korea — the source of power-over is the power to manage the government apparatus.

Likewise, we do not let the biggest, meanest passenger decide who stays on the airplane or not. We give that power to the pilot, because we expect the pilot alone has the ability — the power — to fly the plane safely.

The problem is that power-to in a particular area does not always translate into a general ability to make good decisions about rules — again, North Korea. In those cases, granting power-over can make the problems we wish to solve even worse.

The Dao case and other lesser abuses point to this problem in air travel. It’s worth noting that our perception of the danger — the fear that legitimizes the pilot’s power — is way off. Not only is flying extremely safe, but the pilot is the most dangerous person on any airplane. Pilot error accounts for 60% of plane crashes; sabotage and terrorism only 9%.

Especially since 2001, we have accepted extreme incursions on our rights in the name of more secure air travel. But remember that pilots on four different aircraft failed to secure their aircraft that day; it was only passengers on United 93 who prevented their plane from hitting its target. And terrorists could have flown a plane into a building every Tuesday for all of 2001, and still not killed as many people as died in traffic fatalities did that year.* Yet we don’t accept nearly the degree of restriction and intrusion in our automobile travel, as we do in air travel.

The rule that pilots get extraordinary power over passengers makes less and less sense the more we look at it. Moreover, it is easy to imagine a better system: each airline or airport could employ a lawyer trained in aviation regulation and civil rights law to make those determinations at the gate, including those situations where passengers contest the flight crew’s sobriety. For in-flight situations with no sky marshal present, senior flight attendants could receive special training in those sorts of decisions, freeing the pilot to fly the plane.

This is a fairly simple example of a general difficulty we have in assigning authority. We over-estimate the extent to which particular power-to translates into responsible power-over, and we misunderstand the problems we need those powers to protect us from. When you scale this difficulty up to situations as complex as, say, a national government, the result can be profound dysfunction.

One example of this is Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services. Price trained as a surgeon, which is a certain kind of power-to. His success as a surgeon and businessman lead to his election to Congress, giving him a degree of power-over. On the basis of his medical and political credentials, he is now in charge of our national health care system, in all its complexity and moving parts. And it’s clear that he will use this power-over in arbitrary ways that harm, rather than help, the people under him. (You can puzzle out how this dynamic played in the Presidential election for yourself, I reckon.)

It’s not even that the wrong sort of power-to leads to power-over: there is also a strong bias in some quarters against anything that hints at prior experience or capacity to govern — against the ‘Washington insider’. The result is that our election systems work against the sort of power-to that translates into responsible power-over.

Some political theorists — including me — think we could do better by selecting our representatives by lottery, the way we do with jurors. Not that lottery is the ideal system, only that it is better than the one we have — especially in expanding representation across gender, minority, and class lines. Crucially, a lottery does not depend on our ability to correctly interpret power-to.

That doesn’t mean I’d prefer a lottery to select my pilot. I’m more interested in pilotless aircraft, and when that happens we will need to have the same conversation about who has power over passengers on commercial flights.

Key to that conversation is appreciating the difference between power-to and power-over, and our understanding that one does not always translate well into the other.

* Note to show my work: on 9/11, 2,996 people died in four plane crashes, for 749 per crash. By comparison, 42,196 people died in car crashes in 2001. That divided by 749 gives 56.3…. so even with a plane crash per week and three extra the week of 9/11, traffic was still deadlier by a margin of 1,001 deaths.

Let’s Maybe Not Start A Race War

When I was in college, a dorm mate came to me one day: “Are you going to this Khalid Muhammad speech?” I thought he meant the Al Qaeda leader, which seemed like a poor choice to invite to campus. Instead he meant Khalid Abdul Muhammad, former Nation of Islam leader and black power activist.

The ‘speech’ was a video tape played in the common room of the African-American Studies dorm. The audience was mostly African-American — except for me, my friend, and two Jewish kids who happened to live in the dorm.

The title of the speech was, “The Bullet or The Bullet“: Muhammad argued that the time had come to give up on political change, and that blacks should begin a shooting war to achieve equality. I think it was a condensed version of the speech — I remember it as being only 45 minutes or so. It was hateful, nonsensical, and deeply anti-Semitic.

When it ended, we discussed it. The Jewish students found it terrifying. But most of the black students found it thought-provoking, and the ease with which they processed Muhammad’s argument made me realize I didn’t understand race politics nearly as well as I thought I did. Which will probably always be true. But still…..

When it was my turn to discuss, I basically said: I’m from the South, and I grew up around plenty of white people who would be thrilled to fight a race war. They already have the guns and the hate and this video confirms many of their worst fantasies about black people.

You start shooting, those people are going to shoot back. And there’s a ton of them. Just strategically, this seems like not a good plan.

I don’t remember if my comments made any difference. We didn’t start a race war, so maybe?

Around the same time, I started teaching public speaking. One of the core concepts we drilled into our students was ‘audience analysis’. If you want people to believe you or buy your idea or change in any way, you have to understand who they are and how to motivate them.

This principle applies to political action as well, and in that arena the key debate is ‘respectability politics’. Do we assimilate the norms of our oppressors in hopes of changing their minds? Or reject those norms and insist on liberation on our own terms?

I am sympathetic to the latter idea, but… I’ve never seen it work. Right now Black Lives Matter is the most visible movement to disavow respectability. In three years their biggest accomplishment might be the extent to which they wigged out closet racists in this country. It’s not at all BLM’s fault, but white racist panic helped Trump win.

That said, I think ‘respectability’ is too narrow a construal of the central problem. Respectability is perhaps just an instance of a more abstract problem, that has more to do with how people relate to one another and how change occurs in social systems.

There’s a decent amount of research on how that sort of change occurs, and most of that research points to some form of interpersonal connection as key. Here’s an Atul Gawande story about changing health practices in which he paraphrases Everett Rogers, a leading scholar of social change:

[…]people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

You might have heard of the This American Life episode on changing minds, which featured a bogus study on canvassing techniques. The study was redone properly and showed support for the technique – which then was another TAL episode. Anyway, that canvassing technique depends on cultivating the know/trust interaction in face-to-face politics.

The sociological term for that know/trust aspect is ‘entrainment’ — the connection we get to other people at the face-to-face level. Entrainment is something we do instinctively, to varying degrees. Yet one reason identity politics is so powerful is that we find entrainment easiest with people who are more similar to us. The more the gap between two people, the more work has to happen for entrainment to occur.

You can think of the civil rights movement’s use of respectability as a way to cultivate entrainment. They couldn’t erase the skin color issue, but they did push back the class divide and some of the stereotypes that helped oppress black America. This is why it was so effective for demonstrators to wear nice clothes to demonstrations. It was also why making it an explicitly Christian movement helped.

Entrainment is the main reason I am skeptical of demonstrations as a change model. I’ve participated in a bunch, and they are great for the people who are already on your side. But they have to be very strategic to reach the people who aren’t. Demonstrations usually need a single, clear message, and careful management of visuals if they are to be persuasive.

When I taught civics, I showed my class pictures from various demonstrations, and asked them to tell me what was being protested. The civil rights protests were easy: the marchers all had similar signs, with a unified message. And that was basically the model for a long time.

Then you get into the ’90s, and start seeing people in elaborate costumes, like sea turtles — or this guy, with the hands, from the early 2000s. I don’t remember what he’s protesting — I think the Bush Administration — but what I get from this picture is how much he likes doing papier-mâché. Really, really, really likes papier-mâché. I wonder if he still has the hands.

It’s not to say that giant papier-mâché hands are pointless. Just to say, they probably won’t foster entrainment with people watching at home — unless those people are also fans of papier-mâché.
In 2002, when Bush was talking about a possible invasion of Iraq, I joined a march against that plan. I wore a suit, because I wanted to affect sober reason. A busload of hipsters from New York showed up in glitter heels and fur boas, with signs that said ‘Rockstars Against War’. I don’t know what their theory of change was, but it was wrong.

I have a pretty good idea how Rockstars Against War came to be: a bunch of friends sat around talking about the war protest, and decided it would be ‘super fun’ to dress up, and probably they’d get on TV. But they didn’t really consider the people who would be watching TV, and what they’d think or how they would change their minds. The people watching at home weren’t rockstars, and didn’t believe these hipsters were rockstars, either.

To some extent, I think debates about respectability politics are similar: more to do with the internal politics of the movement, than how it speaks to those outside. And I see how that can be important, for sure. Yet too much internal scrutiny ignores the people external to the movement, those minds whom we wish to change. And disregard for those minds — even if they are full of bad and hateful ideas — makes entrainment and change much more difficult. In fact, there is a ton of evidence that people are more likely to harden their views against you in those circumstances.

On the other hand, I think the respectability model is a bit overweening, insofar as it demands respectability in both private and public life. My sense is, you can be who and what you are in your private life and still be an effective advocate for social change — so long as you recognize advocacy as an extraordinarily public role and are careful to position yourself in ways that foster entrainment. That may indeed mean bending somewhat to norms you find oppressive, but it does not mean surrendering to them.

This is not an abstract problem for me. In my community — the sick and disabled — we put tremendous effort into making ourselves appear healthy, so that we can participate in public life. To the extent that illness and disability are socially constructed — it’s way more than you would guess — the norms that govern our lives are oppressive. We bend to those norms all the time, especially when we are trying to change them through our advocacy.

I understand the desire to win on one’s own terms, to win complete legitimacy and equality for your complete self. But is anybody their complete self in public? Do the norms we live under really give anybody that sort of freedom? My sense is that the norms are there to spare us the internecine conflict of our unrestrained selves.

And those norms are only ideas, kept in our minds. But they are kept in all our minds, as a society. We keep them together, so we have to change them together. And that means acknowledging and even cultivating the connections that allow us to change. Respectability is just one way to do that. Race war is not.

That’s my view of the question, in any case. If any of it sounds reasonable or useful, you might be interested in my book, Political (how people rule), which explains in more detail the ideas and concepts I’ve used in this post. I’m happy to let you read it free of charge.


“Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.”

The Forgotten Man, by John McNaughton

The promise that headlines this post is a quote from President Trump’s victory speech. It was a throw-away line — I doubt he had any sense as to how massive a promise it really was. But I want to talk about what that promise could mean, if someone were serious in making it.

I first heard the line recently, on an episode of Studio 360 on political art. In a segment with John McNaughton, while discussing his painting, “The Forgotten Man”, they ran a clip from Trump’s speech, as follows:

 Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Kurt Anderson, the host of Studio 360, pointed out that the ‘forgotten man’ was an idea popularized by FDR in the Great Depression. Andersen was implying Trump did not know where it came from, that he or his speechwriters probably picked it up due to the popularity of McNaughton’s painting on social media.

Here’s the thing: ‘forgotten’ is not key word in the quote. That would be ‘potential’. Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. Let that soak for a moment.

What could Trump possibly mean? A crude read is simply that Americans will get richer — will earn more money, and enjoy the trappings that more money brings. This lines up well with the rough populism at the core of his economic platform.

But taken literally, his words translate to something much deeper: perfect justice for America. That is a staggering promise for any candidate to make, even more so for Donald Trump.

To see how ‘full potential’ gets us there, you have to appreciate a concept implicit in that phrase: being. It’s an awkward gerund, but it means pretty much what it says: what we are and how much we can be. Trump promised us our full potential being.

Social scientists often use a way of thinking about problems called the ‘ladder of abstraction’. It’s the idea that if you can’t solve a problem, you move to a more abstract version of it. Economics do this all the time: “All things being equal…”. Jim Rosenau used to tell his students to ask, “Of what is this an instance…”. Being, in this sense, is a pretty high rung on the ladder.
In that abstract sense, our lives are negotiations of potential being. In practical terms, we express this in our desire for a good job, for high social status, nice house, those sorts of things. Almost all of what we want is ‘more being’, a rung or two up.

In the same abstract sense, most of what we consider injury or harm is a reduction of being. This is obviously and completely true if someone kills us — we have no being left. But it is also true when we are spurned as suitors, denied the promotion at work, or even when we feel we are not doing as well as our neighbors.

We can lump all of these together as forms of violence. Violence is anchored on the one end by death, of course, but it is a spectrum whose other end is fairly fuzzy. We can — and do — spend a lot of time arguing about what counts as violence on that other end. But it’s always a spectrum of harm — the end isn’t the opposite of violence, just the least thinkable amount of violence.

Abstracting violence to ‘reduction of being’ gives us a nice way to understand the opposite of violence. Using the concept of being, we can define justice as a state in which every person enjoys their fullest being. Justice is the most being we can claim, completely free of violence.The opposite of violence is justice.

So what Donald Trump promised was nothing less than perfect justice: the end of the American carceral state, the disarming of the military, and renewed commitment to the principles of liberty, equality, and justice… right? right? please?

No. He most definitely did not promise that. Because even if Trump were sincere in his promise of our potential being, at a deeper level his estimate of the potential being of every American is far too… conservative. He is, in practical terms, a giant bigot.

Just like we can talk about violence in terms of being, we can talk about bigotry in similar terms. Bigotry is a refusal of being. When a racist says something like, “blacks have lower IQs than whites”, we can abstract that to “blacks have less potential being than whites”. When a sexist says “women should know their place”, we can abstract that to “women’s potential being is incompatible with men’s being”.

And Donald Trump says things like that all the time. It’s clear he has deep prejudices against all sorts of people, in that he sees their lives as less worthy, less meaningful, less being than his own. It’s probably the case that he sees lots of his supporters in the same way, and doesn’t mind lying to them as such.

On the other hand, those of us who share a commitment to equality instead think that black people have the same potential being as anyone else, and that women’s fullest being is not incompatible with men’s. In fact, we might say we hold the view that our laws must assume all people are created with equal potential being. It’s awkward, right? So we can say “all people are created equal”, and get in the right neighborhood.

In terms of being, our commitment to equality and justice is therefore one and the same — inseparable and indistinguishable. They are two sides of the same marble.

Donald Trump promised us perfect justice — but he didn’t mean it. Only by working together for a more perfectly just society can we get anywhere close to our full potential.



In Whom We Trust

In a previous post, I said that Jim Rosenau and I underestimated the disruption to American politics from people going online. I want to expand on that, to consider whether we misunderstood the way people use the Internet, and how that affects social trust. The upshot: probably not.

Jim and I saw the Internet as a profound tool which people can use to improve their lives. Our premise was that most people would use it as such — a premise colored by our own use of the Internet as professionals committed to reason and knowledge. That commitment requires active use, however, to filter useless or bogus information.

What Jim and I did not appreciate is that not everyone uses the Internet the same way. Some — probably most — people use it much more passively, primarily for entertainment. More accurately: we knew that people use the Internet as entertainment, but failed to appreciate how passive use could matter. This may have been a mistake, at least where our research speaks to the 2016 election.

Insofar as it is an entertainment medium, the Internet might be much more like television than we anticipated. This is an important comparison: in a lecture in 1995, putnamRobert Putnam argued that the decline in social capital in the United States was due to television, at least in part. Television sucks up time that would instead be used for social and civic activity, leaving the viewer isolated and alone instead. Television also affects how people see the world around them, making them less trusting and more afraid. Putnam — in this photo from 1995, looking like he just murdered his family — expanded this argument in his famous book, Bowling Alone.
In the book, he includes the Internet with television as causing the decline in social capital.

Putnam used social trust and civic engagement as indicators of social capital. Here is a chart from the 1995 article based on his lecture, showing how social trust, newspaper reading, group membership, and voting vary based on age. The x-axis is year of birth: people born in years up to 1930 have high rates of all four, but these rates drop off sharply for people born from 1945 onward.  putnamtrust

Putnam said that this trend correlates well with the uptick in television viewing, and he found little evidence that other possible culprits explain the data. One of the consequences he pointed to was the ‘mean world effect’ — that television promotes pessimism of human nature, and a view of the world as more violent than it really is (this is also called mean world syndrome). Just offhand, I would guess this is likely a worse problem for the Internet, for those who are passive users.

For a rough look at whether the Internet is in fact making things worse, I went back into the data. I made this graph from the same General Social Survey data that Putnam used for some of his data two decades ago — it’s still being updated regularly. (I did not apply any smoothing to the graph; Putnam used 5-year moving averages). Keep in mind that this is 2014 data (voting for the 2012 election), where Putnam used 1994 data (the 1992 election). So, for example, where 70% of respondents born in 1930 voted in 1992, 100% of them voted in 2012. Granted, 2012 was a historic election, with unusual turnout across the board.  socialtrust

For someone born in 1940, social trust was around 40% in 1994, and about the same in 2014; for a person born in1950 it was 35% in 1994, but twenty years later it was just over 40%. For someone born in 1960, it was just under 30% in 1994, but over 40% in 2014. If anything, social trust has increased for a given age cohort in the last two decades. This is not definitive, but it surely does not support the idea that the Internet is making things worse. Which is a relief for Jim and me — it means we did not totally miss the forest.

Eric Uslaner, who has studied the problem far more than I have, says pretty much the same thing. From this graph, published in a Pew Research Center report, he argues that the disparity in trust between millennials and other generations is due to economic inequality. Overall, it’s hard to say from these graphs that social trust is significantly decreased from its 1987 levels (although, it turns out, there is research that shows it is in decline).


More significant than any year-to-year trend is the generational effect. It is clear that millennials trust less than Gen X, who trust less than Boomers & the Silent Generation. Uslaner specifically discounts the suggestion that Internet usage makes a difference between millennials and any other generation.

It is still possible that the difference between active and passive use of the Internet affects social trust; however, there is not enough difference from generation to generation in who uses the Internet actively and who uses it passively to show in the data. We cannot blame that difference for generational differences in social trust.

I would also point out that the study Uslander cites does not adequate address the consequence of coming of age in a post 9/11 America. Considering that millennials have been fed a steady diet of fear and xenophobia, it would be hard to imagine them coming to adulthood with a great deal of social trust.

How do we improve social trust? Obviously, fix the economy — specifically with respect to inequality. Second, civic engagement of the sort Putnam proposes. It is heartening to see so many people across generations engaged in activism, although those people were likely high social-trust voters in the first place.

Third, I do think there is a role for the Internet in increasing social trust, especially when it comes to combating harassment and bullying online, and helping cement social norms against that sort of behavior. I also think we are just beginning to renegotiate the sources of authority online: in lay terms, we’re just starting to deal with the fake news problem.

Low social trust is a crucial problem for our democracy. While it is low, it is not the lowest it has ever been. The Internet is — sigh of relief — not making things worse, as far as we can tell.

Politics For People

Today I renamed this blog — from The Violence Of Nations. The original title reflected my dissertation topic when I started this blog, intending it as a catch-all for random bits generated in that process. (If you go to the earliest posts, you’ll see what I mean.)

But I have not been in the process of writing a dissertation for… almost 4 years, at least officially. I say officially because they officially told me I was in the process of writing a dissertation for a few years prior to that, but in retrospect I was merely on a snipe hunt.*

Anyway, the new title reflects my current interests and my efforts to plug the manuscript, plus I hope to hop on the populism bandwagon. The Violence of Nations was too dark for most people, I think, and anyway it didn’t describe most of my posts. This new title is blander, but more apt.

*In the sense that a snipe hunt is a hazing ritual and that if you refuse to do it for the sound empirical reason that snipe are real birds that do not live anywhere near your Scout camp and the proposed method for hunting them is absurd, the older Scouts will accuse you of being uptight and insist that snipe are make-believe anyway. That I was unwilling to hunt snipe as a 13 y.o. probably says a lot about the kind of graduate student I became. Yet somehow I still earned my Eagle Scout.