Monday, June 21, 2010

Tea Party Critics: Mixing and Matching

The following mixes and matches several quite different groups, confounding Tea Party activists will a long list of varied demographics:

The Very Angry Tea Party

In a bracing and astringent essay in The New York Review of Books, pointedly titled "The Tea Party Jacobins," Mark Lilla argued that the hodge-podge list of animosities Tea party supporters mention fail to cohere into a body of political grievances in the conventional sense: they lack the connecting thread of achieving political power. It is not for the sake of acquiring political power that Tea Party activists demonstrate, rally and organize; rather, Lilla argues, the appeal is to "individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power." He calls Tea Party activists a "libertarian mob" since they proclaim the belief "that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone." Lilla cites as examples the growth in home schooling, and, amidst a mounting distrust in doctors and conventional medicine, growing numbers of parents refusing to have their children vaccinated, not to mention our resurgent passion for self-diagnosis, self-medication and home therapies.

It's not left or right anger in the U.S. -- it's a general, strange, disconnected anger against all large institutions. We've lost faith in a lot of organizations, regardless of our political views.

This article is an absurd simplification, a caricature of parents opposed to vaccination mandates. I don't agree with the anti-vaccine movement, but to group all vaccine skeptics with the Tea Party movement is absurd. There are left, right, and center individuals opposed to vaccine mandates for different reasons.

Most of the anti-vax and homeopathy people I know are on the moderate to far political left. They often complain about gov't vaccination requirements while also arguing for empirical evidence-based medical care. Pick and choose the science / gov't agency you trust, I suppose? It would be wrong to say all New Age, alternative medicine embracing, left-leaning people are anti-vaccine. Some are, some aren't.

In the middle of the political spectrum, there are those who are anti-vaccine mandate. There are libertarian arguments that any mandate on people is, necessarily, a limit on individual choice and free will. Again, just as with the left, there are pro and con vaccine approaches among libertarians. Some support "opt-in" and some support "opt-out" requirements for childhood vaccinations. (No libertarians I know support absolute mandates, but I'm sure those individuals also exist.)

On the religious "conservative" right, refusing medical care, including vaccines, is based on interpretations of faiths. I have met Christians and Muslims who oppose injecting anything into blood. I don't understand the scriptural basis, but the point is that these people aren't basing their anti-vaccine position on politics alone, but on faith.

Simple generalizations about people are generally wrong. The New York Times columnists have generalized to the point of grouping people together who don't actually share political views. Again, I am not a vaccine skeptic, but I think this article was incomplete and unfair to people of all political views.

Here is the basic problem: The column author and the columnist cited view all skeptics as one group: Tea Party radicals. If you are skeptical of what the authors believe, you must be a Tea Party radical. You can't be logical, reasonable (and on the political left), if you question any government mandate or program. You can't question education, medicine, or any other "public good" and not be drifting towards that Jacobean mob that is the Tea Party.

Such arguments, coming from a professor of philosophy no less, are weak and disturbingly sloppy. I know plenty of liberals, libertarians, and even "socialists" who do not trust any large organizations. Not exactly members of the Tea Party movement, either.

Sadly, nuance seems beyond political debates.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Academic Groupthink = Political Homogeneity

Reflections on:

Groupthink in Academia
Majoritarian Departmental Politics and the Professional Pyramid
February 11, 2009
Daniel B. Klein, Charlotta Stern
The Independent Review, Spring 2009

I have two reactions to this article and, admittedly, my views are at odds on the surface.

1. We hire people like ourselves and seek to work in a place that mirrors our views.
2. Universities should be different and attempt to encourage debate and discussion.

I don't know how to bring these two views into alignment. I would, however, draw a distinction between the humanities and "hard" sciences / engineering. The humanities are dominated by political theoreticians, while the differences in math, science, engineering, and medicine are less "political."

This does not mean there are not serious intellectual differences that shape every discipline; from computer science to physics there are debates about which lines of research to follow. The debates in physics are particularly interesting. However, it is not unusual to have a broad range of theoretical physicists at a major university.

By comparison, the like-mindedness of professors within the humanities results in narrow scholarship. The humanities end up framing scholarship in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, and so on. The left-leaning emphasis has been noted by researchers, though explanations vary (New York Times, 18 Jan 2010). Some suggest, as I would, that like-minded people end up working together. The downside is that students only hear one dominant ideology, expressed by professors they view as enlightened role models. It's only natural the students want to emulate their prestigious professors.

Most intellectuals develop ideological sensibilities by the age of twenty-five or thirty (Sears and Funk 1999), and afterward they rarely revise them substantially. Intellectual delight and existential comfort are taken not in reexamining prior decisions, but in refining and developing ideas along the lines already mastered (Ditto and Lopez 1992; Nickerson 1998). Professors are likely to respect scholars who pursue questions similar to their own and who master similar modes of thought.

Aspiring professors are often in graduate school during their twenties. This means they are establishing their ideological biases surrounded by professors. It's not much different in business, with young middle-managers or stock brokers all gathered around business leaders they admire. Biases are reinforced.

The notion of being so good that personality and politics don't matter is a nice, but naive ideal. Academic settings are particularly personality-based in the humanities. Few people care if a computer programmer is anti-social, or even if a physics professor is a little odd. But, the humanities are about people -- and the social aspects can dominate department structures.

Outsiders often think that the classical-liberal or conservative professor needs only to get tenure in order to ensure his professional success and psychic well-being. But imagine building a career through graduate school and pretenure employment (about eleven years) before feeling able to be yourself. You then find you are no longer yourself—not that your ideological views have changed much, but that any ideological motivation has likely receded. You "go native," as they say. Your twenties and early thirties are a crucial period of development, and these developments cannot be reversed. Moreover, even after being granted tenure, you depend on department colleagues for pay raises, resources, teaching assignments, scheduling, promotions, recognition, and consideration. Tenure alone is clearly not a refuge for the departmental miscreant.

How insular are academic departments in the humanities? The following data are revealing:

The hiring of senior faculty by prestigious departments is even more incestuous than the hiring of new PhDs.... Of the 430 full-time faculty employed by the top 20 sociology departments ... only 7 (less than 2 percent) received their PhD from a non–top 20 department, worked for three or more years in a non–top 20 department, and, after building their scholarly reputations, advanced to a faculty position in one of the top 20 departments. (2004, 247–49, 251)

The entire "top 20" idea bothers me a bit, for a number of reasons. The fact they rank each other and then hire in a self-referential loop is absurd. Yale hires from Harvard hires from Stanford hires from Yale. Not a lot of variation in the end. And students are exposed to a bland, homogeneity without necessarily realizing it. If every wise professor thinks the same way, that must be the right way to think.

As I said, I'm not sure how to change this. What I do know is that I think quite differently from my peers -- but I also went back to school in my late 30s after working in private industry. My views are more like those of the business people I admire than the professorship I encountered. Students need to know how business people think, but I don't see how that is going to happen.

At least I admit my biases were shaped by living and working outside academia. More professors should be recruited from the business world into the humanities.