Yours, Mine, and Ours: Confessing a Philosophical Theft

In a post today, my longtime friend Leigh Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution and appropriating her idea of “friendly fire” in my response to Noma Arplay and Joseph Trullinger. In this post, I want to acknowledge my error and say a few things about the difference between our two conceptions of “friendly fire.”

To be clear: the phrase is hers, and I credit her for it. But I failed to link to her blog in my post: I linked to my old post, which itself links to her post. Most readers will not follow those links, and so most readers would not see the larger context. In cases like those, it’s important to link explicitly (like this and this) if only to produce trackbacks. Johnson is actually a champion at this particular practice (as you can see in the post in question but really all the time), and I needed to emulate her.

Additionally, I’ve appropriated the term for a different idea, and erased her usage in the process. The ideal that I articulated under that name is distinct from Johnson’s. In brief, I believe she has a basically “Aristotelian” conception and I have an “Arendtian” one. So I was using “friendly fire” to name a concept that I believe is Hannah Arendt’s by way of Lessing. That’s important to me, because I articulated that ideal in my dissertation long before I had a disagreement with Johnson about moral realism. I stole material in my dissertation to write that post and I want to be clear which parts are Johnson’s and which parts mine.

Here is what I take to be Johnson’s idea of “friendly fire:”

On the contrary, almost all of the fights that I have with my “true” friends work to reinforce the idea that they are exactly the kinds of people I think they are: people who are committed to their ideas, convicted by their values, fearlessly engaged in the world and with the people that constitute our shared lives. It is because of that character that I find we are able, as Aristotle says, to “live together.”

For Johnson, “friendly fire” is when disagreements happen between people of conviction, commitment, and engagement. Since (on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendships should not be dissolved by disagreement, but (also on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendship should involve shared judgments of pleasure and pain, Johnson argues that among her “true” friends, arguing with conviction is not a sign of a lack of shared judgments, taking pleasure and pain in different things. Rather, having and valuing commitments is what gives all such friends pleasure (and lacking them gives pain.)Among her perfect friends, disagreement is evidence that we are like-minded by virtue of having convictions worth disagreeing over.

I say that this is all “on Aristotle’s terms” but Johnson’s reading of those passages against each other goes beyond the text and deserves to be called “Johnsonian.” What she ultimately shares with true friends is commitment-as-such rather than specific commitments: this makes volleys of friendly fire the source of friendship rather than an impediment to it. (And I’ll note that she’s displaying that sort of friendship here, for which I am grateful.)

The conception of “friendly fire” I used back in 2009 was always intended to be a distinct one from Johnson’s, while intending to preserve credit for the phrase Johnson used and to be inspired by her Aristotle-inflected account. It is derived from a reading of the truth/fact distinction described by Arendt, both in the way it plays out in her Lessing prize address, and in the way she develops it in her essays on truth and lying in politics. It played a crucial role in the first chapter of my dissertation, which was finished years before my exchange with Johnson. In the subsequent years, I’ve used that phrase “friendly fire” and the ideal it describes on many occasions, always linking back to the 2009 post. So in that sense, Johnson’s distinct conception of the term really has been elided: I stole it to refer to something about Arendt for which I didn’t have a good name.

I’ve also conflated this conception of disagreeable friendship with Maurice Blanchot’s Infinite Conversationeven though Blanchot’s actual conception of the phrase “infinite conversation” is radically different than Arendt’s, than Lessing’s, and than Johnson’s. It’s really just the title phrase “infinite conversation” I like: the idea of taking a position just for the sake of disagreement among friends who savor argument; to Johnson’s “principled” and “engaged” disagreement, I contrasted Arendt’s pluralism: disagreement for its own sake, to extend the conversation.

Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution: I didn’t link to her at all, throughout the most recent post. I mentioned her name at the start, but by the end she had dropped out. Now, Johnson calls this erasure, and I think she’s right. I erased her name, and added a different one, and I erased her concept, and added a different one. I kept the term as my own, and I really have spent the last seven years thinking in terms of “friendly fire” quite often without also thinking of my friend Leigh Johnson. So Johnson is right here:

I suppose someone might argue (maybe even Miller himself) that the insertion of “Arendtian” distinguishes what he calls “my ideal” and my (Johnson’s) idea of “friendly fire.” No reader could make that argument, though, because the actual content of my idea of “friendly fire” was erased from the get-go.

I agree: I actually did erase the content of her idea. I did it from the “get-go” in my most recent post. And that will tend to lead to confusion about what belongs to whom, and since the term is hers I really should get my own or use one of Arendt’s. Johnson has always had a gift for pithiness, and I appropriated it. Mea culpa: it is my fault, and I apologize.

So that is the “yours” and the “mine.” Let me say a bit about the “ours.” Leigh Johnson has been my fiery friend for more than twelve years; we’ve basically always found each other disagreeable in the friendliest ways. So the content of my conception of “friendly fire” was always about our friendship–especially our frequent disagreements on the blogs–no matter which philosophers were referenced. For her role in helping me develop my thoughts on Arendt in practice, I owed her much more than she received in the last post.

And it gets worse: I must confess to a further crime. Good citation practices should really have required me to refer to Johnson’s essay (with Ed Kazarian) on tone policing. For a lot of us in this little group of fiery-friendly professional philosophers, that post was a major influence on how we’ve thought and talked about tone and tenor in philosophy for the last couple of years. Now, the position I take at the end of my last piece, spelling out desiderata for a (third? fourth?) conception of friendship, is a bit more conciliatory and so is not really fully compatible with Johnson’s and Kazarian’s critique of civility and collegiality. I do try to spell out a disposition for all practitioners that is not combative. But it’s important to cite and work through relevant prior work on a topic: it’s a good scholarly practice, and this is ultimately a scholarly blog.

I’ve also now learned that the conception of “taking pleasure in being proven wrong” may be itself owed to another friend. Kate Norlock’s published article on the ideal of receptivity captures much of what excited me in Sam’s comment. An excerpt should tempt you to read the rest:

Generally, philosophers provide arenas for argumentation to advance understanding or ascertain the truth; if one is engaged in a community whose members hold that truth is best tested by some rigorous argumentation designed to experiment with whether a counterargument succeeds or fails, then adversariality of a sort is a receptive practice.

This means that how or whether one goes about the adversarial project depends upon which philosophical community provides the opportunities for argumentation. One with the explicit goal of ascertaining through analytical methods whether an argument is nearer or further from the truth will require a different sort of rigorous inspection from an organization dedicated to investigating the historical accuracy of a translation, or a workshop exploring the interconnections between new scholars’ related research for an anthology. I frequent feminist conferences in communities that have quite publicly committed to a reduction of adversariality and offered alternative models of engagement. There, what receptivity demands of me is different. This picture of the philosophical aims of communities is complicated when one enters general gatherings populated by people with different commitments, some of whom value adversarial methods highly and some of whom deplore the same methods. Although one’s task in such plural communities is more difficult, it is not a reason to discount receptivity. Sometimes the golden mean is hard to hit. We should still try.

That’s good, right? Norlock has really worked out–using Nel Nodding’s conception of care–an account of receptivity that Sam’s comment and perhaps also the fiery friendship that Joseph Trullinger is developing.

One last thing: Johnson charges me with a kind of unintentional misogyny. This is a difficult charge to evaluate internally, and is best judged by others, especially Johnson. I think everything she says on this point is true in general, but I am tempted to argue that substituting one woman’s ideas (Arendt’s) for another’s (Johnson’s) in response to a third female scholar (Arpaly) and using others (Kristie Dotson and Maria Lugones) to make the point doesn’t feel quite like a good exemplar of the true, pervasive, and general problem Johnson points out.

Yet at the same time, there is ample evidence that women must be much more qualified than men to receive the same esteem and citation, so that substituting more famous woman for a less famous one will tend to contribute to that trend. So there, too, more care was and is warranted, and I owed it to my friend–more than I owed it to the subject of my dissertation–to make sure she got credit

Friendly Fire and Fiery Friendship: Noma Arpaly, Joseph Trullinger, and the Tenor of Philosophy Conversation

I often refer back to this post about a disagreement with Leigh Johnson over the role of critical engagement in philosophy. Using Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in her Lessing Prize address, I described what I took to be the pleasure of disagreement in our profession:

Even when we retreat to our armchairs for solitary thought, we are not alone: we are drawn to each other because we share a commitment to these inquiries no matter where they may lead, and because we need the support of a community of fellow inquirers. The corollary is that, among philosophers, it is considered honorable to take on the position of devil’s advocate in order to introduce needed pluralism and distinction into a discussion. Among us, holding unfashionable views is needed and strangely satisfying. When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!

Johnson’s phrase has stuck with me over the years. I’ve often used it when welcoming correction, or when explaining why my own critical engagement with a friend is meant to be a sign of respect.

Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?

I was reminded again of that exchange by Noma Arpaly’s excellent discussion of politeness (and rudeness) in philosophical debate. As Arpaly tells it, philosophers tend to violate two interrelated conversational norms, without distinguishing them: we are frequently rude, and we frequently engage in disagreement and correction. Among civilians, there is a strong non-correction norm that tends to go along with other norms like not hypothetically threatening or actually sneering at our colleagues.

Yet Arpaly wants to endorse violations of the non-correction norm, while preserving other norms of civil behavior. She creates an analogy to soldiers: the military requires soldiers to violate a widely held norm of pacifism–not-killing. But they must discipline soldiers not to thereby justify other norm violations–killing civilians and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against killing people, some soldiers find themselves shedding other moral inhibitions—and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against correcting people, some philosophers find themselves shedding other social inhibitions—and being terribly, terribly rude.

That’s just the nature of inhibition loss.

It’s a real problem. Arpaly counsels us to make the relevant distinctions and discipline ourselves all the harder on civility given that we’re already engaged in an unavoidable violation of the norm of non-correction. This seems exactly right.

Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong

On the Daily Nous thread on Arpaly’s piece, “Sam” writes:

Excellent post. I think there’s another, corresponding virtue worth cultivating here which could (cumbersomely) be called: “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong,” the disposition to feel exhilaration when corrected by a polite (even if “frightening”) objector. The reason we should try to feel pleasure in being (politely and civilly) corrected, rather than embarrassment or humiliation, is simply that, as the author points out, this kind of correction improves our positions in ways that are nearly impossible to achieve by other means. In a sense then, objectors (provided they are not hostile or rude) are really just assisting the presenter towards a goal they both share (doing good philosophy). Of course, it’s essential that the objectors appreciate this shared goal as well, and present their objections accordingly. If all parties view successful objections as pleasurable, mutually beneficial exchanges rather than humiliating losses or merciless victories, there will be fewer frightened presenters and fewer rude objectors.

What I liked about Sam’s comment was that it seemed to endorse and extend the Arpaly analysis by saying, “Here is a way that we can endorse a norm of correction without endorsing rudeness.” That this is actually my view (I like to be corrected so I can be correct) made me doubly happy to see it percolate up in a comment from another person.

This is not to put the victims of philosophers’ rudeness on the hook for responding gladly to their behavior. The “glad to be (shown) wrong” norm applies equally to objectors and presenters; more to the point, it applies even more to rude objectors than to anyone else, who must prove they really do mean to correct and not just to humble the presenter. Arpaly endorses violations of the norm of non-correction: she is no pacifist, as she says.

But describing an attack (of the “What if I slap you?” variety) is rude in part because it puts vulnerable others in an uncertain position: they’re required to pretend that disembodied philosophers never would do what they say. But this goes well beyond violating basic civility: discomfiting one’s interlocutor does nothing productive at the level of correction and even interferes with shared inquiry. It’s not that we must sometimes violate basic civility in order to violate the norm of non-correction: it fails on both counts.

Many philosophical practices must be rethought in this light: interruption, for instance, is pretty obviously a violation on her view and on the “glad to be wrong” view. You don’t interrupt someone if you’re engaged in mutual beneficial exchange, because that assumes that you already know the outcome of that exchange. Nor do you ask questions that are really just coded assertions of error: you actually engage with the interlocutor about whether there are corrections to the (shared) position within the evolving inquiry.

We must, we must be friends!

For Arendt, the philosopher needs disagreeable friends in order not to be lost to the crowd’s violent enforcement of the non-correction norm. Philosophers need to disagree with each other so that we are not isolated by our disagreement. Thus, the norms of disagreement arise from the intrinsic good of intellectual friendships. As Arendt put it:

“[Lessing] was glad that… [truth] if it ever existed, had been lost; he was glad for the sake of the infinite number of opinions that arise when men discuss the affairs of the world.”

We wrestle with hard questions–take detours into difficulty–because it is our excuse to spend time together. For Arendt, the philosophical project may have some or another goal–to think what we are doing, for instance, or prevent nuclear war–but its true function is to give we disagreeable ones an excuse to reach out to friends like ourselves (alike in the virtues of agreeable disagreement.) It’s thus primarily a practice of friendship in homonoia, like-mindededness. This is what makes “friendly fire” palatable: that we have deeper bonds that salve the blows when we do not pull our punches.

My friend and former colleague Joseph Trullinger comments further:

Arpaly undermines the point with the war analogy, because it doesn’t go deep enough into the psychology informing the mood of the rude dude. Really, I think Arpaly is proposing something more like a “gentlemanly” duel in contrast to “unsportsmanlike” war, when it’s the martial virtues themselves that are the problem here. I think patriarchy instills in us (where by “us” I mean especially men, such as myself) this idea that the defense of one’s honor legitimates the use of aggression, but it is really putting lipstick on a pig. The fighting done to regain or steal away social standing is like sweeping leaves on a windy day, and it may in the first place be wrong to do. Philosophy has for too long patterned itself after polemos, war, and been polemics; I think there’s a reason Nietzsche’s depiction of the philosopher as warrior of ideas appealed to me more when I was a reedy hormonal teenager, as these sorts of self-descriptions appeal to men undergoing a crisis of masculinity. The issue is not that we have been “too soft” with ourselves and need someone from the outside to be “hard” on us. The issue is that we worship hardness itself at the expense of what we tell ourselves we’re defending with it. Here I draw a lot of insight from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” (h/t Joan Braune). Yeah, Achilles looks cool, and he takes offense over something trivial, but don’t get carried away with that pretext for allowing or gloating over more violence. Briseis is not the issue here, dude. Nor is it actually Achilles’ honor, or Agamemnon’s honor. It’s the idea that life is all about enforcing one’s life in the push and pull of force and counterforce. The intellectual “battlefield” is not the Iliad, nor should it be. Instead, we should foster the hospitality we see so many good examples of in the Odyssey.

TL;DR: less andreia, more xenia

Trullinger goes on to recommend that we replace my ideal of Arendtian “friendly fire” with a related one: “fiery friendship.”

It seems like an important point: too often in praise for “agonism” we tend to treat the conflicts as if they are self-justifying. We somehow need the agon to achieve the intrinsic goods of flourishing; we wrestle to develop strength and skill, which is the real function. We argue not because we are engaged in a collective project but because honing the arguments themselves is supposedly tied to the good life.

Trullinger reminds me that the “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong” attitude requires more than just contention for the fun of it. Correction requires correctness; we cannot bracket truth for the sake of the infinite conversation and hope that that conversation will have the same character. Indeed, bracketing a shared commitment to truth-seeking leads to just the kinds of hurtful “games” that Arpaly rightly refuses to play.

Fiery Friendship and Philosophical Hospitality

In the backdrop here is the status of women in the profession. Arpaly suggests that the rudeness may be particularly off-putting to vulnerable participants, and that a move civil tenor will make the profession more welcoming. At least some of the masculinist norms of epistemic arrogance (interruption and “Well actually” and so on) have non-pathological roles to play in parts of our social lives. The really unprofessional thing is when we treat conference presenters the same way we treat our buddies or teammates.

Women, Arpaly suggests, are just as “glad to be wrong” as men. They too can violate the norm of non-correction in service of a shared inquiry. But the profession still doesn’t welcome them, and it demonstrates this inhospitable demeanor by treating philosophy as a game whose rules are constantly changed, or perhaps like hazing: where jocular rudeness and dishing out and receiving contempt are a part of how the game is played. This has the effect of protecting the space as a region of rough play–and certainly many women and other diverse practitioners can survive in such spaces, and many men cannot–but what would it mean to make it welcoming and inclusive?

Trullinger’s view seems to be that we ought to endorse the spirit of “glad to be wrong” by being particularly welcoming to those who are unlike us: those who are most likely to find the space of rough play unwelcoming, with whom we lack homonoia. True strangers are those who can offer us grounds for disagreement much stranger than mere contradiction.

I sometimes joke that we only ever hear calls for ideological diversity in political matters, and never Thomistic approaches to quantum mechanics or a nurse’s eye-view on bioethics. But Trullinger means what he says: he actually does want to see an expansive ideological diversity in non-political matters, to study Mexica metaphysics, queer philosophy of time, Byzantine logic, and Confucian epistemology.

Some desiderata: fiery friendship should allow joyful disagreement and also charitable agreement; it should offer opportunities for world-traveling and loving perception. It should be an avid fan of the unfamiliar. It should be glad to be proven wrong and it should be receptive–not just to correction but–to a complete redirection of our projects. It should welcome the vulnerable and make them strong. It shouldn’t punch down, or slap down, or suggest hypothetical down-slapping. It might even entertain actual pacifism, which need not be weak.

Nationalistic Dissent: Trump, the Tea Party, and the “Bowling for Fascism” Study

Civic engagement folks need to talk about nationalist populism.

In the past I have praised movements with which I have no ties for at least giving voice to groups of my fellow citizens who are frequently excluded from policy and electoral politics because they hold noxious views. Both the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seem to have tapped a part of the US that usually have no representatives who will speak louder than a dog whistle on their behalf. As a proponent of participatory politics, I’ve often thought that the exclusion of nationalistic white people is undemocratic, just as I have thought that the exclusion of leftist non-whites would be undemocratic.

My guide in these things has usually been Hannah Arendt, who praised political participation and criticized the exclusivity of bureaucratic proceduralism. All democratic theorists confront this question in some way: why is it better for a people to govern themselves rather than submit to the dictates of some (richer, wiser, more virtuous) subset of their number? We sometimes speak of politics as a decision-theory, so that a form of government that depends on bureaucracy is no more or less just than any other: everything depends on the characters, or perhaps simply the decisions, of those who rule, no matter whether we call them administrators or aristocrats.

In contrast, Arendt often pointed to the spontaneous development of councils in revolutionary settings when explicating the ideal institutions of political life. On Arendt’s account, the councils of the Hungarian revolution closely resembled the Constitutional Congress and ward system proposed by Thomas Jefferson as an alternative to political parties, the ad hoc groupings of citizens during the French Revolution, and the soviets that succumbed to party unification after the Russian Revolution. Everywhere, the building blocks of politics seem to form the same basic shapes, only to be assembled into different forms due to ideologies, foreign pressures, or historical ideals. According to Arendt, the councils predate the formation of interest groups, they federate easily and advance their most excellent members as representatives to more central councils. The councilors are principally concerned with the establishment of the polis, and so strategy often succumbs to republican altruism. In the US and Europe, lacking as we do anything approaching a revolutionary context, the institutions that most closely resemble councils are deliberative polls.

What the councils, wards, and townships all have in common is that they enact a vision of democratic politics in which democracy is understood as isonomy, meaning equality both before the law and in the legislation. And isonomy is only possible if all citizens participate as equals and develop equal civic capacities, no matter what their ideology. In fact, this participation itself produces certain kinds of inclusive and non-dominating norms, such that to exclude our fellow citizens is to destroy the very power and capacity by which we act.

She sums up the problem in her brief essay On Violence: “Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” Where power designates the human ability to act in concert, violence emanates from a singular act whose explosive consequences are utterly out of the actor’s control. For Arendt, power is a characteristic of human collectivities: where a plurality forms, the potential for action becomes realizable. Violence, for Arendt, is a perversion of that appearance, insofar as what appears to the members of the group is the possibility of impossibility: terror in the face of the potential for one’s own death. On Arendt’s view of violence, the violent one exposes her fellows to their own mortality by reminding the assembly of the risks of gathering together with others who, like themselves, are fundamentally unpredictable. She may seek to control their activities through this violence, to force them to obey her commands, or she may seek to disperse them and their collected potential for even more unpredictable actions, including mob rule and widespread violence.

Though they usually appear together, violence and power are nonetheless opposites: “…where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” (Arendt 1970, 155) The inseparable contraries of power and violence are best seen at work in the efforts of a democratically-controlled police force, where they work in tandem. When they come into conflict, however, the conclusion is foregone: violence wins. The “textbook case” of such a confrontation is the Prague Spring, when “the head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the people in Czechoslovakia” demonstrated the vulnerability of power in the face of violence. (Arendt 1970, 151-2) Of course, the encounter is usually not so unalloyed, and the violence necessary to subdue power is not always palatable to the state. Thus nonviolent resistance like that adopted by the Indian decolonization movement under Gandhi is quite capable of giving pause to an overwhelming force if that force is itself aware of the capacities and risks associated with violence: “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but its price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is paid by the victor in his own power.” (Arendt 1970, 152) Violence can settle the present debate, but it renders every subsequent discussion uncertain because of the fear that it will be settled as the murderer settles the argument over the life of his victim: with a bullet.

This has long been my way of thinking about politics and hate: that hatred breeds violence, and violence is of limited effectiveness for building lasting political institutions. And simultaneously: inclusive institutions will tend to tamp down both hatred and violence, make us realize the inefficacy of hate and self-destructive character of violence.

Thus civic engagement would be civilizing.

And yet: this was always a kind of cherry-picked idealized political theory for Arendt and for me. It may well fail the test of empirical verification. A few years ago, Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer, and Hans-Joachim Voth published a study on the relationship between social capital and Nazi party affiliation in Germany called “Bowling for Fascism,” where they showed that “social capital aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.”

This was a disheartening result. We often talk about Germany between the World Wars as if it was an unrelenting economic and social depression. But in fact, many Germans still had strong social ties and institutional memberships: not just militaristic, but chess clubs, choirs, and animal breeding clubs that seemed to contribute to the rise of the Nazi Party: “a dense fabric of civic associations went hand-in-hand with a more rapid rise of Nazi party membership.”

Social associations are thus no more good or bad than any other capacity: they are as prone to justice as injustice, as prone to democratic norms as undemocratic ones! As Satyanath and his co-authors describe the state of this research, this connection between authority and social capital goes well beyond Nazi Germany: we see similar mechanisms impeding development in Sierra Leone in the research of Daron Acemoglu, Tristan Reed, and James A. Robinson:

[C]hiefs that face fewer constraints build social capital as a way to control and monitor society. This mechanism may also induce people to invest in patron-client relations with powerful chiefs, thus giving them a vested interest in the institution. Hence, if in surveys people say that they respect the authority of elders and those in power, this is not a reflection of the fact that chiefs are effective at delivering public goods and services or represent the interests of their villagers. Rather, rural people appear to be locked into relationships of dependence with traditional elites.

Social capital and civic power, thus, can be tools of both isonomy and oppression. Like many other forms of human organization, the strategies and institutions that we develop to collaborate with each other are not universally good or bad. We can democratically deliberate about violence, racism, and misogyny and come to any conclusion at all.

The burgeoning self-awareness of white national populists within the Tea Party and now in support of Donald Trump for president are unlikely to win an election any time soon. But insofar as they are now busy building lasting relationships, institutions, and sources of support and political power, this need not have a moderating or cosmopolitan effect. In fact, empowering our fellow citizens could easily lead to much worse outcomes. We might well hope that they would continue to lack a voice in our political system.

Consider Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns: we normally see more participation as a non-partisan activity. Indeed the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service both define it as such, so that wealthy donors may fund GOTV as a charitable contribution without campaign spending limits. Yet it’s now become de rigueur to use targeted GOTV camaigns as a part of partisan electoral strategies. Democrats focus their GOTV spending on likely Democratic voters, Republicans focus their GOTV spending on their own likely voters. A non-partisan tool for participation has become partisan.

Civics engagement, too, could become a partisan resource. It’s increasingly clear that differential social capital accounts for some of the major privileges in our society: well-organized groups get better government, and thus over time the patterns of organization and disorganization have come to resemble the patterns of wealth and income distribution, the maps of public health disasters, unemployment, crime, and incarceration. As a good liberal, I tend to focus on the way that these differentials affect Blacks and Latinos, and to compare the plight of disaffected whites to the statistics that still report that they are, as a group, better off than non-whites.

But: my framing of the problem comes from a position of comfort. I am not a low skill white male in a de-industrialized city. And so my judgments and values support my class and social position: they are ideological.

Poorly educated white workers are the only group that is demonstrably hurt by free trade and immigration. Yet cosmopolitan liberals have pretended that they ought to stomach their losses to make up for our privilege. Who can blame Tea Partiers and Trump supporters for noting that no one among contemporary elites is willing to stand up for their interests? Who can blame them for attaching themselves to the first charismatic figure who promises to do so?

They will very likely fail this election cycle in the US. Possibly the right historical analogy (which I owe to Steven Maloney) is the French Presidential Election of 2002, where Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jacques Chirac in the second round. Le Pen surprised everyone by getting 16.7% in the first, crowded, round, to Chirac’s 19.9%. Sound familer? It looked close! Then he got 17.8% in the second round and Chirac got the rest: 81.3%.

The white nationalist populists interests will not dissipate with the Toupée Voldemort who currently leads them. Other politicians–entrepreneurs looking for a market–will step up to take his place, especially now that they are organized and self-aware. So what should we do, together, about our fellow citizens?

Ice Cream Trucks and other Drug Dealers

There’s a lot to love in this New York Times profile of the Mister Softee/New York Ice Cream feud:

“Let me tell you about this business,” Adam Vega, a thickly muscled, heavily tattooed Mister Softee man who works the upper reaches of the Upper East Side and East Harlem, said on Wednesday. ” Every truck has a bat inside.”

Mr. Vega, 41, said that if he comes across a rival on his route, “I jump out and say, ‘Listen young man, this is my route, you gotta get out of there.”

Battle lines being drawn around ice cream sales in Midtown Manhattan is the kind of story meant for a Disney movie. Or maybe something R-rated, just for the bravado of “Every truck has a bat inside.”

I’ve always hated the local ice cream trucks, which are really trying to overcharge my for ice cream by training my daughter to have a melt down if I force her to eat store-bought ice cream instead of the overpriced stuff being advertised with a racist tune. (Well, maybe not. But still…) And now it turns out that they really are scary:

“If one of my drivers goes to Midtown, they’ll bring their trucks in and surround them — a bunch of guys,” said Peter Bouziotis, who runs the Softee depot in the Bronx, which covers Manhattan. “They’ll start banging on the windows.”

In various spots, I’ve seen this bad behavior tut-tutted and blamed on capitalism. But I suspect that this particular case (as well as most of the cases like it) actually has very little to do with capitalism and everything to do with the fundamentals of a non-capitalist economic system: common pool resource management.

This kind of social norm enforcement through threats and violence is a fairly common way of organizing property regimes when social or legal factors prevent privatization and legal exclusion. The technical definition of a common pool resource requires that the resource be rivalrous (able to be used up) but non-excludable (it can’t be locked away.) Tourists are both, even though they don’t think of themselves as resources or property.

The commons is precisely not “private property.” It’s commonly held. This caused many modern economists to argue that there was a “tragedy of the commons” whereby commonly-held goods would be used up rather than stewarded: each user would have an incentive to maximize–privatize–as much of the common-pool resource as possible, and so the commons would be ruined. These economists argued that only private property–and thus capitalism–could save the earth from overuse. Thus, for instance, we need to have “cap-and-trade” regimes so that corporations will maximize the profit to had from their privately-held shares of pollution, and this is supposed to be better than taxing pollution or simply regulating it away.

But in practice, the economists were wrong, as Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington Workshop showed: commonly-held goods can be protected and managed as effectively as privately-held goods, and under conditions where private ownership is impossible to enforce. Unless the community is heavily disrupted (for instance by imperialism or police occupation) common-pool resources aren’t overused because users are understood to have a “share” by communal norms rather than legal title: exceeding one’s “share” is punished by the community of users.

In common-pool resource management systems, social norms take the the place of physical exclusions, and these norms include the ability to sanction–often physically sanction–potential interlopers. Crucially, this requires all sorts of negative emotions and actions that liberals such as myself don’t like: shame, resentment, contempt, us-v.-them tribalism, and even violence (on the small-scale “get the bat” variety or large-scale “revenge-killing” variety.) Common-pool resource management requires insiders to sanction poachers, and that’s what New York Ice Cream is doing here:

“From 34th to 60th Street, river to river, that’s ours,” he said on a recent afternoon, moments after handing a chocolate cone to a delighted-looking little boy. The vendor would not allow his name to be published for fear of losing his job.

Look at Maine lobstermen (cf especially Acheson’s The Lobster Gangs of Maine) or fisheries management in Taiwan or Chile or water rights on the West Coast and you see the same behaviors emerging organically. We also see it in drug distribution, it’s true. Recall Vanda Feldab-Brown’s work on illicit markets and violence:

It is not inherent that illegal economies, including the drug trade, are violent. There is great variation. But there are other factors apart from the quality of law enforcement, such as the central balances of power within the criminal market. Are there few groups that have developed a balance of power and defined territories, or many small groups that constitute a slim market of mom-and-pop types of enterprises that do not have the capacity to trigger or generate any violence?

Violence is a tool for exclusion. That sounds like a universal evil, but it’s not; it’s just as much a tool for the maintenance of contested common pool resource systems as it is a tool for more deeply problematic exclusions. My own preferences are for a violence-free world; but this of course just means that my taxes pay others to credibly threaten interlopers for me, as well as actively utilizing violence on my behalf.

Now, many people object when I use the explanation for the violence in the illicit economy that leads many of our students at the prison to be incarcerated. And indeed, I don’t think that all of their behavior is defensible in this way. But it’s important to understand just why illicit markets are violent: participants lack access to legal title to their businesses and to legal conflict resolution mechanisms. Largely because of racism and racist educational systems, they are unable to participate as equals in the legal labor market. They’re thus thrown into the grey and black market for labor, where they cannot access police and courts. Under those conditions, where none of their property is protected, participants in the illicit market are thrown back onto traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, which emphasizes honor and uses credible threats of violence to enforce property and contract rights.

If anything, New York Ice Cream is like the ideal of labor organizing; they were working for Mister Softee and tired of being exploited by licensing fees–payments to capitalists by laborers for the privilege of laboring–so they expropriated the means of production and locked the bosses out of the factory, that is, out of Midtown. Then, they made life difficult for the scabs:

The rift between New York Ice Cream and Mister Softee goes back to around 2013. According to court documents, Mr. Tsirkos held at least a dozen Softee franchises at the time, mostly in Midtown. Several of his drivers said that he was upset at high franchise fees and inflated prices for supplies. So he took his trucks (they are owned by individuals, not Mister Softee), added sprinkles and a waffle cone to the logo, and struck out on his own….

Ironically, the one place we don’t see poachers sanctioned is in heavily-policed high-oversight free-market property regimes (aka capitalism) because that’s where the rich are able to control things using rules and courts instead of social solidarity. In those situations, they often use the ideology of fair competition to force insiders to compete with poachers and scabs.

To be clear, I’m not endorsing drug markets, or even beating up your food truck competitors. But I find it strange when ordinary human behavior–often the laudatory kind that is responding to a larger abuse of power with small-scale violence–is pathologized by my fellow liberals who recognize the small-scale violence but ignore the larger abuses.

New York Ice Cream’s drivers have bats; Mister Softee’s drivers have been slashing tires, making death threats, and now the owners have the court system extracting six-figure judgments from the people doing the work and giving it to the people who hold the private right to the intellectual property:

Mr. Tsirkos has been ordered to compensate Mister Softee for his misdeeds. Last week, a federal judge ordered him to pay Softee $287,858.44 in lawyers’ fees, bringing the total he owes to over $767,000. (So far, Mister Softee’s lawyers say, Mr. Tsirkos has parted with only $2,426.)

So my expectation is that this short-lived Paris Commune of frozen dessert distribution will soon come to an end.

Civic Variations on the Fact, Value, Strategy Distinction

When civic studies scholars write about civics and citizens, as Peter Levine does today, we will usually mention the following trinity: facts, values, and strategies. Here’s Levine:

The citizen is committed to affecting the world. Some important phenomena may be beyond her grasp, so that she sees them but sees no way of changing them. But she is drawn to levers she can pull, handles she can grab onto. To choose an action, she combines value-judgments, factual beliefs, and tactical predictions into a single thought: “It is good for me to do this.”

Citizens seek facts and work with beliefs;  they orient their efforts with regard to values and judgments; and they develop and use strategies, tactics, and reliable predictions to achieve those values in light of the facts as they understand them.

There is much that this trinity illuminates about citizenship, but it can be contested too. The fact/value dichotomy is frequently challenged, and “strategic” thinking is often criticized for its instrumentalism. In general, the terms are discrete. So consider some alternatives:

  1. We could speak in terms of means, ends, and constraints. Many things called “facts” are really tendentious or irrelevant. But action always proceeds against the backdrop of other events and interests, against some opposition, or with some set of finite allies and collaborators. The simple means-ends dichotomy embraces the instrumental critique while acknowledging that new means may be discovered or alternative ends may come to light.
  2. We could use the language of needs assessment or SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.) “Constraints” are largely understood in terms of limits. Perhaps we should instead think in terms of “needs and assets” to capture the ways in which some of the things I mentioned as constraints are actually enabling. What’s more, a lot of a citizen’s work will require very careful, step-by-step organization and capacity-building. We often find ourselves in the middle of a project, taking as our main goal developing a new asset or bridging a gap between our current and desired capacities. SWOT analysis, and other rubrics like it, bring this to the fore: it recognizes that citizens are often operating with uncertainty that may yield an opportunity but threatens to harm them or impede their goals.
  3. “Leftists” of various stripes might prefer the language of solidarity, ideology, critique, and mobilization. If we understand the basic structures of our world as oppressive, especially if we think that they are organized by various forms of gendered, racist, and class-based domination–as well as an international dimension of colonial cultural privilege, or a preference for certain kinds of able bodies–then we will be especially cautious about “facts” and “values” which are themselves part of what is being contested as ideological–deceptive, dominating, and produced in order to preserve certain kinds of hierarchies and dominations. Citizens using this approach will tend to prefer strategies of exposure, including the mobilization of bodies in protest and solidarity, to pierce the ideology that preserves and legtimates those hierarchies. The goal will not be to win particular conflicts–since these are too easily reversed–except when this serves to undermine the systematic oppression diagnosed through ideological critique.
  4. Citizens living traditional or conservative lifestyles may think of themselves less as activists and more as preservationists or stewards of worldview in decline in the modern world. Thus, the lens through which they view their citizenship will privilege terms like stability and respect for history; resistance to or avoidance of corruption and temptation; reverence for certain values, communities, and sacred institutions. Facts are well-established and have survived the test of time; values can never be merely individual but are the product of a community’s mutual commitment; strategies are not tactical choices–is a funeral a “strategy”?–but understood in terms of the community’s practices, rituals, and traditions.

Obviously, each of these sets of distinctions (call them paradigms) is itself value-laden and rooted in some set of beliefs about the facts. I’ll note that my preferred paradigm is a mixture of #1 and #2, following Rachel Maddow, though I draw from each as it seems appropriate or as my audience requires.

What strikes me as particularly important is that each of these paradigms indicates a particular strategy. When I dither, as I often do, between these paradigms, I do so primarily because I wonder which metapolitical view of the world–which schematic of the effective levers and knobs of citizenship–is really correct.

Peter Levine always seems to work hard to accommodate conservative voices in his own paradigm. I’ve long suspected that he is motivated by the belief that many of our fellow citizens will answer best to that description, and that the solutions to our problems are most likely to be found in collaborating with our more conservative neighbors, which makes it important to find ways to accommodate oneself to them.

But this is most often at odds with that technocratic view of activism which seeks to steer the levers of bureaucracy that I find attractive: there, it’s more important to speak the language of the state and the market in order to be heard. Yet there’s a real risk that when you ignore your neighbors in favor of trying to make those larger institutions listen to you, you will both go unheard and find yourself corrupted by too-long attention to the state’s and the market’s values and worldview.