A Tuesday morning twelve years ago…

I generally hate the hyper-patriotic memorialization of this day, as I’d prefer to forget. But today saw many on social media sharing their stories, so I thought I’d share mine, too.

I was in the subway, headed to work at the Civilian Complaint Review Board a couple blocks south of the towers, in the financial district. The train stopped, as it often did for track work or obstructions. But it stayed in the same place. We didn’t get out for what seemed like forever: the car filled with smoke and dust as (I now know) the towers collapsed. We were finally released onto the subway tracks, and guided back to a platform. When I emerged, I headed to work (closed, obviously) and then walked towards the collapsed towers until I couldn’t breath, not really comprehending what had happened. I needed to get to Harlem, but the way north was blocked. The sky was black, and everything was covered in ashes, including me.

by Flickr user hankplank
by Flickr user hankplank

The streets were full of expensive women’s shoes, discarded as they ran. I took brief refuge in an office building, borrowed a phone, and called my partner. Then, I joined the other survivors trudging home: the subways were working, slowly, above Union Square, so I stopped at the Target there, drank some water and got on a train. I arrived home sometime in the late afternoon, and then I slept.

I don’t remember much over the next few weeks: our building was inside the “crime scene” so we couldn’t go back to work for a while. I think I played video games for days at a time, and I know I took the GREs, fearing that the city would have to lay me off. (There was a bomb threat in the middle, so we filed out to the street, then returned to finish when the building was cleared. I’ve always wondered if someone used the bomb threat to get the answers or switch test-takers.)

The truth is that I was pretty lucky: our train wasn’t right under the towers when they collapsed, so we were just inconvenienced (and scared.) One guy from my office died: Hernando Salas. I try to think about him, today, and also to take Judith Butler’s advice not to obsess on narratives that start Tuesday morning, but instead to think about the stories that go back decades that led us all there.

Stories of Decline, Stasis, and Progress

Peter Levine asks, “Why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” in areas where objective measures suggest progress or growth:

You can care deeply about public education, civic education, teenagers’ behavior, or–if you must–gun rights, but there is no basis for arguing that these things are worse than they used to be. I am pretty sure that the argument from decline (argumentum ad declivem?) is a harmful fallacy … although I am not saying that it has become more common of late.

I think this is related to general problems with narratives and persuasion, but at the same time there’s something uniquely self-contradictory about decline arguments. In general, decline stories appear to act like narrative “stubs” or snowclones that short-circuit critical appraisal: the story helps us suspend our disbelief, priming us to expect a certain kind of Protestant framework where renewed effort can restore the lost Golden Age.

Perhaps, too, such narratives help to combat complacency. For instance, runners are taught to push hardest as the finish approaches, and we might look at various kinds of homeostatic cognitive phenomena like risk compensation (the Peltzmann effect) or hedonic adaptation. “We are winning: redouble your efforts!” isn’t quite so motivational as the cornered rats’ refrain: “We fight or we die!”

Levine resolutely refuses to conclude that this is a recent phenomenon (and it’s clearly not.) But if it were, then we might look for historical events that make such narratives particularly resonant. Might not fears of the loss of American empire, in the midst of economic turmoil, produce a general malaise that spills over into areas that are not similarly turbulent? Similarly, these stories might simply be particularly popular as the Baby Boomers reach retirement, since their economic and political ascendancy pressures our entire culture to dream nostalgically of their youth. Certainly I don’t hear many decline fables from the Millennial generation… yet.

Then, too, progress may appear as changes from the status quo that we cannot recognize as progress: civic knowledge skills are flat, but convention indicators of civic engagement and communal trust are down. This may be due to new forms of participation and new solidarities supplanting the older forms, which disrupts our indexes and measurements. Yet online social networks produce different ties than neighborhood associations. So is this progress, stasis, or decline?

Different metrics tell different stories. While Levine is obviously right that per-pupil spending in public education is much higher, outcomes are stagnating. We’re spending much more per student but those students are performing at almost the same level they did when spending was six times lower. At the same time, we educate a much larger group of immigrants and deal with many kinds of developmental disabilities that we once ignored or institutionalized. Is this progress, stasis, or decline?

The NRA’s complaint that gun ownership rights are eroding is the most absurd of these: a transparent effort to preserve motivation in the wake of a string of victories. But are they wrong to notice that the majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws and worry what that bodes for the future of their signature issue? I worry that a similar majority of Americans prefer to let religious employers opt-out of the insuring birth control, even though as a whole the Affordable Care Act is a major victory for women’s rights.

So is that progress, stasis, or decline? I recently learned that Mao didn’t think it was too early to judge the French Revolution: that was a different Chinese premier, speaking of the student movements in Paris in 1968 only three years earlier. Yet some stories are too good to give up on the basis of mere facts, so I echo Mao when I say: it’s too soon to tell.

The Fetishization of the Dying

Bronnie Ware was a palliative care nurse who decided to blog about her patients’ dying thoughts and regrets. The blog became a book, and now it is being advertised on the Guardian’s website as an odd list of desert island favorites: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Perhaps this is supposed to inspire the fear of death and the passion for life in us, but consider:

  1. Why should we credit someone’s last thoughts over the ones that guided them throughout life? A regret is just an act of hypocrisy, a wish to have had our cake and eaten it, too. Because we don’t really know what regrets we would have had in the counterfactual, regret is largely a fantasy of another, unknown life, more desirable because it is foreign, its pleasures more easily imagined than its pains. There’s no particularly good reason to believe we are wiser when faced with imminent death, chronic pain, and possibly clouded by drugs.
  2. Indeed, you rarely hear “In Morphine, Veritas.” If they died with a palliative care nurse like Ware, these patients were likely in pain, on pain killers, and not thinking particularly clearly. Chronic pain leads to depression. Narcotics like codeine have side effects that include mood swings and extremes of euphoria and sadness. While depressed people tend to be more realistic, I’m not sure this extends to drug- and pain-induced depression, especially when the brief insights are likely to be prompted by narcotic euphoria.
  3. Ware is trying to sell a book and cash in on the demand for maudlin reminders of mortality. What she writes is more likely to be guided by what sells than what’s true.
  4. In selling their stories, she’s also profiting from the private confessions of her patients. If she sought permission from their estates, that’s only ghoulish. If she’s not sharing the profits, it’s exploitative as well. The best scenario would be if she had simply made the confessions up, but then the lessons would be even more likely to be deceptive or to reinforce stereotypes.
  5. It is, however, quite useful to confront the fact that you will die someday. Your own reflections on that fact can likely help you to prioritize, because it is your death and thus your life. That’s why there’s a market for reminders of mortality. But if you substitute Ware’s or her patients’ reflections for your own, you’re not really confronting the possibility of your own death: you’re fetishizing the reflections of somebody else. No one can die your death for you, or explain what it should mean. And really: how boring and inauthentic do you have to be in order to hire out your reflections on mortality to someone else?

I guess I won’t have to regret leaving my feelings unexpressed!

Deciding Whether or Not to Tell a Story

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class called “Truth and Beauty” with the poet Ann Lauterbach. It was basically a class on reading and writing essays, but I took it because I was a philosophy major and I thought it would be about aesthetics, i.e. about whether judgments about beauty can be true or false. Every week we’d read a collection of essays and we would turn in a response essay of our own. We also met with Ann regularly to discuss our work, which was great because she had the kind of presence that made one-on-one encounters particularly powerful and instructive, like academic therapy.

During one of our sessions, I remember bemoaning the fact that my essays were all so analytical. I had read some of her poetry and I yearned for the kind of imaginative approach to language that I thought she had. (I really had no idea about poetry.) I can’t remember her exact response, but it was something like this:

Everybody has their own way of thinking, their own voice. You shouldn’t try to change the way you think, but rather work on improving it.

At the time, I found that inspiring. Here was a brilliant poet giving me permission (nay, charging me with the duty!) to dig deeper into the habits of thought and writing that were most comfortable for me. It was liberating. I’ve since come to realize that my style of thinking is much less strictly analytical and much more about exploring questions and the various possible ways of answering them. (Those links point to a couple of posts addressing different approaches to power and freedom.) But I’m glad I took Ann’s advice, because look where it got me: I got a PhD in philosophy, and I get to teach my favorite texts and questions for a living!

Now, here’s the question: why did I tell you that story?

Notice how my story works: it puts some pretty banal clichés into the mouth of a famous poet, but all she said was “be yourself.” I start by establishing her authority and gravitas, I introduce a problem via a distinction with an implicit hierarchy (analytic versus imaginative), and then the authority figure in my story teaches me a lesson that reverses the hierarchy: it’s okay to be analytic and nerdy! Then I pretend like this simple lesson is what got me to where I am today. Yay poets! Yay philosophy nerds!

But wait! Maybe my story is deceptive. Maybe, as Tyler Cowen said in his recent TEDx talk, stories have a tendency to paper over the messiness of real life:

Narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip [detail] way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.

Oh shit! Did I just make myself and my readers dumber? Did my little “A Man Learns a Lesson”-style story just get us all stoned on narrative inanities?

Cowen goes on to qualify this:

we use stories to make sense of what we’ve done, to give meaning to our lives, to establish connections with other people. None of this will go away, should go away, or can go away.

But, he explains, we should worry about stories more, and embrace the messiness of life more. But I wonder if he’s right? After all, Lauterbach told me I shouldn’t try to change the way I think, but rather get really good at the modes of thinking that I already prefer. Surely the same thing is true for people who love stories and think primarily in terms of stories?

So, here’s how I think about this question: Should we listen to Cowen or to Lauterbach? Why?

It seems to me that we should be suspicious of stories if we think that letting reality be messy is good for thinking clearly. The problem there is that we’re only likely to think that if we’ve had good experiences with other forms of analysis: plotting data or formalizing syllogisms. In that case, we’ll hear Cowen’s comments like I heard Lauterbach’s: “Be yourself! Those story-tellers are phonies, anyway.”

On the other hand, we might also want to dig deeper into stories and develop our critical thinking skills from within the narrative form: when is a story too neat? When is a narrator’s omniscience really pandering to the reader? What are the other stories we can tell about authors, about cultures, and about narrative manipulation that might help us to avoid the traps that narratives set for us? If we’ve already got a pretty good sense of the structure of stories, the kinds of things that narratives do and can do, we might prefer to dig deeper and hone this method. But still, the message is Lauterbach’s: “Don’t kick the poets out of the city! Poets can be wise, too!”

In this post, Lauterbach is going to stay the hero. But Cowen is a smart guy, and he tries to inoculate himself against this kind of criticism in the section on cognitive biases. Basically, he reminds us that people tend to misuse their knowledge of psychology through a kind of motivated reasoning that reproduces their earlier, ignorant biases but now with supposed expert certification. In this, as in most things “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” (But isn’t that what TED is for?) Then he reminds us of the epistemic portfolio theory, which holds that we’ll tend to balance our subjects of agnosticism, unpopular beliefs, and dogmatism in a rough equilibrium, so we ought to beware of the ways we abjure narratives in only some parts of our lives. (This is pretty much like ending his whole talk with the prankster’s “NOT!” Silly rationalists: truth-tracking and reason-responsiveness are myths we tell to children to hide the messy emotional facts of the matter.)

The passage in his talk where he typologizes the various narratives we’ll tell about the talk is also pretty funny: “I used to think too much in terms of stories, but then I heard Tyler Cowen, and now I think less in terms of stories!” Yay economists! They’re smart and have all the bases covered. Hey wait: do you think that’s why he told us that story?

The Growing Field of Julian Assange Secondary Scholarship

If you haven’t read Assange’s own self-justifications, then you can read this summary of them to get a sense of what worried me. Now, Peter Ludlow does a proper study of Assange’s political theory:

this is conspiracy in the sense of the original etymology of ‘conspire’ – as in “breathe with” or “breathe together”.  The individuals are acting in concert, whether by plan or not, and the secrecy ensures that the benefits of the network accrue to those inside the network and not outside it. (via Brian Leiter)

As I understand it, when he talks about conspiracies, Assange means a kind of networked informational assymmetry (We know the secret, they don’t) that leads to rent-seeking behavior (we should keep the secret for mutual profit.) Here’s Assange:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

If this is Assange’s argument, it seems to be a bit off. Authoritarian regimes have secret plans which would induce resistance. Therefore, all secret plans are authoritarian? And as a corollary: all revealing of secrets will undermine authoritarian regimes? Most people would accept that, for instance, totalitarian Germany or totalitarian USSR would deserve such treatment. Probably China, too. Thus Assange puts it:

Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

But of course, Assange conflates two different kinds of systems: he uses the disjunct “secretive or unjust” but the way he always combines them implies that secretive systems are always unjust, and unjust systems are always secretive. I don’t think this need be the case. Here, I think the use of conspiracy in this loose sense undermines the potentially stronger justifications for Wikileaks like those offered by my friend Dr. J:

“A State ought not exercise totalitarian control over information that concerns its constituents. As it appears to more and more closely approximate this kind of totalitarian information-control, violations of that secrecy are more and more justified.”

Now, we can dispute whether the US constitutes such a state. I don’t believe it does, despite my many complaints about specific policies. But clearly, the problem arises when a conspiracy perpetrates crimes against humanity. Torture counts as such a crime, but it does not appear to have been bolstered by a secret, let alone a conspiratorial one. Sadly, much of the attention to our “enhanced interrogations” was laudatory. Unfortunately, it’s possible for injustice to continue in public, and it’s possible (and sometimes necessary) for justice to be done in secret.

Even before Julian Assange took the stage, some good governance advocates were pushing back against efforts to treat transparency as another panacea. Lawrence Lessig’s article, “Against Transparency” summarizes some of the trouble with “legal leaks” i.e. sunshine laws:

The problem, however, is that not all data satisfies the simple requirement that they be information that consumers can use, presented in a way they can use it. “More information,” as [Archon] Fung and his colleagues put it, “does not always produce markets that are more efficient.” Instead, “responses to information are inseparable from their interests, desires, resources, cognitive capacities, and social contexts. Owing to these and other factors, people may ignore information, or misunderstand it, or misuse it. Whether and how new information is used to further public objectives depends upon its incorporation into complex chains of comprehension, action, and response.”

In short, the problem is salience and attention span:

To understand something–an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence– requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding–at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency.

What’s notable about Wikileaks is that they refuse to do any of the work required to contextualize information, fearing that framing would open them to charges of bias or deception. Yet instead they open the spigot of information and flood the marketplace, all on the theory that democracies flourish on an informed citizenry, regardless of what information those citizens focus on, even though Assange demonstrates in other contexts that he knows this:

Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out.

“Distorting or restricting” should be amended to “distorting or restricting or flooding.” Hackers have a term for destructive flooding: they call it a “Denial of Service Attack,” which saturates a machine with messages until it shuts down. This is what brought down the internet servers of companies that dissociated themselves from Wikileaks after Assange’s arrest.

Wikileaks owes the public more than simply an infodump. If they have important information, then they owe us journalism. Journalism distinguishes novel information from background details that make up the context. Journalism isn’t as satisfying as infobomb-throwing. Journalism protects both sources and other vulnerable parties.

Of course, journalists may, as Radley Balko charges, suffer from “statism.” So do democracies.

Addendum: Glenn Greenwald reminds us that the latest “leak” has not actually been fully publicized:

they’ve posted only 1,269 of the more than 250,000 cables they possess: less than 1/2 of 1 %

In this sense, Wikileaks seems to have developed an increasing reticence in keeping with a more journalistic mission. We might then blame the individual media outlets with full access to the cables for the flood of irrelevant stories rather than a search for wrongdoing. But I still maintain that shirking the collation and framing in favor of news organizations is a kind of refusal of responsibility. Contrast that with what Wikileaks did with the “Collateral Murder” video, where they did the work of selection and framing themselves, to great effect.

The rest of Greenwald’s post is worth reading. Greenwald suggests that much of the mainstream media is perpetuating this deception about the “flood” of documents in support of a propaganda campaign. I suppose that’s more evidence of journalism’s “statism,” though I believe it also demonstrates that a system need be neither closed nor secretive to be protective of its privileges.

Addendum 2: John D at Philosophical Disquisitions has a much more thorough piece analyzing the Ludlow essay. It’s very good. And it has CHARTS: