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hearing is believing – a documentary about rachel flowers

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I recently saw the documentary “Hearing is Believing,” which is about the musician Rachel Flowers. The movie focuses on how Flowers, who has been blind since birth, became a musical prodigy. Like many films that focus on talented people with disabilities, Hearing is Believing tells you about the challenges she faced as a young person and her success as a musician.

The film is fairly conventional in many ways. Description of the condition that deprived her of sight and testimonials from the family about how they will do the best they can for her. Like many musician documentaries, there’s a lot of talk about how at a very early age (4!), Flowers could accurately play complex classical music. By her teen years, she masted piano, guitar, and woodwinds at a professional level and had begun composing. In the film, she shows mastery of an amazing range of styles, from church organ music to bebop to progressive rock to Hawaiian ukelele.

I agree with critics that the movie rambled a bit and needed a bit more context, but I still liked it. First, Flowers has an inner joy. She loves music and spends much of her time doing workshops with students and she loves it. Second, I think it was fun to see her dabble into the many nooks and crannies of American music. I only think a musician would appreciate, for example, how she was able to replicate Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” on her home keyboard, or how she could drop in on jazz trumpet master Arturo Sandoval and jam.* It’s also interesting to see how she built a reputation by putting her performances on youtube.

Finally, she’s built a real life and that’s impressive. You may think that Flower’s life is just jam sessions with Dweezil Zappa (yes!) and premiering her orchestral works. But she still goes to a Braille school and needs an enormous amount of help just getting around. Life is hard, but she has a gift and she’s doing the best she can. And maybe that’s the sweetest note she can play.

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* I thought it was interesting that Sandoval was the only person who was really on her level. In true jazz style, they seem to have a cutting session and Arturo gets the upper hand and she just laughs with joy. Later, he actually shows her a little bit about how to improve her piano technique. Neat!

Written by fabiorojas

June 27, 2017 at 4:16 am

tommy curry needs free speech. keeanga-yamahtta taylor needs free speech. alice goffman needs free speech. charles murray needs free speech. they all need free speech.

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Last week, Johnny Williams, a professor at Trinity College triggered a nation wide controversy when his statements about White supremacy made national news. The issue isn’t the statement itself, but how it fit into a wider pattern of outrage and threat. Trinity shut down in response to death threats. And it is not the first college to have problems related to campus speech. Charles Murray’s opponents injured a faculty member at Middlebury during a protest. Princeton Professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor had to cancel talks in response to death threats after she lambasted Donald Trump.

These events have shown that the culture around faculty speech has devolved. College professors have always been lightning rods of controversy as their job is to explore ideas, even if they are unpopular. The history book books frequently recount how controversial professors have lost jobs over their ideas, such as when the  eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell lost an appointment at the City College of New York in 1940 or, when DePaul University denied tenure for Norman Finklestein in 2007. If you push unpopular ideas, be prepared.

But things may be getting worse for two reasons. First, the campus left is now in a place where there is a visceral and automatic push back against some speakers. It may be opposition to the trash talkers of the right, like Anne Coulter, or the right’s public intellectuals, like Charles Murray. But it even extends to people who might granted a stay, such as sociologist Alice Goffman, whose appointment as a visiting scholar at Pomona was protested.  In some cases, the campus left is so reflexive and angry that it targets people who are clearly on their side, such as the confrontation between enraged activists at Yale and sociologist Nicholar Christakis over a relatively mild email about how to handle racially insensitive Halloween costumes.

Second, the Fox News Right has made a hobby of taking statements, some innocent and some not, made by faculty and manufacturing national outrage. This includes the outrage over Johnny Williams at Trinity, the dust up over philosopher Tommy Curry’s discussion of nationalist politics and the 2015 rancor over Saida Grundy’s tweets.

Together, the campus left and the Fox News Rights have created a situation where we have a constant stream of outrage and anger, which has all kinds of negative consequences. Individual faculty members must disentangle themselves from nasty waves of publicity. Talks are cancelled and, in some cases, people are injured. This puts a price on free speech.

What to do? First, if you are an academic, express your disagreement in civilized ways. If Charles Murray comes to campus, offer your own talk. Write a blog post. Do not immediately jump to the conclusion that the talk must be stopped. Let it happen. Second, if you are an administrator, show tolerance and protection of speech. Assert that professors deserve the right to pursue unpopular ideas. If threats come in, go through with the talk. Find a way to do things safely. If a professor says something that is genuinely hateful and offensive, slow down and think carefully about what to do. People have a right to bad ideas and that applies to professors. Third, if you are a member of the public, switch emotions. Don’t let third parties, on the left or right, score cheap political points. Just say, “Ok, some professor said something dumb” and then watch sports instead. Do not waste your attention on cheap campus controversy.

Free speech is one of the most precious things in the world. People died to make it happen. Let’s not cheapen it. If you’re a professor, it’s your job to save it.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 26, 2017 at 2:51 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized

the 80th percentile isn’t the problem

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Okay, so I know three days is like a thousand years in internet time. But this Sunday Times op-ed, “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich,” is still bugging me. The title is perfect guilty liberal upper-middle-class New-York-Times-reader clickbait. And sure enough, it was all over my social media feed.

But I think the piece gets things wrong in a particularly pernicious way.

The thrust of the op-ed, and presumably the book it’s promoting, is that upper-middle-class Americans—the top 20% by income—are the real problem, not the top 1%. They are capturing most of the income gains, hoarding opportunities, and they don’t even acknowledge their luck in being there.

A lot of the specific points, particularly about policies that benefit the moderately well-off at the expense of others, are easy to agree with. Exclusionary zoning is bad. 529 plans benefit the well-to-do almost entirely. The mortgage interest deduction is terrible policy.

But the real problem with the U.S. economic system isn’t the self-interested behavior of those in the top 20% of the income distribution. It’s that 1% of the population holds 40% of the wealth, and that GDP increases aren’t translating into higher incomes for most of the population.

The op-ed misdirects our attention away from these factors in multiple ways. First, it paints a misleading picture of this person in the top 20%.

Most obviously, it says that the average income of this group is $200,000, which I admit does sound pretty high. But using the average income to describe this fifth of the population is a problem, given the shape of the income distribution.

The median, which would be the 90th percentile, is $162,000. The 80th percentile is $117,000. (Here’s a quick calculator based on CPS data.) Very healthy, but not $200,000. The anecdotal illustration—the author’s friends who pay $30,000 a year for their kid’s high school tuition—also seems to point to someone with an income on the high end of this range.

Second, while the second decile is doing reasonably well, both its wealth and income are quite proportionate with its actual numbers. This paper is now slightly dated, but it does break out that decile—to show that in 2007 at least, it held 12% of total net worth, and made 14% of total income (see Table 2). You’d have to be pretty damn egalitarian to think that was unreasonably high for the next-to-top 10%.

Finally, yeah, the top 20% has seen more income gains than the rest. But the issue is less that they’re gradually getting better off, than that wages in general aren’t keeping up with either GDP growth or productivity. If you look at pre-tax income of the top 20%, exclusive of the top 1%, it’s increased by 65% since 1979 (see Table 1). Sounds like a lot—until you realize that real GDP per capita increased almost 80% during the same period.

So sure, the top 20% is unquestionably well-off, and indeed rich in global terms. And doubtless people in this group could show a little more self-awareness of their relative good fortune. And it would be nice if the mortgage interest deduction wasn’t the third rail of tax policy.

But the problem isn’t that the top 20% is doing reasonably well. It’s that the rest of the population should be doing that well, too. Ultimately, pointing a finger at the fortunate fifth is a sleight-of-hand that keeps our attention away from where it should be: on a much richer, more rarified group, and the broken system that allows it to capture the bulk of the gains that we as a society produce.

 

 

 

Written by epopp

June 14, 2017 at 12:15 pm

will sociology build the wall? on objectivity in social science

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(The following is a guest post from Barış Büyükokutan)

ASA President-Elect Mary Romero’s call to put sociology in the service of social justice by doing away with “false notions of ‘objectivity’” triggered a fierce debate about the public mission of sociology. In opposition to Romero’s position and Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra’s defense of that position, I would like to point out that objectivity is not opposed to social justice. On the contrary, objectivity is a prerequisite of any effective prosecution of injustice.

We live in a time period in which injustice is objectively a problem, both for scholars as a puzzle – i.e. “why so much injustice here but not there” – and for citizens as actual experiences. And we do not lack for decent methods of showing this objective reality. Take, for a very basic instance, the Gini coefficient, which is not just relatively easy to calculate but also easy to explain to laypeople: by the Gini coefficient, the United States has less social justice than Finland, Switzerland or New Zealand; that is a fact. Even if such facts are already interpretations, some interpretations are more authoritative than others. More importantly, it is difficult – though, I admit, not impossible – to interpret ad infinitum against reality. We sociologists might want to keep to those “interpretations” rather than shooting ourselves in the foot by pointing out, for instance, that the Gini coefficient has many weaknesses without explaining that its weaknesses are tolerable for good reasons in many, if not most, contexts.

At the heart of my argument, therefore, is a commitment to the pursuit of reality: there is a reality out there, independent of what any one person might think of it. (It obviously doesn’t mean there is a reality independent of what all persons think; social reality is, after all, transitive.) A commitment to objectivity, in other words, is a commitment to following the study of reality wherever it takes us. As such, if an aspect of reality is unjust – if people are treated unfavorably, as a fact, simply because they are not male, white, straight, or middle-class, for example – objectivity requires, first, acknowledging that reality. Second, it requires trying and changing that reality with skillful means—objectively speaking, individual human beings have very similar capabilities, therefore arrangements that treat them differently are objective violations of this higher aspect of reality. By skillful means, I intend simply that one has to take responsibility for one’s actions. Good intentions do not by themselves good people make; people with good intentions have to at least try to find effective ways of getting the right things done. Max Weber was right here—we cannot limit ourselves to an ethic of ultimate ends; an ethic of responsibility is also required of the scholar.

Objectivity does not, therefore, mean value-free science as it is commonly understood—which, by the way, is not how Weber understood it. Weber meant his injunction to stay away from politics to apply in the classroom, and perhaps only in the classroom. This was for reasons our age will easily sympathize with: one should not use one’s superior status to shove one’s ideas down other people’s throat (especially if the shoving will suffice to defeat its own purpose). His many writings – for he was not, contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s sarcastic-but-not-too-much-so portrayal, a “one-book wonder” and would have dominated AJS had AJS existed then – on Junker agriculture, Polish immigration, and the postwar reconstruction of Germany, are all but apolitical. (That they are not the right kind of political for most sociologists today is irrelevant.)

Ironically, without a commitment to objectivity as commitment to the pursuit of reality, one cannot even, as Pardo-Guerra does, write that “science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated” anything “over the past six decades or so.” For without a reality that can be pursued, one cannot demonstrate at all, at least not in the  sense of the word in use here: to demonstrate something presumes not just two parties, one of which conveys to another a message, but also the existence of the objects the message concerns and the veracity of the message. If, as Pardo-Guerra writes, science and technology studies have indeed argued that science – or objectivity, as it is not clear to me which is meant in that particular sentence – is simply politics by other means, which I take to be equivalent to saying that science does not concern itself with a commitment to the pursuit of reality, the argument is stillborn. In this case and in this sense, objectivity is, again contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s argument, indeed an obvious principle of science. That some scientists have historically failed to take the hint proves only those scientists’ inability to correctly assess the stakes involved. (That some such scientists were nevertheless successful in their fields proves absolutely nothing—scientific skills are many; lacking one does not mean one lacks all the others as well.)

I am not making a pitch for standpoint epistemology. Humans live in spaces structured by various hierarchies, just or unjust, and it is true that where one stands in those spaces shapes one’s vision. But an objective account of those hierarchies – the identification of the principles, again just or unjust, that bring them about – is more than possible as those principles are usually sufficiently legible. In other words, one’s standpoint does not determine one’s vision—one can learn. As such, what the principle of objectivity calls for in a scholar is virtue: One must have the strength of character to, first, admit that one doesn’t know everything and that what one believes one knows may be wrong, welcoming corrections with an open heart. Second, one must admit that one’s own position may provide one with unearned privileges to be renounced. Third, one must accept the fact – fact – that practicing good scholarship might make one unpopular and jeopardize one’s own safety and welfare.

Social justice also requires respect for work that we may find thoroughly apolitical. The pursuit of social justice is the pursuit of a real utopia, and real utopias are frequently the unintended consequences of action initially devoted to something else. Omar Lizardo’s distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture on the pages of ASR may strike some activists as much ado about nothing, but who can say with certainty that other activists will not at some point find it useful? What Gary Snyder wrote about poetry applies equally to sociology: Today we write about trees for seemingly apolitical reasons like getting tenure, tomorrow a lawyer files a claim of personhood on behalf of trees using our work, helping in the fight against the destruction of nature by capital.

The ASA and its president can help individual sociologists in upholding the joint commitment to objectivity and social justice only if they too commit to both objectivity and social justice. Without the principle of objectivity, we will be vulnerable to various misuses of the postmodern condition and the President of the ASA is in a unique position to help the public distinguish between use and misuse; s/he should be willing and able to play this role. The ethic of ultimate ends wouldn’t care about what these misuses will accomplish, but the ethic of responsibility requires us to anticipate the moves of the powers-that-be—after all, we do not just want to fight the good fight, we want to fight it well and, if at all possible, win it. Twenty-one years after the Sokal Affair, it should be clear to anyone that one cannot chase away misuses of postmodern thought easily; it certainly cannot be done in 140 characters.

Committing ASA jointly to objectivity and social justice means effectively mobilizing resources to protect and enhance the security, social standing, and welfare of its members: We must individually or in groups be able to pursue reality freely. In other words, ASA must be a conduit for the “corporatism of the universal”—it must preserve, as much as it can, our autonomy from states, markets, closed moralities, and the popular element. It must confront, on our behalf, populist politicos who want to do away with tenure; university administrators whose job definition is to extract from us as much as possible while giving us as little as possible; publishing houses that make fat loads of money off our backs while preventing people who stand to learn most from our work from accessing it; students and their families who see us as barriers to be cleared on the way to lucrative professional careers; and portions of the public that are impatient with our freedom and want easy, formulaic solutions to problems in which they themselves are enthusiastically complicit. In this regard, Romero’s promise to fight for tenure and academic freedom is obviously good news; so too is her identification of ASA’s declining membership rate as a key problem.

Yet it should be clear that tenure and the membership rate are objectively problems. Granted, they are problems within specific historically instituted settings. These might not be problems for thirteenth-century artists in Beijing, say, or for the food service industry in New York. But to acknowledge that our problems are historically situated and culturally contingent should not ignore that there are, nonetheless, objective conditions that hold in their description and in their critique. In emphasizing justice over objectivity, we run the risk of losing both. Whether objectivity, like anything else, is commingled with power is a very different question than whether it is simply politics by any other means.

As such, the “broad appeal” Romero speaks of as a way to increase membership may not be such good news. For fighting the good fight, not just ASA but also other established disciplinary traditions and institutions, with their hopefully meritocratic hierarchies, are crucial. (If the hierarchies are not sufficiently shaped by the meritocratic principle, one must of course denounce them and start from scratch, but in the case of sociology I do not think we are there.) AJS and ASR may be faulted for many things, but not for turning their back to the pursuit of social justice—just peruse the latest (April 2017) issue of ASR, which features back-to-back pieces on inequality that show that it’s there objectively and denounce it as unjust. Arguably, these publications are more skillful means for the pursuit of social justice than those in, say, Thesis Eleven or the New Left Review, both excellent outlets, both incapable, by virtue of their names alone, of having a significant portion of educated laypeople read them with an open mind. On the other hand, AJS and ASR, which Romero hasn’t published in and which Pardo-Guerra seems to me – I hope to be wrong in my assessment here – to dismiss without explaining why – “What can I say?” he writes – are far more resilient against such bad faith. Again, we are dealing with the difference between the ethic of ultimate ends, which would be scandalized by my comment about journal names, and the ethic of responsibility, which highlights the strategic aspect of knowledge transmission, including journal names, as a crucial bottleneck.
What we need, therefore, is a strong disciplinary core. This is no wish to do away with interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, for these ideals presume distinct disciplinary cores—in order for one to be located between disciplines or cross from one discipline to another, at least two disciplines must be there. Nondisciplinarity, however, is a recipe for disaster—sociology needs STS and justice studies, not to mention anthropology and political science, but erasing all distinctions between them is a bad idea.

This is because structures enable as much as they constrain. As a structure, a discipline – including its professional association and leading journals – is a common language. Instead of decrying the fact that people speak different languages and so do not always understand one another and thus implicitly calling for an Esperanto-like lingua franca to replace them all, we must remember that different languages capture different aspects of reality and therefore that speaking multiple languages gives one a better understanding of reality. Speaking no language, on the other hand, means reality will overwhelm you. As a result, Romero’s distancing herself from research universities is not necessarily good news for sociology or for sociologists—it is primarily in major research universities that contact between well-formed disciplinary cores happens.

And no, a strong disciplinary core will not “make sociology great again,” at least not in the Trumpian sense Pardo-Guerra seems to refer to. A discipline with a strong core is one that has a healthy dose of self-esteem, such that fear of contact with others does not exist—such a discipline will not “build the wall.” Instead, it will have the capacity to speak about a world we can actually know fairly well, even if that world is (social) scientists themselves and their many flaws.  And from that knowledge, we will be able to leverage critiques. If objectivity is truly nothing more than politics by any other means, then we are all of us nothing but rhetoricians and might be better off just becoming full-time activists, or simply focusing on our teaching (though what are we teaching? How is its validity distinct from Breitbart’s own rhetoric?).  But if there is actually data out there, data whose interpretations can be objectively sifted as better or worse, data that provides leverage for social and political critique—then it seems better for us to keep at work.

Barış Büyükokutan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University. His research interests include intellectuals, culture, field theory, secularization, and a German fellow named Max.

 

Written by jeffguhin

June 10, 2017 at 2:11 am

this blog sucks hard. why not make it better? (+ blogcation)

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Orgheads know that this blog is an endless river of lazy and forgettable writing. The presidential toupee is more grounded than this blog. But you know what? You can make a difference!!! Redeem this blog by sending us your stuff! The benefits:

  • Nearly 100% acceptance rate
  • $0 publication fee
  • Impact factor of .004
  • We will never ask to replicate your results.

So send us your best!

PS. I’m on blogcation for the next two weeks. See you later!

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Written by fabiorojas

June 9, 2017 at 12:08 am

Posted in fabio, uncategorized

conflict vs. consensus theory: another bogus teaching distinction

In a lot of old textbooks, and a few newer ones as well, you get this argument that social theories can be divided up into theories of conflict vs. theories of consensus. Marx is a conflict guy because his theory revolves around class divisions. Durkheim is consensus guy because he talks about social solidarity.

Sad! Social theory is not built in this way. Usually, consensus and conflict are dependent variables that are explained by other independent variables. Let’s take Marx. Did he *always* claim that there would be class conflict? Nope! Example: the theory of false consciousness describes the conditions under which people do not resist capitalist institutions. So, for Marx, the degree of conflict is a variable that is driven by other things. Same for Durkheim. The degree of social solidarity varies in Durkheim’s theory and is affected by things like urbanization and the division of labor.

The conflict/consensus distinction is not a horrible idea, but it is not one that supported by further examination of sociology’s major theories. It conflates dependent and independent variables.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 8, 2017 at 12:02 am

contemporary vs. classic social theory: another bogus teaching distinction

A while back, I was telling a friend on the phone about my book, Theory for the Working Sociologist. He asked me about it and I said, “it’s social theory but illustrated with modern research.” He then said, “oh, that could be a book for a contemporary theory theory course.” I mumbled, “sure,” but soon as we were done, I was like, “no, that’s not right.”

In this post, I want to explain why I don’t buy into the “classic v. contemporary” distinction in theory. Let’s start with a statement of what I do and do not argue:

  •  Claim: Breaking up social theory courses into “classic” and “contemporary” is not a great way to teach. It misleads people about the basic nature of sociology and it is not an optimal way to teach *average* undergrads and grad students about how sociology works,
  • Do not claim the following: Sociology/social theory has no historical phases. A historical treatment of theory has no value. The humanities (e.g., close readings of classic texts) has no place in sociology.  Older texts have no value. I reject these claims.

Let me lay out the argument in a number of steps:

  1. The purpose of a social theory course is to teach undergraduates and beginning graduate students “theory,” by which I mean some set of broad applicable ideas that relate to the empirical investigation of society.
  2. The history of social theory and social theory are different things. History of thought is about understanding specific ideas and texts in relation to the biographies of authors and their institutional and historical context. Social theory is a body of thought that motivates thinking throughout sociology. Overlapping? Sure. But theory and history are distinct. For example, a wrong idea can be important for history of thought, but now irrelevant for theory.
  3. Advanced students can learn social theory in any format (historical, mathematical, sign language, you name it!). *Average* students, at the B.A. and Ph.D. level, are confused by historical approaches. By teaching theory in a historical format, most students take away the lesson that “theory” is synonymous with “history.” Nice to know, but not relevant to research.
  4. Historical approaches to theory are sup-optimal for learning because older texts tend to be written in a highly verbose fashion and refer to a lot of things that even modern educated people may not know about. Example: In Weber’s description of bureaucracy, he alludes to Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, as a foil. Just explaining that single reference to undergrads took me about 20 minutes. Now imagine doing that for all of Weber’s references!
  5. Finally, historical approaches make it hard for typical students to transfer what they learned in theory class to another class, and thus undermine the entire purpose of theory class!

Also, I’d add that no other discipline, except philosophy, teaches its core theory in a historical classic/contemporary format. Economists teach it in terms of scope conditions – micro an macro-economic theory. In political science, it is also broken down by topic (“American politics”) – only the political philosophers (“theory” in poli sci) do it by time period, E.g., classic political theory (Greeks) vs. modern (1500 and beyond). Literary theory (“criticism”) gets its own course while historical groupings are used for specific subjects (“early American novels”). Theories of art courses are different than art history courses. The physical sciences pretty much separate all historical scholarship into a few highly specialized courses. You learn proof writing in math either in a proof writing course or in real analysis, which is the modern theory of calculus. The history of math is its own course. The same goes for physics – you learn physical theory (stripped of history) in classical mechanics (not time period – classic means stemming from Newton’s laws; classical mechanics is still a real area of physics) and quantum mechanics. If you really want mechanics the way Newton did it, you can take a course in that. But no one pretends it is teaching you how to do physics in general. You get the modern, better presentation in your basic physics course.

I think that the classical/contemporary approach to teaching theory comes from a desire to be an old style humanist. I suppose there is nothing wrong that. But for most students, this is an incredibly inefficient and misleading way to teach theory. Even if they do learn some of it in your class, I guarantee many will forget everything you said once grades are submitted. Instead, boil down sociology’s main arguments, illustrate them with modern research and move on. If you want to assign my book, that would be great. If not, that’s ok. Just teach social theory, not history.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2017 at 12:01 am