Author Archives: Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

For Accuracy, Consequences, and Truth. A Personal Manifesto

The Trump Administration’s proclamation of “alternative facts” to suit the arguments they wish to make, and the branding of journalistic outlets that demonstrate the inaccuracy of the President’s statements as “FAKE NEWS!!!” have prompted me to do something I am not normally inclined to do: to actively campaign for the value and integrity of a broadly scientific approach as an important input to public deliberation. It’s not at all that I needed to be convinced of the value of such an approach; rather, it’s that I was somewhat blissfully unaware of the extent to which the current wave of populist politics was almost completely untroubled by notions of factuality. Sure, I had known that there was a hard core of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that felt that scientific results and verifiable pieces of information were matters of opinion or belief — anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, people who worried about the U.N.’s supposed fleet of black helicopters that were waiting to swoop in and destroy national sovereignty — but I guess I always believed that such a minority would be held in check by the good sense of the rest of the electorate, even those with whose policy positions I disagreed. Apparently not. Apparently significant numbers of people in the U.S. were willing to vote for a demonstrated purveyor of convenient falsehoods — convenient in the sense that they support his, and their, preferred positions on a whole slew of issues. Welcome to the post-truth era.

Or: welcome to an era in which truth, and the earnest seeking after truth, is under assault, and under assault not for anything like defensible reasons. Instead, the political order of the day seems to be to make up whatever claims support one’s conclusions and then pass them off as “facts.” In my view what has changed is not politicians; politics was never about seeking truth, and frankly, shouldn’t be about truth but should instead be about making compromises and balancing priorities in order to make our common lives together work as well as they can. Believing that you and you alone have the truth makes you a poor politician, because you can’t compromise, and if you had the truth, why would you even want to? Politics is messy and imperfect, so we should never expect it to conform to ideal standards for the production of factual knowledge. Indeed, I suspect that most politicians would lie about and misrepresent situations as much as they could get away with doing so in pursuit of their agendas, because the central virtue in politics is effectiveness rather than integrity — and in the first instance that means effectiveness and gaining and retaining political power and influence.

All of which means that if we the people want our elected officials to make policy that engages facts instead of just making stuff up, we cannot rely on politicians or on the political process to defend that stance. We have to instead actively advocate and diligently defend the proper role of facts and factual explanations in relation to political contestation. Continue reading

Hope: Rogue One and the Vocation for Politics

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

I will confess that I had more than a little trepidation going into Rogue One. When the first trailer dropped, I complained to a Facebook group that it looked like an action flick that just happened to be set in the Star Wars universe, and didn’t seem especially Star Wars-y at all. I mean, I was sure that the production design people at Lucasfilm would do their usual commendable job building the “lived-in universe” and as such the film would look like it belonged in the world that the previous films had explored, and the folks in charge of overall continuity would ensure that the story would fit into the timeline. But what bothered me in the trailer was the absence of any obvious references to the Force, the Jedi, and the other parts of the central mythological backbone of the Star Wars saga. The soul of Star Wars, the thing that makes it different from basically any other outer-space adventure series, has always been the Force, and the eternal struggle between its dark and light aspects has always provided the engine that drives the overall plot.

Successive trailers and leaks about the film gave me a little more confidence that we’d still be in the space-fantasy realm in the final version of the movie, but I was still bothered by the apparent absence of anyone definitively Force-sensitive in the main cast of characters. When opening day finally arrived, I sat in the theatre with my family and watched an opening sequence that was about as un-Star Wars-y as I’d feared, despite the armored stormtroopers and the blue milk: no opening text crawl, no soaring theme music, and most jarring of all, after the quick flash of the movie’s title on screen, the name of a planet displayed as a way of explaining to the viewer where the action was taking place. Why was this last one so jarring? Because until this point the only on-screen text we’d ever seen in a Star Wars film was to translate some alien language. Identifying locations with on-screen text overlays is a typical science fiction convention, and Star Wars has never been science fiction; instead of having things explained, we were always dropped into the middle of the action and basically left to figure things out en route. Mystery, not explication — a trick that George Lucas learned from Akira Kurosawa.

Rogue One walks a very fine line between space fantasy and science fiction, and this presses the Star Wars franchise someplace it hasn’t gone on screen before. And as it does, Rogue One is able to do something no previous Star Wars film has been able to do: show us characters wrestling with the dilemmas of practical political action. Where previous Star Wars films were like sacred scripture, Rogue One is a story about the lives of the faithful. Which makes it a perfectly appropriate film for our times.

[From here on in this is not a spoiler-free zone. You have been warned.] Continue reading

Thoughts on the passing of an intellectual interlocutor

I suppose that one of the inevitable consequences of getting older is that more people whom you have known, either personally or through their work, shuffle off this mortal coil and move on to whatever comes next. 2016 seems to have been a bad year for musicians whose work I (and many others) have known and appreciated: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Maurice White, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, Glenn Frey…the list goes on. But although I’m an amateur musician myself, my appreciation for folks like these is primarily as a member of the audience, part of the fan base, someone who was touched by their music and mourns the loss of a great talent that may have had more to give the world but now won’t be able to. They were people whose work I admired, but not peers: they were in a very different line of work, so I do not feel like I learned anything from them, although they provided the soundtrack to a lot of my life and the fact that they won’t ever be producing anything new that I can listen to is heartbreaking.

It’s different when someone you personally connected with dies. Continue reading

Melt Our Guns

Or, “in which PTJ attempts to use some reflections on the aesthetics of progressive rock to flesh our a way for international studies scholarship to ‘go on’ in these turbulent times.”

Our wide eyes
Aren’t naive
They’re a product of a conscious decision
The welcoming smile is the new cool
The key left in the outside of the unlocked door
Isn’t forgetfulness
It’s a challenge to change your heart
There’s always a price to pay
Living in f e a r is so very dear
Can you really afford it?

The band Marillion is probably not one that you are familiar with. Outside of a very passionately committed fan base, most people have either never heard of them or have vague memories of their song “Kayleigh,” which was a #2 hit in the U.K. in the summer of 1985, a top-10 hit in Ireland, Norway, and France, and made it to #74 in the United States later that year. Since that period of popular success, and after replacing their lead singer due in part to the traditional problems of a successful rock band (ego, drugs, and the pressure to repeat their triumph), the band has recorded 15 additional studio albums, played numerous shows all over the world, and generally continued to make compelling melodic “neo-progressive” rock music. If Bob Dylan set out with “a red guitar, three chords, and the truth,” Marillion persists with a lot more than three chords, numerous synthesizers and keyboards to go along with several guitars including a 12-string, and a preference for longer, more complex musical arrangements than are common in mainstream popular music.

Marillion’s latest album is entitled FEAR, which is an acronym standing for “f*** everyone and run.” That latter phrase is a lyric from one of the album’s songs, “The New Kings,” which deals with the lives of the world’s super-rich elite and the impact that the wealth gap has on the daily lives of the rest of us. The album opens with a long suite entitled “El Dorado” that links the pursuit of gold with militarism, global poverty, and various forms of violence. On their current concert tour, Marillion is playing both of those songs, and not playing the less explicitly political tracks from the new album: “The Leavers,” about a band on tour, and “White Paper,” about a relationship that ends because the narrator can’t find a way to be content given all of the horrible things going on in the world. From the new album they are also playing a song entitled “Living in FEAR,” which lead singer Steve Hogarth introduces at the live shows as “the antidote to our new album.” While “El Dorado” and “The New Kings” indict and lament the current state of things, “Living in FEAR” presents an alternative way that we could choose to live:

We’ve decided to risk melting our guns as a show of strength
We’ve decided to risk melting our guns as a show of strength
As a show of strength!
Continue reading

Safe spaces and hospitable classrooms

In my last post here I argued that the infamous University of Chicago missive about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” rested on a rather profound mischaracterization of the issues as being about preventing student discomfort in the classroom. The position adopted in the letter from the Dean of Students seems to be that efforts to make the classroom a more comfortable place are implacably opposed to “freedom of inquiry and expression” and “the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas,” and that since safe spaces and trigger warnings are about making students comfortable, the University does not support or condone them. I actually agree that the purpose of a classroom is not to provide comfort; instead, I would claim that the purpose of a classroom is to provide opportunities for students to augment and enhance their capacities to do things. But I disagree with the notion that trigger warnings are about making students comfortable, and prefer to think about them as involving the removal of barriers to participation in class. So “trigger warnings” are an access issue.

But I don’t think that analysis suffices for “safe spaces,” the other target of the Chicago note. (I am setting aside the part of the letter about invited speakers, because in my view co-curricular activities on campus invoke a different set of concerns than those strictly limited to the classroom — and campuses without “safe spaces” strike me as a real problem, because we still have a lot of work to do in making room for a whole plethora of identities and issues on campus.) In many conceptions, a “safe space” does depends on “comfort” as a core characteristic. Continue reading

Trigger Warnings, Barriers, and the Purpose of the Classroom

If the University of Chicago intended to provoke wide-ranging discussion and debate by sending a letter to all of its new students denouncing “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” it has certainly succeeded. Of course, this being the Internet, most of the ensuing chatter has been of the slash-and-burn variety, with slogans flying fast and furious: academic freedom! Inclusion! Diversity! Coddled millennials and their helicopter boomer parents! I’m not going to dignify any of the click-bait-y things posted this week in that vein by linking to them. Instead I want to claim that this is a more complex issue than either of the quick partisan responses would suggest, and offer a reframing of the issue in terms of the very point of a classroom in the first place—something that seems, as usual, to get lost amidst the elegant yelling of the dispute.

In order to actually say something intelligent about this issue, we have to get past both the caricatured “freedom of speech” position in which any limit whatsoever on anyone saying anything is taken to be a violation of some natural law, and the equally caricatured “emotional sensitivity” position in which any feeling of discomfort is automatically converted into a violation of basic human dignity. These are caricatures, held—as far as I can tell—by pundits rather than by actual thoughtful educators, because actual educators (teachers and those who support them administratively, which I phrase very carefully so as to exclude those parts of the contemporary university that aren’t concerned with supporting teaching…you know who you are) recognize that producing spaces of learning is hard work involving the ongoing exercise of practical judgment instead of any kind of cheap, ideological sloganeering. One size certainly doesn’t fit all here, and your mileage will definitely vary.

That said: If we want our students to learn things, we have to be attentive to where they start out, where we want them to go, and what we want them to encounter on the way. No actual educator would deny any of that. So where does that leave us?

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Professors of, not professors in…

So the LSE has appointed — appointed, not hired, which is important — Angelina Jolie Pitt (AJP) as a “Visiting Professor in Practice.” The importance of the hire/appoint distinction: there is a part of me that is somewhat perturbed that an institution that has not once but twice passed on the opportunity to have me join its ranks has made a space for someone whose scholarly CV is, shall we say, somewhat spotty, but the kind of position AJP has been awarded is a very different animal from anything I might have applied for — and presumably she did not have to give a job talk, secure letters of recommendation from senior colleagues, and have her latest book dissected by a faculty search committee, so I think it’s safe to say that there is a different game being played here.

angelina-jolie-hands

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