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How Not to Run a Meeting

New Jersey is in the process of creating a Highlands preservation area in the northern part of the state, modeled on the Pinelands in the south. The plan has, unsurprisingly, run into opposition from residents who charge that it undermines their property rights. This isn't a group that I have the most sympathy for. But I can't approve of the joke of a public involvement process that seems to be offered:

The public comment rules are strict: each person is allotted three minutes and council members usually decline to respond.

"This bill is long, the DEP rules are 250 pages, and we're supposed to respond in three minutes? I don't think so," said Deborah Post after being cut off at the council's Dec. 1 meeting. Post, who owns 68 acres in Chester Township in the preservation area, is also part of the citizens' group.

The public comments rules exist so meetings can be kept to a reasonable length, Chairman John Weingart said. The lack of response may be unsatisfying to the residents, but council members say they are listening.

As is too often the case in environmental planning, the planners approach the community in an extremely top-down fashion. Public input is carefully circumscribed -- comment only at this time, in this fashion -- to suit the convenience, and the need for efficiency, of the planners. The planners offer assurances that they are listening. But those assurances are empty without any basis of trust. The planners feel no obligation to engage with the concerns of residents, or to show that they understand those concerns. At best, the public hearings satisfy the letter of the requirement that public input be allowed -- thus allowing the planners to tell themselves they're not tyrants -- and enable a bit of venting on the part of unhappy residents. At worst, such a constricted public participation process serves to make sure that laypeople know their place. And it shows that the planners don't think (and they may well be right) there's anything that residents can do to resist the plan, and thus there's no need for them to win over residents, except perhaps in a very didactic way.


The Editor's Role

Eugene Volokh raises the question of whether a journal should refuse to publish an article by someone who has made racist statements in the past. I agree with Volokh in saying that the article should be accepted or rejected based on the merits of the article, not on the merits of the author. To reject it seems to rely on the premodern conception of contagion, in which a person who had committed an infraction pollutes everything he or she touches, and who must be exiled from the community. In the comments, however, "Splunge" comes close to a modernist justification of, if not rejecting the article outright, at least taking the author's past behavior into account. In essence, he argues that we should judge the article on its own merits, but that the merits of the author are an important clue to the merits of the article:

Eugene's attitude ("(e) is correct") is in many ways laudable, but it overlooks the value in an empirical assessment of the author's "track record" in determining the value of an idea. It's not unreasonable to assess the reputation of an author in judging an idea, because the plain fact is that good and workable ideas do not rain down randomly on everyone. Character matters. Some people are much better than others at sifting out the gold from the trash that bubbles up from the imagination, much better at that unconscious and half-conscious reasoning process that lets one detect what Philip Morrison calls "the ring of truth." Some other people are much more likely to be taken in by plausible-sounding but ultimately foolish notions, and still others lack integrity and will deliberately try to foist delusion on you.

Because of this fact, and because none of us is perfectly equipped to have the same insight as the author into his ideas, it's long been a successful human strategy to factor the reputation of the author into the judgment of an idea. (That is why any completely blind review or judging process is, I think, ultimately doomed to failure. While such a mechanism can undoubtably filter gold from dirt, it's simply not good enough to sift real gold from fool's gold, and it is the latter task which is the really important task of the editor.)

The main problem with Splunge's proposal, in my eyes, is that it misconstrues the role of the editor. Separating fool's gold from real gold is too high a responsibility to place on a single editor. This only becomes more true if we accept that the editor is fallible enough that it behooves him to look at the author's reputation in judging the quality of the article. I simply wouldn't trust one person with that much responsibility. The binary nature of editorial decisions -- either the article gets published, or it goes back to the dark file drawer -- raises the stakes even more.

The job of separating fool's gold from real gold should be done by the wider scholarly community. This community can hold an open-ended debate about the merits of the article, drawing in considerations of the author's reputation as needed. The editor's job is not to pre-judge the results of such an extended discussion, but rather to keep the wheels of discourse from getting gummed up with obvious dirt.


All As is a Sign of Failure

One of the big ideas that haunts discussions of teaching is the strong version of grading on the curve -- the idea that the grade distribution within a class should, or should be forced to, fit a normal distribution. That is, only a few students should be able to get As, and a few students must fail. The alternative to the strong curve philosophy is standards-based grading. In a standards-based system -- of which I am a proponent -- students are graded relative to objectives set out by the teacher. This makes it possible for all students to get As, if they all meet the standard. Indeed, proponents of standards-based grading cite the possibility of a straight-A class with gusto, declaring that such an outcome is proof that the teacher has succeeded. I agree that an all-As class shows that teacher has succeeded relative to the standards. But I also think it shows that the teacher has underperformed when it comes to setting the standards.

There is no hard ceiling for learning about a topic (at least a topic specified broadly enough to be a worthwhile subject for a semester-long class). There is no 100% mastery level to which anyone, let alone all students, can aspire. 100% mastery exists only relative to the teacher-imposed limitations on the scope of the class. Because student aptitudes vary, even the best teacher, who puts in astounding amounts of effort to reach out to students who don't get it or who need different approaches to the material, will have some students who lag, and some who will do exceptionally well. These overachievers, however, may bump into the artificial ceiling created by the limits on the course content.

Thus, if every student is getting an A, it is unlikely to be because all of the students have an equal high level of aptitude. Rather, it is because either low standards or good teaching have allowed even poorer students to meet the standards, and there's simply no room left on the grading scale or in the course material for the exceptional students to shine. This means that there is potential learning for some students that is not taking place. So if every student is getting an A, we should neither accept that*, nor hand out Fs and Ds to those with low A-minuses. Rather, we should raise the standards against which student grades are measured.

And being able to raise standards like this is a wonderful thing! Every teacher worth their salt has encountered the vexing problem of having to limit our course material because we know students can only learn so much in one semester. An upwardly-skewed grade distribution is not an indicator that we've reached success, but rather an opportunity to expand the course and challenge students more fully -- a process which will tend to make a more "normal" grade distribution reappear. The key, however, is that the grade distribution is normalized by a combination of good teaching and rising standards, not by forcing students' work to fit the curve. Rather than saying "I want all my students to get As," we should say "I want all my students to gain at least such-and-such a level of learning, and for those who are able to go as far beyond that as they can."

*A Rawlsian might disagree, arguing that the only thing that matters is the performance of the poorer students. It would be unfair, by this reasoning, to expend effort boosting good students when there are poor students also in need of help. This argument carries weight only if you conceptualize education as being, on the model of income in Rawls's books, primarily of benefit to the student. However, continuing education of prodigies benefits society as a whole, thus placing it into the category of permissible inequalities in Rawls's scheme.

Cultural Theory Hits the Big Time

Neither of them mention Mary Douglas or the grid-group typology explicitly, but both George Will and Amanda Marcotte end up making Cultural Theory arguments in their recent exchange over drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Will starts us off by admitting what I accused drilling proponents of believing back in 2001 (albeit with an added dose of "he started it!"):

... For some people, environmentalism is collectivism in drag. Such people use environmental causes and rhetoric not to change the political climate for the purpose of environmental improvement. Rather, for them, changing the society's politics is the end, and environmental policies are mere means to that end.

... If geologists were to decide that there were only three thimbles of oil beneath area 1002, there would still be something to be said for going down to get them, just to prove that this nation cannot be forever paralyzed by people wielding environmentalism as a cover for collectivism.

Marcotte replies:

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Will-style conservatives dislike enviromentalism just because of this "collectivism" that he takes a piss on. Natural beauty doesn't have a price tag on it. National parks, blue skies, fucking rows of pansies by the sidewalk--these small pleasures belong to everyone, and, as I've mentioned a time or two before, nothing tees off conservative class warriors like the idea that the rabble should have even a moment's access to things like pleasure that should be reserved solely for the upper classes. Generally speaking, I've pointed this out in regards to conservative advocacy for legislating the bedroom--laws against sodomy and birth control function to partition off sexual pleasure as something that can only be indulged in if you're rich enough to have the cops look the other way. I think the anti-enviromentalism you see emanating from the Bushie-style class warriors is part of this same mentality.

There are two interesting things to note here, though. First is that both Will and Marcotte want to cast their enemy as Hierarchist. While "collectivist" is an egalitarian-sounding word, Will makes it clear that to him, collectivism is all about rule by a statist elite. Marcotte's view of the enemy is crystal clear in the passage I quoted. This goes some way toward supporting the contention, by Richard Ellis and others, that American politics is basically a low-grid battle between Individualists and Egalitarians. The two factions strategically either ally with Hierarchy (to put their preferences into coercive law) or demonize the other as having assimilated to Hierarchy (and hence being anti-freedom).

The other interesting thing is the way both writers portray their opponents (and to some extent Will portrays himself) as disingenuous. To fight over ANWR for political reasons, they assume, means that the substance of the question must be irrelevant. Oil and environmental policy are merely means to the end of restructuring the political climate, not issues worth tackling for their own sake.

This proxy battle thesis is certainly consistent with Cultural Theory, and indeed Will's argument might have come straight from one of the more polemical sections of Risk and Culture had ANWR been an issue in 1982. Nevertheless, Marcotte hints at a more subtle version of the theory, which resembles what the Yale Cultural Cognition team calls "The Wildavsky Heuristic." In the theory of the Wildavsky Heuristic, Egalitarians (for example) would advocate protecting ANWR not just because doing so is collectivistic or advances collectivism in society as a whole (as the simple proxy battle theory would have it) or because they have objectively analyzed the consequences of drilling and weighed up the costs and benefits (as a naive rationalism would have it). Rather, they use Egalitarianism as a heuristic for picking the best policy on an issue. Egalitarians want to keep ANWR closed because that's the Egalitarian or collectivist style of management, and they prefer the Egalitarian or collectivist style of management on this issue because they think that style of management will lead to the best results for society with respect to this issue.


Red State Environmentalism

I post a lot of pessimistic stuff here, and I don't intend to stop. But it left me momentarily uncertain how to react when I came across this bit of good news. It's not an environmental victory per se, but at least it's an environmental defeat avoidance:

House Republicans have dropped a provision in budget legislation that would have allowed the sale of public lands for mining.

... Critics — including hunters, anglers and several Democratic Western governors — said the legislation could prompt the sale of millions of acres of public lands.

... "It's important to give a voice to those who are so closely connected to our public lands," [Wyoming Sen. Craig] Thomas said.

Mining is a clear example of a case where the libertarian argument that privatization promotes environmental stewardship falls through. The argument rests on two important premises: that the owner wants the land to be productive in perpetuity, and that the productivity of the land is linked to broader environmental sustainability. Both of these are true in many cases, such as farming. But mining is an inherently time-limited operation, since it deals in non-renewable resources -- the land will become worthless after a finite amount of time, so there's little incentive to maintain its health beyond the anticipated expiration date. What's more, the gas or gold will still be there regardless of whether the ecosystems live or die, providing little reason not to sacrifice those ecosystems in the interests of short-term profits.

What's interesting, though, is where the opposition to this legislation came from: much of it came from the people who live on or near the lands in question. They may pull the lever for the GOP every other November, but -- on this issue, at least -- they saw that, while the Republicans get their votes from regular people, they get their ideas from the corporate elite.

America is a conservative country, so liberals face a tough challenge in selling their ideas to enough voters to put a non-Republican in office. Various strategies have been proposed, most of which seems to boil down to pretending to be conservative. There's embarrasing grandstanding on minor issues, a la Hillary Clinton's crusades against flag-burning and media violence. There's selling out important sectors of the liberal platform -- women's rights seem to be a popular cut among the Daily Kos crowd. And of course there's wartime jingoism.

The interesting thing about all these strategies that have been actually tried and failed is that they assume a rigid bipolarity of politics -- that is, the only thing one can do is slide either leftward or centreward on an issue. The defeat of the mining legislation (as well as other similar incidents over the past few years) point in a different direction -- the possibility of achieving not just a sell-out or a compromise, but a real rapproachment, between conservatives and liberals. This doesn't just mean changing the spin that Democrats put on their ideas, or telling conservatives that liberalism is good for them. It means actually listening to western conservative voters -- treating them as people to be represented, not just vote ores. It means understanding their views and priorities, and weaving them into the larger liberal project in a way that's mutually acceptable. All the raw materials are there in, for example, the frustrations of western ranchers who feel attacked by drilling companies.

The great thing about this strategy is that it could help reconnect the party with its own base as well. Blacks are one of the most reliable constituencies for the Democratic party, yet they often have to hold their nose and vote for the party that's not actively trying to undermine their interests. Blacks, as well as Latinos in some regions, are disproportionately the victims of pollution. This kind of classic environmental injustice needs to be fought in its own right. But it also resonates with the environmental injustices faced by the white westerners who could be brought in to push some Democratic candidates past the 50% mark. They both draw on the same storyline -- regular people, who depend on a healthy environment, seeing their interests trampled by corporations concerned only with their CEO's bonus. To be truly successful, liberalism can't be just a series of separate panders to independent interest groups. It has to weave those panders into a larger storyline, and weave those groups into a true coalition. A small-d democratic environmentalism is one facet of that storyline, and it's a tractable one to begin with.

A populism that reinforces liberal principles has to be more successful than one based on embarassment about those principles.


Sustainability: Galileo or Bozo?

Crackpots like to try to neutralize criticism of their ideas by pointing out that Galileo was ridiculed in his day. The popular rejoinder is to point out that while they laughed at Galileo, they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. This throws discussion back onto the merits of the ideas, in order to demonstrate whether they bear a stronger resemblance to Galileo's or to Bozo's.

We need a similar witticism for references to social movements. For example, this article tries to paint a rosier picture of the struggling sustainability movement's prospects by comparing its progress to that of other social movements, such as women's suffrage or the abolition of slavery. This is fine if our interest is only in supporting the very weak thesis that sustainability's limited level of success so far is not proof of its inevitable failure.

But of course the interesting question is how likely success is. The article's authors would have us believe that for the sustainability movement, prospects are good. However, it's not enough to demonstrate similarity to a number of successful social movements. You also have to demonstrate difference from failed social movements -- of which there are many. After all, the temperance, eugenics, and communist movements started off slow, too -- and yet they ultimately failed. Will sustainability culminate in something like the 19th Amendment, or like the 18th? It would behoove the environmental movement to pay closer attention to such failed campaigns in order to see what to avoid, rather than focusing only on the inspiring successes of the good movements.

An added complication in the case of sustainability is the time frame for victory. Most previous social movements had all the time in the world. Civilization had lasted thousands of years without letting women vote, and it would have continued along just fine if the suffragettes had failed. This is a lucky break, considering the huge tasks that still remain, a century later. But one of the central principles of the modern environmental movement is that we don't have all the time in the world. If triumph takes too long, there won't be anyone still around to triumph.


Entitlement vs. Spanish

Everyone's been writing about the story of a student who was suspended (but later reinstated) for speaking Spanish in school. You don't need me to tell you that the teacher and principal were way out of line. The incident struck me as a sort of low-wattage version, springing from similar impulses, of Australia's Stolen Generation and the related efforts on this continent to forcibly assimilate indigenous children. That comparison got me thinking about one of the issues that unites the various strands of progressivism: elite entitlement.

Environmentalists, feminists, fat activists, and others have differing enemies who nevertheless share a key characteristic: a sense of entitlement. Entitlement to prestige. Entitlement to call the shots in society. Entitlement not to have to think about how the laundry will get done or where your hamburger comes from. Entitlement not to have to see or hear about anything you find aesthetically or sexually unappealing. Entitlement to have everyone affirm your choice of holiday. Entitlement to set the terms of the (employment or other) offer. Entitlement to have the world rearranged to suit you, to have other people make the sacrifices to keep you happy. And so on.

This entitlement is bound up in the question of authority, since getting your own way requires being able to control others' behavior (ordering them around) and discourse (defining the terms of debate). The existence of an alternative power center not subordinate to you (or at least to a trusted compatriot). One of the most threatening such alternative power centers is a culture that you do not control, that you can't at least box in and define (for yourself and for its own members) as inferior. Speaking a language that the entitled elite don't understand is a brazen declaration of such an alternative power center.

The question of surveillance comes in here too. Maintaining one's entitlement to power requires knowing what your subordinates are up to -- a process made difficult by a language barrier. Doubtless someone will try to defend the teacher and principal by pointing out that they need to be able to hear everything the students say, lest they be planning a gang initiation or conducting a drug deal in the hallway. The need for the authorities to eavesdrop is accomplished, however, not by the authorities learning Spanish (which would perhaps be a more robust solution from a purely social control point of view), but by enforcing their entitlement to choose the language.

It's not surprising that so many of these stories of outrage come from schools. The structure of school administration, rooted in our (not unjustified) views of children's lesser status, makes it an appealing environment for someone with an overactive sense of entitlement. The job of principal thus attracts more than its share of petty despots.


Donor Conception Choices

Ampersand disputes the claims of Brad Wilcox that children concieved from sperm donors do worse than children concieved naturally. I happen to agree with him that there's no reason to think that donor-concieved children do any worse than other children raised in the same family situation (both writers make the assumption that donor-concieved children are all raised by single mothers), and indeed they may do better. But I find the framing of the question quite strange.

First, there's the implicit choice that we're considering. In comparing the fates of the children of single parents to the children of couples, we're assuming that this is the choice facing a woman who wants to be a mother. What's more likely, though, is that the choice is between single parenthood and non-parenthood. Thus it's not enough to say that donor children are worse off than other children. You have to argue that they're so bad off that they ought never to have been born. That's a pretty high hurdle for opponents of donor conception.

Second, there's the policy option on the table. The way these writers tell it, the only real response we could make if donor children turned out to have worse lives on average would be to ban donor conception. This makes a certain sense from a socially conservative viewpoint, where fatherlessness is directly detrimental to a child's wellbeing. If that's the case, all you can do is to avoid getting into that situation in the first place. From a liberal point of view, however, it's far more likely that the negative effects of single parenthood operate through mediating variables -- the lack of resources brought about by having only half as many adults in the household, or the cultural pressures that say fatherlessness is weird, for example. This suggests that there are things that we can do to support single parent families once they exist. This would mean that donor children who are already born would not be abandoned to their fate.


Freedom of Speech in Sweden

It's not often that I agree with Joe Carter, so I thought I'd mark this occasion. We're both happy to learn that Åke Green, a Swedish minister charged with hate speech for preaching an anti-gay sermon, has been acquitted:

A Pentecostal pastor who denounced homosexuality as a "cancerous tumor" in a sermon said Tuesday he would stop preaching against gays after Sweden's highest court acquitted him of hate speech.

... The case stemmed from a 2003 sermon in which Green told his congregation that homosexuality was "a deep cancerous tumor on all of society," and he warned that Sweden risked a natural disaster because of leniency toward gays. He also said gays were more likely than others to rape children and animals.

Make no mistake about the fact that Green's sermon is vile, unacceptable, and entirely false. But the boundaries of free speech must remain broad and strong. The battle against this form of homophobia can only be won on the cultural, not the legal, level.


Environmentalist Racists

This is a bit of a cop-out for a Blog Against Racism Day post, since the racism it deals with is something that I can easily distance myself from and blame on Them (of course, since Hugo Schwyzer's post basically amounts to criticizing nonwhite women for thinking feminism has a problem with racism, maybe I'm doing OK). Nevertheless, my topic for today -- oppression of indigenous people in the name of conservation -- is a serious and oft-overlooked issue, pointing out (as Schwyzer tried to do) a point of conflict between anti-racism and other elements of the progressive movement.

Historically, indigenous people have had a sort of catch-22 relationship with the nature-human divide. In the initial phase of colonization they were declared to be part of nature, and hence subject to the same type of ruthless exploitation as the soil and trees around them. With the rise of the conservation movement in the early 20th century, indigenous people were accepted as human -- only to have that used as a rationale for removing them from their lands, lest they destroy nature (or even just profane it by their mere presence in the wilderness)*. The latter viewpoint remains strong in the modern environmental movement:

Conservation biologists argue that by allowing native populations to grow, hunt, and gather in protected areas, anthropologists, cultural preservationists, and other supporters of indigenous rights become complicit in the decline of biological diversity. Some, like the Wildlife Conservation Society's outspoken president, Steven Sanderson, believe that the entire global conservation agenda has been "hijacked" by advocates for indigenous peoples, placing wildlife and biodiversity in peril. "Forest peoples and their representatives may speak for the forest," Sanderson has said, "They may speak for their version of the forest; but they do not speak for the forest we want to conserve." WCS, originally the New York Zoological Society, is a BINGO lesser in size and stature than the likes of TNC and CI, but more insistent than its colleagues that indigenous territorial rights, while a valid social issue, should be of no concern to wildlife conservationists.

Sanderson's statement is the height of hubris in two ways, ways which are racist in effect even if not in intent. First, the industrialized countries have crippled nature in their own backyards, and yet the environmental movement asks indigenous people to make the sacrifices to keep the biosphere alive. It's true that some (albeit far less than Sanderson thinks) of the practices of indigenous people are damaging to the environment -- but that damage would be negligible if indigenous territories weren't hemmed in by mines, roads, and industrial agriculture. To put it in the terminology of my previous post, industrial society has weighted indigenous peoples' choice set, and then punishes them for making a survival choice that it doesn't like.

Second, Sanderson's statement about the difference between the indigenous and conservationist versions of the forest is surficially correct, but extremely anti-indigenous in its implications. Indigenous people and the Wildlife Conservation Society do have two different visions of how the forest should be. But what right does Sanderson have to declare the superiority of his own? Perhaps more to the point, since Sanderson has every right to argue for his own perspective, what right does he have to use his comparative financial might, the WCS's media megaphone, and the coercive power of the state to enforce his view? Lands inhabited by indigenous people belong to those indigenous people, and only in the case of egregious damage to others, or with their consent (neither of which pertain in most cases) can outsiders step in.

Indigenous people are people. They have the same basic sort of rights to their environment that any other land owner does -- including the right to define the type of nature that they want, the right to a certain amount of exploitation of it, and the right to participation in environmental management decisions being made at a larger scale. Contra Sanderson, indigenous rights are a crucial concern for wildlife conservationists, because they put a check on conservationists' activities, and because truly recognizing indigenous rights will give conservationists a better foothold to resist the important enemy, the unsustainable industrial system.

If the industrialized countries focus on getting the (unsustainably harvested on land obtained through cronyism) log out of their eye, I think indigenous people can handle monitoring their own eyes for motes.

*Today many indigenous groups and their non-indigenous allies are trying to make indigenous people part of nature again, albeit this time saying it's a good thing -- the "angels in the ecosystem" ideal. I have my anthropological skepticism about how accurate much of the rhetoric is as a representation of traditional (pre-colonial) culture. However, there is nothing wrong with efforts to make one's identity into an "angels in the ecosystem" mold, and indeed it's a clever way for indigenous people practice some syncretism and beat the dominant culture using its own rules.