Tuesday, July 20, 2010

To Refudiate (verb)

So the whole blogosphere has been tweeting and retweeting about Sarah Palin's accidental coinage of the word "refudiate," and her subsequent comparison of herself to William Shakespeare. (If that's the standard you want your prose judged against, sister, be my guest.) It's a big serving of the regular Palin-coverage stew: mockery of ignorance, defensive anti-intellectualism, just enough genuine condescension to lend the anti-intellectuals credibility.

So let's get this out of the way: Palin did not misuse the word "refudiate." She used it exactly as it was meant to be used.

Now, if you're going to ask people to do something, as Palin's original tweet pretends to do, you don't want to use a word like "refudiate," because it's not really a word and people might not understand what you'd like them to do. But Palin was not really asking anyone to do anything. There's nothing she actually wants to happen, and she's not really speaking to the "peace loving Muslims" her sentence addresses.

Palin's tweet is doing something else, which politicians have come to do far, far too much: pretending to ask someone to do something the politician doesn't actually want done. Palin wants to make a public show of demanding some people do something, so she can get credit for demanding that thing and so she can blame those people for not doing it. The audience for the statement is not the people she is pretending to address, about whom Palin does not care a wet rag. Her audience is her own following, and she wants to show herself standing up to the dastardly villains of whom she makes her basically fictional demand. It's a posture, not a request.

Palin has to know, somewhere, that Muslims aren't going to repudiate building mosques, the same way Christians never repudiate building churches and Jews never repudiate building synagogues. If you repudiate building mosques, you're really not a Muslim anymore. (And yes, of course, it's actually a Muslim community center and it's actually not at Ground Zero. Palin doesn't give a wet rag for facts, either.) Who is going to say, "That's right, the basic practice of our religion is a terribly insensitive thing to do, inseparable from religious-based terrorism?" Palin knows perfectly well that no one is going to do that. That's why she demanded it.

She's also not interested in actually communicating with "peace loving Muslims." She's interested in defining Muslims as NOT peace loving and in suggesting to her followers that no peace loving Muslims exist. First off, she's addressing "peace loving Muslims" as if the people building a community center in Manhattan, who got permission from their neighbors, were somehow not "peace loving." She's calling on some imaginary alternative group of "peace loving" Muslims to intervene against the villainous community-center builders, who are by implication a bunch of damned warmongers. Her first rhetorical goal is to disguise the peace-loving nature of the community-center builders, who are trying to do public outreach and promote non-violent Islam, and who Palin wants to demonize. (For those of you confused at home, it's like this: the Muslims putting up the buildings in Lower Manhattan are the peace lovers. QED.)

Palin's second rhetorical goal, which is even more insidious, is to define what a "peace loving Muslim" is. What she's implying, of course, is that we'll know the peace loving Muslims when they "refudiate" the mosque. And when nobody does speak out against building a place to peaceably worship their God, it will just go to show that none of the Muslims want peace! They're all confrontational warmongers, who want to put up thirteen-story buildings exactly at the moment in American construction industry badly needs work! How much more devious could they get? (Hint: it's about zoning. The evil plan is always, always about zoning.) See that? Sarah Palin asked the peace lovers to do the peace loving thing and "refudiate" and none of them had the common decency to refudiate anything! They're monsters, I tell you!

Again, if you're asking people to actually do something, it's important to use commonly accepted words to communicate what you want. But when you only want to make a theatrical demand that parties unknown do something that you're secretly hoping won't happen, then using real words doesn't matter. Actually, it kind of helps. If you can get people to buy it, demanding that people do something that actually isn't anything, because there's no such thing as "refudiating," is a kind of insurance policy. If you asked people to denounce or repudiate or deplore something, there's a tiny chance that someone will actually do that and mess up your plan. But if you make a demand that isn't actually in English, demanding they do something that you don't quite describe, then they can't actually do it. And if they try, you can say they did it wrong, because you didn't mean that; you meant refudiate.

If Palin could swing it, she'd make more phony demands using even sillier and less meaningful words. What she would really like to say, on national television is something like: "I think Barack Obama owes it to the American people to schnarfenoggle right away, and to keep schnarfenoggling until this country's frablejam is back oshkenizing again!" Then she'd go on Fox News every seventeen minutes and hammer Obama for not schnarfenoggling enough. And Obama would never be able to schnarfenoggle satisfactorily, because it's Palin who gets to decide what schnarfenoggling actually is.

Calling her stupid misses the point. Her words follow the same malicious logic that Humpty Dumpty uses:

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

Sarah Palin wants to make up the words and define what they mean, however and whenever it suits her. She doesn't intend the rest of us to get a say in it. In her private language, putting up a building and blowing up a building are pretty much the same thing. And whatever else that is, it's not funny.

Monday, July 19, 2010

How to Lose a Counterinsurgency: Part III

(Or, What the British Army Taught Us About Afghanistan)

Part III: Back Unpopular Locals

This dapper gent is Thomas Hutchinson, the second-to-last Loyalist governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hutchinson also has the special distinction of being the last civilian Loyalist governor of Massachusetts. His replacement was a military commander, General Thomas Gage, sent to impose martial law. The governor of Massachusetts after Gage was named John Hancock. So the sequence is: local politician appointed to get control of the colony, followed by a military governor sent from the home country, followed by a local revolutionary. You can see how well getting tough on the colonists worked.

Hutchinson became acting governor in 1769 (he'd been lieutenant governor for 11 years before that), was officially commissioned in 1771, and got replaced in 1774. (Actually, Hutchinson's governorship was only "suspended" during martial law, so technically the man is still the royal governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.) That means Hutchinson was governor, acting or official, during the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.(The classic study is Bernard Bailyn's biography The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. It is, among its many virtues, highly readable.) Hutchinson was George III's man on the ground while Massachusetts hurtled toward Revolution.

Here's the thing. By the time Hutchinson was appointed to run the colony, the Massachusetts "Patriots," the future revolutionaries, already hated him. Back in 1765, when he was Lieutenant Governor, he came to be viewed both as a defender of the hated Stamp Act (which taxed every contract, newspaper, almanac, will, property deed and nine of spades in the colonies) and of elitist privilege generally. So an angry mob went to Hutchinson's house and tore it down.

Four years after Hutchinson watched his fellow Bostonians rip apart his home, he was put in charge of the whole colony. What better guy to make Massachusetts accept unpopular measures than a deeply unpopular governor whom people already found unacceptable?

The British had lost the colonies (or at least Massachusetts) before the Revolution started. By the time they needed the army to impose political order, it was over, because they were fighting to restore a local governor who had already failed. If you need to call in the army because Governor Hutchinson can't control the province, your strategy can't be about returning Governor Hutchinson to power. Fighting a counterinsurgency does mean that you eventually turn the area you're fighting for over to local political control. The point of the counterinsurgency is to build support for that local government. But the strategy is only as viable as the proposed government is. If that government can't build or sustain support on its own, then there is no end, and no possibility of victory.

Similarly, our own counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and our involvement in Iraq depend upon the viability of the local governments that we back there, and those government's abilities to garner sufficient support on the ground. In Afghanistan's case, we began with a local partner, Hamid Karzai, who as far as I can tell was initially quite plausible. Hamid Karzai putting together an Afghan government was not a crazy plan. He was a known quantity, with genuine connections, and he could likely have built the support he needed. At this point, it should be clear that he has not. No mob has arrived to demolish his home, but the last election made it obvious that he is no longer remains entirely viable or entirely legitimate. We can't win in Afghanistan until Karzai (or some other leader) can build a central government with sufficient popular support. That hasn't happened, and Karzai is no longer capable of making it happen.

But what alternative? Karzai seems to some American policy-makers like the only person we could work with, so he has to win. But it doesn't work like that. A local leader doesn't become viable simply because we can't accept the alternatives. Consider Thomas Hutchinson: he may have been hated by his fellow colonists, but the British needed somebody who would follow their policies. The leaders who were popular in the colony, the ones who could garner widespread support, were popular exactly because they opposed the Stamp Act, quartering British soldiers, the East India Company's monopoly on tea, and so forth. The British couldn't work with them. And they certainly couldn't deal with someone like Massachusetts' representative in London, Benjamin Franklin, who was always talking about conciliation with the colonists. Eventually, Franklin leaked some of Hutchinson's letters (which sneered at the idea of Englishmen being entitled to rights), and was humiliatingly dressed-down and punished by the Privy Council. Franklin clearly had no character, and was clearly not a real Loyalist. They told Franklin that last part, and eventually convinced him they were right. In the meantime, there was no one else the King and Parliament could trust. So they stuck with Hutchinson and sent more troops.

It's not a plan. It never was.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why Can't Education Reporters Read?

Last week The Delta Cost Project, a non-profit that studies the cost of higher education, released a detailed report on revenue and expenses at American colleges and universities over ten years: "Trends in College Spending, 1998-2008." The report broke down the various sources of revenue, the different activities on which money was spent, and most interestingly the rate of increase of spending on each separate category. If tuition went up X percent, and university expenses went up Y percent, how much did each category of expenses go up? It's a smart, interesting and badly needed approach, but apparently too complicated for reporters who cover education to figure out.

Education reporters at important mainstream institutions, including The New York Times and Bloomberg News, blew the story in various ways. They didn't blow it because they misunderstood the context, or the complicated back story, or the subtle implications. They blew the story because they did not understand the plain language of the report.

The only other possibility is that they blew the story because they didn't actually bother reading the report. They already know what they think about education policy, and rigorously-researched data can't change their minds. Even if they physically read the report, they could not or would not process any information that didn't fit their pre-existing conclusions.

Here's the basic takeaway of the report:
1) Higher education prices continue to soar, vastly in excess of inflation and evidently even faster than prices of prescription drugs.
2) The costs for colleges and universities do continue to rise, and the amount they spend on everything, controlled for inflation, rose. However spending on actual instruction (mostly on teacher salaries) rose much more slowly than spending on other categories. So between 1998 and 2008 the amount that major private universities pay to put teachers in the classrooms went up 22 percent, but spending on administration and on student services each went up 36 percent. Big public universities spent 10% more on teaching in 2008 than they spent in 1998, but the amount they spent on administration had gone up 20%.
3) Private universities, with bigger budgets, spent much, much more on teaching than public universities did, or than community colleges did.
4) However, the cost of attending a four year public university went up a lot faster than the cost of attending a four year priavte university. The costs of the Ivy League schools (and their less-famous but equally-pricey peers) and so on is going up fast, but the cost of the state universities is going up even faster.

Sam Dillon at The New York Times wrote a relatively solid piece that was initially ruined by a bad headline: Colleges Spend More on Recreation Than Class. That headline is not even close to the truth. Education is still the biggest expense at every university. The problem is that rate of spending on things other than instruction is growing faster than the rate of spending on instruction. It's not about the amounts spent in a given year, but about long-term trends in spending. That's why the study is called "Trends in College Spending."

By the time The Times corrected its headline, various other people had picked up the headline's story, based on no facts whatsoever, and run with it. Here's Daniel Lurzner at Washington Monthly, expressing his outrage at the Times's misleading sloppiness. But I would have a lot more sympathy for Lurzner if he had not written his own blog post based on the headline instead of reading the actual article or (heaven forfend!) the Delta Cost Project's report. (or even the Project's press release about the report. I don't ask much.) So Lurzner started to inform his readers, authoritatively, that a
new study by the nonprofit Delta Cost Project demonstrates that American colleges are spending less of their money on actual education and more on administration and recreation.

Again, entirely untrue. The spending on actual education went up, although other spending went up even faster. The Times headline is extremely sloppy. But that's no excuse for Lurzner's own sloppiness. Education is his beat. He's supposed to read what he's reporting on and actually pay attention to it. The fact that the headline did not match the claims in Dillon's article is embarrassing. The fact that Lurzner did not notice that the headline's claim was not backed up by the article itself is worse than embarrassing.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg's news wire reported this (as their lede):
Private research universities spent twice as much as their public counterparts to teach each student in the 2007-08 school year, widening a cost gap that can make private colleges unaffordable to students, without the help of financial aid.

So they get one fact right (private colleges do spend more money on teaching students), but another wrong. The cost gap between private and public college isn't widening. It's narrowing. Public colleges are getting closer and closer to charging Ivy League prices, while spending much less per student. Bloomberg's takeaway is exactly backwards.

(The report does talk about a growing gap between public and private universities, but it's an educational gap. The schools whose students need the most resources have the least resources to give them, and this problem is getting worse. But Bloomberg's reporter either didn't grasp that or didn't care.)

What's depressing about this is that the DCP's expensive, painstaking research doesn't even seem to penetrate the minds of people who cover education stories for a living. Those reporters simply plugged in the conclusions they expected to see, even when the report's conclusions (and its data) say precisely the opposite.

Now, maybe I'm biased because I'm an academic. That means that I have some experience reading articles whose actual claims doesn't quite match the claims made up front. It also means that I have a professional bias toward research that changes the existing narrative rather than confirming it. I don't think conducting an exhaustive ten year study to find out exactly what people already know, or think they know, would be a good use of energy. But I think facts that make us change our minds are interesting. I see the point of doing research as changing people's minds by giving them a clearer, more accurate sense of the world. Perhaps those things are only valued inside the world of higher education. Clearly, at least some of the people who express an interest in "reforming" education don't value them.

Higher education policy is an important issue, in which everyone has a stake. Certainly, higher education is facing serious structural problems, and they need to be thought through carefully. But it will never by fixed by people clinging to their preordained conclusions in defiance of the facts. It's fashionable for people to criticize the hidebound vested interests inside the academy, but at least some of the vested interested outside the academy seem at least as stubborn and resistant to evidence as any "old-fashioned" or "outmoded" academic could ever be. Some people have already decided that they know how to fix what's wrong with America's colleges, and they're not about to let facts get in the way.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Liberty, Equality, and So On ...

Happy Bastille Day, mes amis. And Lafayette, thanks for the solid.

In honor of quatorze juillet, here's Serge Gainsbourg:

And for those who prefer La Marseillaise old-school, Casablanca still does it best.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cleveland Is Okay. Seriously.

Friday morning, I was in Cleveland, where all the news was about LeBron James. That afternoon, I got on a plane and flew to Not Cleveland in order to attend a wedding. Now I'm back.

The wedding was delightful, except for one thing. Several people I spoke with were firmly convinced that the city of Cleveland was basically on fire. They were grateful that I had gotten out of town "before they burn it down." I blame ESPN for this.

My friends in Not Cleveland had clearly seen coverage of a few sports-bar yahoos setting their $400 LeBron replica jerseys on fire, always within three yards of an obliging TV camera, and come away with the impression that the city had erupted into wide-scale mayhem. Let me assure all my friends in Greater Not Cleveland, wherever that may be: nothing like that happened. Seriously. Everything is fine. And don't be a schmuck, okay?

Cleveland is peaceful and green this afternoon, and a bit cooler than it was when I left it. One big billboard of King James got some stuff thrown at it. That's pretty much the story. Cleveland, seriously, was safer on Thursday night than Kenmore Square is after a Red Sox win.

Where'd my friends get this idea? One slice of the blame, I'm afraid, might go to the idea that cities with large black populations are prone to civic violence. Of course, most of the yahoos burning their authentic replica game jerseys outside bars Thursday night were whiter than the foam on a Coors Light, but facts don't matter here. Some people do something stupid in a city that's perceived as black, and suddenly the rumor goes around that there's a huuuge riot in the hood. Since most people who relay these rumors are terrified of black neighborhoods anyway, and are persuaded that they will be stabbed to death the second they set foot in one, they never ever find out that the dangerous riots never happened. But seriously, my beautiful integrated soul-food-friendly neighborhood looks perfectly lovely today. Maybe the outer suburbs are undergoing some terrible convulsion, but I'm not going out there to check.

More of the blame goes to the sports media, for blowing this story so grievously out of proportion. ESPN, j'accuse. anybody who'd been watching a sports channel was clearly under the impression that LeBron personally founded Cleveland in 1787, that our entire economy was built around his three-point percentage, and that he was the sole donor of the rare blood type that keeps every area child alive. Of course, only the blood-donor part is true. And how could there not be rioting, if we were losing such a civic mainstay? If LeBron left and Cleveland didn't riot, that would mean that ... that ... that the whole LeBron story hadn't been as a big a deal as everyone on TV said it was!

I know it's hard for sportswriters and sportscasters to accept that LeBron doesn't really matter in the big scheme of things, because then they would be forced to accept that they themselves are a bunch of silly, pompous, and inconsequential people making a gigantic hullabaloo about games designed for children. Naturally, no one wants to see himself or herself this way. But nothing proves that you are a silly, pompous, and inconsequential person like making a gigantic hullabaloo about games designed for children. I love sports, too, and sports writing. Sports are part of a city's history and its mythology about itself. But have a sense of proportion, dudes. LeBron James is not an actual king. Seriously. When you treat a routine contract decision like it's the Battle of Waterloo, you're proving that you're just a goofball.

And alas, part of the blame has to go to my adopted hometown of Cleveland itself, for participating in the hype and for turning this thing into a big, soppy aria. Shame on every Clevelander who actually went around acting like LeBron personally founded our city, sustained our economy, and kept our children alive. And more shame still on the Clevelanders who still go around acting that way. Acting like Cleveland has nothing going for it but a single celebrity is a slander on the city, and a logical contradiction while we're at it. (If the only good thing about Cleveland were really LeBron James, why would he stay?) But acting like LeBron leaving is the worst thing that ever happened to this city is a great way to convince the rest of the world that nothing good has ever happened here, or ever will. And when people from other places believe that, it seriously get harder to make Cleveland a better place.

(The perfect takedown of this self-destructive behavior can be found here, courtesy of E. from the CLE.)

Now, in the interests of fair disclosure, I am an adopted Clevelander, and the Cavs aren't my primary sporting loyalty. I still root for the teams I grew up rooting for, and give Cleveland teams the leftover love. If that rules me out of this conversation, so be it. I don't actually believe that LeBron owed it to anybody to stay, or that moving to a new city is "disloyalty." If I didn't believe that people were entitled to change cities for career reasons, I wouldn't be in Cleveland to begin with. But I was disgusted by LeBron's arrogant and narcissistic hour-long TV special dedicated to his own self-importance, and once he announced his little Personal Announcement Special I was happy to see the back of him. But that said, let me clue you in on a little adopted-Clevelander secret:

None of the Clevelanders moaning and wailing about LeBron leaving are really disappointed.

None of the people who are complaining about his disloyalty are surprised. They have always been utterly convinced that he would leave them, and now that it has finally happened they are secretly pleased that they were right.

I have heard people in Cleveland talking about how LeBron was going to leave since the first week I got here, back before his previous contract was signed. Some people here have been talking about LeBron leaving since before the Bush/Kerry election. And now they're finally right.

I hope they're happy. Seriously.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

How to Lose a Counter-Insurgency: Part II

(Or, Lessons the British Army Taught Us)

Part II: Let the War Drag On and On

This is General Nathanael Greene, George Washington's most trusted and innovative lieutenant. Greene is the person Washington turned to when it got ugly. He assigned Greene to cover the Continental Army's retreat from New York when the British had all but finished the American army off; he assigned Greene to solve the supply problem at Valley Forge; and he sent Greene to lead the campaign in the South after the British had positively crushed Horatio Gates and destroyed the Americans' southern army. The British were winning the South, and Nathanael Greene is the reason they didn't.

The British had begun to win in the Carolinas because they had belatedly begun a strategy that emphasized political support on the ground. The Southern colonies (or at least their coastal areas) tended to be fairly rich in British loyalists for cultural and sectarian reasons. The Southerners along the coast tended to be Church of England, unlike the various dissenting Protestants who abounded in the North. So after some military setbacks the British sent Cornwallis to take Charleston and then organize and rally the local Loyalists into militia units that could pacify the countryside and squelch the rebel militias. The early stages of the plan worked well. Then Greene, with a little help from officers like Daniel Morgan and Light-Horse Harry Lee, ruined the strategy and wrecked Cornwallis's nerves.

It's not that Greene defeated Cornwallis. He never had the troops to win a direct assault, and he lost every pitched battle he tried. Part of the rebels' success involved upsets over smaller detachments of Cornwallis's army, which kept getting smaller. But mostly Greene won by not losing. He kept his "fugitive army" in the field. He kept living to fight another day. When he was in trouble, he made brilliant and even daring retreats. (Yes, there is such a thing as a daring retreat. Greene could choose the path that led to safety through danger and pull it off.) He floated like a butterfly. He stung like a bee.

The result is that even when Cornwallis won his objectives, his forces got weaker and weaker. But worse for Cornwallis, the Revolutionary militias kept rallying, and the Loyalists volunteers dribbled away. (Although one large and misguided group did attempt to join Light-Horse Harry Lee, under the impression that he was someone else.) As long as Greene stayed in the fight, his local sympathizers stayed in the fight, too. All Greene needed was to force a series of stalemates. Cornwallis needed a decisive checkmate, which every month got harder to achieve. As long as Greene hadn't lost, he was winning. As long as Cornwallis hadn't won, he was losing.

The lesson for counterinsurgencies, including the ones that we're fighting now is that ties go to the home team. The occupying army, like Cornwallis, has to win by destroying the opposition outright. The insurgency gains strength and support just by keeping the fight going. The longer the occupying force goes without defeating the insurgents the less likely the locals are to believe that they ever will. And once you decide the occupier can't win, you start planning for the next chapter.

We began fighting in Afghanistan in October 2001, and started occupying bases there in November of that year. (If you're wondering, the Soviets spent nine years and two months fighting in Afghanistan; we are six months from breaking their record.) We are still fighting the Taliban. Can the Taliban forcibly drive us from Kabul? Hardly. Could they directly assault the main body of our forces? Of course not. They can't afford to do that. But they don't need to.

Nathanael Greene couldn't drive Cornwallis out of Charleston. He never bothered to try. And for that matter, Washington couldn't drive the British out of New York, which they took from him in late 1776 and kept for the whole war. They took Philadelphia, too, chasing out the Continental Congress and Washington couldn't do much about it. But the British couldn't win that way, and neither can we. If we can't destroy the Taliban as an effective force, they can wait us out forever. They have nowhere else to go. Charles Cornwallis wanted to go back to England someday; Nathanael Greene was already home. The visiting team needs to end the contest.

Many people complain that setting any specific date for a draw-down or withdrawal simply encourages our military enemies (whether in Afghanistan or Iraq) to wait us out. This is logical enough, but it ignores one basic fact. Our opponents in Afghanistan and Iraq have always been waiting us out. They're not going to decide to wait us out because they have a specific date to look forward to. Their original schedule was to wait us out forever. (Washington, bidding farewell to his troops in 1783, talks about gaining the victory "so much sooner than we could have expected.") Giving them a date to circle on the calendar doesn't change their plans. They will resist as long as they can. The only way to stop them is to destroy their means of resistance.

There are really only two choices for an occupying force: win or go home.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Happy Independence Day

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory.
-John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1776