Nancy Gibbs for the Higgy

April 6, 2020

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago a friend of mine asked one of the Arizona Republic’s reporters why they were engaging in so much of what many former/potential Republic subscribers regard advocacy journalism. He reported to me that she shrugged her shoulders and said “it wins you awards.”

So it’s bad when newspapers go into full advocacy mode, worse still when folks at an Ivy League University can’t see through their tricks and hand them what perhaps used to be prestigious awards. Recently the Harvard Kennedy School gave the Arizona Republic, USA Today and the Center for Public Integrity an award for Copy, Paste, Legislate. The story made clever use of plagiarism detection software to selectively document the use of model bills by state lawmakers. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) serves as the bete noire in their story. “This fantastic reporting sheds light for the public and local media on the origins of legislation that gets passed in statehouses across the country” the above video proclaims from the judges of the Goldsmith Prize with what sounds like a string quartet playing somber music in the background.

Okay so what should the Harvard folks have been able to see through with this story? Well, not long after the publication of the piece Harvard Kennedy School graduate Pat Wolf noted on twitter:

@USATODAY spreads the deception that copycat legislation is an epidemic. Source of the problem is that @azcentral hid the fact that 99% of the bills they examined were NOT copycats. 1% is a rounding error, not a crisis.

That’s just the beginning of the problems with this story- but it’s a big problem. A few others: Trent England from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs helpfully noted that model legislation has been around since 1892, and all kinds of groups create model bills. The story authors airbrushed the largest center-left source of model legislation (the National Council of State Legislatures) out of their analysis, comparing the right of center ALEC to a couple of very young and very small progressive model bill groups. TA-DA! Most of the model bills become right wing! If you are keeping score at home, so long as you are willing to ignore the 99% of bills that don’t come from models and also a large majority of groups who do model legislation, this looks scary to a left of center reader.

Unless…unless you pause to think for a moment and realize that model bills go through exactly the same legislative process that any other bill goes through. Either it passes through committees and chambers and receives the assent of the governor, or it doesn’t. Since anyone and everyone can and often do write model bills and they go through the normal democratic process so:

There are other problems, including factual errors which remain uncorrected, which you can read about here. I’ve simply had to accept that much of journalism has gone down the road of overt advocacy. It’s unfortunate, but as the Arizona Republic’s readership has continued to decline they seem to be attempting to play to the predispositions of their remaining subscriber base. It doesn’t seem to be working as a sustainability strategy: Arizona’s population continues to grow, the Republic’s subscriber base continues to shrink and the handwriting is on the wall. As a long time Republic subscriber who admires the work of multiple people at the paper, this is very sad. It feels more than a bit like watching Nick Cage drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas.

Which brings us back to the Higgy. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” the expression goes. I guess I can’t be too upset with USA Today and the Arizona Republic if they fall prey to the temptation to engage in sensationalism when they get rewarded for it. It would not have been past the analytical powers of a mildly skeptical Harvard sophomore to have spotted the flaws in this reporting, given a study of pluralism and policy diffusion. You know-the kind of things you ought to study at the Harvard Kennedy School as a sophomore. Figuring this out alas seems well beyond the power of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and their judges. I don’t know a thing about Nancy Gibbs other than what is in the above youtube video, but if newspapers are going to go they should die as they once lived- as something reasonably close to a neutral community institutions. The newspapers have more than enough problems without grandees tempting them to do slanted work with prizes.


The Higgy Gets Results!

April 30, 2019

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

April 15: Kosoko Jackson awarded The Higgy for joining a bogus outrage mob demanding the publisher cancel blockbuster novel Blood Heir by Amélie Zhao, and then having his own book canceled the same way.

April 30: Zhao announces that Blood Heir will be published after all. No word on publication of Jackson’s novel.

Sometimes the good guys win one.

Fear The Higgy! It does not bear the sword of mockery in vain.


For the Higgy: Kosoko Jackson

April 8, 2019

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

If you gathered a bunch of alt-Right, neo-Nazi knuckleheads and gave them perfect laboratory conditions for hatching a villainous master plan for preventing the representation of diverse voices in book publishing, they could hardly devise anything as foolproof as what is being done now by advocates of more diverse representation in book publishing. Nothing encapsulates that dreadful irony more clearly than the story of Kosoko Jackson, who gleefully fanned the flames of ignorant hatred, and promptly got burned.

Put on your hazmat suits, fellow JPGBers, for we are now descending into the most radioactive realm of the internet: young adult fiction. “YA Twitter” has been notorious for years as a cesspool of petty vendettas, unsubstantiated accusations and cancel culture. One of the most common tactics for destroying your enemies is to invent accusations of bigotry, insensitivity or online bullying/harassment. In a social world where the rules of what is permitted change every ten seconds – and, more importantly, where people will reliably believe almost any accusation without checking evidence if it aligns with their priors – witch hunts of this kind are not hard to drum up.

The publishing world was stunned earlier this year when one of the most anticipated new books in YA, Blood Heir by debut author Amélie Zhao, was pulled from publication even after the books had been physically printed. Zhao had received a three-book deal and a $500,000 advance, basically unheard-of for a first-time author. The book had been championed by diversity advocates because Zhao used the fantasy setting to turn a critical eye on the oppression of women and the practice of slavery in modern-day Asia. But then a YA Twitter mob whipped up bogus tales of supposedly offensive material in the book – before the book was publicly available – falsely accusing Zhao of having written things that were insensitive to the experience of African slavery in her book about Asian slavery. (Yes, for the record, it is hypothetically possible to write a book about Asian slavery that demonstrates insensitivity to African slavery, but there is zero evidence Zhao wrote such a book – you can read the ridiculous details for yourself if you really want to.)

Big names in the industry piled on, and Zhao’s allies abandoned her. Zhao decided to put her signature rather than her brains on the contract, and “requested” that the publisher pull her book. It did.

One player in this sordid spectacle was fellow YA debut novelist Kosoko Jackson. Like Zhao, Jackson had a disproportionate platform in this world as a new author representing a marginalized constituency. He chose to use his platform to help destroy Zhao, whipping up the mob with angry screeds – like this declaration that stories about the civil rights movement should only be written by black people, stories about the AIDS epidemic should only be written by gay people, etc.

He must have thought that he’d be safe, and these tactics could never be turned against him. After all, he’s a gay black man with a debut novel about a gay black man.

But what goes around comes around. The smoke from the burning of Zhao’s books had hardly cleared when an equally bogus YA Twitter mob came after Kosoko’s A Place for Wolves. The book is set in the former Yugoslavia during the ethnic warfare among the rump states there, and someone asserted (without substantiation – as with Zhao, the book itself was not publicly available) that the villain in Kosoko’s novel was Muslim. Luca Brasi came calling on Jackson, and he caved, too.

Headline: “He Was Part of a Twitter Mob that Attacked Young Adult Novelists. Then It Turned on Him. Now His Book Is Canceled.”

There is no evidence that the YA book-buying public cares about any of this. It’s totally self-generated by the creators and publishers themselves. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that! On the contrary, standards of professional ethics are often unrelated to customer demand, especially in professions that deal with words (literature, law, politics). And wanting to see more diverse voices represented in book publishing is an important aspiration.

The problem here is that people are being branded as bigots or bullies and “canceled” without having done anything wrong. In fact, the authors being destroyed are overwhelmingly people from marginalized communities whose stories we ought to be trying to hear. “YA Twitter’s Diversity War Is Hurting Writers of Color” reads one Huffington headline. The inexorable logic of this system is rigid conformity, not diversity – and the continuing dominance of already-established authors rather than the success of new voices.

As a matter of fact, when you think about it, the whole thing looks a lot like a protection racket run by the established authors. YA publishing is big, big business. Insiders are using their positions of power to destroy newcomers who want in. You can appease the gatekeepers by spending money on useless “sensitivity readers” and various other rackets – and even then, there are no guarantees. With Luca Brasi you were at least safe once you signed the contract.

Try this thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that sales success in YA publishing is not strongly related to authors’ writing talent. (For the record, that supposition casts aspersion on the readers, not the writers.) If that were the case, the pool of potentially successful authors would not be limited to the tiny population of people who have exceptional talent in writing; it would include almost anyone who enjoys writing and isn’t totally abysmal at doing it. Existing dominant providers in this industry (the established authors) would be very, very heavily incentivized to erect artificial barriers to entry, to shrink the pool of potential competitors.

You see where I’m going with this?

There’s a good case to be made that the established authors in this scenario are afflicted with BSDD, not PLDD. But The Higgy has a long tradition of (dis)honoring the PLDDers who want to gain power by serving as toadies and lickspittles and public legitimizers to BSDDers, then end up out in the cold when it turns out they have nothing to contribute and are no longer needed.

In the tradition of Higgy winners Jonathan Gruber and Chris Christie, I nominate Kosoko Jackson for The 2019 Higgy.


Richard Henry Pratt for the Higgy

March 31, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In Arizona and elsewhere there has been a very difficult history regarding the education of Native American children, and a good portion (but not all) of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of Richard Henry Pratt. Born in 1840, Pratt had a long military career which included service in the Union Army during the Civil War and in later military action against Native Americans during the Reconstruction era. Pratt is best known however for championing the forced abduction of Native American children into distant boarding schools in order to “assimilate” them. “Kill the Indian, and Save the man” Pratt is famous for saying.

Pratt’s terrorizing of Native American families lasted for decades but his paternalistic non-sense victims also  included African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, Asian-Americans, and Mormons.

Pratt’s zeal for benevolent assimilation cultural genocide had more than a faint echo of the effort to make Catholics into “real Americans” during this same period. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan and their fellow travelers had a state law passed to make it illegal for a family to attend a private school, which was thankfully struck down by the United States Supreme Court. Pratt however seemed to look on the paternalistic zeitgeist with approving envy, noting “Indian schools are just as well calculated to keep the Indians intact as Indians as Catholic schools are to keep the Catholics intact. Under our principles we have established the public school system, where people of all races may become unified in every way, and loyal to the government; but we do not gather the people of one nation into schools by themselves, and the people of another nation into schools by themselves, but we invite the youth of all peoples into all schools. We shall not succeed in Americanizing the Indian unless we take him in exactly the same way.”

Let me put this through the translato-meter “Our profoundly illiberal attempts to homogenize Catholics are awesome so let’s quadruple down and force it down the unwilling throats of Native Americans at the point of a gun.”

Pratt founded the first “Indian School” in Pennsylvania and the folly spread around the country. Children were forcibly abducted from their families, transported vast distances away, beaten when they spoke their native language, forced to cut their hair etc.  The damage done by these practices was huge past the point of quantification and needless to say things did not turn out the way Pratt planned. Today Native American students have on average the lowest levels of academic achievement to be found in the NAEP. The only good thing I can find to say about Pratt is that he was a sharp critic of the reservation system and argued (correctly imo) that the system was producing a damaging dependence on the federal government. Fair enough but Pratt’s alternative vision seems to have been to place Native American children in internment camp schools against their will-even worse.

It will only be a matter of time until you next read some misguided soul attempting to wax poetic about how allowing people to choose education for themselves is somehow a threat to democracy and the common good. “Kids need to attend their zoned public school you see, after all, it’s for their own good,” will be the gist of it. When that happens, think of Richard Henry Pratt and the horrors he caused for decades. Then, in the most polite way possible, invite the fool and/or villain pushing this line of thought to go to hell, go directly to hell, to not pass “Go” and not to collect $200. If they are unfortunate enough to actually get there, they can say hello to RHP, who I am happy to nominate for a William Higginbotham Inhumanitarian Award.


For the Higgy: The Unprincipled Principal

April 16, 2018

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Thanks to Greg Forster (author of what is, IMHO, this year’s frontrunner for the Higgy), for reminding me that I submitted this Higgy entry back in November:

In 2015, a 5th-grade student surreptitiously recorded her teacher bullying and threatening violence against a fellow student (e.g. “I will drop you!”). Following the “if you see something, say something” and “zero tolerance for bullying” policies that officials drill into our heads, 11-year-old Brianna Cooper handed the video over to another teacher. Although the school fired the bully teacher, school officials also decided to suspend Brianna for one week claiming that she “violated” the teacher’s “expectation of privacy.”

Apparently Brianna had violated one the school’s unwritten policies: “snitches get stitches.”

It was only after local and state media outlets picked up the story that the superintendent intervened and the suspension was lifted. A string of emails uncovered by the website Photography Is Not a Crime show other district school officials complaining to each other about the principal’s poor decision and lack of responsiveness.

“Did you get a response from Traci?” asked Assistant Superintendent John Lynch. “No sir! Did you think I would?” responded Superintendent Genelle Yost, “I do not believe she truly understands the magnitude of the decision.”

Later, after telling Principal Wilke that it would be “in the best interest of all, district included, to lift the suspension.” Lynch then sent a private email to Yost lamenting, “I was hoping after some time for reflection, Traci [Wilke] would come to the conclusion to lift the suspension on her own.”

Although the suspension was eventually lifted, it is outrageous that any school official would think it appropriate to punish a student for whistleblowing about physical threats made against other students. Doing so sends a clear message that the principal puts the interests of adults working at the school ahead of the physical safety and wellbeing of students enrolled there.

Such warped priorities are deserving of the Higgy.

FYI: Samuel Gaines Academy now has a different principal.


John Wiley Bryant for the Higgy

April 2, 2018

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(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

As a Gen-Xer, some of my fondest memories of childhood involved waking up on Saturday mornings, pouring myself a breakfast of chocolate frosted sugar bombs into a bowl, and then watching a few hours of Saturday morning cartoons. The Warner Brothers were my personal favorites and you can learn a lot by watching these cartoons. I still recognize pieces of classical music that I associate with these cartoons for instance. If you paid attention, Bugs Bunny was actually an outstanding role model: never initiating a conflict, but always finishing them. Wile E. Coyote Supra-Genius has made more than a few appearances here on the JPGB as a symbol of technocratic overreach in K-12. In fact, there is no doubt that education reform would have profited by more viewing of Road Runner cartoons to instruct on the possibilities of unintended consequences to complicated policy efforts:

Alas the institution of Saturday Morning Cartoons itself bit the dust due to social engineering from the federal government. In 1990, our august group of Olympians in Congress took time out of their busy schedules to pass something called the Children’s Television Act. The Children’s Television Act, sponsored by Texas Congressman John W. Bryant, required networks to provide three hours per week of “educational” programming to “meet the needs” of children age 16 and younger.

What unfolded was a slow process of the FCC bureaucrats fumbling over what constitutes “educational” programming, and the steady squeezing out of Saturday morning cartoons. The last minor network holdout gave up the ghost on Saturday morning cartoons in 2014, but the institution had effectively died long ago.

The three Ladner children never once in their lives got up to have breakfast (something at least a bit more nutritionally sound than chocolate frosted sugar bombs btw) and shuffled to the television to watch federally mandated “educational” programming. The federal government is mandating this programming, but I seriously doubt much of anyone is watching it. Meanwhile, an important American cultural institution has been destroyed. Make a reference to “Spear and Magic Helmet” or “Cook-Where’s my Hessenheffer?!?” to younger people and are likely to look at you puzzled.

For pointlessly ruining a revered American cultural practice in pursuit of bossing people around for “their own good” I nominate former Congressman John W. Bryant for the Higgy Inhumanitarian Award. If President Trump wants to “make America great again” he should repeal the Children’s Television Act. Where have you gone Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a half Century?  Our nation turns its’ lonely eyes to you. The Children’s Television Act of 1990 is definitely obstructing my view of Venus.

 

 

 


Plato for the Higgy

April 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been reading a few books about Athens over the last few years, which lead to the thought that Plato would be a worthy nominee for the Higgy as the ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga in serving as the inspiration for technocrats for thousands of years.

The fact that we still read Plato would give a sane person pause in questioning a founder of western thought. No one will be reading Ladner 2300 years from now after all. Sanity is overrated however, and so too is Plato. It has been decades since I read the Republic but I recall being of the firm opinion that it was utter nonsense. Philosopher Kings? Shadows on cave walls? Guardian class? What a lot of rubbish…hey look my new copy of the Avengers arrived!

Republic..misguided…make..it…STOP!

I’ll give this much to Plato- Athens did not exactly have the democracy thing sorted out. Sure there were golden ages, but they tended to be surrounded by demagogues leading the city into catastrophic wars, plagues, periodic oligarchies etc. People who lead Athens through incredible peril- including Themistocles and Cimon- later found themselves exiled from the city through democratic ostracism. Ungrateful Brits threw Churchill out of office at the end of World War II, but at least they didn’t force him out of the country he saved for a decade. The faults of Athenian democracy were too numerous to summarize adequately. Socrates for instance was chosen randomly to preside over the trial of six victorious Athenian admirals who were prevented from recovering the remains of fallen sailors by a storm. The obvious thing to do of course would be to execute the people who just won a decisive victory due to circumstances beyond their control. Socrates was unable to prevent it. Mysteriously wealthy Athenians who had previously borne the expense of paying for warships found non-military related hobbies occupy their time. The later execution of Socrates on the basis of vague nonsense obviously did nothing to endear Athenian democracy to Plato as well.

Plato was borne into Athenian aristocracy, and in fact his father had been a member of an oligarchy that temporarily overthrew Athenian democracy. Given the pandemonium of Athenian politics, one can hardly fault Plato for attempting to dream up improvements. Having said that, the idea of philosopher kings is utterly absurd. A group of materially disinterested ascetics spend decades in study to prepare themselves to govern the rabble with little compensation other than satisfying their benevolence after earning the acceptance of a self-perpetuating ruling class.

Riiiight

Fortunately no one actually tried to run Plato’s society, but there have been some fairly close parallels from time to time. The dead hand of medieval clericalism and various communist parties for instance come to mind as self-perpetuating elites admitting members based upon decades of training in a world view. I don’t know how one gets admitted into, say, Iranian theocracy, but that might more than vaguely resemble a guardian class. If these examples sound like recipes for stagnation and corruption it is only because, well it is in fact a recipe for stagnation and corruption.

Milton Friedman happily set Phil Donahue straight on this back in the 1970s:

Where in the world are you going to find these angels indeed. Athenian democracy was too often a pig’s breakfast of mob rule chaos, but I would take my chances with it over Plato’s benevolent ruling class fantasy.

The part of American democracy that most closely resembles the Plato’s philosopher kings would be the United States Supreme Court. You may have heard of them, they have been in the news a bit lately. Ross Douhat in fact makes an interesting case laying the blame for much of American political dysfunction in recent years at the feet of…wait for it….David Souter:

Had Souter simply voted like a typical Republican appointee — not in lock step with Antonin Scalia, but as an institutionalist, incrementalist conservative, in line with the current chief justice, John Roberts — then it’s likely that Roe v. Wade would have been mostly overturned in the 1990s, returning much of abortion law to the states, and that the gay rights movement would have subsequently advanced through referendums and legislation rather than a sweeping constitutionalization of cultural debate.

This, in turn, would have dramatically lowered the stakes of judicial politics for many Republican voters, making an untimely event like Scalia’s death less of a crisis moment, a response like the Garland pocket veto less of a necessity and the candidacy of Donald Trump something more easily rejected.

Indeed, I strongly suspect that in a world without the Souter own goal — a world where the Supreme Court had sided with cultural conservatives to the extent one would have expected given the number of recent Republican appointees — a nominee like Merrick Garland could still have been confirmed with Republican votes, and the filibuster could still persist, reserved for the unqualified, corrupt and genuinely extreme. Oh, and into the bargain, Donald Trump might well not be president.

Read the whole piece and see what you think. I largely buy the argument. American democracy is designed to force compromises that no one necessarily loves but most can live with. However tempting it may seem to bypass what can be a very frustrating democratic process, it is a very bad idea. Rule by executive, administrative or judicial fiat by “our betters” that Plato longed for at this point has a storied history of backfiring in fashions ranging from the humorous to the absolutely horrific. In the case of Souter, acceptance at Georgetown cocktail parties must have been swell but things may have indeed worked out better if he had felt some sense of democratic duty to the people who elected George HW Bush over Michael Dukakis in a complete rout of an election. Why let a little thing like a mere election get in the way of acceptance into grandee society?

We must empower authorities, but keeping the ability to turn them out of office seems to work better than anything else we have come up with, even if they hadn’t quite figured it out entirely in ancient Athens. For interrupting my vitally important early 1980s activities like Robotron 2084  robot killing and Magnum PI rerun viewing with turgid and misguided baloney and worse still for inspiring would be technocratic ruling classes for well over two millennia, I nominate Plato for the Higgy, it is a shame he wasn’t James Madison.