Tag Archives: media

I read dozens of books this year and the resulting list will surprise and delight you

I am wrapping up a 12-month sabbatical leave from my professor job, which means I didn’t teach or go to a lot of meetings on campus, and instead got to spend more time on the other parts of my job (at home, in loungewear), and try some new things as well.

At the beginning of the year I decided to read more books, and used Goodreads to set a reading goal of 42 (one per week, less 10 for slower books). One goal was to improve my Twitter-degraded attention span [just spent 5 minutes randomly flitting around, now I’m back], or at least expose myself to the feeling of having a longer attention span. And honestly, it was great. I hope this made me more of a book reader forever.

So this year, my year-end book post is about books I read, rather than just books that came out this year. Feel free to make suggestions for gift books in the comments (including your own!). Also, feel free to judge me for anything about this list.

Trump Era

I read a series of books processing Trump and Trumpism. I really liked The Death of Truth (2018) by Michiko Kakutani, which I reviewed here:

Kakutani is a great writer, and this little book of 11 chapters in 170 small pages flies by. Since she left the New York Times, where she was book critic for many years, her Twitter feed has been a chronology of political crisis and social decay under Trump; reading it all together induces anxiety at the pace and scale of the descent, but also, surprisingly, some optimism that the situation remains decipherable with the tools of intellectual incision that Kakutani wields so well.

dtsw

In that review I juxtaposed Kakutani’s intellectual rigor with Jonah Goldberg’s cartoonish simulacrum of erudition in the deeply awful Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (2018). I reviewed that latter book in some depth in an essay titled “How conservatism makes peace with Trump.” I wrote:

Unfortunately, I found the book to be an extended screed against leftism with but a few pages of anti-Trump material grafted in here and there, which ultimately amounts to blaming leftism and immigration for Trump. And that might sum up the state of the anemic conservative movement. Goldberg’s own weak-kneed position on Trump is not resolved until page 316, when he finally concludes, “As much as I hold Trump in contempt, I am still compelled to admit that, if my vote would have decided the election, I probably would have voted for him” (316). In the end, Goldberg has charted a path toward a détente between his movement and Trump’s.

The Goldberg essay proved quite popular (almost 1200 downloads on SocArXiv) after a Twitter thread listing some of his errors took off:

Anyway, Kakutani pairs nicely with another small book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (2018) by philosopher Jason Stanley. He described 10 features of fascist politics, drawing from Nazi Germany and contemporary Hungary, Poland, India, Myanmar, and connecting them to Trumpism. I see Kakutani and Stanley as setting out framing for the moment, in light of history but without facile parallels. Having read these, for example, made Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (2018), which wasn’t very insightful, more interesting to read.

Semitism: Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump (2018), by Jonathan Weisman, made a good addition to the contemporary fascism collection. It’s a personal reflection and description of alt-Right anti-Semitism, and a call for Jewish solidarity with other groups targeted by Trump and his movement, especially those with fewer institutional defenses. For both me and Weisman, the explosion of anti-Semitism inspired by Trump’s campaign and presidency reinforced our sense of both Jewishness and American otherness. Like me, only much more, Weisman was also the victim of anti-Semitic social media pile-ons when he spoke out against Trump. I never seriously considered myself a minority in America, or applied a consciously Jewish identity to my work, but there are a lot of anti-Semites around, and they think I’m neither White nor American.

hostnation

In the wake of all this, I found myself staring at this picture from 1920s Poland of my great-great-grandparents, the Patinkins, with their grandaughter, my grandmother’s cousin (later the wife of my grandmother’s brother). And I grew my beard longer.

chai gittel and grandparents

Anyway, the Trumpism book series was kicked off by We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017), by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a brilliant and wrenching retelling of Coates’ own career as a journalist through the arc of Obama’s presidency, the era that made Coates a household name and also, now seemingly inevitably, birthed Trumpism.

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The Women’s March, January 21, 2017. PNC photo.

It’s hard to believe I read Coates in the same year as Rebecca Traister’s excellent new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (2018). Although Traister does a good bit of history, especially about women’s suffrage, labor, and civil rights, it’s a post-2016 election book, inspired by the Women’s March in particular. The books is a dense but powerfully written treatise on all the ways women’s anger makes the world better — and its suppression is a mechanism of patriarchy. It was written fast, and you can read it fast, moving back and forth between 1848 and 2018, Trump and #MeToo, with interesting dives into intrafeminist debates about sex, intersectionality, and other topics.

tncrtlk

In the category of feminist debates, but no longer about Trumpism, I also liked Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (2017) which was quite polarizing in feminist sociology circles. Even if you don’t buy her account of the excesses of campus feminism and the overreach of Title IX bureaucracy, you have to at least wrestle with it. Kipnis herself overreaches a little, in my view, but I agree that much of the rape-culture talk on campus is disempowering for women — even though rape culture is real. (Incidentally, Kipnis didn’t like Traister’s book, and I didn’t agree with her review.)

Sociology

In April I wrote a review essay titled, “Public engagement and the influence imperative,” for Contemporary Sociology.  The essay covered The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World (2016), by M. V. Lee Badgett; The Social Scientist’s Soapbox: Adventures in Writing Public Sociology (2017), by Karen Sternheimer; and Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists (2017), by Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels. All three books had good advice for using your research to reach more people and different audiences. In the essay I pressed for more reciprocal engagement, in which our “audiences” help shape the research itself.

publicsoccovers

In the sociology of population section of the American Sociological Association, I was on the award committee that gave the book prize to The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future (2017), by Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher. The book is excellent as an introduction to contemporary genetic analysis of social traits, which is completely taboo among many social scientists but is still real and not all bullshit. Conley and Fletcher offer compelling explanations of what current techniques can reveal and what they can’t (including race). For the non-expert social scientist, they also offer a review of the history of genetic analysis, from the now-discredited quests for target genes (e.g., the “warrior gene”), to twin studies, to polygenic scores, which use genome-wide analysis to generate propensities for both biological and social traits.

Also on the sociology shelf, I finally read Elizabeth Popp Berman’s 2012 book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine. It’s one of those books in sociology where the substance of the research is important an interesting even if you don’t know anything about the theories or disciplinary debates that comprise the immediate context for the book. Why did universities and researchers generally start to pitch themselves as primarily drivers of economic growth? The answer is important, and it’s in this excellent book. (Beth is a friend and colleague in the SocArXiv project.)

I was invited read, for an author-meets-critics session, The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families: Resources, Employment and Policies to Improve Well-being (2018, also free), edited by Rense Nieuwenhuis and Laurie Maldonado. The book contains a series of comparative demographic studies related to the “triple-bind” experienced by single mothers in many countries: resource disadvantage, inadequate employment, and weak supportive policies. Specialized, but if this is for you, it’s very good.

In response to an invitation to participate in a meeting on Israeli demography and the environment, I read The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel (2016), by Alon Tal (who organized the symposium). The book is really interesting. I wrote about the whole thing at some length, with graphs and photos from my eye-opening trip, and audio of my talk, here.

cfbnat

Not sociology, but sociological, I rate highly I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street (2017), by Matt Taibbi. It’s an in-depth investigation into the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police, including much of his life and community, in the context of larger processes such as community policing, stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration, and urban redevelopment — and how that all led to the gaping wound of injustice after his death.

Also sociological, and recommended, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer (2018). It’s an irreverent takedown of various wellness fads, but also preventative screenings, and the quest for longevity itself. In the process, she digs back into her microbiology roots to explore the self-destructive tendencies of our own cellular programming, which make an internal mockery of our futile attempts to forestall the inevitable. A very 2018 book.

Finally, in the category of truly terrible sociology, I put Mark Regenerus’s book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (2017). From my review:

Cheap Sex is an awful book that no one needs to read. The book is an extended rant on the theme, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” wrapped in a misogynist theory about sexual exchange masquerading as economics, and motivated by the author’s misogynist religious and political views.

Last and not quite least, I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016). Parts of it were interesting, but on the whole I just never found the qualities that made it so original or insightful or important as to justify the phenomenon it became. Not worth it.

mtbemrjd

Fiction

You didn’t make it all this way to read my thoughts on fiction, so I’ll just say that books are a medium, a category of experience, and mixing in fiction affected the quality of the whole project. So I read some classics I never read before, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin, and The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger. I read the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French, which are on the literary side of murder mysteries; as well as a handful of Michael Connelly novels and the one Carl Hiassen novel I had missed. Lucky Jim, a 1954 academic satire by Kingsley Amis, is great if you like that sort of thing (which I do — ask me about my novel in progress.) Finally, I loved The Humans, by Matt Haig, which is funny and dark and thought-provoking.

Before the end of the year I need to finish Becoming, by Michelle Obama (sigh); Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century, by Tey Meadow; and a couple more novels.

Whew!

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Breaking Millennial divorce drop news explained

[With updates as new stories come in.]


Millennials are fun to disparage.

Phones and selfies are all that they cherish.

And what’s par for the course, they have ruined divorce.

‘Cuz Millennials hang on to their ______.

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, 9/29/18

The divorce paper I posted two weeks ago, “The Coming Divorce Decline,” suddenly took off in the media the other day (blog post | paper | data and code). I’ve now written an op-ed about the findings for The Hill, including this:

I am ambivalent about these trends. Divorce is often painful and difficult, and most people want to avoid it. The vast majority of Americans aspire to a lifelong marriage (or equivalent relationship). So even if it’s a falling slice of the population, I’m not complaining that they’re happy. Still, in an increasingly unequal society and a winner-take-all economy, two-degree couples with lasting marriages may be a buffer for the select few, but they aren’t a solution to our wider problems.

Here’s my media scrapbook, with some comment about open science process at the end.

The story was first reported by Ben Steverman at Bloomberg, who took the time to read the paper, interview me at some length, send the paper to Susan Brown (a key expert on divorce trends) for comment, and produce figures from the data I provided. I was glad that his conclusion focused on the inequality angle from my interpretation:

“One of the reasons for the decline is that the married population is getting older and more highly educated,” Cohen said. Fewer people are getting married, and those who do are the sort of people who are least likely to get divorced, he said. “Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing.”

Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot. And studies have shown these cohabiting relationships are less stable than they used to be.

Fewer divorces, therefore, aren’t only bad news for matrimonial lawyers but a sign of America’s widening chasm of inequality. Marriage is becoming a more durable, but far more exclusive, institution.

The Bloomberg headline was, “Millennials Are Causing the U.S. Divorce Rate to Plummet.” Which proved irresistible on social media. I didn’t use the terms “millennials” (which I oppose), or “plummet,” but they don’t fundamentally misrepresent the findings.

Naturally, though, the Bloomberg headline led to other people misrepresenting the paper, like Buzzfeed, which wrote, “Well, according to a new study, millennials are now also ‘killing’ divorce.” Neither I nor Bloomberg said anyone was “killing” divorce; that was just a Twitter joke someone made, but Buzzfeed was too metameta to pick up on that. On the other hand, never complain about a Buzzfeed link, and they did link to the paper itself (generating about 800 clicks in a few days).

Then Fox 5 in New York did a Skype interview with me, and hit the bar scene to talk over the results (additional footage courtesy of my daughter, because nowadays you provide your own b-roll):

The next day Today did the story, with additional information and reporting from Bowling Green’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, and Pew.

The Maryland news office saw the buzz and did their own story, which helped push it out.

An article in Atlantic featured an interview with Andrew Cherlin putting the trends in historical context. Rachelle Hampton in Slate tied the divorce trend to a Brookings report showing marriage is increasingly tied to higher education. On KPCC, AirTalk hosted a discussion with Megan Sweeney and Steven Martin. On Wisconsin Public Radio, Stephanie Coontz widened the discussion to put changes in marriage and divorce in historical perspective.

Rush Limbaugh read from the Bloomberg article, and was just outraged: “Now, who but deranged people would look at it this way?”

How anybody thinks like this… You have to work to be this illogical. I don’t know where this kind of thing comes from, that a plummeting divorce rate is a bad sign for America in the left’s crazy world of inequality and social justice and their quest to make everybody the same. So that’s just an example of the… Folks, that is not… That kind of analysis — and this is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. This is not stable. That kind of thinking is not… It’s just not normal. Yet there it is, and it’s out there, and it’s be widely reported by the Drive-By Media, probably applauded and supported by others. So where is this coming from? Where is all of this indecency coming from? Why? Why is it so taking over the American left?

The Limbaugh statement might have been behind this voicemail I received from someone who thinks I’m trying to “promote chaos” to “upend the social order”:

I had a much more reasonable discussion about marriage, divorce, and inequality in this interview with Lauren Gilger in KJZZ (Phoenix public radio).

The Chicago Tribune editorial board used the news to urge parents not to rush their children toward marriage:

This waiting trend may disturb older folks who followed a more traditional (rockier?) path and may be secretly, or not so secretly, wondering if there’s something wrong with their progeny. There isn’t. Remember: Unlike previous generations, many younger people have a ready supply of candidates at their fingertips in the era of Tinder and other dating apps. They can just keep swiping right. Our advice for parents impatient to marry off a son or daughter? Relax. The older they get, the less likely you’ll be stuck paying for the wedding.

The Catholic News Agency got an expert to chime in, “If only we could convince maybe more of them to enter into marriage, we’d be doing really well.”

I don’t know how TV or local news work, but somehow this is on a lot of TV stations. Here’s a selection.

Fox Business Network did a pretty thorough job.

Some local stations added their own reporting, like this one in Las Vegas:

And this one in Buffalo:

And this one in Boise, which brought in a therapist who says young people aren’t waiting as long to start couples therapy.

Jeff Waldorf on TYT Nation did an extended commentary, blaming capitalism:


Open science process

Two things about my process here might concern some people.

The first is promoting research that hasn’t been peer reviewed. USA Today was the only report I saw that specifically mentioned the study is not peer reviewed:

The study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, has been submitted for presentation at the 2019 Population Association of America meeting, an annual conference for demographers and sociologists to present research.

But, when Steverman interviewed me I emphasized to him that it was not peer-reviewed and urged him to consult other researchers before doing the story — he told me he had already sent it to Susan Brown. Having a good reporter consult a top expert who’s read the paper is as good a quality peer review as you often get. I don’t know everything Brown told him, but the quote he used apparently showed her endorsement of the main findings:

“The change among young people is particularly striking,” Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, said of Cohen’s results. “The characteristics of young married couples today signal a sustained decline [in divorce rates] in the coming years.”

For the story to be clear enough to become a news event, the research often has to be pretty simple. That’s the case here: what I’m doing is looking at an easily-identified trend and providing my interpretation of it. If this has to be peer-reviewed, then almost anything an academic says should be. Of course, I provided the publicly verifiable data and code, and there are a lot of people with the skills to check this if it concerned them.

On the other hand, there is a lot of research that is impossible to verify that gets reported. Prominent examples include the Alice Goffman ethnographic book and the Raj Chetty et al. analysis of confidential IRS data. These were big news events, but whether they were peer reviewed or not was irrelevant because the peer reviewers had no way to know if the studies were right. My conclusion is that sharing research is the right thing to do, and sharing it with as much supporting material as you can is the responsible way to do it.

The second concern is over the fact that I posted it while it was being considered for inclusion in the Population Association of America meetings. This is similar to posting a paper that is under review at a journal. Conference papers are not reviewed blind, however, so it’s not a problem of disclosing my identity, but maybe generating public pressure on the conference organizers to accept the paper. This happens in many forms with all kinds of open science. I think we need to see hiding research as a very costly choice, one that needs to be carefully justified — rather than the reverse. Putting this in the open is the best way to approach accountability. Now the work of the conference organizers, whose names are listed in the call for papers, can be judged fairly. And my behavior toward the organizers if they reject it can also be scrutinized and criticized.

Although I would love to have the paper in the conference, in this case I don’t need this paper to be accepted by PAA, as it has already gotten way more attention than I ever expected. PAA organizers have a tough job and often have to reject a lot of papers for reasons of thematic fit as well as quality. I won’t complain or hold any grudges if it gets rejected. There’s a lot of really good demography out there, and this paper is pretty rudimentary.

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Legal risks in reporting on academic sexual harassment

gossip

Gossip, according to Google Images

This is on the nuts and bolts of reporting sexual harassment.

Last fall my colleague Liana Sayer and I offered to help people report on sexual harassment in academic sociology (other posts on this: #MeToo). Although we have corresponded with a number of people, we have yet to make any public reports. One reason for that is legal risk.

The first advice I got from a number of people was to get a lawyer, and to get libel insurance. I did both of those things (libel turns out to be a kind of personal injury, like hitting someone in your car, so you can get covered for it under an umbrella policy).

After attending a media law conference (long story), and having gathered enough evidence to consider moving ahead with publication in one case, I spoke to several lawyers, and eventually retained Constance Pendleton, a media law expert and partner at Davis Wright Tremain. Here is some of what I learned from speaking with her.

First, if the case involves harassment within one workplace (school), it may be better to go through the official reporting procedure rather than making a public case, at least from the perspective of protecting the accuser. This involves lawyers and documents, which is good. However, for reasons I mentioned here, that often doesn’t work. And that process often ends with a promise of confidentiality that shields the harasser from public exposure (a key institutional goal of many university sexual harassment officers).

Second, the risk of getting sued as an individual is high. We don’t have a lot of experience in the current context with lawsuits against accusers, but the cases that have come forward have often involved major investigations by big organizations, not individuals publishing accusations on their blogs. So it’s hard to know how they will play. However,  even the cost of “easily” winning a case is likely to be a lot, something in five figures. And in the process, the accuser you are trying to protect could be forced to testify, or at least produce an affidavit, even if you have kept them anonymous in the story. Truth is a defense against libel, but if your true statement is “someone told me this,” you can still be found responsible if you can’t prove that what the person told you is true, or if it can be shown you acted maliciously in reporting it.

In the case of being sued, the things you need are the things a good journalist would want in reporting such a story, such as original documents, contemporaneous records, witnesses, and so on. There is a reason for that: journalists who report this stuff are heading off such lawsuits themselves. But I didn’t fully appreciate some key differences between a citizen journalist and a real news organization. These include the reputation of the news organization, which shields them (practically if not legally) from charges of acting maliciously. Also, they have lawyers already, so it doesn’t cost them as much to defend cases. And they have an interest in defending their reputation, so everyone knows they will fight. Finally, there are some legal protections for revealing information if you do it in the public interest, and that’s an easier case for news organizations to make. (This is my shallow, lay understanding of the situation, not legal advice).

Regardless of my thoughts on procedural fairness, which is hotly debated, these are reasons why I wouldn’t report on rumors alone, or report a case where I didn’t know the accuser’s identity and had no way of verifying the supporting information.

News reality

Given all this, The best thing might be for a news organization to report the story, rather than reporting it independently. I haven’t ruled out the latter course, but it’s much riskier. (And there may be hybrid solutions, such as writing a reported piece as a freelancer for a news organization.) Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, news organizations that are interested in reporting on sexual harassment are getting bombarded with cases to report. They have to choose selectively from among these cases, and the variables involved are beyond my control.

In the case of Michael Kimmel, for example, reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalledbootlegged), the story includes one accuser who requested anonymity, and one senior sociologist who affirms the existence of rumors, and the charge is unwanted advances and demeaning comments. In this environment, that would not normally be enough to warrant a news story by a major publication, naming the accused. Not very much evidence and not such an egregious case (no reported threats, quid pro quo, or violence). That’s not an excuse, that’s a fact of the media landscape. The difference here is Kimmel is famous, and that he is “delaying” receiving a major award (plus it’s an award for being a feminist). If you brought the same facts and evidence to a news organization, but about a non-famous senior sociologist, you are unlikely to make it past editorial triage.

In summary, the very cases that I most want to expose — the common harassment that occurs between non-famous people all the time in academia — are difficult to work with. Risky for the citizen journalist, but maybe not important enough to jump the line at major news organizations. That said, I still favor public exposure as an approach in this environment, where policies remain weak and formal proceedings are unlikely to produce satisfactory results — but harassers and their employers are on the defensive and much of the public is watching and willing to get involved. And I still want to help. But it’s harder than I thought it would be. Live and learn.

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How conservatism makes peace with Trump

 

Jonah Goldberg telling his Howard Zinn story to John Podhoretz on CSPAN.


I  wrote a long essay on Jonah Goldberg’s book, Suicide of the West. Because it has graphs and tables and a lot of references, I made it a paper instead of a blog post, and posted it on SocArXiv, here. If you like it, and you happen to edit some progressive or academic publication that would like to publish it, please let me know! I’m happy (not really, but I will) to shorten it. There, I pitched it. Feedback welcome.

First paragraph:

This essay is a review of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg (Crown Forum, 2018), with a few data explorations along the way. I read the book to see what I could learn about contemporary conservative thinking, especially anti-Trump conservatism. Opposing Trump and the movement he leads is suddenly the most pressing progressive issue of our time, and it’s important not to be too narrow in mobilizing that opposition. Unfortunately, I found the book to be an extended screed against leftism with but a few pages of anti-Trump material grafted in here and there, which ultimately amounts to blaming leftism and immigration for Trump. And that might sum up the state of the anemic conservative movement. Goldberg’s own weak-kneed position on Trump is not resolved until page 316, when he finally concludes, “As much as I hold Trump in contempt, I am still compelled to admit that, if my vote would have decided the election, I probably would have voted for him” (316). In the end, Goldberg has charted a path toward a détente between his movement and Trump’s.

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We won our First Amendment lawsuit against President Trump

unblocked

Federal judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled yesterday that the president is violating our First Amendment rights when he blocked me and six other plaintiffs for disagreeing with him on Twitter. The details and decision are available here. Congratulations and deep appreciation to the legal team at the Knight First Amendment Institute, especially Katie Fallow, Jameel Jaffer, Alex Abdo, and Carrie DeCell (sorry for those I’m missing).

I described my participation in the suit and my tweets last year here, and the oral arguments in March here.

Judge Buchwald’s introduction to the decision is great:

This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, “block” a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States. The answer to both questions is no.

She went on to issue declaratory relief, meaning she told the president he’s breaking the law, rather than injunctive relief (an order to act), writing:

It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803), and we have held that the President’s blocking of the individual plaintiffs is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the President and [social media director Dan] Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional.

That remains to be seen, of course (I’m still blocked at this writing).

Here are a couple of snippets of analysis.

From Wired:

“In an age when we’re seeing so many norms broken by government regarding free speech, this is an important and right decision,” says [Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland]. “It sends a message that we’re not going to destroy free speech norms.”

[David Greene, a senior staff attorney and civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation] says he hopes the ruling warns other elected officials who are blocking constituents on social media to stop. “We routinely get a ton of people complaining to us about similar practices,” he says. “I hope they take it as a message that you have to stop doing this.”

From the Mercury News:

“The First Amendment prohibits government officials from suppressing speech on the basis of viewpoint,” said Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at the institute, in a statement Wednesday. “The court’s application of that principle here should guide all of the public officials who are communicating with their constituents through social media.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law at UC Berkeley, agrees.

“The judge followed clear law: A government official cannot give selective access of this sort,” Chereminsky said.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Knight staff attorney Carrie DeCell said the organization was pleased with the decision, but expects the White House to appeal. “Twitter is a new communications platform, but First Amendment principles are foundations,” DeCell said. “Public discourse is increasingly taking place online.”

DeCell said the case could have implications for all public officials using social media — not just Trump’s account. “The reasoning in the court decisions, we think, should inform public officials’ activities on our social media pages throughout the country,” she said.

My co-plaintiffs have also written on the decision. See Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter Poza in Daily Kos:

Public officials are relying on social media more and more to communicate to constituents. As that shift accelerates, it’s imperative that courts recognize that the First Amendment protects against viewpoint discrimination in digital public forums like the @realdonaldtrump account just as it does in more traditional town halls. An official’s Twitter account is often the central forum for direct political debate with and among constituents, a tenet of democracy.

and Holly Figueroa O’Reilly in the Guardian:

Twitter is as public a forum as a town hall meeting. By blocking people who disagree with him, he’s not only blocking our right to petition our government and access important information, but he distorts that public forum by purging critical voices. It’s like a senator throwing someone out of a town hall because they held up a “disagree” sign.

The New York Times also did a piece on other people Trump blocked (the public doesn’t know how many such people there are), one of whom called the decision “incredibly vindicating.”

I agree. The decision is a breath of democracy fresh air.

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Abortion is not a holocaust, and feminism is not about convenience

a photo of a cute pig next to a 16-cell human embryo .

Pig (left) and human.

Quick, disorganized comment on abortion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who opposes abortion rights, recently wrote in defense of the Kevin Williamson, fired from the Atlantic, for saying this, before he was hired:

Someone challenged me about my views on abortion, saying, “If you really thought it was a crime you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.” And I do support that. In fact, as I wrote, what I have in mind is hanging.

Douthat thinks feminists are just as extreme as this, but even worse because they’re on the wrong side (the side in favor of the baby holocaust).

Douthat is concerned that abortion is “justified with the hazy theology of individualism.” When he says that what he’s insulting is feminism. He’s mocking us for being stupid (hazy) atheists who don’t realize secularism is just another theology (like Chris Smith does). And “individualism” refers to the idea that women have rights. Privilege is congratulating yourself for exposing oppressed people’s struggle for liberation as actually being about their individual self-gratification.

In claiming to make a moral argument, he pits this claim to women’s individualistic convenience against the holocaust:

the distinctive and sometimes awful burdens that pregnancy imposes on women have become an excuse to build a grotesque legal regime in which the most vulnerable human beings can be vacuumed out or dismembered, killed for reasons of eugenics or convenience or any reason at all.

There are no men, no patriarchy, in this telling, and that’s telling. It is important to say, which Douthat won’t, that abortion rights are women’s rights, that women’s rights are not about some decadent “individual” rights but about systemic group oppression perpetrated over millennia, especially by religion (especially by Douthat’s religion, Catholicism).

Douthat wants to take the abortion debate to the moral plane of “the killing of millions of innocents” (his phrase) versus feminist selfish self-indulgence. He is egging on his fellow anti-feminists, pushing them to take this extremist position while decrying the extremism of feminists. Organized anti-feminism doesn’t want to say abortion is really really murder because then women will turn against them, because women aren’t idiots. The mainstream abortion rights movement doesn’t want to say fetuses are human because it makes abortion seem worse, plus for early-term pregnancies it’s really not true. Still, we should argue about abortion as if it’s a decision that matters, not only as if it’s the restriction of the right to make that decision that matters. Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade was not decided on the principle that women can take a fetal life when it’s inside their own body, but on the principle of respecting women’s privacy rights to make personal decisions. This makes it harder to have the real feminist argument. I’m with Douthat that we should have a real moral argument, which he in his sneering at “individualism” actually refuses to engage.

Only religion can say all fetuses are instantly human; any scientific understanding exposes this incontrovertibly as just crazy talk. But abortion rights don’t depend on fetuses not being human at all. If you want to take the argument off the religious turf, you have to acknowledge that there is no moral instant when a fetus becomes human — science can’t locate that transformation more precisely than sometime between conception and birth. For that matter, there is no moral bright line between human and animal as far as suffering and death, that separates a human from a chimpanzee from a pig from a dog. (Many of us are, after all, not fully human ourselves, but part homo neanderthalensis.) There is moralizing, but not morality, in approving the grotesquely cruel slaughter of billions of sentient animals for “convenience or any reason at all,” while labeling women who abort sixteen-cell fetuses as murderers.

Ending life is a serious moral decision, of the kind Douthat and others are comfortable letting men take in many ways, in wars, and corporate decisions, and state policies, and slaughterhouses. Abortion rights mean women deserve that responsibility, too. Abortion rights don’t rest on the inconsequentialness of the decision but on the humanity of women. There is no reason to shy away from that. Catharine MacKinnon, who is aging well on this, wrote in 1983:

My stance is that the abortion choice must be legally available and must be women’s, but not because the fetus is not a form of life. In the usual argument, the abortion decision is made contingent on whether the fetus is a form of life. I cannot follow that. Why should women not make life or death decisions?

That’s my attempt to defend abortion rights without relying on euphemism and evasion or the hazy theology of individualism.

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How I engaged my way to excellent research success and you can too

kid on string phone in front of computer screen

Kid photo CC from MB Photography; collage by pnc.

Too often sociologists think of social media, or online communications generally, primarily as a way of broadcasting their ideas and building their audience, instead of as a way of deepening their engagement with different people and perspectives. You see this when academics start a twitter account right when their book is coming out. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s very limited. A crucial part of being a public scholar, public intellectual, or a public sociologist, etc., is reading, listening, and learning through engagement, and digital communication can enhance the metabolism of that process. Especially important is the chance to learn from people you don’t normally interact with. For all the complaints about social media bubbles, some true, social media also offers huge efficiencies for meeting and learning from new people.

As I’m writing an essay about this, I thought of my work on divorce as an example. So here’s that thread, condensed.

A divorce story

In 2008 I was teaching an undergraduate Family Sociology course at the University of North Carolina, and included a section on divorce based on other people’s research. I was also developing a proposal for my own textbook, which at the time framed family structures and events, including divorce, as consequences and causes of inequality. I was reading research about divorce along with many other family issues that were outside of my formal training and experience (the closest I had come to a family demography or family sociology course was a seminar on Gender, Work & Family in grad school).

Then in 2009, I wrote a post on my pretty new blog criticizing something bad the Brad Wilcox had written about divorce. I was trying to be newsy and current, and he was claiming that the recession was lowering divorce rates because hard times pulled people together. We didn’t yet know what would happen in the recession. (In the comments, Louise Roth suggested it would take time for divorces “caused” by the recession to show up, which turned out to be true.)

I kept on that path for a while, criticizing Wilcox again for similar work in 2011. By then — prompted by the combination of my reading, the blog debates, and the news coverage around families and the recession — I was working on a paper on divorce using the American Community Survey. I presented it at a demography meeting in the summer of 2011, then revised and presented it at the Population Association of America the following spring. I blogged about this a couple more times as I worked on it, using data on state variation, and Google searches, each time getting feedback from readers.

A version of the paper was rejected by Demography in the summer of 2011 (which generated useful reviews). Although now discredited as not peer-review-publishable (which no one knew), my commentary on divorce and the recession was nevertheless featured in an NPR story by Shankar Vedantam. Further inspired, I sent a new version of the paper (with new data) to Demographic Research, which also rejected it. I presented on the work a couple of times in 2012, getting feedback each time. By August 2012, with the paper still not “published,” I was quoted describing my “divorce/recession lull-rebound hypothesis” in New York magazine.

The news media pieces were not simply my work appearing in the news, in a one-directional manner, or me commenting on other people’s research, but rather me bringing data and informed commentary to stories the reporters were already working on. Their work influenced my work. And all along that news coverage was generating on- and offline conversations, as I found and shared work by other people working on these topics (like the National Center for Marriage and Family Research, and the Pew Research Center). Looking back over my tweets about divorce, I see that I covered divorce and religion, disabilities, economics, and race/ethnic inequality, and also critiqued media coverage. (Everything also got discussed on Facebook, in a smaller semi-private circle.)

By 2014 I finally got the paper — now with even newer data — published in a paywalled peer-reviewed journal, in Population Research and Policy Review. This involved writing the dreaded phrase, “Thank you very much for the opportunity to revise this paper again.” (Submitted October 2012, revision submitted August 2013, second revision submitted January 2014, final revision April 2014.) The paper, eventually titled, “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011,” did improve over this time as new data provided better leverage on the question, and the reviewers actually made some good suggestions.

Also in 2014 the descriptive analysis was published in my textbook. The results were reported here and there, and expanded into the general area of family-recession studies, including this piece in the Conversation. I also developed a method of projecting lifetime divorce odds (basically 50%), for which I shared the data and code, which was reported on here. Along the way I also did some work on job characteristics and divorce (data and code, working paper). When I posted technical notes, I got interesting responses from people like economist Marina Adshade, whom I’ve never met.

So that’s an engagement story that includes teaching, the blogosphere and social media, news media, peer-reviewed publishing, conference presentations and colloquium talks. I did research, but also argued about politics and inequality, and taught and learned demography. It’s not a story of how I used social media, or the news media, to get the word out about my research, although that happened, too. The work product, not just the “publications,” were all public to varying degrees, and the discussions included all manner of students, sociologists, reporters, and interested blog or Twitter readers, most of whom I didn’t know or wouldn’t have met any other way.

So I can’t draw a line dividing the “engagement” and the “research,” because they weren’t separate processes.

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