Less amusing animals: How movements work

As anyone who has stumbled across the internet and sampled a tiny sliver of the astounding variety of cat videos, animals can be entertaining.  For years animal rights advocates have been emphasizing the price those animals pay for our amusement.

When we learn that elephants are beaten in training, we may become a little less impressed by those amusing tricks.  Maybe, we go to the movies or  a concert instead of dragging the family to the circus.

After years of countering the rhetoric,  and offering reforms in training methods, even litigating against its critics (and winning!), Ringling Brothers has given up, announcing that it will phase out the use of elephants in its circus shows.  There are a lot of factors–as there always are: circus audiences are declining; taking care of elephants is expensive; and some cities have laws banning elephant performances.

Kenneth Feld, the president of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, explained that successful businesses change and adapt to changing markets and changing tastes.  He emphatically proclaimed that Ringling Brothers was NOT reacting to decades of protest.  As reported by AP, he explained, “We’re not reacting to our critics; we’re creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant.”

Yeah, well the protests affected the markets, the laws, and the costs.

PETA’s president Ingrid Newkirk claimed credit, without offering even a hint of conciliation.  “For 35 years PETA has protested Ringling Bros.’ cruelty to elephants,” she said,  “We know extreme abuse to these majestic animals occurs every single day, so if Ringling is really telling the truth about ending this horror, it will be a day to pop the champagne corks, and rejoice. … If the decision is serious, then the circus needs to do it NOW.”

SeaWorld is living the same story.  Protested and pilloried by critics who focus on the cruelty inherent in capturing, holding, and training killer whales, SeaWorld has endured bad press, a falling stock price, and declining attendance.  Blackfish, a powerful documentary, crystallized the charges of animal cruelty.  Last year, SeaWorld announced its plan to build bigger pens for the orcas.  This year the company announced a search for new corporate leadership.  And surely the public relations nightmare that Shamu has become will be one of the new CEO’s challenges.

Changing the world, even a little piece of it, takes a long time.  And it’s never just one thing.  But activist efforts can play a critical role in changing the conditions in which governments and businesses make decisions.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Ferguson report: How protest works

The Department of Justice has released its report on policing in Ferguson.  It tells an extremely disturbing story, in which the killing of Michael Brown and the volatile protests that followed, the awful policing of those protests, and the subsequent protests when the officer who shot Brown was not indicted, are all rolled into a larger–terrible–story.

Ferguson police stopped, cited, and arrested people less to maintain public order than to finance the city and their operations.  By itself, this is troubling enough, as the phobia about paying for the services we want through taxes has translated into a push for “user fees.”  This includes holding those who are arrested, tried, and sentenced responsible for their costs to the city, even as those costs can destroy the lives of people whose financial well-being is pretty tenuous to begin with.  This, alas, is not peculiar to Ferguson.

And Black people were more attractive targets for police than White people; they are stopped, cited, and arrested more frequently, and subjected to more harsh treatment at every point in the process.  This isn’t peculiar to Ferguson either.

Whether or not this report will lead to any kind of changes in criminal justice, policing, and funding policies across American cities remains to be seen.

But the report exists because of the protests in Ferguson that began last year and spread across the country.  It was the protests and not the death of Michael Brown that pushed the Department of Justice to investigate and report, and their notoriety produced the massive coverage that attended the release of the document.  Reporters and editors are reading and summarizing the nearly 100 page report.

It’s hard to think that police chiefs and mayors aren’t reading carefully as well, looking at the Ferguson story as a cautionary tale.  Now, the lessons learned may not be the ones you’d like (immediately, it seems clear that police officers will be told not to circulate racist jokes on email), but the opportunity for reform is here.

Protest works by redirecting our attention (public and government) and providing the opportunity for advocates to make their case to a larger audience.

Social scientists may struggle to model this in convincing ways, but, at least in this story, the sequence of events tells a clear story.  Would-be police reformers should be both encouraged and enabled.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Battles over history

I don’t need to close my eyes to love America.

Then again, I’m not a high school student and I never took an Advanced Placement course in American History (APUSH).  But I like the “education without limitation” sign above, from a student protest last year in Littleton, Colorado.  The students were opposed to a school board proposal to focus their education on promoting patriotism.  It’s yet another event that makes me proud to be American.

Let me confess an extreme professional prejudice: I think all Americans should learn as much as they possibly can about our history and governance (controversial?); high school is a good place for some of this education to happen (perhaps that’s more controversial…).  I’m not quite so enamored with the AP concept, but if it provides another chance to learn more, well, that’s all to the good.  Yet APUSH is emerging as a prime target for conservative activism in more than a few states; the battle’s gone furthest in Oklahoma, where a legislative committee has passed a bill identifying APUSH as an emergency threatening public peace and welfare, and proposed defunding it altogether.  (Summaries of the conflict can be found in Vox and Inside Higher Education.)

What’s this all about?  Some of it is about a reconfigured course, but more of it, I’d suggest, is about conservative activists prospecting for new issues to use in mobilizing their supporters.

On the course: AP courses are supposed to cover the same material as introductory courses in college, and some colleges and universities even provide credit to students who perform well on the College Board’s exam.  Students flock to these courses to demonstrate to colleges that they are ambitious and competent and pad their grade point averages feed their intellectual curiosity and suck up as much knowledge as possible.

Given the explicit rationale for the AP, the College Board has to pay attention to what’s going on in courses at colleges and universities, and periodically revise the curriculum and the all-important exam.  About a decade ago, the Board commenced a reevaluation and reconfiguration of APUSH, assembling a team of high school history teachers and professional historians, and publishing a new framework.  You can read it here.  (Good luck; I’d be surprised if more than a few of the partisans in the debate have; many prominent opponents have publicly admitted that they have not.)

At once, this seems like basically the right group of people to think about structuring this elective course that hits a relatively small portion of America’s high school students.  (Vox reports that about 300,000 students, 10 percent of graduating seniors, take the APUSH exam.)  I’d hope that the College Board would have working mathematicians responsible for the AP exams in Calculus and working scientists involved in configuring the AP courses in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

The new framework explicitly emphasizes skills (e.g., using evidence to craft arguments) and concepts (e.g., “politics and power”; “ideas, beliefs, and culture”) rather than specific documents or figures, affording teachers some flexibility in assembling the specific issues and documents in their classes.  It’s way less about memorizing key dates and facts, and way more like a college course should be.  Remember, the students taking this class have already taken years of social studies and presumably learned something about the Founding, the Civil War, and the great presidents.

But the new APUSH drew immediate opposition from the political right.  The Republican National Committee approved a resolution criticizing the curriculum as partial and distorted, and calling for a Congressional investigation into the College Board. Echoing critics of education like Socrates’s accusers, they worried about open dialogue leading to the corruption of the youth.  Local activists took the cue, if not the AP test.

A new school superintendent in Jefferson County, Colorado proposed forgetting about the test, college admissions, and the AP altogether, in favor of revamping the history curriculum to emphasize patriotism–rather than civil unrest.  Amazingly, the students there got the message the school board hoped to avoid, and walked out in protest, learning on the street corners what their elders wanted to keep from them in the classroom. (Lesson: students don’t always learn just what they’re taught in the classroom anyway.)

State-level politicians, looking for issues to demonstrate their commitments, jumped on the APUSH, making outraged speeches to demonstrate their patriotism and introducing legislation.  Win or lose on the floor of the state house, they now have issues and records to use in raising money and motivating voters.  As central as APUSH is to the lives of many over-stressed teenagers, the course is quite distant from most people’s lives.  It’s paradoxically easier to generate outrage than curiosity at the grassroots.  And the new ostensibly less patriotic more scientific and scholarly APUSH is a great baton to use in bashing the academic and cultural elite.  Moreover, APUSH comes when socially conservative issues have been losing viable issues: same sex marriage, for example, is spreading, and savvy Republicans are treating it as a lost cause; Americans still oppose Obamacare, but appreciate subsidies to increase access to health insurance, etc.

Whether opposition to APUSH has political legs remains to be seen.  Although Ben Carson has picked up the attack, few other nationally visible Republicans have.  Striking at the aspirations of the most accomplished high school students in the United States may be more hassle than it’s worth.  The point: politicians are constantly prospecting for issues on which they can distinguish themselves while inspiring supporters.

As to patriotism and education: isn’t it always better to know more of the story?  Doesn’t knowing that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and posthumously had them sold to pay his debts make the language of the Declaration of Independence seem all the more remarkable?  Doesn’t knowing about Andrew Johnson’s failed presidency and impeachment provide the best possible contrast to Lincoln’s second inaugural address?  Shouldn’t students learn that Martin Luther King’s soaring rhetoric provoked FBI surveillance?  After all, we’d like this talented tenth of high school students to become engaged citizens.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Do you believe in science?

The image above is from the Heartland Institute, an advocacy group which receives funding from a number of conservative sources (Scaife, Olin, Koch, for example) to promote doubts about climate change, the health risks of cigarettes, the dangers of fracking, and of taxation–among other issues.  In addition to supporting the production of papers, it also engages in public relations efforts.  The billboard above links the acceptance of climate change to an obviously suspect source.

Almost all scientists who work on climate accept the reality that the climate is changing, largely because of human impact–and it’s not benign.  But there are others…. One is Wei-Hock Soon, who holds an appointment at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, but has to raise his salary and support for his work from grants (New York Times story).  He’s been reasonably successful at doing so; Greenpeace filed a Freedom of Information Act request to trace it and found that he’s accepted more than $1 million from the fossil fuel industry, which likely finds some utility in his consistent findings that the sun is generating any observed changes in climate on earth.  Given that Dr. Soon’s work gets little support from his colleagues or other working scientists, he’s fortunate to have found corporate benefactors.  And the companies are glad to have someone with a doctorate and publications whose findings don’t undermine their business model.

But academics who may have a financial stake in a particular finding are obligated to disclose that potential conflict of interest in their publications; Dr. Soon has not routinely done so.  He may not be tailoring his findings to suit his funders, but readers want to know if there’s reason to be suspicious.  [When I tell you that I support funding for the collection of data and support of public universities, you know that I draw a salary from a public university; you can consider interest when you evaluate my arguments.  You want to know when research supports the favored position of the people paying for it, no?]

Opponents of concerted action to ameliorate climate change will no doubt find other people with Ph.D.s to support, but they’ll be looking for the result before they pick the scientist. Alas, when one-time climate skeptics begin to join the scientific consensus, they lose both the financial support and political support of their former sponsors (discussed here).  Don’t worry, interests will find someone else to fund.

If you’re invested in a particular outcome beyond truth, it’s not science.

And science is almost always big and diverse enough that you can find someone who looks credible enough to support your beliefs about climate change, evolution, or vaccines, to cite a few examples.  Sometimes, as on nutrition, the scientific consensus has been historically inconsistent, which makes it harder to find useful guidance.  Most of us are not well-equipped to adjudicate disputes among epidemiologists about population samples, for example, so we fumble trying to find reliable information, or just pick the result we like and put the scientist who generated it on our poster.  Not so great.

But belief in science is belief in a method of discerning truth.  It may not produce readily usable results, but our commitments are contingent upon evidence, and we want to be open to new evidence that might undermine them.  It’s tough.

The Dr. Soon story reminds us that interested parties will cultivate authorities who substantiate what they want us to believe.  Skepticism is appropriate, but ultimately we need to make decisions, and it’s better if they’re informed.  The scientific consensus, if it can be found, is hardly infallible, but it’s likely to be a better guide than an outlier supported by someone with a vested interest in a particular conclusion.

Our values should pose questions, but we really want to find honest answers that come from somewhere else.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

You miss all the shots you don’t take

Effective advocates are entrepreneurial, constantly trying to tie their preferred remedies to any potential problem that comes up in the news.  This is the only way we can make sense of Students for Concealed Carry‘s effort to present their prime concern (allowing college students to pack weapons along with their book bags each morning) as a solution to the problem of sexual assault on campuses.

Let me confess that as someone who works on a college campus, I think the demand is ridiculous, dangerous, and completely counterproductive to the goal of making college life safer.

I’m not alone in these beliefs.  A story in today’s New York Times lays out arguments for and against concealed carry on campuses, noting that they are now being rehearsed in some state legislatures.  If young men knew that the young women in their sites might be carrying lethal force, they would be more careful, gun supporters claim.

Even if they could be armed themselves?  And, what of the alcohol-fueled, uh, celebrations that are often the initial staging areas for sexual assault?  It’s hard not to think of what else guns might bring to the party.

All that said, I learned of Students for Concealed Carry from this odd repurposing–against sexual assault–and the resulting Times story.  The new rationale also led to the group welcoming the first woman onto its Board of Directors (the website wasn’t updated to include her as of this morning).  I’ll bet the story generated more attention to SCC and its fundraising appeals than anything else since the group’s inception.  Provoking opposition and even ridicule isn’t always bad politics.

Watch to see the turnout at SCC’s “signature” event, the empty holster protest, scheduled for the first week in April.  (Is this really an April Fool’s prank????)

Note:  Like many professors, I have given lectures (and, more likely, grades) that disappointed students, relying on the premise that they are largely unarmed.  Then again, surely if my A students (the mythic “good guys with a gun” ) were also packing, I’d be protected….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Updates: Martin Luther King Day 2015

We try to take control of the past with current struggles in mind.  Martin Luther King, killed less than a half-century ago is a prize for contemporary activists.  The civil rights movement isn’t quite a wispy memory from the era of Mad Men; some of King’s allies and opponents are still around, making it just a little harder to make up stuff.

This year, King and the civil rights movement provide some inspiration and legitimation for activists across the country challenging differential policing, and trying to create a new civil rights movement.

But not just that: Selma, a movie about the dramatic struggle for Voting Rights that ran across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, has been in the news as a subject for historical debate.  The movie portrays King, and especially local activists, as heroes who dragged Lyndon Johnson into support for voting rights.  Johnson is portrayed as an antagonist who set J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI loose on King.  Not all of this is strictly accurate; Johnson supported civil rights by this time, albeit in far more measured and careful way than the extraordinarily brave men and women who marched, non-violently, into beatings by the police.  (And Johnson was hardly calling the shots for Hoover, who followed his own perverse political passions, dragging federal law enforcement along with him.)

Congressman John Lewis (LA Times), one of those brave young people, a character in the movie, and a hero by any definition, lauds the film as a work of art, more than a historical document.  He describes Johnson as one of the nation’s great presidents, but emphasizes the importance of the people of Selma who took action.  And a film that makes us think about this episode in our past is a good thing; he writes,

And “Selma” does more than bring history to life, it enlightens our understanding of our lives today. It proves the efficacy of nonviolent action and civic engagement, especially when government seems unresponsive. With poignant grace, it demonstrates that Occupy, inconvenient protests and die-ins that disturb our daily routine reflect a legacy of resistance that led many to struggle and die for justice, not centuries ago, but in our lifetimes. It reminds us that the day could be approaching when that price will be required again.

So, we make sense of the past to make the world we want in the future.

And it’s worthwhile to remember that Martin Luther King was hardly as finely polished and broadly accepted as the statue on the mall.  At Vox, Jenee Desmond-Harris hauls out the Poor People’s Campaign, the effort King was organizing when he was killed.  In the last years of his life, Rev. King took his Nobel Prize and his influence on Civil Rights and Voting Rights, and put them all in the service of campaigns against war and against poverty and inequality.  These were brave and less popular efforts, even more radical than the earlier civil rights campaigns.

And, partly because they were less successful than efforts to, say, desegregate buses and libraries, all the more relevant to us today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

King Day (2015)

(This is a repost for Martin Luther King Day.  Update to follow.)

Martin Luther King died young enough and dramatically enough to be turned into an American hero, but it was neither his youth nor his death that made him heroic.

In his rather brief public life, beginning in Montgomery at 26, and ending with his assassination at 39, King consistently displayed rhetorical brilliance (on the podium and the page), strategic acumen, and moral and physical courage.

The effort to honor Martin Luther King with a holiday commemorating his birthday started at the King Center, in Atlanta, in the year after his assassination.  States began to follow suit, and by 1983, more than half celebrated King’s life with a day.  In that year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday expressing ambivalence, acknowledging that it was costly, and that King may have been a Communist.

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man.  King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally.  I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

The man and the movement are ossified into an iconic image, like a statue, which locks King and the movement into the politics of 1963-1965.  We accept King’s dream, that little children will play together, and that people will be judged by “the content of their character” (a favorite phrase on the right).

The image, like a statue, is available for appropriation to advocates of all political stripes, and the establishment of the holiday itself represents an achievement of the civil rights movement, winning the holiday if not broader economic and social equality.

Before the transformation of the man into an icon, King transformed himself from a pastor into an activist, a peripatetic crusader for justice.

But the pastor didn’t disappear; rather this role grew into something larger, as King himself transformed himself from a minister into a an Old Testament prophet, one whose primary concern was always the people on the margins, the widows and orphans, the poor and hungry.  In standing with those on the margins, King courageously used–and risked–the advantages of his privilege, pedigree, and education.  He also knew that he risked his safety and his life.

In his writing, King used his education and his vocation to support his political goals.  In the critically important “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited both the Constitution and the Bible in support of Federal intervention in local politics to support desegregation and human rights.  (We know that other activists now use the same sources to justify pushing the Federal government out of local politics.)

King explained that he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, because he had nonviolently defied local authorities in the service of higher laws, the Constitution and the Gospel.  This was not like making a provocative statement on one’s own [profitable] radio or television show.  There were real costs and severe risks.

King was never less than controversial during his life, under FBI surveillance during his political career, and vigorously criticized by opponents (for demanding too much and too strongly) and allies (for not demanding more, more vigorously).

When he was assassinated outside a Memphis motel in 1968, he was standing with sanitation workers on strike, straying from a simpler civil rights agenda.  He had also alienated some civil rights supporters by coming out, strongly, against the war in Vietnam.  And Black Power activists saw their own efforts as overtaking King’s politics and rhetoric.  By the time he was killed, Martin Luther King’s popular support had been waning for some time.

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment