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Defending The Hard to Defend

[ 84 ] January 14, 2016 |


There are two comments in Paul’s first discussion of the odd NYT profile of Alice Goffman that, in admittedly extreme form, exemplify how Goffman and her defenders have tried to explain away stories that are almost certainly made up:

My brother was a police prosecutor, an assistant DA, and eventually a defense attorney. He was the kind of attorney you got if you really truly committed the crime. Based on the above incidents, Goffman’s tome seems true enough. In fact, if these are the most outlandish events in her book, I’d say she only penetrated the outer layer of police brutality/racism and cover-up.

More important to me is why you and others continue to hound her. Professorial misogyny? Academic policing?

Having gone through the dissertation process and seeing firsthand what PhD candidates do with facts and statistics, and no, it isn’t pretty, I’m trying to get a handle on just what exactly fuels your rage.

Goffman may have embellished and lied. On those points she is vulnerable and deserves scrutiny and, perhaps, even censure. The continual lambasting of her methods and character are, however, way over the top.

There are stories I could tell you from my brother’s files that make “On The Run” seem juvenile. I’m from a part of the country where the deck isn’t just stacked against minorities, said minorities aren’t even permitted in the poker room to play. You want to rail, rail against real white privilege. Put your commitments where your typewriter fingers are. Do something. Goffman is not the problem.


Well, it’s striking that this article can largely be summarized as

reporter: “Dear Mr Piggy: did you or your officers wildly violate the law and/or de jure (as opposed to de facto) department policy?”

Pig: “Of course not! Haw Haw Haw that supposed incident is laughable.”

to which I reply, drawing from one of so many incidents, Laquan McDonald. Where 19 officers corroborated the murderer’s lies, 5 of them stole video from the restaurant, and we just learned more detained witnesses until they chose to corroborate the story.

This pretty much echoes what Goffman offers in the profile in lieu of any corroboration for her stories — questioning her version of events is an attempt to silence minorities, and if you question her version of particular events it must be because you think the police are incapable of bad behavior, and believe them uncritically. To state the obvious, this is all bullshit. Of course police officers do things far worse than what Goffman describes on a depressingly frequent basis. This does not in any way mean that Goffman’s stories deserve the level of deference her supporters demand.

To take the second charge first, it’s simply untrue that Paul and other critics have relied solely on police sources to question Goffman’s claims. In the case of the allegedly widespread practice of Philadelphia police officers using maternity ward check-in lists to identify people with outstanding warrants, Paul checked with criminal defense attorneys and hospital employees, none of whom could in any way corroborate Goffman’s assertions. (It’s worth noting that in this case Goffman is not just saying that police are behaving badly; she’s accusing ordinary hospital workers of systematically engaging in illegal and unethical behavior. It strikes me that such claims need more evidence than “take my word for it.”)

It is true that Paul only talked to police sources with respect to the alleged Menace II Society re-enactment. But Paul is not arguing that the officers who questioned Goffman’s account should be taken at face value because they’re police officers, which would be silly. Rather, Paul is pointing out that the arguments being made by the officers in this case are vastly more plausible than Goffman’s account. It is, needless to say, not hard to believe that the police would depart from SOP to intimidate suspects and witnesses. What is hard to believe is that their method of intimidation would be to put guns on a table where they could be seized by the suspect/witness and turned against them. I suppose I can believe that the police would stray from SOP to use officers from the SWAT team to intimidate a witness (although my non-expert inclination would be to use a, you know, experienced interrogator if I wanted to intimidate someone.) But it is massively implausible that the SWAT team would be hauled out to intimidate not an alleged cop killer or child molester but a middle-class white female academic who is not a criminal suspect. The fact that the police lied and suppressed evidence to cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald is neither here nor there in terms of whether this particular story is true. And, as Paul says, questioning events that either happened to Goffman or Goffman claims to have witnessed is not silencing the voices of racial minorities who are routinely subject to police misconduct.

On the first point, I’ll cede the floor to djw:

The “continuous” factor is surely partly because of how the relevant professional academic organizations and institutions don’t appear to be taking the issues raised seriously.

If the quantitative/experimental political science community, Science, UCLA, and Princeton University had circled the wagons for Michael Lacour, you can be sure the critical coverage of his fraudulent research would have a been a great deal more continuous. And if Hugo Schwyzer was still teaching at Pasadena CC and being published in major feminist outlets, you’d see a lot more about him. To be clear, I’m not asserting Goffman’s misdeeds were comparable, nor that the consequences should be as harsh. But criticizing the coverage of apparent fraud for not stopping after a story or two when the relevant institutions take no steps to address it is silly.


Nike Ends Independent Monitoring of Its Sweatshops

[ 19 ] January 14, 2016 |


In the world of those who pay attention to monitoring sweatshops (a sadly small world), Nike wasn’t exactly a success story, but it was a tale one could tell about how public pressure could force a corporation to improve its conditions and acquiesce to independent monitoring systems. This came out of the United Students Against Sweatshops chapters pressuring college campuses to source university clothing ethically and the public shaming of Nike for conditions in its Indonesian factories in the 1990s. For 15 years, Nike had some of the least terrible working conditions for the people putting together its apparel.

But in October, Nike announced it would no longer allow investigators from the Workers Rights Consortium to inspect its factories. This decision has received almost zero news coverage. That’s terribly disheartening. Nearly three years after the Rana Plaza collapse, companies like Nike understand that if Americans can’t really see what is happening in sweatshops, that they will do nothing to fight for changes to keep workers alive. Nike feels it will receive no pushback from this decision. It’s almost certainly right. More workers will die and Americans won’t do anything to hold its corporations accountable. Not only will workers die, but they will be beaten by bosses, sexually abused, forced to take pregnancy tests and undergo gynecological examinations without their will, be poisoned on the job and have their water and air polluted off the job, have their wages stolen, and forced to work endless hours in overheated factories. All of these things happen every single day in the global apparel industry. And we do nothing.

There is however a letter circulating, albeit only for university and college faculty. I urge you to sign it if you can. I also urge you to publicize the situation as best you can, at least by spreading this letter around. It could be a first step to fighting to stop Nike’s actions.

RIP Alan Rickman

[ 65 ] January 14, 2016 |


It hasn’t been a good week for 69-year-old English entertainers.

I Look Forward to Holding the Cosby Chair in Women’s Studies. Or Perhaps the Wolfowitz Chair in Islamic Studies. Or Maybe the Ken Lay Chair in Energy and Business

[ 43 ] January 14, 2016 |


Is there any figure so utterly loathsome that a university, especially an elite one who could easily afford it, would turn down or return money from them? The answer is obviously no. And that leads us to the Martin Shkreli Professor of Pediatric Nephrology at NYU.

New York University’s medical school has no plans to remove Martin Shkreli’s name from an endowed professorship, a spokeswoman told The Huffington Post this week.

The professorship named for Shkreli — the result of a donation from Shkreli that was not publicized — is currently held by Howard Trachtman. Trachtman previously served as a consultant at Retrophin, where Shkreli was CEO.

NYU’s medical school declined to say how much money Shkreli donated, when it was given or whether there were any stipulations attached. However, the school said that — despite the previous collaboration between Trachtman and Shkreli — it had no ethical concerns.

Did Shkreli simply get to name who held this chair when he gave the money?

Of course, we already know that NYU is an institution whose leaders lack even the most basic forms of morality and that said leadership is turning the institution into a real estate hedge fund backed with federal student loans. So of course it isn’t going to return Shkreli’s money. That would be counter to its goal of being a university by the rich, for the rich. No doubt it is contacting Donald Trump as we speak for a Trump Chair in American White Nationalism.

Bizarre Conservative Obsessions

[ 77 ] January 14, 2016 |


Above: Not a leftist goal

OK, most conservative obsessions are bizarre. But some of their attacks on the left just make no sense at all. The first one that comes to mind is Saul Alinsky, who has been an utterly irrelevant figure on the left for 25 years but who still freaks conservatives out like he was Leon Trotsky. Here’s another, from a fine Christmas conservative advice column on how to deal with liberal family members (yes, I got out of the boat):

You may have a relative who is a liberal drone, who worships at the altar of Obama, Hillary, global warming, deindustrialization, and whatever else they have been programmed to think. It can be unpleasant to hear them go on and on about how great Obama is and how evil the Republicans are, and you certainly can’t speak out because that will start a major battle. If your relative is a hardened leftist, nothing you can say would make any difference as well. So why should you love that?

Never mind the conflation between “mild liberal” and “hardened leftist.” Worships at the altar of deindustralization? While it’s certainly true that Obama and Bill Clinton have supported terrible trade deals that help lead to deindustrialization and the export of union jobs overseas, how is deindustralization a leftist policy as opposed to a rightist one? What are the conservative positions about reinvigorating Flint? Other than poisoning the city’s water supply, of course. And I guess I was unaware that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or writers further to the left were hoping for the decimation of American industrial capacity and the destruction of unions that entails. That’s of course opposed to noted supporters of good jobs like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.

Obviously there’s no answer to these questions because the fundamental premise is just stupid, from a line of thinking not worth interrogating. But I guess I would have expected such a column to rail against relatives who support other crazy leftist policies like women having a choice in their reproductive decisions, black people being allowed to vote, or gay people being allowed to have legal protections. Now those are some nutty leftist positions!

The look of solidarity

[ 61 ] January 14, 2016 |


When I wrote yesterday about Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s long NYT piece on Alice Goffman I focused on the article’s failure to produce any exculpatory evidence regarding the apparently fraudulent elements of her book On the Run. I’d like to emphasize that my criticisms of the book have nothing to do with any aversion to or skepticism about ethnography as a genre: Many people have written and continue to write great ethnographies, which are among the most valuable artifacts produced by the modern university. (For example, I can’t recommend this new book highly enough, which I’ll have more to say about soon).

It’s all the more unfortunate that Goffman and her work have ended up representing to the public at large (GKL’s piece is the fourth substantial article the Times has published about her in the last year and a half) what contemporary sociology in general, and ethnography in particular, are about.

It’s also unfortunate that GKL’s piece reads almost like a parody of right-wing paranoia about how the Times is supposedly a nexus of muddle-headed leftist propaganda for progressive views. In regard to both these issues, consider this passage:

At the gate in Newark, Goffman unshouldered a bulky zippered tote bag. ‘‘I’m so happy,’’ she said with visible and somewhat exaggerated relief, ‘‘that I didn’t give you this to take through security yourself.’’ Over the course of our correspondence, I had asked her from time to time if she had any book artifacts that escaped destruction. In this tote was some material she had forgotten about: unpaid bills, bail receipts, letters from prison and a few extant fragments of hastily scrawled in situ field notes. But it wasn’t until the security line that she remembered what the tote probably once held, memorabilia from her time on Sixth Street: bullets, spent casings, containers for drugs. She passed safely through the scanner in a state of agitation, not about the risk she took but by how blithely she was treated by T.S.A. agents.

‘‘And who did they stop?’’ she said. ‘‘Not me and my bag of contrabandy stuff, but a young man with brown skin. I tried to exchange a look of solidarity with him, but he wouldn’t look at me. Compare that to the interactions I’ve had at this airport — people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long. This isn’t news. But it is stuff that, for me, at the beginning. …’’ She didn’t finish the sentence.

If a hypothetical ethnographer had witnessed this scene while doing a study of how high-concept journalism is produced in America today, the appropriate field note could probably be abbreviated as WTF?

What exactly is GLK saying Goffman said to him at the gate? (And who edited this piece for content and style?). That she was afraid her tote bag still had bullets, spent casings, and containers for drugs in it, and was relieved to discover, after going through security, that it didn’t? How plausible is this? Consider that the interview is taking place in the fall of 2015, which is eight years after Goffman stopped hanging out on Sixth Street. Has Goffman not used this tote bag since then? She obviously examined its contents prior to meeting GLK, because she knows it contains “unpaid bills, bail receipts, letters from prison and a few extant fragments of hastily scrawled in situ field notes.” Did she find these things in various places and put them in the tote to show them to GLK, or have the contents of the tote bag somehow remained undisturbed for the last eight years, while Goffman carried it around — all the while unaware of its forgotten contents –to her several residences since then? What does it even mean to say that it was only when she reached the security line “that she remembered what the tote probably once held, memorabilia from her time on Sixth Street: bullets, spent casings, containers for drugs?” That she was afraid the bag may have contained these things at one time, and perhaps still did?

That would seem to be the implication, given “the risk she took” by taking the bag through security, but GLK’s description of his exchange with Goffman on this point isn’t written clearly enough to tell for sure. In any case, the whole passage reeks of equal parts bullshit and self-dramatization, but apparently GLK is presenting it as evidence of Goffman’s lingering street cred. Or something: it’s very hard to tell what the point of all this even is (again, editors?).

Then we get this: ‘‘And who did they stop?’’ she said. ‘‘Not me and my bag of contrabandy stuff, but a young man with brown skin.” What “contrabandy stuff?” Unpaid bills, bail receipts, letters — prison letters, mind you — none of this stuff, whatever totemic significance it may have for Goffman (and assuming it was actually in the bag; did GLK ever ask to see it?), has even the vaguest aspect of contraband. They are pieces of paper.

Again, bullshit/self-dramatization, etc.

What about the young man with brown skin? Goffman is obviously implying that people of color are much more likely to get searched by TSA than white people, all other things being equal. What’s her basis for this claim? An experimental n = 1? If this is her idea of qualitative sociology, the quality needs some major upgrading. (ETA: Assuming this incident even happened as described, which under the circumstances is itself open to serious doubt).

Then this: “I tried to exchange a look of solidarity with him, but he wouldn’t look at me.”

No comment necessary.

ETA: OK a comment. This is another example of how Goffman seems to constantly confuse her “positionality.” The whole point of the anecdote is that she (supposedly) has white privilege in this particular context, so there isn’t any solidarity here between her and him, much as she might want there to be. But Goffman has a habit of forgetting that she’s a very privileged person in all sorts of ways: hence her complaints that doubts about her veracity are attacks on the credibility of low-status informants, such as the residents of Sixth Street.

And then: “Compare that to the interactions I’ve had at this airport — people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long.”

Because if there’s one place in America a white person can go where she can count on having her dignity affirmed, it’s the airport in general, and a TSA screening point in particular.

The most startling thing about all this is that GLK seems to be presenting it as evidence of both Goffman’s purported authenticity as a person, and her supposed reliability as a sociological observer. It’s more than unfortunate that this complete mess of an article in the paper of record is touting Alice Goffman and On the Run as representing the cutting edge of sociological research in America today.

(h/t to LGM commenter ASV).

Today In Great Hatchet Jobs (In the Non-Pejorative Sense)

[ 77 ] January 14, 2016 |


Pete Wells is fast becoming a national treasure, even when he’s reviewing restaurants you would never consider eating at. He uses great prose to go after ripoffs highbrow and lowbrow alike. A crucial part of what makes him a great critic is that he takes restaurants on their own terms. He has no prejudice against linen-and-tasting-menu fine dining or honest American comfort food (the Fieri takedown was entirely free of condescension towards Fieri’s marks.)

His removal of two stars from Thomas Keller’s Per Se — the restaurant in the Time Warner Center where the prix fixe plus supplements runs you 540 bucks sort of including service but not including beverages — is another fine addition to the canon:

Such is Per Se’s mystique that I briefly wondered if the failure to bring her a new napkin could have been intentional. The restaurant’s identity, to the extent that it has one distinct from that of its owner and chef, Thomas Keller, is based on fastidiously minding the tiniest details. This is the place, after all, that brought in a ballet dancer to help servers slip around the tables with poise. So I had to consider the chance that the server was just making a thoughtful accommodation to a diner with a napkin allergy.

But in three meals this fall and winter, enough other things have gone awry in the kitchen and dining room to make that theory seem unlikely. Enough, also, to make the perception of Per Se as one of the country’s great restaurants, which I shared after visits in the past, appear out of date. Enough to suggest that the four-star rating it received from Sam Sifton in 2011, its most recent review in The New York Times, needs a hard look.

With each fresh review, a restaurant has to earn its stars again. In its current form and at its current price, Per Se struggled and failed to do this, ranging from respectably dull at best to disappointingly flat-footed at worst.


The kitchen could improve the bacon-wrapped cylinder of quail simply by not placing it on top of a dismal green pulp of cooked romaine lettuce, crunchy and mushy at once. Draining off the gluey, oily liquid would have helped a mushroom potpie from turning into a swampy mess. I don’t know what could have saved limp, dispiriting yam dumplings, but it definitely wasn’t a lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water.


Both dishes, though, came at an extra charge: $75 more for the caviar and $175 for the risotto. The supplements at Per Se can cause indignation, among other emotions. When my server asked, “Would you like the foie gras”— $40 more — “or the salad?,” the question had an air of menace. When the salad turned out to be a pale, uncrisp fried eggplant raviolo next to droopy strips of red pepper and carrot, it felt like extortion.

Some of those prices came down slightly when the baseline cost went up. With or without supplemental charges, though, Per Se is among the worst food deals in New York.

Mr. Keller was a leader in the service-included model of pricing, although he muddies the waters by leaving a line for an optional gratuity on the check. Just what kind of service is included?

The people who work in Per Se’s dining room can be warm and gracious. They can also be oddly unaccommodating. When one of my guests didn’t like a sample of a red being offered by the glass, the sommelier decided to argue, defending his choice instead of pouring something new. When I asked to see the truffle being shaved over somebody else’s plate, it was whisked under my eyes for a nanosecond, as if the server were afraid I was going to sneeze. I know what truffles look like; what I wanted was to smell it.

Its enemies notwithstanding, criticism is an art like any other at its best. This is just terrific writing.

rebRand Paul Bawls as Campaign Stalls

[ 71 ] January 13, 2016 |

Rand Paul got bumped from the big kids’ GOP debate. No fair! says he.

They have been saying for months they’re going to narrow the field, but I don’t think it’s the job of the establishment in the Republican Party to decide who is and who isn’t [in].

Like a legitimate board of ophthalmology? Maybe he should create his own Republican Party, and then abandon it when he realizes it’s a big hassle!

And it isn’t about his polling numbers, it’s about the fact that he’s so super and they’re so stupid.

Paul … said he’s being pushed out because he has a “unique voice.”

Nah. Whiny bluster is a hallmark of the GOP.

Naturally he’s threatening to take his slit lamp and go home.

Do they really not want liberty voters in their party?

[Lip wobble]

Someone who could be reached for comment says the liberty voters will probably hang around with Cruz.

Those liberty-oriented voters are still vacillating between Rand Paul — which is where their heart is and where they’ve been with the Paul family for the past two cycles — or Ted Cruz, where their head may be on a candidate that may not align with them perfectly on anything but will be closer than anyone else to have the potential to go the distance.

So there.

As an aside – Where did “liberty voter” come from, and why? I assume this means libertarians, but why the rebranding?

Elsewhere: djw on rationalism, pluralism and democracy

[ 4 ] January 13, 2016 |

The bleedingheartslibertarians blog is currently doing a book event on Jacob Levy’s fantastic new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, and they invited me to contribute. My contribution is now up, as is that of friend of the blog Russell Arben Fox. (I don’t really rehearse the core idea of the book, the introduction is here.) While it wasn’t the intention of the book–indeed, it’s a theme the book deliberately avoids–it’s an important book for democratic theorists, as well as those concerned with freedom and liberalism’s conceptual tensions. The tendency to treat intermediate groups as de facto individuals, de facto states, or some mix of the two, is deeply ingrained and naturalized in ways we’d do well to avoid. The whole range of “should X be democratized?” (where X is some form of intermediate association) stand to benefit from the conceptual intervention provided here: Contra Josh Cohen, the questions of how and whether firms should be democratized ought not be conflated with the question of whether they’re sufficiently state-like.


[ 46 ] January 13, 2016 |


One of the problems with capitalism is that new products and technologies are introduced to the market without any (or with very little) testing to see how they will impact the environment or people’s health. Thus we have thalidomide, endocrine disruptors, fracking. The burden of proof is not only on those claiming these things are unsafe, but there are millions or even billions of dollars riding on their continued existence. Such it also is with microbeads. These things never should have been introduced because of their massive impact on ecosystems. Products that don’t break down and can be swallowed by pretty much any beast, well what could go wrong?!? But at least we have a president willing to act when such obvious environmental problems are placed before him. And thus President Obama has banned microbeads.

Those tiny plastic microbeads you have been rubbing on your face are now outlawed in the United States.

President Obama signed a bipartisan bill that prohibits selling and distributing products containing microbeads. The bill is intended to protect the nation’s waterways.

A microbead is any solid plastic particle that is less than 5 millimeters and is used for the purpose of exfoliating or cleansing, according to the bill.

These tiny plastic beads have become ubiquitous in hundreds of products ranging from body scrubs to toothpastes. They provide an exfoliating sensation for users and are designed to wash down drains.

But because they are made of plastic, microbeads do not dissolve and may pose a threat to the environment.

In September, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology reported that more than 8 trillion microbeads were entering the country’s aquatic habitats daily. The volume was enough to coat the surface of 300 tennis courts every day.

Of course, the overall system of introducing environmentally destructive products without approval continues every day.

Treason in Defense of Slavery Monuments Are Just So Defenseless

[ 38 ] January 13, 2016 |


While the national attention paid to Confederate nostalgia and its racist symbolism that helps convince people to shoot up historically black churches has faded with unfortunate rapidity, at least some activists are still targeting these sites for attention. In the case of a Raleigh cemetery, people have vandalized 9 Confederate monuments, primarily the graves of Confederate officers. While I’m not exactly approving of vandalism, I did think the outrage from the group running the cemetery over the vandalism a bit precious:

“Cowardly acts like this, under cover of darkness, late at night, aren’t perpetrated by decent and thoughtful citizens. To attack defenseless monuments is indefensible. There is no justification, no matter a person’s feelings, motivations or beliefs,” the cemetery group said in a press release.

Are monuments defenseless? Is this the proper language to describe a monument? And how does this language compare to the defenseless slaves these people fought, not as draftees but as Confederate officers, to continue working to death, raping, and murdering without consequence to themselves? Or what about to the African-Americans during the era of Jim Crow that these monuments and the larger Confederate nostalgia around them were intended to impart fear and white power. I mean, if we are talking about who is defenseless here, let’s at least try to put this in some kind of proper historical consequence. Is it so bad to identify these people as slaveholders for the public to see? Is that some horrible crime?

And given the people who usually are on the board of historical cemeteries, local and state historical societies, historic homes, and other historic sites, we can probably surmise that the people writing this press release support North Carolina’s current attempts to strip the franchise from black voters and also support Confederate nostalgia.

Resolve Fairy!

[ 21 ] January 13, 2016 |

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.

In the wake of the big Iranian hostage crisis brief detention, I spoke with Zack Beauchamp at Vox about reputation, toughness, and the US-Iran relationship:

What scholars have found is that when states try to send messages of strength, like these are supposed to be, other states just don’t understand them. That it’s very hard to send fine-tuned messages to other states: You’re just trying to say that you’re strong, but the other state may just think that you’re being an asshole. So to speak.

Trying to carefully calibrate a message that says, “We’re tough and resolute, but we’re not dicks,” is really hard for states to understand. There’s this incentive to lie all the time, on both sides.


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