Donald Sterling

What to make of Donald Sterling? I’d guess that, like 95%+ of people, he cares far, far more about his personal problems and ego than the state of society. He is rather bizarrely hung up on race, but that doesn’t mean he cares anything at all about white supremacy, or is trying to single-handedly bring it about. His conversation with his girlfriend should be interpreted as a conversation with a girlfriend. In other words, he doesn’t actually care that black people come to his basketball games- black people have come to his basketball games for 30 years, people have been dealing economically with ethnicities they dislike and distrust for thousands or tens of thousands of years. When he says “don’t bring these people to my games,” he means specifically that his girlfriend shouldn’t bring them to games, and he says this because he is a pathetic old man who is jealous of the men his girlfriend hangs out with, especially since, again, a lot of these guys are black and he has weird issues with black people.


All this is sad and pathetic, but has no broader importance. But the media obviously doesn’t see it that way. The media looks at race primarily as a social issue, so they assume Donald Sterling looks at it the same way. Thus, this is Important Issue news, not Celebrity Gossip news. His players and coach feel that it is necessary for their self-respect that they publicly protest and ostracize Sterling- but what exactly is it that they are protesting? How can you publicly protest a guy’s private dysfunctional relationship and internal psychological issues?


“They don’t want to play for a guy who disrespects them.” Nobody cares if the guy who pays them money respects them deep down in his heart. They mostly just care that he pays them. As long as he doesn’t publicly insult them in any way- that’s a different matter. But of course, Sterling didn’t publicly insult black people- he said offensive things privately, and his girlfriend made them public. Nevertheless, it became public. Thus, players and coach saw it as necessary for their own self-respect to pretend they were considering boycotting Game 4 and engage in various other symbolic acts (and got themselves so distracted that they might as well have gone ahead and forfeited Game 4, falling behind by 20 at the half to an inferior team. That opponent’s coach has helpfully suggested a fan boycott of Game 5 when the series returns to L.A.) It was a performance for the public, not a message to the public, let alone to Sterling himself.


But back to the media, and the bloodthirsty demands for action that the commissioner courageously fulfilled. The media are, as I have suggested above, interpreting what they see in light of their own fixations. It is always the erudite, verbose, intellectual types who do this best, as illustrated most famously by Don Quixote. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most grandiloquent expression of this particular madness, the most zealous knights errant reliving past moral glories and tilting at windmills they mistake for Bull Connor, are to be found at that thinking person’s sports website, Grantland.


There you’ll find, for instance, one Rembert Browne talking to former NBA player Wesley Morris about the deeper meaning of it all. They consider what it means for a white people to own teams of black people, and find that it reminds them of slavery. This is of course a simple bit of word play with the word “own,” but they take us into deep waters: “[O]wnership matters because it brings us back to the plantation, the second primal scene of racial conflict in this country…American sports—and especially the NBA—have almost always been about white men owning and trading mostly black men,” and so forth. (It has? Well, it certainly wasn’t before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.) Wesley Matthews felt “owned” because the owners defeated the players in labor struggles, and because of the NBA dress code for players’ press conferences.


They go on and on about “power;” poking sticks at Sterling shows that “open defiance is in the air,” though Sterling “still has the upper hand.” As anyone can see, of course, Sterling’s employees knew perfectly well that they could demonstrate their contempt for him and he couldn’t do anything about it, because he became completely powerless the moment his phone conversation was posted on TMZ. Advertiser boycotts were just sharks circling blood in the water. NBA players swallowed their defeats in labor negotiations, swallowed the “racist” dress code, because the NBA really did have leverage. No such thing here. Social machinery instantly kicked in to ruthlessly punish the views Sterling expressed, as it always does.


Commissioner Adam Silver’s announcement that he is forcing Sterling to sell the Clippers and fining him $2.5 million was merely confirmation of Sterling’s undoing. The Grantland discussion of how he “still has the upper hand” came before this happened. But, for some, this will not prove that Sterling was powerless, but that Silver is highly courageous. According to a San Jose Mercury News reporter, Silver showed himself a “hero,” willing to “stand up for what’s right.” Back at Grantland, one Zach Lowe writes “[The decision Silver faced] wasn’t a gray-area case. It wasn’t an ethical quandry.” Well, of course it wasn’t. What has ethics got to do with it? Silver doesn’t get paid tens of millions of dollars to take bold ethical stances; he gets paid to do things like solve PR problems, preferably as ruthlessly as possible, and he did.


Lowe himself even notes Silver’s response, a very revealing one, to a reporter’s question about the justice of divesting someone of a team over a private conversation that may have been illegally recorded: Silver said that, though Sterling made the remarks in private, “they are now public, and they represent his views.” Justice has nothing to do with it. The remarks “are now public,” not because Sterling made them public, but because his girlfriend made them public. It doesn’t matter. By being public, they become a PR problem, which the league has to overcome through a PR performance.


The “they represent his views” portion of his remark is also revealing. It wouldn’t matter if he never expressed or acted on his views- the fact that someone has certain feelings (specifically, that an 80 year old man has his ego threatened when his girlfriend hangs out with black guys) is something we cannot allow. It is disingenuous; the NBA isn’t institutionally equipped to serve as a Torquemada, and perhaps even the Spanish Inquisition was as much about social control as the saving of souls. Silver cares about what benefits the NBA, not the inner workings of someone’s mind. But it’s interesting that, for PR purposes, he feels it is necessary to pretend to care about such things.


Rembert Brown/Wesley Matthews echoed similar ideas: “Is Sterling just the one who got caught? You have to believe there are others who think just like him. And not just within sports, but everywhere.” But the whole problem is that he got caught! Again, if this weren’t public, there wouldn’t have been the need for all the angst and soul-searching by the players, it wouldn’t be a threat to their self-respect to play for him. Insofar as you want to turn this into a broader social issue of institutional, covert racism (and really, isn’t that the whole point) you’re hoist by your own petard. If there’s all this institutional racism, the public denunciation of overt racism is a mask and a distraction.


In my view, once Sterling’s remarks became public, he had to go. Nobody would play for him, it wouldn’t be fair to the fans, it would be a disaster for the league. Players would get drafted or traded and refuse to work for him, feeling their self-respect was at stake. But all that is only a problem because Sterling’s remarks were public. The zealous need to see him pay, the idea that it matters in some deep way, above all the self-righteous feeling that people get from denunciation, are all unhealthy.


Confirmation Bias II

I commented on the content of Ezra Klein’s piece on confirmation bias in my most recent post. But let’s consider what’s behind the piece. What would make Ezra Klein call into question the optimism about politics that is so much a part of Ezra Kleinism? Kleinism, the set of ideas that were so ascendant from c. 2006-2009, and whose adherents experienced a brief fit of renewed triumphalism in Nov. 2012 and for a few months subsequently, holds (1) that society’s problems are technical problems that an intelligently run, competent government can solve scientifically, and (2) that the public, with enough information and transparency, will get behind or even demand such technocratic government. The only thing that has prevented this hitherto were trivial divisions, created by trivial politics, not by any deeply held beliefs. If the media, and a charismatic politician, respect us enough to respond with a better kind of politics, we will respond positively; so the thinking went.
Klein is now willing to question (2), confidence in the voters being “rational” enough to bring about good government. The opening paragraphs leave open the possibility that he is willing to question (1.) He describes the “more information hypothesis” as holding that “our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all. The theory is particularly prevalent in Washington, where partisans devote enormous amounts of energy to persuading each other that there’s really a right answer to the difficult questions in American politics – and that they have it. But the more information hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards.”
But Klein really doesn’t doubt that there is really a right answer to the difficult political questions, and that technocratic thinkers like him transcend petty, partisan bubbles to find these answers; it is others who are living in an intellectual bubble, not Klein and the journolist crowd, Barack Obama, Colbert/Stewart, and so forth. He does briefly entertain the possibility, staring into the abyss of nihilism, as he puts it (“If the work of gathering evidence and reasoning through thorny, polarizing political questions is actually the process by which we trick ourselves into finding the answers we want, then what’s the right way to search for answers? How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition? How can we know the experts we’re relying on haven’t subtly biased their answers, too? How can I know that this article isn’t a form of identity protection? Kahan’s research tells us we can’t trust our own reason. How do we reason our way out of that?”) but then shrinks from this abyss to focus on the question of whether we can hope to solve the problem of confirmation bias in other people, such as Justice Scalia. Klein presents himself as more willing than Kahan to stare into the abyss only because he is more willing to confront the hopelessness of other people’s narrow-mindedness. And that is how the piece becomes an instance of confirmation bias.
Still, Klein is considering the possibility that the political pathologies standing in the way of progressive government are more deeply rooted than he probably would have once thought. Why is this? After all, Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi pushed through a $800 billion stimulus, a bit of Keynesian macroeconomic engineering that was loaded with projects designed to achieve a whole technocratic wishlist. They pushed through ObamaCare. Combined, this was a once-in-a-generation success in terms of implementing a bold agenda. Then, in 2012, Obama won reelection, behind the “coalition of the ascendent.” This should be a time when Ezra Kleinism is thoroughly vindicated.

Yet getting reelected isn’t the same thing as uniting the country around a vision. Elections happen every four years; political transformations are much rare. The 2012 election caused pundits in the center and left to forget that the grand post-political vision was a failure, but now those worries are returning.

Progressives throughout the Obama era have fluctuated between great optimism about overcoming partisanship and ideological disagreement on the one hand, and on the other hand the idea that Obama personally is horribly naïve to believe such things, that he fails to understand the depth of the nihilism of Republicans, that our political system holds us back from achieving truly great visions, and that backward impulses such as fundamentalism, racism and distrust of government are deeply rooted.* As then-Baylor quarterback and poli-sci major Robert Griffin III told Grantland in 2011, “A lot of people get into politics because they’d like to change something. I think even Barack Obama is realizing you can have all these lofty goals, and people can buy into them, but at the end of the day the system’s not changing for anybody.” Sure, this was after the Republican landslide of 2010, but again, that came only on the heels of the stimulus and ObamaCare. What more did RGIII want?

Yet this was the prevailing view on the left at the time- that somehow Republican obstructionism had blocked Obama’s agenda. At the sub-rational level, other things were making a stronger impression than the victory on ObamaCare. The economy wasn’t recovering, and that required explaining. The country was very far from embracing the progressive vision it had seemed to endorse in 2008, and that required explaining. Divisions were intensifying, and a new and more virulent form of conservative extremism was seizing the population. Republicans had taken Congress. And having done so, they really were winning negotiation with Obama. All these things had far more impact than did ObamaCare on the narrative progressives were constructing than did ObamaCare, which was that Republicans were uniquely nihilistic and Obama was far too reasonable and naïve to confront them.

And really, although their narrative made little logical sense, progressives were right to worry about the things they were worried about. If the country hadn’t really fully embraced the progressive vision, if it was still a 20% progressive, 40% conservative, 40% moderate country, they had reason to be unhappy. That means Republicans’ “intransigence” and “extremism”, and Democrats’ moderation under ordinary circumstances, has foundations in the makeup of public opinion itself. That being the case, how were they going to get Republicans to compromise and give them the revenue they so desperately need to maintain the entitlement state? If Republicans were demanding entitlement cuts in return for revenue, that would be one thing; it might even, from a moderate progressive point of view, be constructive, in helping make the entitlement state sustainable. But if they aren’t even going to do that, where does that leave things?
And what about ObamaCare? 40% intensely dislike it, 20% intensely like it. It’s true the 40% in the center forgot about it for awhile, or many of them thought it had been repealed or ruled unconstitutional. Indifference makes a path to repeal difficult, but the pattern of public opinion is still a problem for the law.
Back in 2009, Paul Krugman argued that we need government-provided care in order to control costs:
“You could rely on a health maintenance organization to make the hard choices and do the cost management, and to some extent we do. But HMOs have been highly limited in their ability to achieve cost-effectiveness because people don’t trust them — they’re profit-making institutions, and your treatment is their cost.” The implication is that people do trust government to make health decisions. Yet the subsequent five years show that they don’t- Obama tried desperately to make the case that his program wouldn’t amount to “government-run health care,” that if you liked your current plan you could keep it, not to argue that government could do a good job making decisions. And even still, people’s worries weren’t alleviated. So now we have a law designed to have government make “the hard choices,” and a public that doesn’t trust it to do so.
On top of that, the law’s perceptual legitimacy problems create difficulty for the individual mandate- people don’t feel obligated to sign up or, if they are intense opponents, they feel obligated not to sign up.
All this leaves the progressive project in a perilous state. The idea of a scientifically run government transcending partisanship and ideology to solve society’s problems has taken serious hits. People like Ezra Klein are looking for explanations.

* As I noted in a post last year, progressives’ post-2012 narrative differed from that of post-2008: the new narrative was “not that BHO’s rhetorical superiority swept away traditional politics. It was, rather, that Obama and his campaign used superior analytic ability to dominate traditional politics (and Nate Silver, their latest icon, used his to predict correctly), while Republicans’ anti-science narrow-mindedness prevented them from realizing their situation and sealed their doom.” Whereas the 2010-11 narrative had seen Obama as helpless against Republican ruthlessness, meaning progressives moral superiority was preventing them from achieving political success, after 2012 progressives’ intellectual superiority was the cause of their political success. By re-embracing partisan politics, thought, progressives had “silently narrowed their sights.”

Confirmation Bias

In a much-discussed article, Ezra Klein presents his readers with findings on confirmation bias by Dan Kahan, and the threat Klein and Kahan believe confirmation bias presents to their vision of “democratic politics enlightened by evidence,” in which “our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all,” in which “men and women of learning can solve society’s hardest problem.”  (Yuval Levin makes clear here that this is just that, their vision, and not the assumption underlying our Constitutional system.) 

Klein and Kahan see themselves as calling into question the idea that “our problem is a lack of information.”  They still assume that policy debates, in principle, have a factual solution; they just think that people’s deeper commitments prevent them from agreeing on facts. But clearly this isn’t always the case. Nobody disputed that factual economic indicators, in 2008, were going in the wrong direction, or that banks were in fact collapsing. However, progressives had deep commitments that caused them to blame this on deregulation or free market fundamentalism, while conservatives had deep commitments that caused them to blame government intervention.  Similarly, nobody doubts that after the stimulus the unemployment rate went up to 10%, but progressives’ deep commitments caused them to say that without stimulus, things would have been worse, while conservatives’ deep commitments caused them to disagree.

I’m not disputing the existence of confirmation bias.  Conservatives and liberals quite easily found information sources, facts and talking points to support their deeper commitments in the cases I mentioned above.  I only reject, again, the idea that there is, in principle, a simple right answer following directly from information.  

Klein and Kahan cling to that idea.  They see no need or possibility of engaging debates that go deeper than the information itself.  The only thing holding us back, for them, is that we either don’t access the relevant information or commit basic, demonstrable errors when dealing with information. 

Applying the idea to this instance itself, Klein/Kahan and I see the same information about confirmation bias and draw different conclusions.  For me, confirmation bias allows partisans to accumulate information and so shield themselves from discussion of debates going beneath information.  For Klein/Kahan, it prevents people from drawing conclusions that are self-evidently correct. Klein on Kahan: “‘What I’m trying to understand is really a pathology. I want to identify the dynamics that lead to these nonproductive debates.’  In fact, Kahan wants to go further than that. ‘The point of doing studies like this is to show how to fix the problem.'” 

Obviously, these are judgments Kahan chooses to draw, not ones that follow directly from the evidence. 

As Klein recognizes, his view of things leads to the danger of an intellectual dead end. 

“How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition? How can we know the experts we’re relying on haven’t subtly biased their answers, too? How can I know that this article isn’t a form of identity protection? Kahan’s research tells us we can’t trust our own reason. How do we reason our way out of that?” 

Without the ability to engage arguments that go deeper than information, we have no way in principle of getting out of our bubbles.  Your bubble might happen to be right, mine might happen to be right, there is no way of knowing.  The answer is to go inside the argument itself, not make a prior assumption that we can’t trust our reason.

For instance, one way we can tell that Klein’s article is, to an extent, an instance of identity-protecting confirmation bias is that it lumps “climate deniers” together as an opposing tribe. Is a climate denier one who believes the climate isn’t changing? One who doubts the accuracy of climate models?  One who thinks we aren’t sure about the accuracy of climate models?  One who believes the consequences of climate change are likely to be less severe than predicted?  One who believes the costs of action are likely to exceed the benefits?  One who would measure costs and benefits differently from Ezra Klein?  Klein doesn’t define”climate denier” based on particular claims or arguments that could be demonstrated false, but by membership in a group that broadly draws the “wrong” conclusions.




Versions of Gay Rights

Today’s enlightened people are intensely committed to the idea that sexual orientation is in-born, not chosen, but it isn’t immediately obvious why this should be important to their political or moral views. Perhaps it might be of academic interest figuring out the extent to which people’s preferences are genetic versus environmental, but there is on the face of it no reason to be emotionally committed to a particular view. Gay rights supporters could perfectly easily say: “human freedom is about defining who you are, creating your own meaning in life. There is no objective purpose or meaning to life and sex, or if there is, who’s to say what it is? Certainly not the state!”

Through such a rhetorical approach, gay rights supporters would make a teleologically neutral or, in everyday terms, a liberal case. Against the older teleological view of sex, which held that physical and biological realities of our bodies defined what our body parts were for, regardless of subjective desires, the liberal rhetoric would champion these very subjective desires. It would allow people to hold whatever teleological view they wanted, so long as they did not impose it; it would not demand social approval.

100 years ago, Oscar Wilde and others like him likely didn’t care very much about social approval of their sexual actions. They were more than happy to be rebels against social norms, and views of what was natural. I would guess that people at gay hangouts that were raided by the police in the 60s would have thought along similar lines.

Today, of course, things are very different. Gay people, at least in their organized, political capacity, want to be part of the mainstream. The fight for gay marriage (as opposed to civil unions) is all about having this approval state-sanctioned. Their straight allies feel the same way. Instead of being content to disregard what society sees as natural, they seek to define what is seen as natural. Instead of championing subjectivity, they emphasize that subjective desires are at bottom based on something objective, a person’s physical urges. They make these urges their standard for objective morality, replacing the older teleology with a new one rather than teleological neutrality.

Choice is thus no longer to be valued. When people say homosexuality isn’t a choice, they presumably can only back the claim if it is taken to mean “sexual preferences aren’t a choice.” But they blur the distinction between preferences, behavior and identity. Thus if someone with naturally gay preferences chooses to live a straight life, he is a traitor to himself. If the state doesn’t endorse their unions with moral sanction, it is an injustice. If an individual doesn’t endorse their union by photographing their wedding, that person must be brought into line.

As I have been suggesting, the subtle rhetorical shift from liberal moral subjectivism to a new form of conservative, objective moral claim is crucial to demands for social acceptance of gay unions as morally equivalent to male-female marriage. If sex were seen as merely something people did rather than a part of who they are, then it would be easy to take a “live and let live” approach; people could agree to disagree and leave each other alone. Seeing it as an unalterable part of a person’s identity, on the other hand, allows enlightened people to craft an analogy between gay marriage and interracial marriage, or between an economic actor’s refusal to participate in a gay wedding and businesses refusing to serve blacks.


If people can simply declare the things they do to be a part of their identity, then there is no room in principle for pluralism at all. Everyone has to accept everyone else’s actions as morally valid, or even as having deep moral significance. But of course rejections of homosexuality may be part of someone’s identity, too! If for some reason you believe that identities based on in-born, genetic preferences are in some objective sense a person’s “real” identity, while other identities are chosen and therefore less to be respected- well, for one, think of the illiberal implications of that! But it doesn’t even get the enlightened out of this difficulty- who’s to say there isn’t a genetic predisposition to homophobia?

For this reason, I don’t think anyone has a right to have other people celebrate his actions or his own view of his identity. In the case of businesses who refuse to serve black people, it is the business owner who is defining who someone is by a physical characteristic (race), treating them as inferior. The key here is that he really is communicating that they are inferior. It isn’t just that they are offended – people can be offended by anything they want to. Offense is no license, or if it were it would be an unlimited license. It isn’t that he’s insulted something they define themselves by; a black potential customer may or may not see race as key to his identity. It’s that he is himself declaring that they are inferior people. If enough businesses do this, black people are in an inferior social position.


The distinction I am making between in-born desire (objective) and personal identity (subjective) goes against what enlightened people have been taught to think of as common sense. Yet it is really only in their political capacity that they fail to make this distinction. An ABC article from 2011 tells us about flexisexuals, girls who aren’t really bisexual but like to flirt with other girls, and maybe even go beyond flirting. “This relatively new phenomenon is likely a product of a generation unconcerned with labels(!) Often, it begins in the enlightened college cocoon…” So there you have it, enlightened people in their personal life don’t think sexuality defines them. We are back to a liberal world where you don’t bind yourself with labels and identities, you just do your own thing. Similarly, according to the Daily Mail, flexisexual refers “to people who have a sexual preference but refuse to be bound by it.

Steig Larson’s heroine with the dragon tatoo in The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo sometimes slept with women but was far too edgy to identify as bisexual- she was basically heterosexual, but she was far too rebellious to let this orientation define or limit her in any way. There is still room for people who want to be really edgy and transgressive, the way Oscar Wilde was, but in the political realm the gay rights movement is no longer satisfied with this and wants to demand acceptance from the mainstream.


The hysterical reaction to things like Arizona’s effort to give religious freedom a higher legal status, and any public expression of opposition to gay marriage, rather than as just another political disagreement, stems from a need to see gay rights as analogous to civil rights for blacks. To treat their opponents as other than evil, or to leave any room for their expression would, in their minds, I suspect, be in some way devaluing who they are as people.