In memory of Christie Davies: defender of the right to joke


As we approach the end of 2017, I remember this year’s sad passing of Christie Davies. Davies was a rare academic beast: a classical liberal sociologist. Despite representing a minority perspective in his discipline, he was able to thrive and leave a mark that will continue to influence scholars for generations.

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White rappers and hip hop culture

Post Malone has been at the heart of some manufactured controversy recently. Complex and other hipster millennial outlets (x, y) have criticized his appropriation of braids, grills and slang (AAVE), as a white man who has recently made a name in hip hop.

I’m a college student in the Californian city with the highest rate of binge drinking (and a lot of partying). Just like rock n roll replaced jazz, hip hop has replaced rock as the club genre. And Post Malone is popular. I have never once heard someone complain about Post Malone in real life. The first time I heard his genre-fusing cooing was in a Mustang with my Mexican roommate and his girlfriend. I thought it was shit. He found “White Iverson” good enough to turn up the volume whenever it came on, and radio stations are notoriously abusive with new rap singles.

Last year you would see Latina and black classmates dancing to Post Malone at any of Chico’s backyard parties. No one thought he was culturally appropriating, or if they did, they didn’t care. His music sounds good to them. That’s what matters.

Post Malone has said some things in interviews and online that pissed off journalists and maybe a handful of other people with the time to be bothered. One of those things was the n-word, used once on Snapchat long ago. More recently, he stated that the modern hip hop landscape is sort of deficient in conscious rappers, rappers who will talk about “real shit,” and that “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop.” Some easily offended artists, particularly those who are listened to almost exclusively by white people — Lil B, Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples — responded angrily.

In Complex‘s piece, the author was upset with Post Malone for dumbing down the music scene. Funny. XXL, one of the largest hip hop news outlets, which runs (and endorses) a group of up-n-comers every year, had the most lyrically-inept roster in recent history for their 2017 edition: Ugly God, Madeintyo, A Boogie With A Hoodie, Playboi Carti, Kap G, then a few alrights, and a single prodigy who’s now off to prison. (Playboi Carti can’t even rap. He really can’t.) I’m sorry to inform Complex, but the focus of hip hop is about hedonism right now. That’s how it is. No one gives a damn about J. Cole after 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and Kendrick Lamar sold out on his last album.

Since gaining fame, Post Malone has worked with Quavo (of Migos) and 21 Savage. Why didn’t these artists call him out for stealing black culture? And if Post Malone is destroying the often-intelligent culture of hip hop by exclusively sampling stereotypes and gangster imagery… why does no one care that Migos and 21 Savage are doing the exact same thing? Post Malone has also worked with Kanye West, who, again, didn’t care that he is white and immersing himself in the culture. Kanye has a lot of rap clout. So if Post Malone gets Kanye’s approval, what sort of validity do the rest of us have?

Granted: racial slurs are a reasonable line to draw for white artists. But Post Malone apologized and he’s clearly not a racist. What more is there to say?

There is no standpoint epistemology that can be non-arbitrarily applied here. Many people would like to say that white fans are ruining hip hop or that hip hop has always been about criticizing white power structures or some other ahistorical, revisionist narrative. No.

Hip hop is not just a personal liberator. Hip hop is for everyone. Hip hip is a product of black culture but black culture is no monolith. The standards for hip hop change. The style changes. The message is not singular. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? Kendrick’s own personal viewpoints on the struggle for black liberation align much closer with Tupac Shakur’s — the perspective that real change must start in black communities, and any problems with the police and white authorities are secondary or tertiary. Have the organizers at BLM listened to Kendrick’s work before good kid, m.A.A.d city? Did they loop “Alright” so much from To Pimp a Butterfly that they skipped “The Blacker the Berry”?

Do these people want to pretend that all old school hip hop flowed from the mouth of Gil Scott-Heron? Have they listened to “Rapper’s Delight”? What about 2 Live Crew? “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop”: Post Malone was being provocative, clearly. But hip hop is no special fountain of consciousness and enlightenment. It’s got even more sex and drugs than does rock n roll. Travi$ Scott came on the scene just to rap about partying — and he’s still a fantastic, infinitely creative artist. We will see more and more of this, just like we always have.

To all of this, it might be replied that white people are stealing hip hop like they stole rock n roll before. But music is not zero-sum. One artist’s creation does not prevent another artist’s creation, and especially now, there is always billboard room for more. Action Bronson is, stylistically, a carbon copy of Ghostface Killah (I mean, the off-brand version). But Wu Tang’s spotlight is long gone. A new artist for a new generation is no loss for the old artist, no disrespect to Ghostface. And now, if we look to anticipate the emerging future for hip hop (à la Soundcloud etc.), the new (black-led) wave is directly sampling from historically white inputs: radio rock, nu metal, grunge. Or even East Asian anime influences.

The attacks on Post Malone and the like are part of a larger guerilla ideology. They are one aspect of the cleansing of hip hop (an outrageously politically incorrect discipline) in general. I was in a recent dispute with a female frind over the outro from a song I like, as it came on shuffle:

Well with a pimp we gotta keep pimpin to have a b–h and that’s what she yearns for. She yearns for the pimpin. And once you keep f–king with pimpin, that square is a trick. It turns it from a square to a trick. Why she gone lay with a trick? It’s the nastiest lowest form of a motherf–ker. Pimps do what they wanna do. Hoes do what they’re told. And squares does what they can. They just do what they can. You see what I’m sayin?

She thought it was misogynistic. Sure, yeah, it is. But it’s a sample from a movie and that movie is about life on the streets. And that’s what’s going on. Hip hop tells stories.

I haven’t seen “American Pimp,” from which the sample is cut. But most of us would recognize that the quote is referencing, knowingly or not, the Melian dialogue from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War from twenty four hundred years ago. It is 5th century B.C.E. and the Athenians are preparing for war against the Spartans. The Athenian army, under the direction of Cleomedes and Tisias, sends an expedition to the island Melos for conscription. The Melians, a small Spartan colony, would prefer to stay out of the conflict. In a classic statement of realist political philosophy, the Athenian representatives disregard abstract moral claims and tell the Melians, straight up: join the empire and fight for us, or be enslaved and massacred. There is only a question of morality between equals, and all that truly matters in politics is power:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

The Melians decide not to give up their freedom, and bet on the odds that they will be aided by the Lacedaemonians, asking only to be left alone. The Athenians withdraw from the conference. The next winter, they siege the Melians into surrender then slaughter all the men and sell the women and children into slavery.

The point is: hip hop can rhyme about snorting cocaine off of a stripper and then reference classical Greek literature in the same song. We don’t really get that sort of postmodern syncretism in other genres. Hip hop is a bastion of creativity and subtlety as well as vulgarity and cruelty. Let’s hope it continues to surprise and offend us.

So let Amber Rose organize Slut Walks promoting sex positivity and feminism while her boyfriend 21 Savage raps about gang bangs and punching women in the face. Rap is for everyone and thus also the scumbags. Hip hop is a free speech fest, an untouched final frontier not yet contorted into submission by the thought police. What the people want is a good 808 and an album every couple months, not another stern voice to lecture them into moral and cultural conformity.

Hip hop has always exhibited the brute political realism of Thucydides’ History. More can be learned about the realities of American government from listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony than sitting in a political science class. Its willingness to stay down and dirty is its signature trademark. So cultural appeasement and cleanliness can have everything else: it can have our vocabulary, it can have our media, it can even be enforced by government for all I care. Just keep its indelicate hands off hip hop.

What classes are worth subsidizing?

A friend of mine has a great phrase that captures what’s wrong with about 1/3 of the population. They’re “people who would make good Nazis.” These are the obedient people who are ready to follow orders without thinking without having sufficiently high standards for whose orders they’ll follow.

My question is “what can I do to help my students not fall into this category?” The trouble is that these folks aren’t drawn to intellectual arguments. I need to get them in a more visceral way. I think the answer is art. These kids need to be watching TV shows and movies/shows like Donnie Darko and The Handmaid’s Tale (tell me your favorites in the comments!). They need something that will grab them by the lapels, shake them, and shout “question authority!”

Pragmatic folks (the sort of people who are normally excited to hear what a libertarian economist has to say) would usually think that schools should focus on pragmatic things. It’s certainly a good idea for kids to leave school with some ideas about how to manage their personal finances and research important issues. But the economic justification for subsidies rarely favors such pragmatic topics. Petroleum engineers don’t need their schooling subsidized because they’ll end up getting paid enough to pay off their student loans.

I like to think of myself as a pragmatic person*, but I’m increasingly coming around to the idea that art is worth subsidizing. Even (perhaps) if that means giving money to ridiculous people who argue incoherently against freedom.

Bildergebnis für ned flanders parents

As subsidies go, art is cheap. You don’t need to build anything as complicated as a particle accelerator. You just need to grab some kid out of the nearest Starbucks and give them a few bucks to make something.

You’ll end up paying for a lot of garbage, but life is full of waste (I’d bet good money that any good project involves a good amount of unrealized potential savings that are only obvious after the fact). For that matter, you’ll almost certainly do some degree of harm. If we threw money at art departments (the way we did with STEM departments during the cold war) the money spent on Che shirts could easily fuel the western hemisphere by attaching a generator to Guevara’s spinning corpse.

And the benefits will be vague and arguable. I’m not in the business of selling bonafide snake oil; this idea isn’t a magical cure-all.

In fact, the more you try to measure the benefits, the less benefit you might get. If we could measure important but intangible things like decency and thoughtfulness, we’d already have those things. But when we try to come up with proxies for important things, those proxies quickly become bad proxies. All the more so if we try to reward people for measurable achieving our goals. Funding should be unconditional (and focused on production rather than selection) if we want to avoid funding propaganda. We almost certainly will be funding propaganda, but if humanity is really worth saving, it’s a baby/bathwater tradeoff.

I’ve just spent three paragraphs convincing you that this might be a terrible idea. But I still think the net benefits could justify the cost. Imagine some imperfect estimate of the impact and an even more imperfect measure of the value created. What will we get out of this (on average)? In a word: more. More novels, web comics, paintings, podcasts, and films.

And with more art, there’s more cream to rise to the top. The best art typically encourages thoughtfulness and empathy. This is a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach that would (at relatively low cost) saturate the public sphere with enough semi-thoughtful stuff to force usually-thoughtless people to think more clearly about the world around them.

If** we can subsidize free thought, this is how we’ll do it. And if it’s possible, it’s worth doing in a world where we clearly have too many people who would make good Nazis.

*If that was really true I’d work in a bank.

**Do I really think this would work? I’m not remotely sure. But I think it’s an idea worth discussing. I teach economics because I hope the marginal return (in terms of improving the “civic quality” of my students) is high. But it feels Sisyphusian at times, and some students are clearly not ready to get it. I worry that they’ll go out into the world ready to follow any maniac’s orders. In terms of the stability of a free and peaceful society, doing something about those people seems important.

Words on the Move

I just listened to a recent(ish) episode of Econ Talk: John McWhorter on the Evolution of Language and Words on the Move.

I particularly enjoyed this episode because:

  1. Emergent order (duh!).
  2. It shed new light (for me) on a category of words that serve a function but don’t really mean anything. “Well” doesn’t really mean anything. Well, sometimes it means a hole filled with water, but in this sentence I’m using it as a “pragmatic.” Other pragmatics like eh, and huh feel like filler, but they’re really a part of oral communication where the speaker can casually and non-disruptively check in with the listener. Pretty cool, huh?
  3. And the discussion of accents was interesting in light of an experience I had just the other day. I’ll get to that at the bottom, but let me set the stage…

I’ve been particularly aware of my own accent since a young age because kids have always been quick to point out how different I’ve always sounded. At around age 7 I moved from the prairies to southern Ontario and I remember some kid asking me if I was British. They might have been picking up on regional variation in the Canadian accent, or it might be that my accent was affected by the movies and TV shows I had watched to that point (I suspect watching Monty Python at a young age deeply affected me).

Later (aged 17) I moved from Canada to Texas where I worked very hard to ditch my Canadian accent and gain some Southern drawl. When I moved to California I kept trying to lose the Canadian parts of my accent but gave up on trying to gain the drawl. When I moved to Boston I picked up some affectations that now makes me stand out on Long Island. I drink kahfee instead of quofee, but since I never did like the mwahll, my pronunciation of “mall” is probably the slightly-off version I would have picked up in my youth.

The other day I was talking to a student and noticed something especially bizarre–as our conversation moved from seafood (note to self: soak calamari in buttermilk for 3 days) to boar hunting I found myself involuntarily moving back into my Texas voice! (You’ve probably already guessed that this was an econometrics student.) I have zero experience with hunting, but I had to suppress this reflexive change in my accent. Somehow, all the automatic processes in my brain have lined up in such a way that made it clear that not only do I have a lot of tacit knowledge, but I even have unseen triggers for how I communicate.

Is it Thanksgiving without the turkey?

I was recently talking to a friend about Thanksgiving dinner. He was complaining about the difficulty of cooking turkey and asked how my household dealt with the issue. My response? We just serve chicken instead. It’s cheaper, easier to make, and frankly turkey isn’t significantly better.

That begs the question though: can you have Thanksgiving without the turkey? What makes Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving? Being around loved ones is necessary, but not sufficient. We’re, presumably, around loved ones for most holidays. What distinguishes today from other days?

I think it’s the pumpkin pie, but what about my fellow note writers?


Why Immigrants Are Superior

I am endlessly interested in issues of emigration/immigration. In part, this is because it’s the place where my personal experience, and my wife’s, intersect with my training and with my professional life as a sociologist. There is a deeper reason I try to explain below a little circuitously; bear with me.

I think that how humans form into groups is the central question about our species. The question arises because every adult individual without exception is simultaneously a member of several groups and categories. Thus, I am a husband (member of a very small group, at least under monogamous conditions), a member of the sociological discipline/ profession, a member of the teaching professions broadly defined (but never an “educator”!), a small-time member of a local radio station (KSCO Santa Cruz, 1080AM), a Republican but nevertheless, a libertarian (with a small “l”), and an American. Yet, as a former Frenchman I am also a member, though somewhat passive, of a culture group, roughly the francophone group.

All the above memberships are in groups. I also belong to several categories that don’t qualify as groups because they never meet and because they have little sense of themselves as belonging together. So, I am a male (decidedly so), a moderately overweight person past middle age (but athletic!), a parent, a tax-payer, and I also belong to the secret, vast, worldwide category of humans who lack hair on the second phalanx of their index finger. In America, I am also a white man. The latter category is a little problematic because it’s ill-defined, like all matters that have to do with race. It means that most Americans on looking at me would guess, probably correctly, that all or most of my ancestors lived in Europe ten thousand years ago. Do the count of your own memberships for yourself and you will be amazed.

Memberships are not all equal, especially at a given time. Some memberships become activated while others lie dormant. Individuals activate one membership over the others depending on circumstances and often, depending on their stage in the life cycle. The presence of others frequently triggers the activation of long-dormant membership, as when a thirty-something bumps into a couple of old high-school buddies. Finally, sometimes, individuals are forced to activate one membership to the near-exclusion of others. This happens most often in connection with the nation and religious denominations, including secular religions such as Communism in the old days. The penultimate sentence is a description of totalitarianism, political, religious, and other. It’s the most parsimonious definition I know.

Emigration matters because every act of emigration implies a reasonably conscious decision to de-activate a group membership that is salient in much, but not in all, the world: nationality. Emigrants may not be completely clear about how definitive their decision to move is but they always know that it entails an abrupt shutting off of whatever comfort one derives from being inside that particular group.

Emigration, immigration, after one begins to live in another country, typically remains emotionally costly for a long time. Besides, frequently, distance from others one loves, there are subtle issues of self-worth I cannot discuss here (but that I will discuss at some future time, especially if asked). In the classical age of worldwide, and American, emigration, it tended to be final. Travel was slow and expensive. If you did not like it in the new place, often, you just had to suck it up. (This is broadly true although turn-of-the-century American records show that surprising numbers of recent European immigrants left the US every year.) Today, the extraordinarily low cost of air travel means that nearly every dissatisfied immigrant may go home. In 2009, there were very few parts of the world for which a one-way ticket cost more than a thousand dollars. That would be under seven weeks worth of after-taxes minimum wage at worst. Tickets from the US to Europe, for example cost less than one third that amount off-season. In the same year, the average US wage was about $20 per hour. Estimating deductions of 25%, the net hourly wage was thus around $15. Hence, there were few if any parts of the world that could not be reached at the cost of net savings amounting to 70 hours of average wages (less than two weeks).

For emigrants to contiguous countries or proximate countries, such as Turks to Germany, Romanians to France, or Mexicans to the US, the option of going home is even more open, of course.

What I am trying to establish here is that emigration is normally a doubly voluntary act. Immigrants first volunteer to be in the country of immigration. Then, they keep volunteering by not taking up the option of moving back home, of re-emigrating.

Two things should follow from this volunteer condition: First, if they don’t like the country to which they have moved, immigrants have no one to blame but themselves. I know I am repeating myself but the imagery is so attractive, I can’t resist: If you come to the party, especially if you come uninvited (99% of immigrants, I would guess), don’t criticize the food, or the interior decoration, or the guests’ intellectual level.

Although there is a widespread impression to the contrary, it seems to me that few immigrants break this simple rule of their own accord. Rather, more commonly, they fall under the sway of political organizations who presume to speak on their behalf. These organizations are often political in nature. They seek to exploit the voting power of people unfamiliar with the national political customs. It’s in their interest to create and inflame feelings of deprivation. Moreover, since immigrants more often than not enter the host social structure near the bottom, they are frequently taken over by labor unions who do the same. In the US, specifically, recent immigrants are sometimes annexed by radical organizations with a long history of America-hatred. These influences confuse some immigrants, putting them in mental contradiction with their own choices. They do a great deal of damage by retarding immigrants’ emotional integration into American society. Note that I refer to integration rather than to “assimilation,” a cultural construct. Societies differ in the extent to which they expect immigrants to fit into the national culture, Canada little, France a great deal, with the US somewhere between the two.

Finally, organizations led by native-born who pretend to speak for immigrants also do the latter a great deal of harm by creating false impressions in the general public. The main false impression is that immigrants are more difficult to integrate than they really are. In the US, you seldom hear about the millions of immigrants who think that everything is just peachy or better.

The second consequence from the voluntary nature of the status of immigrants is seldom discussed: Immigrants make better citizens than the average native-born. Over 90% of Americans, for example, only took the trouble to be born in the right country. That’s akin to choosing your parents carefully. There is not much merit in it, first because it just happened. Secondly, most native-born citizens of any country would not have enough information to choose the land of their birth over others if the thought crossed their minds. Here again, the exception proves (“tests”) the rule: It’s possible to make such a choice since millions do, by emigrating, precisely. This would include the tens of thousands of Americans who live abroad more or less permanently.

Immigrants, by contrast, choose and keep choosing merely by staying put. Their choice is deliberate, conscious and informed. Their appreciation for the country of their immigration is a form of adult love. It should be superior to the baby-love of many of the native-born who only know one mother. If I were still a scholar, I would have a topic for a good study here. I would begin to endeavor to find data to test what is now a compelling hypothesis. But I am not, so it will remain this as far as I am concerned.

Immigrants into the US, specifically, possess superior qualities, whatever their national origin. First, they are usually hard workers, because this country offers some of the least generous social benefits (“welfare”) in the developed world. To sponge off “the system” in this country takes a great deal of skill. (A pregnant idea but I won’t go there in this essay.) Immigrants into this country must also comprise a large proportion of enterprising people, for the same reason. (There, I think data exist that demonstrate the validity of this claim.) Moreover, immigrants into the US have to be more adventurous, braver, than the native-born, on average. To change one’s living conditions drastically takes more courage, more tolerance of risk, and more imagination than moving to the next suburb.

I believe, accordingly, that American exceptionalism is rooted in exceptional institutions but that it is fertilized by wave after wave of immigration of a superior kind.

The following link will take you to an article about illegal immigration specifically that I published in the Independent Review with Russian immigrant Sergey Nikiforov: “If Mexicans and Americans could Cross the Border…“.

“The Impossibility of a University”

I was just reading David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. He published the first edition in 1973. Amidst the wild ride of the contemporary American university (Evergreen State College being the most heinous single episode), one passage seems especially prescient.

From chapter twelve in the third edition:

The modern corporate university, public or private, contains an implicit contradiction: it cannot take positions, but it must take positions [sides]. The second makes the demand for a responsible university appealing, intellectually as well as emotionally. The first makes not merely the acceptance of that demand but its very consideration something fundamentally subversive of the university’s proper ends.

It cannot take positions because if it does, the efforts of its members will be diverted from the search for truth to the attempt to control the decision-making process. If it takes a public position on an important matter of controversy, those on each side of the controversy will be tempted to try to keep out new faculty members who hold the other position, in order to be sure that the university makes what they consider the right decision. To hire an incompetent supporter of the other side would be undesirable; to hire a competent one, who might persuade enough faculty members to reverse the university’s stand, catastrophic. Departments in a university that reaches corporate decisions in important matters will tend to become groups of true believers, closed to all who do not share the proper orthodoxy. They so forfeit one of the principal tools in the pursuit of truth — intellectual conflict.

A university must take positions. It is a large corporation with expenditures of tens of millions of dollars and an endowment of hundreds of millions. It must act, and to act it must decide what is true. What causes high crime rates? Should it protect its members by hiring university police or by spending money on neighborhood relations or community organizing? What effect will certain fiscal policies have on the stock market, and thus the university’s endowment? Should the university argue for them? These are issues of professional controversy within the academic community.

A university may proclaim its neutrality, but neutrality as the left quite properly argues, is also a position. If one believes that the election of Ronald Reagan or Teddy Kennedy would be a national tragedy, a tragedy in particular for the university, how can one justify letting the university, with its vast resources of wealth and influence, remain neutral?

The best possible solution within the present university structure has been not neutrality but the ignorance or impotence of the university community. As long as students and faculty do not know that the university is bribing politicians, investing in countries with dictatorial regimes, or whatever, and as long as they have no way of influencing the university’s actions, those acts will not hinder the university in its proper function of pursuing truth, however much good or damage they may do in the outside world. Once the university community realizes that the university does, or can, take actions substantially affecting the outside world and that students and faculty can influence those actions, the game is up.

There is no satisfactory solution to this dilemma within the structure of the present corporate university. In most of the better universities, the faculty has ultimate control. A university run from the outside, by a state government or a self-perpetuating board of trustees, has its own problems. A university can pretend to make no decisions or can pretend that the faculty has no control over them, for a while. Eventually someone will point out exactly what the emperor is wearing.

With an activist culture in place, the university endures more and more blows to its truth-seeking abilities. UC Berkeley spent an estimated $600,000 on security for Ben Shapiro a couple months ago, after the chaos and protests of the past year. Staff cut seating in half, worried that protesters would dismantle chairs and throw them onto the audience on the bottom floor. Now, so I hear, student clubs are having difficulty hosting evening meetings on campus, as the administration makes up for the expenses by cutting down on electricity usage and janitorial services. Club stipends, of course, are down. All of this damages the educational environment.

My friends went to see Ben, and watched a woman with a “Support the First Amendment! Shalom Shapiro!” sign get dragged into a crowd and beat up. (Not reported by major media; falsely reported as a knifing by right-wing media.) David identified the internal problem of the corporate university, which I believe we see escalating; the external problem is when outsiders — most of the violent rioters in Berkeley since the beginning of 2017 — understand the political power of the university and the speech that goes on there, and seek to control the process of intellectual conflict through physical force. Both are advanced in accordance with the political involvement of the students as well as the teachers.