Monday, June 30, 2008

Smear Emails and the Cult of the Amateur Researcher

I'm both excited and cautious about the participatory potential of the web. The easy accessibility of data makes it possible for anyone to become a researcher. While lowering the transaction costs to information is incredibly exciting, it is also unpredictable. The Washington Post has an article today about Princeton Professor Danielle Allen's attempts to trace the source of the various Obama smear e-mails that have circulated during the presidential campaign. Allen tracked down one of the threads to a 69 year-old retired software engineer who created a massive anti-Obama website because he "doesn't play golf."

What strikes me is the extent to which these potential initiators take on the role of researcher. Form the article:
he built a Web site that features hundreds of pages of material intended to undermine Obama. "If 20 percent of what's on my Web site is true, this guy is a clear and present danger," Beckwith said. (He later added, "I try very hard to be accurate.") But while Beckwith speaks with pride about his research -- much of which he credits to an unnamed "colleague" in Europe -- and to his extensive Obama files, he rejects outright the suggestion that he authored the chain e-mail. "I've never been involved with any
e-mailings. Period," he said.

What drives people to take on the authoritative role of public knowledge creator? Especially when one gets little public recognition for the effort. This identity of "researcher" or "investigator" is powerful if you believe you are uncovering a unexamined and potentially critical truth. In these cases it seems that this impulse is combined with large amounts of "slack resources" in the form of time. This is the main problem Andrew Keen has with participatory culture. It takes a good amount of narcissism (and free time) to take on the role of "citizen protecting America from a "Manchurian Muslim candidate."

But more importantly, what does this all mean for politics going forward? Allen is dead on in her analysis of the smear e-mail phenomenon:
A first group of people published articles that created the basis for the attack. A second group recirculated the claims from those articles without ever having been asked to do so. "No one coordinates the roles," Allen said. Instead the participants swim toward their goal like a school of fish -- moving on their own, but also in unison.
What are the implication of this type of "wildfire" politics? it doesn't take much to influence low information voters. Can an uncoordinated response be addressed by a coordinated campaign like the Obama campaign is currently attempting? I'm skeptical that any intentional effort can stop this type of uncoordinated effort. It might be the perfect storm of elements has combined to make Obama president, but this is a curious side battle he has to wage.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Racial Satire on the Web

The state of racial commentary in comedy on television is dire. But, the web is a treasure trove of great racial satire. The mother of all race satire sites is called Black People Love Us. This site is purportedly run by a progressive, up-scale, white couple, who seeks to proclaim to the world their cosmopolitan status. It's a great commentary on the tendency to confuse paternalism for acceptance. The comments section on this website is particularly fascinating. I don't know where they got these actors, but I'd love to see them in a sitcom!

Another cool side I've come across is Stuff White People Like. Where's the "Stuff Latinos Like"?

BTW....this is the best hip-hop track I've heard in a long time.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Whiter the County, the Weaker the Love

Here's an interesting challenge to the growing view in social science that racial proximity decreases social capital and lowers support for race-based policies. In a good Colorlines article about anti Affirmative-Action initiatives that will appear on a number of state ballots in the fall, the author reports on demographic voting data from Michigan's 2006 Civil Rights Initiative:
Statewide, Michigan is about 78 percent white, 14 percent Black, 4 percent Latino and 2 percent Asian, with most people of color concentrated in a handful of urban areas. For example, while Wayne County, home of Detroit, is less than 50 percent white, a handful of other counties are nearly 98 percent white. Wayne County was one of only three counties where a majority voted against Proposal 2. The other two, Washtenaw and Ingham, include the state’s two largest universities and have among the state’s most diverse communities. In general, across the rest of Michigan, the whiter the county, the higher the support for the ban.
Interestingly, support for the anti-Affirmative Action measure was not correlated with county unemployment rates, a proxy for income levels.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Top Ten Public Intellectuals all Muslim

I'm interested in the impact the Web has on the promotion of in-group ties? Does access to everything make us more cosmopolitan or does it bind us closer to our reference groups? Here's one argument for viewing things contextually. The process by which Foreign Policy created their list of the top 100 intellectuals reveals a strong desire on the part of many educated Muslims to have public intellectuals that share their faith tradition be recognized as influential. Here's a brief description of Foreign Policy's methodology:

No one spread the word as effectively as the man who tops the list. In early May, the Top 100 list was mentioned on the front page of Zaman, a Turkish daily newspaper closely aligned with Islamic scholar Fethullah G├╝len. Within hours, votes in his favor began to pour in. His supporters—typically educated, upwardly mobile Muslims—were eager to cast ballots not only for their champion but for other Muslims in the Top 100. Thanks to this groundswell, the top 10 public intellectuals in this year’s reader poll are all Muslim. The ideas for which they are known, particularly concerning Islam, differ significantly. It’s clear that, in this case, identity politics carried the day.

It seems clear to me that the Web, in this case Foreign Policy's online poll, taps into the need of a certain subset of a entho-religious group to re-frame the way they are perceived by "the rest" of the world community. Then again, educated, upwardly mobile Muslims might just, on average, be more avid readers of Foreign Policy?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


The latest issue of the Journal of Urban affairs has an article by David Imbroscio arguing against what he calls the dispersal consensus in low-income housing policy. The intent of this set of policies is to spread out the urban poor into middle-class suburban neighborhoods.

I haven't yet read the article, but it makes sense that the heterogeneity created by a dispersal policy might create some problems. An interesting set of case studies are the Paris suburbs. The article, references French Sociologist Loic Wacquant's work on, what he calls, anti-ghettos or heterogeneous places that work to reduce the solidarity fostered by ethnic enclaves. Here's a telling passage from the article discussing anti-ghettos:
the layout of the French suburbs (hinders neighbourly and community relationships that could, for example, encourage religions to develop. They are designed in a way that makes it difficult for immigrant workers to mix and to enjoy leisure time, encouraging them to save in order to become future homeowners.
The recent discussions about suburban poverty suggests that perhaps an anti-ghettoing is occurring in the U.S. as well. I'd be interested in knowing how and why do integrating suburbs avoid this anti-ghettoing process. How do dispersal policies help to ameliorate the loss of bonding social capital that is bound to occur?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thoughts on Putnam's Hunkering Thesis

James Q. Wilson's piece in Commentary brings up an interesting point regarding Robert Putnam's recent work on the relationship between diversity and social capital. In his useful essay, he refutes Putnam's recent argument in the June 2007 issue of Scandinavian Political Studies that diversity's beneficial traits in the military, religious and athletic institutions also apply to neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, however, the pertinence of the military, religious, or athletic model to life in neighborhoods is very slight. In those three institutions, authority and discipline can break down native hostilities or force them underground. Military leaders proclaim that bigotry will not be tolerated, and they mean it; preachers invoke the word of God to drive home the lesson that prejudice is a sin; sports teams (as with the old Brooklyn Dodgers) point out that anyone who does not want to play with a black or a Jew is free to seek employment elsewhere.

But what authority or discipline can anyone bring to neighborhoods? They are places where people choose to live, out of either opportunity or necessity. Walk the heterogeneous streets of Chicago or Los Angeles and you will learn about organized gangs and other social risks. Nor are these confined to poor areas: Venice, a small neighborhood in Los Angeles where several movie stars live and many homes sell for well over $1 million, is also a place where, in the Oakwood area, the Shoreline Crips and the V-13 gangs operate.
I agree with Wilson that neighborhoods provide a more vexing challenge that other organizations. But too often, this becomes the end point of the conversation on diversity and neighborhoods. It starts from the baseline assumption that human nature tends towards homophily (the tendency to stick to one's own) and no amount of social policy can change it. But we wouldn't accept this line of reasoning for a whole host of issues. It is my four year old's nature to want five scoops of ice cream instead of one, but we as a society expect her to be socialized out of that innate desire by the time she reaches adulthood.

Wilson has a point in his essay that the state's efforts to create an integrated society comes with unintended consequences. Social ruptures tend to follow explicit interventionby gove rnment to force groups from different racial, income and/or ethnic groups to share collective goods. The phenomenon of white flight in the 1970's was accelerated by court ordered desegregation. Individuals are resilient and entrepreneurial in their efforts to carve out the type of existence they want. For large majorities of people, what they want is to live with others like them.

This is not just racial. People pay for security. I live in the suburbs partly because I know that odds are my daughter will grow up free from fear, in a reasonably good school system, with clean air and water. The fact that others want for these goods is an issue of concern for me, even an
area of academic study, but when pressed, I can always fall back on the common refrain "I have to look out for my family."

But I don't accept the "either or" proposition that either places are safe and homogeneous or dangerous and diverse. At the risk of sounding like a bad parent, I would be willing to give some ground on safety and education for my child to get some diversity in return. Partly because of the growing literature on diversity that extols its virtues in a number of settings (the military, the workplace, the university, etc.)

Social capital scholars should be looking for communities that have both reasonably high levels of racial, ethnic and class based integration and positive social indicators (low dropouts, low crime rates, etc.). Even if true that hunkering is the default, we should not be content with describing the reality in this instance. We should be using the tools of social science to identify instances where hunkering is overcome. I laid out a methodological agenda for doing this at a paper I presented at the 2008 Western Political Science Association Conference this past year.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mature Citizen Index

The Kiplinger finance web site just released its "best places to live" list for 2008. These types of lists look at conventional measures like housing affordability, amenities, crime rates, etc. These are logical choices for constructing an index of livability. theirs is no different than the dozens of "best places" indexes that come out every year. But should we be looking at places less as consumer choices and more as places to nurture and develop our character?

Richard Florida has created a cottage industry out of the idea of creative cities. A better word for these cities might be controlled chaos cities. Cities that succeed at attracting knowledge workers are those that are generally able to maintain a sense of playfulness and creativity while eliminating the less savory aspects of difference. I was at the Solstice parade in Santa Barbara this past weekend and struck by the balance maintained between colorful zaniness and complete order. The parade had all of the trappings of sixties rebellion and dissent, but little of the danger and uncertainty that accompanied those movements.

This is a victory for the city of Santa Barbara. Cities realizes that escapism and play is essential to the human condition. Critical to that sense of play is difference, novelty, uniqueness. Being able to play that out in public spaces with throngs of others is good for places that want to stay competitive and is good for the soul too. That sense of play, becomes threatened by any encroachment of despair so cities try desperately to keep much of that despair out.

It would be interested to, instead of having a livability, or best places to live, index. There was something of a "mature citizen" index that tried to examine the extent to which a city's residents engage with diversity to its fullest extent. Where are the places that are most likley to encourage the creation of mature human beings?

Flyvbjerg (2007) makes the case that social science should be engaged in the practice of helping citizens develop phronesis, the Aristotelian term for wisdom. Flyvbjerg argues that this widsom only comes from individual engagement in a varying range of situations. Individuals who have acquired a high level of phronesis are able to act appropriately in a wide range of situations. He likens it to the musical virtuoso knows when to apply the rules and when to be flexible enough to work outside of the rules. This to me is the central case for diversity. Only through heterogeneity of experience is someone able to engage this.

Any ideas on creating a "moral cities" index?