Letters

Must Love Dogmas

Dear Editors,

Your liberal fangs are showing.

I just got around to reading “The Intellectual Situation” in Issue 13, and I was appalled by the lack of criticism of one of Occupy Wall Street’s great failings: its nationalism.

Count me as one of the arrestees on the Brooklyn Bridge last October. Also count me as a self-described revolutionary communist (i.e. Leninist-Trotskyist) who absolutely detests the currents of nationalism that I’ve found to run through nearly every OWS demonstration I’ve been to. There are American flags, appeals to patriotism, loud pronouncements on why we should love “our” country—all in spite of the fact that it is US capitalism that is wrecking the world.

While the instincts driving many of Occupy’s supporters may be laudable, the fact is that it is not a progressive movement when the permeating idea is that capitalism can and should be reformed to be more amenable to the middle and working classes. It is still much further from true progressivism when appeals to some patriotic ideal are thrown around without much thought to the immense destruction throughout the world that nationalism has only ever provoked.

Dear Editors, Your liberal fangs are showing.

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I still read the whole article, albeit with a disgust that is normally only motivated by lesser articles in, say, the New York Times and Harper’s. I hope that in the future you will at least resume lip service to Trotsky, and thereby provide at least a superficially more insightful analysis of which political movements work, which don’t, and why.

— Patrick Tolle

Raze the Prisons

Dear Editors,

We are happy to see the increased attention to mass incarceration in recent months. Articles like “Raise the Crime Rate” and the success of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow show that abolition might not be such an esoteric position. The premise of abolition and a critical position toward mass incarceration, however, should be clarified.

Glazek’s article has the unfortunate effect of making Angela Davis sound like the only abolitionist around. While she has been central in the formation of organizations like Critical Resistance, abolitionism is made up of a broad coalition of people and has been invigorated by the work of activist–scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore. While we assume that the work of abolitionist scholars has informed Glazek’s article, not recognizing them could give the impression that contemporary abolitionism is so fringe as to be irrelevant.

Glazek himself identifies as an abolitionist and we salute him. But we have concerns about Glazek’s argument about the movement of crime. Which communities are prisons making safer? While communities where partners and friends are not predominantly sent to prison might feel safer since the explosion of mass incarceration, there is substantive scholarship that argues that the same is not true for neighborhoods more directly impacted by mass incarceration. Todd Clear has argued that the effect of mass incarceration on neighborhoods of color is the “addition” of crime by the “subtraction” of its inhabitants. This is because crime is social, not individual, which means that a system of crime was in place when the person was incarcerated; removing the individual does not remove the problem. Further, the cumulative effects of mass incarceration on a neighborhood, including stress and financial instability, produce more crime in that neighborhood.

In saying “we” just need to accept a bit more violent crime, Glazek’s article suggests that abolitionists’ goal is simply to open all the prison doors. While they do want to abolish prisons, abolitionists also call for a stronger social safety net. They call for a better education system, one that helps students become creative, confident thinkers and actors rather than rankings that determine their teachers’ job security. They call for single-payer health care, so that when people get sick, their families can afford medicine. They call, most importantly, for a more equitable economy, where everyone can engage in work they find productive and satisfying, rather than one with little to no job security, especially for people of color. In relation to the article’s provocative title, it is even more important to see that abolitionists believe investment in the social safety net prevents crime, both before the first conviction and after people are released back into their neighborhoods.

Glazek’s argument insinuates that some people are inherently criminal, and “we” should tolerate the increased insecurity of having them closer to “us.” We should remember, as we work toward abolition, that people cannot be so neatly categorized. “We” are the noncriminal. The criminal, too, is “us.”

— Alex Chambers and Dana Logan

Dear Editors,

I found “Raise the Crime Rate” to be a sobering assessment of the price we’re willing to have others pay for our safety. Unfortunately, in making his argument, Glazek perpetuates two myths about the prison system that have helped fuel the growth of prisons in America. The first, that prisons reduce crime, is hotly contested by social scientists. The second, that prisons provide economic benefits for their rural communities, primarily in the form of jobs and census numbers, overlooks their many negative effects on those communities.

A 2004 study countered the assumption that prisons benefit rural economies, stating that “prisons impede growth in rural counties that were already growing slowly.” And an analysis of the New York prison system’s effects on small towns found that “small towns that acquired a new state prison in the 1990s experienced higher poverty levels, higher unemployment rates, fewer total jobs, lower household wages, fewer housing units, and lower median value of housing units in 2000 . . . than towns without a new state prison.”

Glazek asserts that rural communities “benefit most of all” from the correctional system, likening them to southern plantation masters and their collaborators. A more accurate analogy would be to the leaders of coal mining towns, who have accepted an industry that will almost certainly negatively impact their communities in order to secure some meager economic gains. But rural communities and landowners have worked to keep out developments as diverse as landfills, hydrofracking, residential construction, and windmills, and they may yet turn out to be effective at slowing the growth of the correctional system. When opponents of the prison system perpetuate the myth of prisons benefiting rural communities, they are keeping many potential activists from joining their cause.

— Jason Hinkley

What’s Going on Here?

Dear Editors,

I noticed that you printed a translation of Kirill Medvedev’s fascinating essay on Dmitri Kuzmin and his project. I also noticed that there are some significant differences between the translation and the original, most strikingly for me in the parts about postmodernism and post-postmodernist alternatives (pages 47–48 in your issue).

My question is directed toward the translators, Keith Gessen and Cory Merrill: Were these changes made or approved by Kirill Medvedev? Or have they been made without his knowledge to “adapt” his essay for English readers? Or were they added by the translators (indeed some of the additions are quite poetic and memorably aphoristic) in order to help promote Medvedev to the admittedly limited audience of potential American readers with a certain worldview? What exactly is going on here?

— Bill Leidy

Keith Gessen and Cory Merrill respond:

You’re absolutely right. In the process of translating the essay we added a fair amount of context. Where Medvedev made reference to the poets Lvovsky, Bykov, and Kuzmin, knowing that his readers were familiar with their work, or at least knew where to find it (Russian poetry, much more than American poetry, is easily available online, thanks in no small part to Kuzmin), we translated some samples of that poetry and explained a little where it was coming from. There were also some things that remained implicit or unsaid in the Russian that we went ahead and spelled out. In these cases we acted more as editors than as translators, though the goal was the same: to bring into English some of the insight and excitement that we had found in this essay, and in Kirill’s critique of the Russian literary scene (which has such provocative parallels to our own). You read something in another language and think it’s amazing and mind-blowing; ultimately you should stop at nothing to try and get that across. We did however show all the changes to Kirill, who approved them.

Go to School

Dear Editors,

I felt compelled to write about Astra Taylor’s “Unschooling,” particularly after reading her response to Dana Goldstein’s critique [Slate, February 16; n+1 website, February 22]. Taylor writes in her follow-up that “one of the virtues of unschooling, and of the radical philosophy that underpins it, is that it calls the entire hierarchy into question.” Americans are free to unschool their children, but the conceit that it’s somehow noble or maverick to do so is worrisome. Questioning a hierarchy by washing one’s hands of it does not seem very virtuous to me.

Taylor criticizes public schools for tracking and sorting children by race and class, then presents self-education in the home as an alternative to this kind of segregation, rather than the apotheosis of it. She flippantly reduces the experience of public schooling—the experience of 70 percent of American children—to the aesthetics of its classrooms (“cinder block holding cells”) and the conformism of students’ taste in clothing (at public school, she suddenly became aware that she didn’t have Keds). That Taylor’s own awareness of social inequality was clearly informed much more by her time within the schools than her time at home goes unacknowledged. This is what pains me the most about the essay: going to public school is an experience of being around people who come from all kinds of backgrounds, one in we relinquish significant control over the company we keep, and in n+1 this was uncritically presented as an experience that makes us become complacent and boring, rather than more conscious, critical, and aware of the world and its problems.

The high school my brother and I attended, Minneapolis South, had about 2,000 students. Designed in the 1970s to be “riot proof,” it was structurally unbreakable, a windowless tomb with all the aesthetic appeal of a bomb shelter. In the short days of a Minnesota winter, we would frequently go entire days without seeing the sun. There were cops on staff, ID checks, metal detectors at school dances, and schedules regulated by a loud beeping that passed for a school bell. The school was overcrowded, fistfights were frequent, and you would get in trouble for being out in the hall during class. Demographically, white students were the biggest racial group, but students of color made up an overall majority. Viewed from the balcony overlooking the cavernous “commons,” the central pit where we ate lunch at folding tables lit by halogen lights, the general impression would have been one of racial segregation and institutional oppression, probably not unlike Taylor’s high school. That beneath this there was a good deal of mixing and an intellectually vibrant if contentious community is testament to the commitment of reform-minded people like Taylor to the promise of public schooling.

The school had a number of programs that began, I think, as a rationale for mixing up kids outside their neighborhoods, which in Minneapolis, like a lot of cities, were pretty segregated. So I had a socially engineered forty-five-minute bus ride from my neighborhood to the neighborhood where my school was. At that time, in the mid- to late ’90s, South had a liberal arts magnet, something called “comprehensive,” for kids who lived in the neighborhood and had not opted for a particular program; All Nations American Indian, for kids of Native American descent who wanted an education that acknowledged their heritage (the school was a few blocks from where the American Indian Movement had begun); and the Open program, which my brother and I were in, the legacy of a movement in the ’70s in which Taylor would recognize some elements of the Free School movement. Within these structures there were additional classes offered for English-language learners, teen parents, and students with disabilities. Some classes were segregated by program and some were for those who knew they wanted to go to college, but a lot of them, particularly in the first years of high school, were mixed, as we were in the physical space of the building.

All this meant was that from the moment I stepped on the bus each day, I was conscious of my race and my neighborhood and the way I spoke English, in a way that did not happen much in Minneapolis and almost never happens to me now. It wasn’t like everyone was pals, but on an almost daily basis something would happen that would provoke me to contemplate other people’s ideas—on the day of the Million Man March, for example, the bus was almost empty. This made me think about race constantly, and by my sophomore year I had stopped reading young adult novels by Madeleine L’Engle and started reading Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn, Frantz Fanon, and James Baldwin. When I ended up in an interracial relationship I thought about everything even harder. Our high school pushed the multicultural dream so hard it was almost a parody—at graduation we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the Ojibwe drum and dance team performed. Other people have written about the unique experience of being in such a community, which seems to be pro forma for kids in integrated schools, however segregated those schools might be internally (see Kent Russell’s discussion of his public high school and racial identity in “American Juggalo” [Issue 12] or John Jeremiah Sullivan’s discussion of his public school education and class identity in Pulphead).

At our school there were Christian kids praying around a flag pole, anarchist crust punks riding tall bikes, and ROTC kids at the military recruiting table; there were white kids in hunting jackets and straight-edge vegans and physics nerds and Scandinavian kids named Finn, Leif, and Kirsten on the cross-country skiing team; there were pregnant teenagers, Five Percenters, Somali immigrants, LGBT activists, ravers, nascent drug addicts, Hmong breakdancers, and even the rare Republican. I have stereotypical “inner-city school” anecdotes about seeing a guy show a girl some crack on a school bus, and having a ten-minute conversation with a girl so high and reeking of marijuana she could barely stand up, but who then couldn’t sit in a particular way, she said, because she was pregnant. There was the girl who sat in front of me in the assigned seating arrangement of a class called “World Studies” who didn’t come to school one Monday because she had been killed by a stray bullet over the weekend.

None of this changed the fact that I was a white, middle-class person with all the entitlements I had been granted at birth, but had I simply stayed home with my liberal, well-meaning parents I doubt I would have even thought about people like my classmates. And when, like Taylor, I landed at Brown a few years later, I felt that most of my peers, who had been isolated in private schools or suburban enclaves, did not in fact think about them. My first friend in college, who also turned out to be my best friend in college, went to Wilbur Cross, a public high school in New Haven, and most of our conversations that first year were about what it was like to suddenly enter such a homogenous community.

I agree with Taylor about the value of a self-guided education. I also was lucky enough to have gone to schools where experimentation was taken seriously, but that was because reformers had put all their faith in the schools rather than abandoning them. Education should be enlivening, but just because it’s sometimes boring doesn’t mean we’re wasting our time in school. Even though Taylor says her essay was not meant to be prescriptive, it does present a false binary: unschooling and self-fulfillment versus public schooling and institutional conformity. Call me a drone, but my experience in public school provided my moral foundation, my sense of shared destiny with people who aren’t like me, and a political conscience rooted in the life stories of people I know.

— Emily Witt

Man vs. Machine

Dear Editors,

David Auerbach’s “The Stupidity of Computers” starts off all right, with useful observations about machines’ and humans’ ways of organizing information; then, from the “Anti-Rhizome” section onward, he goes seriously astray. His article finally unravels into so many errant speculations, it would take a substantial essay to address them all. I’ll confine this note to one core confusion.

Auerbach is clearly aware that categorical ontologies are not intrinsic to the way that machines store and process data, but derive from humans’ desire to make certain uses of data. Thus, it’s strange for him to suggest that the categorical modes (man-made) by which a machine interface (man-made) presents information to us somehow bind us to prepackaged, maybe even politically charged “hierarchical” ways of perceiving, understanding, and relating to others. His preliminary exposition, describing the development of increasingly refined human-machine data interfaces, in fact shows the opposite.

In the early days of computers, users had to store their data in files and folders (directories), i.e. hierarchically, as if in paper folders in a steel file cabinet (and at a low level of the machine’s hardware, data is still stored this way, but transparently to the user). Until recently, to find any saved document, photo, or email, you had to navigate to the place in your own “filing system” where you’d put it. But now more sophisticated search modes on PC operating systems and server apps like Gmail make putting items in hierarchical folders unnecessary. You can readily find something using any number of keywords or even any portion of the item’s contents. The point is, even within your own personally generated data store, indexing techniques have evolved to minimize the need to organize categorically.

This freedom from categorical thinking about our own data is magnified even further when we scale up to the web of shared public information. Auerbach’s assertion that “the web does not liberate information from top-down taxonomies. It reifies those taxonomies,” is belied by the nonhierarchical topology of the web and its virtual ocean of horizontally networked data. On the web, we’re not limited to searching by category, content, or static metadata (content, tags, geolocation, et cetera). The methodologies used by commercial search engines (and other institutional players, we assume), many of them proprietary and secret, employ a variety of external noncategorical referents—e.g. who links to it, who’s searched for it, other contexts where it’s found—to determine the relevance of a piece of information. These potent techniques help general public users accomplish all sorts of tasks, but they also empower commercial parties who want to sell them things—and government agents who would like to control them, of course. But in each case, it’s the users’ needs, not the data storage/retrieval method or man-machine interface, that shapes the categorical interpretation applied to the data.

Imagine I’m working in a large glassy building near DC, looking at a photo that a field agent has taken of a pudgy, Western-looking male sitting in a cafe in Bangkok. With analytic software and data from various sources, I can almost certainly identify the person, his contacts, how much money he earns and what he spends it on, what internet sites he visits, et cetera. Having the computer find these links and patterns may indeed facilitate my ability to categorize the man in the photo as potential “terrorist,” “industrial spy,” “pedophile,” “Asian food enthusiast,” or “not worth looking at further.”

But if my (the analyst’s) investigative acuity has compromised the freedom of the gentleman in question to engage in criminality, or merely his right to a private life, it’s not due to computers’ “stupidity,” i.e. their inability to derive accurate high-order semantic interpretations from their ocean of data. My inclination to categorize the gentleman as a potential terrorist, or otherwise, obviously derives from my analytic methodology, and the semantic screens I then apply to the data and link patterns, not from any intrinsic form the data takes on the web. On the contrary, one could argue that the government’s capacity to infringe on the gentleman’s personal autonomy—to be a criminal, or whatever—actually results from computers being too damn good at finding nonhierarchical, noncategorical, horizontal links in a web of data.

— A. Meadows

David Auerbach replies:

Categorical ontologies are indeed not intrinsic to the way computers store and process data. They are intrinsic to any data that represents anything about the world and the people in it. If we were content to have computers merely do pure mathematics, there would be little trouble, but the minute we claim those numbers mean something, they are subject to the limitations of the underlying ontology. “Unstructured” language is no exception. Surely A. Meadows will admit the hierarchical and ontological baggage built into, for example, the word “black.”

Meadows also fails to account for the vast internet surge of the very categorical ontologies he claims the web obviates, from Wikipedia to Facebook profiles to Twitter hashtags to Google+. The biases in these ontologies do indeed originate with humans, but it will be computers that increasingly apply them en masse. Meadows is correct about the comparative ontological freedom of search compared to categories. It remains to be explained, however, why Google is rushing into Facebook’s ontologically constrained network rather than the other way around.

While categories do constrain ontology more than unstructured language, language itself is in no way exempt from inherent taxonomy and classification (as the brontosaurus could tell you). Until computers engage with reality with godlike omniscience, rather than treating our partial and inexact representations of it, they are destined to deal in inherently compromised and biased information.

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