Dream Diary: “Leather”

The mugger points a revolver at me. He demands that I hand over any and all leather I might have on me.

“Shoes, belt, wallet. Anything with leather, hand it over!” he barks.

“The wallet is imitation leather,” I reply as he points at it.

“Keep it then,” he says, as he gathers up my other items. “Here, I don’t want this.” He has removed the buckle from my belt. He gives it back to me, because it is not leather.

“I’ve been pretty bad at being a mugging victim, haven’t I?” I ask him as he turns to leave.

“Yes, you have.” He and I both laugh heartily.

*     *     *      *

I am the producer of a cable news program. We are in the studio.

“Try to look less like a hostage, and more like a news anchor,” I say to the news anchor.

Keeping the Content Machine Whirring

While the internet’s main function may be the display of cats, beheadings, and pornography, a sizable portion of the remainder consists of opinion, both political and cultural. Every day, hundreds of brief thinkpieces are churned out, each containing a packaged nugget of argument about something in the news. Readers get to post these on Facebook, in order to both signal their affiliations to friends and feel good about having contributed to the public debate.

As someone who enjoys writing, over the past year I’ve been experimenting a bit with the manufacture of hot takes. They’re enjoyable enough to produce (you just have to get angry for about 700 words and then throw in some links), and often they pay (though not well). So when a Harvard professor threatened to sue a Chinese restaurant over a $4 tip, I said he was completely right to do so. And last summer I insightfully called Ted Cruz an idiot.

But while writing these things is both easy and fun, more than one person has observed that the displacement of actual cultural and political analysis by short slices of superficial clickbait is one of the most unfortunate consequences of digital media. My own adventures in thinkpiece-land have confirmed what others have observed; there turns out to be a huge market for thoughtless inflammatory contrarianism, and much less of one for anything reflective or nuanced.

The worst part of this, to me, is not that writing is becoming shorter or more partisan. I’m not a member of the Strunk and White brevity-police, but I do believe in being economical. Like many others, I gasped when the new editor of the New Republic announced that he was bored by anything over 600 words. But I have also long believed that most published writing is too long, and I think many useful points can be made quickly.

Nor is it inherently damaging that writing is increasingly opinionated. I like strong views, I like polemic. I’d rather read something that takes a stand than a bunch of dreary “on-the-one-hand” waffle. The problem is far more that so much of this writing is boring and predictable. With any piece of news, we know exactly what the commentary will consist of. And then we know what the commentary commenting on the commentary will consist of.

I recently tried a small experiment in writing. I wanted to try to get some things published, and see what would make it and what wouldn’t. (Okay, I call it an experiment, but that’s probably misstating my intentionality a bit. I was curious about what would get published, but my main motivation was that I was in need of money and desperate to write something that would pay.)

Over the weekend, I wrote two articles. One was a carefully-reasoned argument on immigration, critiquing progressives for advocating the deportation of criminals. (A more thought-out version of what I covered in this blog post.) And the other was basically my attempt to write the most clickbaity thing I could think of; i.e. taking some item in pop culture and calling it racist. For that, I went to see the film Trainwreck and then just mindlessly wrote a screed about it. I looked and saw that nobody had called it racist yet, and I figured that as long as I was the first person to call Trainwreck racist, it would be easy enough to get such a thing published. People have said that the star, Amy Schumer, is a racist plenty of times before. But nobody had yet called this particular film of hers racist! I thought it would be a sure fit for Salon, since it was basically exactly the article I think of when I think about the site.

So which of my articles made it through: deportation or Amy Schumer-is-a-racist?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present:

“Trainwreck’s Race Problem.”

(That’s not the actual headline, rather it’s a teaser they used to link to the article. The actual headline is so convoluted that I have no idea what it means.)

As for the deportation article, the only page it’s been published is in my email outbox.

Now, let me say that I don’t not think Amy Schumer is, to use the currently fashionable terminology, “problematic.” Frankly, I don’t really know her work very well; the only thing I’ve seen of hers, outside of the film, is her extended 12 Angry Men parody, which I enjoyed. I have almost zero Amy Schumer expertise, it just seemed as if people really liked reading other people’s opinions about her, hence she seemed a good subject.

I believe all of the things I wrote are true, although the real story about Trainwreck is not its race-issues but the fact that it’s confusing and poorly-assembled. The race stuff was inadroitly handled. In fact, I trivialize it too much when I say I just “called something racist.” It was.* The problem is not that the observations were wrong, it’s that who cares? 

Actually, a lot of people apparently do. The article received scores of comments and was reposted hundreds of times. People violently disagreed with me and called me names, but they read the thing. (The funny thing about the thinkpiece-economy is that the people who hate them the most are some of the strongest drivers of traffic, by incessantly commenting and reposting and keeping the debate going.) There’s a Trump Syndrome phenomenon going on here, whereby everybody spends large amounts of their day loudly insisting they don’t care about something, and writing huge bodies of text listing all the reasons why they don’t care and the thing is overhyped and not worth discussing.

And this dynamic repeats itself every day in the exact same way. Pop Culture Thing X or Current Event X will occur, and then some writer looking to earn a hundred bucks will fire a shot, and then a huge firefight will ensue for about a day, and then night will come and the dust will settle until the next day and the onset of Thing Y and the beginning of the cycle anew. My sociologist friend Zach Wehrwein is starting to produce some research on “twitter outrages” and their predictable dynamics. He’s produced charts showing all the angry tweets on any topic. You watch the thing occur, the tweets roll in, and then the tweets subside. Then you find another thing, and watch the conversation on that.

“So what? That’s how news works. It’s not news forever, we talk about it and then there’s more news,” says a hypothetical interlocutor. Yes, true enough, all things must pass and whatnot. But the real problem is that these blossomings of controversy are (1) manufactured for consumption and (2) totally disconnected from any kind of meaningful action in the real world. As to point (1), it’s odd that I can get paid to think of ways to poke the internet hornets’ nest, because if I can get a bunch of people to shout about a thing, a company makes money. As to (2), it’s very odd that the public conversation about something so serious as racism can be reduced to gabbing online about a Judd Apatow comedy.

“But that’s not the whole conversation. There are other, more serious things being discussed.” Yes, but it really is shocking how much is vacuous. And it’s true that even when good points are being made well, the ultimate function of so much online media consumption is signaling (for the consumer) and profit-seeking (for the media entity). Perhaps there is an attenuated connection between online media and the real world (if my article goes far enough, Amy Schumer might here about it and get mad and/or sad for a few minutes!) But that’s certainly incidental to its function.

An unfortunate consequence of the fact that this really is a writing economy is that writers themselves are stuck in a bind. Online media is so ruthlessly click-driven that it’s almost impossible to break free of the existing forms. After all, they do precisely what they’re supposed to do. Clickbait gets clicks. I click on it. I mean, I would have read my own article, even if I would have been bored by it and then fumed about how petty and humorless the author was.

It’s not that editors are bad gatekeepers, then. In fact, I’m astonished by how perceptive they are. They know exactly what succeeds. I’ve had things turned down because they came literally 24 hours after the window for their newsworthiness closed. But if you watch the graphs of the tweets, you know that an editor is right when they say a public conversation died yesterday afternoon, and that everybody has moved on and won’t be interested.

But a writer therefore has to produce the material that fits perfectly into the media moment. Can’t wait a moment longer; if you’re not the first to bring up racism in Trainwreck, nobody’s going to want to hear it. Instead, then you’ll have to write the “In Defense of Trainwreck” article. Or the “Why People Defending Trainwreck Just Don’t Get It” article, with steadily diminishing reader interest for each iteration, with the Next Controversial Thing hopefully having arrived before we get to “People Keep Writing Articles About Trainwreck–And That’s a Problem.”

(Actually, the same is true in a different form in more “serious” news. Look at the disproportionate amount of attention Greece received, just because it made for an interesting drama. Not that I think the Greek crisis was unimportant, but during that period it was much harder to get anybody to listen to you about any other  country, because that’s not where the action was. My friend Oren Nimni spends seemingly half his waking hours in a state of exasperation over the fact that the ongoing multi-month Saudi bombing of Yemen gets hardly any media attention. And in fact, at a certain level this is a problem of news generally. I continue to think there’s something brain-deadening about “current” affairs, because remaining current precludes getting in-depth background knowledge. It’s always funny to me that the more time you spend trying to “stay informed,” the less informed you actually become compared with someone who doesn’t stay informed but goes and learns things.)

It’s hard to know how the cycle can be escaped. Nobody can resist clicking on the bait, and there’s a lot of money being made. Writers learn quickly that the more contrarian they can be than the next guy, the more interest they’ll pique (even though so many true and necessary things are not contrary to received wisdom; in fact, they’re exactly what you’d expect.) Although I have to say, it’s hard to eke out a living, no matter how fast you can churn out Content. The demand is high, but so is the supply, hence the relentless competitive pressure.

I have to say, though, after producing some stuff just because I knew it would get published, it really doesn’t feel worth it. That Amy Schumer thing is the first piece of writing I’ve ever produced that has felt shameful, because it was created from an ulterior motive. It was calculated. And the feeling of producing things that aren’t your best, just because you know they’ll sell, isn’t worth the paltry cash they give you.

You can’t really tell that to someone trying to make a living writing. I’m fortunate in that I do something else. But I’ve always thought if I could quit the something else, and subsist solely by writing, I’d do it instantly. I realize, though, that that’s not true. I’d much rather only write things that feel like my own, yet be unable to live by it, than constantly be thinking about what will get commented on or shared.

Because it does eat your brain. You can insist that you maintain a strict division between your two sides: your personal side, with the integrity, and your professional side, which is shameless in selling itself. But every piece of writing is also writing practice, and it’s impossible not to be affected. For one publication, I had written something successful without thinking about the kind of response it would get. Then the editor told me it received a large amount of traffic. And when I went to write something else, I couldn’t help but think about whether the next piece of writing would replicate the success of the first, and that thought inevitably affected the end result.

I think, therefore, that to have any chance of being a good writer depends on having a stubborn commitment to resisting incentives. The media landscape is so bleak that anyone who consciously tries to succeed in it, and writes accordingly, will end up producing work that they are not proud of.

That’s not to say that I think good writing will never be noticed or become popular. I think it will, and sometimes does, but to get quality and popularity to coincide depends on being driven by an ambition toward the quality rather than the popularity. That’s a completely unoriginal thought, and applies across so many spheres. But I’ve learned it especially through these recent forays into paid writing. Doing anything less than your best work will never be worth it, will always be embarrassing, and can only ensure that the hideous cycle of online writing culture keeps whirring until eternity.

*A subsidiary problem here is that my own view of racism is that it’s pervasive and systematic, and so the idea of going film by film to point it out is bizarre and suggests that if we could just adequately shame this or that particular celebrity for their behavior, we would somehow have gotten racism under control.

Announcement of New Children’s Book

isisgoeshawaiian

ISIS Goes Hawaiian (Demilune Press, forthcoming 2016)

Plot summary: Intent on teaching ISIS to surf, reggae singer Shaggy travels to Kurdistan to join the PKK. There, he will be taught important lessons in both armed resistance and humanist geopolitics. Perhaps he will even succeed in showing the Islamic State the proper art of beachside revelry! The book is narrated by Mike Love of the Beach Boys, who will learn to overcome his Islamophobia and get back to his surfing roots. All proceeds to go to the Kurdistan Workers Party.

Left-winger calls right-winger evil.

Right-winger replies that left-winger doesn’t understand economics.

Left-winger calls right-winger evil.

Right-winger replies that left-winger doesn’t understand economics.

Repeat forever.

Stray Thoughts

  • Camille Paglia has a lovely theory that Jimi Hendrix makes Jacques Derrida obsolete. I believe I subscribe to it.
  • I don’t like the tendency of some on the radical left to jokingly romanticize guillotines and other images of the French Revolution. I think Jacobin is a downright scary name for a magazine, and I don’t think there’s a very good way to be ironic about mass murder.
  • The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, famous for his notion of “thick description” (whatever that means), was one of the most long-winded bores I have ever witnessed on video.
  • Even in the digital era, it is a relatively straightforward matter to eke out a low-paying writing career by denouncing popular films as racist.
  • Another thing Camille Paglia said that I believe: there are no tenured radicals. There is a myth of the university as being full of Marxist revolutionaries. In fact, it’s full of pencil-pushers. There’s a reason many of them call themselves “Marxians” instead of “Marxists.”
  • I wonder what Malala is actually like. I have no idea. Do you think it has all gone to her head? What does it feel like to be Malala?
  • I think I was born in the wrong era. I would like to have been born in 2232. Or later. At least after a cure for death has been found.
  • I’ve finally concluded that Woody Allen makes mostly terrible films and civilization wouldn’t be worse off for losing them all. Even Annie Hall, in which he’s completely unbearable. Also, looking back on the Cosby Show, Bill Cosby’s character was always more of a mean curmudgeon than a loving dad. I would have been scared of him. Let’s just jettison and forget these rapists’ entire outputs to teach a lesson to future sex criminals.
  • The struggle against totalitarian versions of Islam has been co-opted by the right wing. The 30 young socialists who were killed today by ISIS were far more significant opponents of Islamic extremism than George W. Bush ever was or will be. The American right inflames extremism through war and racism, while gentle Kurdish socialists end up bearing the cost.

The Anti-Nationalist Legacy of Rudolf Rocker

Note: this is the text of an article I have in the Summer 2015 print issue of New Politics magazine, which is an excellent publication that I highly recommend subscribing to. 

“On the banner of the International was not written ‘Proletarians of all lands, kill each other!’ but ‘Proletarians of all lands, unite!’” – RUDOLF ROCKER, “WAR: A STUDY IN FACT”

WHEN RUDOLF ROCKER’S Nationalism and Culture was released in 1937, it was hailed by no less an assemblage of luminaries than Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and Thomas Mann. The historian Will Durant called it “magnificent” and “profound,” and even the New Republic gave it a positive notice. It was an unusual level of mainstream acclaim for a book of political philosophy by a German anarchist refugee, especially one published by a group called the “Rocker Publication Committee,” a Los Angeles-based venture set up for the sole purpose of releasing Nationalism and Culture.

Yet in the years since, Rocker’s work has settled into the obscurity for which it was perhaps always destined. Unlike The Decline of the West (1926), Oswald Spengler’s meditation on the destiny of civilizations, to which it was compared at the time, Nationalism and Culture is rarely cited. Though it proposes and defends a comprehensive theory of nationalism, Benedict Anderson does not even acknowledge it in Imagined Communities (1982). Contemporary mentions of the book are largely confined to anarchist circles, and even there it is an awkward outsider, its humanistic cultural analysis and rich love of history out-of-step with the contemporary anarchist inclination to immolate all sacred things.

The eclipse of Rocker’s magnum opus is hardly mysterious. It is a book that fits with few of our conceptions of how such books ought to be written, a book that deliberately scorns almost all prior wisdom, and a book whose very existence is difficult to square with common understandings about its time. Rocker is a German who mocks both Hegel and Hitler in equal measure, and who writes in the uncompromising and eclectic voice of the autodidact, shunning the toothless evenhandedness demanded of academics. And writing as an atheistic Berlin anarchist in 1933, Rocker offers living proof of his own contention that individuals must not be made prisoners of stereotypes about national spirit.

Nationalism and Culture is, primarily, a 600-page exploration of the origins and development of nationalism, and a scathing denunciation of the corrosive effect of national feeling on the human spirit. Yet it is one of those works, like The Anatomy of Melancholy (Robert Burton, 1621), that springboard from their stated purpose to discourse on everything under the sun. Architecture is analyzed, socialism is defended, and Rembrandt’s paintings are scrutinized atlength. It is at once a treatise on the state’s re- lationship with culture and a manifesto for an enlightened leftism. Most of all, it is a clear-eyed plea for sanity at a moment when nationalist and religious irrationalism threatened to swallow the globe. It could not be more relevant.

Continue reading

Reasons Other Than Those For Which I Am Against the Death Penalty

Below are listed some reasons to oppose the death penalty, none of which are my own:

The death penalty is racist. – I don’t oppose the death penalty for this reason, because you could simply increase the number of white people killed, thus solving the problem of racism, and I would still oppose the death penalty just as much.

The death penalty risks killing innocent people. – I don’t oppose the death penalty for this reason. If you could prove to a certainty that everyone on death row was guilty, I would still oppose the death penalty.

The death penalty is biased against poor people. – See above regarding racism.

The death penalty has a long and costly appeals process. – I don’t oppose the death penalty for this reason, because you could simply speed up the process by revoking the right to appeal, thus solving the problem of delay, and I would still oppose the death penalty.

The death penalty doesn’t bring the kind of comfort to victims that they think it will. – If the death penalty was extremely comforting to victims, and brought them closure and joy, I would still oppose the death penalty.

The death penalty is not an effective deterrent. – If the death penalty were an effective deterrent, I would still oppose the death penalty.

I oppose the death penalty because I believe it’s immoral to kill anyone who does not pose an immediate physical threat to someone else. And since it’s almost always possible to eliminate the threat that even the most hardened killer poses, I don’t believe we can ever justify killing someone. And for me, that’s the end of it. There’s not really any other element to the calculus. It’s a very strong instinct I have, it’s not shared by most, a lot of people would recoil in revulsion at it, but I can’t get rid of it, because it’s far too essential a belief. Frankly, I suspect there are plenty of people who oppose the death penalty who have similarly nonrational reasons, but who end up making all of the above arguments because they are persuasive to others, rather than because they are their own reasons. That is to say, I think plenty of people who use the argument about risks of executing the innocent are not really interested in the real level of risk of executing the innocent, they are absolutists like myself who are disgusted by the spectacle of a person being lethally injected. But because it’s hard to persuade someone else to be disgusted by something they’re not disgusted by (since disgust is largely instinctual), we end up making the above arguments, even though we’d still be unhappy even if every single one of those problems were excised. Because I want to be honest, however, I feel it’s important to be clear on why I oppose the death penalty. It’s not because it’s racist or risky or costly; it’s because every single usage of it fundamentally assaults my sense of justice.

The Wrong Argument for Opposing Drug Tests for Welfare Applicants

A few months ago, the liberal blog Think Progress released an investigation into the costs of drug testing for welfare applicants, a popular conservative policy. Conservatives argue that this will root out spongers and junkies who mooch off the state. Think Progress’s report showed that in the states which do give drug tests to welfare applicants, the costs of administering the tests are quite high and the number of people who produce positive drug tests is quite low.

Liberals do not like the idea of drug testing welfare applicants. But arguments like Think Progress’s strike me as a very bad way of opposing the policy, if one actually seeks to disprove conservative reasoning. First, there’s the obvious point that any drug test supporter would instantly make: in order to evaluate the success of the tests in achieving their goals, you need to look at those who were deterred from applying and being tested (because they knew their test would be positive) not just those who applied and tested positive. I am sure Think Progress knows this, since it’s completely elementary: if drug tests are in place, surely a vast number of the people who would test positive aren’t going to go through with application and drug test if they know it’s a waste of time. But it looks more like a waste of money if you say “$300,000 was spent on drug tests with only 10 positive results” instead of factoring in cost savings from deterred applicants. Conservatives who support the policy would instantly point this out.

But evasive statistics by partisan think-tanks are no big news. The more important point is this: focusing on cost does not get you to a persuasive argument against drug-testing welfare applicants. Because a conservative could agree that the costs were not reaping sufficient benefits. All they’d have to say in response is “Well, if you’re right, and we’re wasting money, we should have applicants pay for their own tests instead of subsidizing them.” Problem solved, costs saved!

Cost-saving arguments are like this a lot of the time. Liberals make them because they know they have bipartisan appeal (nobody admits they like to waste government money), but they don’t actually create a case for liberal policy preferences. And in fact, if you rely solely on a cost-saving argument, you’re taking a huge risk. Because what if it turned out the numbers weren’t in your favor? What if it turned out drug tests did root out a lot of drug users? Liberals would still oppose drug-tests for welfare applicants, but their wastefulness argument would be devastated!

I feel the same way about arguments for prison reform that are cost-based. Often, advocates for different prison policies (like myself) slip into arguments about how our prisons waste money, how (for example) good post-prison re-entry and training programs will save states money by reducing future expenditures in re-housing recidivists. But if your main argument is a cost-saving one, you need to be prepared: if it turned out that prison reform cost states more money, what would you say? And if we really are focused on cost (rather than alleviating unfair human suffering), then what if someone proposed that you could save even more money by just slashing the prison healthcare budget?

It’s all a bit dishonest, for liberals to pretend they’re just about cost-saving, because they’re only about cost-saving if that argument can be mobilized in favor of their already-preferred program. If their program requires more money, then they’re no longer for cost-saving. That’s why ultimately, those (like me) who believe drug testing for welfare applicants is wrong and must be opposed, should state exactly what our reasons are. My reasons are that I think it’s an assault on human dignity, and that someone should have the right to both take drugs and receive welfare. It’s not that it’s too costly; I don’t really care if it is or isn’t. It’s that it serves no useful objective at any price. I think most Think Progress types ultimately feel the same way, and unless they’re up-front about it, when someone exposes their statistical legerdemain, they’ll be left without defensible arguments, despite being completely right.

For General Release: Memorandum on Newly Banned Words

The following English words are prohibited from all further written or spoken use. Please take note and govern your output accordingly.

hermeneutics

reification

decouple

fractured*

contingent

semiotic

toolkit

multiplicity

Note: this list is not exhaustive. Further entries will be added as they are happened upon by the Committee. Ignorance of the list’s existence will not be admitted as a defense to charges of unauthorized word usage. 

*exemptions available for medical as opposed to sociological use of this term

The Fishiness of Alice Goffman

Today, Steven Lubet of the New Republic raised additional questions about the reliabiltiy of sociologist Alice Goffman’s acclaimed ethnography On the Run. Lubet builds on a series of criticisms he has previously made of the book; in earlier articles for the magazine, Lubet had pointed out that an incident Goffman describes, in which she accompanies her subjects on a mission to commit a murder (that ultimately did not take place), revealed Goffman to have engaged in massively unethical (and illegal) behavior. Following Goffman’s response, in which she downplayed the incident, suggesting that no murder was ever going to take place, Lubet took her to task for falsification. If the incident wasnt what she said it was, then why did she write what she did? As Lubet compellingly put it, Goffman was either a liar, unethical, or both.

Today Lubet attempts to adduce additional support for charges of fabrication. His new evidence is not especially strong. Lubet attempts to paint Goffman as having misrepresented the events surrounding the death of one of her subjects, a man named Chuck. Lubet makes two allegations: first, that Goffman said she was in the hospital room when Chuck died, even though police reports say she wasn’t. Second, that Goffman insisted that police “gave up the search” for Chuck’s killer, even though, in fact, two men were convicted for the crime.

Neither of these facts will undermine Goffman very much. For one thing, as far as the hospital room instance goes, while Lubet insists that “[t]his is not simply a matter of two differing recollections,” that’s precisely what it appears to be. The officers say they are certain there wasn’t a white female present. Goffman and Chuck’s mother say she was definitely there. In fact, if anything, this provides additional support for Goffman’s contention that the police were completely oblivious to her presence. Lubet wonders what motive the police would have to falsify their reports, but Goffman isn’t saying they falsified them, she’s saying they didn’t notice her. As to charge (2), it’s probably even weaker. The suspects were put on trial in 2012, five years after the incidents Goffman describes. Since both Lubet and the police admit the “case went cold” in 2007, it doesn’t seem an appalling mischaracterization for Goffman to have written that the police gave up.

The rest of Lubet’s article is a rehashing of his earlier attacks on Goffman. I think these are much stronger, though they, too, do not amount to falsification, they just amount to either falsification or unethical behavior. Unethical behavior seems the more likely, since, as Lubet says, Goffman had good reason to walk back the narrative after accusations that she had conspired to commit murder.

But I think Lubet is really missing some of the key questions about Alice Goffman’s work. It’s obvious he has it in for her, because he’s now published a series of three substantial articles picking her apart, eve as his evidence continues to get weaker. I think he’s coming at her work with a bias. I actually think a lot of hostility towards Goffman has been unnecessary and vindictive and likely (at least by some, not necessarily Lubet) sexist.

However, at the same time: On the Run has smelled incredibly fishy to me from the moment I first picked it up. I found it a very odd book, and several things about it didn’t make sense. So let me try to explain some of the things I think Alice Goffman needs to account for, and hasn’t.

1. Why did she burn her fieldnotes in order to avoid a subpoena?

Goffman admitted that she burned all of her fieldnotes. She says that’s standard practice for a sociologist. I can accept that. But she says she did so in order to avoid a subpoena, i.e. she destroyed them because they were evidence of the commission of crimes. If she was as willing to cooperate with police as she says, why was she destroying evidence? Why was she intentionally trying to derail a prosecution? How is this not the deliberate concealment of criminal acts?

2. What is with the “methodological note”?

The strangest part of Goffman’s book is her 50-page “methodological note,” which is really nothing of the kind. In fact, it’s a short autobiography. It’s a tale of how Goffman moved to the neighborhood she describes, what meeting the people was like, how things became hard for her, and how she balanced her life shuttling between a black Philadelphia neighborhood and graduate school at Princeton. It’s full of some very bizarre passages, perhaps chief among which is a segment about how she felt when she arrived at Princeton after her four years at the University of Pennsylvania. Describing her arrival, she writes as follows:

The first day, I caught myself casing the classrooms in the Sociology Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry. I got pulled over for making a U-turn, then got another ticket for parking a few inches outside some designated dotted line on the street that I hadn’t even noticed. The students and the even wealthier townies spoke strangely; their bodies moved in ways that I didn’t recognize. They smelled funny and laughed at jokes I didn’t understand. It’s one thing to feel uncomfortable in a community that is not your own. It’s another to feel that way among people who recognize you as one of them. I also began to realize how much I had missed by not living in the dorms or hanging out with the other undergrads during college. The Princeton students discussed indie rock bands– white people music, to me– and drank wine and imported beers I’d never heard of. They listened to iPods, and checked Facebook…Moreover I had missed cultural changes, such as no-carb diets and hipsters. Who were these white men in tight pants who spoke about their anxieties and feelings? They seemed so feminine, yet they dated women.

More than discomfort and awkwardness, I feared the hordes of white people. They crowded around me and moved in groups. I skipped the graduate college’s orientation to avoid what I expected would be large numbers of white people gathered together in a small space… Above everything, I feared white men. Not all white men: white American men who were relatively fit, under the age of fifty, with short hair. I avoided the younger white male faculty at all costs. On some level, I knew they weren’t cops, they probably wouldn’t beat me or insult me, but I could not escape the sweat or the pounding in my chest when they approached. 

The methodological note ends with the climactic story of the attempted murder. The very last paragraph of the note (and therefore the book) begins: “Looking back, I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a man to die…”

Now bear in mind, this is all billed as some kind of methodological note! And throughout the book, many of us who were gripped by the depth of her access to a criminal gang in a poor black neighborhood might have been quite eager for such a note. After all, at the end, one has so many questions: How on earth did she produce such a book? Why did these guys trust her? How did she put everything together, what were her methods of ensuring accuracy? But we get none of that. Instead, we get drama, which for a section ostensibly about the dusty mechanics of academic research, is downright odd.

I quote the above passage because it struck me on first reading, and still does, as incredibly strange. Bear in mind that Goffman had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League school, after working with an esteemed sociologist on a senior thesis that had gotten her a book deal. She says that when she was there, she lived off-campus and didn’t hang out with people. Fair enough. But the idea that a University of Pennsylvania graduate, raised by professor parents, who went to a prestigious private school, was somehow baffled by the existence of the iPod, is downright unbelievable. I mean, certainly she may have isolated herself. But for a wealthy double Ivy-leaguer to be looking for TVs to steal in case she needed extra cash is hard to believe.

Nor does her “fear of white people” passsage pass the smell test. She says she was terrified at the white hordes she encountered at Princeton, as if she’d never even set foot on the Penn campus during her entire four years there. And she says she was afraid of and carefully avoided white men, despite her Princeton advisor being a white man, and multiple white men being acknowledged for their supervision in the acknowledgments. (As if trying to forestall this criticism, Goffman adds numerous qualifications: white men with accents were okay, so were those over fifty, or fat ones, or ones with lots of hair. But everyone else was terrifying.) She suggests that while “on some level” she knew they weren’t cops, she still feared they would beat her. (On some level? Has any male sociologist, of any age, ever been mistakable for a cop?) But why would she have this fear? Since she wasn’t actually black, had she been at risk of being beaten by cops at any point during her research?

This brings me to what I think is truly an unexplained part of Goffman’s research, something that should have constituted a very large part of the methodological note, but instead took up hardly any of it:

3. Who did any of the people in the book really think she was?

This is what I really can’t understand. Goffman barely describes her interactions with police. But she must have stuck out like a sore thumb. This is where Lubet is onto something, even if his own evidence is not as persuasive as I’d like. It’s not just the hospital room scene, which could be explained. It’s the fact that she spends years in this neighborhood seemingly without having any relationship with police. But that’s bizarre. They must have wondered what she was doing there, she must have talked to them a lot. Surely! Did they realize she was a sociologist? And if that’s the case, why was more pressure not brought against her to testify against her subjects? Goffman witnessed scads of crimes, and yet apart from a single interrogation, seems to have been relatively let alone by prosecutors and police. This despite the fact that a federal case was being built against one of her subjects. Why wasn’t she called to testify? Why weren’t her notes subpoenaed? She may have been invisible to police in the hospital room, but how was she invisible to them every single moment of every single day that she was openly hanging around with notorious local criminals?

This question applies not only to her relationships with police, but to her relationship with the Sixth Street Boys. Goffman spends a large portion of the methodological note discussing how she got to know the boys; how she made her connections, how they became comfortable with her, etc. But she spends very little of it talking about how her identity as a sociologist manifested itself. What did they think of all her notes, considering that they must of known she was collecting evidence that could be subpoenaed and used against them? How did they know she wouldn’t inform on them? What did she think would happen if she was compelled to testify? There’s no “sociologist’s privilege” in a court of law, whereby you can keep secret the crimes of those you have been conducting an ethnography on. So what’s going on here? There may be answers to those questions, but why on earth would they not be in the methodological note? That’s what I can’t understand. I don’t understand why she didn’t even address the question of the extent to which she interacted with prosecutors and cops, and to which the potential for her testifying against the boys came up.

Thus, I do think Steven Lubet is onto something. One of the reasons I have been slightly disappointed in his articles is that I think they get close to revealing an important flaw, without quite getting there. I think Lubet and I probably feel exactly the same way: there’s something that just doesn’t feel right about many parts of Goffman’s book. It’s hard to prove, but the story just doesn’t quite make sense. It doesn’t make sense that Goffman, well-educated and wealthy, suddenly starts fearing white people and casing the Princeton sociology department. (I also think, by the way, that given her background it doesn’t make sense that she says she first learned of the existence of mass incarceration when she arrived at Princeton. After all, she was at that very moment under contract to write a book about the effects of mass incarceration on young black men. But others have told me that they find this believable, as the prison system was not discussed as much in academia during these years.) It doesn’t make sense to me that Goffman was never called to testify, that cops never interacted with her, and that she never thought to write about why this was in her methodology section. It doesn’t make sense to me why these boys, so adept at evading the law, were so willing to have all of their crimes written down by a stranger. It’s all very dubious. And it’s also true that Goffman has proven a willingness to change her story; her response to Lubet changes the facts of her story about the revenge-killing plot, meaning that she can’t be trusted for truthful explanations of things.

It’s possible that we will never see anything to further damage the reputation of On the Run, beyond the evidence already provided by Lubet (and James Forman). The investigation by Jesse Singal in New York magazine largely confirmed her work. Singal also recently rebutted Lubet’s charge that Goffman’s dissertation contains explosive secrets. My lingering doubts, and Lubet’s, might be completely ill-founded. And again, I’m not discounting the possibility that latent sexism (or, alternatively, disdain for Goffman’s academic superstar status) may cause a heightened sense of skepticism. It’s important to question one’s potential for bias.

But I do think that the writing of On the Run naturally invites a raised eyebrow. I think passages like the one I quoted are almost certainly embellished in order to provide a more compelling “fish out of water” narrative. I think if the methodological note had been more thorough, and the book more carefully organized to provide timelines and sources, we might possibly have been spared a lot of this ugly public trial over the book. I think this debate reveals an almost unavoidable problem in the present-day practice of ethnography, as Leon Neyfakh of Slate pointed out last month. There is a large amount of trust involved: professors trusting researchers, researchers trusting subjects, despite the existence of strong incentives not to tell the truth (which seems, if we’re being honest, like a recipe for disaster.) Dissertation committees do not fact-check like magazines do. A rogue sociologist could theoretically get away with large amounts of fabrication, because it’s simply so difficult to go back and source a lot of anonymized statements based on incinerated fieldnotes. If there was more rigorous documentation required of this kind of work, we might not need to have its veracity adjudicated in the pages of the New Republic. Then again, such documentation requirements could also prevent people from being able to carry out this kind of work. Some might think it worth it to have to trust the author, if you end up with something as compelling as On the Run. I am not sure I share that belief.

Partly this may again come from my personal opinions on the substantive merits of the book. I should confess: there are reasons I don’t like On the Run. I think, if true, it’s an incredibly impressive piece of research, but I think it plays into stereotypes about young criminal black men, and does little to accomplish its stated purpose of exploring the damaging effects of mass incarceration. I don’t think it tells us much, and I think it’s mostly a sensationalist cops-and-robbers story. I was particularly perturbed by a passage in which Goffman cites the presence of cockroaches in a home as evidence toward the conclusion that the inhabitant was an unfit mother. (p.14) The woman may have been, or may not have been, but I’ve had cockroaches before, and I suspect nobody would use that to impugn my potential parenting abilities, since I’m not black. I thought it was a very telling passage, and it turned me off the book from the start.

There’s no real evidence Alice Goffman is the kind of fabricator and deceiver that her (often incredibly vicious) want to make her out to be. Nevertheless, I can understand why the effort to probe her book continues. Whether it’s just because of the way she chose to write it, or because of something deeper, there’s just something that doesn’t feel quite right about On the Run.