Why I’m Giving Money to BRAC


Lauren and me at the final “fancy pants” party, summer 2006. Photo by Lindsay Moore.

Hey, for anyone expecting another combative post, sorry! This is going to be a bit more personal and boosterish.

On 22 January 2011, my friend Lauren Fleming died. I’ve already said about everything I have to say about it to about everyone I know who knew her, so this isn’t really going to be a post about her.  It’s just a bit of context.

More context, but less important. When I got a “real” job at USIP, back in 2007, I resolved that I was going to donate 10 percent of the portion of my take-home pay that I kept for personal use (as opposed to what I contribute to the joint account I share with my wife). This is less than the Giving What We Can pledge, but more than the The Life You Can Save pledge, so I figure it’s at least a good start. (My wife and I also give 5% of the after-tax income we contribute to our joint account).

I used to make my charitable donation as a lump sum on or around my birthday (since charitable organizations incur transaction costs on donations, other things equal you’re better off donating in larger amounts to a smaller number of organizations). But since Lauren’s death, I’ve been donating on or about January 22, in memoriam.

"Loan Process" by IFPRI-IMAGES on Flickr.

“Loan Process” by IFPRI-IMAGES on Flickr.

This is really just context and prologue to what I really wanted to talk about here, though, which is the organization I’ll be making my donation to this year: BRAC.

BRAC was founded as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Commission (though the acronym seems to have floated free of that particular meaning).  Apparently it was originally just their founder putting some persons displaced by the cyclone up in his offices at Shell, where he was an accountant.

They have since expanded their operations massively, becoming by some reports the largest NGO in the world, with operations well beyond Bangladesh – it is also believed to be the largest NGO operating in Afghanistan (for most of the empirical claims, see the linked Economist and SSIR articles, by the way), and has operations in Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Haiti.

A big part of BRAC’s core operation is microfinance, but they follow a “microfinance-plus” approach.  That is, one of its core businesses is microfinance, but it also provides education services (including a university), some advocacy, community-building, health care, etc.

There are a few key reasons to like BRAC.

First, and in many ways foremost, “it is a [global] Southern organisation from a poor country expanding to other poor Southern countries.” (10)  This is important for moral and ideological reasons. It breaks up invidious tendencies to cast poor countries always in the victim, never in the agent role. It has less of a neo-colonial savor, which isn’t nothing. On a more direct, but still moral, level, it means giving money to aid workers who do not enter their work with the social and economic baggage that many Western aid workers do.  For instance, BRAC employees are paid wages that are high for locals, and for Bangladeshis, but much more in line with local wages and standards of living.  The Southern origin of BRAC is also practically important – it means that many of its workers will have a deeper understanding of the global poor live than even the best-informed and sincerest Westerner.

Second, it ranks high on sustainability. Though BRAC does accept donations (hence this post), about 80% of their operating budget comes from their own activities (like the microfinance and seed banks).  Thought I’d throw something in there for my more business-minded readers.

Third, BRAC is very much involved in “frontline” services. They have a small advocacy unit, but the bulk of their work is still service provision, in a time when lots of the big Western NGOs are moving towards policy influence. Your mileage may vary on this – I have some skepticism about the ability to influence policy from the top-down, plus it’s my day job (sort of), so when I give money to aid I like to give it to groups that are largely focused on service provision.

There’s a worry here that I may have more to say about later on this blog – doesn’t direct service provision create dependence or a parallel government (that gets the real government off the hook)?  I worry more about the latter than the former – I don’t really worry about the former at all – but at the same time aid conditionality has had a mixed track record at best. Where governments are bad, I don’t see a lot of evidence that starving them of aid makes them much better (not that we shouldn’t care about making them better), especially when the aid is direct service provision rather than support to the government’s own coffers.  And direct support loses much of its moral lustre when the government already isn’t accountable to its people.

Fourth, on the other hand, warming the cockles of my policy-analysis heart, BRAC has a strong internal committment to monitoring and evaluation, including having a well-respected in-house research arm.  Even groups critical of it – more on that in a sec – note its committment to evaluation. In addition, BRAC is pretty heavily studied – and generally found to have a positive impact on poverty and development – by outside academics.

Fifth, BRAC has, since 2002, been doing innovative work to help the “ultra-poor.”  In a nutshell, the problem is that people at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder are often unable to benefit from the traditional development programs to get a leg up – e.g., microfinance or access to education may not help them much because they are too ill and malnourished, or too socially marginalized, to make effective use of them.  To my eye, one of the most intriguing components of their approach is the community involvement angle. When BRAC starts up a poverty targeting program, one of the first steps is to engage the community in a participatory process of identifying the community members most in need and strategies to help them.  Community involvement in the resources and the progress of those poor is then  part of the ongoing strategy for addressing poverty. In part, apparently, this comes from the founder’s sensitivity to the ways in which social stratification in Bangladesh interfered with people coming out of poverty, which shows real insight (or maybe I’m just biased since it fits with the view I articulate in my own book, that social domination is the ur-vulnerability).

BRAC is, of course, not without its critics. In particular, I was a bit surprised and disconcerted to learn that GiveWell, an aid-evaluation org that lots of “let’s give more of our money to the poor” projects (like the two I link above) rely heavily on, does not recommend giving to BRAC.

But I will be honest that I cannot really tell why. The stated reason on their assessment page is that the research arm of BRAC does not provide any public evaluations of their employment or income programs (at the time of the 2009 review). But this seems to be at least partly inaccurate.  For instance, BRAC’s research arm has a report on the employment impact of their grants to small and medium enterprises, dated 2005 (GiveWell claims they searched on relevant terms, but I found it with “employment”).

In addition, GiveWell seems to move the goalposts in their assessments.  The only one of their top three charities that focuses on poverty alleviation (as opposed to medical research and implementation) is GiveDirectly, an org that transfers money directly to poor people in Kenya. Now, I have no problem with GiveDirectly – and I like their model, too. But GiveWell counts them as effective because there is evidence that they do in fact distribute their money, and there is no strong evidence (they feel) that the presumably good impact of giving poor people money is either not as good as it might seem, or that it is undercut by other bad effects. Meanwhile, their bar for BRAC is higher – not just that they conduct their programs, but that they be able to prove they alleviate poverty.

I’m happy to chat more about aid assessment methodology – it’s not my direct area of expertise, and something I’m still learning myself. But it leaves me pretty comfortable that giving to BRAC is a pretty good use of my money.

Of course, it doesn’t bring Lauren back.

Why Daniel Levine is Wrong About Everything

war is overWell, he’s not. But that’s the title of his new blog. (Apparently he is challenging me for the title of “Most Contrite Fallibilist.” He’s even taken the nom de plume of “Wrongzo.” Bastard.)

For his first substantive post, “What should we mock about when we mock about guns?” he parodies my attempts to articulate a boring solution to the gun debates. He, rightly, turns the attention away from guns and towards inequality and precarity. Here’s the money quote:

“So, guns, whatever. Take away the fear and hatred that drives the hierarchical-individualist worldview (and its purity norms, on which a future discussion) and probably we have guns that police occasionally use against sociopaths and hunters use to get game meat, and boltcutters I only use on my back gate. The fight is with hierarchy, not guns.”

I can’t help but agree. (The wrongest thing about that blog is its title.) Some things that Wrongzo suggests but doesn’t say:

1. Wrongzo believes that value assessments and risk profiles are malleable. So, if we win the right political battles or transform our economy in appropriate ways, we might someday render individualists or hierarchists extinct. Even though I’ve spent a long time trying to work out and defend this thesis, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s true. What if we’re just built differently, if not in the genetic and cogntive pluralism way, then in a way that leads to diverse cognitive styles being cultivated within any community? (For instance, a functioning community is always going to have some contrarians.)

But my suspicions and hopes here largely reflect a prejudice in favor of pluralism. As I say in my second post, “it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do.” And it’s true that the individualist notices different elements of the problem than the solidaridist: that’s why Radley Balko is such a boon to American political punditry. I’ve not yet figured out what hierarchists are good for, but I do worry that hierarchy and tradition are intrinsic to any account of solidarity, but we only notice the hierarchical and irrationally traditional elements when we see them in others with whom we disagree. But that’s what I do: worry.

2. Wrongzo believes that outsider derision can change things, citing Appiah. I was highly critical of this element of Appiah’s thought when I reviewed his book:

Here, then, is the problem that Appiah’s project must suppress in order to succeed: honor codes work best when they are unacknowledged, and they are best changed when they are not the object of direct study or overt deliberate manipulation by outsiders. Moral revolutions that are predicated on honor code changes are most likely to succeed when the transition does not appear to be the work of self-conscious elites, even if it probably is. This would probably help explain some other details suppressed in Appiah’s account, like why debates about slavery and racism did not end with the Atlantic slave trade or the American Civil War.

Again, I want to be wrong, but ultimately, you can only maintain the claim that “we mock because we love” so long as a reasonable person would see “hick-shaming” as a loving remonstration and not othering. Our chosen subalterns are the urban poor; conservatives pretend to represent the rural and suburban poor. Given the discourses and practices of coastal elites, I don’t see much evidence that hick-shaming will do anything other than tweak the subalterns of our competitor elites. In contrast, the evidence suggests that what Braman and Kahan call “identity vouching” is better able to get things done. That’s why “only Nixon can go to China” and why President Obama receives harsher criticism from African-Americans like Cornel West than he does from white progressives. What we need to engineer is a collaboration with gun owners.

There’s another serious core to the argument: what do we give up when we take up the cultural cognition attempt to negotiate a détente between gun owners and gun haters? I want to say more about this is a future post more critical of the “cultural cognition” perspective, but for now, go read Levine’s blog!

Update: Wrongzo responds:

But when we laugh with someone, we importantly laugh at our shared frailty and vulnerability and failure. We are saying that we are unwilling to give a charade of honor and weight to the human stupidity they have shown, but that ultimately that stupidity connects us, rather than dividing us.

…I am laughing because I ultimately want social reconciliation, for all the romance of class war. The hierarchs are hurting. So, for all the mean-ness of the last post, ultimately, laughter is the proposed weapon because it holds the hope of everyone saying, “wow, that was a fucked way of setting things up, let us do something different now.


Laughter and Forgiveness (An Addendum)

"Laugh," by The Doctr on Flickr.

“Laugh,” by The Doctr on Flickr.

Originally laughter contained a feeling of pleasure in prey or food which seemed certain. A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggests helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it… As Hobbes said, laughter expresses a sudden feeling of superiority, but he did not add that it only occurs when the normal consequences of this superiority do not ensue. (Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 223)

Over on Facebook, Anotherpanacea raised a good point about my last post on mocking the hierarchical.  To paraphrase: if my target is hierarchy, why am I suggesting that we make fun of people who like it – isn’t mocking and laughter a tool for showing who is on top and who is not?

It can be but it need not be. Laughter can be a powerful tool for human connection and forgiveness as well. Fundamentally, we laugh at the frailty and vulnerability of the human condition. I laugh when Louis C.K. talks about being a shitty Dad, because I see in his stories (and his superior comic timing) my own ardent desire to be a perfect father, and inevitable failures. When I was doing research in Liberia, one of the “peace women” told my colleague that they were able to get a powerful politician on their side by having the oldest woman in their group indignantly insist that he honor his mother, at which he laughed and said that because he was a soldier and they were mothers, they both knew pain and he would help them.

But when we laugh with someone, we importantly laugh at our shared frailty and vulnerability and failure. We are saying that we are unwilling to give a charade of honor and weight to the human stupidity they have shown, but that ultimately that stupidity connects us, rather than dividing us.

The paradox here is very much like the paradox of forgiveness. To forgive, we must simultaneously hold on to the view that the other person did wrong – deciding that there was no transgression is not forgiveness – but not following that recognition to its “normal consequences” in judgment and punishment.

So, when I want to mock the hierarchical, two things. First, I am mocking myself. I live a pretty comfy life on the backs of people less well-off than I am. I need forgiveness for all the time I’ve spent writing blogs instead of gleaning food, and all the money I’ve spent on Wonder Woman comics instead of sending to BRAC. I’m laughing at myself so that I can look myself in the mirror a little more clearly.

Second, as a result, I am laughing because I ultimately want social reconciliation, for all the romance of class war. The hierarchs are hurting. So, for all the mean-ness of the last post, ultimately, laughter is the proposed weapon because it holds the hope of everyone saying, “wow, that was a fucked way of setting things up, let us do something different now.”

What We Should Mock About When We Mock About Guns


“Heavy Weapons Guy and Vash the Stampede” by 5of7 on Flickr.


“Enjoy your guns, gun owners. I hope they make you happy in a way that breathing, smiling six-year old children cannot.” – Jon Rosenberg, Scenes From a Multiverse.

[EDIT: So, that quote seemed like a good idea at 11PM when I finished this post and slapped it up there, but in retrospect I think sets the wrong tone for a lot of the discussion here. I'm not zapping it out of existence, because no one should forget that I'm a dick, but I'm retracting my endorsement of it.]

Let me start with a controversial claim: to heck with The Matrix Revolutions. Straight to heck.

We’re going to get to guns. We need to, that’s the whole driver behind the existence of this blog! Anotherpanacea has been bugging me to blog for a while now, and so I promised that the first time I had something extended to say on the internet, I would blog about it rather than emailing him or having a really painful extended Twitter conversation about it.  And so I was thinking about his recent series of posts on gun control, and thought “I should email Anotherpanacea about this,” and then thought: shit.  So now I’ve got a blog, and we’re going to get to guns, and we’re going to get back to The Matrix Revolutions, but first we’re going to talk a little bit about my boltcutters.

I own a pair of boltcutters.  I bought them for an utterly mundane, bourgeois purpose – we have a padlock on our back gate, and over the winter it irretrievably seized up from moisture getting inside and freezing and mucking up whatever magical mechanisms make locks work, and so I had to take the garbage out by walking it all the way down the hall and then all the way down the sidewalk to the back of the property where the alley is and garbage is heavy and stinks, as you may have noticed.  So I went to my friendly neighborhood hardware store (that doesn’t sell kitchen scales because they kept getting stolen by heroin dealers for weighing stuff – which, seriously, are the margins on heroin so bad you’re stealing scales?) and bought some boltcutters. I’ve since used them on that darn lock, another one that froze up, some bolts (go figure!) that got embedded in the bed frame (long, not at all risque, story), and the splendid ring you can see me sporting in the first post.


BUT.  Did you actually click the link on “boltcutters” above?  If not, go do it.  It’s relevant, and it is just a righteous fucking song.

Boltcutters are more than just a tool. I am not nearly as cool as the vacant-squatting, private-property-disdaining Doomtree crew, but when I pick up my boltcutters to do even something kind of mundane, I hear in my head, “my girl gave me a boltcutter, we like to break in…”

One day, some yahoo locked their bike through my bike at Penn Station. I was annoyed, you might expect.  I couldn’t leave until this wanker got back from wherever zie was… wanking, maybe?  I don’t like to imagine that zie had had to park in a hurry because of the emergency brain surgery, as it harshes my rage buzz. But more importantly for the issue at hand, I was thinking, “man, I bet I could get my boltcutters…”  I don’t normally even contemplate the destruction of other people’s property, but knowing I had a metal-crushing device at home, and with my head filled with romantic anarchistic fantasies of the efficacy of crushing metal in achieving social justice/petty revenge, I was tempted.

Now, if you find this bad-ass romanticized anarchism repellent instead of attractive, you are probably thinking: asshole! Destroying and/or #occupying private property isn’t awesome and punk rock, it’s a total dick move!

Would your response be to advocate a ban on boltcutters?

Probably not terribly likely. They’re useful tools with legitimate purposes.  It’s just you don’t want assholes like me being tempted to misuse them.

But let’s say that Baltimore gets slightly worse and people busting into vacants and squatting is really becoming an issue, so you decide, OK, let’s regulate boltcutters. We want to be able to track people down if they steal a foreclosed house for shelter. We don’t want the cops to confiscate some punk’s boltcutters and then have hir just be able to go buy a new pair at that hipster hardware store.

Of course, this creates consternation and backlash. In particular, some people like me yelling about how private property is theft and if you give the state control of boltcutters, all boltcutters will be used to prop up the state. You counter with all sorts of statistics about how allowing houses to be foreclosed and re-sold rather than tied up with people trying to keep families living in them, or turn them over to commies and the homeless actually helps the market recover faster so that everyone can get their jobs at Lehman Brothers and Sparrow’s Point and Subway back (except not at Sparrow’s Point, you say: suck it, unions!).

Here come the well-meaning public policy types.  They say, look, the stats are never going to convince people like that Wrongzo guy. You have different cultural risk assessments! You’re worried about the value of private property and your 401k, and Wrongzo is worried about the risk of being homeless! You’re talking past each other! What you need to do is meet him on some middle ground, acknowledge his feelings about private property and stuff, and try to find a way to engage with his values.

Here’s where you say: fuck you, thinly veiled gun-debate analogy guy! Wrongzo’s values are communist terrorist values that suck and are wrong! And what happened to nice rappers like Run DMC?

The problem with the policy solution offered is that we’re not arguing about boltcutters.  We’re arguing about class war. If you win on boltcutters at the expense of losing on class war… not a great outcome.

This is why I think the approach that Anotherpanacea (remember those linked posts) is picking up from Braman and Kahan is wrong.

You should read the posts and the paper, but there are two important bits.

1. All the numbers in the world won’t end the US gun control debate, because the debate isn’t about numbers. People who love guns know that they’re deadlier than knives. People who hate guns know that car accidents kill more people each year (for now). But we’re really fighting over the “cultural meaning” of guns. People who love guns love them because they represent individualism and the defense of proper hierarchy. People who hate guns hate them because they represent mutual suspicion instead of solidarity, and the propping up of unjust hierarchy.

2. The way forward is to find a way to create a discourse that recognizes the important cultural meanings of guns to the egalitarians, the authoritarians, and the individualists, and comes up with compromises and grand bargains that makes everyone feel honored. For instance, they suggest that we simultaneously adopt registration (showing that gun owners are willing and required to be responsible to their fellow humans, as egalitarian-solidarists want) and recognize the individual right to bear arms (showing that gun owners will not be stripped of their rights, as individualists want). Anotherpanacea suggests focusing on some of the risks (like harming family members, or facilitating suicide) that guns have that presumably even their ardent supporters don’t want and reducing some of those through licensing, ammunition control, etc.

These solutions are missing the forest for the trees.

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

Pick up your monocles, gun defenders, this is probably the last thing I’m going to say that you’re going to like.

Or, rather, social hierarchies kill people.

Judith Butler has this wonderful term, “precarity,” that refers to the ways in which social structures expose people to risk and harm. I’m running roughshod over her careful, elaborate, and incomprehensible prose, but the bottom line is this: all life is precarious. We’re all subject to death from a variety of sources at any moment, and death will eventually come to us all.  But the ways that we are exposed to risk are social. I could go to DR Congo and walk around North Kivu at relatively little risk, despite it being an active war zone, because I was hanging with the UN. More generally, I live in Baltimore, one of the most violent cities in America, but the fact that I am white, live in a fairly affluent neighborhood, and don’t buy, sell, or use heroin means that I’m pretty unlikely to become one of the 200+ murder victims we have here each year.

Ultimately, the way a bullet kills you is a brute matter of the physics of metal and meat. But thinking of how people die in the US as a matter of physics is boneheaded.

So I think Anotherpanacea is wrong because he’s got the fight backwards. We’re not fighting guns and being sucked into the quicksand of egalitarian-solidarism vs. hierarchical-individualism. We’re fighting hierarchy and getting sucked into guns.

Take one thing that Anotherpanacea himself has pointed out. If we banned guns nationwide tomorrow, how do you think it would play out?  Would the cops be busting down my door on suspicion that I might have a hunting rifle? Probably not. They’d be stopping and frisking young black men down the street from me, and throwing them in jail. They’d be kicking poor people out of subsidized housing because a family member had a gun.

Take a thing a lot of people have pointed out: pretty much universally, mass shootings are a thing that white men do to other white, relatively affluent people. But the real death toll isn’t driven by spectacular media-friendly killing sprees. It’s the constant drip, drip, drip of blood in urban centers characterized by poverty and inequality.

Take away guns, poof, as if by magic, and what happens? Probably, police use the ban to crack down harder on those we already crack down on. Probably, people in “urban sacrifice zones” keep dying, just not by guns. They’re going to keep dying from malnutrition, stress, lack of education, lack of hope, drugs, pollution, and all the other things besides guns that people need to deal with. All that precarity. The flow of metal into bodies is just one stream in the mighty flow of money and power and fear that characterizes our system.

So, guns, whatever. Take away the fear and hatred that drives the hierarchical-individualist worldview (and its purity norms, on which a future discussion) and probably we have guns that police occasionally use against sociopaths and hunters use to get game meat, and boltcutters I only use on my back gate.  The fight is with hierarchy, not guns.

Take mental illness for one thing. A lot of people have been talking about how we need to take better care of the mentally ill, including the NRA (better care =   government monitoring – one reason my money is on the hierarchical part of the worldview being more important to “gun culture” than the individualist). But most mentally ill people don’t murder anyone - in fact they are more likely to be the subject of violence than its perpetrator. And a lot of folks have arm-chair diagnosed Adam Lanza without much basis other than the fact that, you know, he killed a lot of people.

And hell, if you believe gun deaths are about physics, you’ll believe mental illness is about random organic misfire, rather than about economically-related abuse and the stress of living a precarious life. Just give the poor some Abilify, that will fix the roaches on everything.

Precarity, hierarchy, it’s what’s killing people. Metal and disease and fear just tag along on the flows.

So, this makes me one of the “extremists” that Braman and Kahan worry about. They will find me “obnoxious.” I’m cool with that.

Their approach to the gun debate only works if you take the gun debate as the important focus and cultural worldviews as fixed.  We shouldn’t do either, and I’ve argued for the first bit already.

The second bit, well, a couple years back Anthony Appiah wrote a very interesting little book called The Honor Code. The question was: how did we get big, paradigm-shift moral reforms in history, like the end of dueling, slavery, and foot-binding in China?

I don’t necessarily buy every bit of his analysis, but the core idea is suggestive. Dueling didn’t end because people figured out that it was dangerous. I mean, duh. Dueling ended because it came to be seen as part of a boorish, wasteful, laughable code of “honor” not befitting gentlemen. Similarly with slavery and foot-binding: they ended when they became disreputable. And a major tool in the arsenal was not engaging people and honoring their tender pro-dueling worldview. It was marginalizing and mocking and satirizing and humiliating them.

OK, Marxists, yeah, changing economic modes probably had a lot to do with slavery, that’s part of where I’m not totally with him.

Now, Braman and Kahan specifically call out ridicule as a tactic they don’t approve of, and which they think doesn’t work. I call someone a gun-toting redneck, and they laugh and eat some more saltpeter-flavored pork rinds. No advance.

But let’s target our mockery. I’m not mocking someone for being rural. I’m mocking them for fearing me. For needing to control people to feel good about themselves. For talking like turning lives into meat is cool and fun to pretend at. For worshipping stupid narratives where all solidarity and planning and mutual support is for naught unless that one chosen one they imagine they are saves everyone. For complaining that the poor aren’t grateful enough while clinging to a world-view that pretends people owe nothing to each other. For fearing dependence, decrepitude, infancy, and birth, and hence being willing to sacrifice everyone else on the altar of a continent-wide, 300 million+ member death cult so that we and ours can live a little bit longer.

So, whatever. WordPress and Chrome are literally rebelling at the length of this post and starting to eat my typing. I don’t know if Appiah is right and heaping despite, or even sly humor, on the defenders of hierarchy will actually work. Maybe agriculture already doomed us. I’m sure Anotherpanacea’s quite sober and reasonable policy proposals – that don’t mention death cults or Judith Butler – will advance the ball a bit.

But I want to at least make a plea for us to fight the right fight. And I think that  we can win the battle but lose the war if we regulate guns in a grand bargain to preserve hierarchical-individualism.

Lots of reasonable people are afraid of the noise of a real fight over the cancer of authoritarianism and hierarchy. Me, I’m starting to hate the quiet moments.


Some Standards of Fucking Decorum

Shh! by Abbyladybug on Flickr.

Shh! by Abbyladybug on Flickr.

Right, so, before we start (are we going to start? I doubt we are going to get very far at this rate, especially since I am utterly thwarted by the highly technical task of trying to get the border working on this photo), let’s talk a bit about standards and decorum and language and rules and oh my gosh why are you still reading this?

So, here’s the deal: I may say fuck, I may generally use coarse language.

When I was a kid, I was really uptight. It was a point of pride in, like, seventh grade, that I didn’t curse like most of my peers did. I would call them out on it.

I was a little fucking prick, is what I was.

So this one afternoon, my friend Jason tricked me into saying “shit,” and it was kind of liberating. I remember saying it over and over and over again, standing at the corner near the school.

I know, I know, these are the sort of revelations that overprivileged first-world white kids get to have. Bear with me.

In addition, I think standards of discourse often have an invidious effect. I’m pretty persuaded that putting too many limits on how deliberation needs to be polite, and calm, and well-reasoned, and focus on working from what we can all agree is appropriate is likely to be elitist and exclusionary.

I mean, I am the elite, but the point stands.

Sometimes, it’s worthwhile to be coarse or to be angry or whatever, and sometimes I’m going to do it even when it’s not worthwhile.  So, just to let you know, if this might prick your bubble.

As a good philosopher, though, I should deal with potential objections.


Oh, fuck you, get a job. If you want Shakespeare, go to the rep theater or a picnic in the park or some shit. We all have lives, we have shit to do, sometimes the perfect biting turn of phrase doesn’t present itself.

And dismissing what someone has to say because of their “tone” is one of those exclusionary tactics I’m referring to above. It’s a way of not having to listen to people who don’t sound like the people who move in your circles. Again, I happen to be part of the elite, but if I make it sound like you need to talk like I talk when I’m writing journal articles to be part of the serious conversation, then you should flip me off.


No, you’re not listening. People who announce that they “just tell it like it is” are looking for absolution for being an asshole. No, if you’re going to be an asshole, just own that. Should I otherwise assume you’re telling like it isn’t? If I say something, it’s because I believe it and I stated it the way I felt like stating it an if it’s a shitty way to say it, hey, I’ll take responsibility for being shitty instead of making some weak excuse that I’m compelled by the facts themselves to say it this way.

And there’s a huge difference between speaking coarsely sometimes and being anti-PC. Remember that stuff about exclusion, above? There’s a world of difference between breaking social norms to include people by saying, “you know what, talk how you like, use the vernacular, come with your half-baked arguments and your emotions and stuff,” and breaking the fragile inclusionary norms we have to say “I don’t fucking care if what I say belittles you.”  ”PC” rules of discourse are there for a reason, it’s precisely because assholes like me have spent too long thinking it’s “normal” to shit on other people in conversation and remind them that we’re number 1 and they’re number 10.

So, again, fuck you, own it. If you want to say shitty things about women or blacks or whatever, say it. Don’t pretend it’s the same as me saying “fuck.” Don’t pretend you’re being subversive. You’re just a misogynist/racist/whatever and either own up to it or change.


Why I Am Wrong About Everything

2013-01-04 12.36.55Yay! It’s a blog.  This is actually my… uh… fifth blog, I think – sixth if you count LiveJournal.

Please do not try to find me on LiveJournal. Let’s leave the past in the past.

It is likely to not last!  I’m just managing expectations.

Mostly, this will probably be vaguely culturally- and politically-relevant philosophy. Were I to try to tackle hard philosophy, like logic or metaphysics or the logical basis of metaphysics, chances are extremely excellent that I would end up being even wronger than I typically am.

At some point, I may try to convince you that Alisdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals and Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking are the two greatest books of contemporary political philosophy, but it’s cool, I’ll be sure to flag that post in some obvious way so that you can skip it.

Oh, right! So, anyway, I’m trained as a philosopher (don’t blame my trainers) and I teach for the moment in a school of public policy. Professionally (to the extent that that adverb applies), I write about war, peacekeeping, and a little about Africa.