Sunday, May 29, 2016

What DePaul's Shameful Week Says About Academia's Deeper Problems

This is more of a reflective piece on what happened at DePaul in the past week, and what I think it says about some of academia's broader issues:

I will not attempt to recap the whole controversy. You can read the coverage in DePaul's student newspaper here, here, here, and here. Instead, this is a series of thoughts about the event itself and about what it might say about DePaul and academia generally these days.
DePaul's College Republicans did the campus and themselves a disservice. How? By inviting and paying for a low-quality, inflammatory speaker to visit campus. There are plenty of intelligent, thoughtful, and provocative conservative speakers out there. Yiannopoulos is not one of them. There are plenty of thoughtful criticisms of feminism to be made: calling it a 'cancer' is not one of them. In short, the College Republicans wasted a decent chunk of money and a useful opportunity bring in a provocateur who offers little in the way of serious or original arguments.

But they had the right to be stupid. With the above point noted, it was certainly their right to bring Yiannopoulos to campus, and to waste their money in doing so. My DePaul colleague Scott Paeth speculates about whether Yiannopoulos crosses the line into speech that DePaul would have the right to ban as a private university. (Again, this is not a 1st Amendment issue; it is an issue of a private university allowing the use of its resources for an outside speaker).

I see the point, but then there is this: Yiannopoulos offers little original thought beyond repeating standard Republican/Trump orthodoxy. So, whether good or bad, he effectively represents the mainstream of one of America's two major political parties in this day and age. That is a good argument about how intellectually decayed the Republican Party is, but it also weakens the case for banning a speaker like him from campus. There is also the fact that feminism, 'microaggressions,' and the like are ideas with serious intellectual currency on campus today; even if it is uncomfortable for some, a responsible university has to allow them to be challenged--even in unpleasant ways.
The protesters who interrupted Yiannopoulos's appearance did everyone an even greater disservice. They were both foolish and wrong. They were wrong is a moral/legal sense to block the event from continuing. The behavior of the two main protesters in particular could be viewed as assault (grabbing a microphone out of someone's hands, screaming inches away from Yiannopoulos's face, etc). They were even more foolish in a tactical sense. Given his lack of original ideas, Yiannopoulos relies entirely on provoking angry responses, which then 'prove his point' about on-campus censorship. Well, he could not have scripted a better response by the protesters than the one he got.

What should the protesters have done? A far wiser alternative would have been simply to ignore the event as the unoriginal spectacle that it was and let it be an 'echo chamber' of DePaul's Republican student population and a few curious onlookers. If they had really wished to stage an effective response, handing fliers outside the Student Center entrance explaining why his ideas are flawed or misleading would have been far better. Instead, it is very hard to argue with Republicans' claims that they shut down the event because they were scared of its message.
Some heads should roll at DePaul, but not the president's. There were clear failures of management during the event, though I have no idea with whom the fault lies. Security should have removed the protesters and allowed the event to continue. Having paid their money and scheduled the event through the appropriate channels, the College Republicans deserved as much. So did the attendees, some of whom were likely there to challenge Yiannapoulos's ideas.

That said, the outrage directed towards University President Dennis Holtschneider is wide of the mark. Aside from the fact that he was not physically present and in charge of what happened that evening, his response in a campus email struck the right tone. The outrage from outside right-wing groups is mostly about scoring points, while the outrage from on-campus left-wing groups is misguided. Bringing me to...
Various faculty members and departments on-campus have also missed the mark in their reactions. In an open letter, members of the Women and Gender Studies Department condemned Holtschneider's response and called for tighter restrictions on on-campus speech. Other on-campus groups issued similar statements, some calling on Holtschneider to resign. This is misguided. While the urge to protect marginalized groups from offensive speech is understandable, it simply is not a solution. Speech codes are dangerous ideas, as they can easily be turned around on the user. And, in the end, these ideas (however misguided) exist in society. Does sheltering the university environment from threatening speech better prepare students to engage with it later in life, or weaken its presence in society?

My biggest concern about ideas of 'microaggressions,' 'safe spaces,' and the like is the infantilizing effect it has upon students. I think we see that in the response to events like this. Students do not need 'protection' from words. Instead, they need empowerment to tackle those words head-on and defeat them with their own ideas. 
This whole thing is about a relatively small on-campus minority (on both sides). 95% of DePaul students and faculty had nothing to do with this whole scene. Claims by either side that Tuesday evening's events are representative of some broader problem at DePaul are, in that sense, wide of the mark. In that sense, this whole controversy is a disservice to the broader campus community, who might actually have benefited from witnessing a serious discussion about feminism, prejudice, or whatever.

The extremes on both sides find fulfillment from this 'outrage dance.' In many respects, this whole controversy was like a perfectly orchestrated event. College Republicans, as a minority on the DePaul campus, arrange a deliberately provocative event. (A few years ago, 'affirmative action bake sales' were all the rage). The 'provoked' minority groups, drawing on the language of 'safe spaces,' demand that the event be censored and respond with outrage. Either the event being censored or the angry response of the targeted groups allows the College Republicans to claim 'free-speech martyrdom.' The targeted groups argue that the event shows what a threatening on-campus environment they face and demand remediation: a new speech code, added sensitivity/diversity training, etc.

All of this goes hand-in-hand with administrative bloat. University administrations, eager to avoid damaging controversies, are all too happy to respond to these controversies by creating new offices of inclusion, mandating new training/courses for students and staff, and hiring more administrative personnel to ensure that everybody gets along. Of course, the cost of all that is measured in students' tuition dollars and departments' lost faculty lines. And, in many cases, these newly-hired personnel tend to indulge the worst tendencies in students; any political scientist would recognize that individual and bureaucracies will tend to create activity to justify their continued existence!
A lot of university faculty are caught in an ideological bubble. This problem can easily be (and often is) overstated, but it is clear that university faculties in the social sciences and the humanities skew heavily to the left. I witness this all the time in discussions around campus, and there is a certain level of denial about the issue. My own impression is that this is worst in some of the newer interdisciplinary programs, which were created with explicitly left-wing aims (e.g., Women and Gender Studies) and which tend to include activism as part of their identity (e.g., liberating the oppressed). I also tend to think these programs produce less rigorous research, as they tend to rely on qualitative and narrative styles of scholarship that do not require clear standards of measurement, falsification, or the like. But that may just be the social scientist in me showing.

But the broader problem here is one of motivated reasoning. As we are all human, we tend to seek out information that reinforces our existing beliefs and identities, and to scrutinize contrary ideas or information more carefully. If we are not careful, this leads us individually and collectively in some problematic directions, where our scholarship and our teaching get caught in an increasingly narrow worldview. Does that lead to conscious efforts to 'punish' or 'censor' conservative students or colleagues? I highly doubt it, and I have never done or witnessed it personally. But it does run the risk of an unconscious process by which certain ideas are dismissed too easily while shoddier ideas that fit with the worldview are accepted.

In short, this controversy should provoke a lot of self-reflection, though I doubt that it will. Almost everybody involved came out looking pretty badly, and I do not think it unfair to say that quite a few who were involved acted with bad intent.

And, to a very real extent, everyone at DePaul has been played for fools by Milo Yiannapoulos. He gained the notoriety and whatever he got paid for the appearance before jetting off to his new appearance, while the DePaul community will be left to figure out what happened. That alone should be cause for reflection among DePaul's College Republicans.

The Meaning of Austria's Presidential Election

Originally posted at Vocal Europe on Tuesday:


Alexander Van der Bellen has narrowly defeated Norbert Hofer in the 2nd round of Austria’s presidential election.

This election result was a ‘first’ in two respects. What attracted the most international media attention was the fact that the candidate of a radical-right party (the Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ by its German initials) won the first round with 35% of the vote and nearly gained a majority in the second round. This was an unprecedented level of success for a radical-right politician in a national election in contemporary Western Europe.

The second, less noted, new development in this election is that Van der Bellen’s victory was a first for a member of a West European Green party in a national election. In terms of both candidates’ results, this election was historic. Though the Austrian presidency is mostly ceremonial, it is nonetheless significant that it will be held by a pro-EU Green (and it certainly would have been viewed as significant had Hofer won).

With that said, the big news for many is the Hofer’s electoral success, even in defeat. Austrians will election a new parliament in 2017, and the FPÖ will be optimistic about winning those. Public opinion polls in 2016 have consistently shown FPÖ as the largest party with above 30% support, so Hofer’s 35% share of the first-round presidential vote may be reasonably predictive. If that result holds true, then it will be very difficult for a new government to form without FPÖ.

These results tell us something about the evolving nature of politics in Austria, and Western Europe more generally. The traditional center-left and center-right parties, which represent older socio-economic class cleavages, fared poorly. Instead, the candidates offering the clearest choices on Austria’s policies towards immigration, multiculturalism, and the European Union were more successful. With that said, there is a clear Austrian dimension to Hofer’s success: FPÖ (and, to an extent, Green Party) support has risen at least in part due to the long pattern of ‘grand coalition’ governments between Austria’s mainstream center-left and center-right parties.

The patterns of voting reveal a lot about this new divide. Van der Bellen, who is pro-EU and cosmopolitan in his outlook, received a large share of votes from university-educated, female, and urban voters. Hofer, who is nationalist and anti-EU, received more votes from less-educated, older, male, and rural voters. These patterns are consistent with those from other Western European countries (and from the United States, when one examines support for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy). The core of radical right support in Western Europe are those voters who feel ‘left behind’ by the social changes driven by immigration and European integration. By offering a clear message opposing these changes, radical right parties have succeeded at attracting voters who feel threatened that the old social order is disintegrating. Many of these voters may have supported social democratic parties in past decades. In addition to these broader social changes, recent events—the refugee crisis and terror attacks in Western Europe—have drawn voters who are anxious about security and defending the national community to the radical right.

It is less certain how one should interpret Van der Bellen’s victory. The standard interpretation would be that he benefited from a large anti-Hofer effect. In past cases where radical right candidates have made it to run-off elections, they have faced mainstream (typically center-right) opponents. In those cases, mainstream voters have rallied around that opponent in the run-off election, producing a big electoral victory. The most recent illustration of that trend came in France’s 2015 regional elections. Prior to the run-off election, it was unclear whether Van der Bellen would benefit from this rallying trend, as mainstream voters might find a Green candidate to be equally extreme and unacceptable as a radical-right candidate.

Van der Bellen gained a substantial majority of those mainstream votes (plus some non-voters from the first round) to overturn the 35% to 21% deficit he faced after the first round. Did he gain those votes simply because he was the ‘lesser of two evils’? Or did his strongly pro-EU and cosmopolitan positions actually resonate with mainstream voters, particularly on the center-left?

This should be a pressing question for center-left parties, which are struggling across Western Europe. Much of their struggle is rooted in an inability to offer a coherent response to Europe’s ongoing challenges: the financial crisis, economic stagnation resulting from austerity, and the refugee crisis. One response, typified by Austrian Chancellor (and member of the Socialist Party of Austria) Christian Kern’s announcement today to take tougher measures on immigration and security, is to pursue moderated versions of the policies that radical-right parties endorse. In doing so, they hope to blunt the appeal of the radical right, but these efforts may backfire by legitimating radical-right policy demands in the eyes of voters—who may prefer the ‘real thing’ to a watered-down version. Center-left parties would be wiser to offer a clear alternative to the radical right, and a Green candidate’s victory may have offered them a template for how to do that.




Thursday, May 5, 2016

Turkey's 'Ratification Coup'?

On 5 May, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced his intention to step down as Prime Minister--a decision that was instigated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There will be a party congress on 22 May to select the new leader, but the reality is Erdoğan will hand pick the new Prime Minister. Indeed, speculation already centers on which of Erdoğan's personal favorites it will be--with one of the favorites being a son-in-law.

So has anything really changed? I would argue that the answer is more 'no' than 'yes'.

What Has Changed
The main change is the obvious one: the personal dynamic. Whatever the nature of their relationship over the past two years,  Davutoğlu was more likely to resist Erdoğan than his successor will be. Intra-AK Parti politics is a black box (at least to me), so I don't know how often Davutoğlu may have attempted to block Erdoğan's initiatives or act independently of the president. Of course, the anonymous 'Pelican Brief' included a list of grievances from a pro-Erdoğan writer...but you can decide how much weight to give to that.

It's safe to say that the new Prime Minister will be more compliant with Erdoğan's demands. However, and this is all in the realm of 'palace intrigue', it's also safe to say that this new Prime Minister will eventually fall out with Erdoğan as well. The 'Pelican Brief' certainly does seem to nicely summarize Erdoğan's worldview: enemies abound everywhere, and only his strength and judgment can hold Turkey together. His paranoia and lust for power being what it, it is surely only a matter of time before his new PM either fails him or attempts to betray him (at least in his own eyes).

The other big change is in appearance: the transparent nature of Davutoğlu's ouster undermines any pretense that Turkey still operates as a parliamentary system. This is the point that James in Turkey makes: 'the transfer of executive power from the prime minister to the president is now complete." That is important.

But I jokingly suggested on Twitter last night that this should be called the 'Coming-Out Coup' (given the Turkish tradition of coming up with exotic new names for each coup attempt). What I meant is that this is simply making official what everybody already knew anyway: Erdoğan runs the country from the presidency. Maybe a better name in this spirit is the 'ratification coup'?

What Has Not Changed
So the main story that has not changed: Erdoğan runs both AK Parti and Turkey in general--the constitution and party governance rules be damned. Speculation will continue to center on his desired new constitution, the efforts to strip opposition MPs of parliamentary immunity, and so on.

If ratified, this constitution will formalize the de facto reality: Turkey is now governed as a Russian-style semi-presidential system. Erdoğan governs through a compliant (maybe a little more after 22 May than before) parliamentary cabinet. On paper, there is a separation of powers: parliament can resist his demands, the judiciary can strike down his/parliament's actions, and so on. In reality, with Erdoğan and his allies having control of a parliamentary majority and many positions within the judiciary, this happens only on occasion.

That does not make the proposed constitution unimportant. Formalization of these governing arrangements is important. Erdoğan will eventually exit the presidency (one way or another), or the AK Parti parliamentary majority could fracture while he remains in power. In either case, the formalization of these new governing arrangements will make make things worse for post-Erdoğan Turkey.

The other big thing that has not changed: Turkey remains the same '50-50 state' I have described before. Institutionally, Turkey's fragmented opposition has little ability to block Erdoğan's rule, except on matters that require a parliamentary supermajority or a popular vote. And, indeed, Erdoğan may succeed in co-opting the dysfunctional far-right MHP in order to get his constitution through parliament. But polls continue to show the Turkish public very divided (following this '50-50' theme) on Erdoğan's constitution, meaning that a referendum is to approve it is no sure thing.

This is why I continue to argue that the best analytical lens through which to understand Turkish politics is competitive authoritarianism. Turkey is authoritarian--both in Erdoğan's governing style and his disregard for individual and media freedoms. But it remains competitive--Erdoğan has shown no ability to win the support of the other half of the country (indeed, his actions generate more resistance--certainly among the CHP and HDP segments of Turkey). Competitive authoritarianism can last for decades. But it is at its heart an unstable arrangement: competition is incompatible with authoritarianism.

So expect more 'palace intrigue' in the short-to-medium term, as Erdoğan handpicks and removes various leaders and intraparty rivals. This is the stuff of authoritarian politics, where the true action takes place behind the scenes within the ruling elite and not out in the open. But the authoritarian veneer of palace intrigue cannot mask the more fundamentally divided nature of Turkish politics.