Understanding Society

Daniel Little

Sunday, September 25, 2022

River warfare in the US Civil War



The mental images that most Americans have of the American Civil War involve the scenes of major land battles -- Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg. Armies marched dozens of miles, prepared encampments and defensive works, and either attacked the enemy in its own prepared defenses or awaited contact with the enemy. The picture is Napoleonic: an army marching across terrain to fight other slow-moving armies.

It is therefore highly interesting to realize that naval warfare on rivers -- especially the Mississippi River -- played a key role in the success of Union forces in 1862-1865, and that armored steamships were critical to victory. To an extent that is now hard to imagine, with modern transportation networks including dense highway networks, as well as air and rail systems, how important control and navigation of the Mississippi River was to both Union and Confederate war fighting. General Ulysses S. Grant's strategy for bringing the war to the South was dependent on the objective of gaining control of the Mississippi River; and the river was a key component in the movements of troops, supplies, and field headquarters around the contested territories.



maps: Feis, Grant's Secret Service, p. 12

The reason for this importance of control of the Mississippi has to do with speed of deployment and logistics. (There was also a major economic consideration: if the South could close the Mississippi, it would cause great hardship for the Northern population.) But consider the logistics and speed issues. The speed of advance of an army on the march through water-logged terrain with poor roads -- conditions that obtained during much of Grant's campaign in the west -- was miniscule in comparison to a steamship moving unhindered several hundred miles along the river. As a rough estimate, it would take an army 21 days to march from Cairo, Illinois to Vicksburg, Tennessee, whereas it would take a steam-powered riverboat about three days to travel the same distance. And steamships could carry all the materiel required for the campaign. (Travel up-river the same distance would take longer.) Maintaining a supply line for the mountains of food, horse fodder, ammunition, replacement equipment, and evacuation of the wounded required by an army in the field depended on heavy transport -- by rail or river boat. Rail transport was substantially faster than riverboat transport -- the average rail speed unhindered by sabotage of tracks, etc. was 25 mph, compared to 5-7 mph for river transport. So rail transport was preferable. However, controlling and maintaining rail networks in hostile territory was extremely difficult, since local sympathizers could sabotage tracks and bridges in dozens of remote places. As a result, naval operations were a key part of the Union's war fighting in the west of the country. The Mississippi River represented the great north-south highway along which the war in the west was fought.

The strategic importance of strong fortifications with heavy guns at locations along the river permitting control of traffic was plain to all sides; so major battles developed involving attempts to seize fortified places like Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant's persistent effort to besiege and occupy Vicksburg was a mark of his strength as a general, and the eventual success of his plans represented a turning point in the Civil War. But key to success at Vicksburg (and Fort Henry a year earlier) was the availability of a growing force of river warships, from lightly armed gunboats to ironclad and timber-clad steamships with heavy armaments capable of assaulting land-based fortifications. And almost none of this range of river craft existed before the onset of war. The use armored river steamboats of the Civil War thus represented a major technological shift in warfare -- perhaps as dramatic in 1861 as high-precision artillery has been in Ukraine in 2022.

The high end of these armored vessels were the City-class gunboats ("turtles"). These were ironclad vessels designed for service in rivers rather than open seas. They had shallow draft of six feet, were armed with thirteen guns, and could cruise at eight knots. Seven boats were delivered by January, 1862, and they played a significant role in major battles along the Mississippi River, including Vicksburg. These ships included the USS Baron DeKalb, Cairo, Carondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, and Pittsburgh.

Complementing these ironclads was a larger group of wooden vessels that also played a major role in river warfare during the Civil War. Angus Konstam's book Mississippi River Gunboats of the American Civil War 1861-65 provides a review of the rapid development of armored wooden gunboats as the war in the west heated up. These craft needed to be shallow-draft, and they needed to be maneuverable enough to manage the twisting courses of the midwestern rivers. They were steam-powered and relatively slow, but provided both heavy mobile armaments and heavy transport for the strategic thrusts of the army. They could be used to transport troops, and they therefore permitted rapid shifts in the location of land-based attacks.


A rapid effort at ship-building and conversion ensued by both Confederate and Union militaries after the outbreak of war, and within a year each side had a number of river-based warships. The earliest heavy gunboats in the Union arsenal were converted commercial vessels -- the Conestoga (572 tons), the Lexington (362 tons), and the Tyler (420 tons), launched in summer 1861 and shielded with thick timber. In addition to the heavy gunboats, the armies also needed a larger number of smaller river gunboats (150-250 tons) that could be used to patrol the river and serve as transport up and down the river (9). The flagship of the river navy, also converted from commercial use, was the USS Black Hawk (902 tons). (All these data are drawn from Konstam's table of ships operated by both sides.) These wooden river warships were immediately thrown into the struggle.

What emerged was a campaign involving the attack on these Confederate naval and riverside defenses by two fleets: One descending the river from Cairo, Illinois, and the other (after the fall of New Orleans in April 1862) working its way up from the Gulf of Mexico. After a brilliantly executed attack on Fort Henry and Fort Donelson [by forces commanded by Grant] on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Union naval forces in the upper Mississippi faced a series of imposing fortifications. (Konstam, 5)

Fortifications and heavy guns at Vicksburg were the most significant of these Confederate capabilities on the Mississippi River, and it took great fortitude for army and naval forces to eventually take Vicksburg in July 1863. This represented a major turning point in the Civil War.

What is particularly interesting to me about this quick exposure to river warfare in the 1860s is the fact that there were several tempos of operations in the Civil War -- the movements of armies at 15-20 miles per day, the movements of troops, officers, and materiel by steamship at perhaps 100 miles per day and by rail when available at 400 miles per day, and the transmission of messages at Internet speed by telegraph. The faster pace of steamboat and rail warfare fundamentally changed the challenges and opportunities confronting the generals. It is plain, then, that the American Civil War was a high-tech war, with innovations and adaptations introduced into war fighting in real time. (Even the evolution of heavy weaponry and ammunition moved forward quickly during the five years of fighting.) Here again, the similarity to the Ukraine war is striking.

(Here is an interesting photo essay on the evolution of Civil War gunboats; link. And here is a National Parks historical video on the battle of Vicksburg; link.)


Friday, September 23, 2022

Confronting Evil in History


My short book Confronting Evil in History has just been published in Cambridge Elements in the Elements in Historical Theory and Practice series edited by Daniel Woolf. 

Here is the abstract:

Evil is sometimes thought to be incomprehensible and abnormal, falling outside of familiar historical and human processes. And yet the twentieth century was replete with instances of cruelty on a massive scale, including systematic torture, murder, and enslavement of ordinary, innocent human beings. These overwhelming atrocities included genocide, totalitarianism, the Holocaust, and the Holodomor. This Element underlines the importance of careful, truthful historical investigation of the complicated realities of dark periods in human history; the importance of understanding these events in terms that give attention to the human experience of the people who were subject to them and those who perpetrated them; the question of whether the idea of 'evil' helps us to confront these periods honestly; and the possibility of improving our civilization's resilience in the face of the impulses towards cruelty to other human beings that have so often emerged.

The book focuses on the question, how should philosophers and historians confront the massive evils of the twentieth century -- Holodomor, Holocaust, genocide, mass enslavement, totalitarianism? It argues that we have not yet adequately rethought our fundamental ideas about human nature, morality, institutions, and culture in light of those evils. The current atrocities committed by Russian forces against the innocent civilians of Ukraine underline the ongoing importance of these fundamental questions.

Cambridge University Press has the generous policy of making new publications in the Elements series available for free PDF download for two weeks from the date of publication. If you'd like a free digital copy, here is the URL. Look for the "Save PDF" tab. 

https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009104265

Feel free to share this link through social media with those who may be interested in the topic. Free access will continue for two weeks.


Sunday, September 18, 2022

Malcolm Muggeridge on the Holodomor


Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a much-read English left journalist, critic, and international observer and a close friend of George Orwell in the 1930s. Muggeridge wrote an introduction to Orwell's novel Burmese Days, and along with Tony Powell, he made arrangements for Orwell's funeral in 1950. (Ian Hunter's Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life provides an excellent biographical study.) 

Muggeridge was a strong supporter of the Communist Revolution in Russia in the 1920s, but in 1932 he served in Moscow as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and came to see the horrific side of Stalinism. In 1933 he traveled to North Caucasus and Ukraine to observe the process of collectivization and starvation that was underway there, without permission from the Soviet authorities, and some of his articles were published as "our correspondent" in the Guardian in March 1933. A second batch of articles was published in the Morning Post in June 1933 (link).

Here is Muggeridge's 25 March 1933 Guardian article (the first of the Guardian series):

Living in Moscow and listening to statements of doctrine and of policy, you forget that the lives of a hundred and sixty millions of people, mostly peasants, are profoundly affected by discussions and resolutions that seem, as abstract as the proceedings of a provincial debating society.

"We must collectivise agriculture", or "We must root out kulaks". But what is going on in the remote villages? I set out to discover it in the North Caucasus.

A little market town in the Kuban district. There were soldiers everywhere - well fed, and the civilian population was obviously starving. I mean starving in its absolute sense; not undernourished, but having had for weeks next to nothing to eat. Later I found out there had been no bread at all in the place for three months.

The famine is an organised one. The proletariat, represented by the G.P.U. (State Political Police) and the military, has utterly routed its enemies amongst the peasantry who tried to hide a little of their produce to feed themselves. The worst of the class war is that it never stops. First individual kulaks shot and exiled; then groups of peasants; then whole villages. It is literally true that whole villages have been exiled.

About 60% of the peasantry and 80% of the land were brought into collective farms, tractors to replace horses, elevators to replace barns. The Communist directors were sometimes incompetent or corrupt; the agronomes were in many cases a failure. Horses, for lack of fodder, died off much faster than tractors were manufactured, and the tractors were mishandled and broken. Collectivisation was a failure. The immediate result was a falling off in the yield of agriculture. Last year this became acute. It was necessary for the Government's agents to take nearly everything that was edible.

There took place a new outburst of repression. Shebboldaev, party secretary for the North Caucasus, said in a speech: "At the present moment, when what remains of the kulaks are trying to organise sabotage, every slacker must be deported. That is true justice. You may say that before we exiled individual kulaks, and that now it concerns whole stanitza [villages] and whole collective farms. If these are enemies they must be treated as kulaks'.

It is this "true justice" that has helped greatly to reduce the North Caucasus to its present condition.

And here is the second article from the Guardian on March 27, 1933, recording Muggeridge's observations from his travel to North Caucasus and Ukraine (link). Here is a striking passage from this entry:

How is it that so many obvious and fundamental facts about Russia are not noticed even by serious and intelligent visitors? Take, for instance, the most obvious and fundamental fact of all. There is not 5 per cent of the population whose standard of life is equal to, or nearly equal to, that of the unemployed in England who are on the lowest scale of relief. I make this statement advisedly, having checked it on a basis of the family budgets in Mr Fenner Brockway’s recent book Hungry England, which certainly do not err on the side of being too optimistic.

In the evening I joined a crowd in a street. It was drifting up and down while a policeman blew his whistle; dispersing just where he was, then reforming again behind him. Some of the people in the crowd were holding fragments of food, inconsiderable fragments that in the ordinary way a housewife would throw away or give to the cat. Others were examining these fragments of food. Every now and then an exchange took place. Often, as in the little market town, what was bought was at once consumed. I turned into a nearby church. It was crowded. A service was proceeding; priests in vestments and with long hair were chanting prayers, little candle flames lighting the darkness, incense rising. How to understand? How to form an opinion? What did it mean? What was its significance? The voices of the priests were dim, like echoes, and the congregation curiously quiet, curiously still.

Here is a short excerpt from the second article in the June 1933 Morning Post series (link):

If you go now to the Ukraine or the North Caucasus, exceedingly beautiful countries and formerly amongst the most fertile in the world you will find them like a desert; fields choked with weeds and neglected; no livestock or horses; villages seeming to be deserted, sometimes actually deserted peasants famished, often their bodies swollen, unutterably wretched.

You will discover, if you question them, that they have had no bread at all for three months past; only potatoes and some millet, and that now they are counting their potatoes one by one because they know nothing else will be available to eat until the summer, if then. They will tell you that many have already died of famine, and that many are dying every day; that thousands have been shot by the Government and hundreds of thousands exiled; that it is a crime, punishable by the death sentence without trial, for them to have grain in their houses.

They will only tell you these things, however, if no soldier or stranger is within sight. At the sight of a uniform or of someone properly fed, whom they assume, because of that fact, to be a Communist or a Government official, they change their tone and assure you that they have everything in the way of food and clothing that the heart of man can desire, and that they love the dictatorship of the proletariat, and recognise thankfully the blessings it has brought to them.

Much of the deadly reality of Stalin's war of starvation against the peasants, the Holodomor, was concealed or minimized by western journalists in Russia. John Simkin (link) provides a very illuminating description and critique of the western journalists stationed in Moscow during the early 1930s who minimized or denied the occurrence of mass starvation, including New York Times reporter Walter Duranty and UPI correspondent Eugene Lyons. Both Duranty and Lyons attempted to discredit Gareth Jones, whose travel through Ukraine in 1932 represented one of the earliest eye-witness accounts of mass starvation there, along with Arthur Koestler and Malcolm Muggeridge. (Here is an excellent discussion with Anne Applebaum of the important film Mr. Joneslink, and here is a website containing almost all of Jones's published writing (link).)

The Guardian provides a reproduction of the relevant page of the newspaper for March 27, 1933, the date that Muggeridge's second article appeared. It is striking to see the traumatic history represented on that single page of newsprint: Nazi oppression and violence against Jews in Germany, Stalinist arrest and persecution of workers in Russia, an Irish bombing, and hunger in the Ukraine (link). (Click the image for a more legible resolution of the page.)





Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Better-functioning organizations


A recurring topic here is the potential for large and costly failures created by the dysfunctions of complex organizations (link). This perspective on organizations follows from the work of sociologists like Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, and Andrew Hopkins. But we can also ask the symmetrical question: is it possible for a medium- or large-scale organization to function well and to consistently to achieve its organizational purposes? Or are large organizations doomed to erratic performance?

Consider an example -- say, a large industrial manufacturing company like John Deere. John Deere employs about 70,000 workers and managers in locations in thirty countries.

John Deere is a manufacturing company that produces farm equipment -- tractors, harvesters, forestry equipment, residential lawn equipment, etc. Its corporate headquarters are in Moline, Illinois, and the company did $48.4 billion in annual sales in FY2021. This is roughly comparable to the revenues of Caterpillar, one of its main competitors, and a little over one-third the revenues of auto manufacturer Ford Motor Company. John Deere's current market value is $113.8 billion.

John Deere is widely regarded as one of the better-managed and led companies on the American scene today. What are the corporate goals and priorities that John Deere's executive team and upper management seek to achieve? Do they succeed? Is JD a social machine for success? Here are several unranked priorities:
  • Maintain and increase shareholder value
  • Maintain company's stock price
  • Achieve a strong rate of profit
  • Extend market share domestically and internationally
  • Increase revenue year-to-year
  • Satisfy customers
More specific goals concern the organization and management of production, the design of new products, and ongoing assessment of "market trends" for the technology of earth-moving and farm equipment. These might include:
  • manage and improve manufacturing processes for efficiency and quality of product
  • anticipate technology changes that affect farm equipment and other JD products
  • maintain worker morale
  • maintain appropriate coordination across divisions of company
  • contain costs, including materials and labor
  • maintain safety standards in the workplace
  • conduct effective and focused research and development activities
The company has three main divisions, with further divisions within each: Agriculture and Turf, Construction and Forestry, and Finance. The organization chart indicates the internal structure of the company. (Click the image to see a more legible version.)

The org chart indicates ten members of the executive team, including the CEO as well as presidents of Agriculture and Turf Division, Agriculture and Turf Division (small agriculture and turf, international markets), Construction and Forestry, Aftermarket services, Financial, Technology, General Counsel, Human Resources, and Senior VP and CFO. Several of these officers have responsibilities extending across the whole corporation, while others are responsible for the main product divisions of the company.

Not visible from the org chart is the management of activities that extend across multiple divisions: for example, manufacturing, new product design, technology development, and logistics. Consider manufacturing. The company builds tractors, engines, and other heavy equipment in factories in the US, Brazil, Argentina, Finland, France, Germany (2), The Netherlands, India (4), and Mexico (2). These manufacturing facilities presumably "belong" to different divisions of the company; and each of them presumably has local chief managers and directors as well. How are coordination problems solved within this complex set of manufacturing activities and sites? Are there systems in place for transferring new technologies of advanced manufacturing from one site to another? Are there quality assurance and worker safety systems in place ensuring that top executives will quickly learn of locations where either product quality or plant safety are compromised? Does a factory in Brazil that makes combine harvesters have ways of learning from technology and process innovations that have been developed in a turf maintenance tractor factory in Finland? Or are the divisions and locations "siloed" so that each proceeds according to its own internal measurements, processes, and executive leadership?

One answer that the central JD executive team might give to this question about coordination is that it doesn't matter very much. Their central responsibility is simply to manage manufacturing and sales processes in such a way that each market and division remains profitable and growing -- and perhaps to shut down activities that show little promise of improvement over the medium term. How they achieve this result is a problem for local and regional management. But this isn't a very convincing answer. If JD-Finland has redesigned a manufacturing process in a way that removes 10% of the cost of production, that is a savings that ought to be quickly shared with other factories around the world. Likewise, if JD-France has an unusual number of in-plant accidents, or JD-Mexico has a significantly high rate of product defects, the central management ought to be in a position to observe and correct those deficiencies. So an observer might suppose that there ought to be a central tracking system for technological and process innovation, safety performance, and quality ratings that extends across all regions and divisions of the company. If such a system is lacking, then the company is objectively less efficient than it could otherwise be.

A more serious source of corporate dysfunction can be found in the office of Finance, where the wizards are paying very close attention to the company's stock price. These experts lobby the CEO to take steps to prop up revenues in the coming 24 months, so that Wall Street will look at JD stock with more favor. Canvassing the options for increasing net revenue, the CEO's advisors recommend two things: to impose an IT fee on the users of the JD tractors and farm equipment "to offset the cost of these high-tech systems"; and to find significant sources of cost savings in heavy manufacturing plants. It is estimated that these changes will add 4% to net revenues in the coming 24 months. But these plans work out badly. Users of JD tractors are angered by the new fees -- leading to a surge of interest in Mitsubishi equipment in the heartland. And factory managers achieve cost savings by reducing production-line staff and curtailing safety programs. As a result, unionized workers are motivated to support a costly strike in the next negotiation, and a surge of factory accidents takes place in a number of factories.

This example illustrates a common source of dysfunction within an organization: one division favors priority X, which interferes with achieving priorities Y and Z. Enhancing stock value was achieved in this scenario; but at the price of alienating both customers and workers. So who is most able to influence the CEO -- the finance team, the HR team, or the marketing team?

This may sound like an entirely hypothetical and unlikely scenario; but something very much like it seems to have been in play in the background of the Boeing 737 MAX debacle. Here is an excerpt from a story in Industry Week about the sources of failure in the 737 MAX software redesign process:

Engineers who worked on the Max, which Boeing began developing eight years ago to match a rival Airbus SE plane, have complained of pressure from managers to limit changes that might introduce extra time or cost.

“Boeing was doing all kinds of things, everything you can imagine, to reduce cost, including moving work from Puget Sound, because we’d become very expensive here,” said Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing flight controls engineer laid off in 2017. “All that’s very understandable if you think of it from a business perspective. Slowly over time it appears that’s eroded the ability for Puget Sound designers to design.” (link)


Two observations are relevant from the example of a somewhat fictionalized John Deere company. First, a degree of decentralization and specialization is inevitable in a complex organization. Different products and markets need to be managed by leaders and managers who focus their attention on those particular technical and market conditions. But second, an organization is always vulnerable to conflicts of priority and demand from the various divisions and voices within the company. The advocacy of the General Counsel may be at odds with the office responsible for product innovation; the finance team may be at odds with both labor relations and safety management executives. 

John Deere seems to be an especially successful corporation when it comes to accomplishing its business goals as well as its safety and quality goals. And it pays close attention to worker satisfaction within the company (link). The interesting question is this: how has this success been maintained over decades? Does it have to do with the recruitment and selection of employees and senior executives who do a particularly good job of balancing priorities? Is there a culture at John Deere that allows it to escape some of the potentially damaging dynamics of the mentality of "maximize revenues, maximize stock price" over all else? Does a medium-duration timeline for corporate decision-making help -- a situation in which executives are encouraged to offer plans and solutions that will best serve the company and its stakeholders (customers, workers, investors) over the longterm?

(Here is a relevant discussion of the dysfunctional decision-making that occurred in the US steel industry after World War II, leading to its permanent decline relative to international competitors; link.)


Saturday, September 10, 2022

Sliding towards "semi-fascism"


President Biden's September 1 speech on the political threats posed to our democracy by the language and actions of far-right GOP leaders and elected officials was entirely on the mark. As scholars of the history of fascism have noted, many of the characteristics of fascism are indeed currently present in GOP language and goals. The cries of outrage demanding apology from these very same politicians are entirely mendacious.

New School historian Federico Finchelstein has written extensively on the history and social reality of fascism. Especially interesting in our contemporary context is his Brief History of Fascist Lies. Here is how Finchelstein formulated the concept of fascism in the Washington Post following Biden's speech:

What is fascism? In historical terms, it was an ultranationalist, anti-liberal and anti-Marxist politics. Its primary aim was to destroy democracy from within to create a modern dictatorship from above. The state silenced the basic tenets of civil society, while eliminating the distinctions between the public and the private — or between the state and its citizens. Fascist regimes shut down the independent press and destroyed the rule of law.

Fascists defended a divine, messianic and charismatic form of leadership supported by big lies and propaganda. They had an extreme, xenophobic conception of what they deemed the enemy, regarding it as an existential threat to the nation and to its people that had to be first persecuted and then deported or eliminated. Fascism aimed to create a new and epochal world order through the militarization of politics.(link)

The similarities between these descriptions and the behavior and language of the MAGA crowd are unmistakeable. The charge of "semi-fascism" is not based on the fact that the right-wing GOP believes there is a hidden liberal elite that runs the country. Rather, it is that they are threatening mass violence against the state, elected officials, other citizens, and the groups they don't like. Like Mussolini, they will use whatever rhetorical dodges come to hand to gain support. But violent anti-democratic change is their program. That's what makes Biden's statements that the GOP is becoming a party of what he called "semi-fascism" so accurate.

The far right has manufactured faceless and fictional enemies to wage war against -- government officials in particular -- which is really a rejection of the idea that government has an entirely appropriate function in regulating industry and securing the common good. And under cover of that set of fictions, they are actually working aggressively to intimidate voters, librarians, teachers, health-care workers, election officials, public health administrators, and advocates for anti-racism and police reform.

Here is how Finchelstein encapsulates the Trumpian version of fascist aspiration:

Indeed, well before Jan. 6, 2021, Trump had already established key pillars of fascism: militarization of politics, xenophobia, totalitarian propaganda techniques and demonstrable falsehoods, and the demonization of his antagonists. Trumpism was only missing dictatorship. And then the insurrection happened, as Trump supporters attempted to overturn the 2020 election results because he lost. (link)

Critics of the American system from the left are certainly correct in saying that wealthy individuals and corporations wield vast power in our system -- witness the entirely one-sided tax policy changes that have occurred in the past decades, the weakening of regulatory regimes (FAA, NRC, OSHA, EPA), and the impunity with which billionaires move their wealth (and their yachts) to island enclaves beyond scrutiny of US taxes.

It's pretty laughable to assert that "socialists" and the radical-liberal left have created all kinds of new laws and policies oppressing other people; the left has been defeated on almost every issue (reduction of inequalities, gun safety legislation, strong and effective industrial regulation, taxes on the rich, reproductive rights, ...).

There are indeed dark forces pulling a lot of strings in our democracy: the NRA, the extremist anti-abortion movement, the effective power of corporations to secure their financial interests over the public good, the role of big money in elections (e.g. Barry Seide and the Marble Freedom Trust), and the increasingly strident voices of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-muslim bigotry among GOP politicians. Progressive critics refer primarily to the third and fourth items on this list; and these factors remain potent today. But the "populist" extremists have gained an enormous amount of power that they are wielding against the clear majority of the US population.

It's a gloomy picture!

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Social cognitive frameworks and social class


It is evident that all of us "filter" the social worlds that we inhabit according to a set of expectations, assumptions, stereotypes, and values. We understand a social interaction that we ourselves participate in, or merely observe, through these assumptions and filters. We might describe these systems of thought as "social-cognitive frameworks" -- the collection of basic assumptions that an individual possesses in terms of which he or she conceptualizes and frames the social world around him, and some of the basic norms, values, and pro/con attitudes that influence behavior in everyday environments. These frameworks are not inevitable or uniform within a particular society. Instead, they are influenced by ordinary experiences in life in work, neighborhood, family, school, and military settings. And surely they vary dramatically by one's position in the systems of class, gender, race, ethnicity, caste, and status within which one lives. Here I would like to explore one aspect of how these social-cognitive frameworks are constituted through an individual's early and young-adult experiences -- the world of work.

A social-cognitive framework involves something like a taxonomy of the various categories of people around one, along with powerful social emotions: who can be trusted? Who feared? Who is a potential friend and ally, and who is an adversary or enemy? Which groups are thought to be admirable, and which contemptible? Are there socially specific indicators or labels that guide judgments like these -- a way of dressing, a tattoo, a readiness to smile, a motorcycle? And, finally, a social-cognitive framework involves a set of values and orienting goals for the individual -- the activities and achievements that he or she aspires to attain.

For example, what do Amazon warehouse workers think of the professors they may encounter when they visit Madison or Ann Arbor -- what assumptions do they make about the professors' social attitudes? And vice versa -- what assumptions do professors make about the hourly working people they encounter? And what about the technical specialists at the warehouse or factory -- how do the Amazon workers think about these "white collar" "professional" men and women, and how do they behave towards them?

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that George Orwell attempted to get inside the social-cognitive frameworks of the working class men and women with whom he interacted in the north of England, as recorded in The Road to Wigan Pier. He paid close attention to the ways these men and women talk, dress, eat, work, and raise their children, and made it very clear that these practices and mental frameworks differ a great deal from other social strata in England in the period. Orwell identified his own class origin as "lower-upper-middle class", and has a clear understanding of the distinctive social views of that segment of English society:

I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class. The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded. Or perhaps it would be better to change the metaphor and describe it not as a mound but as a layer—the layer of society lying between £2,000 and £300 a year: my own family was not far from the bottom. You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood. Nevertheless, the essential point about the English class-system is that it is not entirely explicable in terms of money. Roughly speaking it is a money-stratification, but it is also interpenetrated by a sort of shadowy caste-system; rather like a jerry-built modern bungalow haunted by medieval ghosts. Hence the fact that the upper-middle class extends or extended to incomes as low as £300 a year—to incomes, that is, much lower than those of merely middle-class people with no social pretensions. Probably there are countries where you can predict a man’s opinions from his income, but it is never quite safe to do so in England; you have always got to take his traditions into consideration as well. A naval officer and his grocer very likely have the same income, but they are not equivalent persons and they would only be on the same side in very large issues such as a war or a general strike—possibly not even then. (chapter 8)

Here is his portrait of the lower-middle class gentile view of the working class:

And what is this attitude? An attitude of sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred. Look at any number of Punch during the past thirty years. You will find it everywhere taken for granted that a working-class person, as such, is a figure of fun, except at odd moments when he shows signs of being too prosperous, whereupon he ceases to be a figure of fun and becomes a demon. It is no use wasting breath in denouncing this attitude. It is better to consider how it has arisen, and to do that one has got to realise what the working classes look like to those who live among them but have different habits and traditions. (chapter 8)

Where do these social-cognitive frameworks come from? Orwell tries to answer this question as well.

I have dwelt on these subjects because they are vitally important. To get rid of class-distinctions you have got to start by understanding how one class appears when seen through the eyes of another. It is useless to say that the middle classes are ‘snobbish’ and leave it at that. You get no further if you do not realise that snobbishness is bound up with a species of idealism. It derives from the early training in which a middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the ‘lower classes’.  (chapter 8)

And Orwell is persuaded that these assumptions are deep and stable, once established.

 A middle-class person embraces Socialism and perhaps even joins the Communist Party. How much real difference does it make? Obviously, living within the framework of capitalist society, he has got to go on earning his living, and one cannot blame him if he clings to his bourgeois economic status. But is there any change in his tastes, his habits, his manners, his imaginative background—his ‘ideology’, in Communist jargon? Is there any change in him except that he now votes Labour, or, when possible, Communist at the elections? It is noticeable that he still habitually associates with his own class; he is vastly more at home with a member of his own class, who thinks him a dangerous Bolshie, than with a member of the working class who supposedly agrees with him; his tastes in food, wine, clothes, books, pictures, music, ballet, are still recognisably bourgeois tastes; most significant of all, he invariably marries into his own class. (chapter 8)

Throughout Orwell's essays there are two consistent themes: that the social perceptions and attitudes of English men and women differ dramatically by class, and that (unlike many of his counterparts) he has a fundamental respect for the values and perspectives of working people. His analysis of the poetry of Kipling, for example, is very much concerned with the worldview of social relations that it expresses.

Charles Sabel addressed this question of worker mentality (or what I am calling "social-cognitive frameworks") in Work and Politics. One of the most interesting parts of Sabel's book is the attention he gives to the consciousness and values of various strata of workers. His description of the "craftsman's ethos" is particularly intriguing, since it pertains to a category of labor that is in a sense a carry-over from pre-modern handicraft economies:

From the point of view of the middle class, the craftsman is a contradictory figure, capable of tasks that presuppose self-esteem and assertiveness, yet in a more general way lacking both. Despite his apparent social proximity to middle-class managers and social scientists, he has remained as mysterious to them as the other parts of the working class. The craftsman's autonomy on the job is frequently attested: Not only does his independence often make supervision superfluous, but he frequently outwits managers in complex negotiations over work rules and piece rates.... Yet it has been repeatedly shown that the craftsman's attitudes toward education, child rearing, and the social hierarchy are those typical of what might be called a subaltern social class. Where the middle-class manager teaches his son to questions rules and inquire into the justification of hierarchy, the skilled worker often teaches his son to accept both respectfully. (82) But to judge by the few studies of the experience of apprenticeship itself, however organized and by whomever administered, the programs teach two related lessons. The first concerns objects and techniques, the second the social preconditions and implications of the craft's knowledge. (83)

Sabel's answer to the question, what are some of the the primary determinants of a person's social-cognitive framework, is to point to the circumstances and values inculcated in technical training programs and internships. These processes of formation and training lead to an orienting set of values and aspirations. And these values are distinct from those that a similarly talented young person would gain from a university education in engineering. Sabel writes:

Incorporation into a new social world also defines the craftsman's hopes for the future, and in ways that shed light on his apparently inconsistent behavior in the labor market. What counts for him now is technical prowess, not place in an officially defined hierarchy of jobs: Titles are not important, savoir faire is. Careful studies by Siegfried Braun and Jochen Fuhrmann show that this is precisely the opposite of the middle-class attitude. The middle class conceived of a career not as a series of successively more complex jobs, but as a progression through a socially recognized hierarchy of posts, each patently more prestigious than the preceding one. The craftsman wants to be able to do something; there is evidence that he is often indifferent to or ignorant of the career possibilities -- understood in the middle-class sense -- that apprenticeship opens to him. (84)
 
Sabel refers to this value orientation as a craftsman ethos, and he believes it is a distinctive social-cognitive orientation to the contemporary world of work.

These passages provide clear documentation of the workings of distinctive social-cognitive frameworks across class (in England, anyway). And it seems likely that a similar ethnographic account could be provided for the many forms of social separation that exist in modern US society as well: across lines of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and age cohort, for example. Further, these differences of perspective are important, since they create the environment in which social interaction, friendship, or political solidarity arise. Social cohesion and political persuasion are important but challenged goals in twenty-first century United States (as well as other countries); and it seems apparent that group-specific differences in social expectations and assumptions about other groups are likely to be important for cohesion, conflict, and persuasion.

This raises a very interesting question: where does this kind of inquiry fit within the domain of the social and behavioral sciences? Is it a question for ethnographers? For micro-sociologists like Erving Goffman? For social psychologists or opinion researchers? For journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Studs Terkel? And more abstractly, is it possible to formulate a better theory or landscape map of the socially situated actor that takes into account the formation and influence of diverse social-cognitive frameworks?

Friday, August 26, 2022

Philosophers and Marx in the 1950s


In the 1960s, as an undergraduate and eventually a graduate student in philosophy, I had the strong impression that Anglophone philosophy did not pay much attention to the philosophy and theories of Karl Marx. He was regarded as a "dead dog". His work was rarely treated in the history of philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s or in survey courses in social and political philosophy, and the impression given was that history had moved beyond that nineteenth-century thinker — though notably not beyond Marx’s contemporary John Stuart Mill. Neglect and disrespect were the primary features of Marx's presence within philosophy in that period, it seemed. To many students gaining their philosophical and political identities in the 1960s, this seemed to be both arrogant and ignorant on the part of the discipline; philosophers in this tradition simply did not pay attention to the details of Marx's theories in spite of the grave social and economic issues of the day. Studying Marx carefully, as a philosopher might study Aristotle or Spinoza, was looked at as a waste of time.

Possibly the Cold War had something to do with this disdain within analytic philosophy; it is possible that the antagonism between the US and the USSR, representing liberal capitalism and communism, filtered into the profession of philosophy for a few decades. Certainly the crimes of Stalinism and Soviet Communism were considered a blot against Marx's ideas. Another relevant factor is the availability of texts from Marx's corpus: many important texts in which Marx expressed some of his key ideas were either unpublished or untranslated through the 1970s. (Marx's Grundrisse only appeared in English in 1973.)

This situation of neglect in the 1950s and early 1960s did not extend back into the 1930s. In those earlier decades some philosophers took an active and professional interest in Marx's ideas, including John Dewey, Morris R. Cohen, Bertrand Russell, and Sidney Hook discussed earlier (link). And what is most striking in that earlier philosophical debate about Marxism is the high quality of understanding that all these contributors had of Marx's social and economic theories. This level of familiarity was not to be found in philosophy again until the 1980s and 1990s.

Sidney Hook's account in the 1934 debate of Marx's analysis of the sociological circumstances of capitalism in The Meaning of Marx (link) is worth reading by itself. Hook did an excellent job of capturing Marx's views about the intricacies of an economic system divided between owners of productive forces and owners of labor-power (39-45). Hook showed a detailed understanding of the premises and assertions of Marx's theories of history, politics, and political economy, based on extensive textual knowledge. Hook plainly had exerted himself in studying the details of Marx's writings (those available in the 1920s and 1930s in German or English).

Marx was not featured at all in the course in social and political philosophy I took at the University of Illinois in 1968 or 1969. Some of Marx's ideas were included in the survey course on the history of social and political philosophy that John Rawls taught at Harvard for many years, including the years 1971-1976 when I was a graduate student in his department. In an earlier post I have reviewed the material and ideas that Rawls included in the several lectures on Marx's thought; and during the early 1970s these materials were quite limited (link). Their primary focus was on the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and Marx's theory of alienation. Rawls also discussed Marx's polemical essay "On the Jewish Question". There the main focus was on the distinction between political emancipation and full human emancipation. The lectures devoted to Marx that are collected in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy were written sometime after 1984, according to Sam Freeman’s notes in the introduction to the volume, and they provide the student with more understanding of Marx’s theory of how a class society works, how capitalism is a system of exploitation and domination, and how the labor theory of value served Marx’s purpose of showing how that system worked. But even the final versions of the lectures do not indicate a broader range of either Marx’s texts or current secondary sources on Marx’s thought. Probably half of the content of these later lectures focused on one question that emerged in the analytic Marxism literature and was of special interest to Rawls: “Did Marx believe capitalism is unjust?”.

It might reasonably be argued that philosophers in the seventies had defined their discipline in ways that made them honestly doubtful that Marx’s writings made a substantial contribution to their discipline — however important they might be to sociology or history. Marx’s theories were not, after all, a continuation of the social contract tradition (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), and his empirical and historical claims about the modern world were not primarily normative. Normative ethical theory was just in the process of moving beyond “meta-ethics” (“Three Ways of Spilling Ink”), and perhaps Anglophone philosophy was not ready for a conceptual revolution within which social philosophy needed to be both normative and empirically substantive. Moreover, if we thought of Marx simply as a post-Hegelian philosopher of social dialectics, as H.B. Acton did (link), this neglect might well be deserved. So maybe the neglect of Marx was not entirely ideological, but more a question of “knowledge frameworks” or paradigm shifts. Marx’s theories did not fit readily into the conceptual frameworks of mainstream Anglophone philosophy. (Imagine J.L. Austin trying to make sense of the Grundrisse.) But that paradigm shift did eventually occur, and social philosophers came to recognize the ground they needed to share with social scientists, biologists, and historians — including Marx. Substantive theories about how the world works — including the social world — are indeed relevant to the main problems of social and political philosophy.



Thursday, August 25, 2022

Organizational factors and nuclear power plant safety

image: Peach Bottom Nuclear Plant

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has responsibility for ensuring the safe operations of the nuclear power reactors in the United States, of which there are approximately 100. There are significant reasons to doubt whether its regulatory regime is up to the task. Part of the challenge is the technical issue of how to evaluate and measure the risks created by complex technology systems. Part is the fact that it seems inescapable that organizational and management factors play key roles in nuclear accidents -- factors the NRC is ill-prepared to evaluate. And the third component of the challenge is the fact that the nuclear industry is a formidable adversary when it comes to "intrusive" regulation of its activities. 

Thomas Wellock is the official historian of the NRC, and his work shows an admirable degree of independence from the "company line" that the NRC wishes to present to the public. Wellock's book, Safe Enough?: A History of Nuclear Power and Accident Risk, is the closest thing we have to a detailed analysis of the workings of the commission and its relationships to the industry that it regulates. A central focus in Safe Enough is the historical development of the key tool used by the NRC in assessing nuclear safety, the methodology of "probabilistic risk assessment" (PRA). This is a method for aggregating the risks associated with multiple devices and activities involved in a complex technology system, based on failure rates and estimates of harm associated with failure. 

This preoccupation with developing a single quantitative estimate of reactor safety reflects the engineering approach to technology failure. However, Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, Scott Sagan, and numerous other social scientists who have studied technology hazards and disasters have made clear that organizational and managerial failures almost always play a key role in the occurrence of a major accident such as Three Mile Island, Fukushima, or Bhopal. This is the thrust of Perrow's "normal accident" theory and Vaughan's "normalization of deviance" theory. And organizational effectiveness and organizational failures are difficult to measure and quantify. Crucially, these factors are difficult to incorporate into the methodology of probabilistic risk assessment. As a result, the NRC has almost no ability to oversee and enforce standards of safety culture and managerial effectiveness.

Wellock addresses this aspect of an incomplete regulatory system in "Social Scientists in an Adversarial Environment: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Organizational Factors Research" (link). The problem of assessing "human factors" has been an important element of the history of the NRC's efforts to regulate the powerful nuclear industry, and failure in this area has left the NRC handicapped in its ability to address pervasive ongoing organizational faults in the nuclear industry. Wellock's article provides a detailed history of efforts by the NRC to incorporate managerial assessment and human-factors analysis into its safety program -- to date, with very little success. And, ironically, the article demonstrates a key dysfunction in the organization and setting of the NRC itself; because of the adversarial relationship that exists with the nuclear industry, and the influence that the industry has with key legislators, the NRC is largely blocked from taking commonsense steps to include evaluation of safety culture and management competence into its regulatory regime.

Wellock makes it clear that both the NRC and the public have been aware of the importance of organizational dysfunctions in the management of nuclear plants since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. However, the culture of the organization itself makes it difficult to address these dysfunctions. Wellock cites the experience of Valerie Barnes, a research psychologist on staff at the NRC, who championed the importance of focusing attention on organizational factors and safety culture. "She recalled her engineering colleagues did not understand that she was an industrial psychologist, not a therapist who saw patients. They dismissed her disciplinary methods and insights into human behavior and culture as 'fluffy,' unquantifiable, and of limited value in regulation compared to the hard quantification bent of engineering disciplines" (1395). 

The NRC took the position that organizational factors and safety culture could only properly be included in the regulatory regime if they could be measured, validated, and incorporated into the PRA methodology. The question of the quantifiability and statistical validity of human-factors research and safety-culture research turned out to be insuperable -- largely because these were the wrong standards for evaluating the findings of these areas of the social sciences. "In the new program [in the 1990s], the agency avoided direct evaluation of unquantifiable factors such as licensee safety culture" (1395). (It is worth noting that this presumption reflects a thoroughly positivistic and erroneous view of scientific knowledge; linklink. There are valid methods of sociological investigation that do not involve quantitative measurement.) 

After the Three Mile Island disaster, both the NRC and external experts on nuclear safety had a renewed interest in organizational effectiveness and safety culture. Analysis of the TMI disaster made organizational dysfunctions impossible to ignore. Studies by the Battelle Human Affairs Research Center were commissioned in 1982 (1397), to permit design of a regulatory regime that would evaluate management effectiveness. Here again, however, the demand for quantification and "correlations" blocked the creation of a regulatory standard for management effectiveness and safety culture. Moreover, the nuclear industry was able to resist efforts to create "intrusive" inspection regimes involving assessment of management practices. "In the mid-1980s, the NRC deferred to self-regulating initiatives under the leadership of the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). This was not the first time the NRC leaned on INPO to avoid friction with industry" (1397). 

A serious event at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio in 1983 focused attention on the importance of management, organizational dysfunction, and safety culture, and a National Academy of Sciences report in 1988 once again recommended that the NRC must give high priority to these factors -- quantifiable or not (Human Factors Research and Nuclear Safety; link).

The panel called on the NRC to prioritize research into organizational and management factors. “Management can make or break a plant,” Moray told the NRC’s Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards. Even more than the man-machine interface, he said, it was essential that the NRC identify what made for a positive organizational culture of reliability and safety and develop appropriate regulatory feedback mechanisms that would reduce accident risk. (1400)

These recommendations led  the NRC to commission an extensive research consultancy with a group of behavioral scientists at Brookhaven Laboratory. The goal of this research, once again, was to identify observable and measurable factors of organizations and safety culture that would permit quantification of the quality of both intangible features of nuclear plants -- and ultimately to permit incorporation of these factors into PRA models. 

 Investigators identified over 20 promising organizational factors under five broad categories of control systems, communications, culture, decision making, and personnel systems. Brookhaven concluded the best measurement methodologies included research surveys, behavioral checklists, structured interview protocols, and behavioral-anchored rating scales. (1401)

However, this research foundered on three problems: the cost of evaluating a nuclear operator on this basis; the "intrusiveness" of the methods needed to evaluate these organizational systems, and the intransigent and adversarial opposition of the operators of nuclear plants against these kinds of assessment. It also emerged that it was difficult to establish correlations between the organizational factors identified and the safety performance of a range of plants. NRC backed down from its effort to directly assess organizational effectiveness and safety culture, and instead opted for a new "Reactor Oversight Process" (ROP) that made use only of quantitative factors associated with safety performance (1403).

A second and more serious incident at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in 2002 resulted in a near-miss loss-of-coolant accident (link), and investigation by NRC and GAO compelled the NRC to once again bring safety culture back into the regulatory agenda. Executives, managers, operators, and inspectors were all found to have behaved in ways that greatly increased the risk of a highly damaging LOCA accident at Davis-Besse. The NRC imposed more extensive organizational and managerial requirements on the operators of the Davis-Besse plant, but these protocols were not extended to other plants.

It is evident from Wellock's 2021 survey of the NRC history of human-factors research and organizational research that the commission is currently incapable of taking seriously the risks to reactor safety created by the kinds of organizational failures documented by Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, Andrew Hopkins, Scott Sagan, and many others. NRC has shown that it is aware of these social-science studies of technology system safety. But its intellectual commitment to a purely quantitative methodology for risk assessment, combined with the persistent ability of the nuclear operators to prevent forms of "intrusive" evaluation that they don't like, leads to a system in which major disasters remain a distinct possibility. And this is very bad news for anyone who lives within a hundred miles of a nuclear power plant.


Friday, August 19, 2022

A Trump-era atrocity


The family separation debacle during the Trump presidency seemed horrible at the time. Thanks to a superb piece of investigative journalism in the Atlantic, we now know how much worse it was. Caitlin Dickerson's piece "We Need to Take Away Children" (link) provides previously unknown information about the program and the decisions that led up to it, and the picture is horrific. Consider just a single scene:

But when [Neris Gonzalez] walked into the processing center for the first time after Zero Tolerance was implemented, she saw a sea of children and parents, screaming, reaching for each other, and fighting the Border Patrol agents who were pulling them apart. Children were clinging to whatever part of their parents they could hold on to -- arms, shirts, pant legs. "Finally the agent would pull hard and take away the child," she said. "It was horrible. These weren't some little animals that they were wrestling over; they were human children. (64)

This is simply barbaric; it is an American atrocity. It is hard not to think of the violence against the innocent in the towns and cities of Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen in 1941 when we read this description. These children were not to be killed, of course; but they were being harmed in a very profound way, with great emotional pain, for very deliberate political purposes. (Gonzalez had a different association: "For her, the scene triggered flashbacks to the war in El Salvador, where thousands of children were disappeared and the sound of their wailing mothers was hard to escape" (64).)

It is hard to read Dickerson's piece without thinking of other instances of historical evil -- genocide, mass imprisonment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government, the 2014 killing of 43 students in Mexico (link). The child-separation plan was not just bad policy -- it was state-sanctioned evil. Of course the immigrant toddlers and children were not killed -- but they were forcibly removed from their families, in some cases never to return, causing unimaginable suffering for both children and their parents. What a fundamentally inhumane policy this was, lacking utterly in compassion and respect for the human dignity of other human beings. 

This practice began in secrecy; it was wrapped in lies; and it led to permanent harm for infants, children, and parents.

Trump-administration officials insisted for a whole year that family separations weren't happening. Finally, in the spring of 2018, they announced the implementation of a separation policy with great fanfare -- as if one had not already been under way for months. Then they declared that separating families was not the goal of the policy, but an unfortunate result of prosecuting parents who crossed the border illegally with their children. Yet a mountain of evidence shows that this is explicitly false: Separating children was not just a side effect, but the intent. Instead of working to reunify families after parents were prosecuted, officials worked to keep them apart for longer. (39)

There is another dimension of this case that needs emphasis. Donald Trump himself did many "wrong" things while he was president. But this policy emanated largely from senior and mid-level administrators within his government -- not the president himself. And this fact underlines something that all of us should be very, very concerned about: when an autocrat takes power, he or she creates a "team" of powerful subordinates who can use the power of their offices to carry out horrible actions. Authoritarianism is not simply a manifestation of "one bad person" in control of government; it is the establishment of a government hierarchy that is broadly aligned with the values and goals of the boss, but empowered to create their own policies and rules to bring about outcomes that they believe will serve their party's interests. This is another reason why Trump's stated goal of attacking and dissolving the independence of the Federal civil service is deeply alarming.

Dickerson spells out the broad administrative involvement in the family separation policy by numerous US Federal agencies, and the bureaucratic collaboration that implementation required:

It is easy to pin culpability for family separations on the anti-immigration officials for which the Trump administration is known. But these separations were also endorsed and enabled by dozens of members of the government's middle and upper management: Cabinet secretaries, commissioners, chiefs, and deputies who, for various reasons, didn't voice concern even when they should have seen catastrophe looming; who trusted "the system" to stop the worst from happening; who reasoned that it would not be strategic to speak up in an administration where being labeled a RINO or a "squish" -- nicknames for those deemed insufficiently conservative -- could end their career; who assumed that someone else, in some other department, must be on top of the problem; who were so many layers of abstraction away from the reality of screaming children being pulled out of their parent's arms that they could hide from the human consequences of what they were doing. (39)

This is the behavior described by historians in the administration of the Final Solution -- what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil, and what organizational sociologists and psychologists refer to as compliant organizational behavior. "Hiding from the human consequences" indeed -- this is key to the bureaucratic implementation of an evil plan against innocent human beings. Dickerson poses the toughest question directly: "What happens when personal ambition and moral qualm clash in the gray anonymity of a bureaucracy? When rationalizations become denial or outright delusion? When one's understanding of the line between right and wrong gets overridden by a boss's screaming insistence?" (39). Stephen Miller and Gene Hamilton were strident advocates of this policy among others, but its implementation depended on the collaboration and compliance of numerous other actors as well. 

Moreover, this policy was not an accident or oversight or side-effect of other policy initiatives. Dickerson makes it clear, through ample documentation, that the goal of the policy was deterrence: to discourage persons from crossing the US southern border illegally with the threat that their children would be taken away -- possibly forever.


An important part of Dickerson's research in this piece is her effort to reconstruct the intellectual, professional, and moral backgrounds of some of the key administrators responsible for the family-separation policy. Especially interesting is her thumbnail account of the transformation of Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during the critical time. Initially opposed to the policy, she eventually succumbed to pressure from the immigration hawks in positions of power around her -- including especially Stephen Miller. 

Dickerson has investigated this story throughout the Zero-Tolerance period, and her article documents time after time when administration officials and spokespersons directly and explicitly lied about the existence of a family separation policy. "Waldman and Houlton [DHS spokespersons] provided a statement for my Times story, insisting that families were not being separated for the purpose of prosecution and deterrence. All the while, separations were still increasing. By April 23, three days after the story was published, documents show that De LaCruz had tracked 856 separations, more than a quarter of which involved children younger than 5" (57).

The article quotes Federal estimates that a minimum of 5,569 children were separated from their families during this period. The harm that these children suffered is incalculable -- trauma, fear, long-lasting psychological and emotional consequences for which they will have virtually no help in resolving. And the trauma for the parents was equally deep, including PTSD (74).

The brutality of Zero Tolerance was immediately evident. The father of a 3-year-old "lost his s---," one Border Patrol agent told The Washington Post. "They had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands." The man was so upset that he was taken to a local jail; he "yelled and kicked at the windows on the ride," the agent said. The next morning, the father was found dead in his cell; he'd strangled himself with his own clothing. (62)

And, perhaps worst of all, Dickerson presents evidence showing that "inside DHS, officials were working to prevent reunifications from happening" (65). She quotes from communications from Matt Albence (a deputy administrator at ICE) specifically concerned that prosecutions were happening too rapidly, allowing families to be reunited in just a few days. 

"We can't have this," he wrote to colleagues, underscoring in a second note that reunification "obviously undermines the entire effort" behind Zero Tolerance and would make DHS "look completely ridiculous". (65)

This is diabolical. As of June 2022, it is estimated that about 180 children have still not been reunited with their parents (link). It is surprising that there was little international protest or formal legal objection to this policy, since it seems to be a clear instance of a crime against humanity and an example of atrocious lawlessness. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Resisting authoritarian populism


The rise of an organized effort to create an authoritarian right-wing government in the United States is palpable. Unhinged Republican elected officials call for political violence and "civil war"; an ideological and Christian-nationalist Supreme Court moves forward unhesitatingly in attacking long-established and fundamental rights, including rights of reproductive freedom; Republican-controlled state houses enact ever-more restrictive legislation and gerrymandered electoral maps restricting voting rights. What recourse do Americans who care about their democratic institutions, rights, and liberties have in face of this rise of populist authoritarianism?

Political sociologists David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow addressed this set of crises in an intriguing volume, The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement. Regrettably, the book was written too early. It was prepared for publication in 2018, and the political threats to democracy are much, much worse today. Writing in 2018, the editors summarize the situation in these terms:

Importantly, the election of Donald Trump represents an attack not only on the Democratic Party, or the Left more generally, but also presents a clear threat to well-established bipartisan policies, the independence of institutions in the American Constitutional order, and America's place in the world. In this context, it is not surprising that a diverse and volatile opposition quickly emerged. (3)

This is a clear statement, but in hindsight it understates the magnitude of the threat, and unfortunately it seems to exaggerate the strength of the "diverse and volatile opposition" that has emerged. Meyer and Tarrow are social-movement scholars, and they focus on several important examples of social movements and protests that occurred in 2016 and 2017 -- the Women's March (January 2017), demonstrations in support of immigrant and Latino rights, residual Occupy Wall Street activism, activism around climate change, and the mobilization and demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.

But notice -- with the exception of the Women's March, these moments of activism rarely succeeded in gathering a broad cross-section of the American public. Black Lives Matter generated greater public knowledge and concern about misuse of force by police officers, and climate activists perhaps marginally extended the range of concerned citizens actively concerned about climate inaction by our government. But these causes and organizations did not succeed in engaging a significant percentage of the attention or concern of ordinary citizens across the country. 

So a crucial question demands answering: do these examples constitute a "movement", or do they point to something less focused -- a readiness of many Americans to answer the call to mobilize around specific issues and specific moments of demonstration, rather than a broad-based commitment in support of our democracy? The question is important, because "resistance" ultimately requires widespread, committed, organized, and persistent readiness of large numbers of diverse people to come together in opposition to an ongoing seizure of power.

The assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 was the most striking instance of attempted violent insurrection in our country in over a century and a half. So why was there not a massive response from the American public reaffirming the integrity of the election, the fundamental importance of our democratic institutions, and a repudiation of the "Stop the Steal!" lies? Where was the resistance on January 7? Why did corporate advertisers continue to support Fox News with advertising revenue? Where is the American "democracy movement" when we need it?

Effective resistance to rising authoritarianism will require the development of a set of demands that can engage millions of Americans across class, race, religion, and region in a persistent and committed way. Alliances with existing activist groups are valuable, but we need a broader basis for consensus that can give rise to a genuinely broad-based movement of resistance. Perhaps the broad platform for a democratic resistance movement can be as simple as this:

  • "No to all politicians and parties who undermine the legitimacy of our political institutions!"
  • "No to all politicians and activists who call for political violence!"
  • "Yes to full and equal voting rights for all Americans!"
  • "Yes to reproductive freedom!"
  • "Yes to greater equity for the bottom 75% of Americans!"

And the actions that can give force to these demands? Massive, persistent non-violent demonstrations in many cities; boycotts against companies that continue to support anti-democratic parties and candidates; lawsuits against unconstitutional gerrymandering by state legislatures; and effective communications campaigns aimed at broadening the base of opposition. Mass collective action can be immensely powerful.

Or, as composer Frederic Rzewski put it in 1975, "The people united will never be defeated!". The historical moment was the violent overthrow and murder of Salvadore Allende in Chile and the seizure of power by dictator Augusto Pinochet. Where is the next Martin Luther King, Jr., when we need him or her?