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Aug 28, 2017

The First Nations, and why we need them

On Friday, I was driving East on highway 16, to attend Rose Borunda’s Indian Curriculum fundraiser. The evening sun baked the round hills to golden brown. Sparsely placed green trees were promising shade. It looked like a fairy tale country. I was thinking about people who walked through this landscape some 19,000 years ago. Canadians have found exactly the right word for them, the First Nations; it is a much more poetic term than Native Americans. There is something incredibly profound about seeing all this beauty for the first time ever, be the first human being to enter this part of the world, to give names to these hills, these rivers and valleys, without also taking previous names away. It is the discovery that is not yet polluted by conquest.

Then I made a mistake of turning on the radio, and my thoughts quickly turned to the theme that I was preoccupied with for a few weeks now. The surge of xenophobia in the US and in theу world is something new. It is not your old racism at its last gasp. The alt-right is related to the old racism like Agent N (which is a biological weapon) relates to the ancient Anthrax bacteria. It is the same bug, but manufactured in quantities on purpose and distributed through new technological channels. The bacteria is the same, but the effect is very different.

The argument I am working on is that we cannot defeat the new threat with more education, and more critical thinking. This is not the place to lay out the full argument, but the gist it is this: the paranoid mind on which the new racism feeds, is a form of perverse critical thinking and is immune to logical argument. So we need to build an arsenal of spiritual, emotional, cultural memes to fight this war. And where do we find those things? The major source of these ideas is the communities that practiced survival under oppression for centuries, the communities of color in the US, and other marginalized groups throughout the world. Their cultures have developed the cultural immune systems, or, if you like, the stocks of cultural capital that fights domination with solidarity, empathy, and spirituality.

This is not just theory. Just remember how homophobia in the US has been defeated – not by rational arguments, and not by critical thinking. No, it was because the gay community made a strategic decision to enter the mass culture through TV. Similarly, the African-American culture’s impact on the global culture did more to combat racism than many efforts to educate the rational minds. Those things work; we just need to find a way of accessing the stocks of cultural capital and use it in education. We need Multiculturalism 2.0 to combat the racism 2.0. It is an arms race, and we need the troops and materials. And yes, you should donate to Rose’s project; it replaces the 4th grade mission project with Indian-approved curriculum. It is not just about telling the truth, but about telling the emotional truth.

Aug 19, 2017

A non-eulogy for Dima

On Friday, my former colleague and friend Dmitry (Dima) Semenov died in a car crash in Thailand. He was 31, an accomplished scholar and leader, and one of the kindest and smartest people I know.

Eulogies mean to offer lessons from the person’s life, as if it was a story told to us. That is difficult; or rather, I am not good at it. People live their lives without trying to teach us anything. Instead, what I do is to remember one or two particular pictures about the person who passed away. They have no larger meaning and are not parables; those are simply symbols that indicate where other memories are stored. For example, my father’s symbol us when we walk together to get some milkshake in the neighborhood store; I am about five. Here is my grandfather teaching me how to split firewood. There is no way to reduce the entire person to one or two flashbacks, and yet having them helps.

I remember we were sitting down to eat at Yura’s and Tanya’s home in Sokolniki. I think it was their son’s Lenya’s birthday. Dima was his godfather, Svetlana is the godmother. It is sunny and very quiet. Dima smiles like Buddha, and says, “About this time on Sunday, it is exactly the right time to have a bit of vodka.” We all oblige, and that is my little token of Dima.

Why do we all feel the need to remember those who die? I am sure anthropologists have all kinds of theories about it. But we do, that is for sure. Death has a way of reminding us about itself. Mortality is a strange gift we received from the creator, according to Tolkien. It was his way of unbinding us from the physical world. Elves, more beautiful and immortal, did not receive it. Perhaps, but it is still a bloody terrifying gift. This is why we want to send the messages to those who cannot receive, as if to say, “you’re not all gone.”

Aug 14, 2017

The mainstream's borders have to be patrolled

The very existence а political life depends on the distinction between the mainstream and the fringe politics. Debate and disagreement among political groups may be vitriolic and irrational. However, debate with the fringe is impossible; the very act of debate with Nazis and racists is dangerous and counterproductive, because it legitimizes their existence. Wear a swastika, and you become what Russians call “Non-handshakeable,” nerukopozhatnyy. The boundaries have to be more or less clear, and ought to be patrolled, otherwise debate within the mainstream becomes impossible. The history of democracy shows how the inability of major groups to engage politically leads to dictatorship or civil war. The Weimar Republic could be one example, Spain before its civil war is another.

The danger of the fringe groups is not in their size – the White supremacists in the US are a tiny group – it is in their ability to erode the boundaries between the mainstream and the fringe. Let us assume someone on the Right breaches the unspoken taboo, and reaches out to the white supremacist for any reason. That would compromise their ability to engage with the more centrists or the liberal politicians. The non-handshakeability is contagious, and it can eventually erode the very space for the political debate.

Most people intuitively understand the dynamics. For example, the Fox News anchors, after a brief initial hesitation, eventually called the racists what they are. Despite all their rhetoric, they want to stay within the boundaries of the civilized society. After all you can only be effective if you are taken seriously. Almost all Republican politicians easily make the same calculation. The US had not left-wing political violence for a long time, but I am sure, if it gets to that, the liberals will do the same – quickly distance themselves.

However, our President somehow failed to make the very simple rational move. And yes, Pence is right, it does not look like a big deal on its surface. Trump left the door to engaging with the white supremacists only slightly ajar, just in case. What they both fail to understand are the rules of the larger political space. It is a contagion situation – a 1% of legitimization given to the fringe may contaminate 100% of your owl legitimacy. The risk is huge, the returns are really small and uncertain. How many votes does he think he will get from Nazis? The inability to calculate selfish reasons is worrisome because it indicates the general weakness of rational thinking. I am sure this is a concern for the Republican leadership.

Of course, the boundaries between the fringe and the mainstream shift. Relatively recently, racism was a part of the mainstream American politics. This is why the racists still hope to claw their way back to respectability. They saw Trump as their best chance in many decades, and they are taking it. I don’t think it is going to work for the reasons I cite. The stakes for the rest of the political field are too high to allow it. The borders have to be patrolled.

Aug 7, 2017

Technology vs. the Organization

I have spent a great deal lately of time to figure out our graduate admissions. This is a case in organizational studies. The information technology platforms have brought us great efficiency over the last 30 years, and yet they introduced a completely new set of constraints on the organizations that did not exist before.

Here is a short version of the story, without most of the technical details. The CSU system has implemented a new online application platform, CSUApply. The rationale for introducing it is compelling: applicants can select more than one campus to apply, and the system promised to get away with the supplemental applications (these are an extra step, sometimes on paper, and they look embarrassingly low-tech). Because of the ambitious implementation deadline, there was no time to work closely with all campuses. And each campus has some sort of an admission workflow, linked to its internal CMS (which is really, the People Soft, an Oracle platform). There were no protocols for importing the data from CSUApply to these workflows. Well, campuses’ IT people had made a heroic effort (they always do), and created an OK protocol. It still has three major glitches: 1. The CSUApply is very difficult to modify for each program, which renders the last, modifiable portion of it useless. 2. The vendor who sold us the program has never worked with whole systems. They forgot that each campus needs to assign an applicant a unique campus ID to admit them. CSUApply cannot do that, so you almost have to do the supplemental application anyway. Oops. 3. Document uploads still do not transfer to CSM. Theoretically, it is possible, but in practice, we have run out of time, and the IRT folks designed an elegant patch. Thank god, we have very little Spring admissions, and the whole patchwork will work for now.

There was also one major kink in the size of the application. I counted 135 fields a teacher credential applicant must complete in just the common CSUApply portion. Again, this is no one’s incompetence or ill intention. The system has a legitimate interest in collecting all kinds of data. That we value data accuracy over the user experience is another issue well above my pay grade.

Organizations evolve as living organisms. Many things appear as a responses to changing conditions. Organizations are not designed by some intelligent designer. There is no watchmaker. This is something people unfamiliar with organization studies often fail to understand. If you see something seemingly absurd and counter-intuitive, and easy to fix, it is only because you see just a small part of the beast, and because you do not know its history.

For example, in response to the past conditions, our Office of Graduate Studies have implemented a rule: applications are released to the programs only when applicant’s GPA is calculated, and when official transcript is received. It was done to put a hard barrier to incomplete applications, which create a number of problems. However, our (COE) timelines for orientations, field placements, and faculty availability make it almost impossible to admit students on time. So, our part of the organization adapted one more time, and we now require, in effect, a parallel application, disguised as a supplemental application. And yeah, we want it in paper, because it is easier to work with, and in a way, more secure. It is a case of mimicry, also well known in evolutionary biology.

If you want to know how your dean is spending his summer, this is how. To intervene in the works of a naturally evolved organization, one needs to have an understanding of the ecosystem, and a sufficiently high level of access. Even my level does not offer a high enough vantage point, because we’re dealing with a 23-campus system at one end, and a receptionist in our 401 office at the other end. To figure out a real solution, we had to have several meetings, the last one with 12 or so people. We have an idea on how to half-solve the puzzle in time for Fall 18 admissions. It has to do with where exactly in the workflow the hard barrier is enforced. However, I am still not sure if there are other rules and policies that evolved for unrelated reasons that will prevent it from working. Therefore, we have to have plans B and C. These are serious matters, especially for programs with low enrollments. Just a small negative nudge can put them out of existence. In organizations, it is still the survival of the fittest. While whole universities never die, their smaller parts like departments, programs, colleges – do die, dissolve, get eaten by others, flourish, and mutate. And yes, there are such things as invasive species and epidemics… These are for another time.