Archive for January, 2015

Possibly the Most Irritating Column Nick Kristof Has Yet Written

Posted on January 31st, 2015 in Uncategorized | 14 Comments »

Which is saying something.

(Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am regularly irritated by Kristof’s combination of sanctimony and careless disregard for the truth.)

In a column titled “Where’s the Empathy?”, Kristof, the self-styled savior of the world’s dispossessed, whose righteousness has not been slowed by serious flaws in his reporting, tells the tale of a high school friend of his, Kevin Green. They went to high school together in Oregon, ran track together, and Kristof appears to stayed in occasional touch with him. In the meantime, Green labored at low-paying jobs, then “hurt his back”—we don’t learn any more details—got laid off and never again found legal work. His girlfriend and mother of their twin sons left him, and Green apparently grew depressed and fat—his weight soared to 350 pounds. He couldn’t find another job, started growing and selling pot to make some cash, and got arrested. His health was lousy, and he died a few days ago at age 54.

This is a sad story, of course. It is tragic when someone’s life doesn’t turn out the way they hoped and they can’t recover from setbacks; we all know people that this has happened to, and it’s heartbreaking.

But Kristof being Kristof, he can not help but turn this story into a morality play in which he can lecture to the rest of us.

In the third sentence of his column—the third sentence—Kristof shifts from telling us what happened to his old friend to telling us why it’s our fault.

Lots of Americans would have seen Kevin — obese with a huge gray beard, surviving on disability and food stamps — as a moocher. They would have been harshly judgmental: Why don’t you look after your health? Why did you father two kids outside of marriage?

That acerbic condescension reflects one of this country’s fundamental problems: an empathy gap.

Talk about condescension! Talk about judgmental! We’ve barely met this man, and Kristof is already telling us how we’d feel about him and why it reflects poorly on us.

He does, however, go on to suggest that his relationship with Green reflects well on him, noting that “my kids would see Kevin and me together and couldn’t believe he had run cross country with me, and that he wasn’t 20 years older.” Look at me, Kristof says! I’m in great shape, but I haven’t forgotten my humble roots, or the humble people who didn’t make it out the way I did!

Kristof goes on to detail Green’s life, and it certainly sounds like a difficult one; though Kristof doesn’t emphasize it, Green didn’t go to college, a fact that probably worked against him in his quest for financial stability. Instead, he worked in various blue-collar jobs which sound (and apparently were) vulnerable to economic shifts. Kristof writes that the local glove factory and feed store closed in a way that implies that Green worked at those places—but if you read closely, it actually sounds like he didn’t. They’re just used as examples of places where Green might have worked but couldn’t, because they went out of business. Kristof also says that the Greens had a family farm, but he doesn’t say what happened to it, or whether it was of sufficient size to support the family. The only job Kristof definitively describes Green as taking is a non-union construction job.

It certainly sounds like Green had the misfortune to be born into rural poverty and, without any higher education, couldn’t do much to escape it. But Kristof just doesn’t tell us enough about the man as an individual for us to have any real understanding of what went wrong in his life. To Kristof, Green is more a symbol than an individual.

So, Kevin Green, R.I.P. You were a good man — hardworking and always on the lookout for someone to help — yet you were overturned by riptides of inequality. Those who would judge you don’t have a clue. They could use a dose of your own empathy.

Who’s judging him? The idea that millions of people are sitting in judgment of this man is just a straw man allowing Kristof to scold us all.

To my mind, it sounds like Green could have used empathy not just from Americans in general, but from Nicholas Kristof in particular, perhaps in the form of a column before he died. But Kristof had more romantic victims to save.

We all need to be empathetic to the possibility that Gree was a victim of shifting economic riptides. But because we don’t know the details of Green’s life—and Kristof, even when he does give us information, is far from a reliable narrator—it feels as if Nicholas Kristof is exploiting his friend, using him as grist for his political mill. And that’s not empathetic at all.

At Dartmouth, the Hysteria Continues

Posted on January 29th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 17 Comments »

“Following a series of high-profile reports of sexual assaults at universities around the U.S.,” TIME reports, Dartmouth has just announced a ban on hard alcohol on campus.

Dartmouth president Phillip J. Hanlon has a plan to address what the Wall Street Journal refers to as “a rising tide of complaints that have tarnished the school’s reputation.”

Here’s what the Journal says about the complaints, but it sounds like this could benefit from further investigation:

Faculty requests to close fraternities and rein in the drinking culture at Dartmouth have issued for decades and come to nothing. They resurfaced again and took on added gravity when a series of sexual assaults preceded a 14% drop in applications two years ago. Last April, Mr. Hanlon announced that “enough was enough” and created a task force to oversee a course correction at the school.

Ironically, the fraternity-related complaints seem to have come from a now-debunked article in—wait for it—Rolling Stone relating the story of Andrew Lohse, a Dartmouth grad who’d written a tell-all about fraternity hazing at Dartmouth. New fraternity members, Lohse charged, were made to swim in kiddie pools full of vomit and semen.

Here’s what the Dartmouth, the student newspaper, said about that controversy:

In 2012, the College launched an investigation into [Sigma Alpha Epsilon] in response to Lohse’s public account. Later that year, the College charged SAE and 27 of its members with hazing violations. Charges against all 27 members were later dropped.

College spokesperson Justin Anderson wrote in a statement at the time that “information initially presented to the UJAO supported the charges. Information received subsequently, however, indicated that the initial information contained inaccuracies and was not a sufficient basis for the charges to proceed to hearing.”

The withdrawal of charges came two days after Rolling Stone magazine published an article featuring Lohse’s account of hazing at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

It is, as they say, deja vu all over again.

Back to the present day, here’s what the Journal says about Hanlon plan:

Mr. Hanlon’s 6-page plan is a series of directives largely absent of detail. It calls for a four-year sexual violence prevention education program and a “consent manual,” which is to include “realistic scenarios and potential sanctions to reduce ambiguity about what is and what is not acceptable.

The Journal adds this rather odd paragraph:

Once dominated by wealthy, white men the student bodies at colleges and universities across the nation are now nearly 60% female and 40% nonwhite and some students believe institutional norms haven’t kept pace with the changing demographics.

Colleges and universities across the country were all once dominated by wealthy white men? The remnants of which are apparently responsible for an “epidemic” of sexual assault on campus?

Just like the women at UVa who are told whom they can and can not socialize with, Dartmouth students may now find that their pleas for greater university involvement in their affairs has unintended consequences. Next up, we can expect universities to establish curfews and dress codes, and policies to make sure that their students are brushing their teeth.

Andrew Sullivan Bids Farewell

Posted on January 29th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

Andrew’s a friend of mine, so excuse my bias: I’ll miss his blogging, a lot. No one did it better. And you have to assume that, without him, the site dies. But I’ll welcome another book. And the last time I saw him, we had dinner maybe nine months ago, I could see that the toll of constantly having to blog was really having an impact on him—his ability to think deeply, to react to events and ideas without first having to think about blogging them, the chance to use that muscle of writing and thinking in a longer format than the blog. (That’s why I could never blog full-time; talk about feeling like you’re on a treadmill.)

As usual, he’s eloquent.

…I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again. I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book.

Thanks, Andrew, and congratulations. That was a pretty great run.

Why Obama’s Plan to Kill 529s Failed

Posted on January 29th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 19 Comments »

Writing in the Times, economist Josh Barro argues that the plan fell afoul of opinion-leaders who are affluent—making more than $200, 000 a year, say—and lack the perception to see that 529s largely benefit the affluent.

But in practice, politicians from both parties have made a point of holding the group you might call the “merely affluent” harmless from tax increases. If you make $150,000 to $225,000, you make about two to three times the national median income for a married couple. The list of occupations that can get you into this income bracket — government official, academic, lobbyist, journalist — can sometimes make it hard for people in political circles to remember that 92 percent of American married couples make less than $200,000 a year.

As someone who squarely fits this description—I’m a journalist, my wife works, our household income is above $200k—and someone who thought Obama’s plan was a mistake, I wince at being pegged so perfectly. Still, I think the full story is slightly more complicated.

I am certainly grateful to have the financial resources that I do, and recognize that they are greater than those most Americans have. But at the same time, I certainly don’t feel rich; my wife and I live a fairly modest life. We have two young kids, two car payments (living in the suburbs because we can’t afford New York City’s private schools and the public ones aren’t very good, you have to have two cars; we drive a Ford and a Volkswagen), a mortgage, health insurance, child care, pre-school, property taxes, electricity, car insurance, heating oil, food, clothing, diapers—it adds up. We try to put $5000 a year into each of our kids’ 529s, but that $800 or so bucks a month is not easy to carve out once the bills are paid. And while we don’t have to pay New York state tax on that income, we still have to pay federal tax on it. Yes, it’s compounding tax-free, but we’ll pay taxes on it when we cash out to pay our kids’ college (assuming, of course, that they decide to go to college). In the meantime, we’re not using the dividends to take a vacation; they’re just accruing so we can try to pay tuition fees.

But here’s the thing: My kids are, roughly, 3 and 1 years old. By the time they’re old enough to attend college, one can reasonably expect annual college costs to have broken the six-figure mark. (That’s nuts, but…a topic for another time.) So let’s say I’m reasonably fortunate and have, oh, $150, 000—$200, 000 parked in my kids’ accounts by then. That’s an amount to pay for college that prior generations would have considered an obscenity. And it’s still not nearly enough—not unless you get additional financial aid, which at that point may be more accessible for families with lower incomes than for people like me.

So the 529 is a very important savings device for us, but it doesn’t feel like a wildly unfair benefit—it feels like something everyone should have access to, up to a reasonable point. The thing that seems wildly unfair is the cost of college, and that perception carries into a level of affluence well beyond my own.

I think it’s really this state of affairs that doomed Obama’s plan. I grant that 529s disproportionately benefit the more affluent, like my wife and myself, simply because we can afford to save more money. But this is no scam, like the carried interest of hedge fund managers; no one’s getting rich off this, sitting around thinking, hah-hah, can you believe this is legal? In the case of my wife and myself, we’re making tangible sacrifices to save that money, and it can only be used (without significant tax penalty) to pay for college.

It’s hard to feel outraged about the inequity of a tax break like that. But it’s easy to feel outraged about a Democratic president threatening to take it away.

More Insight Into Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Flawed Reporting

Posted on January 28th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 27 Comments »

I just read this long and interesting piece on Jezebel by a woman who traveled to UVa to check out the frat-sorority rushing process, post-Rolling Stone. (It’s a perfectly reasonable piece, free of the cant not uncommon to Jezebel). One paragraph, buried somewhat in the body of the piece, really startled me.

Erdely homed in on UVA, contacting administrators who made themselves less than available. She interviewed students, who talked gamely but grew cautious after word spread about her interview practices: multiple people told me that, for example, after the reporter spent hours talking to the president of the all-male sexual assault peer education group One in Four, she told him that she wasn’t going to use anything he told her. The conversation hadn’t been juicy enough, sources claim she said; he’d answered her questions “too well.” (He was reportedly the one to tape the conversation; Erdely did not.)

Okay, let’s take this with a grain of salt, as, despite the claim of multiple sources, it’s still essentially a single-sourced story; only two people were present at that conversation. But still—this is a deeply damning assertion, suggesting that whenever Sabrina Rubin Erdely encountered any material that conflicted with the narrative she aimed to write, she simply discarded it—apparently not even recording it.

Jia Tolentino, the author of the Jezebel piece and a UVa grad, does admit that she’s inclined to believe that women who allege sexual assault at UVa face an uphill battle to be taken seriously—okay, at least she admits where she’s coming from—but then says this about her reaction to the Rubin Erdely piece. took me a day or two to admit that I found many of Erdely’s details unrecognizable. No one says “UVrApe”; no one I know has ever heard the Rugby Road-themed “traditional fight song” that poetically (“fuck for 50 cents”/”panties on the fence”) separated the article’s sections. And, in the words of one sorority girl I talked to in Charlottesville: “We knew something was bullshit when she wrote that Phi Psi was a top-tier frat.

So much attention has been paid to the fact that Jackie’s story is false; I think not enough has been paid to the other bricks in the wall of accusation that Rubin Erdeley constructed. It’s not just that she made a mistake in believing Jackie and in how she chose to (not) report out Jackie’s story; it’s that there are abundant other details in the piece, having nothing to do with Jackie, that seem either wrong or fabricated.

I am still flummoxed and amazed at the fact that Sabrina Rubin Erdely has still said nothing publicly about the disintegration of her story; I think she’s a coward and a dishonorable person who has completely failed to take responsibility for her work.

But details like the ones provided by Tolentino suggest one reason for Erdely’s silence. It’s not just that she got one big piece of her story wrong, but that the entire article is woven out of half-truths, bias and falsehood. How on earth could her editor and fact-checker not see this?

Sorority Women Get Hysterical

Posted on January 28th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 33 Comments »

At first I thought this was a joke, but it appears to be real: The Washington Post reports that the national chapters of UVA sororities have ordered the sorority women of UVa not to attend any fraternity events this weekend out of fear for their safety.

At some U-Va. chapters in recent days, students described mandatory emergency meetings with representatives from their national chapter telling them they risked suspension, fines and other penalties if any of them attended bid night parties. Boys’ Bid Night is typically a night when sorority sisters go from house to house sharing drinks with friends.

Mandatory emergency meetings…

Tammie Pinkston, the international president of Alpha Delta Pi, tells the Cavalier Daily that she doesn’t trust the safety of “Bid Night,” which is apparently when fraternities tap their new members and host parties to celebrate the event.

“We believe the activities on Men’s Bid Night present significant safety concerns for all of our members and we are united in our request that the 16 NPC sororities not participate,” Pinkston said.

(I can’t resist pointing out that Tammie Pinkston was once a Tiger Twirler at Clemson.)

The move is obviously a reaction to the Rolling Stone story, so let’s try to comprehend the logic here. A Rolling Stone article says that a woman was gang-raped at a fraternity. She was not. Therefore, it is unsafe to go to parties at fraternities.

But wait—there’s more.

At some chapters, women were told not only to avoid going to fraternity parties on Boys’ Bid Night, but to avoid any social gathering with fraternity members, said Ben Gorman, president of the Inter-Fraternity Council at U-Va. That would mean a ban on attending off-campus parties or gatherings at bars that night after a hotly anticipated basketball game on campus, which pits the undefeated No. 2 Cavaliers against No. 4 Duke. “People are very agitated and very upset, and see this as an obstacle to larger cultural change a violation of free rights and student free will.

Let’s repeat that: “Women were told…to avoid any social gatherings with fraternity members.”

A few thoughts on this:

1) The idea of banning socializing with members of fraternities is a deeply sexist, anti-feminist idea; it suggests that college women are, in fact, girls or infants, incapable of taking care of themselves or displaying any judgment. (I can’t wait to see what Jezebel says about this.)

(Zoe Heller makes much the same point about “affirmative consent” laws in her recent New York Review of Books essay, writing, “special protections to women based on their difference from men have a habit of redounding to women’s disadvantage.”)

2) This move may also have the effect of dividing women on the issue of sexual assault on campus, possibly creating a constituency of women who feel that emotion and irrationality have gone too far in this wave of hysteria.

3) There’s a kind of Big Brother aspect to this dictate that is deeply unpleasant. “We will tell you with whom you can socialize—whether on campus or off—or you risk expulsion from the national chapter.” It’s not going too far to say that there’s something deeply un-American about this.

4) There’s also an ugly element of manipulation in the move—using the college sorority members as pawns in an attempt to force fraternity members to change their alleged behavior. It’s a modern-day Lysistrata! (I mean—this is the Greek system, right?) But somehow I doubt that the people behind this policy have read Lysistrata. In any case, even if that is the strategy, it’s a deeply sexist one. We’ll use these young women in a game of chess…

5) There’s virtually nothing that the national sororities could have done to faster discredit themselves and increase sympathy for the fraternities.

6) Some people said that the damage that comes from a fake allegation of rape is trivial. Imagine being a fraternity member and having a national organization prohibit its members from socializing with you at a bar. Guilt by association is not trivial.

The Post suggests that a backlash on campus is quickly brewing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the national organizations revoke their ban before Friday.

I wonder what Sabrina Rubin Erdely, wherever she is, makes of this…

What Is it With College Men and Unconscious Women?

Posted on January 28th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

A 19-year-old Stanford (now ex-Stanford, actually) student has been charged with “rape of an unconscious woman” and “sexual assault with a foreign object,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The student was a swimmer who’d been, apparently, heavily recruited by the university, but not a fraternity member. He was a freshman, and freshmen at Stanford can’t join frats.

Early on the morning on Jan. 18, prosecutors say, two men riding bikes on campus spotted a man later identified as Turner on top of an unconscious woman. Turner ran away, but the pair tackled him. A third person called police.

Of course, this kid is innocent until proven guilty. But it’s good to read that, unlike at Vanderbilt, people who saw this happening actually did something about it. (Though we shouldn’t have to welcome that; it should be taken for granted.)

I still believe that rape on campus is an relatively rare phenomenon, and the statistics back me up. But one incident of sexual assault is too many, and in the interest of fairness, I think it’s important to point them out when they do happen. These stories are depressing—and reprehensible.

Why Didn’t Sabrina Rubin Erdely Write about Vanderbilt?

Posted on January 27th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 20 Comments »

Serious question. The rape for which two Vanderbilt students (they’re always referred to as football players, though I have no idea if that’s relevant or just convenient) were just convicted is plenty horrific. And it has, from a crusading journalist’s perspective, the advantage of being true. Is Vanderbilt just not as sexy a story as UVa?

In any case: These guys should be locked up for a very long time. Getting your girlfriend so drunk that she passes out, then handing her off to two other guys to rape her? What kind of a person does that? And what kind of person would rape her instead of slugging the guy in the face and calling the cops?

The New York Times On “The Hunting Ground”

Posted on January 26th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 18 Comments »

The paper of record continues its bizarrely one-sided reporting on the issue of campus sexual assault today, as film writer Brooks Barnes pens a glowing review of a new documentary called “The Hunting Ground.”

I first heard about this film a few days ago in a Variety review; Variety called the documentary “a buzzed-about documentary about the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses.”

That word “epidemic” always sets my alarm bells ringing, as there’s absolutely no evidence that this is true, and in fact, there’s real evidence that there is considerably less sexual assault on college campuses than there is, well, everywhere else.

Variety continues:

Statistics indicate that as many as 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted on college campuses in the United States in a year. But a tiny fraction of the attackers ever face any disciplinary action, and college hearings rarely expel students for rape.

Except that statistics don’t indicate that 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted on college campuses. And while I’m sure that there are no reliable statistics on the number of “attackers” who ever face any disciplinary action, to the extent that this is the case, the main reason for this appears to be that, even with standards of proof lower than you’d find in a criminal court, many of these allegations are hard-to-prove and/or tenuous.

The Times’ review goes even further in its uncritical promotion of the “epidemic.”

At the premiere here on Friday, audience members repeatedly gasped as student after student spoke on camera about being sexually assaulted — and being subsequently ignored or run through endless hoops by college administrators concerned about keeping rape statistics low.

I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t want to go overboard here—especially because I’m sure that some of the horror stories are true. (The recent case at Vanderbilt appears to be one such example.) But I just don’t believe that there’s some sort of systemic conspiracy to “keep rape statistics low” out of fear of reputational damage. Maybe rape statistics are low because there’s no epidemic of campus rape. And university administrators are not typically cold heartless sinister bureaurats. (Remember, these are the people that the right-wing typically portrays as aging lefty hippies or politically correct SJWs; now the left-wing has them as something out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.)

The film is going to air on CNN sometime this year, which allows CNN head Jeff Zucker—formerly producer of the Today show who is now busily destroying CNN in order to save it—the chance to talk about how brave the network is.

“We’re not afraid,” Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, said after the panel, when asked about a potentially forceful response from higher education officials to “The Hunting Ground.” “They’re on the wrong side.” CNN has not revealed an air date except to say that it will run the film by the end of the year.

Indeed. Because, you know, those higher education officials are known for their vicious, merciless responses. I mean…are we living in the same world here. How many people could even name a higher education official other than, perhaps, the president of the university they attend(ed)?

Then Mr. Barnes writes one of the oddest paragraphs I’ve read in some time. (Is there an editor in the house?)

Underscoring the degree to which media scrutiny of campus rape can provoke swift and severe pushback, Rolling Stone in November was forced to step away from a provocative article focused on accusations of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The magazine acknowledged that it had erred in relying solely on the word of the accuser, named only as Jackie, and did not try to contact the men she accused.

“Swift and severe pushback?” Is Barnes on crack? Since when is pointing out that a story is terribly reported and quite likely false “swift and severe pushback”? And remember—there was a vast media silence about that story until I and a few other folks started raising doubts. There certainly wasn’t any “swift” pushback.

But wait—there’s more. That sentence—”the magazine acknowledged that it had erred in relying solely on the word of the accuser…” makes it sound like Rolling Stone forgot to cross a “t” and dot an “i.” A fairer sentence would have said, “The magazine admitted that it had failed to prove its allegations, which now appear to be fake.”

But Barnes make it sound like the reaction to the Rolling Stone story only proves the legitimacy of the issue. I’m trying to get my head around the logic: Because people reacted strongly to a story that wasn’t true, therefore “media scrutiny of campus rape” is somehow under siege. It’s intellectual vapor from Cloud Cuckoo-land.

Barnes also mentions that 90 schools are being investigated by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual assault cases. you see that and similar numbers reported a lot. But he doesn’t report (does he know?) how such investigations are launched; any student can write a letter to the DOE complaining of a Title IX violation, and the Department is required to initiate an investigation. So the mere fact of a large number of investigations does not in and of itself mean very much.

I would have thought that the Rolling Stone fiasco would have caused people in the press–and particularly the Times, which was so embarrassed by the follow-up reporting of the Washington Post—to employ at least a little skepticism about the “epidemic” of sexual assault on campus. I was wrong. The epidemic of bad journalism continues unabated.

You Guys Wrote Some Emails

Posted on January 25th, 2015 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

It’s 10:15 PM, Sunday night. My wife is in Utah for her job, trying to get back to the East Coast before the storm hits tomorrow afternoon. The kids are asleep (though who knows how long they’ll stay that way). And I’m in front of the computer, trying to catch up on, well, everything.

One of the things I’m trying to catch up on is all the kind and thoughtful emails I’ve received from readers of this blog over the past few weeks. I want to apologize for being so slow to write back, and let you know how much I appreciate those emails. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t write this blog to make money, and since its subject matter is really not related to my day job, it doesn’t help me much there either. Truth is, between being the dad of a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old, and a job as editor of Worth magazine that is more than full-time, I constantly feel like I’m late—because I usually am.

But to open my email folder and see all that incredible feedback—it really does mean a lot.

Thanks. And if you wrote me, and haven’t heard back from me—I’m trying. Really.