So wtf was that about?

Thoughts on the Capitol riot, ideas for improving diversity training, and how to make decisions with limited information.

Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Pool via REUTERS.

This week’s Ruffian is slightly shorter than usual in order to compensate for last week’s.

It will take time to digest what happened in America last Wednesday but here are a few first thoughts, please be gentle:

  • This was a dreadful event for several reasons but much of the ‘coup’ talk is overblown. There’s no real evidence of coordination with or between government officials, civilian or military. This was a messy, bottom-up, well, riot, incited but not organised by Trump. While there’s much to reflect on I think we’re slightly magnifying the importance of the event simply because we have images of it. As Hosuk Lee-Makiyama points out, in some ways the last four years have demonstrated the resilience of American system against populism.

  • It is probably too early to get a good read on US voters’ response to Wednesday but if this holds it’s the most depressing thing about the whole episode. It suggests that about a quarter of Americans have basically given up on democracy (in fact it might be more than that, since if this had been a mob supporting a Democratic president you’d see some numbers on the other side, even if I don’t think the problem is symmetrical). Insofar as this event matters it’s because it throws a light on chronic, long-simmering problems.

  • I really hope US democracy can endure because as China chose to remind us this week, the alternative to American global hegemony is much worse.

  • I’m not fond of the frequently and glibly made point that “If this had been BLM, there would be carnage”. In some forms it has come dangerously close to sounding like disappointment that more violence wasn’t deployed on Wednesday. Secondly, and most importantly, a woman was shot and killed by police. A cop also lost his life. Others died in ‘medical emergencies’. I don’t often disagree with Michelle Obama but she should have mentioned these tragedies in her statement - otherwise it feels like if you’re not on ‘our side’ we don’t really count you. (Shouldn’t we at least be asking if the policeman responsible for Ashli Babbitt’s death used reasonable force on this unarmed protestor?). Third, it’s not right to characterise - as Michelle O does - the police response to BLM’s “overwhelmingly peaceful” protests as one of unremitting brutality. Viral videos notwithstanding, the policing was overwhelmingly peaceful too, and arguably too lax in places, as some including Chloe Valdary have noted. Not to mention the fact that a few on the left sought to excuse or support the violence that did take place. I’m with Thomas Chatterton Williams when he says there is really only one side to be on.

  • I don’t mean to imply that the police handled the Capitol riot well because they clearly did not. There are certainly grounds for suspicion that they were too friendly with the protesters. This wouldn’t be a surprise - historically there is evidence that US police deal with left-wing protests more harshly than right-wing ones. The leadership of the Capitol force was shockingly inadequate not just during the day but in its aftermath too. It’s not good enough to issue a statement that says, effectively, ‘we couldn’t have seen this coming’. People further removed from the action very much did see it coming. (The police chief has now resigned.)

  • The characterisation of the rioters as ‘fascists’ is simplistic. There were definitely some hardcore white supremacists among them but we see so much through the lens of twentieth century European history that we can miss the distinctive, cultish mix of oddballs which makes up the hardcore MAGA crowd. (This video is unsettling and ever so slightly funny - the way she answers the last question as if it’s totally obvious). That makes it hard to predict how the movement will evolve. Arieh Kovler notes that some of its members are angry and disappointed at Trump for backing down. Some QAnon followers are disillusioned that the promised revolution petered out so easily.

  • The identity of Lectern Guy is interesting.

  • How much of Wednesday’s disruption should we put down to the pursuit of Instagram follows and Facebook likes? In fact you suspect the whole event was like a virtual reality theme ride (except for those who got hurt or killed). You wonder what Baudrillard or Umberto Eco might have said, apart from ‘told ya’.

  • I thought the way the very American phenomenon of BLM became a global meme was odd but this is even weirder. America is exporting its civil society, just as it is coming apart at the seams.

  • In a way, however, all this was a sideshow to the week’s main event. The most important news on Wednesday was the confirmation that the Democrats had taken control of the Senate, by winning both seats in Georgia. It’s significant because it gives the Biden administration much more leeway and also because it shows that the Dems can win in Georgia and perhaps other hitherto conservative states, at least when they run sensible - yes, centrist - candidates.

  • Raphael Warnock in particular is so impressive and a model for the kind of candidate that Dems should run everywhere. Note how he deals with the question about Trump, and just his general demeanour here. Oh and quite seriously I think this is one of the best political ads I’ve seen in recent years (remember the imperative in Georgia to reach beyond the Democrats’ natural constituencies and find a connection to all voters).

    In this thoughtful piece Columbia University sociologist Musa Al-Gharbi argues that we need to rethink how we do diversity training. First of all, it doesn’t appear to work. A robust body of empirical studies has found it doesn’t improve morale, or collaboration, or the hiring and promotion of diverse candidates. Instead of dismissing the principle, however, Al-Gharbi sketches out what a viable model might look like. There’s lots in this piece and I won’t try to summarise it but I do want to highlight a passage that chimes with the theme of my new book CONFLICTED - which you can read about and/or pre-order here. In the book, I argue that getting better at disagreement is crucial in order to unlock the benefits of diversity. There’s little point having a group of diverse people around a table if they all agree with one another. Al-Gharbi has some very interesting things to say on that question.

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  • How much should we worry about anti-vaxxers? Not a lot, I don’t think. Duncan Robinson makes a great point here: we should put little stock in polls showing people are against vaccination, since this is an area where what people say and what they do are very different. In Italy, an anti-vax party, the Five Star Movement, was elected to power but then had to deal with a measles outbreak. Now its supporters are more likely to be pro-vaccine than the average Italian.

  • Dan Wang’s letter is full of fascinating insights into modern China.

  • When the UK adopted a single dose strategy some people responded that there was no data to support its efficacy. That is true only in a narrow sense. This is such a good thread from Robert Wiblin on how to think about decisions when you have incomplete data. It’s focused on Covid-19 and the debate over single dose strategies (where we have limited or no data from the trials on single dose, but plenty of other kinds of evidence to draw on in support of it) but it applies to decision-making generally. Tom Chivers picks up the theme.

  • Just the phrase ‘cancer vaccines’ is quite exciting.

  • I enjoyed this thread on gloriously eccentric pop bands of the 1980s.

  • “The independent-minded have a horror of ideologies, which require one to accept a whole collection of beliefs at once.” This essay by the tech investor Paul Graham is just about the best thing I’ve read on what it means to be a critical thinker.

  • Oh and did I mention that you can pre-order my book here?

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