Fight or flight?

It’s now been ten days since Donald Trump was elected president, and the words still don’t seem all that believable. Perhaps it will take seeing Trump raise that tiny right hand of his – the one he employed to mock a disabled reporter – and “grab” the Bible with his sinister left, before the words “President Trump” are made podgy, sunbed-ridden flesh in front of our eyes.

Yet even if we are currently caught in a temporary, post-traumatic “freeze” phase, soon we will face the evolutionary dilemma of “fight-or-flight”. The curious thing about the fight-or-flight mechanism is that it prepares us to do either – to flight or to flee – with the same set of reactions. The cascade of hormones, enhanced blood flow, increased muscle tension, and other physiological reactions prepare us simultaneously to run like hell or fight with all our might.

This physiological quirk has a political equivalent, I think, in how we choose to respond to the coming prospect of a fascistic, fantastically corrupt four years of Trumpism. We seem equally equipped to fight or to flee, and both options hold distinct appeal. Fleeing in the literal sense seems appealing when we look at Canada, with its warm-hearted, cool-headed populace, who seem to have successfully infused European egalité with American frontier spirit. Or, of course, we might simply flee inward: into lives, loves and livelihoods that, we hope, might yet remain mostly unmolested by President Trump’s agenda.

Yet fleeing, whether outward or inward, is not only not the right choice, but for many or most people is not actually a choice at all. Ironically, those best equipped to “move to Canada” – wealthy, well-travelled, well-connected – are as different as it’s possible to be from the souls who risk everything to escape from war-torn lands like Syria and Somalia, and frequently die, or are indefinitely detained, in the process. Similarly, those who have the financial and social capital to build a four-year fortress within which they can retreat are those least likely to need it.

The true burden will be borne, as it always is, by those least empowered to bear it – the people who are now more likely to be the victim of racially motivated attacks; the people who will lose Medicare or an affordable insurance plan; the people whose gender or sexual identity is taxed or targeted.

Fighting, then, is in fact the only option we, collectively, have. How we choose our fights, and how we fight them, still need to be carefully figured out. But even if fleeing feels like a plausible, even pleasant, prospect, morally it’s moribund. Fight like your life depends on it, for and with those for whom it really, actually does.


Generation Boom

One of my most formative experiences was an upper school trip to the battlefields of France and Belgium. Amidst all the stories of carnage and destruction, and the unfathomable numbers of casualties involved, what struck me above all else was the sheer proximity of the respective front lines. In some places a mere hundred yards might separate the two groups of young European men, conscripted to throw grenades and fire rifles at each other across the small parcel of scorched earth between them.

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2016: year of the tactical takedown?

Cross-posted from MIT’s Center for Civic Media blog.

The present presidential election is a spectacle, in the truest sense of the word, like few before. Just as FDR’s weekly radio addresses and JFK’s success in the first televised presidential debate watermark the adoption and cooption of a particular communication medium for political ends, so the 2016 campaign may go down in history as marking a seismic shift in the landscape of political uses of media. The candidate leading the charge, this time round, is unquestionably Donald Trump, currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Yet it’s a little more difficult to identify precisely which medium or platform Trump has coopted. The most readily available answer seems to be ‘all of the above’ – although in different ways.

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WTF offers a unique perspective on life on the front line


Originally published in The Tech.

Reviews often destroy movies, and only rarely, as in the case of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, do they create them. In 2011, a New York Times review of Kim Barker’s wartime memoir The Taliban Shuffle described Barker as “a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.” This caught the eye of Fey herself, who began pulling strings to bring Barker’s story to movie audiences as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

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Michael Moore’s war of hearts and minds

Originally published in The Tech.


The title of Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, seems to reflect ambivalence on the part of its creator. It is after all no coincidence that Moore’s trio of breakout box office hits — Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko — appeared during the administration of his antagonist-in-chief, George W. Bush. Though no one would pretend that mass shootings have subsided since the release of Bowling for Columbine, the election of President Obama saw the formal end of the Iraq War and the passing of health care reform — the subjects of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, respectively. The working title of Moore’s latest project might as well have been, What To Tackle Next?

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Consider the Lawn Sign: elections as civic engagement


Cross-posted from the Center for Civic Media blog.

Last week I had the chance to watch one of the world’s great electoral-political spectacles – the New Hampshire primary – up close. It wasn’t by any means my first dalliance with American politics: I’ve had at least a loose involvement in the fascinating and frequently Freudian process by which Americans elect their leaders for several cycles now. But this time I saw the process through a slightly different lens.

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Causation, Correlation, and Big Data in Social Science Research

Cowls, Josh and Schroeder, Ralph (2015) Causation, Correlation, and Big Data in Social Science Research. Policy & Internet 7 (4), 447-472.

The emergence of big data offers not only a potential boon for social scientific inquiry, but also raises distinct epistemological issues for this new area of research. Drawing on interviews conducted with researchers at the forefront of big data research, we offer insight into questions of causal versus correlational research, the use of inductive methods, and the utility of theory in the big data age. While our interviewees acknowledge challenges posed by the emergence of big data approaches, they reassert the importance of fundamental tenets of social science research such as establishing causality and drawing on existing theory. They also discussed more pragmatic issues, such as collaboration between researchers from different fields, and the utility of mixed methods. We conclude by putting the themes emerging from our interviews into the broader context of the role of data in social scientific inquiry, and draw lessons about the future role of big data in research.

Review: Trumbo offers a shallow take on Hollywood’s writer’s bloc

Published in MIT’s The Tech.



It seems more than a little fitting that Jay Roach’s new biopic, Trumbo, is classified as a ‘Drama’ for the forthcoming Golden Globes in spite of its studio’s preference for it to be considered in the less competitive Comedy category. This is fitting not only since Trumbo is a movie that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but also because it betrays the navel-gazing, self-referential tendencies of Hollywood that the movie initially seeks to satirize but ultimately falls victim to itself.