Popular music

My friend Jon Bash is a very talented musician/composer, so it's safe to assume that he thinks very seriously about music in general. Recently he posted this article ("How Popular Music's Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy") from a site called The Anti-Media, about a study examining the "reading level" of Billboard Top 40 songs. Stories about the study were passed around other places too, including The Guardian ("Hip hop ain't top: new study reveals reading levels behind music lyrics") and The Onion's A.V. Club ("Popular songs are dumb and only getting dumber, says dumb study"), with varying levels of skepticism and/or snark. Before getting in to any substantive discussion, however, I will first make fun of The Anti-Media for writing a really dumb article.

Claire Bernish (Twitter handle: @subversive_pen — Twitter bio: a Julian Assange quote) opens her turd-de-force with the following incredible paragraph-and-a-half:
A recent study served to confirm the patently obvious: song lyrics for the most popular genres of music are ridiculously obtuse — and getting worse over time. Though this might not be a revelation, the figures are distressing indicators of both an intellectually vapid societal and cultural future as well as its apparent inevitability.

If you’ve already moved away from Billboard music, congratulations, you refuse to be insulted. But if you haven’t, or if you’re concerned about pop culture trends acting as portents of systemic dysfunction, you should probably pay attention.
Her fingers must have been trembling as she forced them away from typing "decadence" or "degeneration." Even still, she managed to cram a heroic amount of smug elitism with general "these days" present-and-future-anxiety in those four sentences.
So how did this happen and why is it getting even worse? For the sake of brevity, this is a systemic issue being reinforced across the board by pandemic anti-intellectualism. Some have argued there is no harm in a bit of mindless distraction, but this is incontrovertibly false. When just six corporations control 90% of the media, and 80% of radio stations have identical playlists, mindless content isn’t a choice — it’s a virtual mandate. In this self-propelled cycle of banality, the conglomerates dictate content to be promoted by radio, which in turn pushes it endlessly, creating a false perception that what is being played is due to listener demand. But this insidious marketing ploy is more akin to kidnapping and is every bit as dangerous.
After muddling through some cynical platitudes about the American public education system (shorter version: Another Brick In the Wall, Pt. 2), Bernish arrives at her goal, the political angle:
From a political standpoint, all this ‘dumbing down’ makes sense: indoctrination creates obedience. If music and culture focus on mindless diversion, and education lacks, well, education, then people lack the acuity necessary to question the absurdity of the system. Those who manage to liberate themselves from this mold and have the gumption to question official authority will find a cozy spot on the government’s watch list. So while we bemoan our country’s lack of intellectual prowess, it isn’t by a failure of design.
Again, one can easily conjure an image of Bernish, sweating over her PGP-encrypted laptop, fingers tensed up millimeters above the keys as she manages to avoid typing "infowar" only by sheer force of subversive will. Wake up sheeple! she whispers to an uncaring and oppressive night, as she clicks "Publish"...


The only thing more offensive than the Anti-Media piece is the fact that the mainstream media apparently took this seriously. From The Guardian, an actual serious newspaper that reports on important issues and also this for some reason:
Is lyrical intelligence getting lower? A new study suggests the complexity of lyrics is declining, comparing words used in songs to reading levels in US schoolchildren.
By the Guardian's standards, I have done "studies." In a just world, the entire blog post (and it is just a blog post... says a guy in a blog post) would be dismissed out of hand, because averaging readability scores? Tests designed for prose and especially technical writing? Readability scores are justifiably important for, say, museum displays and legal briefs, hospital pamphlets and government missives. It's about conveying the most accurate information with the greatest ease. It's worth noting that a high reading-level score corresponds to low readability.

Last time I checked, pop music (or country, or rock, or metal, or...) wasn't created with education in mind, except for They Might Be Giants, maybe. Pop music is for entertainment. So the whole readability-analysis endeavor is sort of like if someone dismissed Van Gogh because his work wasn't as "detailed" as, say, Rembrandt. (Oh wait, that was a pretty common,  and dumb, criticism of art, especially in the Modernist and Post-modernist era...)

It's worth noting at this point, though, that I totally feel where Jon is coming from: I think that Top 40 songs are mostly dumb garbage. But I long ago stopped trusting broadcast radio, because for various reasons even stations that play music I enjoy, still only play the same half-dozen singles at best. If I like an artist I usually like lots of that artist, and usually their singles (if they even release singles) aren't my absolute favorite tracks. So I have to apply that same logic to pop music and hip-hop, predicting that the other tracks on their albums are probably different from the singles.

This is often true to a bizarre degree. I'll get to that later.

The other thing to note is that the Billboard charts are a really strange metric for whether a song is good or bad, and this has been true since the 40s. In the 1950s, when Christmas songs managed to top the charts, and even after Elvis Presley came on the scene, the year-end number one songs were often not the ones people remember: Elvis songs were only year-end #1 twice, and those were the not-very-lyrically-sophisticated "Heartbreak Hotel" and "All Shook Up." Does anyone remember this 1955 ten-week-chart-topper, "Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)"? Or this thirteen-week smash hit from 1950, "Goodnight Irene"? And that was a year when freakin' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was the top single for a week!

For what it's worth, the band that recorded that rendition of "Goodnight Irene" also did "On Top of Ol' Smoky," which you might have first encountered in kindergarten, or possibly pre-school. Maybe in it's "Spaghetti" version, which would probably bump the Flesh-Kincaid readability up by a few points what with the "spaghettis" and "meatballs" flying around.

Moreover, it's not as if the main stylistic issues of Top 40 songs are so incredibly different from today. Mediocre repetitive beats? Listen to that mambo tune "Cherry Pink", it's really kinda dumb (especially with that try-hard warbling horn sustain). Auto-tune killing music? Music has been dead for half a century by that reckoning, the goddamn Chipmunks Song was top of the charts for four whole weeks in 1958. It won three Grammy Awards. Calibrate your expectations accordingly. (And gain a new appreciation for why the 60s were an insane revolution in popular culture.)


Jon made a point about something a bit different, though:
The problem is, though, that none of the songs are saying anything. It's not explaining complicated subjects in an easily understandable way, a la Mark Twain or something; it's saying nothing with nothing. It's mindless ear candy garbage, ooh-ing and wow-ing for maximum profit. That's its undeniable purpose. There's the rare bit of self-expression and complexity, but even *it* tends to often be fed through the profit machine and the question "That's a cool song, now how can we make it a HIT," which usually drains it of its uniqueness in favor of something only slightly different from a cookie-cutter.

So yes, you can say profound things without coming across as a Thesaurus-monger. But that's not what's happening. And it's concerning that the vast majority of the music industry and its consumers don't seem to care.
While the historical evidence suggests that this is nothing new in pop music, Jon's criticism is independent of the reading-level analysis. Even if it's no big deal to have a song with third-grade-level lyrics, it might still matter if the most popular songs on the radio are literally content-free.

I'm sympathetic to this concern. Though it's also worth noting that popular "message" songs are a decidedly mixed bag: You have CSNY's "Ohio" getting to #14 on the one hand, and on the other you have Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" getting to #25:
The reaction was so strong that the Commandant of the Marine Corps James L. Jones told Keith it was his duty as an American citizen to record the song. "It's your job as an entertainer to lift the morale of the troops," Jones said to Keith. "If you want to serve, that is what you can do."[1] As the lead single from the album Unleashed (2002), "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue" peaked at number 1 on the country charts over the weekend of July 4.
That was a weird time to be alive.

Anyway, yeah, songs are usually about relatively straightforward emotions rather than high-complexity concepts—love, loss, joy, depression, nostalgia, optimism, faith, all are popular themes. That said, of course emotions aren't simple, but it's the difference between describing nuanced instances of a broader emotion, and simplifying a complex and intricate topic. We describe emotions and other phenomena of that conceptual level by adding specifics, and hoping that it touches on the greater truth.

You can definitely have narrative songs, though even then they have to be pretty broad if you want to be super popular. Unless the genre is metal and your band is called Sabaton, because they can sing about a specific battle in the 1938 invasion of Poland to a festival audience and are just that awesome. (Take that Toby Keith, some Swedes made me feel patriotic for Poland!)

Okay, okay. I didn't write this post to talk about my favorite genres.


We should probably consider the structure of music production and consumption in America, too, because I think that's where Jon's point is most on-target. True to this generation of viral videos and ultra-brief superstardom (lucky 60s and 70s and 80s where artists might have enjoyed a whole week at the top!) it does seem like most top songs are lazy vehicles for one catchy hook or one particular chorus. Certainly that's what I remember of most of the top songs, if I remember anything at all: just a few lines, maybe the main beat. That's it.

This isn't new, but you can see how music commodification has become ever more infinitesimal over time. Two-track singles were once the smallest unit of music one could buy; now it's individual tracks—and pretty much no expectation that you'll buy a whole album. Just chuck the artist into Spotify.

Moreover, production has become more individualized. Random (or "random") people on YouTube can make it big, regardless of actual merit. There's something like startup culture around pop music now; whereas the old evil was record executives getting their hooks in a band and bleeding them dry over the course of years, now it's everyone (publishers and artists both) putting more effort into "virality" than enduring quality. If so many people can just produce music, your only hope (so the market wisdom goes) is to go out in a blaze of venture-capital glory. Get a billion views on YouTube and ride the ironic appreciation all the way to the bank.

You can get a sense of the divide between album content and the mass-market singles, by actually listening to an entire album by a Top 40 artist. I have it on good authority (i.e. my friend Adam, a huge fan of Lady Gaga) that Lady Gaga's albums are a notable example of this.

This cements my personal aversion to pop music: the radio singles are far too "sugary" for my taste, and the stylistic dissonance between them and the B-sides (why didn't we invent new terms when we moved away from vinyl?) is too jarring. A huge part of my music collection is albums with coherent musical themes, often to the point of repetition—in service of a story or character, say. In other words, I think that rock operas and concept albums are cool.


More quantitatively, I think that the conclusions of this pseudo-study might have fallen prey to summary statistics. Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex (one of my favorite idea-blogs) coincidentally posted about this just the other day: ]
Here [in this example] all crime is committed by low IQ individuals, but the correlation between IQ and crime is still very low, r = 0.16. The reason is simple: very few people, including very few low-IQ people, commit crimes. r is kind of a mishmash of p(low IQ|criminal) and p(criminal|low IQ), and the latter may be very low even when all criminals are from the lower end of the spectrum.

The advice some people on Tumblr gave was to beware summary statistics. “IQ only predicts 3.6% of variance in crime” makes it sound like IQ is nearly irrelevant to criminality, but in fact it’s perfectly consistant with IQ being a very strong predictive factor. [...] Based on the way you explain things, you can use different summary statistics to make things look very important or not important at all.
The potential problem in this case is that there's an assumption that all people who listen to Top 40 music only listen to Top 40 music. We don't know this at all, even though we know that such-and-such pop song is the #1 Billboard hit for so many weeks. We don't know this, even though we know that such-and-such track is played so many millions of times on Spotify.

It could easily be the case that "everyone" likes Top 40, but each person likes other genres more than Top 40, but not enough people like any particular non-Top-40 genre.

This is reinforced by something like pluralistic ignorance: if you're in a group whose aggregate musical preference you don't know, you'll probably suggest something you believe to be popular, because that's the most likely to be correct—not to mention it's at the forefront of your mind. And so you'll end up listening to the latest viral hit, even if it turns out that you're all closet post-rock fans.

This, in turn, leads to one of my all-time worst pet peeves: when people claim they listen to "pretty much any kind" / "all kinds" of music, and then go on to list artists/bands that are very solidly in the "indie" or "alternative" category, for example. The "outside-the-box box"is pretty small in that situation. It's a really bad pet peeve of mind because it hits right at the intersection of my non-central musical tastes (see YouTube links above) and my mathematical-logical anxiety around "for all" type statements. So fragile! So dangerous! It only takes one counterexample!


So here, at the end, we conclude that the study was barely one at all. Raw totals of Billboard rankings tell you nothing about even the aggregate individual's listening habits. Readability scores are Not Even Wrong when applied to song lyrics, and even if modern pop music uniquely represents a degeneration compared to the pop music of earlier eras, it's still a bad argument of the "video games make people violent" caliber.

Dumb songs aren't making people dumb. Posts about how This Song Perfectly Describes Something are making people dumb, but everyone knew that already.

AS Elections 2015: What Are the Chances

This post is a follow-up to the AS Elections series: Part 1 and Part 2

I have one more post left in this series, about the aftermath of the 2015 AS General Elections and what could be done in the future. Then, as befitting my position as someone who's not even enrolled at WWU any more, I'll let the matter rest.

This post, though, is not the last. I reached out to people I knew, who had run for office in the AS or worked in the AS but are no longer a part of it. Katrina Haffner (of La Commedia Politica) and Dan Hagen stepped up. Here are their responses, lightly edited for readability and length. Any highlights are mine.

1. You said you ran for election twice and lost. What do you think contributed to that? The other candidates' messaging? Your own knowledge of the election process?

First and foremost, elections are popularity contests. When it’s mainly people from the AS and friends of candidates voting, it becomes quite apparent. When writing my candidate statements, I was sure to list my experiences that would show why I was qualified for the position (relating to the position itself as well as leadership), a couple of points from my platform, and an emotional appeal, including my slogan – pretty much in that order. As the majority of the voters who weren’t already biased towards my opponents probably wouldn’t read up on us, I knew that I would have to rely on a kick-ass candidate statement. For both elections, I had strangers pass me and tell me that they voted for me – it gave me reason to believe that I had appeal to people who weren’t connected to my opponents. [...]

My main opponents were phenomenal with physical campaigning (posters and standing with their signs), and while I took every hour I had free to reach out to people, my busy class schedule prevented me from going out more often. I’m not sure how much of an impact that had on the elections, but I do believe in creating a sense of familiarity.

As last year’s election was highly influenced by people from the Ethnic Student Center, the voter turnout seemed to be vastly different from the year before, with fewer voters as well. I had accurately predicted all who would win during the 2012-2013 election, but I failed to correctly do so for the next year’s.

Becoming familiar with the AS Elections rules is fairly simple as you can read the AS Election Code, which I did a few times, as well as talk with the AS Elections Coordinator along with a staff member who knows it well.

I think the largest contributing factors to my defeats would be misinformation about the requirements for the position and the poorly organized campaign requirements.

When I was campaigning for the position of ASVP for Activities less than ten percent of the people I campaigned to actually knew what the job responsibilities were and sadly that is including staff members of the AS. Absolutely nobody knew that the ASVP for Activities chaired Interclub Council, and very few people knew the ASVPfA chairs Activities Council. Interestingly, my first campaign there were also little to no resources dedicated to providing any candidates but the presidentials an opportunity to speak before an audience. A large debate event was hosted for the position of President, despite the fact that the board makes decisions as a group and the President is but one, comparatively small voice in that group.

The structure of the election was done in such a way that information is presented to candidates all in one lump meeting the weekend before you are actually allowed to campaign. The candidate receives a several page packet with rules and stipulations and then told if they violate any aspect of that large dense packet of information their entire campaign could be meaningless. Granted the reviewing committee is fairly lenient, however in my opinion they would need to be or they could very likely accidentally DQ their entire board.

If a candidate did not have a previous knowledge of the campaign timeline before the meeting they're at a severe disadvantage because candidates are allowed to post their materials on campus less than two days after that meeting. Interestingly, they're not allowed to design or print materials until after the meeting, which nobody follows because then you could not logistically get any campaign materials designed or printed before all of the best advertising spots are taken by more prepared candidates.

2. What was your impression of the AS as an outsider? As an insider? How do you see the AS's attitude towards the general student body?

While working for the AS my first couple of years at western, I learned it believes it exists to create a safe and inclusive environment for western students. However, after getting a non-AS job and leaving the AS clubhouse I noticed that I almost never heard about the AS except the events they were hosting (which are generally the same 10 topics looked at from different perspectives). I did notice an improvement in regards to transparency/voice on campus when the communications position was created (but it wasn't worth the ~14k in salary and whatever the operating budget is I'm sure.
Before my first time running in the AS Elections, the only real experience I had with them was through AS Clubs since I was a president of a couple. Despite my involvement with ResLife, it seemed that people from the AS didn’t consider me “qualified” enough for VP for Student Life. My isolation was further reinforced when leaders within the AS endorsed an opponent of mine, without listing any actual qualifications.

In the year following my first election, I joined Activities Council and became involved with KUGS. Because I was not an AS employee, I still did not feel particularly “in” with the AS. My experiences with running helped me become more familiar with the student government.

According to an inside source, KUGS does not have the camaraderie with the AS as other programs within it do. Last year’s particular election brought up a theme of possible internal tensions within the AS. Even though the Ethnic Student Center is in the AS, many people had to vote between “this person in the AS or this person in the ESC.” I can’t say whether or not there was real dramatic tension between ESC and non-ESC candidates, but it may have been a cry from people in the ESC who feel that the AS does not properly represent people of color.

Despite my gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, I chose to not showcase those aspects of myself for campaigning. Even though I am half-Filipino, it did not seem to matter in the race, as I was not affiliated with the ESC.

During both vice presidential debates I saw a few people from the AS scoff or roll their eyes at things I had to say. These were mainly things that people from the student body had brought up to me. Even though it was only a few people from the AS who did so, the student body is keen on picking up negative responses from the AS about their real concerns.
3. In your experience with the AS, what were a few key programs or initiatives that were directed at the general student body? Were there any programs / initiatives you deemed to be mostly insular, and was that a good or a bad thing?

Of the initiatives and referenda that were put on the ballot while I have been a student, only the Higher One initiative introduced by Bill Campbell seemed to be about representing the students and bringing attention to their concerns, in my opinion. That doesn’t make all of the other bills introduced wrong by any means. Having an initiative on the ballot brings great awareness to political and social issues, as shown by the divestment campaign. I have also tried to get a couple of initiatives on the ballot, to no avail.

I don’t think the problem here is that these bills don’t represent the student body, but that it is a pain in the tush to even get an initiative onto the ballot. You need 5% of the student body to sign a petition so that it can get onto the ballot. How they came up with that number, I don’t know. Why it’s even a thing, I don’t know. I really want to know why 5% of all numbers – do they think that it accurately represents the student body? Why is it that referenda don’t need a petition? Is it because they’re sponsored by a member of the AS Board of Directors? (Duh.)

In order to even get a petition from the AS to even have hopes of getting an initiative onto the ballot, it needs to be approved by the AS Board of Directors. There is one meeting sponsors have to attend to give the BOD more information, as well as a second where you can give them more info, then they vote on it. Why isn’t this enough to get it onto the ballot?

If this process wasn’t so strenuous, I wouldn’t doubt that more issues from the student body would be brought forward. In the actual elections, I feel that the focus is mainly on the candidates. The AS can reimburse only so much money spent on campaigning. If there are a lot of candidates who run, reimbursements for the candidates are prioritized over reimbursements for the initiative sponsors. During meetings, facilitators have to remember to talk to the initiative sponsors as well, instead of solely referring to the group as “candidates.”

When I ran my opposition campaign for the no smoking on campus referendum, there was so little information on how I was supposed to do so. If I correctly recall, I was the first person to ever run an opposition campaign in AS Election history.
In my opinion the programs that were more insular were so because it strengthens the nature of the program/initiative. For example, the women's centers programming (one could just as easily say ESC), while inclusive to all identities, has a more insular programming style, but that serves to strengthen the content of their programming by allowing the participants to find students of similar identities.

I worked for AS Productions for a time, which is responsible for a lot of event programming on Westerns campus and while most if not all of the events put on by ASP were targeted at Western students of all backgrounds, their events generally only drew undergraduate white students who lived on campus. Also the larger concerts used to be more varied and have lower ticket prices more recently the performers have all catered to the white-seattle-middle-class-urban-hipster music scene and tickets aren't always affordable for a majority of students on campus.

4. What is your impression of the direction the AS has taken over the past few years? Have they improved, and in what ways? Have they declined, and in what ways?

I feel that they've declined in that they are no longer using the finances allotted to them as responsibly or effectively as they could be. When we were on activities council I feel like a lot of times we just gave the people money because we had it and we could help them despite indications they had a poorly planned event. A lot of times we also neglected to consider the focus of the money being allocated. For instance in two consecutive years the design club received substantial funding for two plane trips to conferences. While other clubs spent considerably less by using the WWU vans, or planning car pool trips.
I feel that my talk of transparency during both elections I ran in has outlived my candidacy. During my first run, I got the vibe that some people from the AS didn’t like how it was a priority on my platform – that I was just another student running who didn’t actually know how the AS worked. Even if that was true (and I still, to this day, doubt that), it was a point that resonated with the students I talked with. During my second run, transparency became another theme apparent, as it was mentioned by Chelsea Ghant in her candidate statement (in addition to mine) and was a question asked to the candidates in the presidential debate.

I think that the AS Review and The Western Front are doing a more splendid job in covering the elections. If Western bloggers like us continue to create a dialogue, it could get more students talking, as well as get the AS to pay more attention to what the student body is thinking. I am pretty sure the majority of the AS is well-intentioned and wants to hear the concerns of the students, they just don’t know how.

How the AS is structured may inhibit actual change from happening. They need fresh faces. I, for one, love the idea of a student senate, as it has worked in the favor of transparency in the past, and provides another avenue for students to become involved. However, it has been out-of-commission and in need of reform for the past few years.

The current AS BOD is not a typical one, and for that, we should be glad. I’m not saying candidates from the ESC should win every year, but having board members you don’t usually see shakes things up. If people from different groups on campus, such as ResLife, libertarians, Fairhaven, etc., work with their friends and acquaintances to get elected, we could see some actual diversity within the AS.

I am disappointed in this year’s election. The abysmal lack in candidates to vote for is embarrassing. Not only the number of people who decided to run, but the lack of real stances on what they are running for. A lot of the unopposed candidates rely on meaningless rhetoric, which I am not a fan of. Because of the lack of competition, it took forever for physical campaign materials to appear. Unless there was an external force (widespread printing problems, for example) that resulted in candidates being unable to put up posters until late in the game, I am unimpressed with the sheer laziness. Sure, you may be the only person the students can vote for that particular position, but it doesn’t mean you outright deserve it. I really can’t say in which direction the AS is headed. If they have any sense, they’ll have me help with the student senate reform, but until then, we’re being left behind in the dust.
My final recommendations / condemnations are forthcoming. If you have any comments or questions or additional testimony, please share!

AS Elections 2015: What Has Been Done

This post is a follow-up to AS Elections 2015: Why Do We Even Bother, and a partial follow-up to Western Washington University: "diversity" = "anti-white"?, AS Presidential Debates: Shit Gets Real, and Inappropriate


When 6 out of 7 positions on the WWU Associated Students board are uncontested in the 2015 elections, and only 7% of students voted in the 2014 elections, that's an embarrassment and the AS should feel bad. If only this hasn't been a recurring theme, with the same problems and platitudes traded back and forth, for—at the very least—fifteen years...

But that was the last post. Now we're in case-study mode. This past academic year, what did the AS Board, they of the 7% voter turnout, actually do with their newfound powers?

Let's start with what they wanted to do, as documented by this strangely titled AS Pravda Review (yes I will make that joke again) article, "What Have the AS Board Been Up To?" Given that the article was written on 4 November 2014, barely a month into the academic year—and yeah, the AS Board does a few things during the summer but really nothing can get done until the entire campus is back online in mid-September—the answer to the headline would have to be "not much, but what did you expect, it's only freaking November." Anyway, what did these fresh-faced candidates want to do for 2014–2015?

Leaving aside the intangibles like "raising awareness" or "promoting diversity," I saw the following wishlist items:
  • Organize an official (AS-branded?) first-annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Extending the late-night Student Shuttle route to the Happy Valley neighborhood
  • Developing a plan to improve walkways and lighting around the dormitories
  • Taking seven (7) students to the Oregon Students of Color Conference (3 ESC students, 2 AS students, and 2 at-large)
  • Achieve at least a 100-person Viking Lobby Day attendance
  • Increase student representation (I assume more seats for student representatives) on the Student Senate as part of the ongoing Senate reform
  • Continuing to develop an inclusivity resolution for course evaluations, possibly adding a "faculty perspective"
  • Produce a composite calendar for Associated Students, Resident Life, athletics, and Change Maker (a/k/a buzzword money-pit) events, to be distributed in physical form to all on-campus residents.
Now, I can't search every document of minutes for the AS Board and the WWU Board of Directors, but this Review article was pretty helpful (and they should do these more often):
  • MLK Day celebration did happen!
  • Student Shuttle route was extended!
  • Improved walkways/lightings proposal was passed!
  • There was a WWU delegation going to the Oregon Students of Color Conference, though curiously the Review article didn't mention it.
  • The Viking Lobby Day attendance goal was almost met.
  • The Student Senate is on hiatus for the entire academic year; reforms are yet to be announced.
  • The inclusivity resolution is in the wind.
  • The composite calendar is in the wind.
To be fair, the Board did other stuff too, but this post isn't about an itemized comparison of goals to deliverables.


What about student engagement with the political process? That's supposedly a selling point for the WWU Associated Students, with Viking Lobby Day and the divestment campaign cited as big achievements; see, for example, this Western Front op-ed from the beginning of the academic year:
With a new school year beginning and a new staff in the AS headed by President Annika Wolters, the editorial board thinks more participation by the student body would be wonderful. However, relationships are a two-way street and the AS will need to reach out at the same time students step up involvement in campus activities.


A notable milestone in this last year, for students and the student governing body alike, was the strength of the divestment movement. Divestment, where students have stood up and vocalized disagreement with investment in non-renewable energy, has pressured Western to invest in sustainable energy sources. This is a great example of students standing up for what is important and making lasting changes.
I never personally understood the seemingly massive expenditure of energy (no pun intended) on the part of so many students for divestment. For one thing, it's a classic case of "students trying to influence a process that they have very little control over, even in principle"—see also, for example, the perennial outrage over some large, seemingly frivolous expenditure that was actually earmarked by a donor for that exclusive purpose, because budgets suck sometimes. Divestment, even if it were a no-cost move for the school, would amount to little more than a political statement, and given WWU's other, stronger, more tangible commitments to sustainability and environmentalism, divestment wouldn't even add up to that much in the grand scheme.

Then there's an interesting item from the 2015 presidential debate Q&A:
Seare also addressed the divestment campaign on campus.

“I think that’s one of the most silencing things I’ve seen happen to the student body,” she said.
"Silencing," in this case, has a political connotation:
Silencing refers to techniques used to shut women up when they complain about sexism or other problems. It encompasses harassment or intimidation that discourages women from speaking out, shaming and humiliation targeted at women who do speak up, and techniques used to dismiss or deny the legitimacy of womens' speech.
With "women" and "sexism" substituted out for "students" and "inaction on divestment," respectively. That strikes me as inaccurate: a student club, Students for Renewable Energy, has been flogging the issue for the entire academic year, up to and including public stunts like an "oil spill" in Red Square. It just so happens that the Western Foundation, which controls WWU's endowment and decides how to invest it, decided that it wouldn't divest. Students for Renewable Energy are free to keep lobbying for their cause; they even had a public debate about it. "The foundation heard our case, but decided not to do what we wanted" isn't silencing, jeez. It's just what happens sometimes.


NOTE: This part may seem like I'm picking on a single member of the WWU AS for no good reason. I don't know this person and I'm not assuming anything about her character or intelligence or what have you, but I present this specific incident (together with my reaction to it) as emblematic of a more general issue with the WWU AS (and my general feelings about it). If you think that's unfair, feel free to make that known.

With that out of the way, let's talk about activism. Winter Quarter saw this interesting bit of political theater play out in the State Senate:
Associated Students legislative liaison Heather Heffelmire and AS elections coordinator Mayra Guizar protested in the Washington State Senate gallery over racial comments made by Sen. Jim Honeyford.

After shouting for Honeyford to resign and dropping a banner with the same statement while senators were meeting on the floor, Heffelmire and Guizar were escorted from the senate gallery Friday, March 6.

The protest follows a senate committee meeting Thursday, Feb. 26, where Honeyford said, “The poor are more likely to commit crimes and colored most likely to be poor,” according to video from the meeting. He then told KMIA TV, a Yakima broadcast station, that by “colored” he wasn’t just referring to “the Negro or the Hispanic” but all minorities.

Honeyford later released an apology for the remarks. He declined to return multiple requests for comment from The Western Front.

Honeyford is the chair of the capital budget committee. Western is currently requesting funding in the capital budget from the legislature to renovate Carver Academic Facility.

As legislative liaison, Heffelmire lobbies legislators in Olympia on behalf of the AS.
For what it's worth, I think that Honeyford's initial statement (about rates of crime, poverty, and demographics) would actually be pretty uncontroversial if it hadn't come from an old white Republican representing a majority-Hispanic district.

Now, Honeyford may have been concern trolling. But merely asking the question is apparently the impetus for outrage and a #HoneyfordResign hashtag campaign and a demonstration in the Senate chamber—not an actual voting record.

The Western Front published an op-ed questioning the wisdom of the stunt, citing the fact that Honeyford chairs the capital budget committee which WWU is requesting funds from to renovate the (apparently grossly unsafe) Carver Gym:
Heffelmire said she was not acting in her liaison position when she took part in the demonstration, and was instead protesting as an “autonomous student and resident of Washington state.” Yet she is still recognizable as a lobbyist, no matter if she temporarily excuses herself from that position.

As journalists, we are unable to join protests or take public political action without this being considered a conflict of interest to our jobs, even if we are technically off the clock. It is hard to see why there is much difference between these standards and the standards for lobbyists, who should work to represent the best interests of their clients at all times.

Again, I support the message behind Heffelmire and Guizar’s protest to condemn the racist comments of Honeyford, but I believe Heffelmire’s participation in the demonstration was a poor decision and one that could jeopardize important funding for Carver that will contribute to the safety of Western students.
Heffelmire responded with a guest column of her own:
During my time in Olympia, Sen. Jim Honeyford, from the 15th legislative district, made blatantly racist and classist remarks saying “colored people are more likely to be poor,” “poor people commit more crimes,” and using the outdate [sic] and oppressive term “the negro.”

After Honeyford’s remarks, there was outcry from his constituents, students and people of color throughout the state. I knew that I could not remain silent in light of his racist and oppressive remarks, but that I had to take action and use my position, privilege and access to the legislature to speak out against racism.
The focus here is on remarks and representativeness. Nothing about what Honeyford actually does in the State Senate—it could be just the worst, but we wouldn't know from this action—which would make a better case for his resignation.

But the real thing, the reason I bring this up at all in this post and not a separate one (which I may yet do), is Heffelmire's justification for her activism:
On March 6, in an act of civil disobedience, myself and another one of Western’s students and a constituent of Honeyford’s, Mayra Guizar, interrupted the senate meeting by dropping a banner calling on Honeyford to resign while chanting a similar message. This is one of my proudest actions while in Olympia, and although I did not take it in my official role as the legislative liaison, I trust that I represented a large majority of Western students in this act. Evidenced by the over 100 students and alumni who added their names in support of the action to my original response[.]
This linked to a Google document (which does actually mention his voting record!) with the names of various co-signatories, including 106 current and former WWU students. I crunched the numbers and found (via nothing but searching the AS Review website) that out of these co-signatories, 37 were AS employees or AS Board candidates, and 69 were not affiliated with the AS. That's a 35%-65% split... which not even in one's wildest dreams is representative of the overall student body.

Keep in mind that the 35% AS-employee rate is five times the overall voting rate of the 2014 election, and AS employees are a one fifth of 1% of the student population. 

Leaving aside the statistical incongruity of the numbers to Heffelmire's assertion of "a large majority," one wonders why it had to be a shouting-hashtag-banner-drop and not, say, mobilizing those 100+ supporters to write letters to the Senate. But again, I don't want to poke too deeply at this one incident, only to suggest that it's nicely representative of the problem that the WWU AS is falling out of touch with the aggregate student body, and losing at least one of its purposes.


I will close this part of the case against the AS' current relevance by saying that it does do a few things very well. AS Productions still caters to a wide audience with their Comm lawn movies, for example. More importantly, the Representation and Outreach Programs, along with the Ethnic Student Center and its affiliate organizations, provide important services to students of various, traditionally under-served identities. Back in the day I served on the Structural Program Advising Committee and we learned all about the ins and outs of a few ROP programs and they deserve commendation for doing a lot with relatively little.

That said, if the AS is going to commit itself ever more strongly to those sorts of services, it doesn't make sense to me that they need to stick with the pretense of having general elections. After all, those services aren't for everyone by design—moreover, the various director and coordinator positions are applied for, with hiring decided at least in part by a tribunal of the incumbent officers. Might as well bring everything in-house, rename the Board positions, and call it a day.

Anything would be preferable to the 7%-voter-turnout embarrassment of last year, or this year's nearly uncontested, why-bother-competing-when-my-competent-friend-is-also-running slate of candidates.

In the next post, I will call some witness testimony. Some readers may have noticed that I left out a key service of the Associated Students—that is for the fourth and final post.