Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The privilege of silence

This is from Alex Pareene's frenzied cannibalization of Jonathan Chait:
It's not just angry Twitter nobodies, either! "[Political correctness] also makes money," Chait says, using, as his example, one BuzzFeed post about microaggressions that has "received more than 2 million views." I'm guessing that Chait makes quite a bit more money than the person who compiled that post. In fact, that's true of nearly everyone who is presented as a victim of political correctness in Chait's essay, from millionaire comedian Bill Maher to the anonymous professor at a prestigious university: They all enjoy superior social status to the people who are supposedly silencing or terrifying them. It's hard to see how democracy was significantly harmed by Condoleezza Rice not giving a commencement address.
Well, I'd like to know the answer. Is democracy harmed by Condoleezza Rice not giving a commencement address? What is this democracy being described? It seems not to be a formal question of suffrage but of some more amorphous social status equality. The undercurrent of Pareene's gleeful screed is that people who already have "superior social status" don't need to speak (in the broad sense, not just at university commencements), because they already have so much influence, whereas those without "status" are the ones requiring an amplifier. Now, if you reduce "status" to money, as Pareene wants to do here, then you can perhaps sound reasonable saying that the rich should not have so many outlets to speak b/c their money speaks for them, whereas the poor should have all the public microphones because they have no money to buy influence. TNR for the people!

But "social status" is precisely that sort of slippery thing that doesn't simply equate with money. What gives a university professor or a journalist or a policy advisor or even "millionaire comedian Bill Maher" their status is not their incomes, but their speech. They all won their superior social status by speaking. Pareene's response is that it is precisely their ambition to influence through speech that renders their speech suspect. Because they've spent their lives speaking and achieved a reputation for it, their speech should be quieted by the unpracticed producers of I guess Buzzfeed posts who, by virtue of lacking such ambitions, possess more authentic voices. (Like Ta-Nehisi Coates, apparently, a man of no ambition or practice in the arts of rhetoric.) On one hand, we should amplify marginalized voices by hiring them at places like the Atlantic and TNR, but on the other hand, they're no longer marginal once they're on these mastheads. So, huh.

Pareene, to the degree that he makes any sense at all here, demands a sort of bifurcation: status disjointed from influence. Those with high status (= money) are obliged to yield the podium in order to even things out for those of low status, who will be compensated with opportunities to complain about their lack. So, aspiring young person, you have a choice: you can use your talents to attain a comfortable life of silent disengagement, or a wretched and impoverished one from which you will be permitted to engage in public harangue of the silent privileged. That's democracy. So, which will it be?

On the broader dynamic of speech policing, I refer you to Julian Sanchez's depiction of the social process whereby the center-left position in all questions is demolished first by the center-left's own temerity in the face of the rhetoric of the far-left, then by their fear of being identified with the right. But I think if we slot actual people into his abstract in-group and out-group positions, we might have to conclude that the degeneration of which Chait complains is his own fault.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snow day!

Cambridge, oblizzerated:

Mt. Auburn St., being skiied

Harvard Sq., being empty except for us

Widener Library, being sledded by us

Monday, January 26, 2015

About those FERPA admissions records requests

I read the NYT article about Stanford students requesting their college admissions records last week, and the Crimson ran a story on this phenomenon at Harvard this week, and I'm still puzzled about why this is a thing, or what students want from these records.

I didn't know you could get this information from private colleges, so I guess that's news in a way, but I did know you could get it from public schools, and in fact filed my own request with my school district many years ago to see my K-12 temporary records, mainly out of curiosity after I received a notice that they'd be purged five years after high school completion unless rescued by me. These records were moderately amusing, but then, I'd also racked up a disciplinary record in middle and high school which was reflected in these files. There were grammatically problematic "progress reports" (an Orwellian name for notices of failure) from my teachers threatening me with D's in gym class unless I "demenstrated more effort in the upcomming soccer unit" and things like that.

But what is there to discover in your elite college admissions file other than the grades and scores you already know and the glowing praise of your high school recommendation letters? They offer you no clue about why you didn't get accepted elsewhere, since you can only see files from the school you've matriculated at. And even if you find out from them that some admissions counselor was skeptical of you, the admissions office has no further bearing on your college career. So why the big push to see these files?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The very intelligent, rational parrot

To bore you further on the subject of Locke, here is a great passage about the rational parrot:
An animal is a living organized body; and consequently the same animal, as we have observed, is the same continued life communicated to different particles of matter, as they happen successively to be united to that organized living body. And whatever is talked of other definitions, ingenuous observation puts it past doubt, that the idea in our minds, of which the sound man in our mouths is the sign, is nothing else but of an animal of such a certain form: since I think I may be confident, that whoever should see a creature of his own shape and make, though it had no more reason all its life than a cat or a parrot, would call him still a man; or whoever should hear a cat or a parrot discourse, reason and philosophize, would call or think it nothing but a cat or a parrot; and say, the one was a dull, irrational man, and the other a very intelligent rational parrot. 
A relation we have in an author of great note is sufficient to countenance the supposition of a rational parrot. His words are: 
“I had a mind to know from prince Maurice’s own mouth the account of a common, but much credited story, that I heard so often from many others, of an old parrot he had in Brazil during his government there, that spoke, and asked, and answered common questions like a reasonable creature: so that those of his train there generally concluded it to be witchery or possession; and one of his chaplains, who lived long afterwards in Holland, would never from that time endure a parrot, but said, they all had a devil in them. I had heard many particulars of this story, and assevered by people hard to be discredited, which made me ask prince Maurice what there was of it. He said, with his usual plainness and dryness in talk, there was something true, but a great deal false of what had been reported. I desired to know of him what there was of the first? 
He told me short and coldly, that he had heard of such an old parrot when he had been at Brazil; and though he believed nothing of it, and it was a good way off, yet he had so much curiosity as to send for it: that it was a very great and a very old one, and when it came first into the room where the prince was, with a great many Dutchmen about him, it said presently, What a company of white men are here! They asked it what it thought that man was, pointing to the prince? It answered, some general or other; when they brought it close to him, he asked it, D’ou venez vous? It answered, De Marinnan. The prince, A qui estes vous? The parrot, A un Portugais. Prince, Que fais tu la? Parrot, Je garde les poulles. The prince laughed, and said, Vous gardez les poulles? The parrot answered, Oui, moi; et je sçai bien faire; and made the chuck four or five times that people use to make to chickens when they call them. I set down the words of this worthy dialogue in French, just as prince Maurice said them to me. I asked him in what language the parrot spoke, and he said, in Brasilian; I asked whether he understood Brasilian; he said, no, but he had taken care to have two interpreters by him, the one a Dutchman that spoke Brasilian, and the other a Brasilian that spoke Dutch; that he asked them separately and privately, and both of them agreed in telling him just the same thing that the parrot had said. I could not but tell this odd story, because it is so much out of the way, and from the first hand, and what may pass for a good one; for I dare say this prince at least believed himself in all he told me, having ever passed for a very honest and pious man. I leave it to naturalists to reason, and to other men to believe, as they please upon it: however, it is not, perhaps, amiss to relieve or enliven a busy scene sometimes with such digressions, whether to the purpose or no.” 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The John Locke theme park for kids

Peeps, there is a theme park in Mexico (and elsewhere, but not the US) where children can pretend to be adults and role-play adult jobs and earn and allocate their property in responsible ways. They drive cars, pay taxes, and try one another in court for littering. The writer wants to criticize this endeavor for being too corporate capitalist and scripted, and its founder for being some sort of crypto-fascist, but it seems pretty fantastic to me, and moreover almost unbelievably Lockean. It's Lockean not just in its conception of how children learn and what they should learn, but it apparently also has Lockean political underpinnings:
KidZania tries to be sensitive to local mores, but López also sees a role for the company in implicitly promoting the values of a Western, market-driven democracy...A few years ago, López’s marketing department came up with an origin myth for KidZania: kids, having seen what a mess adults had made of the world, founded their own country, whose borders children cross every time they visit the park. A KidZanian Declaration of Independence was written, which outlines the six “rightz” of childhood: to be, to know, to create, to share, to care, and to play. It concludes with the national motto: “Get ready for a better world.” To López’s frustration, children who visit KidZania are largely unaware of this invented history. He hopes eventually to educate them about it—perhaps by producing a KidZania movie...
Well, for what it's worth, Locke also says that children should not be taught much about politics until adolescence, and that childhood instruction should be of a more generally ethical character. Which this place is: "It was like being in a reimagined Las Vegas, with the celebration of virtue substituted for the celebration of sin." Virtue seems to be primarily of the civic variety and so potentially a bunch of tepid mush: 
KidZania worked with the local government to develop activities that are intended to promote good citizenship: road safety, health, awareness of civic institutions, environmental sustainability, and tolerance of difference among individuals and groups. The program emerged from a series of crime-reduction recommendations made by Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, who had been hired as a consultant by the Mexico City government a decade ago.
Nonetheless, this is probably no worse than the environmentalist alarmism targeted at children at every city aquarium I've visited in the US in the past decade (a surprisingly large number). The civic-mindedness is a little un-Lockean, but I accept this modification because Kidzania still seems amazing. The closest experience I had to this as a kid was the children's museum outside Chicago, where I once went with a friend's family and which featured a grocery store with mini-carts and plastic food that was so deeply absorbing that I have no difficulty believing that Kuwaiti kids are truly entranced by the activity of faux-petrochemical engineering a helmet in a child-sized plastics plant. Or delivering DHL boxes. Yes, it sounds dull. But also, so is grocery shopping. And yet. And then there is this point:
“We are empowering them to become independent,” [Lopez] said. “What they love most, on the second or third visit, is their independence. They have their own kidzos; they can make their own decisions. This is their world, where they are not being told what to do. Even if you go to Disneyland, you are guided—you are supposed to walk a typical way. But here children are by themselves. We don’t tell them anything. Just cash your check, get money, and start spending money—that is the only thing we tell them.”
Apparently however, child profligacy varies by nation, and Japanese children entirely lack it. (Perhaps they should avoid expansion to Germany...) This quote is a bit unfair, since elsewhere the article admits that kids can also earn money in the park by doing jobs (like delivering DHL boxes), so it seems like Lopez wasn't suggesting that independence was for the sake of buying lots of stuff. In fact, it's not really clear from this article whether Kidzania features any shopping in the usual sense since no stores are described. In any case, compare the above sentiment with Locke, below:
Were matters ordered right, learning any thing they should be taught, might be made as much a recreation to their play, as their play is to their learning...For they love to be busy, and the change and variety is that which naturally delights them. The only odds is, in that which we call play they act at liberty, and employ their pains (whereof you may observe them never sparing) freely; but what they are to learn, is forced upon them; they are called, compelled, and driven to it.
The fact that all the role-playing is scripted really sticks in the writer's craw, but ultimately the liberty of children is only "acting at liberty." Adults have to control behind the scenes. A courtroom with no script would result in no trial. Fine on most days, but not if you want to show kids how a trial works. So as far as the possibilities of acting at liberty are concerned, this place seems fantastic. I will take my future hypothetical and hypothetically Spanish-speaking children here to make them into good Lockeans.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Schooling movies

The main lesson I have learned from all television and movie depictions of school (any school - grade school, high school, college, even grad school) is that it's a place of incredible emotional and social growth where no one ever studies. Classes consist of four-minute lectures comprised of inspirational cliches from which everyone learns all there is to know about both the subject at hand and the world at large (because the former is a metaphor for the latter). Some characters are smart and others less so, which we learn when other characters refer to them as smart or less so. To gesture at the idea of studying, we are sometimes shown brief montages of page-turning and note-taking and coffee-drinking. Knowledge is actually a molecule that attaches itself to caffeine, for convenience of intake. But mainly, there are shenanigans being undertaken and non-academic personal crises unfolding and intense social bonds being forged. At the end of it all, the characters are always launched into exciting futures (elite colleges, law schools, jobs) that you'd think would've required something more than their strong social bonding records to secure.

But, I still totally watch these movies and shows, if for no other reason now than that Netflix has so few good options that aren't five-season, hundred-hour commitment shows. So recently, after watching Mystic Pizza, I followed Netflix's recommendation to watch Mona Lisa Smile. Ok, yes, Mystic Pizza was not a great film, but since it was very of its moment, it was at least possible to get a vague sense of America from it. I use this possibility to redeem my watching of many bad movies. But what manner of monstrosity is Mona Lisa Smile? It is a movie inspired by someone's having come across those 1950s advertisements for home appliances featuring grinning housewives and thought, "What if all these women are actually frustrated physics PhDs forced into housewifery by the slavish mores of the benighted past?" No matter that the women are models and not housewives, and unlikely to have ever taken physics. This imagined injustice can be imaginatively rectified through film! Let us imagine these housewifey models when they were yet on the cusp of doom, still studying physics in an elite New England college but already being pressured into marriage and a life of modeling vacuum cleaners in the pages of Redbook... How can we demonstrate to these pitiful young things that 2003 called, and it very much frowns on their choices?

And that is how Mona Lisa Smile came to be. Perhaps the entire philosophy of history of studio films consists in the view that what is essential about any moment in the past is its style of dress. If the clothes and hair are reproduced faithfully, the past has been accurately captured. But the main thing (which is to say, why I watched it) is that it's a school movie, and a real winner in that genre. It features very typical college students, the kinds of girls who memorize all their textbooks without ever cracking them. They are both brilliant and extremely stupid, since not one of them has ever thought to wonder what makes art good, so they must be instructed in the idea of feelings. The character tasked with leading these naifs is an art history grad student who not only never works on her dissertation but does not appear to have one, though that is apparently no barrier to academic employment. (She says that her "research" shows that Picasso will be just as important in the future as Michelangelo is in the present. I, for one, had not known that one of the subfields of art history was fortune-telling.) What is striking is that we are never given even one suggestion of what might make art good, despite the many harangues that Julia Roberts delivers to her class about the Meaning of Life. The problem may be that the Meaning of Life turns out to be version of "choose your choice," and has no connection to art as either a discipline or an activity. (No one in the film is inclined to choose art.) So the girls fail to grasp this meaning and get married anyway, and immediately after their weddings which everyone in greater Boston attends, they buy fully-furnished houses in the environs of Wellesley and their husbands are promoted to "junior partner" of something, having been lowly college students just the week before. So it turns out that in spite of the film's strenuous ideological axe-grinding, it shows us that in 1953, you really could have it all, and in one fell swoop.

One day, there will be a truly great school movie made that depicts how studying is not only the main thing people do in school, but also the pleasures of study and the way it illuminates the world, and not in an "X is a metaphor for LIFE" way. I'm certain it will happen. So I'm waiting.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On paranoia

I've been working on a narrow and specific project for the past couple of weeks, and nearly every book I've needed has been already checked out of the library by someone else. These are narrow and specific books we're talking about, not the kind that the undergrads are likely to need for their courses or their leisure reading. Who might be hoarding them and for what purpose? I try not to recall books very often because that kind of thing can lead to a cold war of recall-reprisals, but I decided that I needed a couple of them longer than the inter-library loan period, so I did the dangerous and uncollegial thing. And both came back with margin notes in Hebrew (or handwriting so consistently inscrutable that it looks like Hebrew), suggesting that it is a single nefarious person who has acquired all the books on my topic. What could this mean? There are probably several perfectly reasonable explanations for these events, but the most obvious is that I have a nemesis - either an Israeli or a left-handed chicken-scratcher - somewhere in Cambridge who is writing my article, and will pre-empt me by publishing it first! How can he be stopped? One way could be to submit my article as soon as possible, which is a reasonable response to unreasonable concerns, but I think I prefer the unreasonable response to unreasonable concerns, for consistency's sake, and that would be recalling all the books.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Getting warmer

Since my last post, the necessity of walking outside for almost an hour each day in the New England frost has driven me to seek warmth in such technologies as are readily available to the cost-conscious, internet-enabled cold person. My roommate recommended Uniqlo's Heattech line, and since there is now a Uniqlo in downtown Boston to which I can free-return any recommendations that did not pan out, I purchased a wide variety of supposedly self-warming (and simultaneously self-moisturizing!) leggings, tights, socks, and also yes, legwarmers (there was a $75 minimum for free shipping). They arrived. The sizing was wildly variable. I found the ones that fit and tested them on this fine 20-something-degree day.

Here is the verdict: Japanese technology can't fix the cold. Cold makes you feel cold. There is no getting around this misfortune. I wore the "extra warm" leggings under a pair of jeans, with the regular-warm socks and fleece-lined boots. The nice thing about Heattech is that it's thinner and softer than regular cotton leggings and socks. The less nice thing is that it's not noticeably warmer than them. It is somewhat warmer when you are inside and already warm, but expose the Japanese techno-miracle to the 21-degree day, and your flesh will still feel exactly like it's being exposed to a 21-degree day.

The legwarmers do look pretty fantastic, but I'm almost 30, so I think the time to wear fantastic legwarmers may be past. I am keeping one of each bottom though, because soft and thin are tangential goods, even if the longed-for good of warmth has yet to be found.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Failures of technological progress

Why can we have phones that converse with us and servers that store eleventy billion dissertations' worth of data, but not umbrellas that don't flip in the wind, or socks and gloves that actually keep toes and fingers warm when it's freezing? Why can't something be done to systematically diminish the static charge generated by every warm fabric? Why can't there be rainboots that are simultaneously waterproof and breathable? The catalog of minor but persistent aggravations caused by everyday weather conditions is so vast and the number of people affected by them so large that affordable and sensible solutions to these inconveniences would seem to be highly remunerative. So why, in 2015, am I still being tormented by winter?

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A probing retrospective

2014 was a lot like 2013, which in turn was like 2012, and I expect 2015 to follow the well-worn tracks laid by its predecessors. The only major change may be that I actually finish my dissertation. Maybe. As yet though, there remains no urgent reason to take such drastic measures. But maybe this year will give me one.