Thursday, July 19, 2018

On moving

Was going to list some leftover furniture on the area Craigslist free stuff page when I opened it to find this had gotten there first:

I guess you can take these along with my media center.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Go west (to I-81), young man

Does anyone remember when Mike Huckabee was running for president in 2008 and his major transportation policy proposal was to add extra lanes to I-95? At the time, I was living free and easy (that is, employed, unmarried, childfree) in DC and taking frequent trips to visit friends in New York (remember when our friends still lived in New York? also, remember when we used to take the Chinatown bus to see them?) and see the sights of the fabled East Coast to which I had very recently relocated and where everyone is from and all significant American life was said to take place. I remember thinking about his proposal that this is truly a great idea. I-95 is the Great American Thoroughfare. Since then though, everyone turned against the people along I-95, including especially the people who live along I-95 themselves, the greatest anti-elitists of all, and it has become the Hated Elite Thoroughfare.

There is another expressway though that roughly tracks I-95 along the East Coast, but runs through its "back country," where authentic people live, and that is I-81. It is along this interstate that you can find authentic cities that, if you have ever heard of them, it was likely only as the butt of a joke, like Martinsburg, Hagerstown, Scranton. In deference to our new populist overlords therefore, we hewed closer to the I-81 on our recent trip to New Haven (boo hiss) and back. Actually, so populist were we that we took state roads almost all the way up (great idea if you want to drive for nine hours), and the I-81 only back down. And, since we also had a toddler with us, we stopped...a lot. In many small towns: Berryville, VA, Green Springs, PA, Wanaque, NJ, Middletown, NY, Lewisburg, PA. We also stayed in Lancaster, PA for a day and visited Emily Hale in Williamsport, PA, where we saw the used food store (two of them, actually; the used-food business must be doing well) and everything was named after Little League and there were some extremely impressive Victorian mansions.

The great irony we discovered was that, for all the apparent resentment against the college-educated among the voters in the I-81 corridor, building and sustaining a college, even a small one, from the nineteenth century was the most reliable ticket to present-day survival for a small town or city beyond New York's or Washington's exurban orbit. For example, look at this nice postcard of pre-war Middletown. It looked almost exactly like that last Saturday afternoon, except nearly every one of those storefronts was empty and instead of dozens of people strolling about, there were more like two. The whole western side of Virginia appears to sag and sit empty, with strip malls full of discount tobacco stores and places that fix cell phones. By contrast, Lewisburg, home of Bucknell University, was in fine shape. Gettysburg's prosperity is apparently sufficient to support a proto-suburban ring. I realize that colleges are not the only economic basis for small towns, and that these places do still serve as supply centers for agricultural hinterlands and, judging by what we saw, trucking depots, in addition to whatever local specialties they might have, but it was truly uncanny how much work colleges were doing for otherwise-isolated local economies.

Utopia, VA is an obvious and extreme example of this, since we have both a huge university and a huge university hospital that together employ something like 120 percent of the city's residents, and make possible 20 fancy coffee shops. Another thing this road trip has demonstrated to me is Utopia is really in the middle of nowhere when you consider it from the perspective of the geography of the eastern US (is this why no one ever visits us here?), but it never feels like it when you're in it. From the inside, it feels comfortably large and full of things to do. But without the university, it's clear that Utopia would be, at best, like its much saggier neighbor, Waynesboro, VA - a place that itself has benefited economically a great deal from even somewhat distant proximity to Utopia's university.

It would surely be preferable to have a more diversified economy, but it's very hard for a small place to do that simply by virtue of its size, and the main alternative to a higher ed-based economy seems to be no economy at all. So what do the populists have to say about this difficulty?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


- Banning plastic straws has suddenly gone from a thing no one was thinking about to a thing everyone is doing. I didn't have any opinions about it one way or the other until this afternoon, when a local coffee shop handed me a paper straw with my iced tea, and it disintegrated into the tea within the hour.

- Mr. Self-Important to me today: "I have made us a to-do list with four separate but interrelated parts based on a to-do list model developed by President Eisenhower."

- The cat went on the lam and was re-captured yet again, to his immense dismay. Does anyone know how to turn an aging indoor cat into an outdoor cat? Is this even possible? This pathetic creature really wants to get out.

- The academics in these Twitter threads, my goodness. A living illustration of the kind of epistemic bubbles that result in calls for actual affirmative action for conservatives in academia. Why are conservative graduates of elite law schools more likely to get high-level political jobs than liberal ones? What nefarious conspiracy could we create to explain the basic supply-and-demand facts of American partisan politics? And even if we could somehow hit upon the reason for this, it's still a terrible injustice because the world of politics is supposed to proportionally mirror the politics of my particular school. Otherwise there will not be enough extremely prestigious jobs for all my classmates and me, and some of us will be forced to make the terrible choice between between lying about our opinions or - worse than death! - settling for the private sector and making millions of dollars instead.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Tyranny of the minorities, pt II: "Bands of contrarians"

Julia sends along this very timely essay from The Hedgehog Review, on the difference between contemporary outsider chic and true contrarianism.
The thing to be today is an outsider, an underdog, a moral outlier and exemplar, a defier and disrupter of the established order. It’s an identity that has never been far from the surface in American society, and it is now reasserting itself in a new form. It doesn’t matter if, like the Los Angeles Satanists, you have thoroughly conventional ideas. Or if, like the nation’s Trump supporters, you number in the tens of millions and have put your man in the White House. One of the more compelling claims you can make in America today is that you are proudly and defiantly outside the mainstream. That you are a contrarian. It’s the claim not just of populists but of professors who style themselves as iconoclasts, climate change deniers, radical environmental groups, libertarian seasteaders bent on creating autonomous floating cities, countless alternative-values and lifestyle groups, and many others...Much of what social critics decry as rampant individualism in contemporary America is really rampant crowd behavior. It is herds of people busily declaring that they are not part of the herd.
Lagerfeld contrasts this with "true contrarianism," (a possible analog of Tocqueville's tyrannized minority?) which is to stand alone, at substantial risk to oneself against a group, in the name of a truth or end that is ultimately for the benefit of all.
Contrast that with the experience of the typical crowd contrarian. The very point of belonging to such a group is to seek safety in numbers, which shields crowd contrarians from the scrutiny and self-criticism that are essential checks on the contrarian impulse. And if, as the Church of Satan official said, the point of belonging to such a group is to celebrate one’s distance from the rest of society, what is the hope that your actions will somehow benefit others? Banding together is a healthy human impulse. Banding together in knots of narcissistic fury is not. The rise of contrarian crowds is a measure of our failure to create new, widely shared forms of belonging and community.
This account suggests that both possibilities from my earlier post are taking place: there is a real breakdown of the majority into shifting group coalitions whose members exhibit both the pathologies of minority persecution and those of the majority that tyrannizes, and a repudiation of insiderness and its concomitant institutional responsibility.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Can there be a tyanny of the majority without a majority?

Last fall, I noticed a strange thing while teaching Democracy in America. My students energetically agreed with Tocqueville that the tyranny of the majority is a serious problem, and professed to know this from experience because they were its victims. All being holders of minority views, they lived in fear of social repercussions from the tyrannical majority. But, of course, it is empirically impossible that all of my students can hold minority views. Their positions range from center-right to far left, and if some sizable portion of them don't reflect the majority, then who does? Even granting that discerning a general majority "view" at the national level is an elusive and probably impossible task, at the very least, my students are the majority in the immediate context of the university. How could most of them fail to see that they hold an institutionally-dominant outlook?

At the time, I wondered if Tocqueville's account is either wrong or more complicated than it appears. Our regime doesn't produce a recognizable majority position and a small embattled minority at the mercy of the majority. Maybe there were moments in the past that looked like this: liberalism vs. communism during the Cold War, or Jacksonian populism vs. Whig elitism in the 1830s. Instead, we're in a situation in which everyone feels himself to be part of an embattled minority waging a lonely war against an amorphous but pervasive majority tyrant, who's maybe not immediately in here, but certainly out there. Why?

One possibility is that there just aren't majority views anymore. Our membership is in subcultures instead of a broader culture, so that there are just various group views in constantly-shifting coalitions, all strongly held, all equally susceptible to the Tocquevillian criticism that they're being held for the sake of social approval more than sincere intellectual conviction (ie, the ubiquitous virtue-signalling accusation), and equally subject to Tocquevillian social penalties. Or, another way to put this may be that different spheres are ruled by different subcultural majorities - education and culture by the left, the military by conservatives, national politics and business are somewhat evenly divided, etc. And there are even finer gradations and differences of emphasis in each sphere, so that even fellow-partisans may sometimes feel marginalized, as for example liberals who reject identity politics in academia and journalism, or social conservatives in otherwise economically conservative business firms. But in a regime of subcultures, there really aren't majorities, just coalitional pluralities, so perhaps my students are right to see all their views as embattled.

Another possibility, which recalled this question to my mind recently, is what Yuval Levin describes as a widespread repudiation of "insider" status in institutions, even by obvious insiders:
People with roles to play inside institutions instead see those institutions as platforms for them to perform on, and the performance they offer up is generally a morality play about their own marginalization. As a result, too often no one claims ownership of the institutions of our society, and so no one accepts responsibility for them.
Levin is describing national political institutions, but this is also an attitude that could explain the perceptions of students (and likely faculty) that they're embattled minorities within institutions that look to all reasonable observers as the most hospitable places to them in the history of the world. They are right in a certain way, since undergraduates are, by design, outsiders in a university; they pass through quickly and can hold only the most insignificant governing roles. But in their view, they seem to be also outsiders among themselves, not just relative to the faculty or the administration.

You often come across claims like this at Harvard: this or that aspect of this school makes me feel excluded and unwelcome here. The wealth of the majority, its whiteness, liberal politics, family connections, etc. make me feel like I don't really belong here. Women and racial minorities would back this assertion with a claim about how the institution "was not built for people like me" to ground their present, abstract sense of exclusion in a history of concrete exclusion. In a way, these students were completely right about their discomfort and outsider-ness. Harvard is undoubtedly one of most unwelcoming institutions in the country. It's entirely plausible to me that no one has ever felt that he belonged there, for whichever of 12,000 personal/familial/financial/ethnic/religious/sexual/intellectual/aesthetic/political/artistic/social deficiencies that prevent him from being the very best at everything, which is what those who really belong at Harvard are. One of the great ironies of the push for "inclusion" is that even the kinds of people usually described as avatars of belonging and blamed for everyone else's feelings of exclusion at places like Harvard -  rich, white guys who are members of social clubs and fraternities - can now make a plausible claim to feeling unwelcome based on their identities, since their rich, white male social life is under attack by the university administration. So, at this moment, precisely no one is an insider at elite universities. We are all standing outside an empty building, imagining that we are protesting its occupants while actually protesting each other.

The institutional alienation at my current university, a much more inviting and egalitarian place despite occasional efforts at and pretensions to elitism, is much less intense. Unlike Harvard, Utopia University was not designed to make you feel like a perpetual bottom-feeder. But many of the same forces are at work here to make the feeling that one is an insider who represents the institution to outsiders hard to acquire. Among the students, most are the first in their families to attend this university, many are immigrants or the children of immigrants for whom the school was "not built," and the majority are from the most urbanized parts of the state whose residents come and go frequently, so they have relatively weak ties to the state itself. The faculty are in an analogous though less transient situation - a few are alumni, but for most, this is just the place they happened to get a job in a tight market, and they have no deeper loyalties to it than that, at least until they get tenure. Everyone can come to see the university as little more than a rung on their personal career ladders, one that should be organized primarily for their self-advancement rather than as some kind of inter-generational inheritance that they have to maintain for their descendants. (In a similar argument years ago, David Brooks blamed meritocracy for this state of affairs, because by elevating individual achievement above all other qualities, it turned everyone into a consummately self-serving free agent and severed the sorts of attachments that used to foster an inter-generational sense of institutional loyalty. I still think there is something to this argument, but it's also harder to cultivate an inter-generational sense of loyalty when you're the first generation to participate in the institution, and that's just an issue of the changing demographics of, in this case, college students.)

If this is right, then it would seem that we inflict ostracism on ourselves now, effectively dispensing with the need for any actual majority to do it for us.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Scenes from Age 2.5

- Goomba on discovering that her toes got wrinkly from sitting in the bath: "My toes melted!"

- She asks questions now. "Are you finished your dinner, Mama? "Why you move my toy, Mama?" It's jarring, because I didn't realize that she didn't ask questions before. She indicated that she wanted to know what things were, but nothing more elaborate than that. Now she wants to know what I'm wearing, and why I’m doing every little thing, and, every night, whether I'm finished with my dinner yet, so she can decide on that basis whether she should be finished.

- Mistake: we discussed being fat in front of her, both how we are fat and how she is fat (she still has her big baby belly). She heard this, and now we have this exchange frequently:
Goomba (very proudly): I FAT!
Me: No, you're not fat.
Goomba: Daddy be fat?
Me: Daddy's a little bit fat.
Goomba: I want be fat too.
Me: No, you're not fat.
Goomba: Daddy be fat?
Me: Daddy is a little fat.
Goomba: I like daddy be fat.

- Other conversations:
Me: You’re going too slow; hurry up!
Goomba: I’m little. I need to go more slow.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018


When I was younger, I used to get the usual sex-enhancement email spam, but now nearly all the spam I get consists of solicitations to submit research to scam academic journals. There seem to be as many fake journals out there as penis-enlargers. Who would have thought?

Sunday, May 06, 2018

The American high school dream

It's been a while since I've discussed or even thought about academic impostors, but I think the overall argument of these two fascinating profiles of people who fraudulently posed as high school students in order high school students is that we should not criminalize posing as a high school student if the poser actually just wants to be a high school student. Yes, identity theft, etc. is bad. But if you feel like your life has dead-ended, and you want another chance and a clean slate, then, well, doesn't everyone in some ways? Objectively, like all impostors, these people are pretty pathetic. But, there have been about 20 romantic comedies made around this very premise, going back to high school to start over (or, in a modified version of the same premise, going to your high school reunion often has the same effect), so evidently the idea resonates widely with non-criminals. It's weird and wonderful that the American high school, for all its utter mediocrity, continues to command this kind of hold on our imaginations and aspirations.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Scenes from Age 2

Goomba yells NOOOO and runs away when I try to put on her winter coat. I hold it up and say, "But Goomba, coat is your friend. Coat has kept you warm all winter when it was so cold outside. Why are you so mean to him?" Goomba reconsiders, runs up and hugs the coat, and eagerly puts it on.

Goomba peels off the wrapper of a crayon and holds it up: "Him cold! I take off him clothes!"

Goomba puts everything into the Old MacDonald Had a Farm song. Old MacDonald not only has every animal she's ever heard of on his farm, he also all the objects she sees around her. He has a firetruck, and a bus, and a car. Old MacDonald is either very wealthy or an enormous packrat. I once asked if Old MacDonald lived in a junkyard because of all the vehicles he owns. She replied, "Old MacDonald had a junkyard!" The best is when we were eating pulled pork for dinner one night and she requested bbq sauce to dip her meat in. Then she sang, "Old MacDonald had a dipmeat."

There is a lot of crying. She wails whenever she is denied anything she wants (correction: she "needs"), no matter how small, but she is pretty easy to distract from these personal tragedies. She is also much more snuggly and affectionate, and interested in learning rules and routines, even inventing them where we don't have them. She also picks out her own clothes every morning, but then (mercifully) allows me to revise her pant selection so that it matches the top selection. She plays on her own for about 20 minutes at a time before "I NEED HELP MAMA." On the whole, two is a great age.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

On househunting

Miss Self-Important: I now see why there are so many shows about people trying to buy houses. It's like a classical quest, like the Odyssey. We're like Odysseus, searching for home.
Mr Self-Important: No, it's like the Aeneid. Odysseus was trying to go back to his old home. Aeneas was looking for a new home.