Monday, June 01, 2015

James, The Bostonians

It turns out that the novelization of Democracy in America is a story about misguided 19th C. Boston feminists that plays out Tocqueville's remarks about both the tenuous place of women and general ideas in America. This is so far my favorite of the James novels I've read, though I'm beginning to be concerned about the paucity of male characters.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A friend of mine from college who makes shadow puppet plays that I'm never in the right city to see has finally made one that you do not have to be in the right city to see because it is a film on the internet. It unfortunately shares a name with a feeble CNN documentary about Chicago that is in effect an elaborate re-election ad for Rahm Emanuel, not a terrible eventuality given the options, but one could've hoped that there were more interesting things in Chicago to depict in 2013 than the inside of Rahm's mayoral SUV as he zipped purposefully between sound byte appearances. Anyway, this Chicagoland is about a coyote roaming the city, not the mayor, and has a better soundtrack.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Academic conferences at tropical resorts, a follow-up

This post follows the previous entirely by coincidence, not because I am constantly thinking about conferences. But remember that, last spring, I proposed the brilliant idea that academic conferences should be held at all-inclusive tropical resorts? Well, this weekend, an NYT essay vindicates my suggestion, emphasizing how great these places are for people with kids, even people who think themselves too morally sophisticated to enjoy such low-brow pleasures. And just in time, because the SPSA's next conference is in Puerto Rico. But, hypocrite that I am, I'm not planning to attend. In my defense though, it's not an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Rico.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The best conference dream

Last night, before going to a conference in New Haven, I dreamed that I was going to a conference in New Haven, and I ran into some women I vaguely knew on the way there and they introduced me to their friends before the conference and we all hit it off so well that we decided to skip the conference altogether and take the train down to Manhattan for the day instead.

This was a very optimistic dream.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Other good to middling stuff to watch on Netflix at the moment

A list I promised to Alex last weekend:

Leave It to Beavers: Yes, a documentary about beavers.
Microcosmos: This one is about bugs.
Sons of Perdition: Mormon polygamists.
Nobody Knows: Japanese child neglect.
Short Term 12: The troubled yoof.
Nebraska: The troubled old.
Frances Ha: The troubled hipsters.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Rich Hill" and the mythological middle class of everyone

Netflix has a couple of watchable new films available*, among them "Rich Hill," a documentary following three poor boys in a rural Missouri town for a year. Although the subjects may not think themselves poor, it seemed clear that the viewers were supposed to think them so. The film has no particular argument to make about the boys' lives; they're just depicted, and some of them are better than others. But afterwards, when I looked up reviews, I discovered that although most people saw that clearly, a number seemed to think that the boys were intended to symbolize "an American story of the struggle to stay in the middle class, and how money changes the dynamics of families, making childhood a fleeting commodity."

Now, I know that everyone in America is middle-class if you ask them, and even that this is a kind of useful unifying national ideology since, when it works, it restrains the excesses of the rich and the poor. But it's hard to watch this movie and think that any of these boys or their families are in even the "lower" middle class. One boy lives with his grandmother, who is on food stamps and seems to be housing many of his cousins as well, because his mother is in prison. Another lives with his mother and at least five siblings on his mother's Pizza Hut wages. The third lives with both parents and a sister, but his mother appears to be addicted to sleeping pills and his father won't take a regular job and prefers to make his living as a itinerant handyman. Even in some halcyon time in the past when the middle class was bigger, or middle class wages were available to those without college or even high school degrees, these are not circumstances conducive to middle-class status since they are not conducive to steady income. These boys are not "struggling to stay in the middle class"; they are simply poor. (The rest of that sentence applies as little to the movie as this part of it, but maybe the reviewer is English and assumes that America is such a wretched place that it's typically middle-class to lack hot water.)

What is quite striking in the movie and not noted in the reviews, at least not in these terms, is that the boy who seems to be the least damaged (in fact, he seems to have quite an admirable character) and to have the best prospects is the one who is, in strictly material terms, the poorest of the three.

*The other good new Netflix movie is "In Bloom," a Georgian coming of age story which was I think the first time I ever heard Georgian spoken. I thought it would sound at least vaguely like Russian, but no, not at all.

Friday, February 20, 2015

An open letter to grad students from Francis Bacon

The derogations therefore which grow to learning from the fortune or condition of learned men, are either in respect of scarcity of means, or in respect of privateness of life and meanness of employments. Concerning want, and that it is the case of learned men usually to begin with little, and not to grow rich so fast as other men, by reason they convert not their labours chiefly to lucre and increase, it were good to leave the commonplace in commendation of povery to some friar to handle, to whom much was attributed by Machiavel in this point when he said, "That the kingdom of the clergy had been long before at an end, if the reputation and reverence towards the poverty of friars had not borne out the scandal of the superfluities and excesses of bishops and prelates.” 
--Bacon, The Advancement of Learning 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Forever young, and ruled by the college dean

Phoebe and Sarah brought this contrarian-lite Eric Posner article defending campus speech regulations on the grounds that their targets are kinda-sorta semi-legally minors to my attention yesterday:
Society seems to be moving the age of majority from 18 to 21 or 22. We are increasingly treating college-age students as quasi-children who need protection from some of life’s harsh realities while they complete the larval stage of their lives. Many critics of these codes discern this transformation but misinterpret it. They complain that universities are treating adults like children. The problem is that universities have been treating children like adults...[Blahblah brain science says]...High schools are accustomed to dealing with the cognitive limitations of their charges. They see their mission as advancing the autonomy of students rather than assuming that it is already in place. They socialize as well as educate children to act civilly by punishing them if they don’t. Universities have gradually realized that they must take the same approach to college students.
Miss Self-Important has written against the infantilization of adults before, but must disclaim that, as far as minors go, she has no objection to exercising all the authority over them. Over time, this is increasingly unlikely to be successful, since as Locke points out, in that boiling boisterous part of life,” adolescents “think themselves too much men to be governed by others.” But, you know, give it a try if you want. However, for the same reasons that Locke extends adults complete authority over minors, he argues for the strict observation of the legal age of majority: liberty hinges on the presumption (excluding "lunatics and idiots") of a capacity for self-rule, since if we had to individually prove our maturity to the government before being admitted to full citizenship, the government would soon discover its very great interest in denying our competence (for our own good, of course). So the first difficulty with Posner's provocation is that a vague, socially-determined age of majority set at "21 or 22" is precisely the kind of ambiguous rule that opens the door to the paternal authoritarian state that Locke feared.

But this is actually not the main difficulty. Some college students are legal minors in addition to Posner's "social" minors, though more are semi-minors in terms of parental responsibility for tuition*, but, as Posner points out, private universities may make more or less whatever rules of conduct they wish, a right which is unrelated to the ages of those who are subject to those rules. Private firms may enforce speech codes over unambiguous adults, which is why the faculty and staff at universities are just as much subject to all these regulations as the students. That right, and not the ages of students, is what Posner's argument turns on. No question about the extent of free speech on campuses can be answered by appealing to the childishness of students. Determinations about what can be taught, researched, and written at universities don't have anything to do with how mature or immature kids-these-days are. They're made to advance the purposes of the institutions themselves, and these purposes do not include baby-sitting.

This is why the argument collapses when Posner justifies speech restrictions by appealing to students' supposed immaturity: 

While critics sometimes give the impression that lefty professors and clueless administrators originated the speech and sex codes, the truth is that universities adopted them because that’s what most students want. If students want to learn biology and art history in an environment where they needn’t worry about being offended or raped, why shouldn’t they? ....
The modern speech and sex codes have surfaced as those waters recede back to sea. What is most interesting is that this reaction comes not from parents and administrators, but from students themselves, who, apparently recognizing that their parents and schools have not fully prepared them for independence, want universities to resume their traditional role in loco parentis. 
But wait, why do we care what "students themselves" demand when we've just expended many words to demonstrate that their demands and preferences shouldn't matter because they are children. Only mature adults are in a position to decide for them what they should learn and under what conditions. And if those adults think it's in the children's best interest to have disciplinary procedures with high burdens of proof or exposure to offense, then who's to say they're wrong?

And moreover, which adults? The secondary school model which Posner extols here for its salutary pedagogical sensitivity to adolescent immaturity also permits parents and non-experts a great deal of say in school governance. In public schools, boards of (often) parents and (even more often) non-academics govern school curricula and procedures, and other parents can be very effective in adjusting these curricula and procedures if they object. Private schools are not run by elected boards, but there too, parent associations are very powerful. Now, would Posner also like the curriculum and policies of UChicago to be substantially determined by the parents of current students? And why not? Why should faculty, who after all study obscure equations and ancient Mesopotamian holes in the ground and know nothing about their children's developmental needs, get to determine the rules under which these tender babes are to be educated?

And what is this nonsense-in-a-box about the noble desire to be "in an environment where they needn't worry about being offended or raped"? As if anyone has ever longed to be in an environment where they had to worry constantly about being raped. But no such worry-free environment has been created by the new rules, which have only proliferated investigative and punitive measures. Posner consistently conflates irrelevant problems like politicizing the classroom with the actual aims of speech and sex codes. These have very little to do with professors who "blab on about their opinions," but aim to regulate the personal relationships among students and between faculty and students by determining how they should interact with one another. Professor Leftist Revolutionary can continue to bloviate all he wants about his glorious time in the Central American guerrilla movement of his choice so long as he refers to his students by the correct pronouns, doesn't mention any jungle activity that might recall their traumas, and maybe permits his syllabus to be determined by students' identities. (Partisans of the other side may feel free to replace this scenario with a Professor Reactionary.)

Posner concludes that he has solved the culture wars:
Libertarians should take heart that the market in private education offers students a diverse assortment of ideological cultures in which they can be indoctrinated. Conservatives should rejoice that moral instruction and social control have been reintroduced to the universities after a 40-year drought. Both groups should be pleased that students are kept from harm’s way, and kept from doing harm, until they are ready to accept the responsibilities of adults.
Problematically, however, "diverse ideological cultures" won't keep students "from harm's way" or "from doing harm." They will deal with the problem of harm diversely and with diverse results. If students are minors in need of protection, we cannot leave them to the mercy of "ideological cultures" that reject the very premise that it is their job to protect students, or those that have unorthodox ideas about what "protection" entails. What will really keep these crazed and impulsive but simultaneously risk-averse and terrified students of Posner's description from doing harm and out of harm's way is locking them up in single monastic cells with all sharp objects removed for four years so that they can do nothing but their schoolwork. Safety first.

*Thanks to Phoebe for noticing my brain melt.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Is American politics boring?

Withywindle thinks so. (By "American politics," I mean the subfield of political science, not actual politics. I realize that, with this admission, everyone reading this will instantly fall asleep.)

I will not attempt to defend the subfield here by a weaselly appeal to the sub-sub-field of American political development, which is a political science version of American history, so clearly it can't be boring (to Withywindle)! Nor will I tell you how interesting it is to teach American politics to undergrads in order to discover the patterns in their ignorance (but never my own of course!) of our basic governing institutions which may hearken our near-future political doom (for instance, few of them appear to know that federalism still exists). Instead, I will stick with defending the scholarship of the dusty standby sub-sub-fields - Congress, the Presidency, the Courts. I read (or, letsbereal, skimmed) a lot of books and articles in these fields for my comps that were indeed very boring. But not all! Two very interesting books that are both very much academic American politics in that they involve theories or models (as distinct from writing about the politics of America that adheres to no such disciplinary expectations) are Skowronek's The Politics Presidents Make and Whittington's Foundations of Judicial Supremacy, though it's true that in a way they are one book about two branches. But the book I think really redeems the entire subfield of American politics because it is fascinating even while being about the discipline's most boring topic (thereby cosmically compensating for all the boring books about more interesting topics) is Wilson's Bureaucracy.

I read parts of Bureaucracy for my exams and I think I taught the section on the dilemmas of the Watertown DMV once, and then I got sick in the vacation-like period between this Christmas and New Year's, so I decided to go back and read it through. And it was surprisingly compelling. The book had the general rhetorical effect of making me very complacent about government dysfunction. Wilson offers a thousand reasons that government agencies can't get any better than they are (no spoilers), though my favorite paradox still remains that of the beleaguered Watertown DMV, which could do everything imaginable to increase efficiency - hire more clerks, update their technology, monetarily reward good service - but when it finally achieves excellence, it will simply be swamped again by the people who would otherwise have gone to the Boston DMVs but heard this one was better, and the whole process would have to begin again. The devil blocks every exit. By the end, one is surprised and grateful that government agencies have ever accomplished anything at all, especially militarily.

This is the kind of argument I appreciate when its background is the incessant clamor of all my media, journalistic and social, about the uniquely urgent crises of The Now. For Wilson, everything (except the non-SSI side of the Social Security Administration, which he frequently reminds us is perfectly competent and effective because its functions are so clear and easy to perform) always runs in crisis mode, it always has and it always will, so that in the end, the crises of The Now will probably be resolved by some combination of incompetence, error, unclarity, obstructionism, and organizational failure, and we will "muddle through by the seats of our pants," as one of my college professors used to say, oblivious to its infelicity, to explain every instance of English success at anything, including its continuing existence.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

17th century solutions for 21st century problems: internet mobbing

Michelle Goldberg, via JTL:
Social media has done away with all that. Nobody gets a presumption of good faith anymore, and we’re all subject to loud, public judgment by people who might not share any of our underlying assumptions about the way the world works or the rules of intellectual debate. In the past, The Baffler might have published something that pissed off feminist readers, but most of those readers would share The Baffler’s broader worldview, and would be less likely to excoriate it. Even if they wanted to publish a response, there wouldn’t be many venues except the publication’s own letters section. Outsiders simply wouldn’t notice. 
There is value, of course, in the new regime. The price of bigotry is much higher, the ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus are much more easily exposed. But the pressure to conform is also far more intense. The distance between what writers—or, at least, some writers—say to each other and what they say publicly is growing. That’s not oppression, but it is a loss.
This is essentially a description of the problems of over-exposure. I've been thinking about this for a while with respect to student journalism, which illuminates the problem more clearly, since most people will agree that no mere college student deserves be subjected to an online mob for writing a dumb op-ed, even if they're less certain about the extent to which a professional writer could be said to "deserve" such a response. I obviously link student journalism here all the time, though I prefer reportage of the absurd to op-eds. But I also think we were all a lot better off before student newspapers went online.

This was briefly A Topic last spring when that Princeton guy's essay on privilege earned him the vociferous scorn/praise of the entire country and old-new TNR ran a piece attacking adult media for giving this guy a platform. But they never had! They covered the coverage, which we might say (and Phoebe did say) was bad form, but the essay was published in a college magazine. The problem is that college writing is too accessible to, and too eagerly overexposed by the "semi-professional" media (the really professional media only gets to it after it's gone viral). Phoebe pointed out that these are not children and they're old enough to consent to the publication of their work. There is no question of violated privacy in these cases. But there is a question of what effect subjecting 1) inexperienced student writers and 2) even professional writers to the levels of public scorn previously reserved for politicians accused of pedophilia will have on journalism.

The optimistic possibility is that it will toughen writers up. In these early days of massive, personally threatening smear campaigns, writers will still be sensitive, but after such attacks become a regular feature of the job, it's possible that writers will shrug them off more easily and continue to write what they will. After all, the pain is acute but rarely long-lasting; the internet mob needs to be fed regularly, and so rarely spends very long draining a particular victim before being attracted to the blood of another.

The pessimistic possibility is that instead of toughening up sane people who, on account of possessing normal levels of pain, guilt, and fear, react rather poorly to these sorts of attacks, these publishing conditions will instead elevate writers who are not quite as sane and who can withstand such attacks because they enjoy or at least don't mind being the objects of intense universal scorn.* This is something I've particularly wondered about student journalism - whether early and frequent over-exposure to vicious and pointless criticism will inure younger writers to all criticism, hardening their faith in their own (immature) instincts and raising their estimation of writing that is mere provocation and offense.

If Goldberg's account is right, then some types of writing are better when they come out of many small and partially closed-off institutions in which the basic assumptions necessary to build arguments on are broadly accepted, because every debate can't be over fundamentals. Like clubs and cliques, they flourish under conditions that are not perfectly transparent and to some degree exclusive. Exclusion need not be active rejection of would-be members; self-selection is sufficient, as all members of high school social loser cliques know. Subscription to a publication, for example, is a form of self-selecting inclusion. (But active rejection does raise a club's stock, as all sorority girls know.) This dynamic is reflected in the casual experience of  how much more useful and productive it is to argue with your own partisans, and how common it is for even the most sincere "bipartisan" discussion about any concrete topic to end in a standstill over questions like, "But what even is freedom?" These questions have their place, but re-arguing them incessantly is neither useful nor interesting. Even the objections to an argument are often more incisive and compelling when they come from the writer's own side than when they come from the opposition.** So good political writing (maybe also other kinds of writing?) might rely to some extent on what Goldberg calls "ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus."

But, if the internet has made such clubbiness impossible by removing the audience-sorting mechanisms that subscriptions and physical copy once provided, and these institutions wish to persist as clubs rather than universal organizations with no members, then perhaps they will have to revert to some old-timey workarounds. For student journalists, who never relied on subscriptions in the first place, that would mean returning to physical copy so that only your equally stupid classmates will have sufficient incentive to discover and deride your stupid opinions. For professional writers, we might consider that in the 17th century, people who wanted to convey thoughts that could get them imprisoned or exiled sometimes did it by circulating manuscripts (not the fancy kind) through their friends instead of publishing their work through a bookseller. This didn't obviate the dangers of committing thought to paper, of course, but it minimized it. There would only be a few copies of your wayward opinions floating around, and the chances that they might fall into the wrong hands were thus diminished. In the late 20th century, the manuscript form was inadvertently transmuted into the "zine" in some quarters and the "academic book" in others. The former was a very cheap but extremely physically inaccessible manuscript, whereas the latter was in principle widely accessible, but so prohibitively expensive and forbidding that it was in fact rarely accessed. Although neither was expressly created for the purpose of providing cover for clubby speech, they are both well-constituted to have this effect. So, just a suggestion.

Besides, ever since the beginning of the internet, people have been worrying that it's going to destroy real friendship. Maybe the perverse result of making published writing a danger zone of 17th century proportions will be to force writers to rely on actual friends if they hope to disseminate their ideas. Or maybe, this new development in public discourse will demonstrate the utility of the old subscription + print magazine format in a way that the previous efforts to defend print media by fetishizing how amazing it feels to touch paper utterly failed to do.

*Sayeth Locke, clearly anticipating Johnson: "He must be of a strange and unusual constitution, who can content himself to live in constant disgrace and disrepute with his own particular society...Nobody that has the least thought or sense of a man about him, can live in society under the constant dislike and ill opinion of his familiars, and those he converses with. This is a burden too heavy for human sufferance: and he must be made up of irreconcileable contradictions, who can take pleasure in company, and yet be insensible of contempt and disgrace from his companions."
**Exhibit A: Criticism of Straussians from Straussians vs. criticism of Straussians from conspiratorial paranoiacs.