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Friday, November 30, 2007

Carnival of Arendt

In keeping with my promise not to waste any more space on Maroon articles, I am going to take up Arendt blogging again (be relieved--at least it's not B. Franky blogging). Last week, the lovely Julia briefly contracted the Hannah Arendt is Everywhere Disease, and noted the connection between the rhetoric of French nationalism and On Revolution. Around the same time, James Bowman, whose movie reviews Seb and I always consult before watching films so that we can confirm that what we're about to see is frivolous, nihilistic, and further indication of Our Inevitable Cultural Decline, also published an On Revolution-esque piece in the perennially internet-challenged New Criterion.

Bowman's article, about the making of the Larry Craig scandal, indicts journalism's taste for unmasking hypocrites:
The media see it as hypocrisy because hypocrisy is their bread and butter. It serves them not only as a pretext for publishing what it would otherwise seem intolerably tacky to publish but also as a generator of news stories that would otherwise hardly count as stories at all.

My favorite recent example of the latter was the flutter in the dovecotes of the British press caused by the news that Hitler's record collection had been unearthed in Russia and had been found to contain music by Tchaikovsky, a Russian homosexual, and even by Jewish composers. As Chris Addison wrote in The Times of London, "what those who have written up this story seem to want us to learn from it is that Hitler was a hypocrite. I know, I know, and he seemed so nice." When you think about it, it does seem extraordinary that anyone should have supposed it an appreciable or in any way an interesting augmentation of Hitler's villainy that he was, besides being a mass murderer, a hypocrite in his musical tastes. But that's the media sensibility for you: genocide may be just another lifestyle choice - and a recent contributor to the Huffington Post made the point that at least Hitler was sincere in believing that the murder of the Jews would be good for the world while President Bush hasn't even that much to be said for his evil purposes - but hypocrisy is a form of inauthenticity and therefore much more to be censured.

To the media, no crime is quite so heinous as hypocrisy since no crime is quite so well adapted to the media's exposure. Never mind that, until quite recently, hypocrisy wasn't a crime at all but rather, as La Rochefoucauld famously said, the tribute that vice paid to virtue. Now the only virtue is personal authenticity, the only vice that which conceals it.
Arendt claims that the French Revolution was the first attempt to turn sincerity into a political virtue, and to proclaim that the public actor must not only act well and do good, but he must additionally provide evidence to the public that his words and actions come "from the heart." The consequences of insincerity are almost as severe as those of acting badly and doing harm. Recall, from On Revolution:
"Whatever the passions and the emotions may be, and whatever their connection with thought and reason, they certainly are located in the human heart. And not only is the human heart a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate; the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display. However deeply heartfelt a motive may be, once it is brought out and exposed for public inspection it becomes an object of suspicion rather than insight...when [the motives of the heart] appear, they become 'mere appearances' behind which other, ulterior motives may lurk such as hypocrisy and deceit."

Important cultural observations

Has anyone else noticed that I Can Has Cheezburger has been getting a lot funnier recently while LolSecretz has been getting lamer?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

“Sometimes school is just so hard you have to fight people”

I'm not quite sure if this merits the label of first world problem or actual insanity, but it's pretty fantastic nonetheless: via Mark, Underground U of C fight club channels students’ WWE urges. Can you envision the scrawny U of C underclassmen, huddled in their parkas in the bare, frosty quad, warming their fingers on $1 coffee from Cobb, cheering students who are beating each other for no reason? "Get him! Crush him! Show no mercy!" they yell. But then they see the stronger boy pin the weaker one's arms. "Wait, no! Don't touch his wrists! He has very fragile wrists. How will he be able to finish his problem set tonight if you injure his wrists? No! Not his feet either! I read in JAMA recently that ankle tendon injuries can cause chronic difficulty with mobility. What are you doing? Not the abdomen! Don't you know that bruising to the kidney can result in irreparable renal damage?"

I'm totally going to stop blogging Maroon articles now. Totally.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

First world problems: Birth control is so expensive that I can't afford cute new shoes!

The price of prescription contraception on college campuses has increased after some flukey law prevented drug companies from vending it at a discount. Women are outraged; how will they ever be able to afford to have sex now? “The potential is that women will stop taking it, and whether or not you can pay for it, that doesn’t mean that you’ll stop having sex,” threatens one student. I know; I'm totally going to go out and get pregnant just to spite Congress! God forbid I should have to moderate my behavior in response to market incentives like everyone else.

Equally amusing was the following statement by vengeful sex woman: “I do less because of this — less shopping, less going out to eat,” said Ms. Ryan, who has helped organize efforts to educate others on campus about the price jump. “For students, this is very, very expensive.” I don't know who the education efforts are aimed at; I'd think women would notice the price jump when they went to buy their birth control, but the restraints placed on shopping and going out are indeed tragic. Some might see this as a reasonable trade-off between two recreational options--sex or cute shoes. But evidently, college sex is completely price-inelastic.

Indeed, the NARAL people emphasize the extremity of the situation in some places: “This is a state school where people are on Pell grants and don’t have huge amounts of spending money,” Ms. Hagen said. “For them this is like a choice — groceries or birth control.” Truly, what kind of inhumane choice is this to ask a young woman to make? Sustenance or sex? Who in their right mind could choose sustenance? That is why it is necessary for drug companies to subsidize my access to birth control, so that I don't have to starve to death.

Phoebe argues the serious side of this change--namely that it burdens women disproportionately, and unfairly criticizes their consumption choices without holding men accountable at all:
Seeing as they are going nuts and buying everything in sight, they do not deserve to have any control over their wombs at a time in their lives when they have neither the time nor the income (nor, arguably, the wisdom) to raise children. Oh, and of course it's only women whose frivolous spending is really being discussed, since unless one is married and splitting all costs, it's typically the uterus-having individuals making the purchases on their own. And thanks to biology, it's always the woman who faces the physical consequences, whether abortion or childbirth. But to be fair, if these silly girls will spend $10 on lip gloss, they are old enough to face the responsibilities of motherhood.
This is true, but I think, unavoidable so long as women are the only uterus-havers. The responsibility may not be evenly distributed, and women may be required to shoulder more of it, but that is not a compelling reason for them to avoid it. This is especially true given that the consequences of sex don't change if it's done in the name of furthering social equality. And here too, at least relative abstinence remains an extremely reasonable option (and, along with lesbianism, the only equalizer of biological inequality), despite its unpopularity. If you want to worry as little as men about pregnancy, don't have sex with them. At the very least, have sex with someone who you're certain will take responsibility. Maybe consider making him pay for half of your now prohibitively expensive birth control?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Reader bleg

Dear readers,

What were the best essay-form magazine articles you read in 2007? No, I totally don't know what this is for either... Ok, let me know!

Kthx,

Miss Self-Important

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Reconsiderations

On second thought, according to Kundera's "two tears" definition of kitsch, my love for Christmas is totalitarian. I love it largely because it is a canonically loved thing, and I think everyone else should love it on behalf of everyone else. I retract it.

(That happened to be the only site I found with a quick and direct reprint of that quote, but Beckus will also understand my delight in its particular appearance on the list of my Google results.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I just downloaded Second Life. It would be hard for me to explain how incredibly weird it is. But just after breakdancing in Stuttgart, where I failed to adequately communicate in German to the local population, I am now doing tai chi in in the West Village, which was recommended to me by a woman on a flying horse. And, I have purple hair.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

My war on Christmas

I love Christmas as much as anyone (well, maybe not as much as actual Christians, but at least as much as the average consumer of kitsch and pop culture). The end of December is a miserable time, but lights, music, hot drinks, shopping, gifting, and vacation compensate completely for the climate. Christmas as a national holiday hearkens back to an age before technology could reliably relieve man's estate (consider the dysfunctional furnace in A Christmas Story, perhaps the greatest American film of all time, whose endless repetition on TBS is another perk of the Christmas season), so man's estate was instead relieved by a unanimous social agreement that things weren't as bad if we all sing together about being cold rather than shivering in isolation.

When I was younger, I tried to love Hannukah instead, because that seemed like a good thing to do in the circumstances, but it just never worked out. All I wanted was Christmas. This was resolved for me when I discovered that Hannukah's significance had been blown out of all proportion in order to justify Jewish participation in Christmas anyway, so I could guiltlessly skip the middleman and directly embrace Christmas. I hear the annual complaints that Christmas marginalizes minority religions in America by thrusting its commercialized Inquisition fingers into all the pockets of human existence between Thanksgiving and New Year's, but they don't faze me. What these whiners don't realize is that Christmas is around for their own good, to cheer them up in a time of cold and darkness (literal darkness, starting at about 4 pm) with its sales and free samples of Godiva chocolates and cards from estranged relatives and friends reminding you that their lives are better than yours. Maybe it's sad that we achieve national unity through consuming eggnog lattes, but this is how things are. Marginalization is impossible; Christmas is universal. If it weren't for Jesus, we'd be celebrating some pagan festival of the Magnificent Large Tree that would, coincidentally, consist of outdoor lighting, music, hot drinks, and gift-giving. Most likely, Macy's would have sales and a man dressed as a tree for children to climb while their parents took pictures. Christmas is human nature.

What I don't understand is why it has to start earlier every year. This year, for example, the lite rock station started playing Christmas music around Halloween. It will switch to all Christmas music all the time at Thanksgiving, which is when all the other radio stations will insert carols into their regular rotation. I like Christmas music, but not enough to enjoy it every hour of every day for two entire months. Even a month of 24/7 Christmas music is enough to make me want to shove the little drummer boy's head into his drum.

And what will happen to Thanksgiving if Christmas starts immediately after Halloween? Will it just be absorbed into Christmas--the pre-Christmas trial run when you can test out your recipes and your turkey baster? That would be a loss. And think of how much chocolate will have to be consumed between late October and January? A boon for the candy companies, but not for my teeth or my pancreas. No, there must be limits. Christmas excitement begins to build after Thanksgiving. That is how it should be. Starbucks should inaugurate its Christmas menu then, and retire the magical pumpkin spice latte only when autumn is truly over (as determined by the date when my Halloween pumpkin disintegrates into a rotten mess on my front stoop). Only a week before Christmas--two, at most--should require me to be subjected non-stop to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Even the Magnificent Large Tree would have wanted it this way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

First world problems: My lit. syllabus doesn't include any female writers, so I think I'll just die

Let's get this straight: a hunger strike is a way of saying that X cause matters more to you than your life, right? If that's the case, then would it be reasonable to conclude that Columbia's strikers, who claim to be ready to die* for the sake of nine new academic appointments in some ethnic studies center and more minority writers on their humanities syllabii, are in fact crazy?

*Ok, obviously, they're not actually going to die, b/c this is a first world problem, and their first world parents or their first world university will eventually make them eat. Still, the meaning of the gesture remains.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Varieties of academic experience

I frequent a coffee shop that is near one of the satellite campuses of George Mason University and a few metro stops away from GWU, so it is densely patronized by the campus set. I've occasionally eavesdropped on some spectacularly gag-inducing office hours conversations, including one this evening between a girl and her sociology(?) professor, a youngish guy with one of those goatees that reveals the lecher within. They discussed how rebellion against "the system" unfortunately presupposes the existence of a system, which means that the world will always be a sad place because in order to live a good life (that is, one of rebellion), you had to be in a bad situation (that is, part of a system). It's like, what is the world coming to when you can't just have a revolution for the fun of it?

This then led them to the question of whether all these revolutions and rebellions were actually getting us anywhere.
Professor: It could be that we're just going in circles.
Girl: Really? But that would be so depressing! My life would be meaningless!
Professor: Or, we could be going in a spiral. It may seem like circles, but we're gradually progressing.
Girl: Oh! That is so interesting! I have never thought of that before. Hmm...yes...a spiral. That is so beautiful.

Finally, as I was leaving, I walked past a religious studies professor discussing his course syllabus for a class called "Varieties of Religious Experience" with one of the baristas: "I'm having them read Martin Buber's I and Thou, and then we'll watch The Life Aquatic. You know, that scene with the sharks. It's very religious."

First world problems: It's sooo hard to choose between my schoolwork and my girlfriend

You know how I can't resist picking on a terrifically bad Maroon editorial, right? I know I've graduated, and I should move on, but the Maroon is just too excellent a venue to leave behind. So I feel compelled to draw attention to this fine policy proposal: Since getting good grades takes too much time away from my social life, let's just get rid of grades.

Because we all know that grades are arbitrary, right? For example, people who study more, get, on average, better ones. People who dedicate themselves wholly to extracurriculars or hanging out or reading everything except what's assigned get, on average, worse ones. See--totally arbitrary! Injustice! School should be about doing things that you like when you like, and not being held accountable in any way. That's why, instead of grades, we should have written evaluations. That way, when you haven't done any of the course reading by the end of the quarter because you were too busy organizing your club and spending time with your family and attending workshops and lectures, your professor, rather than giving you an F, can instead write, "This student clearly did none of the reading, showed no interest in the subject, and deserves to fail the course." Progress!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Philleh!


Reading Terminal Market


Overrated tourist attractions


B. Franks!


If someone can explain why the Eisenhower Executive Building's twin is in the middle of Philadelphia, looking out of place and totally creepy at night, I would appreciate it.

Tomorrow: South Street, UPenn, and then the Main Line. My dreams of living out my geography courses are coming true!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Why is Miss Self-Important so bad at math? An exploration

Tonight, while cracking the math section of the GRE book for the first time after an extended period of avoidance, I discovered that, in order to find the percentage change between two numbers, it is necessary to divide their difference by the final number. This may not shock anyone, but it did shock me, since I've been simply dividing the final number by the initial number since probably the end of high school. And consistently getting the wrong answer. And not noticing.

How could this happen? I have had some time to reflect on my failure to understand math since the last time I took any math, which was about the middle of my freshman year of college. That was when I was repeating basically the same low-level calculus course I had flunked in high school. Ah, good times. In fact, I received several C's in high school math courses, in addition to failing every single physics exam I ever took.

Tracking for math began in the third grade at my school and continued through the end of high school. From the beginning, I was tracked into the higher end of math courses, and fell continually further behind until I hit calculus, which I had to drop after a semester, because, according to my calculations, you can't get any more behind than simply flunking out. But that's a long time still, and during the intervening years, I spent a lot of it desperately memorizing formulas and trying to find tricks which would make actual quantitative thought unnecessary. I never had any idea why it was possible to divide fractions by reversing the numerator and denominator and multiplying, but I memorized that this is what you do, and I did it. I was equally unclear as to why the probability of an event happening and not happening had to equal 1, but that's what they told me, so I memorized it and proceeded from there. Because schools obviously have an interest in making students proficient in basic arithmetic operations even if they can't fully understand what they mean, my math teachers encouraged such shortcuts. Still, it was abundantly clear to me by the beginning of eighth grade algebra that math meant doom.

For a brief period in high school, I was obsessed with gender bias in education, and I read a lot of books arguing that the reason women performed worse in math and physics than men was that schools either failed to take into account women's specific learning styles, or men were louder and hogged all the teacher's attention. I tried to prove this by undertaking an extensive and thoroughly unscientific study for the school paper, but my results were inconclusive in that they did not reveal a greater proportion of women who were turned off by math, but rather, that the vast majority of all high school students hated math, and school in general. Shocking, the results of social science. So I decided that, even though I had a couple of lackluster teachers, the fault for my math deficiency lay primarily with me. Besides, I knew plenty of girls who were better than me at math, as well as, come to think of it, several inanimate objects that could probably outperform me in the subject.

All the while, I could have--and probably should have--demanded to be re-tracked into a lower level class. At one point, I actually tried to drop down into regular physics (due to that thing with failing every exam in the honors course...), but I was warned that if I did that, I wouldn't be able to take an AP science the next year, and that would kill my chances of elite college admission, which in turn would lead to doom, misery, death. And the whole idea of tracking means that, at every point along the way, doom, misery, and death hang over the misguided soul who even considers stepping off track. You drop down in fifth grade, then you're put in an equally low track the next year, then by seventh grade, you're barred from pre-algebra, and that forecloses the high school honors track, which means no calculus, and then you'll never get into college, and then doom, misery, and death await. Besides, math is not required in college, so if you just manage to scrape by for a few more years, you will escape to that dreamed-of place where the lawns are always green, every English course is serious, and everyone around you is a brilliant and interesting human being (unlike the veritable apes with whom you're currently forced to share the hallways), and you will never have to take math again. A glorious future awaits! Surely it is right to sacrifice understanding math for this noble cause!

And I would like to tell you that now that time has passed and I have gained some perspective on my education, I realize the folly of this kind of reasoning. But, actually, I pretty much stand by it. My high school academic record was not so stellar that I would necessarily have gotten into the schools I did without honors-level math. My chances were already a toss-up. My B's and C's in honors and AP courses at least made it appear as though I'd "challenged myself." The end result--getting into the U of C--was worth it, possibly even at the expense of knowing math.

There is, furthermore, no evidence that I would've understood more math if I'd taken lower-level math courses, which were infamous for their low expectations and apathetic teachers. It's possible that instead of learning more math, I would've simply grown bored by the slower pace at which I was memorizing shortcuts. It did help immensely to repeat calculus in college; the second time around, I at least figured out what calculus was. But if repeating material was the answer, where would I have properly begun? The last concept in math I really understood was proportions, which were taught in about the fifth grade. Possibly tutoring would have helped, though it's unlikely that my parents' could've afforded it, or would've even been bothered by my math ineptitude enough to try to remedy it. I earned mostly B's in math, and that hardly set off alarm bells. Tutoring was usually reserved for the utter failures; I at least had my shortcuts to help me squeak by.

It's not as thoughg my failure in this area really has serious implications for my life and future. I will never have to understand what a matrix is, or what normal force is, and if I did, I wouldn't know what I was missing, because I have no idea what those things are. Still, when I had to take a math placement exam at Chicago, and one of the questions asked us to prove that 1=1, and the only answer I could think of was, "Duh! What else would it equal?!" I did briefly consider that I was missing out on some important aspects of the world. But I guess that's just how it goes sometimes.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

In the future, when science wins the Clone Wars, morality won't be an issue

In the tradition of high quality editorial content that the Maroon is known for comes this op-ed advocating cloning of some kind. It's actually kind of unclear whether the author intends to clone entire humans or just organs, but maybe that ambiguity is part of the general argument that, whatever, science, woo! The absurdity of the headline I'll leave alone on the assumption that the author didn't come up with it. Instead, the main point is that cloning is pro-life because
The embryos that are needed for the technology are merely microscopic fragments—barely the width of a human hair. Cloning extracts medically potent stem cells from these otherwise redundant cells, stem cells that can be conditioned to develop into any other type of cell.
Don't worry; embryos are just "fragments" of "redundant cells." If we didn't rescue them for cloning research, then they would have no purpose in the world at all. Further
Cloning shouldn’t be proscribed just because it’s risky or immoral: Risks shall be overcome in the near future if support is given in the present, and morality won’t be an issue if we all learn to value human life above abstract supernatural powers and isolated individual feelings of dissent.
Too true.

Monday, November 05, 2007

On income and partisanship

Last week, when it was asserted in the NY Times that "Democrats do as well among top earners as Republicans," MediaMatters got its panties all in a twist over apparantly contradictory exit polling data from the 2006 and 2004 elections. Since, in my experience (contrary to the stereotype of rich Republicans), wealthy suburbs are generally fairly left-leaning, I was surprised to find such a substantial Republican advantage in exit polls for those with incomes over $200,000 given that America is very nearly split down the middle between parties so a 30-point gap is substantial. The $100,000 number is, I think, not particularly helpful since, if 20 percent of all households earn at least that much, it hardly illuminates the behavior of the wealthiest voters.

The $200,000+ disparity is particularly strange given the current edge Democrats have in campaign fundraising. Of course, it's possible that the few extremely wealthy donors account for a disproportionate amount of donation money, or that self-reported exit polling is not the most accurate way to determine the relationship between income and voting. (Or, as my econ professor would probably point out, income statistics do not appropriately account for wealth.)

However, a quick comparison of 2006 returns in the wealthiest zip codes shows a seemingly smaller partisan gap. In New York and California, these districts voted pretty much in favor of incumbents of either party (Clinton carried the ultra-rich in NY, and Schwarzenegger and Feinstein in CA), but in open races, the Democrats seemed to have a slight, but probably insignificant, edge. For example, Eliot Spitzer won the majority of gubernatorial votes in every wealthy district in NY. The richest zips in Nevada and Arizona tended Republican--in keeping with a regional tendency. In fact, the wealthiest zip codes frequently returned conflicting candidates to the House, Senate, and Governor's mansion. Compared to my home district, which elects Democrats to every single public office, these districts were shockingly balanced. Of course, this is all highly unscientific number-plugging into CNN's vote tracker, and it doesn't reveal any data about returns for local races. Still, it does seem as though, at the top of the income scale, where owning a $2 million home is a reality, the partisan gap is pretty small.

This evidence has been noted elsewhere, but the only explanation for it I've seen so far is that (Democratic) poorer people in wealthy areas have higher voter turnout than the (Republican) super-rich, thereby tipping the district in favor of Democrats. This is possible, but I wonder where these poor people are hiding in districts where the median home price is $700,000 and there are, by all accounts, very few rental properties, no less cheap ones.

UPDATE: Cheryl sends along this from the Atlantic, which includes a link to this study showing a closing partisan gap among wealthy voters.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Mail Call

From today's mail:
The fourth estate is nullifying Plaintiff's [the letter writer] Freedom of Expression by failing to publish this plan to address VIOLENCE that is endangering the entire American populace...Should the First Amendment condone media's AUTOMATIC exclusion of unidentified writers?

Respectfully submitted,
The Messiah