Monday, January 28, 2008

Getting off the slacker couch

The recent issue of City Journal has several excellent articles, including this follow-up to the New Girl Order, "Child-Man in the Promised Land." I'm generally unsympathetic to shirking twenty-somethings who lead meaningless lives of frivolity. But I also mostly live one of those myself, so that's put me in a rather difficult situation with regard to these kinds of indictments, especially when the most widely circulated solution to this moral failing is immediate marriage and childrearing.

I think this aim is emphasized more loudly than other possible paths to living a serious and meaningful life because it is in a certain sense the easiest to attain, but it's also one of the most difficult to sell to precisely those twenty-somethings who can afford to indulge in many years of uncommitted frivolity. Getting married and having children seems to be pretty much within reach for most people who set their minds to it, especially if the eligible cohorts of both sexes seek it simultaneously and with equal desire. And in some of Hymowitz's child-man situations, it's likely that marriage and family are best route to attaining not the just bourgie respectability that frowns on 35-year-old men who spend more time playing Halo than caring for their children, but some share of actual nobility that comes from parenthood. It seems unlikely, for example, that Knocked Up's Ben is going to come by eudaimonia as a a philosopher or statesman or even a skilled craftsman (don't knock the categories--they encompass more than you think). Fatherhood might be the best impetus he ever has to grow up.

But what about people who could potentially attain moral seriousness and nobility in other ways (or those who think they could)? They are the least tempted by marriage, and often the most able to avoid it financially and socially. One argument could be that if those people were truly destined to be the great men of our time, they would probably not be choosing to spend their post-college years clubbing and bonding with their Wii's (or clubbing and bonding with their Manolos, in the case of women) in the first place. According to this logic, the great men of any generation are not to be found on the slacker couch at age 24, so the problems Hymowitz describes only plague the substratum of affluent but unambitious or intellectually lazy twenty-somethings for whom marriage is the only way to anything higher. So if you're between the ages of 20 and 29, and you're not poring over illuminated manuscripts, working on a new theory of justice, or overhauling an urban school system, you should get married now, but those who are doing otherwise important and serious things can get the equivalent of a draft deferment.

But that still leaves some questionable cases on the slacker couch. For example, that segment of the young and frivolous who claim to be artists and justify their apparent frivolity as part of the creative process (or part of some tradition of avant garde libertinism and self-destructive behavior), and that other segment that claims to be doing, or thinking about doing, the serious things above, just more slowly. These people might occasionally display symptoms of man-childishness, but also engage in occasional instances of genuine adult accomplishment. Assuming the video games should probably be sidelined either way, should the borderline cases be pushed towards marriage or should Hymowitz be writing articles exhorting them to other forms of nobility? Do other forms of nobility even need public exhortation when fame is already such a universally desirable status? (We've already exiled the would-be infamous from our slacker couch and into marriage, so public distinctions between honorable and dishonorable fame are not as important here.) Or should we assume that even the borderline cases of possible alternative nobility are better off married and pushing strollers, which doesn't totally foreclose their chances of doing other great things in life (though it may interfere to varying degrees) and may even encourage quicker maturity and firmer commitment to such projects, but at least gets them off the slacker couch in case they were just having delusions of grandeur all along?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Vindication from Nick Paumgarten II

See, I knew Art Garfunkel's bizarre reading list warranted broader public attention.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

How to make friends and influence people

I made brownies for my office, and as a result, several people have actually spoken to me today! For the first time in the nearly six months I've been here! One person even suggested we get drinks sometime! Who knew sugar could be such a powerful social motivator?

Botox: No, I just do it for me, really

The Style section today brings us this gem, on women's desperate attempts to cover up aging:
“In 1985, I saw a tape of myself where my eyes were puffy,” said Faye Wattleton, the president of the Center for the Advancement of Women, a nonprofit group in Manhattan. “I looked very tired and bedraggled and not as youthful as I would like to have been.”

Ms. Wattleton said she had an eye lift at that time, followed about five years ago by a lower face-lift. “I didn’t do it because I was worried I would lose my job,” she said. “I did it to make a better appearance, a fresher appearance, a more youthful appearance.”

Ms. Wattleton, 64, described people’s outward aging and their decisions to ameliorate it as personal choices that others should not judge.

“Being a person who has had plastic surgery and goes to the gym five days a week to work my muscles up so they don’t look atrophied as a 6o-year-old, I don’t disparage people who want to maintain their appearance,” said Ms. Wattleton, a former director of Planned Parenthood. “But what I don’t want is a society that tells me I have to.”
Other than to point out the obvious skill of this reporter at handling the Letting the Sources Embarrass Themselves So You Don't Have To technique, I really don't think there is much I can add to this brilliance.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The annals of cyberstalking

Facebook as Teh Evil:
I’m as narcissistic as the next person, but I’m not self-involved enough to want to generate an online feed of everything I’m up to on the internet. And I’m certainly not interested in continuous updates of what other people are doing. In fact, Facebook threatens to ruin voyeurism altogether by institutionalizing it, destroying its whole illicit thrill and rendering it bland. Instead of a prurient peek into a secret world, it becomes data processing...

Because Facebook starts from the premise that people can be reduced to self-reported data, it implies that friendship is mainly a matter of having a high percentage of shared interests. But even a moment’s consideration of our actual friends reveals friendship to be a process, rooted in familiarity and perpetuated by the continually renewed conscious choice to find out what the other person is doing. Social networks seem to provide another forum for exercising the will to reciprocity, but it seems more like a way to evade them or render them so convenient as to be inconsequential.

In The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (Vintage, December 2007), Lewis Hyde argues that gifts, unlike commercial exchanges, form meaningful relationships between giver and recipient. Commercial transactions are designed to be reciprocal and neutral, to cancel one another out and eradicate the need for gratitude or graciousness. “In commodity exchange it’s as if the buyer and seller were both in plastic bags; there’s none of the contact of gift exchange. There is neither motion or emotion because the whole point is to keep the balance, to make sure the exchange itself doesn’t consume anything or involve one person with another.”

That lack of intimate contact or interpersonal obligation seems integral to amassing large social networks; it’s much more convenient to accumulate things without accumulating relationships. The fair, impartial exchange idealized in the market in which you get what you pay for (caveat emptor and all) is a way of stifling relationships that occur outside of commercialization. Insisting on a fair deal and making that the cornerstone of one’s morality seems reasonable enough at the flea market, but it’s probably not a way to secure friends. Still, the convenience of exhibiting our identity though collecting goods—through a series of choices in the marketplace—is similar to that of the isolation from ties and evasion of responsibility that we sometimes mistake for freedom.

But who wants to be free on those terms? Often I am secretly happy to feel obliged; it gives me a reason to get out of bed, a sense that I matter. But consumer society is set up so that if I wanted, I could live my entire adult life without having anything but frictionless, emotion-free commercial interactions with other people, and I’m embarrassed to admit how seductive this can seem sometimes—particularly in the holiday season, confronted with the task of buying gifts for relatives I hardly see, with no idea of what they would really want. How much easier it would be to write them a check for the amount I was willing to spend, dispense with the pretense of a relationship, and reduce it to the level of commercial exchange.

Consumerism encourages us to replace relationships grounded in gifts with ones grounded in the market, since commercial interests may then take a cut of the action that occurs every time people interact. Facebook, as Beacon demonstrates, clearly adheres to this ideology. Every bit of human interaction generates an opportunity for market mediation, allowing Facebook to extract profits.
The article doesn't take up the strong/weak ties distinction often made about social networking sites, but it does allude to what I primarily spend my time on Facebook doing: cyber-monitoring your life while avoiding direct communication with you (it's not necessary when you tell me everything I need to know via your status feed, right?).

Perhaps this explains why my friend count has been mysteriously shrinking recently?

The department of bad ideas: recent errata

1. Building an Ikea bed without my shoes on
2. Watching the entire fourth season of The Wire before going to Anacostia to tutor middle schoolers
3. Scheduling everything for Tuesdays
4. Ignoring my email
5. Washing my white t-shirts with my dark-rinse jeans

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An open letter to the whiners in the heartland who call and email my office incessantly to complain about the treason of the urban elites

Dear cranks,

Thank you for your responses. I think it's just lovely that you live in small town America and stand for traditional values and attend square dances and rodeos and all that. However, I would just like to bring to your attention the fact that, according to the 2000 Census, the vast majority of Americans live in or near cities. Even if you control for the Census Bureau's incredibly low threshold for "urban," that stills leaves roughly 68 percent of Americans living in places with a population above 50,000.

Given this, calling yourselves the "real Americans," as though you were some underrepresented corn-shucking majority while those of us who can smell ocean brine are a devious "elite" cabal (or, in your own words: "the bed-wetting, bleeding-heart, panty-waist idiot dush bags of the Elites") scheming to oppress you is, at best, unrealistic. Contrary to your evident assumptions, having a chicken coop in your backyard does not endow you (or your idol, Rush Limbaugh, who incidentally lives in a gigantic mansion in a big bad city) with any intrinsic moral authority to condemn everyone to the left of Mussolini as not conservative enough.

Also, if you think your interest (in Rush Limbaugh) is being ignored by the media and politicians, why don't you get your head out of your chicken coop and start doing something about it instead of interrupting my day with your insane tirades about "the establishment's" efforts to silence your true conservative voice?

No love,

Miss Self-Important

Monday, January 21, 2008

On walls and the wondrous variety of people and customs

Taking a break from the culture wars (at least until Heather Mac Donald's provocative article on campus rape in City Journal goes online), we turn briefly to Herodotus. He dedicates a portion of Book I to describing grand city walls--Babylon's, Phocaea's, Sardis', and so on. In every case, he describes a city's walls just before they are destroyed or subverted by a conquering army, and the more magnificent and sophisticated the barrier, the more deviously it's overcome. It could all be a very Machiavellian lesson--after all, the Massagetae, the only nation to successfully defend themselves against Cyrus, are nomads with no walls.

Defensibility aside, what would it be like if cities still had walls? The closest experience I have had was the two weeks I spent in the Old City in Jerusalem, whose wall is a pitiful pile of rocks compared to sixth century Babylon's and equally reduced in political significance. Still, it serves a certain wall-like purpose, insulating a distinct neighborhood of the city (which itself is split into quarters) and its distinct (Armenian, Arab, Orthodox, though there are certainly also Orthodox Jews and Arabs outside the Old City) inhabitants. And who knows what goes on behind city walls? We can speculate or hear rumors, but we have to travel inside to find out. The added difficulty of entrance and exit puts a greater premium on internal autonomy and would seem to discourage reliance on the outside world (though in Jerusalem's case, all wall effects are watered down).

Herodotus' account of a people, its history, and its customs tends to get sandwiched between his account of a city's walls and its demise. I'm surprised by how much more interested Herodotus is in proving the great variety of national customs than in tracking their similarities, which is, I think, the reverse of the modern West's preoccupations. I wonder if city walls don't to some extent encourage this view of places--that each is unique and self-contained, and so more likely home to surprising and alien ways of life. We still feel this way about far away nations, but would we also approach our neighbors with greater awe and wonder if they hid their daily lives from our view? Would we see the world as a constellation of insulated little hives, each bending human nature in different directions? As it is, American places are relatively open to examination, and those which are easiest to pass through, like the exurbs off the sides of the interstates, are also the most homogenous. Appalachia, in contrast, is impossible to get to, and totally bizarre...or so I hear.

In other news, tomorrow I'm going to tutor in Anacostia, so if you don't hear from me again, you can probably guess why.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Gossip Girl wave of feminism

Due to my aforementioned toe trauma, I've had a lot of time to lie around in bed and watch tv shows on the internet recently (convergence, says Henry Jenkins), which has allowed me to catch up with this season of Gossip Girl. (And the entire fourth season of the Wire, which we'll discuss in another post.)

Phoebe is concerned that GG is morally reactionary because its characters aren't promoting promiscuity or entertaining the possibility of aborting unwanted pregnancies. As you might guess, such positions don't particularly trouble me. Assuming one is not of the opinion that abortions should be the default response to unexpected pregnancy, nothing about the Gossip Girl world warrants them. The characters' babies would be born with trust funds in the bank and au pairs at their sides, and Serena or Blair could continue living their charmed lives without as much as changing a diaper. Or, in keeping with the bourgie values of the show, they could give the babies up for adoption to a middle-class home in which the parents will actually notice their children.

I think the accusation of adult promiscuity in the show is a little exaggerated since none of them actually sleep with anyone during the entire season, and all are looking to pick up the pieces of some recent marital collapse. Serena's mother is a gold-digging extreme serial monogamist--so extreme that she marries every man she wants to sleep with. Blair's mother has just ended an at least 17 year marriage because her husband ran off with a male model and only cautiously encourages the interests of Ice Rink Guy. And Williamsburg hispter dad is the baddest of them all--he kisses Serena's mother while he is separated from his cheating wife but technically still married to her, and then dumps her when he has the chance to get his wife back. Even Nate's mother, whose husband turns out to be some sort of money-laundering coke addict, stands by him in her insane, reality-denying way.

However, the fact remains that all these adults' lives are pretty disastrous, and the younger characters are explicitly trying to navigate away from the lives their parents have led. In that regard, Phoebe is right that there is something surprisingly New Victorian about their social world. But I don't think the show recreates the 1950s so much as it tries to move past the culture wars of the 1990s. On one hand, there is something distinctly modern about its morality--the sensitive, uber-responsible and mature characters of Dan and Nate are clearly not middle-manager, suburban bread-winner material at least to the extent that Blair and Serena are not future happy homemakers. They receive approximately zero adult supervision, and are probably wiser than most of the adults available to supervise them anyway. The social world is saturated with drugs and at least images of sex, and, in a notable shift from traditional prudery, it is assumed that sex will be had.

On the other hand, it's no revaluation of values utopia. The most sexually liberated character is Chuck, who is probably not accidentally also a rapist. The problem is that, given the show's context, there is in fact nothing to liberate these kids from. By virtue of their extreme wealth and their families' extreme emotional unavailability, they were never responsible for anything or obligated to anyone. Everyone's life is meaningless frivolity until, like Serena's return to take care of her brother or the magical flowering of Blair and Nate's relationship when they both actually need help, they voluntarily accept responsibility for each other. By the end of the season, all the once-absent parents are engaged, all the mean girls are nice, and everyone is in love with everyone else (except Blair and Nate, but that will pass, I'm sure). Only Chuck and to some extent, Jenny, are on the fringes of all the melodrama, having chosen meaningless frivolity over bourgie responsibility.

In terms of its morality, Gossip Girl strikes me as basically bobo. The under-30 set wants stability, responsibility, and community, but they don't want to foreclose other people's opportunities to rebel against them, which is always so refreshing or entertaining, depending on the politics to which you subscribe. As far as Facebook has informed me, the dozen or so recently engaged or betrothed alumni of my school have been, in addition to under 25, also secular liberals. Unreliable and evil polls show that the majority of the young think abortion is a basically Bad Thing, though most also oppose making it illegal. People seem to want marriage, babies, and nicely appointed homes furnished by Crate and Barrel with refrigerators stocked full of Whole Foods cheese. (Am I giving myself away here?) But they don't want to stop anyone from living in a yurt and subsisting off of acorns.

So GG--probably not a radically conservative force for reactionary social principles. But worse--mindless soap opera reinforcement of a protected life of fun and social drama for the sake of entertainment. Not only does no one ever go to class or do homework, but there isn't any intellectual engagement outside of school either. Do Dan and Serena ever have a substantial conversation? They talk briefly about the scandals of the day, repeatedly reference the class conflict inherent in their relationship, and promise to talk at greater length sometime in the never realized future. They seem to be in love after only two or three successful dates; by far the majority of their meetings were interrupted by some dramatic explosion to which they had to attend. Even as the young characters are more mature and responsible than their parents, they don't actually think about anything that happens to them. Like a good health class pupil, Serena automatically buys Blair a pregnancy test and "is worried" about her, but we don't see her considering the future seriously. Maybe abortion is not an option, but what would these people do? But 15 minutes later, pregnancy is forgotten and there is new drama at hand! Or Blair's random bout of bulimia? Whatever happened to that? How did both Blair's and Serena's Ice Queen mothers thaw out in one episode? And what is with all these happy endings? What is the point of these people's lives?

Perhaps these are all secrets we'll never be told. XOXO.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Local color

Last year around this time, I was still recovering from the unpleasantness of my previous summer in DC and vowing never to return. But as it turns out, DC is a pretty excellent place to be during any season that is not summer. For example, the average temperature here during the winter has so far hovered around 50 degrees. I can't believe I ever tolerated 18 freezing Chicago winters. And autumn colors? Virginia actually has several different species of trees, so they turn different colors! It's marvelous. And, it has gradual hills--all the loveliness of varied elevations, none of the pain of 90-degree Athenian sidewalk. Amenities are excellent, sales taxes low, and coffee shops ubiquitous. Public transportation is reliable, and everything is within walking distance (except Bethesda, but who cares about that?). In addition, several important Civil War battle sites are located here, right next to suburban developments and strip malls. (I wonder, driving through Manassas en route to Ikea, what it means that a battlefield is now an exurb? Is it more or less strange than the fact that Atlanta is now a major city?)

When I was in Chicago, I assumed leaving one's hometown had to be at least a little heart-wrenching and that parochialism was a strong tie, but I think now that I was wrong. Leaving is easy, and it seems to be a sort of practiced skill. I was ambivalent about moving from Chicago to DC, but now that it has proved so relatively painless, going somewhere else entirely in the next couple years seems like no big thing. Home recedes surprisingly quickly.

In hindsight, I no longer understand the introduction to Plato that stresses the error of taking one's customs to be good simply because they are familiar. It's no problem to disabuse someone of that notion, and Plato is hardly necessary to see the merits of cosmopolitanism. How hard is it to believe that accidents of birth should matter less than deliberate choices? It's convincing someone of the opposite--that something is good because it happens to be his own, whether or not he chose it--that seems much more daunting.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Is YOUR grandfather on livejournal?

Evidence accumulates that the internet encourages adults to act like children.

Important cultural questions

If, as we are told, even the most venerable print journalism outlets are economically doomed, then who thought it would be a good idea for homeless people to produce newspapers?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

First world problems: Asians are forcing me to study too hard!

Two of the most pernicious school myths:
1. Intelligence can be measured by seat-of-the-pants success
2. Asians aren't really smart; they're just hard workers

A couple years ago, the WSJ ran an article about suburban white families moving their kids out of high-performing schools with large numbers of Asian students in search of less "competitive" environments for their overstressed darlings. All the good stereotypes get airtime: Asians are memorizing robots whipped into action by frenzied achievement-whoring parents, they lack non-academic skills, including creativity, leadership, and sociability, and they are grade-grubbing competition machines. The Washington Post's education column revives the Asian invasion theme by claiming that Asians really just want to emulate white people, which may be true in a broadly assimilationist way, but doesn't speak to what's really at stake when people claim that Asians are "too competitive."

Mathews discusses a Harvard student's BA thesis on perceptions of Asians in several competitive magnet schools (of which several of Miss Self-Important's readers are alumni). (Also, why does the WashPost not want to discuss my brilliant BA thesis? Asians truly are overrepresented in everything!) He concludes rather contradictorily that Asians are "not a cabal of brainiacs trying to steal all the academic glory from their non-Asian competitors, but a collection of industrious and ambitious American teenagers trying to emulate their equally achievement-oriented white classmates, while society and government shove them into an artificial group called "Asians and Pacific Islanders" on the census forms." This means pretty much nothing since it argues that Asians and whites hold exactly the same values, except Asians are incorrectly labeled in census forms, which in no way accounts for the different achievement outcomes of the two groups.

All the stereotypes about the sources of Asian achievement are of course nonsense; China would hardly exist today, no less be a threat to the US, if its entire population for thousands of years consisted of no one but mindless, servile, formula-memorizing engineering students. Also, you can't be both slavishly deferential to teachers and an active grade-grubber, so someone has not thought through these claims very thoroughly.

But what is more interesting than Mathews' babble about "addressing racial myths" is that these assumptions about Asian students do point to a contradiction in the thinking of many native-born American students about the nature of intelligence. Native-born Americans don't, as a rule, devalue hard work, but they don't think it has a real place in school, which is thought to serve primarily as a sieve separating the naturally talented from the "dumb" in gradations of intellect. They assume that intelligence is a quality distinct from effort, that its formula is something like Achievement - Effort = Intelligence. As a result, the truly smart are those who can ace their classes almost in spite of themselves, and those who need to "actually try" are less deserving of their success. (And this mentality is as characteristic of well-assimilated Asians as any other assimilated Americans.)

Since children are encouraged from the beginning to pursue their talents--that is, their natural talents--it's ultimately a waste of time to pour effort into something you're not naturally talented at. Intelligence is a zero-sum game: genius, or nothing. The value of any subject beyond a basic functional level was not in knowing it, but in being better than everyone else at it. Not good at science? Then why bother? Not good at school? Find something else, but remember, if you don't garner praise immediately, it's not really "your thing," regardless of how much you like it (and how can you like something in which you don't excel?).

I was a subscriber to this account of intelligence until late in high school, and it accounts in large part for my increasing disengagement with math in school. I decided that, since I got better grades for less effort in language-based courses, these must be my natural talents and the only academic subjects from which I could hope for results. Math, being hopeless, was not even worth the effort. (Something of this phenomenon is discussed in this fairly sharp NY Mag article.)

This is all based on a serious misconception about the nature of intelligence, but the fact that it's a misconception doesn't dawn on most students until well into college, if then. There were still seniors in my college class who boasted of the A's they received on papers they BSed at 3 am, or BA theses they pulled out of thin air in a week, not thinking how little absolute value there is in their work or realizing that simply completing assignments because they're assigned is not where it's at anymore.

The problem for white students is that less assimilated Asians (or, more likely, their parents, and other immigrants as well, but white immigrants are harder to pick out of a crowd) don't subscribe to this counterproductive and self-defeating mentality. They don't yet determine how to distribute their academic effort according to preschool signs of promise, and they plug away in classes native-born kids would have long since given up as "not their thing." And then they do better on average and are accused of undermining cherished American notions of slackerdom and unwarranted self-satisfaction.

The strange thing is that most American adults also understand this to a great extent. The "real world" values results far more than potential that is never brought to fruition. But they don't seem to think that this applies to their children, who should be allowed to explore their own talents creatively without pressure. But the children themselves still pressure each other, and they have little capacity for delayed gratification, so the result is some mutant worship of genius as defined by immediate, uncalculated success. Since this is dumb, why should we be upset by the infusion of people with more reasonable ideas about education into our schools?

And it's not going to last long anyway. All this griping about how Asians are uncreative because more go into math and science than the arts will fade as more second-generation children enter the school system and their first generation parents (themselves brought up in the American system) de-emphasize future financial security in favor of child-directed exploration. This is a typical immigrant pattern. Then we will have to find new immigrants to demonize for making us work hard.

UPDATE: Discriminations deconstructs absurd institutional efforts to avert the Asian Invasion by carving up the "Asian" category into its contributing nationalities (but not the Hispanic, African American, or white categories...), and also touches on the Harvard BA thesis.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Halp! Soliciting all grad school advice

In response to the growing number of critics of my desire to return to the U of C for grad school, I have been forced to undertake the complicated process of comprehensively researching other programs. The sheer pain of this has so far only strengthened my interest in Chicago. It took fully three hours just to get through the faculties of three political science departments, pick out the theorists, and print a couple of their representative publications. Let's do the math: if each department at each school takes an hour, how many hours will finding the theorists, intellectual historians, and political philosophers in every polisci, history, classics, and philosophy department at 10 or so schools take?

I am aware that there are more efficient ways of approaching this, like looking up professors whose work I liked as an undergrad. Unfortunately, my time in college was primarily spent reading the work of dead thinkers, emeritus academics, and my own professors. If I had to study with only with currently-employed, non-Chicago professors whose work I have already read in some depth, my options would be limited to T.H. Breen and Gordon Wood.

Further, three hours of research have left me with lingering questions: Why does a political science department need 40 full-time faculty members if it only admits 15 graduate students a year? Why are none of these 40 faculty specialists in ancient political thought? Why are 20 of them specialists in something called "the microfoundations of civil war"? Why do theorists only care about democratic theory, race, and Carl Schmitt? Why are there also political philosophy professors in the philosophy, history, and classics departments of universities? Which discipline should I want? What about interdisciplinary programs? How do I choose? How do I ties my own shoes?

So, helpful blog audience composed in part of academics, your suggestions here would be appreciated. Let's say Miss Self-Important is interested in the following general subjects, and would like a department that covers as many of them as possible since she has not yet narrowed (though she will done so in by the time she writes a personal statement, she hopes): Greek historians of antiquity, Aristotle, Arendt, classical republicanism, citizenship, philosophies of education before 1800, the politics of childhood and family, and the American founding. (What? Too broad? Too many? You don't say!) Assuming she would go anywhere in the US/Canada/UK as long as she could get funding, and assuming she has a decent academic record and would like to go somewhere that promises some future employment prospects, and assuming she can't actually get into a classics program anywhere because she doesn't have Latin and her Greek is pathetic but would be happy to go somewhere with a good classics department from which she could sample, which particular departments/people should she consider?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Running on the anti-toll booth ticket

I sent away for my absentee ballot today, and in exchange, received a list of Illinois' non-Presidential primary candidates currently on the ballot. From the looks of things, the Illinois GOP is in excellent shape. For example, here are our US Senate candidates:

Mike Psak: Self-proclaimed "Trucker/MBA/Republican." Website in size 600 font, for the vision-impaired. Has come up with his "own economic theory which I call The Theory of Non-Productivity." (No further explanation provided.) Takes firm stands on the important issues facing our country, of which there are precisely three:
1. Eliminate toll booths nation-wide
2. Eliminate pork-barrel spending
3. Make the Labor Code fair
I know; I too lose sleep at night over the injustice of toll booths.

Andy Martin: Some conflict regarding his dual campaigns for Senate from both Illinois and Florida. Says candidate: "Andy Martin has been a leading corruption fighter in Illinois spanning five decades." Says Wikipedia: "Martin has been sanctioned in federal court for filing hundreds of lawsuits without merit." Not actually a Republican, evidently not actually a sane person.

Steve Sauerberg: Would like you to know that, whoever he is and whatever he supports (both surprisingly unclear), he is, above all, Not Dick Durbin. So when you see his name on the ballot in November (which you will, because he will distinguish himself in the Republican primary by being Not Crazy), all you need to know is that whatever Dick Durbin is, he is not. For example, whereas Dick Durbin is the winner of the '08 Illinois Senate race, Steve Sauerberg is not.

In my beloved 9th District, things look no better. This year's hopeless Schakowsky opponent is some Assyrian guy. He's not a terrible candidate (at least not compared to '06's illiterate lunatic anti-statist) if it weren't for his apparent inability to write grammatically or say anything in the process. In order to orient potential voters, for example, his site asks the all-important question, "Whose District Your In?" Given that most of his platform is lifted wholesale out of the Mainstream Republican Playbook, it is disconcerting when the copying turns out like this: "Illegal immigration will not be tolerated. It is illegal" (Srsly?) "If there are illegal immigrants we must consider some form of amnesty with retribution and a penalty to society." I am almost tempted to volunteer as a copy-editor for his campaign. (Call me, Michael Younan! I am free evenings and weekends!)

Looking at these races, you'd never guess that the GOP is actually supported by about half the country. On the bright side though, such a dismal status quo makes my future campaign that much more promising.

May I be your slave?

Somewhere in the Second Treatise, in one of the many contradictions that I'm sure warranted greater attention than I was willing to give them in my sosc course, Locke says that the right to liberty renders it impossible to sell oneself into slavery. Evidently, Locke's liberal vision failed to account for the unpaid internship. I have blogged before about the unfortunate proliferation of unpaid internships, and I argued then that, as more students willingly throw themselves at firms/agencies/publications/etc. with fewer demands for compensation, these employers will realize they have nothing to lose by taking them on, and nothing in particular to gain by making their time there substantive.

Now, in some sort of insert dedicated to advising college students, the NYT shows us what an amazing force the market really is. Now, on top of paying the living and travel costs associated with an unpaid internship, you can actually pay for the privilege of having one. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising. I thought this was indicative of a labor market on crack, except that as wages plummet so low as to become fees, while demand for the opportunity to be a slave goes up, the internship begins to look less a job and more like a commodity. The interns are not labor supply so much consumers of a normal good purchased with GPA points rather than money. (And if you do purchase your internship with money, "It’s not considered a formal internship,” says Maurie Perl, senior vice president of corporate communications at Condé Nast Publications, which has auctioned off positions at Glamour. Rest easy; there are tiers of slavery, and buying your way in isn't as classy as begging the old-fashioned way.)

The normal goods market also makes better sense of the fact that, at the most competitive internships, employers apparently have an incentive to make the positions substantive:
Ryan Healy, the 23-year-old founder of Employee Evolution, a Web site that gives career advice to Gen Yers, speaks for many of his age when he says: “I walked away from one internship because it was a waste of my time. We have limits.” Members of his generation, he explains, have been building their résumés almost since grade school and are too qualified to be doing “meaningless work.”

In response, prestigious companies seeking to recruit the most qualified interns are offering elaborate support programs, training and actual work.
Just like your $5,000 handbag should be made of the finest leather, the most prestigious internships should have the nicest features. And in industries where internships are actually part of entry-level recruiting, test-running your potential employees by giving them real work makes sense.

In the world of Washington think tanks, however, where internships are relatively competitive even though they seem to have no discernible purpose except as a training ground for obnoxious networking behavior and necktie knotting, the Prada logic doesn't hold up as well. It's more like paying Prada prices for Gap quality. An unpaid internship at Morgan Stanley (an unthinkable injustice there, I'm sure) might make sense if it leads to a full-time, $80k/yr job. The best case scenario in Washington is that you'll mindlessly Google statistics for several weeks at your internship, learn nothing, but get hired as a research assistant, which, from what I saw last summer, appears to be a form of glorified secretarial work for low pay and with no opportunity for advancement. So what is the economic logic here?

All that being said, I should disclaim this all again by admitting that I interned unpaid for two summers, the less fruitful of which was subsidized by my school. And it did help me get a job. But the jury is still out on whether it was worth the cost. If I had been any poorer, I definitely would say no.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Crowds enjoying loneliness, together

Yesterday, Sebastian and I went to see the Edward Hopper exhibit at the National Gallery, where I ran into two non-friends from my class at the U of C, and awkwardness ensued. This was less surprising given that at least half the population of the United States appeared to be in attendance (including at least one blind person) so it required acrobatic neck craning to see the art between the packs of people. Overall, a rather bizarre contrast between the content of the paintings, and the way they were being viewed.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Notes for future use: Arendt, Postman, and childish violence

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman argues that the revelation of adult secrets about sex and violence to children (through media) blurs the distinction between adulthood and childhood, resulting in adultified children, but also in childified adults. The key is that children who learn adult secrets are of course not made adults merely by virtue of knowing them. We call them sophisticated or street-wise when we want to give them too much credit, but we don't consider them to be adults. So adulthood is evidently knowledge of the "facts of life" plus some other quality, something we might give the working label of responsibility. Sex and violence are fundamental facts of human life, and they may serve good ends (or evil ones), but they are most dangerous in the hands of the irresponsible. This LA Weekly article on the spread of LA gang culture drives home the dilemma of the knowing but unwise child with horrifying acuteness:
Nationwide, juvenile gang homicides have spiked 23 percent since 2000. There are six times as many gangs in L.A. as there were a quarter century ago, and twice as many gang members. But as important as the gang activity itself is what’s different about the violence. In America’s urban ganglands, and in L.A. in particular, the ferocity of the thuggery has surged; gang members, their victims and police long on the gang beat tell me the fighting has become more codeless, more arbitrary and more brutal than ever...

Once migrant gang members claim virgin drug territory for themselves, L.A.-style gang chaos and murder is inevitable. “It’s a power struggle between new gangs,” Andre told me. “Who’s running what? Who has more money? Who’s got more squad? That’s what it all comes down to, whose squad is willing to kill. And that is when the young kids come in, because they don’t give a fuck. They come in, and they kill other kids.”
Urban gangs are essentially youth-run outfits except at the highest levels, and as such they are snapshots of what sex and violence look like when unencumbered by adult responsibility. This is the liberated child of YA literature's dreams, and he makes Lord of the Flies look like Candyland. Arbitrary violence, violence for its own sake--these are, in a strange way, childish. To take responsibility is to act with purpose, and this kind of violence is defined precisely by its aimlessness. Landesman argues that the bloody anarchy of urban gangs is a relatively new development, the result of the mass incarceration of black gang leaders, which resulted in the "decapitation" of the gangs themselves--without leaders, their business structure eroded, hierarchies collapsed, and codes of conduct became irrelevant. In short, the children took control.
Leaderless black gangs like the Bounty Hunters have divided into competitive cliques; inexperienced young gangbangers are fighting and killing for control. The Bounty Hunters, for instance, have become notorious for killing each other to move up in the gang. “They mistake the fear they create for respect,” says LAPD Detective Victor Ross, a gang unit detective. “Today, a Bounty Hunter gets what he thinks is respect by murdering his own.”

Recently, in Jordan Downs, a Grape Street clique rebuffed by a 14-year-old boy who refused to join gang-raped his 12-year-old sister, taped the attack, and showed the video to the boy. The boy gave in and joined. Older gang members and veteran police say the neighborhoods are codeless and anarchic. “The hood is lost because we ain’t got no guidance right now,” a hardcore Bounty Hunter Blood told me. “It’s just us young gangsters.”

The differences between black and Latino gangs are stark. And the black gang members I spoke with readily admit that the difference is fatal. Damien Hartfield, the former Bounty Hunter, explained, “Blacks do what they want. When Latinos go gangbanging they have a solid plan. Blacks don’t go to war like that. It’s spontaneous. Something just happens. Latinos make a call, make a plan. They have a structure.”
Absurd as it may seem to suggest that any criminal outfit that uses murder to obtain its ends can be characterized by a sense of responsibility, the comparison between the mafia and urban gangs seems instructive. The mafia is a basically adult operation; it's based on a primitive sense of tribal or familial honor, but such codes of honor are at least not arbitrary. Their violence is, in its way, governed and restrained by rules. The violence of children bears no such restraint. When adults perpetrate such arbitrary violence, we presume they are deranged.

So adults have traditionally shielded children from the secrets of sex and violence not only to protect children, but also to protect the world from children until the children were deemed responsible enough to absorb these secrets. Adult responsibility in turn rests at least in part in keeping these secrets from irresponsible children. In Judy Blume-era popular rhetoric, young adult literature's frankness about these secrets was celebrated as a means of freeing children from the adult monopoly on knowledge. But at least as importantly, it freed adults of the burden of their own responsibility. Fewer secrets mean fewer burdens. One of the recurring ideas in the articles about YA lit from the '70s is the complaint of parents that they no longer feel qualified themselves to guide their children through the world, and even those who oppose YA books are not unrelieved that schools, librarians, children's authors, and the usual panoply of experts have offered to take that daunting responsibility off their hands. But to whom did these parents hand over their authority? People who themselves renounced authority over children, who doubted that anyone could wield such authority at all anymore, and who thought adults themselves were so depraved that children would be better off relying on their own native innocence to rescue the world from the damage wrought by adults.

But this experiment has not, as far as I can tell, resulted in a better world forged by the morality of childhood. The natural morality of children is a questionable suggestion. So, to leave off inconclusively, but with Arendt:
"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world."