Monday, March 31, 2008

Swiffergate, and other tales of kids these days

In junior high, I hated school and suffered from the desire shared by many unhappy adolescent girls to attend boarding school. An English boarding school would've been best--preferably one that required students to wear knee-socks, which seemed like the very peak of gentility, and that, like the books about boarding school on which these desires were based, was set sometime between the late nineteenth century and WWII. Since the likelihood of my being sent to an English boarding school was about equal to the likelihood of my going back in time, this last part was not as unreasonable as it may sound.

By the time I got to high school, however, I had given up on my boarding school dream and instead wanted only to go somewhere smarter, not farther--Francis Parker or Northside College Prep would've sufficed. My parents were amenable to switching schools, but having misperceived the problem to be that my high school's mediocrity would diminish my college chances, proposed only the solution of moving to Wilmette and sending me to New Trier. The real problem was actually more immediate--my classmates were idiots--and while New Trier might've alleviated it somewhat, I was convinced that it would only spawn other, possibly more unpleasant problems. At least where everyone is dumb, I could be comforted by delusions of my own brilliance. I foresaw no comforts in being poor or friendless (I was blissfully ignorant of how the same story might play out at Parker). So I stayed put, but daydreamed about alternate realities.

It was only in college then that I finally realized what I had missed: this.
Horace Mann has always been a pressurized place, the junior division of New York’s elite. Parents of current students include former governor Eliot Spitzer, Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn, fashion designer Kenneth Cole, and Sean “Diddy” Combs. But the Internet has added a new kind of pressure. For Horace Mann, this new reality emerged in the winter of 2004, when an eighth-grader e-mailed a cell-phone video of herself masturbating and simulating fellatio on a Swiffer mop to a boy she liked, who in turn forwarded the clip to his friends. In short order—as these things inevitably do—the video popped up on Friendster for millions to view. “Swiffergate,” as the scandal became known, roiled the Horace Mann community.
Horace Mann also happens to have an extensive classical language program. Phoebe dismisses elite private schools, but when taken together with these absurd tales of wealth gone wild, I have to conclude that I would have loved Horace Mann. I could watch my classmates do such phenomenally idiotic things as masturbate w/ a swiffer while studying the ethical dative in Greek. Then, after graduation (and acceptance into an elite university, obviously), I could go on to write an expose of my school, complete with details about P. Diddy's and Kenneth Cole's children. It's pretty much a win-win situation, unless I were to succumb to the pressure to snort coke or make videos of myself doing uncouth things with cleaning supplies. But, since I would presumably be a scholarship student, I would be unable to afford narcotics and smartphones, allowing me to avoid many of the temptations of the children of wealth without even having to internally debate their merits. A win-win-win situation, except I'd still be poor and friendless. But that's three wins compared with two losses.


One should be suspicious of any discussion of a technology that describes it as either unequivocally good, or the beginning of the end of man. (Though if you must choose from extremes, I would err on the side of civilizational decline.) As I've written before, I think much of the popular hand-wringing about the effect of internet technologies on childhood is overblown and misdirected. For example, lots of newsprint is wasted on worries about online predators, who affect (in my generous estimate) about .01 percent of internet users, but seem Very Scary in the abstract. And while that's unfortunate, this kind of boosterism is even more so:
We're afraid. Our kids know things we don't. They drove the presidential debates onto YouTube and very well may determine the outcome of this election. They're texting at the dinner table and responsible for pretty much every enduring consumer cultural phenomenon: iPod, iTunes, iPhone; Harry Potter, "High School Musical"; large hot drinks with gingerbread flavoring. They can sell ads on their social network pages, and they essentially made MySpace worth $580 million and "Juno" an Oscar winner.
It's true; we are afraid. So afraid that teh internets is a big, scary blob to us that prevents us from differentiating between the demographic that likes "High School Musical," and the one that has iPhones and votes. I am 22 years old and work in communications, and even I don't have an iPhone. The children are not so advanced that they run the world through their Club Penguin accounts. Don't let technology's seeming complexity fool you into thinking they are geniuses and relinquishing your authority over them. Text messaging is really not that difficult. If you're tempted to hand the reins over to your kids because they know how to do it and you don't, I would advise just learning it instead.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Athenian drinking games

Sometimes, under the influence of false recollection, I imagine that I studied really hard in college. But then, conveniently, I come across stuff like this to remind me of how I really spent my class time:

Unrelatedly, I am dying of boredom on Second Life. Will someone else please join and help me with my (undirected, purposeless) research?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Chicks in suits

The discussion of taking women seriously has spread to multiple fronts by now, and it would be futile to try to summarize all of them, so let's just get to the basic point: are women taken less seriously than men, and why? Relatedly, why does blogging about shoes detract from perceptions of a woman's seriousness, and is that bad?

I think it makes sense to make a distinction here between the seriousness with which the public takes an authority of some sort (of either gender)--writer, journalist, politician, academic, scientist--and the seriousness with which people take a blogger. Blogging lends itself to a sort of work-in-progress, jeans-and-sneakers ethic. Few people can be consistently brilliant five times a day (or, um, twice a week, in my case), and there is more casualness and give and take. So let's bracket serious blogging for now, and just focus on perceptions of women's seriousness in general.

Perhaps we can work backwards from examples. Some women who, based on my knowledge of them, exhibit(ed) gravitas: Hannah Arendt, Condoleezza Rice, Elizabeth I, Eleanor Roosevelt(?), Jane Addams, Hanna Gray, some other professors I've had whom no one has heard of. (Feel free to offer more examples.) Some women who should have it, or almost do, but ultimately fall short: Martha Nussbaum, Hillary Clinton, some other professors I've had who aren't the ones that do have it. Some women who can never have it: Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Julia get the idea.

We might say the first two groups have competence and intelligence in common (put aside your ideas about HRC's political abilities for a second and just imagine that she probably would've been a fine lawyer), but that this is somehow insufficient to move the second group into the first. Even Julia Allison might be an ok writer, but who knows or cares at this point? What the first group has that the second doesn't is a firm habit of keeping their private lives out of their public work. What has happened to the second group is that the scandals of their personal lives have become widespread public knowledge, either by their own doing or someone else's, or they are publicly vain. What the third group does is live outrageous personal lives for the public's gratification

The case of Elizabeth I might seem like the weirdest here, but it's actually the clearest example of these boundaries. In a monarchy, there is no private sphere for a monarch, and in fact, Elizabeth I lived up to that exacting standard by having almost no private life. In our situation, such extremes are unnecessary, but you might want to avoid the obvious personal pitfalls that will inevitably become public (and sometimes they're not your fault but you're still screwed) as well as publicizing your personal pitfalls. Dignity is fussy word, but it pretty much encapsulates the standard here--would announcing this about yourself be dignified? If not, then tell it to your friends and keep it out of your work. The less you reveal about your personal life, the less that your future detractors will have to use against you, and they might actually have to settle for taking on your arguments instead of your reputation.

There might be certain pitfalls to this approach; HRC, for example, seems to have tried it on occasion and been criticized as too "cold" or unfeminine. Well, let me point out that making herself sexually unavailable to men seem to enhance a woman's gravitas pretty reliably. One of the above examplars of gravitas was a lesbian, one was possibly a lesbian but almost certainly not having sex with her husband, two were never married. But there are options. Hannah Arendt, as far as I know, had a pretty exciting heterosexual love life without much cost to her dignity.

Finally, as far as the idea that femininity is incompatible with seriousness is concerned, let us take as our points of comparison Ally McBeal and The Wire's Rhonda Pearlman. Ally McBeal is a ditzy, neurotic idiot. This is supposed to be amusingly but sympathetically feminine, in the same vein as Grace on Will and Grace, or pretty much all the women on Friends. Rhonda Pearlman is competent, smart, and effective--in sum, serious--and also completely sympathetic. Whereas Ally McBeal was having breakdowns in the office, The Wire kept Rhonda Pearlman's private life out of her public work, and allowed the viewer to glimpse both. Granted, The Wire did not aim for laughs, where it was this bleeding of life into work that made Ally McBeal funny (to some people; I was 14 and utterly confused by it), but the point stands.

It is worth pointing out that this standard applies no less to men. Confidence, modesty, circumspection, and not sleeping with other people's spouses help male public intellectuals stay in business too. Do we cut men more slack in this regard though? I think Amber is probably right that women feel compelled to acquire more credentials in order to project confidence, although it's unclear if that's a result of social expectations or their own insecurities. And according to our standards of modesty, many unbearably pompous, self-absorbed men remain highly regarded while equally vain women are called out for it. But that doesn't mean we should be easier on vain or unqualified women; only that we should be harder on pompous and unqualified men.

So then, how do we account for these situations? As far as I can tell, Megan McArdle is no less serious a blogger (insofar as one can be a serious blogger) than, say, Ezra Klein, who blogs on many of the same topics. But most people do not speculate about what size his pants are and whether he can get a date in his comments section. I think it's fair to say that these are examples of men behaving badly. But given that women blogging about economics and health care might face a stiffer acceptance curve, there are some things she should probably avoid, like ever discussing her love life, her clothes, her kitchen. Basically, anything required for survival--food, clothes, shelter--and anything of the home should stay there. Also, she shouldn't respond to her commenters personally. There's nothing wrong with being aloof when your blog gets 100 comments a day.

Finally, shoe-blogging. Why is it bad, and why do men get away with being as irrationally obsessed with sports as women are with shoes? The obvious problem is that, if you want to be taken seriously, you should not speak publicly about frivolous things. Shoes fall into this category. (Professional sports do too.) But if you do insist on blogging about shoes, there is also an explanation for why you will be dismissed or belittled more quickly than men who blog about sports (except by the shoe and sports communities, respectively). Fashion is closely tied to bodies and love lives, and all the other subjects that are inappropriate for public discussion. Blogging about fashion usually means blogging about your fashion--it indirectly reveals things about your body, your income, your friends--in sum, your private life. And when the snipers come out, it makes some sense that they'll take aim not at the shoes, but at you, since you have armed them with all the relevant information and personal insults hurt more. Sports is more removed from personal scrutiny; calling a player a good pitcher doesn't implicate your own pitching ability or lack thereof. That said, as Cheryl points out, Virginia Postrel writes about style in such an impersonal, broad, and relevant way that it never undermines her seriousness. So it can be done.

And yes, I am aware that I take none of my own advice. I have had a blog since I was sixteen, when I spent all my time slandering people I disliked. It's hard to develop seriousness out of such inauspicious beginnings. But at least I have stopped incorporating errant instances of the word "like" into my writing. Maybe someday, I'll stop saying it too.

In conclusion, the secret for women to being taken seriously is to imitate Hannah Arendt, and wear suits as often as possible. I always take women in suits seriously.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Russians are coming

My Russian parents, for example, while too sophisticated to disapprove of drinking or smoking, were not above suggesting that “Harvard” might not like it. Harvard might be mortified; Harvard might take it amiss. Harvard is coming to dinner — please tuck in your shirt.
An excellent paragraph, followed by vague nonsense about distorted incentives and how we must reform the elite college admissions game. But how sweet would it be to review this book? Elitism, hoaxes, college--so many exciting subjects rolled into one! Maybe in summer.

Utilitarian theories of capitalization, or the universal relevance of Benjamin Franklin

The American Scene is charmed by the "liberal use of upper-case letters" in John Adams's writings. But contrary to their assumption, Adams wasn't just being decorative. The English upper-case noun was neither a random quirk of the writer or a function of erratic printing technologies. In fact, Adams was present at its death at the hands of printers in the name of aesthetics.

In a letter to Noah Webster (Mr. Dictionary, for the uninitiated) in 1789, Franklin bemoaned their demise:
...In examining the English books that were printed between the Restoration and the succession of George the Second, we may observe, that all substantives were begun with a capital, in which we imitated our mother-tongue the German; this was more particularly useful to those not acquainted with the English; there being such a prodigious number of our words that are both verbs and substantives, and spelt in the same manner, though often accented differently in the pronunciation.

This method has, by the fancy of printers, of late years been laid aside, from an idea that suppressing the capitals shows the characters to greater advantage; those letters prominent above the line disturbing its even regular appearance. The effect of this change is so considerable that a learned Man of France, who used to read our books, though not perfectly acquainted with our language, in conversation with me on the subject of our authors, attributed the greater obscurity he found in our modern books, compared to those of the above-mentioned, to change of style for the worse in our writers; of which mistake I convinced him by marking for him each substantive with a capital in a paragraph, which he then easily understood, though before he could not comprehend it. This shows the inconvenience of that pretended improvement.

From the same Fondness for an even and uniform Appearance of Characters in the Line, the Printers have of late banished also the Italic Types, in which Words of Importance to be attended to in the Sense of the Sentence, and Words on which an Emphasis should be put in Reading, used to be printed. And lately, another Fancy has induced some Printers to use the short round s, instead of the long one, which formerly served well to distinguish a word readily by its varied appearance. Certainly, the omitting this prominent Letter makes the Line appear more even, but renders it less immediately legible; as the paring all Men's Noses might smooth and level their Faces, but would render their Physiognomies less distinguishable.

...For all these Reasons I cannot but wish that our American Printers would in their Editions avoid these fancied Improvements, and thereby render their Works more agreeable to Foreigners in Europe, to the great advance of our Bookselling Commerce.
Despite what appear to be extremely explicit instructions in this letter, typographers have since lower-cased Franklin's capitals so that only the second half of this letter is reproduced faithfully. (The rest was found in Google books--good for reference, bad for typographic faithfulness.) It is also worthwhile to note that there is a sentence in this excerpt containing no fewer than seven separate phrases and two clauses. The importance of emphasizing substantives indeed.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"I try to never set foot in Georgetown" and other tales of misbegotten 'authenticity'

Last weekend, Seb and I were flailing around southwest DC trying to find parking so that we could walk over to the Jefferson Memorial when we stumbled across the Maine Avenue Fish Market. We had no idea that it existed (we take a piecemeal approach to exploration), and we were impressed by the vast piles of live blue crab lining the waterfront. In fact, until five months ago, I didn't even know blue crab existed, so really, I was doubly excited. But, because Seb and I are both n00bs to the Chesapeake region, we have no idea how to select, cook, or dismantle crabs. We just know that, when all these steps are done for us, the result is v. delicious.

So when we got home, I looked up the fish market for some advice on whether its goods were edible, and how to deal with this whole crab preparation issue. (Side note: A recent discussion with one of my roommates has illuminated the extent of my own misanthropy for me. While discussing the best way to learn German, her immediate suggestion was to meet with other German speakers and converse; mine was to look it up on the internet.) I came across this write-up in DCist and its ensuing comment thread, which consists of a protracted battle between people who like the fish market, and people for whom nothing short of a live fish caught in the last 30 seconds while a wearing hand-made potato sack and eating a sandwich in an underground eatery that only two people know about, preferably in neighborhood currently being shelled by enemy forces, is 'real' enough. Eventually, the latter front devolves into a battle between its own members over who has more street cred. Witness:

Commenter More Authentically Urban Than You: To find these places you might need to stray from Dupont or Georgetown...get to know your area a little huh?
Commenter Even More Authentic Than That Guy: Trust me, I try to never set foot in Georgetown, and I've mostly kept away from Dupont since Anne Taylor came to town.

By these standards, if I ever hoped to become a true Washingtonian, I would be doomed to failure. Or at least partial nakedness, since clothes shopping outside of these areas in DC is significantly less convenient and plentiful. Thus, Miss Self-Important's rules of authentic urban living, in succession:
1. Avoid tourist areas: self-explanatory.
2. Avoid wealthy areas: rich people are always undermining the grittiness of real city life with their conveniences and disruptive concern for aesthetics and hygiene.
3. Avoid child-friendly areas: children are so Park Slope.
4. Avoid commercial areas: franchises, consumption, materialism--all evil.
5. Avoid white areas: let's face it, only living among poor people or minorities, or best, a combination of both makes you a true urbanite.
6. Avoid safe areas: every real city dweller has to get mugged a few times and probably shot at least once.
7. Avoid places that anyone you know also knows: you obviously can't be a pioneer if you're not the first, even if that means not actually socializing with your own friends.
8. Avoid frequenting any place that anyone else with an internet connection has ever been to or even seen: obviously, at least one other human being has to know about it to run the joint, but just make sure that person doesn't have a website.
9. Avoid other people: it may sound counterintuitive, but at this point, the quest for danger, poverty, filth, and obscurity has probably led you to a box on the unpoliced outskirts of town that is regularly attacked by a pack of feral dogs out to steal your dumpster finds. And if that's not authentic urban living, what is?
10. Never leave, not even for vacation: then you'll have to be a newcomer (or worse, a tourist!) somewhere else.

But, because I can never live up to these exacting standards, I will have to settle for a crab dinner this weekend, courtesy of the over-priced, over-hyped, and passe Maine Avenue Fish Market. Please, share in my anguish.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Let me also complain about

The asshole anti-war protesters whose heaving biomass pushed me into a huge puddle on Connecticut on my way back to my office this afternoon. I didn't get the memo about these events yesterday, so I was caught quite by surprise in the pouring rain in heels when they decided to invade the area around my office and what looks like half the manpower of the DC police came out to divert traffic for them. Sigh. Some things, I do not love about this city. That, and the way that the pervasive smell of urine in downtown intensifies during periods of high humidity. Wonkette provides cinematic coverage of this watershed event. Even the lefty commenters are annoyed and underwhelmed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Your radicalism bores me and your liberation weighs me down

I am increasingly starting to see how, beneath the sheer novelty of so much that is hailed as a radical liberation from social constraints--polyamory, say, or extreme biotech modifications of the body--people are just bourgie to the core. They're all about "managing" their relationships, and allocating their time in the most efficient possible way. In fact, I have seen this so much that I am ready to retire the term 'bourgie,' despite how much I enjoyed it just a couple of months ago.

Take Second Life: if the great potential of virtual worlds is that you can "be" anything you want in them, why do the vast majority of residents create avatars that slavishly conform to conventional (even vulgar) standards of attractiveness--giant muscles, giant breasts, 10-inch stilettos. There are no overweight avatars in Second Life (except me and David, whom I convinced to join, and who spearheaded our 30-minute virtual ugliness campaign). You might say that this is obvious, since people will create their ideal selves when given the opportunity, but are these not the same (white, upper-middle class, liberal) people who would denounce this ideal in the real world as oppressive or subjective or otherwise invalid? Shouldn't more of these people be fat and weird in the virtual world? Don't they want to undermine these prevailing paradigms of beauty with a few simple mouse clicks? But no, they're happy to accept your weird shape, but they just want to be hot and likable.

(I know there are many furries in SL who may at first seem like a group that is working against dominant ideas of beauty and ideal form, but I prefer to think of the furries as people who have a mental age of about seven, which seems like roughly the peak of human identification with animals.)

In addition, most people in SL are extremely nice. What is more bourgie than being nice? In the real world, perhaps, many people who are nice are that way because they fear the repercussions to their status that being mean might entail. But what is there to fear in Second Life? Your real reputation is not at stake, and you can always create a new avatar if your old one is tarnished. Unless, of course, the niceness is so deeply ingrained in your soul that it becomes a moral rather than a utilitarian principle (being nice for its own sake vs. being nice to get a cookie). Then, Nietzsche might say, you are lost forever to the slave morality.

So what are the sacred principles that people who want to overturn the status quo think that they're undermining?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Although professional athletes are basically violent mercenaries

Apropos of a long-ago rumination on athletics and technology, I should mention the Kass/Cohen article on steroids in baseball in this month's TNR. Please, before you comment, let me guess: you are a libertarian or a transhumanist, you're willing to defend sports doping because you think Leon Kass just wants people with diseases to suffer more, and you think the following sentence is embarrassingly hyperbolic: "Yet these games that youngsters play somehow seem to capture both the lowest and the loftiest possibilities of embodied human life, eliciting in participant spectators and spectating participants the full range of human passions, from rapturous joy to paralyzing despair." I am with you on that last complaint, let me assure you.

However, despite my own complete unconcern for the past, present, and future of professional sports, I do have to commend the authors on summarizing their extremely long argument and occasionally overwrought prose in the following brilliant sentence: "No sane person would choose to be the fastest thing on two legs if it required becoming an ostrich."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Perceptions of my vast wealth and my travel itinerary

Cheryl is annoyed by the whininess of Ezra Klein's commenters, who cry poverty because, after paying rent in NY/DC/SF, they can only occasionally afford fancy dinners and other niceties, or (woe!) they have to work at all. I also find their indignant refusal to accept their fortune strange. I live in an expensive area on far less than most of these people complaining about having to manage on $150,000, and I've never been so wealthy and comfortable in my entire life, including the time spent growing up in my parents' house, where everything was provided for me.

I understand that things are different when children are in the picture, but in my current situation, I can afford to live in a house probably twice as big as the one I grew up in, in a convenient, lively, pleasant area adjacent to a fantastic city. (Whine about cost of urban living all you want, but you choose it, and you are getting a lot for what you're paying.) I'm able to purchase whatever I need and almost everything I want (my tastes are relatively inexpensive). I have health insurance. I have unhurried leisure and access to all the things necessary to spend it well (even Greek courses! although I have to wait until autumn to get in-state tuition), and I can save enough not to feel insecure about the future. Moreover, the past several months have significantly diminished my desire to make lots of money by demonstrating how relatively inexpensive satisfaction is. (Parochial school teaching, here I come!)

In fact, I am amazed every afternoon that I step out for a latte that I can simply enjoy it and not worry about the $2.50, a behavior which my parents would find outrageously irresponsible and condemn so fiercely that the guilt that came with every subsequent cup would completely overpower its sweetness. Now, I don't think I ever feel richer than when I buy coffee. (That's right, parents. I buy lattes several times a week. All your efforts to raise me frugal were for naught.) Plus, there is the traveling:

Mar. 29-30: New York w/ Porkchop
Apr. 11-13: Blue Ridge Mountains w/ Seb
Apr. 25 - May 5: Spain and Italy w/ Alex
June 11-13: Chicago! (w/ David, et al.)

TBD: Annapolis, Rehoboth Beach, Tangiers/Smith Island (where they speak an early Elizabethan dialect), Chincoteague and Assateague Islands, Virginia Beach, Charleston

Who could claim poverty, or even financial constraint, in these circumstances? Because, what, you can't buy everything that exists?

On the other hand, I can't afford expensive dinners either. Woe, woe is me.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Television is the new Athens

David Simon waxes philosophical about The Wire as Socratic dialogue and how the American republic is (surprise!) not a democracy:
Given the show's roots in Greek tragedy, how different are modern institutions from ancient institutions?

Well, no one's tried to feed Ed Burns any hemlock lately. I don't know what to say to that. I think there are some core dynamics in terms of how humans govern themselves and how they route power and wealth and authority that are eternal. And the notion of democracy goes back to the city-states, and Athens in particular. Obviously, the contradictions and complexities of democracy have been a source of struggle ever since the form was suggested and practiced. It was his relationship to the democratic ideals and the problems inherent in the democratic ideals that got Socrates the hemlock. It has always been a point of intense conflict as to how people are going to be allowed to govern.

I just think at this point the institutions in America -- and by that I mean the manner in which power and money are actually routing themselves and controlling the political infrastructure -- I live in a state where 9 times out of 10 my vote will not matter. My vote will not matter in this coming election. Why does it not matter? Because the voting structure of this country has been set up since the birth of this country in a manner that is anti-democratic. It is oligarchal. When 40 percent of the people elect 60 percent of the senators, as is true in America, you cannot call it a democracy. You can say it has some democratic principals, it has some democratic roots. You can mitigate it however you want. But if 40 percent of the people elect 60 percent of the higher house of a bi-cameral legislature, it's an oligarchy. We're being led by the rich and the powerful, and I don't know about you, but I sure wish they were doing a better f---ing job.
Via The American Scene

Friday, March 07, 2008

How to fix the world by watching television

I like The Wire. I am probably not the best judge of quality television, in the first place because I think the phrase is an oxymoron, and in the second because the only other shows I've watched in the past four years are Veronica Mars and Buffy (on DVD). Oh, and Gossip Girl, but only because the episodes are online. Let's just say that the only shows I'd vouch for are Buffy and VMars, in the first through third seasons, and the first season, respectively. Once characters go to college, shows go downhill.

So The Wire is a compelling show, at least. I like that it works on a broad canvas and fleshes out its characters. I like the idea of its "realness" like I like the idea that my sandwich from Whole Foods is organic. But I suspect its purpose and I do think that Reihan is probably right:
Moreover, this view of human beings trapped in a cage of dysfunction transcends ideology: it strengthens the hand of paternalists of the left and determinists of the right. In that regard, the show is frankly destructive. I’m struck by how many of my friends believe they have more refined moral sensibilities because they watch and swear by The Wire, as though it gives them a richer appreciation of the real struggles of inner-city life, despite the fact that they are exactly as insulated as they were before.

...the bleakness of The Wire lends itself to a “knowing” political pose that almost certainly does little good. I’m tempted to say that it encourages exactly the wrong habits of mind, but that’s tough to say in light of my basic affection for and investment in the core characters.
The show does a lot of white guilt assuaging by peddling knowledge to the chattering classes--you too can have solidarity with the 'hood if you learn the details and terminology of drug dealing. Knowing the meaning of "re-up" and the means by which good boys drop out of school and start standing on corners, you are now more qualified to idly discuss the social pathologies of the ghetto. But the system is so rigged that of course you can't do anything about these problems. It's mostly harmless stuff, until you learn that the show's writers would like you to use your newly acquired deep knowledge of the ghetto to undermine the law:
If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun's manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.
Why would we do this? "And when the lawyers or the judge or your fellow jurors seek explanation, think for a moment on Bubbles or Bodie or Wallace." Think of all the fictional black people you saw on my show, and thus will you know what is good for all the real black people you've never seen but for whom you feel really bad. Even though you never go farther than whatever street in your city where the neighborhood "changes," it rests on you to overthrow the laws that keep the oppressed "in the game." It wouldn't be the first time paternalism grew out of fiction. Better than paternalism out of fake non-fiction, I guess.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Doesn't anyone just write fiction anymore?

In the past, didn't people write social novels about such situations instead of pretending to have lived them personally? I mean, I understand that people are vain and want to pretend it was all them doing that suffering there, but there is still fame and self-imposed victimization to be found in fiction, isn't there?

I am starting to wonder though if there is more catharsis to be had in the revelation of a hoax such as this than in the redemption of depravity that the books promise. There is something nice about knowing that the following cannot actually be true:
And I want people to understand how deep-seated the hatred really is between CRIPs and Bloods. CRIPs celebrate C-days rather than B-days (birthdays) and Bloods smoke bigarettes not cigarettes. The hate is so deep that, as a Blood, you automatically change the spelling in words with a c in them.
That's right, citches. Henbeforth, all the letters in my enemies' names will ce eradibated from use! Cut oh no--what if I abquire more enemies than letters in the alphacet? Then I will no longer ce acle to speak! Proclem!

UD has excellent commentary as well.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Have you asked your ancestors how they're feeling today?

I have long been puzzled by the story of Tellus the Athenian in Herodotus. It could be read simply to mean that fortune is a fickle mistress, and so you can't count yourself fortunate until the end. But then, why the specific stories of Tellus and of Cleobis and Biton? My humanities professor in college read Solon's pronouncement as a vindication of Athenian law--Tellus is the most blessed man because he was a free citizen of a polis in which he lived well and died well--personally complete (survived by children and grandchildren) and in the fulfillment of his political obligation (defending his city), after which he was honored voluntarily (and therefore authentically) by his equals.

A compelling reading in some ways, but it's not clear then why Herodotus tells us that Croesus, a barbarian, finally understood Solon's point when he was about to be killed by Cyrus. Croesus was in a good position at that point to understand the bit about fortune, but not the argument for Greek freedom under the law. Indeed, although the demise of his empire makes him wiser on the whole, he never repudiates despotism, so in what sense could he be said to really understand Solon's meaning?

I do accept the point that it's no coincidence that Solon's examples of blessedness are Greek and not barbarian, but I have argued before (in a fortunately deleted archive) that Solon's story is more about the good death than the good life, and in that sense, it can apply to barbarians almost as well as it applies to Greeks. Insofar as Solon and the brothers die fulfilling their duties (civic and familial, respectively), and they die having been publicly honored (the brothers are a better barbarian example here, since their honor is bestowed by Hera rather than their equals), barbarians can follow their example.

A.P. David (who is apparently also associated with the U of C) is re-reading Herodotus too, and writing about just this story. (Ok, he's reading in Greek, but someday...) He suggests that "look to the end" means the very long run:
When we say, "history will judge"—and we use this phrase to counter claims of achievement or failure in the present or the recent past—we say what is essential in Solon's proverb. Perhaps we also see why an historian might put these cautionary words in Solon's mouth, cast in a sort of fairy tale (he probably never met Croesus). The ancient reform was a key to Athenian greatness, but the present was a turbulent one. Herodotus knew that a Peloponnesian War with Sparta was coming.
This is also a nice reading, but it runs up against the same Croesus problem. Is "history will judge" what Croesus realized while he was hanging up on that pyre? On one hand, that is a point that Cyrus, who was about to found a great empire, would appreciate. On the other hand, this isn't reflected in Cyrus' response that he would not want to kill someone who was once as rich and mighty as Cyrus himself had now become.

And there is also the counterargument Aristotle makes in my favorite part of the Ethics: does the happiness of the dead fluctuate? To some degree, we have to admit that the dead are in some sense less happy in their deadness when their reputations among the living are diminished. However, they are after all, dead, and it would be absurd to think of them as manic-depressive. History judges, but history never ends, so if Solon's "look to the end," is really about reputation after death, then don't we have to take Aristotle's absurd position in which the dead are constantly being shuttled between happiness and misery, depending on the judgments of living historians?