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Monday, December 31, 2012

Predictable failure

A few years ago, I came across a great blog featuring failed predictions about "the future" from the past century (though they occasionally blundered into accuracy), and then promptly forgot the name and url. But I thought of this blog every time I heard breathless predictions about, especially, "the future of education." In the future, education will be all online! It will be free! It will be universal! It will be catered to you! It will be ruled by Michael Sandel! It will be streamed directly into your nose! And out your ass! The more cautious prognosticators demonstrate their moderation by carving out an exception to the future's imperatives for "elite schools," because, while we can imagine a future in which our brains combine with computers, it's actually impossible to imagine one without an Ivy League. Then, today, I finally re-located this blog, Paleofuture,  though it has since moved and become more 'educational' and less entertaining. If you browse some of the past's predictions about the future of education, you will see that they've been pretty consistent for 100 years - education is always going to be online, free, universal, individual, as well as conducted in space, taught by robots, and facilitated by time travel - and it will be amazing, just you wait...and wait...and wait.

So, peeps, here's to 2013, when Miss Self-Important officially predicts that the outdated brick-and-mortar school with its teachers and students and libraries and papers will finally disappear, and we will learn by going back in time through virtual reality chaperoned by robots from Mars, on spaceships. But don't panic! The most selective spaceship will still be called Harvard. So everything will be ok.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

YA lit and the social crisis of the sheltered childhood

And, as if NYT Styles reads my blog, the weekend profile does exactly what the anti-treacle article deplores - endorses the nonsense of YA lit "realism." It features the endless tired tropes about the noble imperative of "exposing" children to seediness and tragedy - if you don't do it now in the "safe place to explore" that is books, then surely when they actually confront these "realities" in due time (and who doesn't eventually come face-to-face with a meth-addicted rapist serial killer during an unintended teenage pregnancy while one is stoned after senior prom?), they will be so naive that they'll necessarily succumb:
Ms. Myracle, 43, a newly divorced mother of three, ruffles feathers because she unflinchingly addresses the pitfalls of adolescence. Many people would prefer that she not write about teenagers dancing topless at a boozy frat party, or smoking marijuana to impress a friend with benefits. While she understands their impulse to protect children, she feels it is more dangerous to keep knowledge from them....Give your kid some credit for being smart — just because they read about something doesn’t mean they will do it,” she said.
But if they never read about it, does it mean they will? Such is the patently absurd implication of this argument. Once again, let me quote Alan Jacobs's excellent response to this persistent and ridiculous claim that YA lit can only have a salutary effect on its readers and never a damaging one:
According to these writers, YA fiction has achieved something no other human invention has ever achieved: it is capable of doing extraordinary, glorious good, and cannot do any harm at all...Admit — please — that some books are bad for some people. Admit that writers can make aesthetic misjudgments, so that certain scenes, or even whole books, can have effects on many readers that they don't intend. And admit that some writers — yes, even YA writers — are nasty people who write nasty books.
The best part of this article is that exactly the same article was written by the NYT 35 years ago about Judy Blume, complete with the introduction about the outrage of banning books that simply speak The Truth about children's lives (and, in case you hadn't noticed, The Truth is only ever The Grim Truth), the beautiful and selfless intentions of their author, said author's own "non-judgmental" parenting style and its success, the misguided outrage of reactionary parents who oppose her books, and finally, her special claim to credibility as an author of books that "authentically" portray an experience that she herself admits is closed to and set against that of adults (that's why they need her books, of course, to do the parenting work that they can't manage b/c they're so out of touch). And what is that special claim to credibility, exactly? Bizarrely enough, it is that the author is herself a kind of child. Consider:
1978: “[Blume] is emotional, impulsive, endearing, innocent….She could fit right in as a guest at a seventh-grade slumber party.”
2012: Early in her career, [Myracle] said, someone asked her at a book reading why she writes about teenagers. She replied, “Because I haven’t yet grown up.”

So that's a rather odd claim about the morality behind YA realism. We must not use our adult authority to "moralize" to children; indeed, we must drop the entire pretense of authority and become children alongside them if we ever hope to understand them and keep them out of trouble. But should we even try to keep them out of trouble? Isn't that authoritarian, an imposition of our values on others? Shouldn't they make their mistakes and learn from them? Well, there is some moralism we can get behind - for example, the moral imperative of exposing and not-judging. Children need to be told, in great detail, what bad things lurk in dark corners (all the corners, preferably) of this world, but not so they know what to look out for and avoid, just so that they know. Consider, from the 1978 article:
People complain, especially with "Blubber"--where the kids' horrible cruelty to the fat girl is never punished--that Judy Blume raises questions and issues without solving them. Her response is that she doesn't have solutions. Her aim is just to get problems out in the open.
And what exactly is the value of that? Presumably if bullying is a real problem endemic to children's lives, they already know it exists, and it's Blume who's late to the party. I understand that cathartic self-identification through literature is possible, but of all the "issues" in society, bullying must be one of the most solvable. Maybe not solvable as a widespread social phenomenon, but it's not cancer or a tree falling on you - it can be addressed at least in the context of one's own school life. But unlike Blume, Myracle claims that despite their raciness, her books “overall [have] a very moral message." Well, what might that be? We're never told. She seems to be willing to advise against certain behaviors - making rape jokes, bullying, and - weirdly, but perhaps fittingly - permitting children to keep secrets from their mothers. When you withhold nothing from your children, perhaps it's reasonable to expect the same in return. That's what best friends are for, and you're nothing if not their very best friend. The only immorality we learn of in this account is that of "passing judgment" on the choices of others, and of not giving others choices in the first place:
One afternoon after Ms. Myracle picked up Jamie at school, he recounted how a seventh grader was smoking pot on school grounds and offering it around. He was upset and shocked. Ms. Myracle didn’t pass judgment or ask him if he had been involved. “You know you can choose your friends, and you can always say, ‘No,’" she said.
It's not bad per se for a seventh grader to be smoking pot; that's just a lifestyle option. Your own children should be free to choose whether or not they wish to participate. The moral question is one of choice - would you be so harsh as to foreclose your children's choices by requiring them to refuse marijuana? Therein lies your error. You cannot change your children; they are forces of nature. All you can do is hope they don't for whatever reason choose to self-destruct, and if they do so choose, your job is to watch them, all the while being perfectly honest with them about the various ways other people have gone about self-destructing. This is the lesson that the notably adult-sounding mothers in the 1978 article have learned from Blume: "I'd like [my daughter] to be a lovely, charming, vital young lady. Those are just my dreams, of course. They aren't that realistic. All I can do is keep my eye on her until I'm no longer the one responsible." 

As I've said before, YA lit is perhaps the only aspect of childrearing, the only genre fiction, whose marketing pitches haven't changed a bit in the last 40 years. Lauren Myracle is Judy Blume, although it's not clear just why we need her if we already have Blume, who wrote a book describing the "drama" and "mechanics" of teen sex three decades ago, and I'm pretty sure that little about those logistics has changed since. What is clear though is that we can't, at any cost, obstruct children's access to these important works. That's censorship, and censorship, even of children's material, is the greatest sin against freedom. We may not quite be able to judge the literary merit of these books, although we may become confused sometimes, as the did the National Book Award committee when, "It emerged that “Shine” was wrongly nominated because the judges had confused it with another single-word title. [Myracle] was asked to drop out, a crushing blow." But at least we know they have social merit precisely because they inspire opposition, and so long as anyone out there objects to such books and any child remains unversed in the possible traumas of youth by age 12, we know we're still living in the dark ages of 1967.

Thus sayeth a wise commenter to this article: "In sum total, Ms. Myracle is simply doing the duties, responsibilities, AND obligations that many--perhaps most--parents absent themselves from without leave." The greatest error of childrearing is not allowing your children to do terrible or self-destructive things, it's preventing them from knowing about them. All praise to Lauren Myracle: unacknowledged mother to us all.

Friday, December 28, 2012

“Eating Rocks May Lead to Broken Teeth”

The winner of David Brooks's Sidney Awards winners: "Death by Treacle." I have no idea if such generalizations as "our culture is getting increasingly sentimental" are ever true, or can be verified, since I think we can say with equal intuitive force and different evidence that "our culture is getting increasingly violent" or "our culture is getting increasingly rationalistic," and these would seem to contradict a growing sentimentality, though without necessarily disproving it. And Haag does argue that public anger and public outpourings of sympathy go together:
Today, it so happens that rage is all the rage. Yet the problem is more metaphysical than a matter of Americans having meaner emotions in 2011 than they did in the hyper-self-congratulatory mood of the 2008 presidential election. Our civil society’s syntax and logic are awry. The habit of thought that a pop culture of treacle and a pop culture of anger hold in common is that we needn’t polish the expression of our private feelings and sorrows into a form that’s relevant and useful, even to strangers and fellow citizens in the commonweal. We can take for granted that our treacle or our anger speaks for itself and presume the relevance of private feelings to public discourse. If, in fact, we’re drowning in a public culture of meanness, it is one that the public culture of cloying sweetness unwittingly helped create.
It’s also likely that our exposure to public displays of sentiment inoculates us just a bit and leaves us requiring ever more dramatic displays of real, raw feeling. As with any other discourse, we’ve learned to decode the genre: having watched a stranger grieve and suffer or having been a stranger who grieves and suffers in public, we know what to expect. This pushes us to find really and truly extreme anger, or really and truly blameless victims who can stir an unmodified empathy in our stonier hearts or sharpen our blunted sensibilities. For social conservatives, the most blameless and absolutely inculpable victim today might well be the unborn fetus. For liberals, the most unimpeachably blameless creature on the margins might be the suffering lab animal or the endangered whale. As for sentient humans, who most often suffer under a complex amalgam of social circumstance, inequality, character, injustice, and bad luck, the narrative standards of pure victimhood are higher, the skepticism sharper, and sympathy now harder, not easier, to come by.
But I don't mind impressionistic expositions of these claims, especially when they help me to grind my own axes, which in this case is that "our culture's" lionization of victimhood is bad, and that what passes for noble realism in books and movies is political trauma porn. This doesn't grind the thing down to a perfect shine, but maybe, like B. Franklin, I prefer a speckled ax anyway.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The day after Christmas

The siege of Christmas music is lifted! Back to regularly scheduled rock and roll - "Satan's tongue," as country music describes it, but only when the country station is not playing Christmas music.

The siege of Facebook by family celebration photos persists unabated, however.

Friday, December 21, 2012

"Some girls like to write "sweet little noises," to their section men at the end of exams"

I know I promised to go easy on the Crimson after its endlessly amusing sex week series, and I even withheld my comments about the "official recognition" of the anonymous BDSM student group, which was the very apex of irony, so you owe me a debt of unknown gratitude for that. But now that the the semester is over everywhere, things are slow, and I find myself turning back to its pages for my holiday entertainment. And happily, I am not disappointed, because I found this piece by my favorite of all Crimson contributors, one Sandra Many Initials Korn, who was previously brought to your attention for her selfless global vision during last year's Occupy efforts. Since then, she's published many excellent and original essays decrying every form of oppression around the world, one oppressee at a time, and finding Harvard's complicity in it.

Oppression is a heavy topic and fighting it a full-time job, so Ms. Korn understandably has no time for humor, which is reflected in her most recent effort, demonstrating how "the Harvard of today is built on centuries of oppression of women and gender inequality." For our evidence, we have this charming Crimson article from 1953, discussing the feelings of Harvard faculty and TAs about the women in their courses. As Ms. Korn rightly points out, "This story is fascinating because it is both unfamiliar and very familiar." This is true, but not because it's "silly that professors thought women “rarely brilliant,” or that Harvard was so concerned about teaching fellows marrying their students that it would not let unmarried men teach sections of women." Students remain "rarely brilliant" and universities are still concerned about faculty-student relationships, though they have shifted their emphasis in that department from prevention to punishment. No, what is fascinating about this article is that so many professors were willing to speak publicly and with such cheeky frankness about what's now such a touchy topic. Consider this:
Pursuing the Wellesley contrast, Duane Roller, head section man in Natural Sciences III, noted "It has been said that Radcliffe girls get all the A's and that's why Harvard prefers Wellesley but that isn't the only reason. S. Marshall Cohen, instructor in General Education, expressed his feeling that "Wellesley girls are prettier, but that Radcliffe is more convenient."
Or the possibility that anyone saying anything in the following paragraphs, though hardly demeaning, would wake up today to find himself still employed:
Only married men taught the all-girl sections, but because of a shortage after the war, bachelor Paul Ylvisaker became the exception to the rule. Ylvisaker, now teaching at Swarthmore, is no longer a bachelor: he was rapidly married by one of the women in his section
On the subject of professors marrying Radcliffe women, McGeorge Bundy, professor of Government, called it "an excellent idea. I married one of the Radcliffe teaching staff myself." And Earnest A. Hooton, professor of Anthropology, recalled, "half a dozen girls used to marry their professors." He attributed this to the fact that "some of the smartest girls were also the most beautiful."
Would that student newspapers could print this kind of thing today, instead of endless canned "statements" released by the university deanarchy emphasizing the perennial need for "an ongoing dialogue" about whatever dicey question is at hand. Although Korn failed to note it, the article is quite favorable toward joint instruction - the profs who think girls are uninteresting workaholics say their piece and are countered by those who think otherwise, while the ambitious "intellectual" female reader of the Crimson can quickly learn that she should sign up for courses with Samuel Huntington, Elliot Perkins, and Samuel Beer, and come armed (figuratively! figuratively!) to those run by the curmudgeonly Charles Cherington. The piece ends with some biting repartee from the girls themselves:
We wit [wilt maybe?] reading over due books,
We scribble into blue books,
What's more, we fall in love with all our section men.
Who found with some observing that
Not only graphs are curving and
Radcliffe girls stack up quite well with Harvard men.
So in 1953, apparently the rules of public dispute were different - you could say whatever disparaging thing you wanted about any group, college, sex, whatever, so long as you made it witty. And anyone could fight you back with an equal or superior display of wit and panache. The result is this bizarre cast of characters - the curmudgeon who thinks girls dull and won't stand for any hanky-panky in the Yard, the disdainful Frenchman who honks through his nose about the shortcomings of American women, the misty-eyed Russian who insists his students should be more like the revolutionaries of his youth, and all the others who appreciate  or depreciate women for their varied gifts of mind (and body), plus the women themselves, who seem to be no worse off intellectually for having to duke it out in the open with their detractors. At least they know who their enemies are and what they really think. Not ideal for the passive and gun-shy (figurative! figurative!) among both the men and women, but collegiate disputation rarely is, and for the assertive, this seems like a decent collegiate experience.

But ironically for Ms. Korn, who seems to enjoy a good verbal duel more than most people, this is of course not the case, because this array of male types speaking freely spells oppression. Regrettably, some of them failed to drop dead immediately after the publication of this 1953 article, and unaccountably persisted in living and even teaching for several more decades. This is why we should remain gravely troubled by the views expressed in the 60-year old article:
Harvard’s professors of today learned in the classrooms of the 1950s: Some of the instructors quoted in “The ‘Cliffe Girl” article continued on as venerated faculty at this university and others until the 1990s.
Until the very 1990s! Aside from the suggestion that the entire present-day faculty of Harvard is over the age of 70, there is an important warning contained here: Don't get too comfortable, ladies. Even 20 years ago, you could've had a professor like Samuel Huntington, who'd toss off some casually demeaning comment about you like, "One first-class female intellectual can shut up a whole class of men faster than anyone else--once she really gets going."

But, wait! The situation is even worse than all that, because at least one person from this benighted era is still teaching at Harvard. He may not have had anything to do with this article, but he was alive the year it was written, so he is clearly implicated by it:
Although his views on gender seem frighteningly anachronistic today, for someone who went to school in a time when it was feared that women in classrooms would distract and marry their instructors, perhaps it’s not surprising that Mansfield retains outmoded conceptions of gender.
Yes, that must be it - these old professors and their retrograde ideas about women, they all stem from the deep fear of ending up married to them. How terrifying those dark days must have been!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

English Catholic mysteries, part 2

Time for a second book by a subtle but zealous English Catholic convert - Brideshead Revisited. (The first was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, discussed here.) Yes, I know you've all read it already, ages ago, but, never having been a member of the bow-tied Anglophilic set, I had not. I begin with the sheepish admission that I had long thought this book was a sequel to some never-discussed earlier work, which would have had to be entitled simply Brideshead. Well, I was wrong, as I sometimes am about matters of religion, and also frequently but not chronicled here, matters of pronunciation. My second admission is that most of the social detail of the book - the Oxford geography and college rituals, and the clothing and furniture and wine and  seemingly impossible diversity of English garden flora - which was laid on so thick in the first half, was completely impenetrable to me, poor provincial American that I am, unable to discern a Burgundy from a claret! Perhaps something important was missed in that inscrutable mass of epicurean snobbery; I couldn't say.

Brideshead reminds me very much of Brodie for obvious reasons of setting, but also in its description of the world as a thoroughly Catholic place that has become, as if to the great astonishment of the author, incongruously peopled by all kinds of deluded, un-Catholic fools professing atheism or Calvinism or what-have-you ("spiritualism," involving seances, in another Spark novel was my favorite). And these fools, the "Hoopers" of Brideshead, spend their lives bumbling comically about in pursuit of all the wrong goods, headed blindly down the road to failure because of their unwillingness to accept God's providence and "convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum," as the chant the book repeats goes. But in Brideshead, all the Catholics are also doomed, at least in this life, so we heathens can at least relate, but only superficially, as the narrator does until the end. And so we are tricked by sneaky Waugh into thinking ourselves in the position of Charles Ryder, the hovering, loving  judges of the illustrious Marchmains' errors and ignominious decline, until his conversion at the end leaves no remaining intermediary between us and God, the hovering judge over us. This is a trick that would, in Waugh's parlance, be called "naughty." I do not like it.

Like Spark, Waugh attacks the Protestant and, by extension, secular - conception of vocation. Spark focuses more on vocation's over-reach - very few of us are equipped to single-mindedly devote ourselves to our work, and almost no secular work can merit such devotion in the first place, so in the end vocation is shown to be only sustainable in its Catholic sense of a calling to religious orders. Waugh, by contrast, points out its insufficiency - because it transfers the devotion that was to be reserved for God into worldly devotions - to war, or scholarship, or art - secular vocation is too thin for those who have a real vocation, which is to say, a vocation to the priesthood. Such is the fate of Sebastian Flyte, who, as his sister says, "had [a vocation] and hated it." Because "if you haven’t a vocation, it’s no good however much you want to be; and if you have a vocation, you can’t get away from it, however much you hate it," there is nothing for Sebastian to live for outside the Church. As you can perhaps tell by my fixation on this point about vocation, I find this line of attack against both Protestantism and secularism particularly and unpleasantly persuasive.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

“Russians solve problems when they reach a critical point; Americans try to keep things from getting to a critical point.”

Someone is going to translate this book very soon, right? Because otherwise, I will be reduced to reading it in Russian, and it's 400+ pages, so that should take me roughly 10 years. It could be the next Democracy in America! Well, maybe a little worse given the lack of luster in the country of comparison. But, worse books for worse epochs.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The end of meritocracy, tersely stated

Well, one way of ending it is to simply stop understanding why universities would even want to recruit top students:
Oklahoma has plenty of company, among both public and private universities, in giving scholarships to large numbers of students based on National Merit status. Texas A&M University, the University of Southern California and Washington University in St. Louis all do the same. Some top public schools halted the practice in recent years, though many of them still reward academic credentials.
Universities rewarding academic credentials - what a world! Another way to end it is to produce students who have no idea whether their educations are in principle defensible, only that they personally had a nice time getting them:
“The criticism of something like the Honors College might be valid, I don’t know, but it’s the only way I could have had this kind of experience.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Playing too nice

Anne Snyder's post about the blind eye-turning niceness of the networking culture of American policy elites, while only based on a couple of recent anecdotes, reminded me of my own anecdotal experience with the aspirants to this class and the smattering of complaints I've come across in the past few months about the cultural oversupply of shallow nicenesss.* Anne says:
There is often a soft clubbiness that belies the weight of their offices, and I wonder if the country wouldn’t be better served by some rude interruption of the parochial warm and fuzzies, or at least a few more words of honest questioning between members of this tier.
To be sure, I don't think there is any shortage of criticism of people like Petraeus and Broadwell coming from outside this club, but populist resentment against whomever is in power aside, I am, like Anne, skeptical that there is much of it coming from inside. And I'm not sure that this is structurally all that different from anything that's come before it - insiders will always feel some solidarity with one another against the outsiders who can't understand what's really going on in national decision-making and reflexively assume that corruption is afoot. Parallels to this must also exist among literary elites - we are the writers, sayeth the writers, and the mere readers cannot fully understand our vision and our struggles. It's us against them, even though we admit that we also need them to be us. Old story. What seems potentially newer to me is the present basis for this solidarity, which relates back to our ongoing problems of meritocracy lament. Namely, because one's position is so tenuous, there is too much to lose in disagreeing substantively with a fellow member of your club.

At least, that's what I thought I saw at HKS - since everyone must compete individually for every job, career ascent is a precarious process potentially jeopardized by every social interaction. Who knows if that girl in your international human rights class will one day be in a position to hire you? Just in case, let's make sure she leaves the class with warm feelings about you. And nothing chills a warm feeling like publicly disagreeing with what she says - making your own position on immigration reform known to some public policy class is obviously far less valuable to you than landing a desirable policy job later on.

The same thing happened among the undergrads I taught - unlike the hyper-combative high schoolers I taught this summer, very few of my undergrads were willing to argue for any position, in part no doubt because they lacked arguments, but also out of fear of offending classmates by seeming to challenge them. But these are not two different populations - the very same high schoolers who were totally willing to fight will in one or two years become the undergrads who defer to their classmates' feelings. I doubt it will be because they'll fundamentally change their character in that time, but because they'll realize how much is at stake in establishing useful friendships. One result of this is an education that suggests far more concord among students than actually exists. It is easier to think that everyone believes X so X must be the prevailing - if not entirely correct - belief when no one comes forward to register disbelief. This is probably most noticeable with respect to partisan politics, but it also happens with entirely theoretical or academic points. Fellow students are not more eager to disagree with your preposterous reading of Aristotle's Ethics than with your claim that the existence of national borders violates children's right to a unified family. If you say it and you seem to feel at all strongly about it, that's passion, and passion is commendable, even if substantively misguided. Even at political science conferences, we always begin with, "Thank you for this interesting paper," no matter how dull it is and how little gratitude we feel for having been subjected to it.

Other people's feelings must be protected, but not because we are so well-socialized, as the NY Mag piece claims, but because, having no other means of professional advancement besides our reputations with other people, we have so much personally riding on those feelings. This must've been the case at least since Benjamin Franklin advised us to make a big, noisy production of getting to work early so that our neighbors will be more inclined to view us as industrious, but I don't know that it's always been the case in schools, where dispute is more central to the institutional mission. Has it always been true that you could reasonably view your college and professional school classmates as the personal future arbiters of your professional fate? (Granted, public policy school is a recent career pre-requisite in its own right, as is the idea that all educated people aspire to "professional careers.") Probably not at the small rural colleges and state schools from which people afterwards become professionally and geographically dispersed. But even in some caricature of an arch-WASP Ivy League class full of Lowells and Sterlings, isn't part of the idea that your family connections will grease the road ahead for you so that Lowell Jr. doesn't have to personally grovel at the feet of Sterling III for his next job and so can risk alienating him in a Moral Philosophy seminar?

Finally, I wonder how much of this elite back-patting is, in addition to being new, related to the cultural segmentation of higher ed and the sense among college and professional students at top schools that the enemy is ideological and outside - all the hostile rednecks in the heartland who don't attend Swarthmore or HKS - while their friends are those within the quadrangle boundaries. If you believe that you're escaping a benighted world for an enlightened one by going away to college and joining the ranks of the professional elite, or even if you're from the enlightened world but distrust the benighted hinterland, then you'd seemingly be less likely to even want to take issue with the views of first your classmates, then your professional colleagues. After all, whatever slight quibbles you might have with their arguments - should we adopt new gender-neutral pronouns or just be more conscientious about saying "he/she"? - they're nothing compared with the vast ideological distance between you and the partisan political opposition "out there." It should become doubly important to advance through flattery and promotion the careers of your allies so that more of the ruling offices can be filled by right-thinkers rather than going to some enemy of the party.

If that's at all the case, then seemingly the only remaining redoubt of real criticism of those in power by others in power is Congress, where opposition is institutionalized, and perhaps to some degree the courts as well. But in the other spheres of cultural and political influence, the incentive to criticize members of one's own club is much weakened because your ties are no longer only those of co-careerists against suspicious or hostile non-careerists, as in "No, laypeople, we humanities scholars are useful and important! Please don't cut our budgets!" Such clubbiness still leaves space for pointing out that, even though he is a humanist and so on our team, Professor Sterling's history of 3rd Century Christian sexual practices is wrong and stupid. But if you think that your club is a weapon in a broader political battle, that the real force to oppose is not non-humanists and their lack of appreciation for your importance but rather all the people on the other side of the partisan divide, then you can worry that attacking Professor Sterling's work might have the effect of strengthening the enemy outside the gates, or even of displacing him and creating space for one of them inside your sanctuary, and these prospects are much worse than suffering his poor but well-intentioned scholarship to go un-criticized.

*The Slate essay on literary backscratching reminded me a good deal of the small world of academic political science and its endless "thank you for this paper"s tempered only slightly by its entrenched sectarianism, but I have no idea what the NY Mag piece is talking about - the internet as a whole is hardly suffering from too much niceness. It's mean almost all the way down, even when it's claiming to speak benevolently for the oppressed, as practically every post of Phoebe's on YPIS demonstrates.

UPDATE: Withywindle responds. (There has to be some automatic way to note these things.)

Friday, December 07, 2012

Other people's extracurricular activities in grad school

This year's department skit, in the tradition of previous iterations. (Last year had an epic fail. They know who they are.)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

On the immorality of future considerations

Phoebe claims that not only are Ross Douthat's natalist arguments bad political rhetoric, but they're actually immoral:
Natalism's immorality comes from the fact that it's about prioritizing non-existent beings over ones who already exist, namely women. Not fetuses, who are or are not babies depending your views on this. Entirely theoretical offspring of people who went out on a date this one time and didn't really click but by putting their own preferences over immediate procreation revealed their profound, selfish decadence.
I wonder, does she think that prioritizing non-existent beings over the current preferences of existing ones is always immoral?* One obvious problem with this claim arises in all forms of environmental management aimed at preserving natural resources not simply for me tomorrow, but for the nonexistent people of the future (even the female ones). Is it immoral to manage fish stocks so that people of the future can eat sushi? Because if so, that's great! I love sushi, and would like all the world's tuna shipped to me, pronto. I verifiably exist, and therefore it's my moral  and delicious duty to eat it all before anyone else can get to it. (Ok, I acknowledge that you exist too, dear reader, so we can split the world's tuna 60/40 if you do some of the legwork.) Which, ironically, is of course an argument from let's call it selfishness, since no one seems to know what "decadence" exactly means. Is it as a rule immoral to ask citizens to consider (indeed, even make sacrifices for) the future good of their political community because doing so privileges the good of the whole over their individual, momentary desires?

Now, there is obviously a more hard-headed, characteristically Phoebe-ish way to construct the argument, which is that it's not "immoral," but simply bad politics to ask citizens to consider the future good of their political community in the specific terms of baby output. You should still consider recycling and tutoring kids at the library because that's good for the whole at little expense to you, but you ought not view your womb as a weapon of international strategic importance. Because the personal costs of womb-based decisions are so high, you should do as you wish with your own womb, assuming you know what you want to do, which Phoebe does assume. Hence, Phoebe's other arguments for both making birth control and abortion available and de-stigmatizing early marriage and childbearing. More choices for everyone, no harsh judgment against anyone's own choices.

That sounds fine, but also inconsistent with her exhortation that women never be publicly encouraged to reproduce. We know how to enact the policies required to make greater avoidance of baby-making possible - include birth control in health insurance, make abortion accessible, etc. But how exactly would we formulate a conscious policy of de-stigmatizing early family formation for those women who want it, except through a public rhetoric that frames baby-making as a good and worthwhile activity? We cannot single out and isolate those women who are firmly committed to early motherhood and pitch warm fuzzy messages exclusively to them while putting cotton in the ears of all those women who don't want to be pressured to reproduce. We might of course send out competing messages - some, like Douthat's, that endorse procreation, and other's, like shrieking Katha Pollitt's, that oppose it (maybe unless we become Sweden, where occasional procreation would be ok) - and assume that these will appeal to and hearten different kinds of women facing cross-pressures. Which is of course what we already do, but shouldn't Phoebe then respond more favorably to Douthat, who is hardly advocating that women drop everything for procreation?

But there is one final difficulty with this arrangement, which is Phoebe's sometime-assumption that women (and men) simply know what they want in terms of family formation, and that knowledge comes from somewhere deep within them and should not be manipulated by political ideologues. Douthat commits a social sin by presuming to tell women what they want, as do feminists who insist that women must put their careers ahead of everything else (and maybe feminists who say that women should boycott procreation until their husbands give them socialism for their birthdays, which Pollitt's concluding point implies). According to Phoebe, women already know what they want, whether it's large or small or no families, and the state should simply facilitate their access to it. But if that's the case, then why be concerned over op-eds? Op-eds are just arguments; they aren't laws, they're not denying anyone access to either sperm or condoms, and if women already know what they want, then they won't be moved by them. Who cares if some conservative dinosaur accuses you of decadence when you know what you want and you're sticking to it? We should exercise ourselves over law and policy, but not mere rhetoric.

Unless it's possible that women, like men, kinda sorta know what they want, but maybe not quite when or how they want it, and you're afraid that mere rhetoric might actually work to persuade them to behave in ways they may not have behaved had they never heard the rhetoric, thereby rendering their choices inauthentic or - more concretely - regrettable. But how is that possible? If people are even mostly decided on such issues, then no hard-charging single career woman is going to read Douthat and Co., and say to herself, "You know, they're right. I'm going to get myself knocked up right now and start a baby farm instead of clerking for the Supreme Court." Neither of course will some Quiverfull enthusiast abandon her own baby farm to start climbing the corporate ladder because she read Jezebel. These would presumably be the types of people who would be most likely to regret such decisions, not the women who are just unsure if now is the right time, or maybe next month or year, or if a second or third child is really what they want. If women's minds on these matters are made up early, only wavering types are open to being nudged by rhetoric, and it must cut both ways - natalist rhetoric encourages wavering women to have babies, and strident feminism discourages them. Is it a wash? It should be. But again, if it were, why bother attacking either side as Phoebe does, instead of permitting them to attack each other?

So I suspect - and her arguments suggest - that Phoebe does actually believe that women do not know what they want at the same time that she believes they do know it, not because they're hysterical idiots, but because like all humans thinking about the future, they're uncertain and they fear regret. They are very susceptible to the pressure of public rhetoric (which must be true if destigmatizing early family formation is to do any good). So whatever limited innate inclinations people do come equipped with in the realm of procreation, they must also be taught what they should want to want, and here, public rhetoric matters and we can no longer simply claim to be non-judgmentally expanding the realm of choice for everyone rather than promoting some choices over others.

*There are obviously many more examples of the difficulty of this assertion about morality, some more germane to the topic even than tuna. For example, is it immoral to make one's personal life decisions like moving to the suburbs or not sniffing glue according to what might be good for a future child not yet conceived? Is it immoral to trim the national debt or even the budget deficit because we hope this will keep the country solvent in the long run (that is, for the as-yet-unborn) even if that means we cut some social spending or raise taxes on the people who presently exist?

UPDATE: Phoebe responds.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Scholarly subtexts

In a footnote on p. 30 of the Cambridge edition of Locke's Two Treatises (indistinctly pictured in the banner image of this blog), panting editor Peter Laslett informs us about a note accompanying a copy of The Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas in Shaftesbury's library that, "This interesting fragment, in the possession of the present writer...contains two sentences only, highly Harringtonian."

Translation: A scrap of Locke's own writing, used as a bookmark by the Earl of Shaftesbury! All mine! I own it! Booyah! No, you can't look at it! What does it say, you ask? I'm not telling, sucka! It could be a hinge for Locke's entire thought, and you'll never know. Two whole sentences, highly Harringtonian, which I will not be reprinting here, thankyouverymuch.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The overlooked cultural collapse of 1950s pop music

Our car came with a trial subscription to XM radio, which we have enjoyed just enough to listen to all the time and not enough to actually purchase. In particular, we (that is, I) are intrigued by the decades stations - 40s on 4, 50s on 5, 60s on 6, etc. They're like very pleasing history lessons for we who are remarkably ignorant about even the recent past. I'm no expert in American popular music, and so neither am I big snob about it. I like mid-century soul and R&B and its well-packaged Motown incarnations, and also whatever sounds nice enough to listen to on continuous repeat for a while. Repeat is the only test of quality for me, and a test of psychological endurance for my husband. Not knowing much about the history of popular music then, I was surprised to discover what's on rotation on the 50s on 5 channel.

The '50s were in my mind the decade of Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and also doo-wop. Most of this stuff is cheesy, but since I also love country music, I have developed a substantial appetite for cheese. And it's not as though mainstream rock and roll like Sam Cooke is about anything other than young love, failed love, aspiring love, and dancing. I take that to fall within the realm of cheese, and what distinguishes good cheese from Kraft cheese is the ineffable lyrics-music combination of "Good Times," not the lyrics alone. (Amateurs like me can always claim "ineffability" for their side.) What I failed to realize but have learned from 50s on 5 is that the 1950s may have been a decade made almost entirely out of not even Kraft cheese but string cheese - 10 years of children's songs. (Note: this post would have maximum effect if you were to open Spotify and test its claims. At the very least, you will be briefly entertained.)

The 1950s seems to have produced four types of distinctly childish music. First, food music. "Peanut Butter" is not a real song. It is a product ad. It is one of apparently an entire genre of 1950s hit songs in praise of children's foods. Another example is "Pizza Pie," a song describing a man's lifelong affair with pizza, which gets him a wife, feeds his children, and whose continued consumption is his dying wish. There is also "Ginger Bread," which is an extended metaphor comparing a girl to the eponymous cake. Then there is cartoon music - the songs that narrate stories that sound like the plotlines of Saturday morning cartoons - "The Thing," "Sea Cruise," or "The Battle of New Orleans."

And a third category of such music is made up of noise songs - songs that have few actual lyrics, but seem to exist as avenues for their singers to test the bizarre combinations of sounds that the human throat can make. "Blue Moon" and "Da Doo Ron Ron" are famous examples, but I've also been introduced to such gems as "Ling Ting Tong" (not only nonsensical, but also vaguely racist and improbable - "I went to Chinatown way back in old Hong Kong"), and "Don't You Know Yockomo," "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow," "Hully Gully," "Rama Lama Ding Dong," "Tutti Frutti," "Loddy Lo," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," "Ooby Dooby." Etc. Does this strain of insipidity grow out of doo-wop, which in turn sounds like it grew out of an inordinate national glorification of college a capella? Or out of bebop? Both? Your blogger does not know, but seeks information.

Then there are the songs that I can only thematically describe as "pre-teen love ballads." These songs must make up well over half of the station's rotation. I cannot even begin to list them all, but they consisted practically the entire oeuvre of groups like Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Lyman and the [appropriately-named] Teenagers, Neil Sedaka, etc. They are love songs, but clearly pitched at "lovers" whose romances begin and end in their prepubescent dreams. For example, "My Boy Lollipop." In addition to being about nothing at all, it demonstrates the vocal quality of a very talented cat. "Pink Shoe Laces," another Shirley Temple sounding number, is also rather amusing when played in the present. The problem with this obnoxious genre is that the love it celebrates aspires to be relatable, but is so caricatured as to only be so to the very young, if even them. "Each night I ask the stars up above/why must I be a teenager in love?" As these singers would themselves say about this, ooh-a-ooh. There are songs about girls' names, their socks, and the totally plausible proposition that a high school break-up is the most shattering thing that can happen in a life. But nothing to appeal to love that adults might experience.

Now, these songs are not all bad. I like "Tutti Frutti" and "The Battle of New Orleans," for example, and indeed first heard the latter when I was about nine. Which is my point. These are all songs that in 2012 would almost certainly appear on albums marketed explicitly and exclusively to children. And moreover, while it's certainly hard to imagine how this would be mainstream Top-40 music today, what seems more relevant to me is that this kind of music is also a noticeable departure from what is played on the '40s and '60s stations. It's like the entire musical culture of America disintegrated into a pile of sugary mush only palatable by children for 10 years, and then magically reconstituted itself again for adults. These decade-lumps are of course very inexact categories, a fictive convenience for the radio stations, since many of the songs from the late '50s are indistinguishable from those of the early '60s, and so for the '40s. But still, if the playlist of the 50s on 5 station is a representative indicator of what was popular during its chronological purview, this suggests that there was a surprising collapse in musical quality and taste sometime in the 1950s. and children briefly inherited the kingdom.* Why? What happened?

Mainstream soul and R&B from the same era and slightly later did not, as I said, take up "heavy" topics. They're not "edgy" or showily "transgressive." I would of course dislike them if they were, having already explained my disdain for "realism" in popular art. They're mostly love songs, about longing for girls, music, or, sometimes, Jesus. But just because they're not brutal doesn't mean they're childish. Rather they're broadly open, which means that they're both superficially "clean" in their lyrics but musically playful and moving. "You Send Me" is a light love song, but not one that describes love at any specific age - Sam Cooke can be, errr, sent at 16 or 56. The appeal of all pop music for me is the difficulty it presents in creating something new and good while staying within the old constraints of popular taste; unpalatable edginess is simply too easy. Breaking all the rules is no achievement. And you don't have to win all the time - Cooke too sometimes succumbed to the pitfalls described above ("Only Sixteen," perhaps, although there is some irony in that, but no irony in "Let's Go Steady Again"), and certainly lots of other what we now bizarrely consider "serious" rock-and-roll did too, although perhaps "serious" rock critics might say that "Tutti Frutti" is only proto-rock, or a foundation-building song for later, edgier singers. I wouldn't know.

I admit that the above is not a decisive or very articulate distinction between adult and childish pop music. Popular culture is tricky to draw lines in, since the whole thing is about surfaces, passions, perceptions, and predictions about how other people will be moved by something. I could not tell you with reference to any concrete qualities of music why Sam Cooke is really good and "My Boy Lollipop" is garbage. I don't even know that it is, I just feel very strongly that it is, so of all cultural domains, I have least faith in my musical instincts. So, instruct me, musical historians.

*Not that there never was grossly childish adult music after this period - "Yellow Submarine" comes to mind, and also what might be the worst song of all time, "Barbie Girl," although that was clearly ironic in its vulgar way.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Phrenology 2.0

Withywindle links to a very long and questionable study of disparities in Jewish and Asian elite college admissions arguing that Asians and whites are being actively excluded while underqualified Jews are getting preference. The study is done with what I suspect are high-school level statistical methods, and I've already registered my many methodological complaints in the comments at A&J. But in thinking what this article might more broadly accomplish, I've decided to be optimistic that such aggressive accusations coupled with such shoddy data will encourage the schools in question to actually release their own closely-guarded data on admissions in order to dispel these charges.

In other news, despite the supposed shrinkage of my co-ethnics' skull sizes, my own head swelled substantially this week when I passed my prospectus defense and became ABD.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The care and maintenance of your pet glasses

Since this blog would not exist without my glasses (though it barely exists with them), I think it's only marginally inappropriate to share the following glasses-related notes with the public.

1. Buying cheapo prescription sunglasses (possibly made by lemmings out of Chinese glue?) online:
Since I wear real glasses all the time, switching between them and sunglasses is a big pain which I rarely have the good-health commitment to do regularly. So sunglasses are a low priority in my life, but the extreme, annoying sunniness of San Diego is hard to ignore. I bought a pair of prescription sunglasses about five years from Zenni, and they frankly looked like grandma glasses of the not-hip variety, so I rarely wore them and then the prescription became outdated. Recently, in response to the aforementioned climate exigencies and the need to drive in this sun-hell, I tried again. Zenni still seems to be the cheapest option for high-index lenses. After despairing over the dearth of product reviews online about these things, I settled on this pair (#823021) after finding this woman's flickr image sporting something similar and deciding that since she looked good, I would look good. Well, peeps, that's not how things work. This is in fact how they look:

Not terrible, but kind of large and suffering from the same problem as the old grandma goggles - totally flat across (you can see this in second photo). But for cheapness value, the prescription came out pretty well, so I am now wearing them. ($7! But actually, with high-index lenses and tint, more like $50.) If you see a bug-eyed blonde woman driving around San Diego clutching the steering wheel in fear, you will know, but please don't honk because that will cause me to stop in the middle of the street in terror and confusion, and get rear-ended. So this is a product review for any future desperate person who is also appalled by the lack of such things online for products that only exist online and that are near-impossible to return so must be gotten right the first time.

2. Getting rid of that white film that appears on plastic frames when they, no kidding, dry out:
Before switching to plastic frames in high school, I used to become annoyed when my metal frames would start growing what by all appearances was some kind of indestructible green mold on the rubber nose piece. Plastic frames fortunately do not suffer this fate, but they do apparently dry out and turn kind of white. Who knew that plastic had a preferred humidity? Anyway, the internet offers several improbable solutions to this problem: 1) wash them with dish soap, 2) sand them with fine-grained sanding paper, and 3) oil them with motorcycle lube. I offer the following replies: 1) DO NOT wash them with any soap; this will make the whiteness spread even more, 2) sanding them might work but I'm afraid to scratch the lenses so that will be a last resort, and 3) you know what more women have on hand than a can of WD-40? Chapstick. I am currently testing the much easier fix of slathering the frames with Burt's Bees and letting them sit (on my face, which admittedly is kind of a greasy proposition for me) and absorb at their leisure. So far, whiteness entirely gone, but I'm not sure how often they will be requiring this deep conditioning treatment.

Public service announcement for internet posterity complete.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Niles West Side Story

No, really:
Detectives investigated and through various interviews realized that students from Mather High School in Chicago, Niles North and Niles West High School, gathered at Emerson Park around 10:15 p.m. to watch a fight between a North student and a Mather student...The entire incident began over a Mather student “disrespecting” a North student’s brother, according to the report.
It's even called a "rumble" in the headline.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What friends are for

These are heady days for gender neutrality. I have been an advocate of gender-neutral pronouns since at least yesterday's blog post, but zheir general acceptance is an uphill fight, while this Swedish alternative is so much simpler and more intuitive. Rather than refer to someone as a he, she, or it, we can refer to zir simply as "friend," thereby achieving gender neutrality and world peace simultaneously.

For example, if I am mugged in Stockholm, I will yell out, "That friend! A friend mugged me!" When passerby ask me who mugged me, I will respond, "A friend! A friend did it!" When the police ask for a description of the suspect, I will say, "It was a friend. The friend was tall with blond hair." They will plaster the neighborhood with the detailed composite sketch based on my description and a headline like, "Wanted: Friend who is a mugger," or "Beware: Mugger who looks like a friend."

Later, when I have recovered from this, I will meet my friend friends at a bar, and we will discuss our friendships. One friend friend will say, "I know Hjalmar and Lotta are friends and friend friends like us, but are they friend friend friends?"
"I think so," another friend friend will say, "because I saw friend walking with friend last Friday after the bars closed, and you can imagine where they were headed."
But a third, more skeptical friend friend will counter, "But are you sure Hjalmar even goes for friends? I always suspected that Hjalmar was the kind of friend who preferred friends." This suggestion will cause general surprise among my friend friends.
"Are you implying that there is an appreciable difference between friends and friends?" the first friend friend will ask suspiciously. "That is not what I was taught in school."
"Yes, friend is right," another friend friend will chime in reassuringly. "I don't know what your problem is, but Hjalmar loves all friends. The question is only who friend's current friend friend friend is."
But the skeptical friend friend will press on, "No, I love all friends too, and I love love my friend friends, but sometimes I think I love love love only some friend friend friends, although I'm not quite sure how to describe what sets them apart from other friends and friend friends." These remarks will stir something closely resembling outrage among my group of friend friends, and one will even throw a glass of beer to the ground, silencing other nearby groups of friend friends and drawing their attention to friend.
"Friend, I don't think we can be friend friends if you believe things like this. Frankly, I'm not even sure we can be friends." A collective gasp will arise from the bar's friendly patrons. "In fact," this friend will continue, "I think we may even have to be..." friend will trail off for a few seconds as friend scrambles to unearth the archaic term from the recesses of friend's memory, "...ENEMIES."

Carl Schmitt would have been so excited to witness this spectacle.

Thwarted thrift

My favorite Cambridge/Boston pizza chain closed and filed for bankruptcy. Not only is this sad news on the long-term pizza consumption front, but as an avid collector of those stamp cards for frequent patrons that give you a free product once you collect X number of stamps, I was only one stamp away from a free slice at Upper Crust! And since I pick up a stamp card pretty much wherever I go that offers one, even if it's from a subpar place or in a city I'm only visiting for two days and to which I'm never planning to return, so that there is no possible way I will be able to purchase the eight requisite cupcakes to get a free one, I have built up a sizable collection of these cards and, like lotto tickets, most are totally worthless. (Although you never know when you might randomly pass through central Vermont again, and again, and again, until you finally get a free cupcake for your efforts). But this card was well on its way to actually being useful, and then Upper Crust had to sabotage all my diligent thrift efforts. Hmph.

But, perhaps in compensation for this loss, my hair training is going pretty well, and I think my scalp has noticeably adjusted to its diminished shampoo rations.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The seven-body problem

Phoebe brings our attention to the following two-body problem, which reminds me of a situation I heard about last year in which someone got a spousal hire for a person to whom it turned out she was not (yet?) married. Or maybe it was he who got the hire for her; these people were not in my field and I'm not sure which was the "upwardly-mobile mate." Anyway, apparently this happens, perhaps especially when you make a point to refer to your non-spouse as "my partner," which is sufficiently ambiguous and politically-charged that it makes people anxious about looming discrimination claims. And this got me thinking about how the idea of a "spousal hire" could be broadened in other ways beyond just "relationship hire," particularly in ways that would benefit me.

Now, my partner is not an academic, so I can't really demand zir hire, but I do have some friends whom I'd really like to have as colleagues in the future. And in academia particularly, where dispersion to the ends of the Earth is the norm and yet the philosophical enterprise itself relies on sociability (see Socrates in the agora, Plato's Academy, Epicurus' garden, and so on), having friends amid the penguins or sheep who will be your primary neighbors is imperative. I don't want to be without my friends, but how to keep them close in such a competitive market? Of course, "friend hire" will never do on its own because it's corrupt to hire one's friends, but what about "polyamorous partner(s) hire"? Certainly no enlightened  institution of higher education continues to limit its conception of "family" to married couples with children, or even married couples, so why continue to privilege couple-hood at all? It's possible that polyamory would require somewhat more active "amory" than my friends and I presently engage in, but I counter that eros is primarily a matter of philosophical affinity, and any physical engagement is merely incidental. Besides, is the hiring committee in a position to demand proof?

And, as Phoebe points out, where a spousal hire could potentially bring under-represented populations to a faculty, it ought to be considered in a more positive light. I happen to have several female friends (and those friends have friends...), so just think of the boon to diversity, future potential hiring committees! You will never again have to go out in search of elusive females because if you hire Miss Self-Important, she will bring you so many ladies that you won't need to worry about gender imbalance until at least 2050. No more leaky pipeline with polyamorous partner hires!

So far, the only major obstacle to my plan is that it seems that ze has to be an outstanding and sought-after scholar to be offered even a regressive spousal hire, and in my case, that is unlikely. However, that is why I'm putting the idea out there now, so that enterprising scholar-readers of this blog better positioned for academic glory can begin paving a new road to progress and personal freedom. Also, when you do that, please remember this good turn I've done you, especially if I am unemployed and in need of some 'amorous' assistance.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Statistics will fix everything

I'm a little confused as to the reason for all this recrimination about bad election predictions, as though it was bad predictions and not bad campaigning or ineffective persuasion that lost Republicans the race. The professionally disappointed Conor Friedorsdorf, for example, claims that his party has once again let him down (can we ever hope to live up to your standards, O Great Conor?) by not hiring "the most rigorous forecaster it could find," like the NYT did. But since only one party can win a race, if both sides hired equally rigorous forecasters, nothing would change except that one party would be informed several months in advance that polling indicates that it will lose. What is it to do then? Withdraw pre-emptively because The Opinion Polls Have Spoken?

Conor evidently thinks so, or at least something like that, when he suggests that conservative media has to be "honest" with "the rank-and-file" (the jus' plain folks who exist to follow the pundits). What would such honesty consist in? The National Review will announce in September, "Look guys, it's over. We lost before you even cast a ballot. We now have this science of calling up random people and soliciting their extremely incoherent opinions, and it's frankly way more effective than all this voting and franchise stuff because it tells us how you will vote without your even having to bother doing it. So why don't you just forget about all this politics stuff and focus on going to work and raising kids, ok?" 

I understand how accurate prediction is better than inaccurate prediction, and how it's also highly statistically probable that predictions based on models will be accurate more often than predictions made from the gut or from anecdotes, but whom does that surprise? What I don't understand is how the accuracy of predictions determines the effectiveness of a campaign, or how it replaces the purpose for which political journalism exists - to persuade. That polls show a candidate up by 2 points doesn't tell me anything about whether I should vote for him unless my sole criterion is to vote for the winner. Polling data can obviously be useful in planning a campaign strategy, but even armed with all the best public opinion models in the world, you only know what the average person who doesn't think of you claims he thinks of you, and not what to tell him to get him to think better of you. 

Even Conor concedes that the "misinformation" of the "rank-and-file" wasn't all about the numbers. Something was off about the message too, but not that it failed to persuade, because in the world of numbers and accuracy, there is no persuasion, only an "information disadvantage." And how would a Conor-led defeatist and cringing conservative press improve things? Well, for one thing, it would be liberal. Because the big problem with conservatives is that they're not liberal, and so they do completely incomprehensible things like "waste time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense." Totally - all that nonsense about the HHS mandate and religious liberty, and entitlements spending and health care, and blah blah Libya attack. Who cares about that? Maybe conservatives, but probably not "the rest of America," whose own partisan outlets never engage in less-than-Conorable fear-mongering about the "War on Women" or anything like that. Noted: the War on Women is real, but war in Libya is a delusion. 

But oddly, Conor is not comparing the National Review to Jezebel or Mother Jones, or conservative pundits to liberal ones, but rather NR's conservative pundits to the New York Times, a nominally nonpartisan international newspaper with millions of subscribers and hundreds of reporters all over the world (and not its opinion section either). Why doesn't the National Review deliver the same kind and amount of "information" as the New York Times? Some people say statistics are hard to understand, but I would argue that this discrepancy is much more mysterious.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Project thrifty coiffure, attempt #2

Remember when I tried to do this gauche, TMI thing? Ok, it failed. The problem is that training your hair to stop getting oily every day and coaxing it to switch to an every other day grease schedule demands that you schedule your life around hair washing, and if you exercise at all or need to go out in public between hours 36-48 of the unwashed state, you throw the whole hair-training schedule out of whack and have to start over. So annoying! But what is also annoying is washing your hair every day when it's long, because air drying takes hours and you end up spending most of the day in a damp hair state. (Let us not speak of the blow dryer that my friend accidentally dropped into my toilet last year. It was useless anyway because blow-drying makes my hair get greasy even faster.) There has to be an alternative. So I am trying anti-grease hair training again, except this time, I am no longer a thrifty person, having since upgraded to $8 shampoo and other absurdities, so I will be purchasing a dry shampoo to help things along. If this effort works, I will promote dry shampoo to the heavens. Seriously peeps, looking presentable is so much work. Women should get more credit.

The ubiquitous deathy-ness of the past

There was a comment thread awhile back on A & J about whether the People of the Past experienced death as a tragedy or were, by virtue of its ubiquity, inured to its psychological effects. The issue re-appeared in Withywindle's post about finishing Anne of Green Gables, which happens this time to coincide with my reading Lawrence Stone's Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, a book which seriously suffers from precisely this kind of reliance on mortality rates to explain practically the entire structure of the early modern psyche. Since this is book number two or three of this sort that I've read (the other being Centuries of Childhood and The Disappearance of Childhood), I'm getting increasingly annoyed by this tic. 

So, I have assembled the following primer on how to do early modern social history for anyone interested: 
- First, we must examine parish marriage and death records. Why them? Because they're the only records we've got! What do we learn from our looking? Why, that everyone always dies! They die young! They die in childbirth! They die from rampant disease! (Cue long section on the prevalence of worms in 16th century England.) And if they escape disease, they die from blows to the head sustained at the ale-house! 
- Second, let's do statistics with these records. What do we learn? A large percentage of people die before 40, but if they don't die before 40, they have a pretty good chance of living past 40, although then they too will die! 
- Now we are prepared to draw conclusions from this rigorous empirical work, and they are these: Due to all the death surrounding them and their own high chances of dying any day, People of the Past had no emotions. They didn't care if their children died, they barely noticed their spouses' deaths, and indeed, they typically looked forward to them so that they wouldn't have to be stuck with the same tedious person after the children had grown. ("Modern divorce is little more than a functional substitute for death.") They had no friends and trusted no one. The specter of death governed their every decision.

The picture of the early modern European we get from these studies is that he was a consummate actuary, and it’s a wonder that he even bothered to go through the motions of living when he was so likely to drop dead at any moment. There is obviously a certain logic to the argument that being surrounded by death makes you less emotionally concerned with it, both your own death and others' deaths. I think that's something like Aries's position, but it's not quite Stone's. Stone seems to conclude instead that People of the Past were very concerned about their own deaths, and it's this concern that made them so wary of forming intimate and affectionate social ties with others, since all such ties were likely to be severed almost immediately. This suggests a very strong regard for one's preservation, not quite the devil-may-care ease of people really inured to death and living for the moment. So, in this respect, People of the Past sound a lot like People of the Present. And our response to the knowledge of the imminence of our demise (and I don't think that the conquest of intestinal worms since then has really put a huge dent in our fear of death) is not uniform coldness and "psychic numbing" (Stone's term). So why should we assume this of the infamous People of the Past? Certainly we know of many individuals who appeared to have loved their families and had affectionate friendships - Thomas More? More and Erasmus? The Erasmian circle more broadly? 


Some of the evidence Stone draws on to demonstrate the supposed barbarism of the 16th and 17th centuries - personal accounts from travelers and church officials visiting French and English country towns - demonstrates that revulsion towards this sort of behavior existed at the same time, in the very people who described it as barbaric. And what about the growth of politeness that has made people who don't feel too aggrieved by their relatives' deaths today quieter about their apathy or even pleasure? It's not nice to express relief or pleasure at someone's death, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to feel it, just as the reverse may have been true in an England not concerned with forms of politeness, where grievers had to suffer quietly. In other words, it may not be human emotion that has changed since the 17th century so much as which emotions become acceptable or desirable to express. The relative proximity or ubiquity of death doesn't control that. 


Fundamentally, I'm simply unpersuaded that the psychological consequences of death's imminence have changed since 1660 just because statistical trends in dying have. Loving one's family and friends intensely and not loving them at all are both equally plausible responses to the same constant fear of death that plagued people subject to smallpox and highway brigands, and those subject to bicycle accidents and cancers. The Greco-Roman and the Christian traditions in Europe at this time offered accounts of both kinds of responses as well, and people pondered death as obsessively then as they do now. If both are equally plausible, equally grounded in traditional possibilities, then I don't see how we can decisively conclude for coldness over warmth based simply on death's greater statistical probability. If a calculation of the statistical probability of people's deaths actually determined how involved we got with them, wouldn't we be requesting such calculations more often now than ever, given the improved accuracy of actuarial science since 1660?


Stone often concedes that it's difficult to reconstruct the history of "affect" from the sources available. We know from diaries what a handful of particularly logorrheic individuals felt (and it turns out that those people usually did demonstrate substantial "affect"), but we have little idea of what anyone else felt about such events as the deaths of their spouses and children, the significance of their marriages, and so on. But immediately after admitting that, Stone proceeds to make sweeping and authoritative claims about just how the early moderns did perceive these things. "The Elizabethan village was a place filled with malice and hatred, its only unifying bond being the occasional episode of mass hysteria." Or, my favorite so far:

It is reasonable to assume that for many young men this delay involved considerable sexual denial at a time of optimum male sexual drive, despite the usual non-procreative outlets. If one follows Freudian theory, this could...help to explain the high level of group aggression, which lay behind the extraordinary expansionist violence of western nation states at this time.
This is basically how Stone squares his own circle - assuming that all of history is a progress of, in this case, emotional delicacy from nonexistent to highly sensitive (old Rousseauian story wearing big fancy Freudian coat), such that each age is an unpeeling of the calloused outer layers of the human self to reveal the more refined emotions underneath, until we arrive at our present, perfectly-developed humanity, whose fine elements form a beautiful aesthetic harmony under illumination. Only the technological-political conditions of the present have permitted us to properly express our so-long repressed psychology in its full glory.

How else to make sense of all this stuff about how People of the Past all walked about mentally ill because of the parental abuse and violence they'd endured, which contradicts entirely the thesis about the emotional inoculation that pervasive deathy-ness brings about? How could you be suffering from feelings of abandonment and alienation when all this death everywhere supposedly made self-alienation the only means of not suffering?

Anyway, it's a pretty entertaining book when you get past all this annoying Mortality Math, and so I conclude with this fine poem Stone has inserted:
'Come soon, O Death, and Alice take.'
He loudly groan'd and cry'd;
Death came - but made a sad mistake,
For Richard 'twas that died.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A suggestion for the updating of citation practices for historical scholarship

In this great age of looking stuff up online, is it really that helpful anymore to use the date of publication of the particular edition that you happen to be using in your citations? I am always coming across citations like (Locke 1987) in academic articles, and each time, it gives me pause to wonder how it could be that John Locke published a book in 1987. Particularly when the argument is a historical one, these citations intrude on one's internal sense of chronology and destroy the already minimal atmospheric setting that articles or books about previous centuries create. Here we are, in the midst of the English Civil War, and suddenly, nope! It's 1956, 1981, 2003! I understand that subsequent editorial decisions matter in shaping the way that books from the English Civil War or whatever are presented, and especially translated books, but if we must note that, can't we bury it in the bibliography instead of the body of the text? Is it more helpful for a reader to know that the author was looking at the 1982 Penguin paperback reprint of Hobbes's Leviathan when he composed this article, or that the book itself was published in 1651?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Living in the future

It is high time to revive my old blog-tag, "the future is nigh," and put it in the service of all things southern California. Because if Joan Didion and (for different reasons) crazed techno-progress optimists are right, here is the beginning of tomorrow's America. But I have been exiled here from today's America (Washington), yesterday's America (Chicago), and also the day before yesterday's pre-America (Boston). And like Phoebe in New Jersey but with a slightly shorter (two-leg) commute to school, I am ambivalent to say the least about my new surroundings. But, as a matter of the public service to which I am so unwaveringly devoted, I bring you what you have to look forward to:

Of course, the traditional "Halloween tan." How could you forget?

Overheard in coffee-shops:
"I am a nature-ologist."
"Have you heard about design-thinking? Yes, design-thinking. It's a new way of solving problems that's, like, replacing the scientific method."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sex math is hard

I promise maybe this is the last post about sex week, but the articles are just so great. So, this problem could be posed in the simplest of terms: when there are fewer lesbians than straight women, it's harder to find lesbians in any given population of women. Check. But it could also be posed in this amazing baroque way as the world's greatest math problem:
As a pansexual, Jinadasa expresses a desire to have relationships with both men and women, but she says that the small dating pool of lesbian and female bisexuals makes it much easier to date men. “It’s math: Let’s say I’m attracted to 50 percent women and 50 percent men. Let’s say there are 40 people in a room and I’m attracted to all of the guys and all of the girls. There are nine guys who are gay and one girl who is queer.”
Ok, peeps, let's put our thinking caps on. So there are 40 people in a room, and you are attracted to all of them, every last one, but you're still a woman, so the nine gay guys are not attracted to you (annoying! why can't they also be pansexual?), which leaves 31 people to potentially sleep with. It could work out with one of the girls, but that seems so...paltry. You are hot stuff, you desire everyone, can't a girl get some play? What about the other 30 people? Are they men or women? Now your calculator is giving you "variable undefined" as an answer. Maybe they are also pansexuals, so it's irrelevant? Or maybe they are all having sex with each other while you're busy doing this math, and by the time you finish and go back into the room, you'll discover that they all got tired and left, including that one queer girl you could've met instead of doing this complicated sex-algebra? Then, you'll realize that all you needed to satisfy your vast pan-desire was one person, queer or not, and in spite of being attracted to 40 people simultaneously, you're still stuck going home alone.

If only this epic story could one day appear as a word problem in the math textbooks of future children.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Like the weather

Right now, I am in the UCSD library surrounded by people wearing tank tops and shorts and others wearing sweaters and coats. In my previous lives, some of these people would have been clearly wrong while others would be clearly right. It would be either too cold for shorts, or it would not be. This was not a matter of your preference, but of uncontrollable climatological circumstance. You do not decide the weather; it decides you. In San Diego, this is not the case. Temperature is an entirely subjective judgment. "Too cold" and "too warm" are not applicable categories.* Would you like to wear shorts today? A winter coat? Done, or done. Or perhaps done and done, as is the case in the common combination of t-shirt, shorts, and Uggs. Yesterday, for example, I wore knee-high leather boots over bare legs with a sleeveless dress. Sure, I felt silly, but I passed at least half a dozen women who'd made the same choice of weather, and many people who had made diametrically opposed choices, and then I decided that I choose my choice** and felt pretty good about it. A few more months here, and I may reach the pinnacle of liberal theory's autonomy. Then I will start making my own laws, and that will be a great day for everyone.

*"Too hot" remains, however, a real and problematic state of affairs, usually announced when the temperature exceeds 75 degrees, at which time, those who would choose to wear coats that day are subjected to physical discomfort and thus have their choices unjustifiably foreclosed.
**Four years on, it's still one of the best article titles I've come across.

UPDATE:
Overheard at Starbucks:
Woman on phone with her brother, who feels sick: You're probably just dehydrated because of this heat. You need to drink a LOT of water.
It is, again, 79 degrees.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Barrel shooting: sex week

I have long been a skeptic about histrionic college shenanigans like Sex Weeks, but having read the recent Crimson coverage of its own Sex Week, I must say, I was not only convinced but inspired:
The more that people know about consent and the importance of respect in sexual relationships, and the more that sex is seen as a positive, affirming thing, the more likely people are to practice consent and respect.
Ok then! Drawing on this, I have created the official advertisement for Miss Self-Important's forthcoming First Annual Drunken Brawling Week:
The more that people know about fist-fighting and the importance of violence in social relationships, and the more that drunken brawling is seen as a positive, affirming thing, the more likely people are to practice fist-fighting and violence.
Incidentally, Drunken Brawling Week will also feature an event called "Unsupervised." I will leave you to infer what will take place at this event. The spokesperson, however, will take her cues directly from the quoted Planned Parenthood staffer and will provide the following reassurances to the audience at the event:
“We, as a culture, are not comfortable about drunken brawling. We are violent beings; it’s part of our nature...Drunken brawling is not bad, it’s not evil, it’s just risky...One out of four drunken brawlers in our country have a broken nose. ”
All of this is entirely true, and also value-free. We organizers of Drunken Brawling Week, we are not judging you and your drunken brawling proclivities. We just provide information and raise awareness. It's up to you to do what you will with it. We want you to have a good time, but a safe good time. Remember to drink lots of water and wear padding.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

On competitive consumption

I have been in the market for a new carry-everything bag ever since my cat, in order to demonstrate his displeasure with our cross-country move, peed on my old one, which was falling apart anyway after three years of constant and edifying use. (Incidentally, this bag was one of the best gifts I've ever received.) I've been hauling around my grad school tote ever since, but since it is emblazoned with the logo of a university in Boston, I do not want this to alienate my populist fellow-citizens of the UC-system, whom I would like to have as friends (please be my friends, UCSD-ers! I am not a snob! I am a yokel from the Midwest!). More importantly, it looks like a potato sack. So, I turned to the land of endless cheapness victories, Ebay, to solve this difficulty.

What I learned was that, unlike buying shoes on Ebay, another of my unrepetantly frivolous hobbies, but one which is conducted in a comparatively civilized manner, buying designer bags is like a pitched battle, if not total war. Bags starting at $5 end up selling for $95, and my shoe-buying strategy of bidding a dollar more than the previous bidder (cheapness!) is generally steamrolled by the more zealous within minutes. Moreover, I am inevitably outbid 15 seconds before the end of the auction by these same zealots, who raise their bid by just enough to cause me psychological money-spending hesitation ("should I really spend more than $60 on this thing?") that lasts just long enough for me to miss the last bid ("ok, ok, yes! I will spend! oh no! I have already lost!"). This in turn makes me even more obsessed with tracking the last five minutes of every auction, and more upset at losing every one. In short, I have lost about 10 auctions on potential new purses over the past three weeks, and each loss had made me crazier and more bitter.

But today I finally won! I adopted the strategy of the zealots, offered $20 more than the highest bid at the last second, and scored my still-under-$60 bag. And I felt a momentous and completely irrational sense of Great Victory, like what I imagine men feel when their sports teams win, even though they personally did nothing to contribute to the victory except to watch it on TV. Eat it, other Ebay bidders! I dominate! In principle, I could win every auction without this stressful competitiveness by just bidding $300 on each item, but that is inglorious. For that money, I could just go to the Coach store and buy a new bag, but that's the lazy rich person way out. Glory is when you find it, win it, and still get a deal.

Now let's hope this bag is as awesome when it arrives as my inflated perception of myself right now.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Horticultural updates

In the pros column of California living is the incredible speed with which my balcony plants sprout. 
Jalapenos and arugula - two weeks. I am skeptical about the longevity of the basil; my previous track record with basils has been dismal. But maybe this one will suffer through. I hope to make a dedication to Athena in this Mediterranean climate and grow an olive tree soon. But so far my research has not yielded much information about how that might be done, and Athena does not seem to be a popular local deity, judging by neighboring gardens.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"The unlived life is not worth examining."

"Good writers 'add detail,' 'stretch their words,' and 'spell the best they can.'" So maybe this explains why I had college students who wrote things like this:
"Congressmen and wamun attempt to determine what the ideals of the median voter are before proposing legislation. Before elections it is common for Legislators to shit their ideal..."
Good writers spell the best they can. Yes. 

But, this is the pedagogical approach of College Summit, and it does work well in very short bursts (the kids just have to crank out one essay). Maybe if you only have to examine your unlived life once in all its 17 years, you can dig up something. Incidentally, one of the best essays (only, like Pondiscio, we are not permitted to call them that, because the word may scare the kids off) that I saw in four years was about how some girl's dog died. Let's jut say she "added detail" and "stretched her words."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Beating dead horses, meritocracy edition

So now everyone who's anyone, left and right, paleo and neo, is against the meritocracy. Well, fine then. Me too! I'm not just against it, but I'm more and better against it than everyone else, so like me best, ok? I mean, I even discussed it before them, except for those who discussed before me, but the club has to have more than one opening, or it wouldn't be a club. So can I be admitted?

If not, then I think "being against the meritocracy" is too easy and will hold out on the median of ambivalence until compelled to one side of the road or the other. I have nothing against Helen's suggestion of professing monarchism while you're perched at Yale or Harvard (where, indeed, the main current of campus conservatism did seem to be Catholic monarchism merged with Austrian economics - a phenomenon for which I would still appreciate an explanation), except that it precisely doesn't serve as an antidote to meritocratic thinking or meritocratic doing. Everyone is already against the meritocracy, and the monarchists just allege a different evil consequence. Undergraduate monarchism is another species of looking around at your peers and concluding that their deranged, possibly Adderall-fueled productivity has caused them to grow into twisted things, all lacking some aspect of character that would conduce to your preferred image of human wholeness--compassion or (ugh) "real passion," self-direction, depth of inquiry, correct use of otium (the latter being the monarchist contribution).

But all of these ways of thinking about what's wrong imply that, whatever it is, it's them and not you. Everyone else has been deformed by the competitive machine that miraculously left you untouched. Meritocracy's bunk, sure, but you basically deserve to be where you are because you get what it's really about - (insert here: passion, self-direction, deep inquiry, otium, whatever your priority) - while everyone else is just in it for the money/status/girls. So you have real merit, and everyone else is a fraud. When actually, if you got what it was really about, you'd do what naturally follows from Helen's claim that, "Politics works best when there are many different centers of power, but meritocracy concentrates power in a single ivied pipeline": that is, you'd take your big brains and enroll them at Eastern Tennessee State.