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So, peeps, here's to 2013, when Miss Self-Important officially predicts that the outdated brick-and-mortar school with its teachers and students and libraries and papers will finally disappear, and we will learn by going back in time through virtual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.