Monday, December 30, 2013

More free movies on the internets

My husband and I are once again on the hunt for free streaming movies, this time on Hulu since our Netflix trial lapsed. Hulu has an even worse collection of movies than Netflix Instant, which is to say, it has the worst movies ever made, plus the Criterion Collection, which seems to be 99 percent pretentious nonsense about adultery, and 1 percent tolerable things. We did find two good films so far:

Being Two Isn't Easy - a charming Japanese movie from 1962 which features an extremely cute baby and is a strikingly contemporary depiction of the anxieties of child-rearing. A Tokyo couple has their first baby, and the movie follows what seems to be most of his second year, until he turns two. It's narrated sometimes from the perspective of the baby, who is kind of cutesy and predictable but a nice intervention, and mostly by the parents, who spend a lot of time freaking out over the baby's health and safety, and fighting about how to raise him. Both the parents come from big families but set themselves against all that - they live in an apartment without their parents, and they view children as basically aliens from outer space who require such intensive attention and care that they can have no more than one, and they resent the imposition of even this one on their lives.

As the year goes on and various things about their living situation change, their familial relations become more relaxed and they come to understand the naturalness of children. I don't know anything about Japan in the 1960s (or ever), but the movie comes across here and now as mildly critical of individualism and childlessness, but not in favor of some ideal of traditional familial rusticity either. Even though it centrally features a cute baby, it's not particularly sappy, but depicts the bumpy adjustment to parenthood pretty straightforwardly and then slowly suggests that family life broadly understood (including extended family) is fulfilling even to the modern sensibility.

- Three Colors: White - Hulu has the whole Three Colors trilogy, but we have only liked White so far, though we haven't watched Red yet. A few years ago, a friend introduced me to some of the episodes of Kieslowski's other film cycle, The Decalogue, which is good, but dark and full of symbolic Christian brooding of a dour Eastern European variety. When Kieslowski's aim is comic though, as in Decalogue X or Three Colors: White, he's really good, because dark and resigned humor, though equally dour and Eastern European, makes more sense to me than darkness and resignation taken straight. The movie is about an earnest Polish hairdresser who is divorced by his French wife, goes back to Poland in a suitcase, and builds an entirely new and wholly improbable life with the sole goal of getting revenge. This ends successfully, but, because evidently nothing can ever simply go well for Eastern Europeans, it's a kind of horrifying success that is actually a cosmic moral failure.

Friday, December 27, 2013

FMI: Tangy potato lentil salad recipe

I do not aim high in my cooking, and therefore do not typically chronicle it, but while in Cambridge, I came across an excellent mayonnaise-free potato salad at the Biscuit (whose sagging Yelp ratings do not do the place justice; it is actually the best coffee shop in all of Cambridge, even though it's technically in Somerville and even though no one has ever agreed with my endorsement) for which I could find no recipe online. Concerned that I would never be able to have it again once I left town, I noted all the ingredients listed on the container and then attempted to re-create it back in San Diego. My efforts have not so far issued in the perfect tangy goodness of the original, but I'm working on it. In the meantime, I offer myself, and tangentially also you, a possible recipe, so that I have something better than a list of ingredients to reference for future efforts:

Tangy Potato Lentil Salad with Smoked Paprika Dressing
4 servings

- 2 lbs fingerling potatoes (other kinds of potatoes also ok when in Whole Foods and Trader Joe's desert)
- 1/2 cup French lentils (green lentils also ok when in Whole Foods desert)
- 1/2 a red onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup capers
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Dressing: olive oil, red wine vinegar, Hebrew National mustard (any mustard works), salt, smoked paprika

1. Preheat oven to 450. Toss potatoes in oil and roast on baking pan for 20 minutes. Opening oven at any time during this procedure will set off the smoke alarm in your very poorly ventilated apartment. Be prepared by leaving front door open and keeping an eye on cat's proximity to said door. Remove potatoes and let cool.
2. Simmer lentils in 2 cups water until no longer hard, but not yet mushy.
3. Combine onion, capers, and garlic in bowl. Add drained lentils.
4. When potatoes have cooled, skin, slice into bite-size pieces, and add to bowl.
5. Whisk together dressing ingredients, add dressing to salad. Toss. Result should be reddish, but mine always turns out more orange than red.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Melville, The Confidence-Man*

Here I was, blithely hoping to get an enlightening - with a focus on light - read in before settling down to write something on the topic of impostors, and was instead flattened by the metric-ton (per something cubed) density of this book. Lesser idiots than myself would've perhaps suspected as much and stayed away after having read Moby Dick to absolutely no benefit in high school, and "Bartleby the Scrivener" with only the most meager grasp of its point much later. It's no wonder Paul Cantor was satisfied to give it the most passing of mentions in his own article on impostors, because to dwell on it further would require a doctoral dissertation.

Melville had, it is clear, read a lot of philosophy. This much I gathered. And that he was not a cheerleader for "confidence" in men or markets, romantic naturalism, transcendentalism, or the advance of "geniality":
By the way, talking of geniality, it is much on the increase in these days, ain't it?" 
"It is, and I hail the fact. Nothing better attests the advance of the humanitarian spirit. In former and less humanitarian ages—the ages of amphitheatres and gladiators—geniality was mostly confined to the fireside and table. But in our age—the age of joint-stock companies and free-and-easies—it is with this precious quality as with precious gold in old Peru, which Pizarro found making up the scullion's sauce-pot as the Inca's crown. Yes, we golden boys, the moderns, have geniality everywhere—a bounty broadcast like noonlight." 
"True, true; my sentiments again. Geniality has invaded each department and profession. We have genial senators, genial authors, genial lecturers, genial doctors, genial clergymen, genial surgeons, and the next thing we shall have genial hangmen." 
"As to the last-named sort of person," said the cosmopolitan, "I trust that the advancing spirit of geniality will at last enable us to dispense with him. No murderers—no hangmen. And surely, when the whole world shall have been genialized, it will be as out of place to talk of murderers, as in a Christianized world to talk of sinners." 
"To pursue the thought," said the other, "every blessing is attended with some evil, and——" 
"Stay," said the cosmopolitan, "that may be better let pass for a loose saying, than for hopeful doctrine." 
"Well, assuming the saying's truth, it would apply to the future supremacy of the genial spirit, since then it will fare with the hangman as it did with the weaver when the spinning-jenny whizzed into the ascendant. Thrown out of employment, what could Jack Ketch turn his hand to? Butchering?" 
"That he could turn his hand to it seems probable; but that, under the circumstances, it would be appropriate, might in some minds admit of a question. For one, I am inclined to think—and I trust it will not be held fastidiousness—that it would hardly be suitable to the dignity of our nature, that an individual, once employed in attending the last hours of human unfortunates, should, that office being extinct, transfer himself to the business of attending the last hours of unfortunate cattle. I would suggest that the individual turn valet—a vocation to which he would, perhaps, appear not wholly inadapted by his familiar dexterity about the person. In particular, for giving a finishing tie to a gentleman's cravat, I know few who would, in all likelihood, be, from previous occupation, better fitted than the professional person in question." 
"Are you in earnest?" regarding the serene speaker with unaffected curiosity; "are you really in earnest?" 
"I trust I am never otherwise," was the mildly earnest reply; "but talking of the advance of geniality, I am not without hopes that it will eventually exert its influence even upon so difficult a subject as the misanthrope." 
"A genial misanthrope! I thought I had stretched the rope pretty hard in talking of genial hangmen. A genial misanthrope is no more conceivable than a surly philanthropist." 
"True," lightly depositing in an unbroken little cylinder the ashes of his cigar, "true, the two you name are well opposed." 
"Why, you talk as if there was such a being as a surly philanthropist." 
"I do. My eccentric friend, whom you call Coonskins, is an example. Does he not, as I explained to you, hide under a surly air a philanthropic heart? Now, the genial misanthrope, when, in the process of eras, he shall turn up, will be the converse of this; under an affable air, he will hide a misanthropical heart. In short, the genial misanthrope will be a new kind of monster, but still no small improvement upon the original one, since, instead of making faces and throwing stones at people, like that poor old crazy man, Timon, he will take steps, fiddle in hand, and set the tickled world a'dancing. In a word, as the progress of Christianization mellows those in manner whom it cannot mend in mind, much the same will it prove with the progress of genialization. And so, thanks to geniality, the misanthrope, reclaimed from his boorish address, will take on refinement and softness—to so genial a degree, indeed, that it may possibly fall out that the misanthrope of the coming century will be almost as popular as, I am sincerely sorry to say, some philanthropists of the present time would seem not to be, as witness my eccentric friend named before." 
"Well," cried the other, a little weary, perhaps, of a speculation so abstract, "well, however it may be with the century to come, certainly in the century which is, whatever else one may be, he must be genial or he is nothing. So fill up, fill up, and be genial!"
For the rest, including even the basic question about whether the titular "confidence man" is one person throughout the book or several, I wish I still had access to Harvard's library.

*Shameless blogging style-cribbing from Withywindle hereby admitted. I think he also may have recommended the book in the first place though.

Friday, December 20, 2013

On smark

I finally read the Gawker screed defending snark against smarm, quite ready to rally to the side of snark against the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Eggers, whom I also find cloying, but came away from it no longer sure what the difference between snark and smarm was. Is it smarm when Joe Lieberman implores us to stop criticizing him and snark when Tom Scocca implores with equal earnestness that we continue to do so? Is it snark to write a windy plea for continued criticism of the powerful that contains no trace of humor and appeals entirely to the indignation of the downtrodden (or those who've styled themselves as such)?

Scocca defines smarm as, "Scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority...Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves." All perhaps to some degree true of smarm, but equally true of his own essay. Scocca is goodness incarnate - willing to stand against the powerful and successful for the little man, a humble Gawker editor, a less famous writer than his nemeses, appealing to his own invisible authorities - good taste, but even more than that, great justice. Earnest criticism for great justice is not snark. Maybe, because it's sharp rather than lugubrious like smarm, we can call what Scocca has produced here "smark." But snark is criticism with style, wit, and no heartfelt commitment to a Good Cause beyond good writing. And this thing is not that thing.

Here is Scocca smarking at Eggers:
It is no accident that he is addressing undergraduates here...He is explicitly performing, for an audience of his inferiors...It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit. He is so passionate, and his passion has such rhetorical momentum, that it is almost possible to overlook the fact that the literal proposition he's putting forward, in the name of large-heartedness and honesty, is bogus and insulting.
"It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit" - that line is the sum of the wit contained in the entire essay. The rest is precisely passion with rhetorical momentum in defense of a bogus and insulting proposition - that it is our moral duty to fight the power! By using our words! To attack everything and everyone more powerful, famous, or highly-praised than ourselves because they're probably up to no good! Goodness is in obscurity, until that's exposed to fame, and then it immediately goes sour. Well, how far down can that proposition go? Look at this, Tom Scocca, here I am, a two-bit blogger who cowers in the shadow of the internet empire you run, and I am sticking it to you! I expect an appreciation ASAP (in the form of some publicity, preferably).

One more thing, on smark and authority. Scocca makes a big stink about the "collapse of traditional authority," that much longed for specter of order which has always existed only in this exact state of subsequently-lamented collapse. As if there was ever any "traditional authority" that put to rest quarrels over whether A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is worth reading or the tweets of politicians are to be taken seriously.
Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity...What currently fills the space left by the waning or absence of traditional authority, for the most part, is the ideology and logic of the market.
Really. I am waiting for some diligent medievalist to uncover a palimpsest of some diocesan priest's observations about the discourse of the day - "Oy, ever since Pope Gregory riled up the monarchs of Europe, all authority has collapsed! We are bereft! Left to decide for ourselves whether the passing minstrel show is any good and what to name our children. Some among us have styled themselves "critics," purveyors of taste without credentials, and they have attacked the previous such purveyors for their suspect ties to the neighborhood gentry, and now the whole place is up in arms, the simple people knowing not whom to believe about minstrels and the best names for their children."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Theory and practice: applications of modern philosophy

In "What is Authority?", Arendt says something uncharacteristically feminine about how one might use the heel of one's shoe as a hammer, but doing so does not make a shoe a hammer. I was reminded of this when, recently, I acquired a pair of boots that were uncomfortably tight in the calves (you come across this lament in boot reviews all the time - "I have athletic calves" - but Miss Self-Important's calves are quite averse to athletics and she has never before had this difficulty). I couldn't think how to stretch them out a little, until I hit upon the following solution:

This is frankly more use than either of these volumes are likely to see in a good long while.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Serving suggestions: pomegranate

Here is a too-long PSA about how to de-seed a pomegranate pretty effectively without digging through its labyrinthine membranes with your fingers. I can attest to its relative effectiveness if you whack the fruit hard enough, though you still have to detach the remaining few seeds by hand unless you're willing to allow their precious, delicious juiciness to go to waste, which would be a sin, just so you know.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Goodbye weenies

With the conclusion of a very pleasant fall term, Cambridge has decided to send me back to my Southern Californian exile amid collegiate drama, with some aptly-timed finals week bomb threats. When campus was declared bomb-free, I received the following mass email from one of the deans:
We understand most students are expressing eagerness to take the exams for which they have prepared. However, if for any reason a student does not feel able to take an exam – including anxiety, loss of study time, lack of access to material and belongings left in one of the affected buildings, or travel schedule -- he or she should be in touch immediately with his or her resident dean. Any such student will have the option of being graded on their coursework to date, excluding the exam. Those students will have the option of requesting to be graded Pass/Fail for the course without incurring any penalty in their progress toward degree.
If the vague threat of bombs made you too anxious to take an exam, then you don't have to, weenie.

And with that, back to San Diego.

UPDATE: While I totally assumed the bomb threat was made by an undergrad with an exam to evade, I am nonetheless sincerely surprised to have been correct. How could this guy not know that email is traceable, that he'd be caught, and that the consequences of making bomb threats are far greater than the consequences of failing a final exam? This is all obvious. To everyone. There are probably a million ways to get out of an exam at Harvard, and this guy managed to select the worst possible one.

UPDATE II: All that to avoid the Politics of American Education final?!? Is you kidding? What a joke.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

A for Admission

It should come as no surprise that I am a terrible liar, and although I promised to give the Crimson a rest, I couldn't help following the grade inflation story whither it went, which happened to be to Conor Friedersdorf, who can always be relied on to strain with the greatest earnestness and doe-eyed good intention towards the wrong view of everything. So with grade inflation. But that's useful in this case, because it saves me the embarrassment of railing against the Crimson's insipid editorial on this topic or its frothing website commenters, who say pretty much the same thing in defense of grade inflation, but without Conor's relative sense of proportion. Thus sayeth Conor:
Ivy League educational institutions attract a disproportionate share of grade-obsessed overachievers. These young people are extremely driven, aren't in need of external motivators to learn, but often react to the grading system by gaming it: that is to say, they engage in cut-throat competition with classmates rather than helping one another learn; they manipulate teachers; and they choose earning a higher grade rather than learning more when there is a tension between the two...
The question is whether "the system" of traditional collegiate grading has enough value left to make it worth conserving. At highly selective institutions filled with people who've all already demonstrated that they're perfectly capable of earning As in difficult academic classes, a strong case can be made that grades no longer have much value. Jacobs doesn't necessarily disagree. "To be sure, in one sense the system deserves to be gamed—it’s fundamentally broken—and what Davidson is doing is only slightly more extreme than what most professors, enablers of grade inflation, do every day," he wrote. "But the system needs to be faced and critiqued more straightforwardly, more honestly."
This is a very flattering view of The Ivy League Student in a state of academic nature, but it is precisely wrong. Grading is not the enemy of learning. "These young people" are indeed very driven, but they are not uniformly driven to learn, except perhaps in the broadest Platonic sense that everyone prefers the truth to falsehood. This, however, does not mean that they aren't "in need of external motivators" to learn those things which universities are organized to teach. If that were true, there would be no need of required courses, because all students would take the full range of the curriculum of their own accord. There would additionally be no need of papers and exams, because students would do the requisite reading and thinking of their own accord. Finally, there would be no need of courses themselves, because these students would pursue their drives to learn independently. So, in sum, there would be no need of universities for the sorts of students that attend the best ones.

And that's also true in the same airy sense that the view that learning is self-motivated is true. Strictly speaking, you don't need a university to learn astronomy or metaphysics - Galileo didn't have one! Plato didn't either! - but that's completely beside the point. In the Edenic state of academic nature that Conor envisions, there need be no coercion or competition because all students are already perfectly virtuous, and coercion and competition only sully their pure natures. But with very few exceptions, learning doesn't work that way, even for smart people. In our fallen state, grades go hand-in-hand with all the other forms of institutional coercion like required courses and course requirements to externally motivate students to learn the things that they need to know, but don't know that they need to know because they haven't learned them yet. I have a decent amount of internal motivation to learn things, as well as decent aptitude for it, but there is no way I would ever have opted to learn calculus in college had that not been required. I like learning political theory even more than learning things in general, but it would never have occurred to me to even try it unless it was assigned in (required) courses. And I like learning things I'm good at, but it would've been hard to discern what I'm good at, or even whether I was actually learning anything and not simply experiencing a series of interesting delusions, had there not been any evaluation of my work in those courses. The mere fact that I was a decent high school student with decent test scores that qualified me for admission to a (at the time not very) selective university was no guarantee that I would learn anything at that university. All it meant was that I probably had the capacity to do so, if sufficiently provoked. And grades and requirements were essential provocations to the activation of otherwise passive capacities.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Facts and mysteries

Fact: Long cardigans look like bathrobes. A trend ready for its curtain.

Mystery: Has anyone ever bought clothes from Korea or China on Ebay? Are they real? Every time I search for anything on Ebay, many hideous (or hilarious) but also some extremely appealing (or moderately so) Asian versions appear. And they are cheap. The question is: can I has them?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"An institution...that is so synonymous with excellence in everything it does"

Harvard worries that maybe Harvard's athletics program has begun to aggrandize itself at the expense of Harvard's non-athletics program, whatever program that might be. The problem with this concern is of course that Harvard is just so excellent at everything, and so excellent at being excellent, that it's hard to discern any reasonable limit to the "domains" it ought to colonize with its excellence. Surely it must play sports. But how many sports, and how intensively? Other schools play dozens of sports, and very intensively. Then Harvard must do the same, but better! Like a light unto nations, Harvard redeems all that it touches, so that clearly, it ought to grope everything in sight. 

One professor explains that expanding athletics is necessary for Harvard to successfully condescend to the cretins outside Harvard:
Lewis adds that eliminating Division I sports would change the way Harvard is viewed in some communities. “It would be even harder for people who are from rural America to think of Harvard as being a real university and not some elite place where people don’t do the things that college students really do,” says Lewis, who throughout his tenure as dean of the College was an active supporter of athletics. “We would sort of drop out a piece of American culture.....And we’d lose a lot of people who come from subcultures of America where sports is one of the ways that you show your ambition.”
Now, we sophisticated urbanites may see the problems with turning colleges into sports stadiums, but the vast American cornfields are inhabited by cavemen who believe that a college ought to be a football stadium, and they ain't gonna wanna send their kids to no fancy-pants school that purports to be all about book-learnin' instead of drinking and brawling, the primary activities of this "subculture." Forget whether there aren't some people living in these forsaken places who might get it in their heads that the purpose of college is academic. Surely their numbers would be infinitesimal, if any exist at all. But, if these "communities" are really so primitive, then why would Harvard want to recruit from them in the first place? This is less clear. Perhaps it hopes to rescue the few hopeful progeny of these benighted masses, but must first convince their parents to hand them over with promises of bread and circuses. But to do that, it wouldn't really need to expand its athletics program in fact, only in appearance - enough to convince these distant savages that it shares their, uh, values. A Division I women's rugby team would seem to be unnecessary to that goal.

But Lewis isn't advocating a bait-and-switch after all. He seems altogether pleased with the prospect of Harvard's actually conforming to the noble vision of education that he attributes to these cretins. "We want to be able to show ourselves persuasively as representing the best of America in the terms that America recognizes," and if "America" recognizes football as best, it's Harvard's job to represent it to itself accordingly. Whatever the people like, Harvard provides. But why should we stop at sports? I can think of a few other things that "America" also recognizes as "best," at least as determined by popular enthusiasm for them - for example: reality TV, pornography, recreational drug use. Every vulgar activity by definition has many patrons, so why shouldn't one of these patrons be Harvard, an institution whose purpose is apparently to reflect America's vulgar interests, whatever they may be? Lewis agrees:
“I think Harvard still values athletics because people who have displayed success in athletics have shown a capacity to achieve a level of excellence in a particular domain, and the domains in which we try to achieve and represent excellence are not only academic ones, because very few, in the long run, of our undergraduates are going to go on to academic careers,” says Lewis.
Well, never mind that even fewer of them will go on to athletic careers. Lewis is right - most students aren't going to be professors. So why, we might wonder, is Harvard imposing academics on all its undergraduates in the first place? The domains of excellence are many and varied, and none is clearly better or more valuable than any other, so why should everyone be forced to jump through all these irrelevant academic hoops to have their excellence certified when they could instead focus on "displaying success" in other domains? Is Harvard even achieving and representing excellence in enough domains? I'm not sure. Beauty is a domain. Why hasn't Harvard yet organized an effort to excel in beauty pageants? Agriculture is a domain, but I don't see a lot of Harvard investment in training farmers.

Now, to be fair, no one seems to know quite what Harvard's non-athletics program is, or is for, so confusion about whether the athletics program has encroached on it is inevitable. Even the athletics detractors quoted don't offer any clear boundaries for athletics, except to say that students should be recruited for academics. Non-athletics is presumably academics, but academics must then be defined quite broadly. Entrepreneurship is academic, extracurriculars are academic, social life is academic. Nap space is academic! Almost everything in this article is a reflection of how unwilling Harvard is to give any reason for its existence, since to define itself would imply a limitation on what it might someday become, and God forbid that Harvard impose limits on Harvard! Today, it's a university. But tomorrow, the situation may be ripe for it to become a country, or a spaceship, or a subterranean egg hatchery. Who can know what the future holds? Well, technically, Harvard can know, because it's on the cutting edge of everything, but for the purposes of future institutional adaptation, no one knows

Sunday, November 03, 2013

A further pleasant and unexpected event

Four years ago, to my great joy, Geocities descended into internet oblivion. Today, I accidentally discovered that Xanga has as well. Naturally, this led me to investigate the status of Livejournal, which is still limping along rather pathetically, though it has mercifully "purged" most traces of a teenaged Miss Self-Important unadvisedly and unreservedly running her mouth.

I suppose there is not much to lament in the loss of Xanga, which was an awkward transitional platform wedged between Webs 1.0 and 2.0. Let's call it Web 1.5: the adolescence of the internet, and the domination of the internet by adolescents. The result was an inverse proportion of ostentatious gridded wallpaper images to grammatical prose. But as I was telling someone IRL (yes, IRL!) recently, the single redeeming fact about all the early commercial blogging platforms like Xanga and Livejournal (and Diaryland, peeps - do you remember Diaryland?) is that they required their mainly teenage users to learn some basic code and to write long-form thoughts on a regular basis. True, these thoughts were almost uniformly sub-rational and poorly articulated. Also true, the authorial autonomy over the aesthetic appearance of their pages generally resulted in a net loss of beauty in the world. But - grumble, grumble - at least you had to try. Blogging was an investment, it had a learning curve, and it was not an activity that overlapped much with your actually existing social life, since most of your friends did not blog, or at least not seriously. This was most of all the case with Blogger but for a while also Livejournal that it required you to learn how to write for an indeterminate audience of strangers, which was both exhilarating and vastly skill-enhancing, and also on the whole a Very Bad Idea for most 16 year-olds. However, I'm unpersuaded that the present wholesale reification (surely there is a better word than this for what happens when the real is reinforced by the virtual?) of the school-based social lives of adolescents on internet fora does them any favors. The only skill this expands is obsessive self-consciousness because now you're "on" all the time.

But, such grumblings aside, I can't really be too sorry that the remnants of my foolishly overexposed adolescence that I feared would be embarrassingly visible forever are being buried sooner than I expected. Sink faster, Web 1.5, and take our crazed adolescent ramblings down with you. As for me, I have it all backed up on a hard drive anyway.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The decline and fall of the village of Mudhole

The NYT has a photo essay about the sad state of the villages along the highway that runs from St. Petersburg to Moscow, in which the villagers encountered along the way lament their neglect at the hands of the Russian government since the fall of the Soviet Union. But I am perplexed. These are places named things like "Cockroachville" and "Black Dirt." If this is how optimistic their first residents were about these locales, how much could they really have declined since their glory days?

"Seminar baboons"

The Maroon has an excellent interview with David Brooks, who I think may have decided to love the U of C precisely the year after I left the place. Among the highlights, advice on selecting a senior thesis topic for history majors:
My senior paper—what I did was I went to the library, I looked at all the archives, and I started with the letter “A,” and I figured I would write about the first person who looked interesting, so I got up to “Ar,” to Robert Ardrey, whose papers had never been looked at. He was a left-wing playwright in the ’30s, and then became sort of an early Darwinian theorist in the ’60s and ’70s. So I wrote about him. I’m probably the only person to ever look at the Robert Ardrey papers at the Reg.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Faculty news from the memory department

Although he died two years ago, I still sometimes think about my college humanities professor in connection with things Greek in my academic life, and since Greek things are unusually prevalent right now thanks to TAing, I've had occasion to think of him often this fall. And when I do think of him, my natural postmodern impulse is to Google him to make sure that the internet also remembers him, and to see if it has perhaps generated something new in the memory department. It's remarkable how one can keep up with the goings on of the dead this way, as though even death were no longer an impediment to continued intellectual output. Most recently, I came across this series of interviews with him from 2009 done by some guy who might be some sort of fringe lefty nut. But that's immaterial to the interviews, in which Sinaiko talks about ancient China (asserting at some point that the present government is a haven for open debate), citizenship, Rome, the Tea Party, and his questionable political opinions. I don't think I ever agreed with his politics, and I'm not going to start now, but it is nice to see these videos.

Friday, September 27, 2013

This post is boring and long and kinda hard to relate to

I've mentioned before that I think that crowd-sourced reviews of old books may signal the end of civilization. This was in response to reviews of Emile, which tend to say, in summarized paraphrase: "I read the part about Sophie and promptly lit this book on fire." Now, admittedly, we might be relieved that at least the modern, non-academic reader had a response it, and that it was not overly technical. Most early modern texts produce one of two kinds of crowd-sourced reviews - those written by technicians who outline the entire argument for you, and those written by lazers who wish to inform you that this book was very long, difficult, and boring. Mostly boring. Some reviewers of the latter party do admit that the book is "important," but this consideration does not apparently move them to work harder at it.

For example, Locke's Essay:
"Okay, I like philosophy, but everything has limits! I had to read this book for an assignment I have, and well, it was...weird? John Locke kept on saying something and after some pages going all against to what he previously said. His opinions? I don't know if I agree, I was too absorbed trying to make sense of what he was actually saying. And I had to keep notes, so yeah..."

Grotius's On the Rights of War and Peace:
"This is a painful read, but there's worthwhile information in there. I don't know. I'm very ambivalent toward it."

There are, in addition, a plural number of reviews of More's Utopia accusing More of being a Marxist propagandist. A reviewer of Mill's Autobiography seems to be under the impression that Mill was "admittedly not very smart, but diligent," and also that he was an American. And it goes on. Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind that he was charmed by the habit of American students to take great books at face value, naively assuming they are just regular books and their authors just the folks next door, like "Mr. Aristotle." Well, here is the flipside of this democratic leveling. Mr. More is a Marxist, and his book "more an insight into the minds of Renaissance-era Englishmen than anything useful today as a philosophical statement."

But, I have decided that I will not stand idly by as civilization is destroyed by careless democratic readers. No, I will fight them with my own brand of careless democratic reviews, beginning with Grotius. What follows is a review of On the Rights of War and Peace, by Miss Self-Important, democrat:
De Jure Belli ac Pacis means On the Justice of War and Peace in Greek. This is a kinda weird book, as far as books go, but pretty worthwhile in the end. The plot starts out real slow at first, and the characters are distant and hard to relate to. You really have to get used to Grotius' style, which is a little outdated because he was a Roman, and he references tons of Roman and other examples to bolster his arguments, sometimes even like 20 pages of examples, and by the end, you're like, OK I get it dude, Jesus said it was ok to have wars, or whatever. This book is really long, but I feel like in olden times, people maybe just wrote longer books, and you have to be patient about that because they say a lot of good stuff when you give them a chance.
Grotius' main point is that there is a natural law in the world which governs even how countries have wars with each other, even though while they're having the war, it seems like they might not be governed by any laws at all, so many people have argued that there is no such law. But this natural law is not based on God or anything subjective or controversial like that (although God is cool with it). It's based on two things: the universally observable human impulse to defend himselves when he is under attack, and the equally universal fact that humans are sociable and want to live together. The first part justifies why war is justified in the first place, because we have a right to defend ourselves when we're attacked. But the second is really cool, because it limits the extent to which we can do the first part, so that we can't just do whatever we want in self-defense, like Mr. Tom Hobbes says thousands of years later, but we can only defend ourself to the degree that our defense promotes sociability, or maintains our society as a whole. That still means we can do a lot of badass stuff in war though.
I'm not sure if I buy Grotius ultimately, because it's really hard to make countries follow laws when they are in wars and there is no way to hold them to the laws, or they feel existential about a particular war and conclude that they have to do whatever it takes to win it or be totally crushed, like what happened to the land of Carthage in Grotius' time. But for the most part, I feel like Grotius is really good to read when you get tired of some of the edgier authors in this genre like Bodin and Hobbes, because he has a more moderate idea about what a country's self-interest is, and thinks that laws about contract and property can be extrapolated from within a country to govern relations among countries. Especially for people who care about international law and human rights nowadays, it's really important for them to justify that without relying on different subjective religions, and if you think that Grotius' justifications are not that good, you need to think about whether you have any better ones.
True, it's not very comprehensive. But, by posting such reviews, can I persuade democrats that, since other democrats, even outright idiots, managed to read and digest the books they were so bored by and pre-emptively jaded about, they can do it too? That the baseline expectation for even writing a review is reading the book and having at least three thoughts about it, one of which can be descriptive? It's kind of deceitful, sure, but could it be effective? Or is making these books seem easy and accessible only going to exacerbate the turpitude?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sex and Consequences

It is well-known that Yale was founded as an orthodox Puritan alternative to dissipated, heretical Harvard, and I am pleased to see that this founding impulse remains strong there. First, there was the blanket ban on faculty-student relations, and now, this wonderfully detailed guide to ways one might go about having sex there, to which are appended the variety of punishments one will face afterwards. Gawker has already pointed out many of the things that make this guide so useful, and also how it might be improved with the addition of more potential scenarios for the serious student of college sex, the one who desires a synoptic understanding of the subject. However, I'm a little disappointed to discover that all these scenarios frame "sexual misconduct" exclusively as a matter of discerning the nature of consent. Are there not other forms of "sexual misconduct" following from consent that we could also punish, if only we first elaborated them clearly?

For example [Ed. note - advance reading of Yale's scenarios will greatly assist in the understanding of these essential additions]:

Jib and Twizzle meet at an organic chemistry study group and experience immediate and undeniable...chemistry. Jib invites Twizzle upstairs afterwards, and they mutually and consensually throw themselves into one another's arms. So great is their passion for one another however, that as they press up against one of the centuries-old windows in Jib's dormitory room, the hinges give way, and both Jib and Twizzle are defenestrated.
This is malicious destruction of university property: although Jib and Twizzle reached positive, voluntary, unambiguous agreement to engage in sexual conduct together, they failed to gain the window's consent to these proceedings. Since the steam generated by their conduct makes it difficult for the UWC to determine which of the two was the presser and which the pressee at the time of the defenestration, the spirit of gender equity that animates the UWC's policies requires that both be charged with felony vandalism after they have recovered from injuries sustained in their mutually consensual fall. 

Oatmeal and Cholera are classmates who meet at a party, flirt, dance closely, kiss, spin around in concentric circles, exchange a series of primal mating calls, lick each other's faces, and agree to go home together. On the walk to Oatmeal's room, they send a few texts, letting Cholera's friends know not to be jealous, and asking Oatmeal's roommate to please sleep somewhere else. Once in the room, they discover that Oatmeal's roommate, Pest, does not want to sleep somewhere else. "It's my damn room," Pest remonstrates, and Oatmeal and Cholera "can go to a motel or screw on the lawn for all I care, but I have a physics exam tomorrow and I'm going to sleep in my own dorm." Oatmeal and Cholera look at one another, then at Pest, then at one another again. Using only their eyes, they mutually consent to and execute a plan to place Pest in a large trash receptacle, affix the receptacle's lid tightly with duct tape, and leave it in one of the closets overnight. Oatmeal and Cholera then proceed to have undisturbed sex all night long, and release Pest the following morning in time for his exam.
This is consensual sex: Oatmeal and Cholera reached positive, voluntary, unambiguous, even telepathic agreement to engage in sexual conduct together. They go out of their way to honor Pest's request to "sleep in my own dorm," ensuring that he has a quiet space to rest in preparation for his exam. However, Pest's disrespectful language and effort to disrupt the mutually consensual sexual congress of Oatmeal and Cholera is in violation of the UWC's policies on "cockblocking." The UWC penalty would likely be mandatory sensitivity training for Pest.

Clap and Harpie are strangers who have arranged to meet for sex, an activity neither of them has had time to attempt earlier due to heavy academic commitments, but which both are anxious to initiate because each has heard many positive things about it from the university. Having carefully reviewed the theoretical gender and sexuality literature available in Sterling Library in advance, they have already exchanged signed statements of mutual consent to sexual conduct which include detailed lists of activities to which they are amenable. They meet in Clap's room, and after a preliminary discussion of their preferred gender pronouns and mutual commitment to subverting the paradigmatic norm of patriarchal repression which is reified in the present hegemonic form of the genital-dependent sex act, they proceed to disrobe. But when they move to engage each other, they discover that neither of them knows how to proceed. Having renounced the gender binary and its social construction of genital difference, they find that basic forms of instruction available in books and on the internet are inapplicable to their situation. They agree to turn to Yale's sexual scenarios memo for guidance, recalling that it shares their commitment to gender non-specificity. After applying themselves to a close reading of the document, Clap and Harpie derive a series of steps to follow, including rubbing each other's shoulders, crying and embracing, looking up at one another questioningly, and pulling each other close and then hesitating. They follow this progression, but remain unable to initiate the sex act. They become increasingly frustrated as the night wears on and sex continues to elude them, and after exchanging a series of recriminating remarks about one another's intelligence, appearance, and sexual function, Harpie throws a shoe at Clap's head, and marches out of the room, slamming the door and waking other students residing on that floor.
Although Clap and Harpie demonstrated a strong commitment to positive, voluntary, unambiguous agreement to engage in sexual conduct together, they failed to engage in the conduct. Initial consent was followed by ambiguity as Clap's and Harpie's expectations from each other diverged. In the process of attempting to engage in the conduct, Harpie transgressed Clap's stated limits of acceptable sexual activity. In this case, there was no consent to receive a blow to the cranium from projectile footwear. The UWC penalty for Harpie would likely be expulsion, and it would likely counsel Clap to get counseling.


In the benighted past, it was difficult to pursue simultaneous careers in writing pornography and academic administration, but thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of places like Yale, it is now possible to combine these interests into a single post, charged with the composition of administrative porn. Perhaps you can think of other incidents to be included in a second edition of this important memo? 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mysteries of the universe, explained: LinkedIn

A few months ago, I asked what the purpose of LinkedIn was. Now, there is a thorough explanation (via TNA). There are many deep truths embedded in this essay, including this description of what could well be every institutional happy hour ever held in DC:
LinkedIn merely digitizes the core, and frequently cruel, paradox of networking events and conferences. You show up at such gatherings because you want to know more important people in your line of work—but the only people mingling are those who, like you, don’t seem to know anyone important. You just end up talking to the sad sacks you already know.
Or worse, the army of unpaid interns for whom you, as a low-level but nonetheless salaried employee, are simultaneously the rival and the only social hope in the room.

And, on a practical note, after reading that, “You can add up to 50 relevant skills and areas of expertise (like ballet, iPhone and global business development),” I tried to enter "none to speak of" in the "skills" box of my own LinkedIn profile, and the website experienced a fatal error in response to my effort. Evidently, it is actually impossible to be unskilled. Only unemployed.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Populism in journalism, part 2

You know what's better journalism than covering the news? Publishing an accusatory article on "cultural" topics (Harvard, gender) that you know will generate a flood of indignant web comments, and then making news out of those comments. Front page news, even. Once again, who needs reporting when you can just copy and paste unattributed, unverified reader responses?

Also excellent in this piece is the assertion that,
Even though Section X is hard to pin down — some students said they did not believe it existed at all — it causes enormous resentment on campus, starting with its name. Every Harvard Business School class is organized into 10 sections labeled A through J, and the name Section X implies a pulling away from the wider community.
Advice to Section X-ers from the HBS student body: Just rename yourselves "Section K," and all will be forgiven.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Let there be country/Let the music roll along"

This is a long post defending country music against vague and amorphous nemeses, part of which I wrote two years ago in response to a series of now-antiquated blog posts, and part of which I wrote last February, so it no longer makes any chronological sense. But since the issue of country music's politics has been raised here and at Athens and Jerusalem recently, I decided to unearth it in its rough state. While you read it, I'll be flying to Boston for a semester of hopefully productive TA-ing and dissertating, and probably mocking the Crimson's groundbreaking sex reporting.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Another brief comment about country music, mainly for WPB

Better Kacey Musgraves: Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley PTA." Same point, much wittier delivery, and slide guitar for added flair. That's not to suggest, contra the NYT, that country music didn't discover the phenomenon of moral hypocrisy for the first time just last March, of course.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The whole world outside of Oberlin was right, including me

Via JTL, self-inflicted hate crime: check, sort of. I suppose "hoax" is more apt than "self-inflicted hoax," since these guys did nothing to themselves, so I submit that to correction. At least our culprits spared us the ubiquitous self-delusion that what they did was for the purpose of "raising awareness" of racism, etc. However, Oberlin's admin still insists - in good administrative Newspeak - that being trolled was "an educational moment." And they do not seem to mean that it educated said administrators about trolling and the appropriate and inappropriate responses to it. Because in this sphere, they are apparently ineducable.

Monday, August 19, 2013

In subcultural news

In galloped the bronies. People like Matt Labash keep journalism (and, by extension, this blog) alive.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Jean Elshtain has died

Sad news. I'm just finishing her Gifford Lectures on sovereignty and was about to start in on Public Man, Private Woman. Elshtain was never my teacher, but I frequently came across her work, since she has written on women and the family in political thought, in a thoughtful and reasonable way in a milieu that does not typically reward saying determinedly preservative things on these topics. I concluded that she had good aim from a review of hers I found of Richard Flathman's book on authority that was the only thing at the time to point out the simple and devastating fact that Flathman's supposedly synoptic analysis of authority entirely neglected and could not be applied to all our experiences of authority that do not emanate from The State, which are basically all the experiences of private life. And, of course, from the wonderful essay on thrift from the now-defunct In Character, "You Kill It, You Eat It."

Thursday, August 08, 2013

First world problems, catlife edition: sleeping all day is so stressful

My cat has decided to lick all the fur off his stomach. This is pretty gross because basically cats are only good for their cuteness, and cats with no stomach fur are substantially less cute than their more fully-furred comrades. So I took him to the vet to investigate the cause of this problem, and the verdict was: he is probably stressed, or he has fleas and is also stressed.

According to the opinions of various vets, my cat has been traumatized and anxious since approximately his birth, and the vet in Hyde Park who saw him when has was all of six months was ready to prescribe him Prozac. Since then, suggestions about anti-anxiety meds have been frequent. And it is true that he's been moved around a lot and been placed in a series of temporary foster homes when I was between cat-friendly apartments. However, his domestic situation has been relatively stable for about five years now, barring a couple of moves with which he demonstrated his displeasure by peeing on our stuff for a few weeks after we'd arrived. Isn't that plus a year of placidity enough to de-stress a cat? Apparently not. But what can he possibly be stressed about now?

Gradlife gives one a good view of catlife, and this is what catlife looks like to me:

I am Nigel, short-haired domestic house cat, aged seven, resident of San Diego. It is 6 am and I have awakened from my 12-hour slumber on this plush white chair which I regularly coat with a tapestry of my black fur. I am hungry! I will now scratch and yowl at the humans' bedroom door until one of them comes out to serve me. Urgent! Urgent! Attention humans! Alert! I am hungry! Ah, yes, there's the stuff. Why do you seem so annoyed, human? I was hungry. It could not wait, not even an hour. I am offended that you made me wait. Now I will return to my slumbers for the next 10 hours. The balcony door is open and soft harbor breezes waft over me as I lie under the shade of this large plant.

Or on this couch. Or in this bookshelf, where I have a designated shelf. Or in the closet. I fit everywhere. But nothing is satisfying. Worse, the humans have the gall to leave me alone here, for even four hours at one time.

In the afternoon, a human returns to my abode and pets me and calls me stupid names in a stupid voice and rubs my belly. Mmm, belly rubs. I tolerate these. I am offered catnip and treats for all my hard work during the human's absence, but still I feel underappreciated. Then I return to sleep on whichever couch the human is reading on. Sometimes, I am let out onto the balcony, where I am able to partake of the irresistible leaves of the potted palm until I am forcible torn away from my vegetable love which I am slowly shredding with my affections and forced back indoors. Then the living ping pong ball emerges to taunt me. I do not understand why the humans are not more concerned about eradicating this intruder when they used to confiscate my mice and bats and birds promptly. But the ping pong balls they leave for me to hunt. At 8 pm, I discover again that I am hungry! Hungry! Hungry! Feed me now!!! Fortunately, the humans are more responsive at this hour than at the earlier one, and I don't even have to wait 20 minutes before they oblige. On occasion, I am offered salmon pate wet food. This is acceptable to me.

It is now time for additional sleep, and I once again mount my plush throne, survey my dominions, curl into a croissant, and sigh. I am le stressed. It is such a hard life I lead. Maybe I will lick all my stomach fur off? Yes, I will do that. That will teach them to stress me out.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

How Green Was My Port Clinton

A couple years ago, a friend and I decided to rent How Green Was My Valley because all we knew about it was that it beat Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for an Oscar some year during WWII. Helped along by the fact that neither of us has any pre-1990 roots in America that could help us contextualize how this film could possibly be thought good, no less great, we concluded that it was a heaping pile of nostalgic schlock. The basic plot was that life was great in Wales when everyone was a communitarian coal miner with no vowels and seven w's in his name and could bring up an entire family (poor, but honest, of course) of ruddy, un-voweled children to be future coal miners on his mining wages. But then came labor unrest! Managers exploit workers! Family and idyllic village rent asunder by union strife! Love crushed by scandal! Then everyone dies and the family and village fall apart and the party's over, with nothing left but the narrator's tender memories of his green valley. One review I came across at the time aptly summed up the film with the memorable re-titling, "How Wet Was My Hanky."

Whatever may have been the appeal of the movie in the '40s (and you're welcome to enlighten me on this point, old and historian readers), it's unclear to me what attractions it retains in the present. The story is grounded in the view that being a coal miner is extremely fulfilling and universally desirable, and would that we could all be coal miners in the unpronounceable valleys of southern Wales, and then the rest of our lives would simply fall into place. The only thing stopping us is the vague but nefarious economic forces that were the undoing of the main character's little town. But watch it in the present, and you'll get to the scene where the main character turns down a university scholarship to carry on his family's legacy of coal mining, and you'll think, "No, wrong. Bad idea. Reverse, reverse!"

But when I read things like Robert Putnam's NYT op-ed about the disintegration of his hometown of Port Clinton, OH, I see how people can still claim to love this film. How green was Putnam's Port Clinton, circa 1959? It was full of happy families - poor, but honest. Everyone did well in school, and then either went on to college, or to its equivalent - high-paid industrial wage labor. Rich got along with poor. Labor got along with management. White got along with black, sort of. Pretty green stuff, if you ask me. And now? Cue the ending of the How Green Was My Valley, except with the toxic Standard Products plant taking the place of the polluted coal mine.

America, unlike Wales, is my country, so I can't help but feel melancholy about the decline of the Rust Belt. But what's Putnam really saying that's different from the diffuse lament of How Green Was My Valley?
The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” Everyone in my parents’ generation thought of J as one of “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of R’s existence, and even fewer would likely think of her as “our kid.”
Just like southern Wales, Port Clinton was green back when times were good and Americans really cared about each other, which also happened to coincide with the time when the author of this tale was a child. Then times got worse and they stopped caring, just when the author grew up and realized the world was harder and darker than he thought. But the official culprit is vague but nefarious economic forces that we can neither predict nor control. And what's the solution? More caring, and perhaps more childhood. But if things have only been getting worse since 1959, I wonder why Putnam's account of his childhood sounds so much like the way I'd narrate my own, or how his own children and grandchildren have lived to report the same rosy childhoods elsewhere in America. I also wonder about this selective romanticism of the poverty of the past - it was so much better to be poor back then. Back then, we were poor but honest, now we are poor but pathological. Don't we tell this story over and over, adapted to whatever moment we inhabit, about whatever status quo was achieved when we were 10 years old? For the narrator of the movie, that was the world before labor unrest. For Putnam, organized labor is part of the delicate balance. For his children perhaps, that whole question is over and done with and some new one takes its place. How green was my youth; how dim is my twilight?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Unelaborated assertions

As a country song, "Merry Go 'Round" is pretty much a betrayal of all genre standards. I vote it off the island.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

An open letter to DC conservatives and other people I know concerning relocation to the Midwest

Dear DC conservatives and other people I know in DC,

As a result of our continual and apparently endless relocations, my husband and I spend a lot of time idly discussing where we will move next, or more specifically, where we will "settle down," by which we mean "a place we will live for at least five years," which now seems like a really long time to stay in one place, even though we really have little control over these outcomes. This discussion usually terminates in a contest between returning to Chicago or Washington, with Chicago winning in almost every category until I point out that Washington is practically the only place in America with a lively conservative intellectual life. My husband replies that this attitude is precisely what prompts every politically ambitious twentysomething to move there after their whatever degree program and exacerbate the massive centralization already set in motion there by the growth of the federal government, like a vast in-gathering of leeches sucking on a single oozing sore that never can never heal. (Not a direct quote.)

And while close proximity to the federal government is probably helpful and important for political journalists and policy wonks like you, I do wonder, shouldn't conservatives be a little more concerned about setting up next to an oozing sore? Even in the pre-internet dark ages, the center of conservative political journalism (all journalism, really) was not Washington, but New York, demonstrating that you do not need to live in that park behind the White House to do your job. And now there is internet and 4G, so, strictly speaking, you don't even need to live on Earth! Now, I certainly understand that the Chesapeake region is lovely, and that Washington and its suburbs have good public transit and are rich in essential yuppie services like cupcake bakeries, and these are serious considerations. However, the only house you can actually afford on your think tank salary is probably not even on the Metro, but rather on the VRE in Manassas. Since you're pretty much living in the Shenandoah Valley, the daily views may almost compensate for the fact that you only get to see them out the window of one of those commuter coach buses that picks you up at dawn and takes you back at 5 pm sharp each day because the trip is three hours each way, and if you miss it, you have to spend the night in your office. One need not be a front-porcher and deny oneself imported food to see that it's a bit problematic to advocate government decentralization from an office in Dupont Circle, which is off-center by approximately one mile. 

Why do you live there, then? Because everyone else you know lives there? That's a good reason. You moved there because someone you know lived there, I'd move there because you live there, and maybe someone else would move there because I live there. And of course the people you knew there had a job for you, and you for me, and me for the next person, and so on. The sore does get bigger to accommodate the growing number of leeches - as you will discover when you close on your place next to a cow pasture outside of Leesburg. But maybe while you're sitting in traffic 20 miles outside the beltway one morning, you may begin to wonder why this particular location is necessary to your chosen profession, which you admit can be done from space. Aren't there dozens of internet-enabled cities in America with equivalent per capita cupcake coverage where you nevertheless could afford to live within 10 miles of your office, or even walking distance from it? Well, obviously there are. But there are no conservative think tanks and journals and nonprofits in Richmond or Baltimore or Dover, which you know first-hand because you live in what used to be the suburbs of these cities, which have been charitably subsumed into Washington's vast suburban halo as their original anchor cities have lost their hold on them as they return to the howling wilderness out of which they were raised. 

But there could be, couldn't there? What - other than inertia and the centripetal force of migratory twentysomethings in pursuit of jobs and cupcakes - prevents it? Couldn't a few magazines or think tanks set out as pioneers to stake out new ground, somewhere where they could really be a force, like the homesteaders of the 1850s on the Great Plains? For some time now, my husband and I have considered how and where we could break DC's monopoly on conservative thought-life. Initially, we set our hopes on Chicago, which has many obvious draws, including cupcakes and direct flights to everywhere in America. And while that would be great for me personally, in many ways, Chicago is like the North Dakota of conservative homesteading - parched, freezing, unsuited to the agricultural methods the settlers bring with them, and ultimately inhospitable to their very existence. However, the Rust Belt more broadly is potentially more promising - it blossomed once and could bloom again, and what's more conservative than reviving what was once great, and already has blocks and blocks of lovely but slightly derelict Victorian mansions to work from? And, since most of these cities are in red or competitive states, there is greater potential for local and state-wide political impact.

The question remained, however, from which city we should dispatch boosters? On the one hand, there are places like Gary and Detroit, which have declined so precipitously that they can no longer support even one cupcake bakery, a likely sign that, despite the innumerable wonders that an in-migration of conservative writers may be able to work, a reversal of the civic fortunes of destitute cities is not one of them. On the other hand, too-robust places like Chicago are difficult to influence. And then we hit on it! Actually, my husband would probably like to be dissociated from this post starting about five paragraphs ago, so I hit on it! I was listening to this CSPAN interview with Yuval Levin, in which he mentions about 10 hours in that the Bradley Foundation is based in Wisconsin, and then it was so obvious. Milwaukee! A perfect location! A small city, located in a now politically competitive state, reasonably prosperous, affordable, home to at least two universities, still existing industry, large quantities of beer and Poles, and I guess the Bradley Foundation. The total state and local sales tax is a mere 5.6 percent, and state income tax is 6.5 percent. Not quite Virginia, but not bad for a historically trade-unionist state. And, according to Yelp, four cupcake bakeries. Effete, but also working class. Culturally developed, but also family-friendly. Milwaukee is a place where all conservative values collide.

At least I hope so. Because it is true that Miss Self-Important, despite growing up two hours away, has never actually been to Milwaukee. (Because why would you if you're already in Chicago? Wisconsin is where you go to experience nature, go-carts, and House on the Rock, not Chicago's less-successful industrial twin.) But it seems like a place I could like, perhaps mainly due to its close resemblance and proximity to Chicago. And it seems like a place you, DC conservatives, could also like. What say you? Shall we all agree to meet in Milwaukee in five years?

Big hopeful hearts,
Miss Self-Important

PS: After shopping this idea around in DC - and receiving predictable reflexive rejection from those who suffer from Stockholm syndrome who already live there - I've added the following alternative relocation suggestions to the list of possibilities: Dallas, Austin, and St. Louis. I've never been to any of these cities either, but they could be good. More than one person also offered New Hampshire, but that proposal suffers from obvious and immediate difficulties of geographic isolation and urban underdevelopment. We'd probably have to hunt our own cupcakes there, too. At that point, we may as well remove to Canada, which is emphatically not the aim of the DC Relocation Project.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Travel interlude

In order to make the most of the limited number of destinations to which one can fly direct out of San Diego, we spent the weekend in Sante Fe, which is a comfortable desert outpost full of Indians and tunic-clad hippie women (so many tunics that you'd think news of the advent of shirts and pants hadn't yet reached them).

We stayed in a tiny adobe house off a dirt road.

And we couldn't go hiking because of local wildfires, so we visited SJC, where David had advised us in advance to seek out the clocks with Greek letters, which we did but couldn't photograph, so I photographed the Greek payphone instead, now outdated twice over.

There is also a big sign out front banning dogs on campus, but this contrary indication in the library itself. (The eponymous Seymour was nowhere to be found; perhaps the library amnesty had ended, or he went home for the summer.)

Finally, we settled for hiking our dirt roads instead.

Actual Santa Fe was also nice, but not really worth photographing. I'll be in Virginia and DC for the rest of the month, so blogging will be...pretty much as irregular as usual.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

On the sociable and medieval addictions

A long time ago, there was an exchange at Phoebe's blog about whether the sociability of smoking made it a better form of self-medication for the sad and lonely than the inveterately anti-social activity of taking anti-depressants. Now, Cristina Nehring goes into (digital) print with this thesis:
The question, quite possibly, is not how to banish obsession, addiction, idolatry, and habit altogether, for they are inherently linked and ineradicable parts of human nature. The better question might be: How to choose one’s habits and addictions wisely—or, if not wisely, at least relatively pleasantly or interestingly—and not just according to despotic current fashion.
You clink with wine glasses—not pill-containers. You make a toast to your comrades with pints—not milligrams. So even if and when the buzz wears off, you still have real-life contacts, social skills, a flesh-and-blood community. Your friends may sock it to you sometimes, but at least they recognize your face on the street. They know about the trips you take and sometimes accompany you on them: They don’t take off alone in the bathroom by their medicine cabinet.
Rather than re-state the whole of the argument for smoking and drinking made at Phoebe's blog (which to my more sympathetic readers ought to be self-evident!), I instead want to highlight this nice deployment of the Great Sociability of the Past as against the Lonely Individualism of the Now trope. This is a trope not unlike (but maybe more useful and true than) the Great Immobility of the Past that I mentioned a couple posts ago. It reminds me of Philippe Aries's Centuries of Childhood, a detailed history of the development of modern family life that grows out of one fairly simple claim: Back when no one ever bathed, highwaymen haunted the roads, entire families slept in one bed, death - violent, puss-filled, and otherwise gruesome - was omnipresent, and the brief time before that death was spent in drinking your lord's mead during the 360 festival days of the year, things were awesome. Because, unable to find a moment's privacy, we were at our most sociable, and thus, our happiest. That is how we are, by nature and divine intention, meant to live. Bathing optional.

Nehring and most others who seek the Great Sociability of the Past don't explicitly take the Middle Ages for their ideal, at least not with the forthright zeal of Aries, who was a Vichy sympathizer and so I suppose could afterwards afford such comparatively harmless admissions as a longing to return to the twelfth century. A perfect example of this ideal unacknowledged is Whit Stillman's interest in reviving "dance crazes" in Damsels in Distress. (However, in this article on what was once a favorite hobby horse of mine, pedagogical eros, Nehring's exemplars are more explicit: Abelard and Heloise.) But even if they don't look to the Middle Ages per se, I think that what they do seek is nonetheless a vaguely pre-modern conception of the human good. The extent of man's natural sociability is diminished but never conclusively defined by modern philosophy, despite Hobbes's particular protestations to the contrary, so versions of a medieval ideal persist as an alternative often unmoored from their Catholic foundations. (Sometimes radically unmoored, as in the varieties of socialism, just so you don't go off thinking that the dream of consummate human sociability is unique to the right. But not always so unmoored - every article by Helen Rittelmeyer and Eve Tushnet also fits this paradigm, and they can hardly be unaware of what they're drawing on.)

None of this is to say that the Great Sociability of the Past is not a useful corrective simply because it's a medieval and Catholic corrective. I post this article because I approve it. Up with booze and smokes, and I guess bloody bar fights! Down with pills, and even showers, if it gets to that! Modern alternatives to modernity must come from somewhere, and the past is a reliable source of opposition to the present. All I want to point out is that this is an impulse from the past, and a very unlikely past for most of its proponents at that.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Future names for things that are not cats also adapted from the past

While we're on the subject, I should add that early modernity supplies good names for a great many things in addition to cats, like political pamphlets. Here, for example, is one that can be used for any occasion at all: The Best Answer Ever Was Made and To Which No Answer Will be Made (1706). This was not, unfortunately, truth in advertising, because an answer to it was indeed made, and had to be followed by another sally by the same author: The Finishing Stroke (1711). As far as I know though, that one really was conclusive.

I also failed to note in the previous post that the English of the seventeenth century were no less disposed to naming their children Pineapple than we are, as evidenced by a winning name I came across today: Offspring Blackall. I'm not English or a social historian, so it's hard for me to say whether this was actually as bizarre a name in its context as it now appears to be, but...Offspring?

Nonetheless, a decent name for a cat.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Early modern cats

Professor Mondo offers a near-convergence of mah interests - cats and early modernity (though really the cat poem is earlier than early modernity). A tip to my future self who owns a cat farm - names for future cats: Tibert, Meone. (It's a big question, what to name your cat. You have the panoply of real person names to choose from, but there are additionally names of philosophers, statesmen, and literary heroes to consider. Plus fruits, vegetables, and other animals. So a much bigger set of options than children's names, unless you are of the view that children can be named things like Pineapple, or Hobbes.)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Huck Finn and democratic self-making

Once upon a time (really last October, but it seems like a long time to me), when I was still thinking about what to propose for a dissertation, I considered the link between con-men, or the more optimistically phrased "self-made men," and democratic childhood and authority. These are not obviously related, but if you think briefly about two important American books - Franklin's Autobiography and Huck Finn, you may begin to see a relationship between childhood, adult authority (or lack thereof), self-making and democracy. Unfortunately, this would be a lot like writing a dissertation, or part of a dissertation, on my favorite real life topic: frauds and impostors. More importantly, it didn't seem like the kind of thing that would interest many political theorists, and it would cause many other logistical problems for me on top of that. So, it was dropped.

But Paul Cantor has a nice essay on Huck Finn in the CRB that captures many of these points:
A Mississippi River pilot named Samuel Clemens reconfigured himself as a writer named Mark Twain, and the rest is literary history. Clemens was in fact one of the first to understand that in a democratic society a man might use the modern media to invent himself as a celebrity. In Twain's presentation, America is a land of disguises. As a runaway slave, Jim in particular must continually be kept under wraps. In a bizarre development—of whose irony Twain must have been aware—Jim ends up dressed in the theatrical costume of King Lear. One of the central motifs of Huckleberry Finn is the theatricality of democratic America. People are constantly playing roles in public, and changing their identities seems no more difficult than changing their costumes.
That is why nobody knows for sure anymore who anybody is in Huckleberry Finn. In the aristocratic world of the old regime in Europe, most people were immobile, tied to the land. That is what it meant to be a serf... But Twain's America is a land of wide-open spaces and that makes it much easier to become an impostor, a stranger in a strange land. This is perhaps the best example of how all the criminality in Huckleberry Finn is linked to the new democratic freedom and mobility. This explains why the con man has been such a central American theme. Before Twain, Herman Melville had chosen to title a novel about America The Confidence-Man. And con men have been a mainstay of American popular culture, especially its comedies, as the films of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers attest.
At least in democracy there is a chance of unmasking the imposture. The king and the duke are not really convincing in their aristocratic roles, largely because they were not born to them. As Huck explains to Jim, men born as kings make the most successful impostors. In Twain's view, aristocracy simply is fraud; it is all an illusion, based on mere externals, based on show, as again Huck explains to Jim: "I read considerable to Jim about kings, and dukes, and earls, and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister." For Twain, aristocracy is by its very nature imposture, some men claiming falsely that they are born to rule over others. But people bred to rule seem to do a better job of convincing others to accept their slavery. That is why, in the debate between aristocracy and democracy, Twain ultimately comes down on the side of democracy. Democratic life enables certain forms of imposture, but these are an aberration and can be exposed. As we see in the case of the king and the duke, in a democracy the inferiority of those with aristocratic pretensions is more obvious. But, in an aristocracy imposture is a way of life; it is the foundation of the regime. America does pay a price for building a new nation, but for Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn that price is worth paying for the sake of leaving the old regime of slavery in Europe behind.
I'm increasingly skeptical of the "immobile aristocracy of ye olden days" trope, which never seems to point to any particular moment in time when Europeans were strapped down to their villages. For one thing, it seems to me that few humanist writers between 1400-1700 stayed at home, and some ranged quite widely. We might say these were some kind of elite, which is true, but they didn't necessarily have to be born into the nobility to become such, they only needed to pursue a university education, which seems to be the impetus for much of their wandering. Consider, for example, the life of Thomas Platter, or John Comenius. Aristocracy persisted long after the decline of serfdom in England and France, so is it an age of powerful nobility to which we refer, or an age of feudalism, or just any age where social hierarchy is visible and unchallenged?

But Cantor's is an intriguing conclusion about the greater ability of democrats to detect impostors, and I think very much in line with my own view, frequently repeated here, that we should not rush to make impermeable whatever barrier has been breached by the most recent revelations of impostordom. We should not run background checks on all applicants to college, or call up the universities from which every job candidate claims to have a degree. This is the first impulse of victims of a con - tighten security so it never happens again! But if the very quality of the regime that creates impostors is also the one which unmasks them, then we ought to feel less paranoid about the dangers of letting a few slip through our fingers.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The very small number of decent movies streaming on Netflix: an incomplete list

Occasionally, I get free month-long trials for Netflix, which usually extend to two months because I forget to cancel them until I see the charge on my credit card, and then promptly kill that money-sucker. This month a free trial was occasioned by the release of the disappointing fourth season of Arrested Development. But usually, the free trial is activated so that I can re-watch the first five seasons of Buffy for the eleventyeth time. Whatever the initial purpose however, I use these free trials to watch as many movies as possible, in a storing up acorns for winter kind of way, since I normally see about three movies a year.

The problem with this strategy is that Netflix has a worse selection of instantly streaming movies than a small-town public library in Wyoming. I have watched the first 20 minutes of so many terrible movies, I can't even count them. Practically the only public service Netflix streaming performs beyond allowing you to watch all the episodes of Buffy in one surreal weekend is hosting the first movies of some subsequently good directors (Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman), some Monty Python movies, and the (incomplete) library of classic high school flicks of the 1980s.

So, as a service to others like me (should any such exist), here is a list of non-terrible movies available on Netflix instant, rated according to James Bowman's extremely useful simplified system of see/don't see, except there are no zero star films here because "don't see" is the Netflix baseline, so there are only 2 stars (good movie), and 1 star (decent movie). These are mostly limited-release movies, but since anything released before about 1995 is limited to me on account of my having been either unborn or pre-conscious then, you will have to pardon some older but more popular inclusions as well.

1. Metropolitan **
2. Lust, Caution **
3. Heathers *
4. Tiny Furniture **
5. Ping Pong Playa * (** for simple but effective jokes though)
6. Jesus Henry Christ *
7. Bottle Rocket *
8. The Lost Embrace * (there used to also be other Burman movies available, but apparently no longer)

If you can think of more, let me know. Because I will probably watch them.

ADDENDUM: Commenters and emailers reminded me of/suggested to me some more:
Paper Chase **
Life in a Day*

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Observations on the very small number of decent movies Netflix streams

Heathers is not a movie that could be made in the present. First there is the bullying and rampant classmate-killing. Then there is the use of suicide for satire. And as if that all weren't bad enough, all the teachers are shown smoking, indoors.

And I think it goes without saying that this exquisite funeral garb doesn't help:

Thursday, May 16, 2013

John Adams on the French Revolution

For Withywindle and fellow inveterate pessimists, a letter from John Adams to Samuel Adams*:
New York, 12 September, 1790. 
Dear Sir,— 
Upon my return from Philadelphia, to which beloved city I have been, for the purpose of getting a house to put my head in next winter, I had the pleasure of receiving your favor of the second of this month. The sight of our old Liberty Hall and of several of our old friends, had brought your venerable idea to my mind, and continued it there a great part of the last week; so that a letter from you, on my arrival, seemed but in continuation... 
What, my old friend, is this world about to become? Is the millennium commencing? Are the kingdoms of it about to be governed by reason? Your Boston town meetings and our Harvard College have set the universe in motion. Every thing will be pulled down. So much seems certain. But what will be built up? Are there any principles of political architecture? What are they? Were Voltaire and Rousseau masters of them? Are their disciples acquainted with them? Locke taught them principles of liberty. But I doubt whether they have not yet to learn the principles of government. Will the struggle in Europe be any thing more than a change of impostors and impositions? 
With great esteem and sincere affection,
I am, my dear sir, your friend and servant, 
John Adams.

*This is as good a place as any to note that, in a modern secular sense, the Liberty Fund is doing what was once called God's work by collecting, republishing, and digitizing all of early modern thought, and if I ever have more than $5 to donate to worthy causes, the Online Library of Liberty will have to be a primary beneficiary of my largess.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The pressing questions of our age, 6

Are bubble necklaces essentially an ineffective feminine version of chainmail? And further, do they serve any aesthetic function to which a scarf would not be obviously better suited?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Just got back from a few weeks in the healthful studiousness of the U of C academic cloister, where you can write 10 pages a day (note to present and future dissertaters) to insistently "laid back" and sticky-hot San Diego.

Sights of Hyde Park:

Friday, May 03, 2013

The sexy history of the civilization of women

Since I've been hanging out at the U of C for the past couple of weeks, I thought I'd revisit the Maroon after long neglect to see whether it can produce any absurdity comparable to the Crimson's daily output. And, yes: the university will be offering a new civilization sequence in something called, “Gender and Sexuality in World Civilizations.” But what is the civilization of women, or the civilization of sexuality, or the sexual civilization of gender? One of the faculty in charge of the sequence explains:
“We decided to go with Civilizations because of the very interdisciplinary and diverse nature of gender and sexuality,” Zerilli said. “They are a fundamental part of existence, and without them, there would be no civilization whatsoever.”
Well, yeah. There are a lot fundamental parts of existence without which there would be no civilization whatsoever - air, water, fire, humans, agriculture, art, war, government, etc. But either these things are too sub-civilizational to study historically ("Oxygen in World Civilization"), or they are already part of the content of the historical study of a civilization, as indeed, are gender and sexuality.

The College's definition of a civilization deviated from what I assume were its Burckhardtian origins some time ago, at least as indicated by its course offerings: there is Euro Civ and Ancient Mediterranean Civ, offered separately even though one could opt to take them together in Western Civ, a different course. There is America in Western Civ, which was more or less just American history with initial starting points in England. And then there are the modified Civs offered on study abroad programs, which are narrower versions of the campus offerings that focus on the site-specific history of the country or region in which you are drinking and partying for the quarter. But these variations retained a view that civilization is the history of a particular place and the various poleis that have planted themselves there over time, and it can be understood by reading the texts it produced (or looking (drunkenly) at sites, if you are abroad).*

It seems that by definition then, there could not be a course in "World Civilization," except either relative to  "Martian Civilization," or as a 12-quarter sequence that combined all the other world Civs into a vast History of the Entire World. (Actually, that could be kind of great. As a serial enrollee in Chicago's Civ courses, most of which I really liked, I could get behind that, though maybe not as a College-wide requirement.)

Nor can civilization be redefined as Universal Topic in Specific (or, in this case, Universal) Civilization, because that is just a thinly-disguised and lazy version of a course on the History of Universal Topic. The history of universal topic, be it ladies, sex, music, colonization, science (the latter three being already existing Civ options) is precisely the opposite of what is meant by the history of a civilization. Civilizational history is by definition temporal and contextual - how Greek city-states led to Greek empires while the Roman republic became the Roman Empire which ate the Greek empire and the rest of the world and then was eaten by Christianity and so on** - whereas histories of topics are a cross-civilizational comparison - the social role of women in the Inca Empire vs. the social role of women in modern France. (Incidentally, this is also the worst possible approach to history since it has no necessary temporal dimension at all. Social roles of women simply float free across the globe like hot-air balloons. And this is just how the Civilization of Women course will apparently be organized - into "thematic clusters.") There is nothing wrong with building regular college courses around universal topics, but there is something demented about calling universal topics by the name "civilizations." There is no Civilization of Women, or Colonial Civilization, or Musical Civilization.

It seems pretty clear from this article that turning their plain old department-housed topical courses into Universal Topic in Universal Civilization courses is a good way for faculty to expand enrollment in courses about their own specialties by offering Core credit for them. This is exactly what's done at Harvard with Gen Ed courses - persuade the registrar to allow your class to fulfill the "ethical reasoning requirement" and watch your enrollment climb. There is in principle no limit to the number or content of courses that could fulfill the "ethical reasoning requirement," since the requirement is only intended to be a capacious placeholder for whatever the faculty want to offer, so why not sneak your own course in, whether or not it was designed with the requirement or any conception of a general education in mind? If the popularity of Gender Studies warrants calling it a Civilization, maybe the vacuousness of the Core warrants calling it Gen Ed requirements?

*I think Music in Western Civ and Science in Western Civ were already available when I was there, so this is not exactly a new development. Universal Topic in Universal Civ is a further extension.
** No complaints about the tendentious interpretation, please.