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Thursday, May 29, 2014

More future names for children and animals borrowed from the past

In addition to names for cats and pamphlets, The Past offers good baby names for those looking for something traditional yet unique, like every name in the following paragraph from Hotman's Francogallia:

Rest assured, little Clotilda and Gontran will not suffer the indignity of requiring the first letter of their surnames to be invoked in order to distinguish them from their same-named classmates.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Department of Bad Ideas: Academic conferences should be held at all-inclusive tropical resorts

I had composed half a post about the Pressing Issues of Our Day, but failed to finish it because an emergency vacation to Cabo came up. The nature of the emergency was that my sister-in-law's airline tickets would go to waste if unused by someone this weekend, and the only people flexible enough to act on these emergencies are, of course, graduate students (note to real world scorners of academia: see how we are a public good; we stand ready to take your vacations for you), so my friend and I booked a last minute all-inclusive resort deal and here we are, writing our dissertations (and this blog post) while drinking pina coladas poolside.

You can't really tell from the photo, but there is an artificial waterfall between me and the view.

Cabo's beaches are mostly not swimmable, which makes me wonder how it became such a destination for tourists. I (once again) wish I knew how to fish so I could catch marlins though. Marlins! Like the Old Man and the Sea! (That is the only context in which I've come across marlins. But now I have also tasted them, and they are delicious.) It's the beginning of the off-season here, so it's fairly empty and also 100 degrees every day, so there isn't much to do off the resort either other than walk through the estuary in the early evenings and look at pretty birds. Clearly, this place is vastly underused and its luxury wasted for months on end. Think of all the uneaten octopus, conch meat, and lobsters! Only about 10 lbs of it a day can fit into our stomachs, and getting it there is our main on-resort activity. Whither the rest? Isn't there some remedy for this inefficiency?

I have concluded that there is, and that remedy is academic conferences. I know that all-inclusive resorts are for low-brow, middle-American squares, with whom academics would be offended to be identified, but just consider how dull the current conference regime is. Conferences are already expensive to get to, they already take place at overpriced hotels, and they are already square, so moving them to all-inclusive tropical resorts would not be a radical change, but only a minor procedural reform.

Imagine this: all the conference attendees are corralled into one hotel, so they get a big group discount and benefit from more extensive "networking opportunities." The APT conference seems to work around this principle of forced or at least highly encouraged togetherness, and, lame as that might sound in principle, it's the only pleasant conference I've so far attended. The resort will have unlimited free food and drinks, facilitating what appears to be the primary current activity of conference attendees: meeting people for meals and getting sloshed. It's also a radically egalitarian approach to this activity, so no one will be too poor to partake due to income or university reimbursement constraints. Lunch runs from 11 am - 4 pm: just think of how many lunch meetings you could squeeze into that time-frame. There are also awkward-fun activities like pool volleyball (amenable to the hashing out of inter-subfield rivalries) and sunburning on the beach, which would facilitate political scientist bonding in casual settings by encouraging them to commiserate over the structural problems of the discipline, like how they are all so pale and burn so easily whenever they try to tan.

Such resorts are also child-friendly, so you can fold a vacation into the conference, bring your kids and let them loose at the kiddie pools, where they will inadvertently network with other political scientists' kids on your behalf, with probably better results than you yourself will manage. The whole family can look forward to MPSA when it's in Jamaica. And, on the other end, Jamaicans can look forward to MPSA when it brings them tourism in May or June.

The main potential difficulty my friend points out with this plan is that there may be some visa issues involved for foreign political scientists traveling to these resorts. To minimize these difficulties, we could begin this shift to the all-inclusive resort conference with beta-testing in places like Puerto Rico, where visa issues may be less salient. Beyond that, I see no problems, or at least none that are likely to make conferences worse than they currently are. Who's with me?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The first rule of the NYT is that everyone reads the NYT

An observation from an article about a program at UT-Austin designed to raise graduation rates for low income students:
Perhaps the most striking fact about the success programs is that the selection criteria are never disclosed to students. “From a numbers perspective, the students in these programs are all in the bottom quartile,” Laude explained. “But here’s the key — none of them know that they’re in the bottom quartile.” The first rule of the Dashboard, in other words, is that you never talk about the Dashboard. Laude says he assumes that most U.L.N. students understand on some level that they were chosen in part because of their financial need, but he says it is important for the university to play down that fact when dealing directly with students. It is an extension of the basic psychological strategy that he has used ever since that first TIP program: Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but because you are confident they can succeed.
Well, I'd think the publication of this story in the NYT Mag pretty much destroys the program then, doesn't it?

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Checking my privilege took all the energy I was going to use to do something about it

Phoebe has written up her YPIS hobbyhorse nicely for the Atlantic, getting pretty much to the bottom of why privilege-checking is more or less the moral equivalent of changing your facebook photo For Great Justice:
To say that someone “comes across as privileged” is to call that person clueless and insensitive. It may not even be logically possible to admit to privilege, if we’re defining “privilege” as advantage about which one is unaware...It’s a personal insult posing as social critique...It’s also that it’s made cluelessness a greater crime than inequality. These ubiquitous expressions—“check your privilege” or “your privilege is showing”—ask the accused to own up to privilege, not to do anything about it. There may be a vague, implied hope that privilege-checking will lead to efforts to remedy some injustice, but the more direct concern is not coming across as entitled, not offending anyone underprivileged who theoretically might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in the room.
Privilege talk is just navel-gazing as social justice, and "calling out privilege" is the world's easiest form of social work. Hey, you there! Privileged! Done, gold star for me. (And of course some schmoe read the article and got right on that. Some people have only three days to live, ok, and here you are, using your time privilege to get a PhD!) However, my question for Phoebe on this has for a long time been, is it the entire way of conceiving of inequality that privilege talk represents that's the problem, or just the particularly insidious way this rhetoric has been used by the internet commentariat?

My sense is that Phoebe favors the general impulse behind privilege talk, when it's used as a way of describing systemic group inequalities. Where privilege goes wrong is when a way of describing the broad social advantages of a group (say, males) is applied to any individual male in a way that implies that he is either personally responsible for the oppression of all females by virtue of sharing a group trait, or that he is nothing but a male, which, due to the supposed privilege this carries, trumps all other, perhaps less privileging, individual circumstances in his life. (Phoebe: feel free to correct this generalized summary.) But what also seems to be wanted here is concrete action against injustice or inequality, something that Phoebe rightly complains that privilege talk never seems to lead to.

I wonder though whether it's ever possible for privilege talk - even correctly used to signify group advantages - to lead to such action. The same impulse that pushes people to constantly mis-apply what were supposed to be group traits to individual cases also leads them to intellectually and morally break systematic inequalities down into personal situations, and for good reason. It's precisely because it's impossible for anyone to do much to improve the group status of women - all 150 million of them in the US - that we resort to helping individual women at some local level. The individuation of a "social problem" is necessary for individuals to take any action. Otherwise, it's all on the state to address group inequalities, since that's the only entity big enough to manage it, and our job as citizens is to pretty much to sit back and change our facebook photos at coordinated intervals to show our support.

At the other end, privilege rhetoric's claim that social goods are unearned strokes of luck undermines the sense of personal agency that's required to think that you can or should help others out. Even if you thought that it was unfair that you just happened to be born with all these desirable accouterments - whiteness, wealth, maleness, etc. - they're still flukes. Certainly the idea that luck is required for success has always been an important way of urging charity; the poor are "the less fortunate" and your obligation to help them arises from circumstances for which they are not entirely to blame. But this understanding of luck and misfortune is individuated and has to be amenable to improvement by effort. So, it's bad luck that your childhood was poor, but if you do well in school, then you can go to a good university and not be poor as an adult, and the rich can help concretely with that. By contrast, no amount of effort can make someone white or male (well...). Can someone with white privilege help someone not white attain the "structural advantages" of whiteness? No, he can just try not to gloat in public, as Phoebe points out. Neither can he personally do much to eliminate those structural advantages which simply inhere in his being. If you didn't build it, then you have no construction skills to pass on to anyone else, nor can you demolish the sprawling edifice. You just have to wait for the advantages of whiteness to abate in society at large, and since only the state is potentially powerful enough to rectify luck-based inequalities by redistributing the wages of luck to the less lucky, then again, once you've checked your privilege at the counter, you can sit back and enjoy the flight.

Finally, there is the question of pride, which privilege (not unlike Christianity) tries to subdue. Phoebe suggests that privilege is a "new form of noblesse oblige" for elites, but that, whatever its demerits, actually did impel people to concrete action. The parallel is not quite right though, since noblesse oblige arises out of pride. In America, it's because it's a great thing to be wealthy and successful that you should help others become so. (In the ancien regime, the peasants can't ever become like you, but it's still because you're so great that you should try to improve their lot, though that kind of noblesse oblige is less relevant to us.) However, privilege is, as Phoebe points out, not a great thing to have, but rather a source of shame. You cannot reasonably be proud of being white or male or rich. If anything, you should be sorry for it, since you're facilitating a vast system of oppression just by existing. But cringing shame is an impetus for hiding, not for action. Maybe that's a desired result - no more condescending "help" from the privileged for the un-privileged, just the privileged getting out of the way? But I assume this is not Phoebe's desired result, or what she hopes for from privilege talk. Still, when we try to help people, we are implicitly trying to make them more like us in some way. We teach children so they can know what we know, we counsel our friends so that they'll do what we'd do, we donate things so that other people can have what we have, etc. If we thought ourselves pathetic or despicable, then what could we purport to offer anyone else except a piece of our lameness? Better to keep that to ourselves.

Where it doesn't crush our pride by making us ashamed of whatever goods have (and really, hardly anything is as resilient as our pride, as Christians also know), then privilege talk inspires resentment. Rather than self-flagellate over the privileges we do have, which is painful, we will always prefer to blame others for the privileges we lack, which is self-vindicating and therefore pleasant. So, rather than help others, we are oriented by privilege talk towards feeling aggrieved and demanding more for ourselves.

It's not as though there was no conception of charity, social obligation, or the virtue of helping others or just being nice before privilege came along. What then does privilege-checking contribute to this effort? It doesn't tell us anything new about who could use help. It doesn't tell us anything new about how to help them. It doesn't in itself help anyone. It doesn't explain anything about social phenomena that wasn't explained by already-existing concepts like race, class, elite vs. mass, etc. It appeals to all the things in us that suppress any actual individual activity on behalf of the less privileged. So what's useful about privilege?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The online left-wing outrage industry at right-wing money

Some fool at Gawker has discovered the dark secret that conservative organizations fund some conservative college publications which sometimes attract writers who later go into journalism and politics - as conservatives - and he is outraged! Surely it is equally problematic then that some college newspaper staffers go on to become professional journalists, some college protesters become professional activists, some college politicians become real politicians, some nerds become academics, some theater and arts alumni become actors and artists, all using their college experiences to start their careers? But no, it can't be that the same nascent vocational affinity that draws students to write for college political magazines also leads them to pursue careers in political journalism. It must be conservative "money madness" that brainwashed them and thrust them into these jobs. As for the scores of liberal college journalists who became prominent liberal pundits (and that's a sampling of just Harvard's liberal journalism alumni), theirs was apparently a pure impulse to do good, so they required no funding and paid their publications' printers only in love.

Moreover, it's only conservatives who can parlay their college journalism into careers:
"That white guys like Hegseth and Continetti can publish critiques of privilege-checking in lavishly funded conservative outlets, earn praise from conservatives in the media mainstream, and reap the financial rewards of their advocacy, is a deep irony that's apparently lost on them."
This is obviously a "privilege" exclusive to white guy conservatives writing for conservative-funded publications. It's not like the Crimson's articles are being picked up every week by the Boston Globe. There are no liberals in "the media mainstream" to praise liberal college journalism or, if there are, they're all unpaid volunteers. Like Arianna Huffington, for example - a famous unpaid liberal media intern whose website never publicizes liberal campus journalism. And pity Arthur Sulzberger, poor as a church mouse (send donations!) and with no influence in the "media mainstream" that ever results in the conversion of college advocacy into national news. Worst of all, there are no equivalent liberal advocacy jobs for liberal college students. Only conservatives earn money in journalism or politics, from these nefarious right-wing "funders." I'll bet Aaron Weinstein is being compensated by Gawker for his heroic efforts in packets of instant ramen.

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Weinstein apparently believes that the Collegiate Network is snatching unsuspecting college students, indoctrinating them and providing them with "lavish funding" for their campus publications, and then setting them on a direct road to "six-figure salaries" in conservative advocacy. How does that work exactly? Well, I once started a campus publication which was graciously funded in part by the Collegiate Network. Let me tell you about it.

First, we started out as a bipartisan "journal of ideas" (this was a dreamier period of my life) but quickly discovered that student government was unable to fund the full cost of our lavish proposal of three issues per year. But crazily enough, we still wanted to start our journal. So we looked around and found some additional sources of funding: a small U of C fund that gave us about $500, and the Collegiate Network, which bestowed upon us the lavish sum of $1000 (the following year, they even upped us to $1800 for our good behavior). Too bad that the cost of printing a single issue of our magazine was about $1400. After putting together the money from student government, the little fund, and CN, we covered our first year's costs and began publishing.

CN then swooped in and enforced its "McCarthy era" demands on us with strict discipline: only white men could write for the magazine, which was awkward for me and the other two or three female editors on our fluctuating six-person staff, and all of them were required to "opine conservatively for maximum effect" in order to provide raw materials for the "campus right-wing outrage industry." This rigid ideological requirement resulted in articles about such topics as indigenous land rights, the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, the philosophy of Richard McKeon, and the liberating possibilities of pornography. Maximum conservative impact was achieved when all these articles went viral and we were repeatedly invited to appear on Fox News, only for some reason there is no record of that part. And, with the $57 or so left over at the end of our first year, we threw a lavish pizza party in my apartment blow-out at a downtown club, renting out a private room and ordering bottle service, then returning to our apartments at 6 am in stretch limos. All lavish stuff, let me tell you.

And it goes without saying that I have since become a rich and important conservative pundit. Before CN gave us this money, I was both liberal and totally uninterested in writing. But it's amazing what a grant covering a quarter of the annual cost of running a campus magazine will do to you. I was immediately indoctrinated by right-wing propaganda and compelled to compose right-wing polemics. And from there, it was a quick rise to the heights of conservative punditry and massive wealth and fame as an editorial assistant, occasional freelancer of book reviews, and now a graduate student. It's because I'm actually so high-profile that I blog under this pseudonym. And you can't even imagine how big my teaching assistant paycheck is - fully SEVEN FIGURES, if you count the numbers to the right of the decimal. My only regret is that, unlike Matt Continetti, I was not given the hand of one of Bill Kristol's children in marriage, which would've fully cemented my position as queen of the universe, but I was willing to settle for being a favored princess of the blood. The rest of the Midway Review staff circa 2007 now shares space with me at the helm of the conservative movement, having been also groomed and elevated to power by this "right-wing money front," only most of them prefer to keep that part of their lives out of sight and so have taken misleading day-jobs as lawyers, software developers, teachers, IT coordinators, and I think one professional Marxist protester (of course that one is a double-agent). And we have CN to thank for it all. All we had to do was show up and they did the rest. Only sad liberals have to work for their success.

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Eventually, Weinstein comes down from the oxygen-deprived peaks of conspiracy-theorizing long enough to notice that the left has partisan campus journalism funding outfits too, and it turns out that he has no problem with that after all:
This is a game that liberals have learned to play recently, too. The Center for American Progress, through its Campus Progress and Generation Progress programs, similarly funds left-leaning independent campus publications and grooms fellow travelers for punditing and politics...Even though conservatives got a head start of several decades, CAP has closed the gap, and its campus-publication alumni are also far and wide. But CAP also actively seeks out voices of diversity; conservative groups like the ISI and Collegiate Network still mostly fund white guys like Hegseth and Fortgang.
No, the problem with CN is not that it's some kind of politically-motivated organization meddling in internal campus affairs, but that it doesn't "seek out voices of diversity." Does CAP "seek out" its voices? Unless they're sending emissaries to campuses to personally solicit minorities and women to start campus magazines, then presumably no, anyone who wants to start a progressive publication can apply for their funding, just as with CN. There isn't even a race or gender question on the application. CAP is clearly dropping the diversity ball here.

So, in sum, college students sometimes become professional journalists after writing for a while for one of their college's publications, and if we dig really deep into the "connect-the-dots money madness" of the right, we will discover that it funds some of these publications, while others are funded by the left, and most by a patchwork of funds from wherever money could be found. But here is the kicker: some of these student journalists are conservative. It's all a big racket called growing up and finding what you like to do. Get outraged, and send in the FBI.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Hyde Park and environs in spring

From the 10th floor of the Logan Arts Center, which is worth visiting if you're in the vicinity:

University

Washington Park

Woodlawn

Thursday, May 01, 2014

First World Problems: I can only take exams in comfortable chairs

Fish, barrel, I know. But since the campaign for smaller sections was swamped by end-of-term grading, the campaign for official nap space fell asleep on the job, the campaign to lower eyebrows at instances of serial alcohol poisoning lost consciousness, I was beginning to wonder when Harvard students would make a new request for the amelioration of their harsh conditions. Fortunately, with all the critical thinking taking place in Cambridge, one never has to wait long for a fresh injustice to be detected. And here it is: the seats in which many students take their final exams are too small and uncomfortable:
It’s time to start talking. The vast majority of exams at the college are given in the Science Center, Sever, and Emerson—three buildings that have immovable chairs with little legroom and attached desks that can barely hold a single bluebook. These desks severely restrict movement within the confined, rigid space, and are predominantly designed for right-handed people, giving left-handed people an additional disadvantage.
Not just left-handers are unfairly disadvantaged, as it turns out, but also those with learning disabilities that prevent them from thriving in low-legroom environments, so this is actually a civil rights issue. With an analogy that vividly brings the suffering home to us, our complainant informs us that the situation is worse than "economy class airplane seats"! And what greater torment could be inflicted on a man than to give him an economy class airplane seat?

The author supplies photographic evidence of the shocking, barbarous conditions to which he has been subjected during his final exams. Looking at those uniform rows of slightly worn velvet cushions into which hapless students are regularly packed like veritable sardines (but with one empty seat on either side of each sardine, per university exam rules), I can't help but be reminded of Solzhenitsyn's descriptions of the Soviet gulag, and how strong a resemblance they bear to Sever Hall, except I'll bet that at even in the gulags, the exam desks were big enough to fit an entire sheet of paper.