Thursday, May 25, 2017

A day in local news

Utopia, VA's local paper outdoes itself today. No less than three exemplary moments in journalism here. First, we have this fine exhibit in the difficulties of democracy:
Members of the Charlottesville City Council say they will no longer recognize Lee or Jackson parks by those names and will vote in two weeks on new names. A majority of responses to a survey on the matter, however, suggests the council shouldn’t do that. Of the more than 2,600 name suggestions that were submitted to the city in an online survey, approximately 2,200 of them included “Lee” or “Jackson.”... Aside from several profane suggestions, some submissions took aim at the council, such as “you are traitors park,” “Politically correct park” and “Forgot U.S. history park.”
Then, in photojournalism, we have this stroke of brilliance. And, finally, in headline-writing, the award goes to "US immigration agents eat, arrest 3 at Michigan restaurant." 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Zombie posts

Efforts to clean up the archives of this blog have resulted in some posts from like 10 years ago being republished as today's posts. Please ignore.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How to become a famous white supremacist without even trying

As far as I can tell from following the media's coverage of Richard Spencer, being a white supremacist - nay, the worldwide leader of white supremacism - requires one qualification and one only: the ability to espouse white nationalist sentiments in grammatical sentences. None of the many think-pieces about him and his important intellectual evolution ever suggests that Spencer has done anything, at least anything beyond writing grammatical sentences espousing cookie-cutter white nationalist ideas. He runs a think tank that has no staff. He writes for magazines that have no readers. He has a decent number of Twitter followers, but not even half as many as this house cat. He has never held public office, and his entire career consists of being a student, then working at a series of publications with serially decreasing readership. Last weekend, he appeared for 15 minutes in a public square in Utopiaville carrying tiki torches with like 12 other dudes defending a Robert E. Lee statue by shouting about how great Russia is.

Nonetheless, he is super famous. More famous than any other white supremacist/neo-Nazi/alt-Right/whatever dude in America today. I bet you do not, off the top of your head, know the name of the leader of the KKK, which is a real white supremacist organization with a long history of doing much worse things than writing essays. But you do know the name Richard Spencer. Nor do you know the names of anyone associated with Stormfront, nor probably even the genteel eugenicists of VDARE, who write for publications that you have probably read. But you know Richard Spencer. (Ok, for those with slightly longer memories, maybe you also know David Duke.)

That makes no apparent sense. Especially if you agree with the general view of the media establishment that white supremacism is a huge problem, why do you know the name of only one self-identified white supremacist in the entire country? Here is why. What Richard Spencer has actually done to garner the rapt attention of the entire national media establishment, and through it, the nation, is to be a person who had the same upper middle class suburban upbringing as them, went to all the same elite schools, and yet somehow ended up espousing the opposite opinions. Not just moderately contradictory opinions, which are undesirable but at least comprehensible because the debate about, say, which welfare programs are good is still pretty open, but out-and-out opposite ones, over which debate is closed. He went to a fancy high school, UVa, UChicago, and Duke, but believes things that no one at these places even bothers to argue against anymore because the consensus against them is just so consensual. And the journalists burn to know, how is this even possible? How can someone who is supposed to be just like me end up disagreeing with me? This being an extremely pressing question of clearly national significance, they set about investigating it, in profile after profile after profile after profile exploring Spencer's childhood and interviewing his former classmates and colleagues. (There are more, but they're all the same "Meet the nutjob crazypants guy we purportedly hate but can't stop writing about.")

Now, there are of course a number of other white supremacists out there who have done about as little for the cause as Spencer, and even some who have done a lot more for it, but they have failed to sustain the media's attention in the same way. There is, for example, the guy who started Stormfront. His son got a little profile in the WaPo last year for leaving the movement, but I don't see The Atlantic and Mother Jones delving into the guy's childhood and interviewing his college classmates to discern how he became who he is. They aren't interested in the "human biodiversity" crowd. I don't think that even Dylann Roof, who shot a dozen people, got this sort of sustained think-piece treatment in the high-brow magazines. What was all these lesser white-supremacists' problem? Their problem was that they didn't go to elite schools and frame their ideas in predictable but slick and grammatical little essays, sprinkled with Nietzsche references. It's not surprising - and therefore interesting - that they became white supremacists, because they were kind of already you know those kinds of people, not our kind of people. And all of those kinds of people are kind of already white supremacists more or less, right? At least none of our kind of people is surprised when one of their kind is found to have acquired a prolific neo-Nazi internet persona and a large weapons cache. But when one of our kind expresses such sympathies, it's absolutely shocking and also endlessly fascinating.

In the past, becoming famous through white supremacy posed certain usually insurmountable difficulties for most people. You had to get pretty committed to it, join an unpleasant organization, rise in its ranks, and then either publish a hugely popular book repackaging your ideas in a totally new way, or, if you were not the literary sort, probably kill a lot of people. But now, it seems that all you need to do is get a couple elite university degrees and then post an essay online announcing your epiphany that the white race is the best race and Hitler had a pretty good idea. Within a week, Slate will be referring to you as the "spokesman" for all the white supremacists in America. Interview and speaking requests will pour in. And if an entire essay seems daunting, I suspect that even a few Tweets to this effect will suffice. Just make sure they're grammatical and occasionally reference writers from an Intro to Philosophy syllabus. The simpler your position, the better, because journalists don't want to argue with you; they just want to be able to categorize you, and then fly out to interview your fourth-grade teachers about what horrible error in your otherwise socially impeccable upbringing led you to arrive at this wrong position. It's super easy! You don't have to commit to much hard intellectual labor in the white supremacist literary archive or even believe what you say, because after a year of simple but inflammatory Twitter posts and tiki-torch appearances, when the media gets bored of you, you can probably just announce that you've converted back to respectable views (or even that you got woke!), and the cycle of media fascination and speaking engagements will start up again. The contract for the memoir will come through. And you'll be set.

So, if you are an unemployed and unattached young person with the requisite educational pedigree (attention humanities majors!), and are looking for a career change, or just a career, and one that doesn't require yet another round of graduate or professional training or a big time-and-student-loan investment, professional white supremacy advocacy maybe be an ideal route for you. Oh, the places you'll go, with our insular, self-obsessed media to enable you!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Dear internet, which movies should I watch?

We're out of stuff to watch on Netflix because we just can't get into the time-sucking High Art Series Television which is the entire tv/movie world at present, so we are returning to DVDs. What are your favorite movies, within the following parameters:
1. Must be available on DVD
2. Not horror movies, mafia movies, or other egregious blood and violence movies, especially involving violence to children, or movies directed by Woody Allen. Probably not sci-fi or avant-garde either.
3. Must have colors and sounds.
4. In short: relatively mainstream comedy and drama from the past 50 (stretchable to 80 if really good) years. Doesn't have to be American, but I think I've actually seen fewer American than international movies in my (very limited) movie-watching life, so my cultural literacy in this sphere could stand to be expanded. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Self-inflicted hate crimes, "normalized"

I've written here before about self-inflicted hate crimes, a phenomenon that seems to have become an even more popular activist tactic in the past couple years, and is now a wholly routine campus occurrence.  There is even an exhaustive website run (by some probable nut) devoted to nothing but chronicling these hoaxes. Two observations on the resurgent popularity of attacking yourself:

Is the term "hoax" to describe these performances really accurate? A hoax implies that the act didn't really happen, but was falsely reported to have happened. In these cases though, the "hate crimes" did happen - the racist graffiti was scrawled, or the posters posted - but their perpetrator just happens to also be their victim. The fact that the hate crime was actually perpetrated raises the question of punishment. This was especially clear in the U of C case a few years ago: while the perpetrator of these supposedly atrocious acts remains at large, students and admins talk a big game about the severe consequences that await him when he is caught. But once he is caught, talk of consequences quickly ends. By calling it a hoax, we imply that nothing actually happened, so punishment is irrelevant, when in fact the exact same act perpetrated by anyone else (or anyone outside the targeted identity group? I'm not sure how this has been treated in cases where the hate crimer targets others in addition to himself) would merit serious consequences.

One benefit of the term hoax though is that it does convey that the campus which inevitably launches into full crisis-and-protest mode as a result was duped. But by the time that becomes clear, no one seems to mind all that much.

The second observation is this: no one even bothers to find these events troubling anymore. Consider the most recent incident, at St. Olaf (Minnesotan liberal arts colleges of Scandinavian origin have been very active in this field recently): student finds racist note on her car, campus shuts down to soul-search, racist note discovered to have been written by student herself (which the article only brings itself to imply at the end). Fully one person quoted in this article finds this revelation "disturbing," but not disturbing enough to induce skepticism about similar future events. Everyone else agrees that it's basically not a problem at all, since "it’s started something good."

Now, of course, all these people who got worked up over fake threats want to avoid looking like fools when it turns out that they were, more or less, fools, so they have a strong incentive to emphasize positive things about these incidents - they brought our campus together! opened our eyes to our real problems! etc. Still, the extreme nonchalance of the people quoted by the MN paper is, I think, something new. It's not universal yet: when the source of the series of anti-Semitic threats to Jewish community centers in the US turned out to be coming from a Jew in Israel, American Jews, including many on the left, did express regret and wonder publicly about the dangers of alarmism. I didn't read very much that suggested that this guy had "started something good" for American Jews by falsely threatening to bomb them. But college campuses are more - shall we say - prone to hysteria and removed from reality.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that practically everyone on college campuses has internalized the arguments about the "structural" nature of racism and other -isms, not always in an entirely accurate way, and so has essentially bought what used to be the argument trotted out by self-inflicted hate-crimers, that they're only making real and visible (in the form of a lie) to others the otherwise invisible and hard-to-pin-down but deeply hostile forces that they feel around them all the time. What was once a completely absurd justification for an absurd crime has begun to harmonize really well with prevailing social theories.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Small children vindicate my preferences

Per Julia's suggestion in my previous post, I ordered Nietzsche's lectures on education to see if they might fit into my course. The book fell into Goomba's hands when it arrived because she retrieves our mail. (Aside: It is amazing how much toddlers want to "help." They are like Aristotle's natural slaves and will do anything for you! The only problem is they're too weak and small to do very much that is useful. So technically, I retrieve the mail because Goomba is too short and hand it to her to take inside the house and this task makes her so happy.) She immediately determined that the book was for her, because it is small, like her, and insisted that I read it to her. I tried to explain that she would not enjoy it, and it had no fun pictures, and etc. Nevertheless, she persisted. So I sat down with her and began reading, and she burst into tears. I had to physically comfort her and immediately switch to Busy Farm and Passover is Coming! (Key line: "Our seder is great; we all celebrate!" This always causes Goomba to throw up her arms in celebration, even if you say it out of the blue with no connection at all to the book.) to pacify her anger.

That's how bad Nietzsche is.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Education will solve all our social problems

I'm planning to teach a seminar on education next year, divided into two parts: the first on ideas about education through the Enlightenment (Plato, Aristotle, Renaissance humanism, Locke, Rousseau), and the second on the philosophy of education in America (Franklin, Rush, Mann, Dewey, Arendt, Freire, the debate in political theory over the Mozert case and the goals of civic education). And then a few concluding sessions on contemporary policy arguments over funding, size, choice, etc. (Incidentally, do you have some other ideas for readings I should assign in this class? I am probably interested in them.)

I've been thinking about this course and the overarching questions that might animate it for several years, but over the past year, I've been repeatedly struck by a view - an article of faith, really - that my students insist on: whenever we discuss any American social phenomenon that could be understood as a problem, like inequality, poverty, technocracy, political participation, media bias, and so on, the solution they propose to it is always more education. More education for the poor, more civic education, more education in discerning fact from fiction, more education in good nutrition and lifestyle choices, just more education, for everyone in every way. Their faith in education's power to fix things is seemingly unbounded. I suspect that this faith is in part due to how much education has done for them personally; they're mostly academic high-achievers. But a substantial part of it is just faith, totally groundless and utopian.

So in addition to the themes I previously wanted to structure this class around, like the tension between equality and excellence in democratic educational philosophy, I now think I need to address this faith in education as universal panacea. But how? I especially want to find a way to show that our great faith in education's omni-transformative power is actually undermining education's effectiveness at every level. How might this argument be made through readings? And how might it be made without disparaging the real (but limited) power of education?

Monday, April 24, 2017

What's good on the internet

- The students of the University of Utopia only really care about "finance, football, and fraternities." And other considerations on the history of general education.

- Aristotle's advice column:
The function of an animal is to serve the needs of human beings. This is both natural and expedient. Your son’s point, that animals which are beautiful should not be eaten, is a valid one, as beautiful animals fulfill our desire for beauty. However, the statement that cows are beautiful is false. No animal that is very small or very large can be beautiful.
- Epistolary romances are a lot more exciting when you're at war and one of the parties is working on the Manhattan Project.

- Indian spelling bee fanatics: Truly a wonderful article. This exchange perfectly captures both the stupid reductionism of democratic educational thinking and its democratic correctives:
“I can give you a different perspective on spelling bees. But these guys won’t like it,” he said. His name was Kalyan Mysore, and he was there with his son, who was participating in the vocabulary bee but had stopped spelling. “You expend effort in this, you won’t get anything out of it beyond doing well in the spelling bee. Because these days, we have word processors, spell-check. So I decided to keep him away from spelling bees.”

The spelling dads nodded in a we-hear-you-but sort of way. “We used to feel that,” Satish said. “The difference is, my daughter is really good at it.” [...]
I mentioned my encounter with Kalyan Mysore, the spelling skeptic. “I call that ignorant,” he said. I suggested that the argument seemed like a decent one: What, after all, is the point of this? Mirle turned to me with derision. “Tell me, what does Usain Bolt use the hundred-meter dash for?” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to answer. “Nothing,” he said...
Later, Mirle told another spelling dad what I’d relayed to him about the question of purpose. “No, no, no,” the man said. He turned to me with an apothegm at the ready. “As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Everything you do is insignificant, but you have to do it.’ ”

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

First words

Goomba's repertoire has finally extended beyond random objects - shoe ("shoes"), tissue ("shoes"), dog ("doh"), doll ("doh"), fish ("shish"), and blueberries (also, incomprehensibly, "doh") - to include her dear parents, "Da" and "Ma." Ma is a very recent addition, since as of last week, we were both Da. But then she looked at me, pointed, and announced "MA!" A great moment of recognition. Now that she has been duly praised for this attainment though, she won't stop saying Ma! whenever she sees me, which is really quite often.

Ever since "shoes" first emerged in November, I've been wondering why these particular words would be her first ones. What's so special about shoes that they merit being spoken first? We don't talk to her more about shoes than pants, shirts, hats, and coats. Why dog? We don't even have a dog. We have a cat and, while she is always happy to yank his ears and tail when she can get a hold of them, she has no interest in saying his name or identifying his species. Not even the fact that her favorite toy is a stuffed cat has motivated her to master the word. Why? Is there any reason behind any of this?

Monday, March 06, 2017

What's good on the internet

- An unrigorous but still illuminating study of the ideology of Silicon Valley. I think the author is wrong to say that their ideology doesn't amount to individualism because they support redistribution and social welfare. Why do they support them? Because their view of the species is essentially that there are a handful of amazing individuals, and then a vast mass of useless proles who need to be bribed to keep their pitchforks down. In a way, that's even worse than previous American individualist ideas like libertarianism, which attributed to everyone an equal potential to benefit from their regime.

- Busyness as status symbol. One of my students sent me this, suggesting that it as an illustration of our readings about ancient vs. modern conceptions of work and leisure. The children is learning.

- "Nostalgia for now."

- PC culture round-up: the PC advocate psychoanalyzed, and something similar and more substantive from Deresiewicz on PC as religious stand-in. The problem is that everything that's not explicitly religious is a functional religious stand-in according to cultural critics, so the line of attack is always losing its persuasive power. He has some good lines ("The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism.") but on the whole, it suffers from the same problems as a lot of other PC criticism. I might have more to say about his essay later, if I find some time between spring break grading to write it.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The decline of normal people fashion blogs

Ever since Extra Petite went pro, so to speak, and started shilling for $500 handbags and advising me on how best to approach my shopping at designer boutiques in Paris, there's been no one to advise me about what's good this season at boring cheap person stores like Loft, or what to wear with navy tights, or which pant cuts look good on short women. What Would A Nerd Wear quit a long time ago. Sidewalk Ready converted to midriff-baring bohemian weirdness not to be replicated in a professional work environment. Other fashion blogs with smaller followings that I used to read just kind of fizzled. Who is left to tell me what to wear?

Monday, February 20, 2017

All the secret geniuses you've never heard of

If you ever wanted evidence that we inhabit conversational echo chambers, the endless "discoveries" by mainstream media of Straussianism in its various forms must be it. How many times can the NYT and similar liberal-ish publications possibly uncover from total obscurity the same half-dozen old professors, vaguely describe their studies, and claim they're pulling all the strings in politics? How many times can they tell us, upon shedding their probing light into this apparently shadowy underground network (that has institutional homes at such remote institutions as Harvard, Yale, UChicago, Claremont...), that they've located the philosophical key to whatever conservative idea happens to be current, in the person and errant scribblings of this or that previously unknown dude who once took a class/did a summer program/passed in the hallway one of these professors and could thus be said to have been intellectually formed in their mold and sent into the world to covertly propagate their ideas? 

For example:
The Intercept called his writings the “intellectual source code of Trumpism.” Salon put him alongside Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller in the administration’s “white nationalist ‘genius bar,’” while the conservative writer (and staunch Never-Trumper) William Kristol, writing on Twitter, compared him to the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt. 
It certainly added up to a publicity coup for a small West Coast institute known for summer seminars at which young conservatives immerse themselves in the Federalist Papers and other classics of American political thought. Suddenly, The Claremont Review, an erudite journal with a mere 13,000 subscribers, was being hailed as the bible of highbrow Trumpism — “crucially important,” as the journalist Damon Linker wrote, “for anyone seeking to understand the evolution of the Republican and conservative movement.”
Has it ever occurred to the writers of these discovery articles that these secret geniuses "behind" whatever conservative policy or program are just like their unsecret, ungenius counterparts on the left, only they've never heard of them because they never talk to any conservatives?

UPDATE: This hot take on the foundational role that a UChicago education played in the development of a different Trumpian Secret Genius recently pulled from the shadows is a good antidote.

Friday, February 17, 2017

What's good on the internet

As part of my bold and arduous project to contribute to civil discourse outside of horrible social media comment threads but not quite in real life (who has time for that?), and about things other than politics but not exclusively about my toddler, I might start posting occasional lists of links to take the place of substantive thoughts that I don't have often enough. Everyone else does this, so why can't I? (Ok, no one else blogs anymore, but the one person who does also does this, so my statement is technically accurate.)

- Billionaire survivalists: An article obviously intended to stoke the resentments of the 99.9 percent. Not fair! Why can't I afford a $3 million luxury condo with fake windows in an underground nuclear warhead bunker, demandeth the people who can still afford a million-dollar above-ground first home. Another mark of my gross oppression! So try to avoid reading it in that light, and it might instead prompt questions about what these "technical types," as one interviewee describes himself, actually understand about politics. At several points, they seem to view both nuclear war and economic downturn as co-equal signs of apocalypse and signalling the need to escape society and take refuge underground.

Also, instead of seeing this as demonstrating that our current elites are unusually civically disengaged or unusually anxious compared with previous generations of the super-rich, could we not see it as just a logical extension of the prevailing extreme libertarianism of Silicon Valley? Isn't this generally a culture that prizes the individual, especially the individual who overcomes natural impediments common to the rest of humanity (eg, through radical life extension or seasteading), and sees technology as capable of transcending and eventually replacing the nation-state? In that light, survivalism is just another, relatively mundane fetish derived from these beliefs.

Another question is, in the event of apocalypse, where will they get sufficient gasoline to power their private jets and helicopters and even motorcycles for more than a few weeks?

- SSC reviews Eichmann in Jerusalem. Mostly a consideration of the contexts in which people comply with or evade orders. I don't buy the exhaustive present efforts to draw parallels between the Trump administration and Germany in 1932. Trump poses a threat, but I think more likely one that will lead to disorder rather than a consolidating totalitarian takeover masterminded by someone like Bannon or any of these other previously-obscure rightwing types, whom journalists are now treating like evil geniuses whose sundry bloviations on the internet over the past decade are actually pieces of a carefully-constructed grand strategy to undermine our constitution. So I especially liked this passage from the review:
I thank G-d for the annoying obstructionists, for the nitpickers, for the devil’s advocates, for the people who hear something that’s obviously true and strain to come up with an absurd thought experiment where it might not be, for the reflexive contrarians, for the people who always vote third party, for the people who urge you to sign petitions on because “then the President has to respond”, for the people who have two hundred guns in their basement “just in case”, for the people who say “well, actually…” all the time, for the mayors of sanctuary cities and the clerks who refuse to perform gay weddings, for the people who think being banned on Twitter is a violation of their human rights, and for the people who swear eternal hostility to other people on the same side who agree with them on 99% of everything. On the spectrum from “totally ungovernable” to “vulnerable to Nazism”, I think that we’ve erred in the right direction.
- Everything is terrible and getting worse. Nick Eberstadt lays out the demographic trends.

- "Of All the Birds That I Do Know." A bawdy seventeenth-century madrigal, one of the many excellent songs to which Utopia's public radio station has introduced me, and which is now stuck in my head.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Pathologies of toddlerhood

We received the following "Incident Report" from daycare the other day conveying news of Goomba's poor behavior, complete with the dates, times, and signatures of all present adults and requiring my signature as well:
Description of Incident: Friend grabbed Goomba's face. Goomba bit friend's hand.
Incident Prevention: Closer supervision.
Savages. But I especially enjoy the use of the term "friend" here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Aspects of parenting I did not previously imagine

This is a real thing I am now researching because Goomba shows incipient interest in her daycare's version of it. It's really hard to believe how much effort has been put into making unimaginably detailed and realistic "pretend" versions of stuff like cooking utensils. It seems like you could give your kids most of the real versions of these things to play with for a lot less money. Maybe not knives, but most kitchen stuff is pretty innocuous. And at some point of realism, will the distinction between the pretend and real versions dissolve, so that adults will use the pretend plastic cutting board while the kids play pretend with the real plastic cutting board?

Thursday, February 02, 2017

The meritocracy can neither be fixed nor destroyed

When I stopped blogging due to moving/starting job/endless sickness, I had a few half-written posts which I want to get back to even though they're old news now. This one is from last June.

I don't think I will ever get tired of thinking about the problem of the meritocracy, and evidently neither will Helen Andrews, since she had an(other) essay about it in The Hedgehog Review. It's good, and you should read it, at the very least for the great morsels of irony that Helen has dug up, including this wonderfully revealing quote from a product of our pedagogy's current elevation of "critical thinking":
“I mean, I learned how to think bigger. Like, everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”
In the past, I've agreed with many of the arguments Helen makes (for example, here and here). But now, having been provoked to it, I will double-down on my view that our meritocracy is defensible, and not by being converted into an outright aristocracy, as Helen suggests.

1)    Helen finds the origins of meritocracy in 19th-century British civil service reform, where it's introduced to replace patronage. But for Americans, civil service is not where meritocracy most matters. Civil service jobs are competitive and do draw Ivy League meritocrats, but we don't really imagine our bureaucrats as America's smartest or most impressive people. When high-achieving adolescents dream about going to Yale, I don't think they dream of a subsequent illustrious career writing arcane cable television regulations for the FCC. That may well be what they end up doing and even enjoying, but it's not what young meritocrats' dreams are made of. Their dreams are full of tech start-ups, finance, medicine, research, journalism, social justice projects, and the arts.

All of which is to say, our meritocracy isn't literally the rule of the meritorious, as the name suggests. We are still ruled, politically, by the mediocrities who predominate among our elected officials. It's not even clear that we want Phi Beta Kappa types in office, except for those of the Democrats who are themselves Phi Beta Kappa types. Meritocracy matters most for us in the private sector, in society broadly understood.

That means first of all that meritocracy is not a simple historical phenomenon for us with a concrete beginning in a law passed in the 19th century and a possibility of an equally concrete end in a future law overturning the first law. Meritocracy is instead an abstract principle governing and legitimating selection for pretty much every job and position in America. As a result, "reforming" the meritocracy cannot be a matter of changing the rules governing employee selection in federal agencies. It's a matter of changing our entire culture; indeed, our entire political regime.

Consider this argument from Democracy in America:
[Rulers in ages of democracy and skepticism] must especially strive to banish chance, as much as possible, from the world of politics. The sudden and undeserved promotion of a courtier in an aristocratic country causes no more than an ephemeral impression, because the whole complex of institutions and beliefs forces men to progress slowly along paths they cannot leave.

But such events give the world possible example to a democratic people, for they urge it on down in the direction whither all its emotions are anyhow leading. So it is chiefly in times of skepticism and equality that particular precautions are required to prevent the favor of prince or people, which comes and goes at random, from taking the place due to merit or duties performed. One must hope that all promotion will be seen as the reward or effort, so that no high position should be too easily acquired and men of ambition should be obliged to plan well ahead before they reach their goal. [Emphasis mine]
Tocqueville suggests meritocracy is a necessary accommodation to democratic conditions. What Helen calls "the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing" - the belief that hard work pays off - is actually a basic corrective for democracy's worst tendencies. Without it, we get not aristocracy, but only a more radical democracy - more short-sighted, impulsive, petty, demanding of immediate gratification (from the state). When the long-term fruits of hard work and achievement are shown to be "delusions," why not just grab what you can while you can, from whoever has it? So, we get got populism. This was not an improvement.

2)   The reason that no one can come up with an alternative to meritocracy is not because they can't imagine "what it would be like not to believe in it." It's true that it's hard for a 21st C. American to imagine life in a feudal aristocracy. But the bigger problem than the limitations of our imaginations is the limitations of our political philosophy. 

There are a limited number of workable principles for distributing social goods. A regime can distribute social goods like influence and power according to birth, wealth, need, virtue (or, in the Christian era, grace), or lottery, or all or some of these in combination. (There are other principles of distribution like strength and beauty that can be used for some goods, but few regimes determine who rules by principles like these. However, Herodotus does claim there were societies in Africa where rule was determined by height.) The principles of distribution which a regime admits define it. Socialism is defined by distributing most social goods according to need. Democracy in the strict sense does it by lottery. Aristocracy does it by birth and wealth. We are democrats in the loose sense, so we reject most of the above principles. That's why Helen can't find anyone who can imagine an alternative to meritocracy. It's not because we can't imagine other practical ways of distributing social goods, but because all the other ways offend our democratic sense of justice. The only alternatives that get any traction with us are those which push democratic principles even further than we've yet allowed: lottery and need.

Meritocracy is much older than Victorian civil service reform. It's an updated version of Aristotle's 'best flutes for the best flute players' principle, distribution by aptitude. We have tried to get as close to the justice of 'to each what is fitting' as possible, to match each individual with the life and occupation for which he is best suited by nature and most desires to pursue. But aptitude is a hard thing to reliably identify and measure, so we rely on imperfect but somewhat more objective proxies for it - intelligence, past experience. Aristocracy has the same problem: in the strict sense, aristocracy is distribution according to virtue - rule by the best people, the aristoi. But virtue, like aptitude, is hard to identify from the outside. So regimes that aim at virtue soon find themselves relying on more concrete proxies for it: birth and wealth. But poke the aristocrat hard enough, and you will find that what he values for its own sake is neither birth nor wealth, but the virtue that he thinks flows from them or which they outwardly indicate.

And just like the aristocrats had to contend with the shortcomings of their chosen proxies, our present difficulties with meritocracy show us democrats the problems with our proxies. But what they don't show us is that our principle of distribution - to each what is fitting to him, or what he has the most aptitude for - is unjust. Is it? I don't think so, but even if you do, demonstrating that would require a very different argument from the one which Helen or any other meritocracy critic has offered.

The critics of meritocracy whom Helen cites are all just trying to adjust the proxies we use, claiming to have found better ones. They probably haven't, but their unwillingness to propose entirely different principles of distribution only demonstrates their underlying commitment to liberal democracy over socialism, radical democracy, oligarchy, or aristocracy. Do we really want them to abandon this commitment?

3) "Embracing the label" and acknowledging that our elites aren't representative of the country, as Helen suggests we do, is in fact something the Social Media Left has already done. It's what all the privilege-checking amounts to: the demand that you acknowledge that you are of the elite, that you can never speak for the people (who constitute a majority of minorities), so that what you say should be regarded as having no value to the majority, and would be best not said at all. And acknowledging your privilege means acknowledging your responsibility to facilitate the speech of the unprivileged. That is the special work of meritocrats, according to the Left.

This solution forces elites to own up to their status as "separate, parochial in their values, unique in their responsibilities," as Helen describes them. And it consequently requires them to shut up, so as not to annoy the people so much. What it doesn't do is allow the elites to openly rule, which would seem to be the primary incentive for them to "embrace the label" in the first place. In fact, it does the opposite: it openly subordinates them to the people, who have the only legitimate voice in public life.

Given this grim result of "embracing the label," it's not surprising that Ivy League grads continue to "think of themselves basically as working stiffs" instead of aristocrats. Hard work and self-making continue to be the basis of public legitimacy. To announce that you are an aristocrat is to immediately render yourself irrelevant and even poisonous (I'm sorry, "toxic," as social media likes to say) to public life. Until our regime actually becomes an aristocracy (and this is how we know it's not), there will be no benefit to anyone from following Helen's advice, unless you think that public discourse improve if everyone with an elite college degree, including Helen, were to stop participating in it.

Now, many people claim that we're already an aristocracy. Mobility is down, inequality is up. Regime change has already happened, only our terminology lags behind it. But the problem with our elites runs deeper than their inability to call themselves aristocrats. They also do not feel like aristocrats. They instead feel very unstable and very afraid. In a true aristocracy, you are born to your status, but our children of Ivy Leaguers still have to work for theirs. Nobody feels secure even at the top, and they demonstrate their insecurity by going to extreme lengths to keep their kids afloat. If they were aristocrats, they would have to do no more than keep their kids alive to assure their future high status. It may be that their fears of falling are statistically unjustified since most of them will not fall, at least according to current models of the recent past. But there is no assurance of that for any of them individually, and that is what prevents us from seeing our society as an aristocracy. Precisely because "ethnic balance" is "important to meritocrats," they have "engineered it into the system," and "geographic diversity" has "struck them as important," so they'd "ensured that it exists." And this engineering and ensuring mean that there are many qualified would-be meritocrats in the wings, and no parent can be certain that his own children, no less his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will out-perform these aspirants, and everyone has to work maniacally to stay in the hallowed circle, with those closest to the center working more frantically than the rest. If this is an aristocracy, then no aristocracy in history has ever been so frightened and insecure without the immediate prospect of an actual guillotine hanging over their necks.

4) The real problem is not meritocracy, it's centralization. It's not that there are tests or pre-requisites or requirements to write insipid personal statements for employment or for university seats. Despite the shortcomings of these methods, they're still better than distributing these things by any other selection principle. The problem is that the number of "good" universities and employers is rapidly decreasing, that a handful of schools and companies are monopolizing all the young talent in the country.

We would never even need to worry about whether meritocrats "represent the country" if it weren't for centralization. Meritocracy was never a principle of representation in the first place. It was a way of determining who is qualified for what task. There is no connection between, say, the work of engineering or medicine, and the task of representing America. It's a recent lefty idea that every institution, profession, and small social gathering ought to be a microcosm of the intersectional identity distribution of the entire country in order to be legitimate. But it's a crazy goal, mathematically impossible to attain, and foolish to pursue. It's only possible to pursue it when there are so few routes to status and affluence that a handful of institutional gatekeepers can collude to very precisely regulate the in-flows, by imposing whatever standards of "merit" they choose. But that is the result of a centralization that co-opted meritocracy, not meritocracy.

Perhaps you are thinking, as Helen indeed suggests, that meritocracy leads to centralization. And perhaps you are right in the long run, but at least in the US, meritocracy long preceded centralization. If Tocqueville could already observe the principle of meritocracy and its necessity under democratic social conditions in the 1830s, then we must at least admit that it takes a good long while for meritocracy to issue in nationally-centralized pipelining. Maybe it's not even ultimately inevitable. We had quite a long run there when a college (or even high school) degree didn't determine life prospects at all, a degree from any post-secondary institution was worth a lot (and there was a remarkably large number of very good post-secondary institutions, as there in fact still are), and no more than 100 people in the entire country even conceived a desire to attend Yale each year. What if we had never adopted the Progressive understanding of science and expertise but still stood fast behind our belief that "all promotion be seen as the reward or effort"? Would we be where we are today?

How to undo the centralization of the past 120 years is of course no easy question. But I'm not sure it's actually harder than converting our essentially democratic meritocratic elite into a self-recognizing, class-defending aristocracy, as Helen suggests. And, one of the benefits of trying is that we would not necessarily have to sacrifice our regime in the process.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Updated American institutions

I think this town's equivalent of a nineteenth-century New England town hall or a twentieth-century Midwestern community center is the high-end gym with therapy pools and complimentary straightening irons in the women's locker room and fruit-infused water. It is the place to run into everyone. (Today we ran into the rabbi.) Granted, it is in the center of town, but otherwise in no way resembles its institutional predecessors.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

How can I get my child to eat vegetables?

For the first seven months of solid food consumption, Goomba was an indifferent human vacuum. Then, at around 13 months, she apparently discovered that she had numerous and complex preferences, and none of these preferences extended to anything green. She's a lot like my cat when we tried to hide his medicine inside his food - he ate exactly all the food and left exactly all the medicine behind in his bowl. If you feed Goomba a spoonful containing vegetables mixed with things she likes - cheese, fruit, meat, more cheese - she will chew the whole mass for a bit to get a sense of its contents, and then surgically remove the vegetables from her mouth and fling them to the ground. For a while after rejecting green food, she remained content with lower-grade orange food - carrots and yams - but now even these are out. (And for the record, I make the best mashed sweet potatoes (the accurate name of the recipe), so if she does not like my mashed sweet potatoes, her preferences are clearly defective.) What is to be done?

Ideas I have had include cooking peas and broccoli into pancakes or covering them in chocolate, but since we presently feed her neither pancakes nor chocolate, I suspect these efforts will simply result in the incorporation into her diet of more bad things that she will learn to want, and no good things that she presently does not want.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Can Trump be trolled?

A thought experiment. If we imagine that Trump really is a paradigmatic classical demagogue or tyrant, we are forced to ask, how was the classical tyrant controlled or at least influenced by his subjects to act in their interests? (Actually, one of my grad school classmates wrote his dissertation on this very question, but it has yet to be published and I don't know what his conclusion was, so we will have to carry on here without his wisdom.)

In ancient Greek, the word for tyrant does not exactly imply Very Mean Ruler Who Exploits His Subjects, so there are good and bad tyrants. All tyrants rule without law, but not all tyrants rule in their own interest and against that of their subjects. Another difference: good tyrants, like Pisistratus in the Constitution of Athens, are open to frank advice. Bad tyrants, like Herodotus' Croesus prior to his near-death epiphany, love flattery and reject good advice if it's not wrapped in praise for them.

Twitter amply informs us that Trump hates criticism but adores flattery. He retweets almost anything that praises him, even if it's from white supremacists, a point which I can believe goes entirely unnoticed by him. So far, the anti-Trump media has tried to discredit him by criticizing him, but has only succeeding in cementing the opposition of those who already opposed him, not in re-directing his own behavior. But what if it changed courses a bit?

Let's start with the ACA. Let's say we don't want him to repeal the ACA (which is not to say we do or don't, this is just a thought experiment). Instead of publishing a million articles about how good subsidized health insurance is for a whole catalogue of poor, sick people who did not vote for Trump, why not create a ploy like the following: a social media post by an attractive young-ish woman, late 20s-mid 30s, explaining that she was a yuge Trump supporter (with photographic evidence) during the campaign. She is a stay-at-home mom to three little kids (photos) married to a man who worked in manufacturing but was laid off and now works only part-time so can't get health insurance through his job. A month ago, she was diagnosed with a serious but also usually treatable form of cancer, and they had to buy health insurance through a state exchange. Without the ACA, she will not be able to continue cancer treatment (b/c of her pre-existing condition, private insurance will be either unavailable or unaffordable). She is not asking Trump to keep the ACA b/c she agrees that government-run health care is wrong. But she is asking him to help her somehow, because she really believes in him and him alone, so that she can get her cancer treatment, and so her three children can grow up with a mother (photo, tears).

Now let's imagine this woman's post goes viral (with a little help), and becomes a national news story. Trump keeps up with national news stories. Trump likes attractive women, and people who like him, and good photo-ops. Does he respond? He can do it the way he did Carrier, which is essentially like Pisistratus' "tax-free farm," a one-off show of his extravagant mercy that is simultaneously a show of lawlessness, by personally paying for her treatment while continuing to support Congress's repeal of the ACA. But that sets a precedent too - what if all his ailing supporters start appealing to him for medical expenses? He'd have to become a one-man replacement for the entire ACA. So maybe he pushes for some exceptions to the repeal, a "we're gonna keep the good parts and name them after me" kind of thing. That would still be a win for his opponents. Or, of course, he could just throw our Trump-supporting dying young mother under the bus while America watches, but would he?

This strategy could easily be applied to other instances when subjects might wish to direct their tyrant to their own ends through his. Do you think it would work?