Friday, December 21, 2018

Downsides of living in Utopia

There aren't many, except this: "Restaurants open on Christmas Day." The author of this article gushes, "Contrary to popular belief, for the holidays, you can beat home sweet home." He then proceeds to share our four entire options for doing so: one Chinese restaurant, one hotel brunch buffet, Waffle House, and...a gas station. Fortunately, the Chinese restaurant is quite good, and we have been meaning to take the kid to Waffle House.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Christmas music, redux

I think I have said before (or every year) that I love Christmas music, secular and sacred, within reasonable boundaries - beginning only after Thanksgiving, not completely taking over my usual radio stations but being prudently mixed in, and excluding certain extremely terrible songs like Santa Baby and Last Christmas. This is apparently the first year in history that Jews have felt empowered to say publicly that they do not celebrate Christmas and resent its omnipresence during the month of December because no one has ever complained about it before, but I alas cannot join in this principled and landmark protest.

Christmas music is one of the few canonical genres of anything in America, and one of our few longstanding and truly national rituals. Apart from Independence Day, which is of course explicitly civic, the canons of Christmas are the only other time when I feel that I'm taking part in a longstanding (well, by American standards) national tradition together with everyone else in the country, and not in an distant, academic, or ironic way, but completely naturally and casually. This is, for example, the only instance when we all enjoy music from the 1940s as though it were contemporary. The US is not a country big on the cultivation and demonstration of national solidarity, which is mostly fine, but it's good occasionally to be recalled to the fact that you do live in a nation, even if it's a nation of individualists and haters. Surely songs romanticizing snow by Bing Crosby are the least offensive such reminder.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Goomba development file: 3 years

I told Goomba she wouldn't be allowed to turn three if she refused to use a fork to eat her pasta. She believed it and started using the fork.

When I put her to bed, she insists that she will go to sleep sitting up. I tried to dispute this for a while and explain that it is impossible to sleep sitting up, and that only giraffes could do this (I have no idea if this is true, but one of her books claims it is). She said, "No, giraffes sleep standing up. I will sleep sitting down." Now I just tell her to go ahead and try it. The best part is that when I wake her up in the morning and she sits up, she concludes, "I was asleep sitting up!"

Goomba: Birthdays are like Shabbat.
Me: How are they like Shabbat?
Goomba: We light candles.
Me: Yes, but we don't say blessings.
Goomba: We sing "Happy Birthday," which is a blessing for cake.

"Today, I am a kitten. Tomorrow, I will be a horse. After the horse, I will be a goat. After the goat, I will be a sheep. After the sheep, I will be a rooster. After the rooster, I will be a cherry pie."

Me: Would you prefer to have a little brother or a little sister?
Goomba: A little brother, because I have never seen a brother.

Goomba: When is the new moon?
Mr. Self-Important: I don't know, we'll have to check on the computer.
Goomba: I cannot use the computer because I don't know how to press the buttons. I need a grownup to press the buttons.

"Is Argentina a house?"

"You don't know anything, Daddy! My teachers know better."

"I am not content with my lunchbox. It does not have an ice pack."

Pointing to her middle finger, during Hanukkah: "This is my shammes."

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

"It runs in the blood of our family to steal"

Almost every semester, I teach this passage from John Adams's Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States:
"We cannot presume that a man is good or bad, merely because his father was one or the other; and we should always inform ourselves first, whether the virtues and talents are inherited, before we yield our confidence. Wise men beget fools, and honest men knaves; but these instances, although they may be frequent, are not general. If there is often a likeness in feature and figure, there is generally more in mind and heart, because education contributes to the formation of these as well as nature. The influence of example is very great, and almost universal, especially that of parents over their children. In all countries it has been observed, that vices, as well as virtues, very often run down in families from age to age. Any man may go over in his thoughts the circle of his acquaintance, and he will probably recollect instances of a disposition to mischief, malice, and revenge, descending in certain breeds from grandfather to father and son. A young woman was lately convicted at Paris of a trifling theft, barely within the law which decreed a capital punishment. There were circumstances, too, which greatly alleviated her fault; some things in her behavior that seemed innocent and modest; every spectator, as well as the judges, was affected at the scene, and she was advised to petition for a pardon, as there was no doubt it would be granted. "No," says she; "my grandfather, father, and brother were all hanged for stealing; it runs in the blood of our family to steal, and be hanged. If I am pardoned now, I shall steal again in a few months more inexcusably; and, therefore, I will be hanged now." An hereditary passion for the halter is a strong instance, to be sure, and cannot be very common; but something like it too often descends in certain breeds, from generation to generation."
The students tend to find this story funny and preposterous, but apparently it is also an actual phenomenon. Who knew? Now I have statistics to back it up for future semesters.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Local social media

I am a member of both local moms' Facebook groups and local lost pets Facebook groups, both of which completely dominate my newsfeed. As a result, when I scroll down and see posts that read, "We lost this girl today..." or "Please help find this baby!", I temporarily panic and think OMG SOMEONE'S CHILD IS LOST IN TOWN!!! But then it just turns out to be a cat or a parakeet or whatever, and I am like people, please.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Paean to my new vacuum cleaner, for which I have been longing for a year

"How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys, is not so much the utility as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number...

Our imagination, which in pain and sorrow seems to be confined and cooped up within our own persons, in times of ease and prosperity expands itself to every thing around us. We are then charmed with the beauty of that accommodation which reigns in the palaces and economy of the great; and admire how every thing is adapted to promote their ease, to prevent their wants, to gratify their wishes, and to amuse and entertain their most frivolous desires. If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this abstract and philosophical light. We naturally confound it in our imagination with the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or economy by means of which it is produced. The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand, and beautiful, and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it."
--Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

Things my two-year old has requested for her third birthday

- A cup
- Toilet paper
- A spoon

When I told her that her first choice, the cup, was not really a good idea, she burst into tears and wailed, "But I want a cuppppp!" I guess we should be grateful that her expectations are still very, very low.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

More 2.5ish

31 Months:
- "Whobody?" This is the greatest. Extrapolating from "somebody," Goomba determined that the logical way to ask about the identity of somebody is whobody. "Whobody starts him car?" "Whobody left him towel here?" Often the whobody in question is Goomba herself.

- Potty training victory! After six months of wheedling and exhorting and arbitrary use, she one day decided to ditch diapers and use the toilet. It was a like a switch unexpectedly went off. Now we have many unused diapers.

- Potty training defeat! As a result of graduating to underpants, Goomba has decided that she is, alternately, a big girl and a grown-up, and therefore no longer under any obligation to obey our instructions. She will not put on her clothes or shoes, and she will definitely not go to bed. Conversation:
Me: I will sing you one song, and then we will say night-night, and you will go to sleep, ok?
Goomba: Two songs!
Me: Ok, two songs and then what?
Goomba: Say night-night.
Me: And then what?
Goomba: Then I cry!

- Where does everything poop? "Where do bears poop?" "Where do squirrels poop?" "Where do birds poop?" "Where do mooses poop?" "Where do butterflies poop?" (Where DO butterflies poop? I could not answer this one.)

- "I want to drive!" She is very serious about this, and requests it every time she gets into the car. More than one meltdown has been precipitated by my informing her that she can't drive our car.

32 Months:
- Extremest psychological distress from trying to decide if she is a big girl or a baby. She now understands that this is a trade-off, and if she wants to wear underpants and drink out of a cup and sit in "the big girl chair" (aka, a chair), she must also do things like go to sleep on her own at night, and clean up her messes, because this is what big girls also do. But she doesn't want to do all the big girl things, only the ones she enjoys. So she begs to be a baby, then insists she is not a baby, then begs to be a baby again.

- Conversation (after I called her little):
Goomba: I am big. The little is gone. Now I just big.
Me: The little is gone? Where did it go?
Goomba: To eat a sandwich.

- On eating some pasta I made for her: "It's good. You are good, my mommy." Thank you, my kiddy.

- Conversation:
Me: You are my sweet pea.
Goomba: I not a pea. Peas are green and I not green.
Me: Ok, good point. What are you?
Goomba: A pasta! Pasta is yellow and I yellow.
Me: You are my sweet pasta?
Goomba: Yes.

- Playing on her ride-on car: "Where is the air-conditioning on this thing?"

34 months:
Enter Niney onto center stage. Niney is a stuffed cat that she's had since infancy and she has always favored, but now Niney is everything. (His "real name" is Nigel, after our real cat, who is referred to now as "Real Cat.") She feeds and diapers and bathes him and potty-trains him and projects her entire self onto him. She is his mommy, and sometimes also his daddy, his grandma, and his babysitter. Niney does everything she does. "We inform her that she's going to swim class tomorrow, and she responds, "Niney also going to swim class." She also re-enacts many of her interactions with us with him, with her playing our part and the cat playing her. The best part is that Niney is blamed for all her misbehavior (but is never credited with any good behavior). As in the following exchange:

Me: Goomba, why did you throw your fork on the floor?
Goomba: Niney did it!
Me: I just saw you do it. Niney is not even in the kitchen.
Goomba: Niney did it! [Switches to Mama voice and addresses imaginary Niney] Niney why did you throw your fork on the floor? You can't do that!
Me [in a Niney voice]: I didn't do it! Stop falsely accusing me!
Goomba: You did do it Niney!
Me [in Niney voice]: No, I didn't do it! You did it!
Goomba: NO I DIDN'T!! NINEY DIIIIIDDDDD IT!! [bursts into tears]
This exchange occurs on a regular basis. She is always extremely distressed when her obvious guilt is pointed out to her.

So she has learned to lie, but at least she's still pretty bad at manipulation. She'll ask, for example, to go to the bathroom right before bed in order to get out of bedtime, and when I ask her, "Are you actually planning to run down the hall and throw yourself in mommy and daddy's bed?", she proudly replies, "Yes!"

She has learned what I do at work. No longer do I go to campus and "eat pizza." Now, she informs me that, like mama, she goes to work on campus, where she "teaches students." "And Niney goes to work too, but he gets bored so he stays in the car and sleeps." Already she anticipates the nature of the college lecture.

To thwart her continued efforts to drive our car, we told her that you need a driver's license to do that. This worked until she found some cards with pictures on them from a card game and took one and insisted that it is her "lisenn." She carries it around and shows it to people and again demands to be allowed to drive.

35 months:
- Conversation:
Goomba: I love you mommy.
Me: I love you too.
Goomba: BUT WHY???

- Conversation with apologies to my students:
Goomba: Are you a teacher?
Me: Yes.
Goomba: But you are not a teacher at [her preschool].
Me: But teachers are not just for preschool. They teach big kids in big kid school.
Goomba: You teach big kids?
Me: I teach...very big kids, yes.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Efforts to defuse meritocratic competition will all lead to more competition

Ok, we are back to fighting the meritocracy. Do you know what the ultimate democratic and anti-meritocratic selection mechanism is? A lottery. When we select something by lottery, we give up all pretense of selecting for the best. So no one will have to compete to be the best anymore. Will this not solve all our problems with university admissions? Yes! Yes! No more squabbling and lawsuiting over who deserves to get in, because it will no longer be about desert. Except, of course, if we condition admission to the lottery on meeting certain pre-requisites and those pre-requisites are themselves a little subjective, such as...
After a cull using this automated scoring — applicants would need, say, a combination equivalent to a 3.7 grade-point average, 4 out of 5 on the essays/activities and 1500 on the SATs — the final selection for acceptance would be done purely by lottery.
But what if Harvard created a fixed set of criteria that it deems desirable—say, an SAT score of 1470 or above, a 3.5 or higher GPA, a demonstrable interest and aptitude in particular non-academic activities, a record of overcoming obstacles, and so on? To continue to promote diversity, the school could give extra weight to certain applicants depending on, say, their zip code, the kind of high school they attended, their income, and their race. 
Then what will happen? Will we perhaps turn all our energies toward squabbling and lawsuiting over the precise calibration of qualifications for the lottery instead? What makes a "4 out of 5" on an essay or an activity? Why was my essay a 4? Why not? Just how many obstacles does an applicant need to overcome to clear the bar? How much interest is "demonstrable interest"?

So many questions, so many lawyers to raise them in court...

H/T Joanne Jacobs.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The irreparable trauma of daycare?

These are all sad stories, but one thing I'm struck by in the family separation coverage is how strange this ubiquitous claim is:
“There is no greater threat to a child’s emotional well-being than being separated from a primary caregiver. Even if it was for a short period, for a child, that’s an eternity,” said Johanna Bick, a psychology professor at the University of Houston who studies adverse experiences in childhood.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

"Don't trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer"

The South is in most respects pretty much like the North, especially in college towns like this one, but every once in a while, you encounter something like this:
Confederate Monument Protest Permit 

This is the lawyer representing our local white nationalist troll. What is he wearing? I think his outfit can be described as, pretty much, The South. (This ensemble could also be seen occasionally on another Virginian, Tom Wolfe.) So I looked him up, and found this Google Maps image of his office:

Is it real? Is he also a troll? I don't know, but it's pretty amazing if real. A true backwoods Southern lawyer.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

On moving

Was going to list some leftover furniture on the area Craigslist free stuff page when I opened it to find this had gotten there first:

I guess you can take these along with my media center.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Go west (to I-81), young man

Does anyone remember when Mike Huckabee was running for president in 2008 and his major transportation policy proposal was to add extra lanes to I-95? At the time, I was living free and easy (that is, employed, unmarried, childfree) in DC and taking frequent trips to visit friends in New York (remember when our friends still lived in New York? also, remember when we used to take the Chinatown bus to see them?) and see the sights of the fabled East Coast to which I had very recently relocated and where everyone is from and all significant American life was said to take place. I remember thinking about his proposal that this is truly a great idea. I-95 is the Great American Thoroughfare. Since then though, everyone turned against the people along I-95, including especially the people who live along I-95 themselves, the greatest anti-elitists of all, and it has become the Hated Elite Thoroughfare.

There is another expressway though that roughly tracks I-95 along the East Coast, but runs through its "back country," where authentic people live, and that is I-81. It is along this interstate that you can find authentic cities that, if you have ever heard of them, it was likely only as the butt of a joke, like Martinsburg, Hagerstown, Scranton. In deference to our new populist overlords therefore, we hewed closer to the I-81 on our recent trip to New Haven (boo hiss) and back. Actually, so populist were we that we took state roads almost all the way up (great idea if you want to drive for nine hours), and the I-81 only back down. And, since we also had a toddler with us, we stopped...a lot. In many small towns: Berryville, VA, Green Springs, PA, Wanaque, NJ, Middletown, NY, Lewisburg, PA. We also stayed in Lancaster, PA for a day and visited Emily Hale in Williamsport, PA, where we saw the used food store (two of them, actually; the used-food business must be doing well) and everything was named after Little League and there were some extremely impressive Victorian mansions.

The great irony we discovered was that, for all the apparent resentment against the college-educated among the voters in the I-81 corridor, building and sustaining a college, even a small one, from the nineteenth century was the most reliable ticket to present-day survival for a small town or city beyond New York's or Washington's exurban orbit. For example, look at this nice postcard of pre-war Middletown. It looked almost exactly like that last Saturday afternoon, except nearly every one of those storefronts was empty and instead of dozens of people strolling about, there were more like two. The whole western side of Virginia appears to sag and sit empty, with strip malls full of discount tobacco stores and places that fix cell phones. By contrast, Lewisburg, home of Bucknell University, was in fine shape. Gettysburg's prosperity is apparently sufficient to support a proto-suburban ring. I realize that colleges are not the only economic basis for small towns, and that these places do still serve as supply centers for agricultural hinterlands and, judging by what we saw, trucking depots, in addition to whatever local specialties they might have, but it was truly uncanny how much work colleges were doing for otherwise-isolated local economies.

Utopia, VA is an obvious and extreme example of this, since we have both a huge university and a huge university hospital that together employ something like 120 percent of the city's residents, and make possible 20 fancy coffee shops. Another thing this road trip has demonstrated to me is Utopia is really in the middle of nowhere when you consider it from the perspective of the geography of the eastern US (is this why no one ever visits us here?), but it never feels like it when you're in it. From the inside, it feels comfortably large and full of things to do. But without the university, it's clear that Utopia would be, at best, like its much saggier neighbor, Waynesboro, VA - a place that itself has benefited economically a great deal from even somewhat distant proximity to Utopia's university.

It would surely be preferable to have a more diversified economy, but it's very hard for a small place to do that simply by virtue of its size, and the main alternative to a higher ed-based economy seems to be no economy at all. So what do the populists have to say about this difficulty?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


- Banning plastic straws has suddenly gone from a thing no one was thinking about to a thing everyone is doing. I didn't have any opinions about it one way or the other until this afternoon, when a local coffee shop handed me a paper straw with my iced tea, and it disintegrated into the tea within the hour.

- Mr. Self-Important to me today: "I have made us a to-do list with four separate but interrelated parts based on a to-do list model developed by President Eisenhower."

- The cat went on the lam and was re-captured yet again, to his immense dismay. Does anyone know how to turn an aging indoor cat into an outdoor cat? Is this even possible? This pathetic creature really wants to get out.

- The academics in these Twitter threads, my goodness. A living illustration of the kind of epistemic bubbles that result in calls for actual affirmative action for conservatives in academia. Why are conservative graduates of elite law schools more likely to get high-level political jobs than liberal ones? What nefarious conspiracy could we create to explain the basic supply-and-demand facts of American partisan politics? And even if we could somehow hit upon the reason for this, it's still a terrible injustice because the world of politics is supposed to proportionally mirror the politics of my particular school. Otherwise there will not be enough extremely prestigious jobs for all my classmates and me, and some of us will be forced to make the terrible choice between between lying about our opinions or - worse than death! - settling for the private sector and making millions of dollars instead.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Tyranny of the minorities, pt II: "Bands of contrarians"

Julia sends along this very timely essay from The Hedgehog Review, on the difference between contemporary outsider chic and true contrarianism.
The thing to be today is an outsider, an underdog, a moral outlier and exemplar, a defier and disrupter of the established order. It’s an identity that has never been far from the surface in American society, and it is now reasserting itself in a new form. It doesn’t matter if, like the Los Angeles Satanists, you have thoroughly conventional ideas. Or if, like the nation’s Trump supporters, you number in the tens of millions and have put your man in the White House. One of the more compelling claims you can make in America today is that you are proudly and defiantly outside the mainstream. That you are a contrarian. It’s the claim not just of populists but of professors who style themselves as iconoclasts, climate change deniers, radical environmental groups, libertarian seasteaders bent on creating autonomous floating cities, countless alternative-values and lifestyle groups, and many others...Much of what social critics decry as rampant individualism in contemporary America is really rampant crowd behavior. It is herds of people busily declaring that they are not part of the herd.
Lagerfeld contrasts this with "true contrarianism," (a possible analog of Tocqueville's tyrannized minority?) which is to stand alone, at substantial risk to oneself against a group, in the name of a truth or end that is ultimately for the benefit of all.
Contrast that with the experience of the typical crowd contrarian. The very point of belonging to such a group is to seek safety in numbers, which shields crowd contrarians from the scrutiny and self-criticism that are essential checks on the contrarian impulse. And if, as the Church of Satan official said, the point of belonging to such a group is to celebrate one’s distance from the rest of society, what is the hope that your actions will somehow benefit others? Banding together is a healthy human impulse. Banding together in knots of narcissistic fury is not. The rise of contrarian crowds is a measure of our failure to create new, widely shared forms of belonging and community.
This account suggests that both possibilities from my earlier post are taking place: there is a real breakdown of the majority into shifting group coalitions whose members exhibit both the pathologies of minority persecution and those of the majority that tyrannizes, and a repudiation of insiderness and its concomitant institutional responsibility.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Can there be a tyanny of the majority without a majority?

Last fall, I noticed a strange thing while teaching Democracy in America. My students energetically agreed with Tocqueville that the tyranny of the majority is a serious problem, and professed to know this from experience because they were its victims. All being holders of minority views, they lived in fear of social repercussions from the tyrannical majority. But, of course, it is empirically impossible that all of my students can hold minority views. Their positions range from center-right to far left, and if some sizable portion of them don't reflect the majority, then who does? Even granting that discerning a general majority "view" at the national level is an elusive and probably impossible task, at the very least, my students are the majority in the immediate context of the university. How could most of them fail to see that they hold an institutionally-dominant outlook?

At the time, I wondered if Tocqueville's account is either wrong or more complicated than it appears. Our regime doesn't produce a recognizable majority position and a small embattled minority at the mercy of the majority. Maybe there were moments in the past that looked like this: liberalism vs. communism during the Cold War, or Jacksonian populism vs. Whig elitism in the 1830s. Instead, we're in a situation in which everyone feels himself to be part of an embattled minority waging a lonely war against an amorphous but pervasive majority tyrant, who's maybe not immediately in here, but certainly out there. Why?

One possibility is that there just aren't majority views anymore. Our membership is in subcultures instead of a broader culture, so that there are just various group views in constantly-shifting coalitions, all strongly held, all equally susceptible to the Tocquevillian criticism that they're being held for the sake of social approval more than sincere intellectual conviction (ie, the ubiquitous virtue-signalling accusation), and equally subject to Tocquevillian social penalties. Or, another way to put this may be that different spheres are ruled by different subcultural majorities - education and culture by the left, the military by conservatives, national politics and business are somewhat evenly divided, etc. And there are even finer gradations and differences of emphasis in each sphere, so that even fellow-partisans may sometimes feel marginalized, as for example liberals who reject identity politics in academia and journalism, or social conservatives in otherwise economically conservative business firms. But in a regime of subcultures, there really aren't majorities, just coalitional pluralities, so perhaps my students are right to see all their views as embattled.

Another possibility, which recalled this question to my mind recently, is what Yuval Levin describes as a widespread repudiation of "insider" status in institutions, even by obvious insiders:
People with roles to play inside institutions instead see those institutions as platforms for them to perform on, and the performance they offer up is generally a morality play about their own marginalization. As a result, too often no one claims ownership of the institutions of our society, and so no one accepts responsibility for them.
Levin is describing national political institutions, but this is also an attitude that could explain the perceptions of students (and likely faculty) that they're embattled minorities within institutions that look to all reasonable observers as the most hospitable places to them in the history of the world. They are right in a certain way, since undergraduates are, by design, outsiders in a university; they pass through quickly and can hold only the most insignificant governing roles. But in their view, they seem to be also outsiders among themselves, not just relative to the faculty or the administration.

You often come across claims like this at Harvard: this or that aspect of this school makes me feel excluded and unwelcome here. The wealth of the majority, its whiteness, liberal politics, family connections, etc. make me feel like I don't really belong here. Women and racial minorities would back this assertion with a claim about how the institution "was not built for people like me" to ground their present, abstract sense of exclusion in a history of concrete exclusion. In a way, these students were completely right about their discomfort and outsider-ness. Harvard is undoubtedly one of most unwelcoming institutions in the country. It's entirely plausible to me that no one has ever felt that he belonged there, for whichever of 12,000 personal/familial/financial/ethnic/religious/sexual/intellectual/aesthetic/political/artistic/social deficiencies that prevent him from being the very best at everything, which is what those who really belong at Harvard are. One of the great ironies of the push for "inclusion" is that even the kinds of people usually described as avatars of belonging and blamed for everyone else's feelings of exclusion at places like Harvard -  rich, white guys who are members of social clubs and fraternities - can now make a plausible claim to feeling unwelcome based on their identities, since their rich, white male social life is under attack by the university administration. So, at this moment, precisely no one is an insider at elite universities. We are all standing outside an empty building, imagining that we are protesting its occupants while actually protesting each other.

The institutional alienation at my current university, a much more inviting and egalitarian place despite occasional efforts at and pretensions to elitism, is much less intense. Unlike Harvard, Utopia University was not designed to make you feel like a perpetual bottom-feeder. But many of the same forces are at work here to make the feeling that one is an insider who represents the institution to outsiders hard to acquire. Among the students, most are the first in their families to attend this university, many are immigrants or the children of immigrants for whom the school was "not built," and the majority are from the most urbanized parts of the state whose residents come and go frequently, so they have relatively weak ties to the state itself. The faculty are in an analogous though less transient situation - a few are alumni, but for most, this is just the place they happened to get a job in a tight market, and they have no deeper loyalties to it than that, at least until they get tenure. Everyone can come to see the university as little more than a rung on their personal career ladders, one that should be organized primarily for their self-advancement rather than as some kind of inter-generational inheritance that they have to maintain for their descendants. (In a similar argument years ago, David Brooks blamed meritocracy for this state of affairs, because by elevating individual achievement above all other qualities, it turned everyone into a consummately self-serving free agent and severed the sorts of attachments that used to foster an inter-generational sense of institutional loyalty. I still think there is something to this argument, but it's also harder to cultivate an inter-generational sense of loyalty when you're the first generation to participate in the institution, and that's just an issue of the changing demographics of, in this case, college students.)

If this is right, then it would seem that we inflict ostracism on ourselves now, effectively dispensing with the need for any actual majority to do it for us.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Scenes from Age 2.5

- Goomba on discovering that her toes got wrinkly from sitting in the bath: "My toes melted!"

- She asks questions now. "Are you finished your dinner, Mama? "Why you move my toy, Mama?" It's jarring, because I didn't realize that she didn't ask questions before. She indicated that she wanted to know what things were, but nothing more elaborate than that. Now she wants to know what I'm wearing, and why I’m doing every little thing, and, every night, whether I'm finished with my dinner yet, so she can decide on that basis whether she should be finished.

- Mistake: we discussed being fat in front of her, both how we are fat and how she is fat (she still has her big baby belly). She heard this, and now we have this exchange frequently:
Goomba (very proudly): I FAT!
Me: No, you're not fat.
Goomba: Daddy be fat?
Me: Daddy's a little bit fat.
Goomba: I want be fat too.
Me: No, you're not fat.
Goomba: Daddy be fat?
Me: Daddy is a little fat.
Goomba: I like daddy be fat.

- Other conversations:
Me: You’re going too slow; hurry up!
Goomba: I’m little. I need to go more slow.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018


When I was younger, I used to get the usual sex-enhancement email spam, but now nearly all the spam I get consists of solicitations to submit research to scam academic journals. There seem to be as many fake journals out there as penis-enlargers. Who would have thought?

Sunday, May 06, 2018

The American high school dream

It's been a while since I've discussed or even thought about academic impostors, but I think the overall argument of these two fascinating profiles of people who fraudulently posed as high school students in order high school students is that we should not criminalize posing as a high school student if the poser actually just wants to be a high school student. Yes, identity theft, etc. is bad. But if you feel like your life has dead-ended, and you want another chance and a clean slate, then, well, doesn't everyone in some ways? Objectively, like all impostors, these people are pretty pathetic. But, there have been about 20 romantic comedies made around this very premise, going back to high school to start over (or, in a modified version of the same premise, going to your high school reunion often has the same effect), so evidently the idea resonates widely with non-criminals. It's weird and wonderful that the American high school, for all its utter mediocrity, continues to command this kind of hold on our imaginations and aspirations.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Scenes from Age 2

Goomba yells NOOOO and runs away when I try to put on her winter coat. I hold it up and say, "But Goomba, coat is your friend. Coat has kept you warm all winter when it was so cold outside. Why are you so mean to him?" Goomba reconsiders, runs up and hugs the coat, and eagerly puts it on.

Goomba peels off the wrapper of a crayon and holds it up: "Him cold! I take off him clothes!"

Goomba puts everything into the Old MacDonald Had a Farm song. Old MacDonald not only has every animal she's ever heard of on his farm, he also all the objects she sees around her. He has a firetruck, and a bus, and a car. Old MacDonald is either very wealthy or an enormous packrat. I once asked if Old MacDonald lived in a junkyard because of all the vehicles he owns. She replied, "Old MacDonald had a junkyard!" The best is when we were eating pulled pork for dinner one night and she requested bbq sauce to dip her meat in. Then she sang, "Old MacDonald had a dipmeat."

There is a lot of crying. She wails whenever she is denied anything she wants (correction: she "needs"), no matter how small, but she is pretty easy to distract from these personal tragedies. She is also much more snuggly and affectionate, and interested in learning rules and routines, even inventing them where we don't have them. She also picks out her own clothes every morning, but then (mercifully) allows me to revise her pant selection so that it matches the top selection. She plays on her own for about 20 minutes at a time before "I NEED HELP MAMA." On the whole, two is a great age.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

On househunting

Miss Self-Important: I now see why there are so many shows about people trying to buy houses. It's like a classical quest, like the Odyssey. We're like Odysseus, searching for home.
Mr Self-Important: No, it's like the Aeneid. Odysseus was trying to go back to his old home. Aeneas was looking for a new home.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Winter Olympics

I don't really like sports, so probably my judgment on this point is of no value, but it seems to me that the Winter Olympics is too niche to be an Olympics. There are so many events, and yet so few actual sports involved. In fact, there only seem to be really three sports - skiing, sledding, and skating - which are then subdivided into like 100 different competitive events. Some of these events are activities engaged in by normal people outside the Olympics - that is, they are sports, like ice hockey and cross-country and downhill skiing - but most of them seem to be activities that are done exclusively by Olympians competing against one another during the Olympics, like all the varieties of luge and speed skating. In fact, none of the sledding-type events even appear to be possible on actual snow during an actual winter. They all require a custom-built structure.

Maybe this is not really true and, in places of perpetual winter like Norway and Canada, luge is a weekend activity and there are even high school leagues? But even if that were true, the Winter Olympics would still not be a truly international sporting competition so much as a specialized meetup of the handful of ice-bound nations technologically advanced enough to develop highly niche uses for skates, sleds, and skis that only 20 people in each country will ever master. And the only one that is fun to watch is figure skating.

The Summer Olympics is not like this. It consists of sports that regular people all over the world actually play. Even the highly technical ones that require lots of specialized equipment, like gymnastics and the equestrian competitions, are things that real people everywhere do at amateur levels. The Summer Olympics is a genuine international athletic competition. The Winter Olympics is just a place to passive-aggressively hash out diplomatic conflicts among nations where it snows.

Also, Goomba, upon viewing figure skating for the first time, had the following to say: "Why her naked?"

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The enduring drama of hating Arendt's Eichmann

Arendt on Eichmann is like the ax that can never be buried for American Jews. Only once you're deep in the Arendt weeds, among only a select subset of scholars and far beyond the reach of regular educated people, will you finally be out of hearing range of the accusations of Arendt's anti-Semitism. But the problem is that you probably never want to find yourself in those weeds, which are full of other predators. So you probably have to stay out in the open with the accusations: Arendt exonerated Eichmann and accused the Jews of facilitating their own destruction by cooperating with the Nazis. Every educated American Jew over a certain age will tell you this, unless he is one of the few grazing out there in the weeds with the snakes. And then the weed-eaters will respond with, no, Arendt was a great genius who spoke five languages and actually fled Nazis while her critics were just provincial rubes.

Ruth Wisse's is probably one of the better versions of this accusation. She goes through the long (so long) history of the accusation and concludes that Arendt's real motivation was not to cover the Eichmann trial but "to impose her understanding on the trial" and
to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction like Bellow’s that “everybody…knows what murder is.”
Taken in one sense that's clearly not right, since throughout her writing, she argues that "the German mind" insofar as it's part of the Western tradition is dead, and was killed by the rise of modern totalitarianisms. That is the reason for the moral unclarity, the inability to rely on conventional categories of judgment. In another sense, insofar as "the German mind" is her own mind and its particular education and cultivation (that is, the education of all German intellectuals of her generation), it might be closer to the truth. She did think she was especially well-equipped to understand the transformations of the twentieth century, and perhaps she was wrong on that count, but this either boils down to an accusation of vanity, or is really another accusation, more limited than the one that Wisse purports to make here but also one with a history, which is that Arendt is really just a secret or unwitting (most such accusers claim that she was, somehow, both) Heideggerian, and by extension, a kind of proto-Nazi herself.

The Heidegger stuff aside, I agree with Wisse that Arendt used and perhaps misused the Eichmann trial as a vehicle to further develop the theory of totalitarianism she had laid out in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But I would like to offer one corrective to Wisse's condemnation, and that is this: in hindsight especially, that theory is more important than Wisse allows.

Most of the writers and scholars who accuse Arendt of whitewashing Eichmann and villifying Israel and the Jewish communal leaders of Europe - in short those who reject the book - are of the generation that was born during or right after the war. For them, the Holocaust was a shocking revelation, its full scope unknown to the American public until years after the war's end. And just as its details and real extent were beginning to emerge into public consciousness, along came "Miss Arendt" to downplay its gravity and even blame the victims. Her timing could not have been worse.

But, a generation or two later, the situation was quite changed. Arendt's intervention had precisely zero effect on the American understanding of the Holocaust. By the 1980s and '90s, the Holocaust was well-established in the public consciousness and was the center of American Jewish self-consciousness. To be Jewish in America was to have a personal connection to it, the closer the better, but a connection to some lesser but parallel form of anti-Semitic violence - a pogrom, perhaps, or the Inquisition, if you had to dig that far back in the family history - would do if necessary. It became a ubiquitous element of the school curriculum - one program, "Facing History and Ourselves," was taught around the country, culminating at some schools in trips to Auschwitz. By the 1990s, no one in America was uncomfortable calling the Nazis evil. In fact, the functional definition of evil had more or less become the Holocaust. There was absolutely no difficulty thinking about it in moral terms, as a battle between good and evil.

The difficulty turned out to be precisely that is was so easy to moralize. Because the Holocaust became a kind of shorthand for all kinds of evil, to be offered to children as the apocalyptic scenario most to be feared, it was so excessively moralized as to become completely de-politicized. It has come to be understood as an example of personal moral failure on a vast scale, or really the sum of many personal moral failures. Many Germans, individually, began to harbor these negative "stereotypes" and "prejudices" (the great buzzwords of my elementary schooling) about Jews, and as these prejudices and stereotypes spread across the land, the people who held them got together and became essentially large-scale playground bullies to the Jews: first persecuting and then killing then. So, goes the moral of this story, if you want to prevent the next Holocaust, don't be prejudiced, and don't be a bully. Remember: every time you pick on a classmate or spread malicious gossip about your friends, you are taking the first step towards another Holocaust. And don't let other people be prejudiced bullies either. Thus, the ubiquitous poem, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist..." Thus, the plots of all children's books about the Holocaust. Everything is about the moral failures of individuals to do the right thing and stand up to the bad guys.

It all sounds vaguely plausible, especially to a child, since it's essentially an account of the Holocaust modeled on childhood social life. The problem is, of course, that in the terms of the poem, if you had spoken out on behalf of the Socialists, the Trade Unionists, etc., you would've been killed right along with them. The Holocaust was not the result of playground bullying on a national scale. It was a political event and it has to be understood in political terms - in terms of regimes and political philosophy, in terms of national histories, in terms of European statecraft. Precisely the argument that Podhoretz used against Arendt has to be explained: "It is one thing to hate Jews, but it is quite another to contemplate the wholesale slaughter of Jews.” As Arendt points out in Eichmann, most European nations had developed robust traditions of virulent anti-Semitism by the time of the war. And yet only one of them contemplated the wholesale slaughter of Jews, and that one was, perplexingly, among the least anti-Semitic. How do we account for that?

Political explanations involving regimes and history are beyond the grasp of schoolchildren, so they were dispensed with, and the moral failure explanation won out. But at a cost. It diminished mainstream Judaism, elevating the experience of victimhood to its center and pushing the "philosophical Judaism" that Wisse values (and even simply Jewish observance) to the sidelines. It gave at least two decades' worth of children a dumbed-down and dangerously misleading understanding of political evil. And ultimately, it turned the Holocaust into treacle.

Unlike the generation whose schooling was in a sense rebutted by the discovery of the Holocaust, mine was infused with the Holocaust all the time - we read about it every year, we wrote essays pretending to have experienced it, we even did a mock Nuremberg trial at some point. I had read every children's book about the Holocaust that my school and public libraries possessed by the third grade. (It should be noted that my experience, having taking place in Skokie, was perhaps more extreme than most, but the basic themes were widespread.) And it always came down to the same point: don't be mean, or you will start a Holocaust. But what was odd was that I was frequently mean, and yet no genocide ever resulted. The result was that, by the end of middle school, this understanding of the Holocaust made Judaism look to me like a hysterical and overbearing cult of victimhood, which I had no interest in joining. When I came across Finklestein's The Holocaust Industry at the library in high school (again, the Skokie Public Library may not entirely resemble your public library in these regions of the Dewey Decimal System...), I couldn't help but seeing his point. This, I take it, is not where Wisse wants the moral view of the Holocaust to take us. 

When I read Eichmann in college, it was a revelation. Here was an account of the Holocaust that explained Nazism as a political event, a regime that developed out of and in opposition to liberalism, rather than a random burst of coordinated meanness. To say the Holocaust was political is not to say that it was specific to 1930s Germany, or to deny anyone's responsibility for it. Arendt's is not some intricate structuralist story that denies human agency. But it does account for the problem that is so obvious even to children: if prejudice leads to genocide, and prejudice is so common, then why are genocides so rare? Wisse is right that Arendt co-opted the  trial to elaborate her pre-conceived arguments, but those arguments were not conceived on the spot and they were not so obviously wrong. Our understanding of Nazis as evil is already so deeply embedded that Arendt's description of Eichmann as banal is unlikely to result in a revaluation of all values, though it might direct some doubts towards bureaucracy and obsession with the imperative to purify one's thoughts of all biases. Having reached our limit of Holocaust moralism, Americans might benefit from some Arendt-as-antidote.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The nose that spited my face

It had to happen someday given my defective nasal constitution, but I finally had a nosebleed while teaching. Actually, it was just before teaching, and I had to go to my class to inform them that due to the obvious fact that my nose was bleeding, our start would have to be delayed, then leave, then return again post-bleed to resume instruction with much-diminished dignity.

Not my finest teaching moment, to say the least.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

How to teach children what you don't know yourself

Now that Goomba is talking and even arguing with us ("There is no cat in that book." "Yes! Yes! Kitty innit!"), we are shifting our thoughts a little from how to keep her alive to how to educate her. Aside from questions about formal schooling, we wonder, would we want her to learn music of some kind? A set of fundamental life skills? Play a sport? Speak a foreign language? Observe a (our) religion? Yes, we think. And then we consider how we can teach her all this, and we conclude - as all bourgie American parents do - that we must give her lessons. Swimming lessons, violin lessons, tennis lessons, Hebrew school, drawing classes, Latin lessons (ok, admittedly, this has not yet been vetted by Mr. Self-Important but it will happen), and so on. Very quickly, it becomes evident that we will 1) need to be much richer to afford all this, and 2) inevitably produce an Organization Kid.

I used to assume that the obsession with classes and lessons and other forms of scheduled, formal instruction denounced by all the contemporary Ivy League Lamenters and Scolders of the Elite came from overambitious, hyper-competitive parents with totally unrealistic expectations for their children's personal achievement and their future professional and social status. Affluent parents forced their kids to study and practice and do all these crazy activities because they heard they were desperate to get them on the narrow road to Yale, Harvard Law, Goldman Sachs, a house in Palo Alto, and a comfortable retirement. But now I wonder if what's really behind these changes in the parenting practices of the college-educated is a deficiency more banal and innocent than overweening ambition or competitiveness: ignorance and inability to teach their own children what they believe they should know.

In my case, I've been disabused of most of the charms of the Ivy League, and the things that I want my daughter to learn are determined by what I think enriches life outside of the necessary rigors of school and work. The great problem is that I don't actually know them myself. I don't know music, or art, or any useful foreign language, or my own religion, or even how to swim (sad fact). So if I wanted my children to know them, I'd have to pay for professional instruction. Now, this is not totally true: I probably know tennis and Latin sufficiently to teach them to a child, and Mr. Self-Important can cover the swimming. But it's mostly true, especially for the things that require long-term instruction to really get anywhere, like music, sports, and foreign languages.

Perhaps other much-maligned bourgie parents are like me: they know enough to know what is good, but not enough to know how to do it. What they want their children to know, they can't themselves teach. They have spent their own lives focused on the technocratic pursuit of academic and professional advancement, and while this was not without any personal rewards (many of them can read literature and teach their children to do the same, for example, and there is consequently no shortage of cultural zeal for reading to one's own children), it was also largely at the expense of skills which they subsequently conclude would have improved their adult lives. For example, I now see how my life would be better if I could play music (specifically the banjo, but I will not burden you or my child with these aspirations), though I was completely uninterested in this as a child. So now they wish to correct these oversights for their children, not primarily out of competitiveness or a desire to signal social status, but because they believe it will make the children happier, but find that the only way to do it is through an insane regimen of formal instruction that would horrify all but the most Victorian onlookers. These at least might be able to appreciate the value of drafting a regiment of tutors and governesses for the education of a child, but only one who does not also go to school for 50 hours a week.