Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Solve economic problems first, THEN education problems

I don't have time for a long post, but I like this article saying that maybe the solution to our educational problems in this country is economics, instead of the other way around.  I've said it many times and it's nice to be repeated in a venue of respectable opinion.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste

Clarissa has a heresy-ridden response to the College Board's decision to offer an "adversity score" to measure the disadvantage experienced by test-takers. I agree with everything she says here, but the critics of the SAT have two responses:

1) The SAT doesn't actually measure your vocabulary, math skills, etc.  It measures your ability to take this test, and privileged people do better on it. This assertion is not supported by any systematic data, but it is supported by the anecdotes we've all observed of people who do far better or far worse than their SAT scores would have predicted.  They don't get that statistical predictions just tell us averages and ranges, and some fraction of people will fall outside those ranges on either side.

2) OK, the SAT does measure vocabulary, math skills, etc., but colleges have a duty to "meet students where they're at."  On this I have a tiny amount of sympathy--I do think we need educational institutions that will help people who could go far but have not come out of high school well-prepared.  But that's a long road, it will take far more than 4 years of college (let alone 1-2 years of remedial coursework), and what they really need is a "high school do-over" BEFORE a 4-year degree.  (Some might say that that's what an Associate's Degree is for, but the AA/AS degree is supposed to roughly correspond to the first 2 years of a Bachelor's degree.)

If a Bachelor's degree is to be "accessible" to people who start the program with woefully inadequate preparation, and if we are to fit this into the confines of 4 years of courses on the typical academic schedule, then institutions whose Bachelor's degrees "meet students where they are at" will be conferring credentials that employers and graduate schools justifiably treat as different from those offered elsewhere.  And this will just amplify rather than mitigate the class divisions in higher ed.

Even worse, this will actually work against efforts to diversify the academy.  Everyone out there wants to diversify PhD and faculty ranks.  The schools that disproportionately teach people from under-represented backgrounds disproportionately get under-prepared students because disadvantage has consequences.  If such schools must "meet students where they are at" AND do so within the usual confines of 4 years and roughly 120 credits (give or take), then their degrees WILL mean less.  That is an unavoidable fact.  And why should PhD programs take students whose credentials mean less?  Unless those PhD programs must also "meet students where they are at."  Which will either mean that students take longer to finish (and PhD programs face pressures on this front, including but not limited to the financial pressures of supporting students for longer times) or that students come out less accomplished.

And then people who hire PhDs will have to decide how to evaluate accomplishments...

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Legutko, Chapter 3

I'm almost done with this chapter.  Much of it is a critique of political correctness, cultural liberalism, etc.  I have bits of sympathy for some of it, but I reject his stances on rights of women, gays, minority groups, etc.  I might not like some of the speech norms around these topics, but that doesn't mean that I want to turn the clock back on rights.

Separate from my disagreement with his social agenda is the fact that his arguments are weak.  He's trying to link the spread of these causes, and elite acceptance of these causes, to the spread of liberal democracy.  If we take "liberal democracy" as simply a name rather than description, and use that name for some sort of consensus viewpoint, then by definition he is right. Elites agree with their own consensus.  However, if we look for the roots of these ideas, if we ask (1) why protection of minority rights has improved, (2) why it has sometimes been taken to the excesses of modern political correctness, and (3) why elites are so fervent about this, liberalism gets you only so far as an answer, and democracy gets you barely anywhere at all.  Yes, in democracies crucial political blocs have sympathized with minority rights, and they did so because they embrace liberal ideas.  However, democracy can be reactionary at least as often as it is progressive (indeed, majority tyranny is one of the most discussed dangers of democracy).  In most modern Western countries, majoritarianism would NOT lead to excesses of political correctness, nor even reasonably cautious protection of minority rights.  Elite intervention matters here, and it is by definition anti-democratic when protecting minorities more than majorities might favor.  He hasn't really addressed this.

He's on firmer ground when he says that an elite embrace of liberalism is at work, favoring liberation of individuals (and small groups of individuals) from tradition, popular prejudice, etc.  I think that's part of it.  However, why do elites favor liberation of small groups and enforcement of new norms on the majority at a level far exceeding "live and let live"?  Liberalism is part of it, but I get hints that he also sees a strategy of "divide and rule."  There are many ways to describe "divide and rule", but "liberal" isn't one of them.  Elites might believe that dividing and ruling is necessary to liberate minorities, but that belief is still a belief in the limits of liberalism, not unlimited liberalism.  He hasn't really dealt with that.  He has called them out for hypocrisy, but it's only hypocrisy if they believe what he thinks what they believe.  If they believe something else, they might be acting entirely in accord with their beliefs.  He doesn't explore this.

He makes an interesting comparison between campus freak-outs over offensive speech and the way that Communist societies responded to a dissident reading a poem in public.  The entire apparatus of the state would mobilize in a panic if somebody spoke out of turn in a Communist society.  There are indeed some fascinating parallels between the Communists freaking out and campus authorities freaking out.  However, there is one absolutely crucial difference:  The Communist authorities believed that if they left the speech unchecked a mob would form in support of the speaker.  Campus authorities believe that if they leave offensive speech unchecked a mob will form and demand that the campus authorities be fired for not punishing the speaker.  Yes, both sets of authorities fear the mob, but the relationship between the mob and the speaker, and the perceived public sympathies, are very different.

Legutko doesn't grapple with this.  He's pushing too far on the analogy without acknowledging its limitations, and blaming democracy without making his case.  There's a case to be made about democratic culture more than democracy itself, but he hasn't really explored those tensions enough.  He just wants to rail against feminism, gay rights, etc.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Legutko, Chp. 1-2

For much of the first 2 chapters, Legutko makes observations that I mostly find validity in. Liberal democracy, much like Marxism, does have its utopian side, at least in current ideology.  After the fall of the Soviety Union, some people did talk of an "End of History", i.e. a final stage of human political development.  Some people do have utopian aspirations for it.

I also like his observation that Westerners are remarkably comfortable with the orthodoxy because we have no obviously official propaganda organs.  We don't have kommissars firing people who refuse to recite the exact prescribed platitudes (for the most part).  Our ideology is enforced in much more subtle ways.  I've heard similar things from other people who grew up in Communist states of Eastern Europe, and not all of them are social conservatives like Legutko.  So there is something going on here, something visible from more than one ideological angle.

And he does acknowledge the unquestionable success of liberal and democratic societies in enabling the prosperity of capitalism.

He also talks about the desire of technocrats to transform and improve societies, and not always in ways that the citizens desire.  I have a certain amount of sympathy here. I've spent countless blog posts bemoaning the impossible social transformations that technocrats want higher education to deliver.  I may not share all of Legutko's bones of contention with technocrats, but I get his point.

And I completely agree with his observation that democracy often values equality to the point of mediocrity, a stance sharply at odds with excellence.  It praises the common and coarse over the high and refined.  It's one of the tensions between a democratic society and educational achievement.  While mass ignorance is hardly consistent with stable democracy, egalitarianism can weaken the best parts of a society.

Of course, he applies his critique at least as much to mass culture and norms of vulgar speech as to educational issues.  And, again, I see his point.  I don't fear pop culture as much as he does (I've noted before the commonalities between the Iliad and modern entertainment, and I think that soulful music celebrates emotion in ways that lift us up, not debase us), but I agree that there's no sharp line between such high popular art and vulgar popular art. (Indeed, vulgar and popular started as synonyms before acquiring different connotations.)

But his denunciation of the vulgar takes us to Trump, and we start to see his incoherence.  The book was published in 2016, so it can't address Trump to any great extent, but Trump is unquestionably vulgar. A reality TV star of gaudy rather than refined tastes, he exemplifies the rich man who still has common roots and low-class insecurities. (Which is ironic when you consider his pedigree.) Trump is, on the one hand, democracy personified in its most vulgar form.  On the other hand, he is the antithesis of what the elite managers of liberal democracies despise.

And it seems that Legutko himself is not always clear about which side of liberal democracy he's lamenting.  Is he lamenting the rule of technocratic elites or the celebration of the vulgar masses?  The technocratic elites definitely, desperately believe themselves to be advocates for the interests of the masses, but they often disagree with masses over what those interests are.  This makes the technocrats democratic in spirit but not always in practice, and liberal in their stated goals (liberation of people from the prejudices and limitations imposed by cultures) but not always in their methods (forced liberation).  Or, at least, they are contradicting themselves by certain definitions of these terms, but perhaps not by all.

He seems to know this.  He seems to be pointing at a contradiction, and I appreciate that. I don't always agree with him, e.g. on gay rights, but I get his point about contradictions. I get that even the blandest, most humble "live and let live" approach to minority rights will founder upon the obstacle of popular prejudice in public education, and the desperate search for a neutral curriculum. Sometimes you simply can't be neutral.  There's really no neutral ground between "This minority group is entitled to the same rights and protections as anyone else, and how they live their lives is none of your business" and "No, they are hurting society."  I say that compromise is impossible not because I want to be strident but because the demands are so fundamentally opposed.

I think he's driving at this, and I respect him for making the point.  I don't share his agenda, but the nature of democracy, its practicality and internal consistency, is a hard problem, and one that is not always easy to see if most people more-or-less agree on a few key fundamentals.  The problems only become apparent if you have a very stark disagreement.  You can't get at hard questions about democracy without some sharp disagreements to illuminate the issue, and that inevitably means hearing from people whose values are fundamentally at odds with yours.  In other words, that means hearing from people whose speech is not value-neutral, on topics where the feasibility of of reasoned disagreement is most in doubt.

If you want to argue from a values standpoint that you should not dignify such views by offering them the use of your (privately owned,, privately funded, etc.) platform, well, you may be right in many contexts.  But an academic department of political science pretty much has to consider such viewpoints to get at the hardest questions concerning the nature and limitations of democracy.  So I get why people at Middlebury invited him and wanted to discuss his ideas.  It's why I'm going to continue reading the rest of his book.

Two other issues come up:
1) Legutko doesn't just claim that liberal democracy has a hard time leaving non-conformists alone (e.g. concerning education of children), he also claims that this is a pathology shared with Marxism but not with all systems. How correct is he?  Maybe there are social orders in which the elites of the capitol city don't care much how parents raise children in the hinterlands, but is there any society in which parents can avoid getting flack for raising their children with values different from those of their neighbors?  Religious minorities throughout the ages have found it hard to raise their kids with their values and customs, and this is why they've tended to either cluster together or else disappear via conversion to the dominant religion.

2) On minority rights, it strikes me that their compatibility with democracy depends on how we construe the demos and its role in governance.  If the demos is merely to decide matters, then popularity will (in practice if not always in theory) be paramount and minorities will lose to majorities.  If, on the other hand, the demos is to be reflected in government, then it seems to me that there is room for protection of minority rights.  Minority representation in government, explicit protection of certain practices or beliefs, set-asides of state jobs, funding formulas that protect districts or provinces with minorities, we see these things implemented in many different systems around the world.  They are not always done with equal efficacy or compassion, and they are often window-dressing, but the very fact that he window-dressing is deemed necessary tells me that there are people who believe it enough that they need to see it to be appeased.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Demon in Democracy: Intro

I've read the short introductory section of The Demon in Democracy.  He starts from the observation that after Communism the people who fared best were mostly Communist administrators.  He notes some obvious explanations:  They knew how to work in administrative bureaucracies, and the Western victors of the Cold War wanted to be gracious to defeated foes, lest still-powerful people feel left out of the new order and lash out.  But Legutko sees more at play, namely that Communism and "liberal-democracy" (he makes much of the hyphenation, to identify it as a very particular manifestation, rather than just any system that is liberal and democratic) were both "modernization projects" aimed at improving people and undoing older orders, or the "natural" orders to which people might default either because of tradition, inertia, etc.  In short, he sees both of them as technocratic systems.

I sort of sympathize.  No, more than "sort of."  I sympathize a great deal.  He's touching on a real thing.  What he calls "liberal-democracy" I would call "technocratic", and more left-wing critics might call "neoliberalism", while more right-wing critics might call it "social engineering" or "the administrative state."  It defies left-right distinctions, having things to offer for some of the rich, some of the poor, and some of the middle class.  It is more socially progressive than most of its detractors, but it can make plenty of room for people who are socially cautious (up to a point, at least).  It's a large, broad sympathy that I cannot adequately describe.  It can bring together progressive educators and the national security state and corporate interests.  It can be restless in its search for The Next Big Thing, yet it also seeks order.

Is it really such a comfortable thing for Communists?  Well, I guess it depends on the definition of a Communist, and not just in the usefully idiotic formulation of "No, see, we just haven't had REAL Communism!"  Some of the usefully idiotic intellectuals could embrace technocracy as a more sane, less impoverishing and less bloody alternative that still promises endless improvement.  Some of them would hate it because it is more sane and often (not always) promises improvement of a less rapid and revolutionary sort.  (There is always hype, but there are plenty of technocrats who have no illusion that the hype will work out as promised.)  As to the actually-existing Communist administrators, the hard-core blood-spilling Stalinists would hate this modern era because it (often but not always) likes a velvet glove (at least when dealing with people who are culturally similar to the denizens of the capital city), but the ones who wanted to keep the system going on in some vaguely stable form subsequent to Stalin's welcome death could (and often did) make their peace with more modern technocracy after the fall of Communism.

Legutko freely admits that modern technocracy has enabled billions of people to live better than Communism did, with greater prosperity and greater freedom.  But he also sees something unpleasant in it, and I often concur.  I work in a bureaucracy that is determined to lie to itself and everyone nearby about human improvement, and it is painful.  I suspect that Legutko will sympathize, but he is reported to also be quite socially conservative in ways that I would NOT embrace.  Again, in many ways I value the old and traditional, but surely there are ways to be decent to many people who were rejected in the past while still retaining many great things from the past.  Alas, modern technocracy desperately needs bigots as enemies, because non-bigoted enemies would be a far greater threat.  Pushing back on bigots and including people whom older traditions tried to marginalize are among the greatest accomplishments of modern technocrats (though the technocrats are not solely responsible, and many failed to cover themselves in glory on these matters).  I am mostly quite cynical, but I still have enough idealism to believe that there are ways to be inclusive (at least by some notions of the word) while adhering to the best of what tradition has to offer.

So far I am fascinated by this book, but I suspect that I will soon be frustrated.

P.S. One thing that frustrates me already is the short shrift he gives to the idea that bureaucratic skills are transferable.  To him it's all about the alleged idealism of the systems.  He is underplaying the transferability of education and professionalization.

Next book: The Demon in Democracy

The next book that I'll blog about will be The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.  I am reading it because a public lecture by Legutko was called off by Middlebury College in the face of protests (though he did eventually manage to give a guest lecture in a class).  The students stated that they were offended by, among other things, his homophobic views.  I don't know much about him, but if he is indeed a homophobe then I am also deeply offended by him.  Nonetheless, I'm also offended by people who try to shut down speech, so I will read one of his books as a counter-protest.  I have no idea if this book is any good, or if it addresses his views on gay rights, but a friend of a friend said something nice about the book, so let's see what it's about.  Maybe I'll love it, maybe I'll hate it, maybe I simply won't find much either way, but if somebody tries to get the speech canceled that's an easy way to get me to read the book.

Monday, April 15, 2019


I found Aurelius' Meditations boring.  I'm glad that he was so reflective, but his observations on life just didn't appeal to me.  I guess I'm as bad as any other American in my inability to appreciate a philosopher-king.