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 Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell.

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Latest book: Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell

I'm reading The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell.  Seventy pages in (out of 339) the book very much has the feel of a polemic, but I'm getting interesting bit of cultural history mixed in.  The question he's tackling is how a very capitalist society that was shaped by Puritan frugality and discipline has spawned such licentiousness while still remaining so capitalist.  What corporations pander to in their customers is so different from what they need from their employees, but the two have to co-exist.

The book really got interesting for me on page 61.  After describing the disciplined cultural legacy of the Puritans, he starts chronicling the backlash.  Apparently writers as early as 1915 were demanding a re-examination of our cultural roots, a re-envisioning of America as a place for not just the descendants of Puritans but also immigrants, African Americans, and urban life.  What's ironic is that the cultural and political descendants of the Puritans were foremost among the crusaders against slavery.  A less racist America is very much an America that embraces the multi-faceted legacy of the Puritans, examining their shortcomings and working to do better, but also holding on to their most positive contributions.

Bell quotes writers who saw the Puritans only as sexually repressed people.  First, sexual repression was hardly a trait unique to Puritans.  In that regard they were unremarkable among the many strains in the Western European culture that they came from.  Their values of learning, work, discipline, frugality, and egalitarianism are what made them remarkable.  Nonetheless, too many people to this day only remember them for that.

I will grant that some American ancestral strains were more open about sexuality, particularly the Scots-Irish (for whom "out-of-wedlock birth" was arguably redundant) and the Cavaliers who founded the Virginia aristocracy (and probably believed in Droit du seigneur).  However, they weren't so much liberated as bad at hiding hypocrisy.  The Scots-Irish might not have been terribly disciplined about sex but they were fervent about religion, and proclaimed themselves quite devout adherents of the most conservative strains of Christianity. And while powerful men in every society have always seen themselves as entitled to women, the Southern elites took it to particularly nasty places.  That doesn't mean that everyone else was forgiven similar indiscretions.  They were open about sex but not necessarily free about sex.

But, anyway, Bell makes the case that a century ago people sought a new Bohemia and they did so not by looking South (for then they'd have to see what comes of lack of restraint) but rather by pissing on the legacy of the Puritans.  Rejecting an idea is so much easier than arguing for its opposite, because if you start to examine its opposite you might find all sorts of unfortunate examples and precedents.  But the idea itself probably has tons of easily-identified downsides.  So, much better to argue against Puritan morals than to argue for the actually-existing cultures that rejected them.  It's the licentious version of "Oh, we just haven't seen Real Communism yet!"

Interestingly, these Bohemians of the early 20th century liked to call everything that they did "New."  "New Poetry", "New Democracy", etc.  This feels very much like the restlessness of the present. They'd probably love pedagogy workshops.  "Oh, we don't assign homework.  That's so old-fashioned!  No, we assign Take-Home Assessments!  They're totally different!"

I'm now at the part where he blames transportation and mass media for freeing us from constraints.  If you live in a world where a trip of even five miles is a big deal, you will spend most of your time in a tight network of people.  If a trip of twenty miles is no big deal, you can have more ties but also looser ties, and more activity can take place out of sight of your closest ties (such as they are).  And the movies, TV, and radio can all advertise and create material lust in your heart.

Let's see where this goes.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Havel: Systems seek legitimacy

I've read about half of the Havel book so far, including the famous essay "The Power of the Powerless."  I'm linking a .pdf copy with a few of my favorite passages highlighted.  The essay is largely about how people try to live honestly in a system that demands lies.  He returns repeatedly to the metaphor of a Greengrocer, a store manager who puts up a sign that says "Workers of the World Unite!" in his window.  The manager isn't an ideological man, and almost certainly doesn't think of his government as one that's particularly concerned for the plight of ordinary workers.  But the system demands that he put up this sign so he puts it up.  He has bills to pay, a family to care for, and a life to live.

Of course, the real message of his sign is not one of labor solidarity, but rather a way of saying "I am a man who complies with the system and does what he has to, so please leave me alone."  However, he can't just post a sign saying that explicitly.  For starters, it would offend his own dignity if he were to admit what he's really doing.  It's much better to have a pretext, so that if somebody were to ask him why he displays that sign he could respond "What's wrong with worker unity?"  It would avoid him having to say what he's really doing.

But what struck me most was how much the government itself preferred the soft message.  The Communist governments apparently desperately wanted the legitimacy that comes from ideology.  None of them believed in the ideology, but having an ideology meant not having to say what they really were: Men (and women) with guns who could compel people to do what they were told to do. They didn't really want to be gangsters.  It just sort of worked out that way.  As he says:
This explains why ideology plays such an important role in the post-totalitarian system: that complex machinery of units, hierarchies, transmission belts, and indirect instruments of manipulation which ensure in countless ways the integrity of the regime, leaving nothing to chance, would be quite simply unthinkable without ideology acting as its all-embracing excuse and as the excuse for each of its parts.
He keeps referring to these systems as post-totalitarian because they aren't interested in naked power in the way that Stalin and his ilk were.  Yes, there were thugs in those systems, men who would be happy to just do away with pretense and rule by force (and the collapse of Communism arguably enabled some of them to shed their pretenses and act more openly, as evidenced by the exploits of gangsters and oligarchs in the post-Soviet era), but there were plenty of men who had to persuade themselves that what they were doing was not gangsterism.  They surely knew that they weren't really building a workers' paradise, but having ideology on paper meant that they were at least following codes and laws.  They were products of civilization, heirs to Hammurabi, following a code, however flawed it may be.  They were not the barbarians living by the rule of might.  Some of them needed to believe that.

I see surprising analogies in the egalitarian ideologies of academia.  We pay lip service to so many mantras about student success and opportunity, we deny so many obvious facts about how not all students will succeed, and we tell ourselves that our every benefit is really for their benefit.  We drink this kool-aid and tell ourselves we're engaged in a project of changing the world rather than conferring credentials on those who show up while truly educating only those who work for it.  We tell ourselves that we believe the things we're told because it's easier than admitting that we only repeat these words in order to receive our paychecks.

When I prepare documents with ritual phrases in them, I am a greengrocer who needs to keep paying his bills. I speak some truths, but only at the edges of the permissible.  I don't cross certain lines because I make far more money than my wife and I need to keep us supported.  I know what I am and what I do. I don't like it, but I know it.

I would have made a shitty Communist, and I would have been almost as shitty as a dissident.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Next book: Open Letters by Vaclav Havel

The Federalist Papers were tedious.  I read the first 30 in detail, then skimmed the next 30, then read about the Electoral College and then gave up.  There are common themes, but they are tediously developed.

Now I'm reading Open Letters, a collection of writings by former Czech playwright, anti-communist dissident, and eventual Czech President Vaclav Havel.  It's kind of eerie how some of his critiques of communism could also be critiques of capitalism.  For instance, in his 1975 letter to Gustav Husak, the leader of Czechoslovakia, he notes that after a moment of freedom in 1968 (swiftly crushed by Soviet tanks), the Communist Party focused on economic development in order to appease people, while not easing up on political and social oppression:
Yet these same authorities obsessively justify themselves with their revolutionary ideology, in which the ideal of man's total liberation has a central place!  But what, in fact, has happened to the concept of human personality, and its many-sided, harmonious, and authentic growth?  Of man liberated from the clutches of an alienating social machinery, from a mythical hierarchy of values, formalized freedoms, from the dictatorship of property, the fetish and the might of money?  What has happened to the idea that people should live in full enjoyment of social and legal justice, have a creative share in economic and political power, be elevated in human dignity and become truly free themselves?  Instead of a free share in economic decision making, free participation in political life, and free intellectual advancement, all people are actually offered is a chance freely to choose which washing machine or refrigerator they want to buy.
Is he talking about communism, or about the ways that conformity is enforced in any society?  The grand ideals of failed communism don't sound so different from the grand ideals of any other reformist movement.  Yes, central economic planning enforced by secret police is a particularly stupid and destructive approach to "reform", and I don't want to sound like I'm trivializing it by equating it to other reformist projects.  I'm glad that modern reformists have (mostly) given up on that stupid idea.  Still, they haven't lost whatever it was that drove privileged kids to read Marx in the first place.  They still think they can free society if you just put them in charge.  Technocrats and techno-utopians are still self-servingly stupid.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Federalist No. 1

An interesting point from Federalist No. 1:
An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
I am generally skeptical of technocrats, yet zeal for firm and efficient administration are pretty technocratic things.  On the other hand, the technocrats I deal with always claim to be promoting scalable Best Practices for achieving some egalitarian goal.  Perhaps it's egalitarian demagoguery under a mask of dry technocracy.

For all the problems of technocrats, I'll take the real ones over demagogues any day of the week.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Next book: The Federalist Papers.

My next book will be the Federalist Papers.  I'm reading this edition, because I like to read things on paper, but you can get them for free online.  This is a departure from the usual genre of books that I read, but I'm fascinated by the American civic religion.  I spend a lot of time reading about the unique secular religions of American academics (progressive pedagogy, Diversity And Inclusion, etc.), and it would be nice to compare with a very different strand of secular religion.  (Though the secularism of the religion around the Constitution is sometimes tenuous; at least one American-born religion considers the Constitution a divinely-inspired document.)

Points I'm particularly interested in:
1) How a product of messy compromise was somehow sold as a seamless garment to clothe a new Republic.
2) How Americans persuaded themselves that the form of government outlined in the Constitution is the only way to maintain a stable, prosperous, and liberal representative democracy.  A quick look around the world should show that there are plenty of parliamentary systems that do just fine despite not sharing our notions about separation of powers.
3) How people persuaded themselves that the most important cleavages in America are large states versus small states.  Vermont, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nevada all have very different social, political, and economic interests, yet we preach the importance of protecting "small states."  This becomes especially salient when (as has happened twice in this century) a President takes office despite losing the popular vote.
4) Are there seeds of the strangely American idea that the military isn't "Big Government"?  I know that many of the Founders were skeptical of standing armies, yet the people who revere the Founders most loudly also loudly proclaim their love of a large standing army.  Were there seeds of this even then?

One interesting thing I've learned just from the introduction is that the term "Federalist" for those who advocated ratifying the Constitution was something of a rhetorical coup.  Federalism is a system of government where authorities of constituent units (states, territories, provinces, cantons, or whatever other name) retain substantial autonomy from the national government.  Systems that aren't called "federalist" generally have much stronger central governments (and correspondingly less autonomy for the lower levels) than those called "federalist." Yes, a political scientist could add quite a bit to that definition, but it's at least a decent starting point.  The US Constitution provided a stronger central government than the previously-operating Articles of Confederation had, so the strongest objections to the Constitution should have been the ones called "Federalists."  However, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay stole the word "Federalist" for themselves, forcing the opponents of the Constitutions (and advocates for a looser confederation) to call themselves anti-Federalist.  Whoever lays the first successful claim to a potent word will enjoy a potent advantage.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Yet more acronyms for the same old pedestal: STEMM and HACD

Via this article in Science, I see that we now have two new acronyms:  STEMM (just like STEM, but the second M stands for Medicine) and HACD (Humanities, Arts, Crafts, and Design).  There are now official reports saying that we'll get better science if scientists are broadly educated.

Since I support the ideal of broad education, I suppose I should be glad of this.  But I'm not, for three reasons.  First and foremost, it's the same old Important People, releasing a report on Best Practices and sounding important. Also, I don't think that the measure of arts and crafts and whatever else is the extent to which they benefit STEM, it's the extent to which they benefit people in whatever endeavors.  I don't know that unicycling and juggling and volunteer work in grad school helped me as a scientist, per se, but they kept me sane while I happened to be doing science.  I don't know that writing science fiction makes me a better scientist, but as a person who works with people I enjoy writing about people.

Finally, as much as I will defend breadth, I will also defend STEM as such.  STEM is broad in its own right.  So what if a scientist gets their relaxation from math puzzles, or tinkering with their car, instead of painting or rock climbing?  So what if a molecular biologist also loves to go on nature hikes and collect interesting rocks or insects?  People should pursue their breadth wherever it is most fulfilling to them, and if that's both STEM and humanities, great, but if it's two different things within STEM, that's also great.

Everybody is searching for some magical formula, some perfect balance between the STEM...I mean, STEMM, on the pedestal and whatever else is currently in favor.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Article on Assessment

I have an article at Inside Higher Ed titled "Some Questions for Assessophiles."  The comments are not entirely favorable, as you might expect.  I have since been pointed to this most interesting blog critiquing assessment, and this most interesting interview with Molly Worthen.