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.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Friday, May 26, 2017

Two quick links

One of my themes here is that liberal establishment ideas are rooted in unexamined assumptions and privileges.  So, two relevant links:

1) From Quillette, an article arguing that the difference between Eastern and Western Europe on the issue of Muslims refugees is that Eastern Europeans have been the conquered rather than the conquerors. I personally support taking in refugees, but I think the mindset of those who disagree is worth understanding rather than dismissing.  However, I think the biggest error in this piece is exaggerating Western European openness to refugees.

2) Timothy Burke uses the example of Donald Trump to dispute Jonathan Haidt's claim that liberals don't have a sense of sacred vs. profane.  Burke argues that liberals simply hold sacred very different things than what conservatives hold sacred.  Here I strongly agree with Burke.  Liberalism has plenty of religious aspects.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In which I quote the Gospels

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus tells the story of people who are given bundles of money ("talents", from an old Greek word) by their master; some invest it and make more and give their master the profit, while others simply save it away and when their master returns they give back what they were given without increase.  The master is angry at the one who did nothing with what he was given, and is pleased at the ones who made much of what they were given.  This is not a parable about stock markets (Jesus wasn't a fan of the moneylenders) but rather a parable about the duty to use what you are given. But progressive education is based on the idea that the most important thing we can do is lower the bar to admit everyone, which essentially demands that the best students twiddle their thumbs for the benefit of their less-advantaged peers.  Their talents are not to be developed.

Now, that idea is not without defensible motivations, even if they are mistaken motivations.  The following section of the Gospel of Matthew is about those who serve the least of Christ's people; you are blessed when you help them, because by helping them you help Him.  It is believed among those who teach in non-elite institutions that we are doing what Christ commanded, but I do not believe that collecting tuition checks in furtherance of credential inflation serves the disadvantaged, and I do not believe that it dignifies the less intellectually gifted to water down a Bachelor's degree.  What is wrong with getting vocational training and then getting a productive job? I would rather dignify the work that they can do, and embrace the ethos that all productive work is noble, than hold up a particular credential as the most respectable path for everyone.  At the same time, I would rather empower those who have talent, and help them make the most of what they have.

Of course, there is nothing worse than hypocrisy, and I do put my actions where my words are.  I've invested quite a bit of time in helping students network for jobs, including students who are not necessarily from the most privileged backgrounds.  I have done a lot of resume critiques and spent a lot of time helping students prepare for interviews and career fairs.  Indeed, this week I will be helping somebody go over a presentation for a technical interview.  So I do act as I speak.  And I believe that if I can empower disadvantaged but talented students to get jobs, I can help them to help the communities from which they hail.  But this requires recognizing that human variability is a thing, and that we must develop those who have talents rather than expecting them to sit back while we focus on those who are least-prepared for what we have to offer.

As an aside, an interesting thing about the word "talent" is that the modern English usage (meaning "ability" or "aptitude") is derived from the Parable of the Talents.  In older language it referred to a unit of weight used in regard to money (i.e. the money that the Master gave in the parable).

Awesome quote from The American Conservative

Not much time, but I must share this quote from an article in The American Conservative:
Administrators aren’t particularly loyal to the core higher-ed mission of discovering and disseminating knowledge. Many are failed academics whose only talents are regurgitating on cue vacuous corporate jargon—“innovating in strategic processes,” “developing new thought leadership platforms,” and so on—and attending conferences with each other. And in student grievance, they have found an endlessly renewable energy supply.
This is an unlikely alliance between corporate middle-management and self-styled student radicals, adolescent zealotry getting pimped by bureaucrats. And it’s playing out all over higher ed. Over the last two years, usually in response to some rash of undergrad intolerance, colleges and universities have hired about 75 new “diversity” administrators.
Indeed. The fact that identity politics is so compatible with administrative interests should be setting off warning lights in the minds of liberals, but elite liberals have no concept of how co-opted they already are.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

We broke our postmodern cage and ran

We're revisiting the 90's right now, partly because Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell just died and partly because some people attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax, publishing a nonsense article full of dense gender studies jargon.  For those too young to remember the glories of the 90's, Sokal published an article full of incomprehensible postmodernist jargon, making some sort of pretentious claim about physics being just, like, your opinion, man.  Or something.  It wasn't really supposed to make sense.  Anyway, these authors published an article arguing that the whole concept of a penis is just an invented concept, or something.  Then they published an article revealing that their first article was never meant seriously, and the fact that it nonetheless got published proves that the field of gender studies is bunk.  Or something.

Now, whether these authors have really taught us anything about alleged problems in the field of gender studies is very much a contested claim, not the least because the article was turned down by an undistinguished journal before being accepted by an even less distinguished journal.  But I'm not interested in dissecting alleged problems in the field of gender studies.  Rather, I want to note a different point, about the contrasts between the fashionable postmodernism of the 90's and the fashionable identity politics of today.

On the surface there are similarities.  The identity studies and identity activist types of today and the postmodern literary theorists and Science Wars types of the 90's both agreed that you can dismiss an idea if it is Western, patriarchal, colonialist, yadda yadda.  Both are ultimately signaling games for people with a certain type of education.  And both are largely rubbish from an intellectual perspective.

Still, there are two key differences:
1) The PoMo guys didn't seem to believe in truth.  OK, they probably believed that Western, male, yadda yadda ideas were even less true than others, but ultimately they seemed to think that everything is just, like, subjective, man.  So, yes, they would reject Western, patriarchal, yadda yadda ideas, but they'd also reject any other idea if you got too enamored of it.

The modern identity politics types, OTOH, seem to believe that they have access to truth.  They don't just want to tell everyone that stuff is complicated and depends on your point of view.  They want to claim that truth comes from the margins and so while my white, Western, male, yadda yadda opinion might be wrong, theirs is right.  There are problems with claiming moral authority on the grounds that truth can only come from the margins, as I've noted before, but they certainly make that claim.

2) The PoMo guys had hard reads.  Foucault is not for the faint of heart. Marx (not PoMo but nonetheless appreciated by a certain type of humanities scholar) can only be read with a lot of caffeine and cigarettes. OTOH, I am pretty sure that you could do just fine with the modern politically correct types if you read a few privilege think-pieces and just nodded along with whatever they said.  They have truth, and as long as you acknowledge that it's good.  There's no intellectual game to be played, no idea to be skewered, just a "yes-and" discussion.  Remember your victim hierarchy, defer to others* the loudest when in doubt, and it will be fine.  You don't need thick books or nuanced arguments, just rhetorical cudgels.

So, as much as I like the 1990's, and as much as I would like to return to them, we aren't there.  We're in a different era.  The PoMos read thick books, and as much as they annoyed me back then I would gladly take them over the current wave of identity politics.

Mind you, the 90's did have political correctness, but that was a different beast, an angrier one than the PoMo types.  And I never had to encounter much of the PC because it had already self-discredited by the time I entered a pretty Republican-heavy college.  It didn't disappear but it dial back a notch.  PoMo was a lesser evil, in retrospect, because it was always just a game, a game that ended the second that we got a Republican in the White House and (more importantly) the EPA.  Science is only a social construct until somebody tries to ignore it.  Then every liberal turns into a raging technocrat.  But while "That's just, like, your opinion, man" gets tossed aside when practical considerations dictate so, identity politics shows little sign of abating.  Alas.

Anyway, the post title comes from a song that was written by Chris Cornell (who died this week) and was covered by Johnny Cash in 1996 (the year of the Sokal hoax).

*My apologies for Othering people :)