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.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

New Book: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

My next book will be Meditations by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  Apparently it's a bunch of thoughts that he wrote down over two decades, rather than a unified treatise.  It's also said to be a work of Stoic philosophy.  I know very little about this.  Nonetheless, the concept of a philosopher-king is quite appealing right now, for abundantly obvious reasons, so let's find out what an actual philosopher-king had to say.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

More thoughts on the Iliad

The Iliad is very much a tale of opulent wealth:  Heroes with magnificent weapons and jewelry and furs, constant sacrifices of cattle and sheep (a form of wealth) to the gods, and great feasts.  This is clearly absurd:  Real wars are fought by poor schmucks eating crappy food.

On the other hand, the idea of Greek politicians squandering most of their GDP on a land war in Asia (Troy was in Asia Minor) sounds like exactly the sort of thing that politicians of any era would do.  I dare say that the US Department of Defense could manage to squander at least as much money as any Argive king ever managed to squander, and for even more pointless ends.  At least the Greeks ultimately did sack Troy, which guarded the waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea.  WTF has the US DoD accomplished since WWII?

Latest Read: The Iliad

I'm reading the Iliad.  I'd only read excerpts before, and that was a long time ago. I won't post every thought I've had on it, but I have two big takeaways from the first 11 chapters:

First and foremost, the Iliad was basically an ancient TV series with an ensemble cast.  It arose from an oral performance tradition, and consists of 24 chapters of roughly equal length.  (No, not exactly equal, but within a factor of 2 of each other.)  Some chapters are very much about the bigger story, the constant back-and-forth between the Trojans and Achaeans, with the Gods wrapped up in the drama and the central characters (e.g. Hector, Achilles, Paris, Agamemnon, Diomedes, Odysseus, Menelaeus, Nestor) making decisions that will shift the fortunes of war.  Other chapters are more episodic, from that part of the TV season where the writers want to focus on a few characters in side plots.  So you get chapter 10 ("Marauding through the night"), which focuses on an inept Trojan spy who folds as soon as he is caught, spills all of his info, and then gets a dishonorable death in spite of an earlier promise to not kill him.  Or chapter 11 ("Agamemnon's day of glory"), which is largely about a D&D party rescuing their healer after he's been wounded in battle.

Of course, the writers on a TV series can only do so many of these "side plot" episodes before the audience will expect a return to the main story.  So chapter 11 concludes with Patroclus realizing that the Achaeans desperately need help.  It's pretty clear that he'll rejoin the fight soon.  And all of this will lead up to heart-breaking deaths of main characters, and then an epic conclusion as the sun sets on doomed Troy.

In another parallel with TV, the Odyssey is basically a spinoff series about a supporting character who had his own die-hard fans. I can only assume that these parallels arise from ancient poets needing to keep an audience fixated over the long haul, coming back for more as they sang and chanted for their supper, just as modern TV writers need to keep an audience's attention in order to get paid.

Second, having noted analogies between the Iliad and modern popular entertainment, I was pretty astounded by some lines spoken by Achilles in chapter 9 (lines 383-391):
No, what lasting thanks in the long run
for warring with our enemies, on and on, no end?
One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death,
the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.
And what's laid up for me, what pittance? Nothing—
and after suffering hardships, year in, year out,
staking my life on the mortal risks of war.
Compare with these lines from Ecclesiastes, in which the author questions the point of wisdom and labor, when the wise man will suffer the same death as the fool, and the wise man who works can take nothing with him, but must leave it behind to a man who may be a fool:
And I saw that wisdom has as much profit over folly as light has over darkness. 
   Wise people have eyes in their heads, but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I knew that the same lot befalls both. So I said in my heart, if the fool’s lot is to befall me also, why should I be wise? Where is the profit? And in my heart I decided that this too is vanity. The wise person will have no more abiding remembrance than the fool; for in days to come both will have been forgotten. How is it that the wise person dies like the fool! Therefore I detested life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is bad; for all is vanity and a chase after wind.
 And I detested all the fruits of my toil under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who is to come after me. And who knows whether that one will be wise or a fool? Yet that one will take control of all the fruits of my toil and wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 2:13-19)


Or these, in which he asks what the point of bravery is:
Again I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of misfortune comes to all alike. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
Now, the Iliad was hardly the only ancient work in which a man questioned the point of valor, but it was an influential work in the Hellenistic world, and I understand that the author of Ecclesiastes had at least some exposure to that world.  So I'm left to wonder if these parallels with Achilles' speech were deliberate literary devices.  I understand that the extent of Hellenistic influences on Ecclesiastes are very much debated by people who know the original texts and background far better than I do, so I will merely note the common, resonant themes, but offer no further speculation on the extent (if any) of Homeric influence on Ecclesiastes.

Monday, March 11, 2019

A sign of my growing elitism

I don't normally read The Federalist, but I stumbled across this article while googling "constitutional monarchy."  As I become ever more elitist I've started to think that Americans need a monarchy.  Or maybe a di-archy with two co-kings/queens.  Americans are a desperately jingoistic bunch, all convinced of their exceptionalism (even the less visibly patriotic liberals mostly believe in American ideals, and want to see us live those out better than anyone else).  We need to give them symbols that they can swoon over and hold up as infallible, while a real human being runs the government.  So let's have a Prime Minister as Head of Government and two co-Royals as Head of State.

We need two so that liberals and conservatives both have somebody to swoon over.  The liberals can have a diverse NPR host with a best-selling book, while the conservatives can have a country singer or football player who served in the Marines.  The Royal Liberal will host vegan banquets, while the Royal Conservative will lead hunting parties and then roast whatever they kill.  And to make the centrists happy, whatever modest powers these heads of state wield can only be wielded by joint consent.  So most stuff will be done by a Prime Minister, but every now and then the two co-Royals will do something bipartisan and centrists will swoon.  Everybody's happy.

Seriously, it's better than giving actual executive power to a TV star.

Latest Book: First Class by Alison Stewart

I just read First Class by Alison Stewart, a history of what was once America's finest high school for African American students.  It is a rather tragic story:  During segregation, African American students in DC were limited to just a few high schools (the number depending on the era), and the "academic" school (to contrast with a nearby vocational school) was Dunbar high school.

Admission was selective, so only the best African American students got in, and the results were exactly what you'd expect when you have selective admission from a pool of students whose parents wanted them to be there:  Absolutely outstanding.  Over several decades, Dunbar's students frequently out-performed white kids (from a similarly selective high school) on academic measures. Dunbar alumni went to elite colleges, became doctors and lawyers and professors, broke barriers at military academies, and rose to the top of the arts.  In short, they proved that talent and motivation know no color, and that excellent students of any group can hold their own against any other group, even groups that enjoy substantial advantages.  It shows the cruel hollowness in systems of privilege, the way that such systems artificially elevate the mediocre while suppressing the excellence of human ability that is abundant in every group.

Perversely, Dunbar's excellence was destroyed at the same time that school segregation ended (thanks, in part, to lawyers who had graduated from Dunbar).  The problem was not desegregation, but rather an effort to circumvent desegregation:  Dunbar became a "neighborhood school."  Desegregating schools didn't desegregate housing, and most neighborhoods remained either primarily black or primarily white.  Consequently, making all schools serve their local neighborhood ensured that most schools would remain either primarily black or primarily white.  Had Dunbar (and its white counterpart) remained selective then talented students of all races could have mixed, to the benefit of all.

Instead, schools remained racially segregated in practice, and the only integration that actually occurred was integration of the motivated and unmotivated into the same classroom, to the downfall of excellence.  That's pretty much what you'd expect from the society that went on to make Donald Trump President (albeit several decades later).  We Americans are a fiercely anti-intellectual bunch.

Since then, Dunbar has been exactly like any other school in DC, and as communities have deteriorated so has Dunbar. Later chapters describe the school with narratives that we hear for every troubled urban high school:  A faculty with a mix of earnest and disenchanted people, an underachieving student body, and periodic attempts to "reform" (to little effect).  There are people who keep their spirits up by focusing on the "diamonds in the rough", which is an ironic contrast with the era when selective admissions made it a well-stocked jewelry store of talent.

Sadly, this wasn't solely the doing of white people who wanted to avoid mixing talented white and black students.  Apparently many African Americans resented Dunbar students and parents, seeing them as rich and elite.  Some certainly were well-off by the standards of black people in DC several decades ago, but most were of modest means and just happened to have some mix of good brains and good upbringing.  The book talks about this a bit, and one gets the sense that these resentments may have played a role in keeping Dunbar from returning to selective (albeit race-neutral) admissions.  American anti-intellectualism knows no color, and Americans of every background resent smarty-pants types.  Maybe our best hope for racial understanding is for people of all races to come together and discover that they all hate smart people.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Quick thoughts on "We're All Multiculturalists Now"

Much of this book is descriptive, and reasonably even-handed for such a hot button topic as multiculturalism.  There's a lot of discussion of history, both noting that debates over cultural assimilation of immigrants are nothing new (all of this has happened before and will happen again) and also noting that assimilation mostly works.  HOWEVER, what is different is that after decades of ever-increasing attempts at integration, with a large-scale marshaling of resources for a more-or-less benevolent (though not necessarily respectful or well-informed) effort to reduce educational and economic disparities, it's much harder for some people to sustain faith in integration.  It's worked for new immigrants but not for a continuing underclass.  The woes of that underclass arise directly from America's original sin, and will not be remedied easily.  So, some people throw up their hands cynically and say do nothing, while others throw up their hands earnestly and decide to define the problem away by celebrating difference, and declaring that disparities come from policymakers' failures to properly account for cultural difference rather than inflicted pathology.

I think I largely agree with this.  We are desperate to define a problem away, or channel guilt, because if we don't define the problem as arising from some difference worthy of celebration then people will define it as arising from some difference worthy of scorn.

But, as I've said before about how you can have different theories of failure, you can have different theories of difference.  Making difference into too big of a thing will eventually cause some to question whether it is always a positive thing, let alone a positive thing that always favors a group that you are trying to shield from harm.  As unsavory as the motive is, they will be able to wrap themselves in the mantle of disinterestedness and open-mindedness.  Spend enough time saying that groups are different and eventually someone will come along and say "Yeah, groups are different, and I freakin' love my group!  My group is the best!"

And that never takes us anywhere good.

But as easy as it is to scold those who celebrate difference, it's a response to an original sin that we've been unable to wash away.  Its effects linger, they resist efforts at reform, and the legitimacy of the system requires that we either remove the difference, rationalize it, or properly assign blame.  The first has yet to be realized, the third is something that people try to do but don't really get satisfying results from, so we go to the second.

Monday, February 25, 2019

New book and other things

1) I'm currently reading We Are All Multiculturalists Now by Nathan Glazer.  It's about multiculturalism in education from the perspective of the 1990's.  On some level it doesn't feel like it's telling me anything really new, not drawing on things I haven't already read about and thought about and griped about.  But I also feel like parts of it are groping toward explicitly stating something that I've struggled to state.  I won't state it in the midst of a quick post, but I'm thinking about it.  It ties in with an essay I'm working on.

2) I'm reading this 2017 piece on how identity and representation get explored more and more in art criticism.  I don't have time to pick apart the whole piece, and I always try to be skeptical about claims that something only started recently.  At the same time, this excerpt ties into something I've been thinking about for a while:

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment it became evident we’re in a new era of criticism, but a good candidate for that tipping point might be the 2012 controversy over the all-white principal cast of HBO's Girls. 
Some critics had been pointing out for years that TV and movies offered an unrealistically white portrayal of New York City; there was even a song about the inconsequential parts for black characters on Friends. But the idea that there was something wrong with this never got much traction in the wider media; when Friends finally introduced Aisha Tyler as a recurring character near the end of its run in 2003, she said: "I don't think anyone is trying to redress issues of diversity here." 
But by 2012, when Girls creator Lena Dunham was criticized for her monochromatic vision of Brooklyn, she felt a need to make it clear that she respected those criticisms by addressing them on the show.

2012 is an important year because it was the year after Occupy Wall Street.  OWS had a message of "We are the 99%."  There's a lot that's wrong with that (the upper part of the 99% differs from the bottom 90%), and a lot of silliness came out of Zuccotti Park, but at the same time they had a message that resonated, that brought people together rather than dividing them, and that pushed back on some genuinely bad stuff (e.g. bailouts for the rich and austerity for the rest).

Shortly after that attempt at unity, cultural criticism did seem to escalate in its divisiveness.  One needn't be a conspiracy theorist to note that a brief moment of unity was followed by chattering and writing elites--and the companies that market their work--emphasizing difference over solidarity.  It's a bit like how some people feel the need to scold working-class Trump voters about their privilege rather than empathize with their economic anxiety.  Yes, there's a lot that's wrong with Trump, and there are plenty of reasons to disagree with their supporters, but surely that disagreement can be framed in some way other than "You know, you have it pretty good!"  There used to be a word for people who told blue collar workers that they have nothing to complain about:  Republicans.

So, yeah, it is interesting that division overtook solidarity in elite commentary shortly after 2011.

3) As long as we're talking about commentary on art and entertainment, I highly recommend this piece by Lauren Oyler.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A strange moral reversal

Gillette, the razor company, has received considerable attention for an ad campaign that talks about how men have to be better in their conduct and their approach to others' conduct.  Many are applauding it while others are recoiling from the criticism of men.  There's no point in me trying to say whether the ad does or doesn't paint with a broad brush, whether the message is or isn't ultimately positive about men (while there's surely criticism, there's also a clear implication that men can be better), because it's very much a Rohrschach test.  You see what you see, not what I argue that you should see.

What fascinates me is that the critics of the ad, many of them nominal conservatives, include in their ranks people who say that the ad is condemning the inherently aggressive nature of men, while those praising it, many of them nominal liberals, speak of the need to teach men discipline and self-control.  In an earlier phase of the culture war, it would have been considered hippie-ish to say that people need to celebrate their own inner nature and do what feels right for them.  It would have been considered conservative to say that discipline and structure and conformity to rules and ethical norms are what matter.  Now, granted, the hippies would have said that people should follow their natural instincts for love, not war.  Likewise, conservatives would have wanted to discipline men to channel their aggressive natures into healthy competition and the use of force for the enforcement of laws and protection of national security.  This just means that while history rarely repeats it often echoes.

Still, the echoes are strong, and inverted.  And they bring to mind a recent chance conversation with someone who turned out to be an elderly professor, and also an outspoken conservative.  The topic of the #MeToo movement came up, causing him to speak quite adamantly about how modern political correctness is denying men the chance to act on their instincts.  I was dumbfounded that a conservative would call for a social order in which men follow their instincts, rather than one in which they are disciplined to submit to the order of society, and channel the best parts of their instincts into worthy pursuits that are governed by rules, while taming and suppressing the worst parts of their instincts. Conversely, liberals have become quite rule-oriented.

I'm not necessarily a fan of every rules-oriented move by liberals, especially on the topic of political correctness in speech and entertainment, but surely some self-restraint in matters of sexual behavior is a necessary prerequisite for civilized society.  Surely we can enjoy some jokes while also keeping our hands to ourselves.

Of course, there are still some hippie types on the left, and some restrained types on the right.  But I think that this era of a genital-grabbing TV star as head of state has caused some on the right to walk away from the virtue of restraint.  I'm not wholly in favor of ever-increasing restraint in all aspects of life, but academic fields are called "disciplines" for a reason, and I am a proud academic.