Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
Updated: 1 hour 15 min ago
OK, my mom texted me earlier that it was snowing in D.C. That is wrecked-up sideways, people. LAND’S SAKES IT IS THE MIDDLE OF APRIL?! In a way I should really post the Weezer song “My Name is Jonas,” because, do you know what else? Guess what I received in a text today—words of deep concern from my little brother. Building’s not going as he planned. The vortex means digging is banned. The dozer will not clear a path; the driver swears he learned his math! The workers are going home—I reckon, because the dirt’s frozen! How’s the man meant to get a cellar dug for his cool 1950s-plan cabin on the lower meadow of his proppity up in West Virginia if it starts snowing and the workers are going home? Now I imagine it’s all going to melt in a trice but this really has been retarding his plans, for real, and not just in a Weezer song (which is an excellent song, but not as good as “Say it Ain’t So,” The Best Weezer Song. Um. OK, no, I’m changing my plea to guilty claim to “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here“). Yep, they have had the stones and the timber and all that, sufficient to build a cabin, and all taken from the woods itself, but they haven’t been able to break ground till last week because they couldn’t break into the damn ground!
And now it’s snowing on all they poor heads, even that of Fatso, the chihuahua-pomeranian mix, who isn’t fat, and was chosen for his mighty endurance and ability to withstand the harsh winters by sitting in a dog bed made of a damn knitting basket or something right up next to the wood stove. I am told that despite being a pom-chi-chi (no, psych, it’s cause he’s 1/4 pom and the rest chi), Fatso has the soul of a black lab, and that I will love him and not think he is a wretched yappy creature whom humans brought into the world only in order to illuminate the First Noble Truth. We’ll see. E’erbody says so, though. Hmmm. OK Fatso, win my heart. He’ll get a chance this summer when I meet him for the first time.
Anyway, for the rest of y’all, here’s DJ Earworm’s Summermash 2013, with the “hey where’s all my ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Blurred Lines’” you were wondering about I was complaining about with regard to the 2013 mashup (which has grown on me). Watch, listen, and imagine. Summer is coming, sure as anything. If she is delayed in some way I feel certain that small felt and metal figures whose manipulable fingers become dark with smuts over the course of the film will be animated in stop-motion and narrated over by an avuncular zombie Burl Ives in such wise as to overcome any difficulties as may be posed by the Snow Miser or Jim DeMint or whoever.
E and I are acquiring a hairy baby this weekend. We can’t agree on a name. He is against human names, except for when he isn’t. I tend towards cute ones that will be embarrassing to call out in a south London park. We’re not allowed to get pretentious ones after writers and such. Suggestions?
Milo (this has 3 ticks, one from me + 2 sisters)
Bosco (two ticks.)
Grover (I love this one but E keeps saying we can’t call our dog after a tax dodger. There were no muppets in his prep school childhood.)
Boxy (after the dog in the original Battlestar Galactica)
Sprocket (after the dog in, I think, Fraggle Rock)
Hobbes (after the cartoon character, not the political philosopher)
Jaffa (city or biscuit)
Ajax (possibly too pretentious, but more likely to be associated with washing powder)
Max (dull name I threw as a sop to E. Now he counters EVERY suggestion with ‘how about Max?’)
Morris (my favourite, but better suited to a terrior with a grumpy old man personality)
Maurice (we are likely to brush its hair quite often)
Boney (after the first ever Farrell family dog)
Bubbles (after Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, also a pet name for E)
Cracker (the dog is very white)
FYI the dog is a Samoyed, because my mum has one. We all love that dog so much it’s gotten to the point where most of my sisters now ask ‘how is Sweetie?’ before we inquire about our Dad.
A new collection of Ian Miller’s art is out today. When I was in my early twenties, I was mildly obsessed by Miller’s graphic novel collaboration with M. John Harrison, The Luck in the Head, to the point that a few years ago, when I could finally afford to, I bought a couple of the originals, including the ‘Procession of the Mammy’ shown above (reproduction isn’t wonderful; it’s far sharper and not nearly as drenched with red in real life).
I thought about this graphic novel, and the Harrison short story it built on a lot last year, when Margaret Thatcher died. Neil Gaiman describes in his introduction to Harrison’s work how:
For me, the first experience of reading Viriconium Nights and In Viriconium was a revelation. I was a young man when I first encountered them, half a lifetime ago, and I remember the first experience of Harrison’s prose, as clear as mountain-water and as cold. The stories tangle in my head with the time that I first read them – the Thatcher Years in England seem already to be retreating into myth. They were larger-than-life times when we were living them, and there’s more than a tang of the London I remember informing the city in these tales, and something of the decaying brassiness of Thatcher herself in the rotting malevolence of Mammy Vooley (indeed, when Harrison retold the story of “The Luck in the Head” in graphic novel form, illustrated by Ian Miller, Mammy Vooley was explicitly drawn as an avatar of Margaret Thatcher).
He doesn’t mention (but then it’s an aside) how Harrison and Miller’s collaboration captures the contrast between Thatcher’s role as emblem and her frailty as a human being. In the picture, she’s already become a kind of ritual object, carted around to no particular purpose beyond display. Like the teapots that are the helmets of her supporters, she’s been superannuated and put to new uses that are both ludicrous and sinister. Another panel shows her after the procession, without her wig, shaven-headed, exhausted and empty, pushed along in a bath-chair by a lackey wearing a fish-head mask (a reference both to Miller’s art – he likes to draw fish – and to an incident in Harrison’s short novel In Viriconium). Miller and Harrison depict Thatcherism not as the revolution it believed itself to be, but as an aftermath where the symbols have been emptied of all meaning. Put another way, the senescent Thatcher depicted by Miller and Harrison’s Mammy Vooley represents less a foretelling of Thatcher’s own decline, than the decay of the movement that she represented (a decay which was already present in its moment of full flowering).
That’s the title of this really good (in my opinion) Jonathan Chait cover article in New York Magazine. At this point it would be customary for me to extract a nut graph but, you know, that results in a lot of squirrels fighting it out in comments about just the nut. I think the whole article deserves considerate discussion. So do that instead. (I will be Chait’s defender! Although, of course, if someone picks on one of the places where his foot slips … well, I can’t defend that.)
UPDATE: Sorry, original link was to a subsection not the whole article. And original post title was a subsection title, not the actual article title. Not that it really matters.
It’s cool that Chris and Ingrid were meeting up recently; Maria came here to have roti prata with me and John in Singapore just the other day. Maybe someday in the future perfect subjunctive all the CT authors could have met one another. Maybe someday we could all meet up at once and have a killer party! I would like it to be…on Ortygia in Syracuse, I think (the one in Sicily). It would be OK if it were in a different city too. HK would be cool. Mataram isn’t exactly a city, but it still might be nice to meet on Lombok somewhere. I took this photo on Lombok week before last, looking East off the Southwest coast. If it were clear and you looked to the left you could see Bali across the Lombok strait, three mountains one behind the other, about as big as the knuckle line of your fist held out at arm’s length. This is also the Wallace line, which divides Eurasian flora and fauna from Austronesian. Storms marching towards us across the marsh and then the river, and up the bluff, and then whiting out the screened porch with rain and then hammering the tin roof with a thousand pebbles taught me as a child that clouds get really full and black and then water up and falls out the bottom. It’s just science.
I met up with Ingrid recently and she reminded me that we had plans to run a regular photoblogging series at Crooked Timber, indeed, we actually started one. So here’s a re-start. This is the staircase at the Musée des Beaux Arts at Nancy, France, taken last summer. Here’s hoping that other CTers will join in.
I have resisted writing about the Brendan Eich Mozilla affair. Literally. The ‘resisted’ bit is literal, I mean. Every day, for more than a week, I have expended non-trivial willpower to post nothing. It’s the moral equivalent of a giant bag of snacks in the kitchen of my mind. Unopened. That I am so distracted by the knowledge that someone, right now, is writing something wrong on the internet about Brendan Eich, is a sign I am a glutton for empty calories of falsehood.
Thus, my new policy. I am allowed to eat as many stale snacks of falsehood as I want. I’m opening the Brendan Eich bag. Now. By commencing to write this post I have opened the bag. The temptation is increasing! But I’m … just going to let it sit, getting good and stale. It’s already sort of stale. I did manage to wait more than a week. If, after staleness really sets in, I still want to partake, I may do so. At which point I just may manage to do so moderately, in proportion to such true nutritional content as I may add.
Going forward, let it be so! Fresh truths and stale falsehoods served!
It ought to be a category. Teapots, Post-Tempest. Meme as Memento Mori of Memedom. Urgent hyperbole as deflated whoopee cushion, waiting to happen. The stale catnip of contemptsmanship. If I really want such things, I may have them.
OK, but a few jokes are permissible, even before the thing has passed its sell-by, so I can eat it. For example: back in the day, Norbizness made fun of the tendency to make a monstrous monolith of The Left. “The Left Is Attacking The City!” And, in the present case, the Left is being identified with Mozilla! Which is named after an actual giant monster. That attacked the city! What are the odds? (OK, it’s not a good joke. Aaand Alicublog beat me to it. But without noting the particular irony in the Mozilla name! But maybe it was just supposed to be obvious.)
What else can I do to resist getting sucked into this sort of thing, to no good end? Here’s something. This last week, rather than write about Brendan Eich, I’ve been catching up on Season 2 of The Following. It’s junk TV, but fun. Like a lot of genre fiction, it gives us reality plus one preposterous conceit of coincidence or alt-psychology. (Like: Angela Lansbury is never more than 20 feet from a murder. Murder, she caused. What a way to run a metaphysical railroad!) The conceit in The Following is … how to put this? That serial killers are kind of like … I dunno. Mice? They infest. If you see one, you know there are, like, 20 you can’t see but any second they will come out of the woodwork. You never have just one. They run in … packs, herds? What should be the mass noun for a typically tight-knit herd of serial killers? A flense? A flense of serial killers. That’s as good a mass noun as any. In the show, there is a nominal conceit that it’s due to the charismatic powers of one Joe Carroll, serial killer. But, honestly, it seems more like: in this world people just turn serial killer quite easily; and birds of that feather flock together. Everything in the show flows from that pair of facts. It’s fun! And it’s fun that it isn’t played for laughs. Even though, if you think about it, it’s laughable.
Now, getting back to the internet. What is annoying about this sort of thing – as in so many other cases! – is not that people are saying things that are wrong, but that they are saying things that are patently ridiculous, without awareness that their views exhibit this singular degree of epistemic weakness. Isn’t that the way of it?
Everyone agrees Brendan Eich’s case, in itself, is not the stuff of personal tragedy, not to the tune of a week of news cycles, let alone as fodder for some modern Aeschylus or Sophocles. He’s a rich guy who quit under pressure, but no law was broken, and he can get a good new job somewhere if he wants one. Somewhat bad judgment was exhibited by some, about something, at some point in this case. (Everyone can agree with that much.) But some people think that Eich’s case shows, additionally, the dark nature of the liberal mind – at least its dark side; or at very least liberalism’s contemporary tendency towards diet totalitarianism-lite, its core intolerance. Or at very very least its characteristic naivete about the complexity of what the other side is thinking and feeling. And, insofar as the Eich case is taken as some such diagnostic indicator of liberalism’s ills, it gets like The Following.
A moment’s reflection suffices to show this is just genre fiction. A few key features of liberalism, and of human nature itself – of basic psychology – are flagrantly falsified to occasion an entertainingly consistent cascade of catastrophe. It would be fun if all, or most, liberals were drawn to causes like marriage equality by a kind of intolerance; or if liberals had a tendency to form, spontaneously, little proto-fascist cells. If liberalism/fascism were, inherently, a perilous razor’s edge. If the Brendan Eich case showed us our culture, in the mirror, dancing a dance of the death of tolerance along that razor’s edge! It would even be funny if liberal responses to Eich were due to naivete about the case. (It’s always funny to imagine people getting through the minefield, without making a significant misstep, by sheer luck.)
Just like it would be fun if large numbers of people easily turned into serial killers who spontaneously form elaborate and reasonably stable social networks. Interesting times would be had.
I get why people like these stories. But it couldn’t actually – y’know – happen. I don’t just mean it couldn’t happen here. It’s not like The Following could be realistic in some other time and place, just not today in the US. And the Brendan Eich case is similar. People write it up as a kind of emotionally jolting genre fiction that couldn’t ever come true.
Of course, I’m not saying a liberal society can’t slide into fascism. But you have to imagine it happening by plausible psychological and sociological mechanisms. Sheesh.
And that’s why my fingers have been itching to write about the Eich case! Until now!
I want to explain to these people, who are fictionalizing the story, that they are being tricked by their taste in genre fiction. The tension and release they are getting from reading about Brendan Eich’s persecution is like the tension and release I get from watching Kevin Bacon be persecuted by flocks of serial killers. And: in wanting so desperately to make them see this, I crave my own sugar rush, of course. Like so many on the internet, I am quite the connoisseur of falsehood. (It isn’t quite right to say that Hobbes hated the false more than he loved truth. Rather, he loved falsehood … in others. I am that way, too.)
I like the taste of contempt.
It’s a common taste. Those who are excited by the Brendan Eich story are excited by their sense that this is an occasion for feeling and expressing superiority to liberals and liberalism. I am correspondingly excited by their excitement because I feel this is an occasion for feeling superior to their silly, misfiring sense of superiority. Oh the sweet, sweet irony, when the tables turn!
And they will turn, because I’m right, they’re wrong!
No small distinction, I think you will admit!
So argue already (you object)! You’ve opened the bag, are munching away. You’ve said all the people on the other side are deluded. Even Andrew Sullivan and Conor Friedersdorf, who are trying to be more moderate in their indictment of liberal responses to the case.
Where’s the argument they, too, are pretty much just indulging an unrealistic alt-psychology fantasy?
You’re right! I shouldn’t even have opened the bag. Shame! Shame! This post is written in weakness, although I am having tons of fun writing it. Here’s the thing. Either I’m right or I’m wrong. (Even conservatives will agree with that.) And I think I’m right and that I have absolutely devastating arguments to back it up. You may think I’m bluffing, that in my heart I know conservatives have won the argument, but I assure you: I don’t think I’m bluffing. I’m struggling to restrain myself from offering my best arguments. (In my mind, I’m admiring them. They are very good arguments. Gleaming weapons. The other side has nothing to compare.) It’s like I’m saying to myself: you want contempt? Fine! That’s all you get! They get to say you didn’t make an argument in this post! They get to be right about that much! Nice try, self!
Because if I’m right, there’s little point in giving them a blood-red spin through the public sphere, my arguments, at least not until everyone has forgotten Brendan Eich’s name. If, a week from now (let’s say) I think I can express my view about all this in a way that no one yet has – if I can put my finger on the pulse of the appeal of such a case, to those it appeals to – then maybe I’ll write a follow-up.
That’s why I’m not even linking to all the things I’m complaining about. I don’t think it’s healthy to join the conversation. It’s unfair, I know, to indict but not argue or even link. But I’m trying to make a point about craziness, you see. (It isn’t easy for me not to argue and link.)
The time is simply not yet unripe (I’m trying to keep a straight face here). The fruit of Brendan Eich’s resignation under pressure must be given a chance to overripen, bloat, rot, fall from the tree, decompose, be forgotten. Then, and only then, can I reach into the soil and – letting its rich, fragrant brownness slip between my fingers, for dramatic effect – sermonize about how this fecundity holds natural seeds of the next case. I will call it the ‘whatshisname case’, because I will have forgotten Eich’s name. It wasn’t important.
But, in the meantime, it is not impossible that I will have managed to annoy, say, Conor Friedersdorf and Andrew Sullivan, who think they are being psychologically observant of the complexity of the Eich case, whereas folks like me are too inclined to see it in black-and-white terms. So probably that’s my problem, but until I argue they can’t be sure. For they are scrupulous.
Look, I just think they’re seeing what they want. They are seeing a kind of complexity, yeah. But it’s a fictional sort that flatters their sensibilities. Also, they’re wound up about a whole lot of nothing, which is never good. I am, too.
What they need – what I need – is a break from the case. Let a whole week go by in which no one says a word about it.
But this post is likely to cause words to be said! (It could happen.) Ok, suppose the other side notices and someone is annoyed that I have said they are wrong – at such length! – without offering rational rebuttals to their rational arguments. Obviously that’s not post-worthy, because I didn’t even make an argument! Here’s a recipe for how to not post about this obviously unworthy-of-counter-argument offering, even though it’s provoking, the thing I say.
I am kind of serious about how you should read the other side’s rhetoric the way you watch a show like The Following. While I am watching, I know it couldn’t happen that way, but I am unbothered. It doesn’t call for an angry rebuttal. But then I may click over to National Review and see that there is a reader poll [scroll down], asking “Does the Mozilla firing show we have entered a new age of intolerance?” To which 98.12% of respondents have responded ‘yes’. Of course, people who respond to a poll like this are hardly a representative sample of anything, even of conservative readers of NR. Still, it bothers me that this happened. It really bothers me. It’s like you showed hundreds of people a dog and asked them, ‘is this a cat?’ and they all said ‘yes’. How badly did people have to want to see a cat, for that to be the case? I mean, sure: they’re really just saying ‘liberalism yuck!’ I get that. It makes no more sense to argue with a ‘yuck!’ than it does to argue with an episode of The Following, which is just supposed to push my buttons, in a fun way. Still.
But what are you going to do? Try this: imagine a fictional world in which basic facts, and human psychology, and even a few elemental conceptual truths are altered, such that it would be terrifyingly plausible that ‘The Mozilla firing shows we have entered a new age of intolerance’.
I’m going to fill in the details of this fan fiction (for that is really what it is: I am a fan of conservatism) courtesy of a detail in a Kevin Williamson piece that bothered me, I admit it. You are free to think I was stung by the truth of it. But I think it was more than I was provoked by the false of it, which weighed on my tongue like a stone. By what feat of verbal heroics could I ever hope to roll such a massive stone of wrongness away?
The convocation of clowns on the left screeched with one semi-literate and inchoate voice when my colleague Jonah Goldberg, borrowing the precise words of one of their own, titled a book Liberal Fascism. Most of them didn’t read it, but the ones who did apparently took what was intended as criticism and read it as a blueprint for political action.
Welcome to the Liberal Gulag.
That term may be perverse, but it is not an exaggeration.
Of course, in saying it is not an exaggeration, he is precisely and obviously exaggerating. I get that. (It’s like that whole ‘she was literally run off her feet’ thing.) Even so, just imagine it were true. It’s going to be kind of like Kamandi, The Last Boy On Earth meets Idiocracy. Or Planet of The Apes meets Adventure Time. Or something. Imagine that, in the not-too-distant-future, an NR cruise ship strikes an iceberg and goes down and everyone dies, except Jonah Goldberg, who is frozen like Captain America after W.W. II, only to thaw out 50 years later into a world in which civilization has collapsed into one big liberal gulag. In the camp, which is the world, there’s kind of a barter economy, in which everyone trades acts of intolerance, that being the universal currency. Everyone got semi-literate, because there weren’t any non-liberals left after The Event, and the only book that was left was a single copy of Liberal Fascism. Which was mistaken for a positive blueprint. Imagine the bitter tears Goldberg sheds when he realizes this! (I think in the movie he will be played by Eddie Izzard, doing a very good American accent.) Anyway, eventually Goldberg figures out what The Event was. It was the Mozilla firing! (Not the firing itself, but the cultural aftermath. I don’t want to be ridiculous about this. It couldn’t be the firing itself. It would have to be the aftermath. The cultural penumbra.) So he builds a time machine, goes back to the Mozilla board room on the day, tells them to play off the OKCupid thing like it’s nothing, and civilization is saved!
Also, conservatives can play this game, too. Just imagine what it would be like if a Krugman op-ed were ever true! (How crazy would the world have to be, for that to be the case? Fill in the details!) If you are provoked by the elaborate wrongness of this post, don’t get mad. Instead, use your imagination to imagine a world crazy enough that Holbo’s response to it would be reasonable. In this crazy fiction, the Brendan Eich case literally causes conservatives, including Andrew Sullivan, plus Conor Friedersdorf, to lose track of, among other things, common sense about human psychology, for two weeks. If you think I’m wrong, then imagining this crazy fiction should be highly amusing for you. Amusing enough that maybe you won’t mind so much, waiting for the post in which I prove that it’s not fiction, but science fact! I was right all along! Which, possibly, I will decide isn’t even worth writing. Who would believe me, after all, who didn’t already believe it?
Being bemused by genre fiction is more fun than being annoyed.
Aaargh! Aargh! Aargh! I cannot believe the number of Brendan Eich things I have read, and the number of arguments against them I have compulsively formulated, over the past week.
The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!
Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it was easy to to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).
Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we think of emancipation in terms of possession. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer in Granta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”
But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.
So I asked folks on Facebook to make some suggestions for supplemental readings. Jade Larissa Schiff, a political theorist at Oberlin, suggested Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. I’ve taught this text more than a dozen times, to undergrads and grad students. But I’ve always been leery of using it at Passover. There are few things more embarrassing than being at a seder where relatively privileged people talk about being slaves. But I gave it a re-read.
Turns out, there’s quite a bit in the text that’s relevant. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our seder, but here are just a few passages that jumped out at me. I share them with you all, whether you’re going to a seder or not, in the spirit of the holiday. And in the spirit of what Walzer says about the meaning of the Exodus story in the closing passages of Exodus and Revolution:
We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics, and about its proper form:
—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.
1. In this passage from chapter 6, Douglass describes his discovery of the subversive power of reading (in a later passage, he’ll describe the misery that can come with the self-knowledge that reading brings). Reading is on my mind this year for a couple of reasons. First, my six-year-old daughter began reading this past year. In the mornings, she gets up early, and sneaks a half-hour to read a page or two from one of the Harry Potter books. You can see the sense of autonomy and independence, and the subversion of authority that Douglass talks about (we try to tell her not to get up before 7), at work there.
But, second, New York, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a battle over high-stakes testing, with an increasing number of parents simply opting out of the testing regime. Last week, parents, teachers, and students at my daughter’s elementary school held a rally to protest the latest round of tests in New York. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of the school, wrote an oped in the Times about the insanity of eight-year-olds being forced to sit for three days as their futures get determined. It’s like the bar exam!
Anyway, reading Douglass, I got to thinking about how this activity—reading—which has been a source of joy and wonder, of subversion and autonomy, for so many children across so many decades, is now being reduced to the most mindless form of drudgery on behalf of a phantom meritocracy.
Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.
2. In this passage from chapter 8, Douglass describes how his grandmother was treated when she got old and sick, nearing death. Nothing more demonstrated “the infernal character of slavery,” writes Douglass, than the disregard she was shown by her master when she was no longer useful to him. The emphatic nature of this passage—the “base ingratitude” of sending someone off to die being the signature of slavery—made me wonder about how we often warehouse the elderly in homes. And what kind of slavery we’re sustaining thereby. Here’s Douglass:
If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren….
The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?
3. In this passage from chapter 10, Douglass describes the surveillance regime of one of his masters, Edward Covey. I was struck in reading this by the parallels with so many surveillance systems in the contemporary workplace, whether it be for maids in a hotel or white-collar workers. Particularly the emphasis on not knowing if you’re being watched or not.
Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.
4. In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer points out (at least I think he does; it’s been a while) that one of the elements that made bondage in ancient Egypt bondage was the fact that the slaves had to work so much. It wasn’t merely the coerciveness, but the omnipresence, of work that they suffered and experienced as slavery. Labor was everything; labor was everywhere. In this passage, also from chapter 10, Douglass makes a similar point. It brought to mind some of the debates that several writers in and around Jacobin have been having over the last several years about the left and the politics of work: should our stance be to reform or reorganize work, to make it more just and share its burdens more equally, or to oppose it entirely, to reduce if not eliminate it? Here’s Douglass:
If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!
Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.
In Egypt, indeed.
Sue Townsend is also dead. Guardian obit here. I have a small supply of Adrian Mole books, which I give to students (even if, sometimes, I don’t know them well) who have prolonged illnesses—or sometimes just to cheer them up. I have no idea whether it works for them, but it pretty much always works for me.
We’re hoping to have a proper book event on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in due course. That’s hard for those of us who have read it, because the book is so stimulating, so bursting with surprising facts and ideas, that there’s a lot to talk about. Still, I think I’ll permit myself to share a few thoughts that I had about the way in which reading Piketty might impact on teaching political philosophy, and, specifically, teaching Rawls and the difference principle.
A Theory of Justice came out in 1971 and was composed during the period the French call the trente glorieuses . During that period it was easy to believe that the power of inherited wealth had melted away and that we were living in a new era of more equal opportunity, with careers open to talents and income inequalities largely explained by the differences in talent and ability that the parties in the original position were denied knowledge of. To be sure, 1960s America (like 1960s Europe) hadn’t accomplished that social-democratic meritocratic ideal, but it was kind of visible in embryo, waiting to be born. Rawls’s book took us way beyond that, challenging the glib assumptions about desert that the winners flattered themselves with, but in its toleration of some inequality for the greater good (and particularly for the benefit of the least advantaged), Rawls’s view was recognizably connected to a then-emerging social reality.
I suspect, though, that the teaching of Rawls hasn’t really moved on in the light of the new social reality. Though Rawls actually writes explicitly about income and wealth , much of the classroom (and textbook) exposition of Rawls inevitably focuses on functional inequalities in income from labour (to provide incentives etc). With inequalities in wealth (and inherited wealth) being both more extreme and of growing importance in actual societies, there’s quite a lot of scope to include in our teaching (i) an account of the shocking facts about inequalities in wealth as Piketty documents them and (ii) to notice that so much of that wealth inequality is non-functional and even dysfunctional as it actually disincentivizes work and the development of skill. Piketty’s constant return to Vautrin’s advice to Rastignac in Balzac’s Père Goriot is instructive here: in a rentier society, why bother working hard and training, when marriage or inheritance are the way to riches? We need to get across to our students that a society in which inequalities of reward to work exist but are functional is even further from the society in which we actually live than they (and the media) normally assume.
However even though Rawls was writing at a time when a just society looked like an emerging possibility and when private wealth was in remission, he also provided (via the influence of James Meade) an attractive alternative to the society Piketty believes we are turning into. Specifically, I’m thinking of Rawls’s ideal of a property-owning democracy, a society with widely dispersed capital ownership and different forms of enterprise (an ideal most recently explored by Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson in their collection Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond ). Spreading the wealth, expropriating the expropriators somewhat, and giving us all a stake in society’s stock of capital and thereby assuring that citizenship and democracy are not sucked of their meaning by the super-rich: that’s a message on which Rawls’s normative theory and Piketty’s economic narrative converge.
Soultrain.com sort of alleges itself to have the HD video, but I can’t find it there. In any case, this is a great song, killer outfits (I want all those! All I own is the pants of the dude with the hat. Hm. OK, her pants, but I don’t like them on me.) and Don Cornelius is rocking…just…is that tie 6 full inches wide? It is, right? Right on.
I spent last week in a posh beach hut somewhere very hot, sleeping off the latest ICANN meeting and reading a stack of books. But mostly just sleeping.
ICANN meetings are inhuman. The nice ‘back to school’ bit, exchanging cheery hellos in the hallways with people you’ve not seen for months, is over in the first eighteen hours. From then it’s an unmerciful eight or nine day slog through jetlag, air conditioning, bad tempers, disinformation, misinformation and information overload. Forget about having time for meals, exercise or sufficient sleep; I ration my fluid intake because there literally isn’t enough time to go to the loo. (This is bad; I nearly always get what I now call my Tuesday Migraine.) I did not get outside in daylight from the afternoon I took the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow to a ten-minute walk to an external meeting, seven days later. That’s not at all unusual. The meetings are scheduled and conducted as if the people taking part don’t occupy human bodies. The topic of ICANN volunteer burnout is an evergreen, especially people who aren’t paid lobbyists of one sort or another. As a friend wrote to me this morning:
“The result (of fewer volunteers doing an increasing amount of policy work) is that the organization retreats from its roots as a bottom-up, multistakeholder policy body to a staff-driven stakeholder interest-based policy organization. If that transition takes place, then the fundamental position of ICANN in the Internet’s management ecosystem may change significantly.”
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
One odd little strain running through the book was the strain of over-work, and how it was to be expected and dealt with. Collapse from nervous exhaustion and working too hard – by WASP bankers, of course, not their cleaning ladies – was so common as to be a frequent topic of conversation and correspondence.
Pierpoint Morgan himself suffered constant ailments all his life and was well known to both dislike and be addicted to his job. He took large chunks of time off and was quite open about working only nine months of the year. It wasn’t just the hereditary rulers of JP Morgan who took months off at a time. Several of the partners profiled in Chernow’s book worked to the point of damaging their health, took a few months off and came back. One was quite open about the fact that he only wanted to work nine months in twelve, and was subsequently invited to do just that. No less a personage than CT’s own very occasional contributor, Montagu Norman, then head of the Bank of England, worked himself into a burnout over the Gold Standard. Jack Morgan kindly offered Monty the use of his yacht to cross the Atlantic for a few months of wartime leave in the early 1940s. (Old Monty declined, saying he was already en route to Quebec.)
But now I think of it, the Victorians were all over this. Florence Nightingale repeatedly worked herself into exhausted collapse, and then took to the chaise longue for weeks or months. Dickens, too, had a thing where nervous collapse and physical depletion would just kind of come to a head every now and then. Then he would rest, rest, rest, and after a while, resume. I don’t know if chimney sweeps got it, too.
But somewhere in the late twentieth century we forgot about all this. With antibiotics and behaviourism and god knows what else, the mind body connection got disjointed. People stopped having a good excuse to say they were spent. When burnout and chronic fatigue were ‘discovered’ in the 1980s, the popular view was – and still is, for the most part – incredulity and a sense that people whose bodies had suddenly and seemingly inexplicably forgotten how to be well were somehow faking it. Or asking for it.
An old friend who was dean of students at a US university told me that at the start of her career students who got mononucleosis – which often presages chronic fatigue – would just go home for a semester and sleep it off. The following term they’d be back, fighting fit. But by the 1990s, they would fight it and fight it and lose, and two years later still be dragging about campus, white-faced and heavy-footed and trailing incompletes.
Put it this way, when’s the last time you heard of someone actually convalescing?
There are all sorts of structural economic reasons why the over-achieving classes are no longer allowed to recover from the illnesses and exhaustions whose slow and windy pace we once had a humdrum familiarity with. And it’s hard to tell if extended periods of inactivity or sub-par abilities are purely the preserve of the Nightingales and the Morgans and the Woolfs, or if they’re just the ones whose day to day productivity is better chronicled. (Early research into ‘yuppy flu’ showed it was anything but; the most frequently afflicted US demographic was working age, working class Hispanic women.)
When something stops having a name, it gets harder to track and compare across generations. Nowadays, it seems easier to categorise fatigue or burnout as depression, as if it’s somehow anomalous and not something entirely to be expected. When the only tool you have is antidepressants, every indeterminate ailment becomes the nail. How many cases of post-natal depression, for example, are purely the symptoms of hard core sleep deprivation?
Exhaustion lowers inhibitions and mood, and drastically affects judgement. But we have a working culture that pretends it simply doesn’t matter. 11pm conference call? Sure. Five hour show and tell? No problem. Working lunch? What other kind is there? But the one thing we are not allowed to say is that we are tired. Too. Damn. Tired. For all their whacky notions and prudery, the Victorians were far ahead of us.
Two speculations and an announcement following up on previous posts on Talking Points Memo and sponsored content. First, the reason why TPM and some other policy/politics sites are moving towards sponsored content looks to me to have a lot to do with the advertising market. Politics junkies are not specifically attractive subjects for advertising, as one can tell from the ads in most policy focused print journals (which tend towards mobile phones with big friendly buttons for elderly people etc). I would guess that policy focused websites have relatively low clickthrough rates for standard ads, and in any event standard ads are a game where Google dominates (and is able to squeeze websites). Hence, sponsored content is an obvious way of monetizing readers – it allows people trying to sell a policy message to persuade policy focused readers more easily, using formats which strongly resemble the ways that these readers are used to consuming journalistic information rather than advertising.
Second, I suspect that editors of policy websites do not think of sponsored content as standard advertising, since it isn’t, no matter how they justify this comparison to the public and themselves. Instead, they implicitly distinguish between ‘respectable’ organizations, which they could plausibly take sponsored content from without damaging their reputation and self-conception too much, and ‘unrespectable’ organizations which they don’t want anything to do with. Big Beltway lobby groups, no matter how evil, fit into the first category. Religious cults and governments fit into the second. I would be prepared to bet a good deal of money that Josh Marshall would not have treated a proposal from the Church of Scientology for a ‘sponsored channel’ on psychological science as advertising content which you accept because if you start refusing you are entering into an editorial role etc etc etc. He’d have refused it, because it would have damaged TPM’s credibility. NB too that sponsored content from the Church of Scientology in a political magazine is not a crazy hypothetical.
The point isn’t that TPM, or other media groups are unusually hypocritical here or uniquely susceptible to getting into bed with problematic organizations. We live in a fallen world, where it’s hard to remain pure, and where many people and organizations arguably behave worse. I would bet significant amounts of money that Marshall wouldn’t accept a deal with the Chinese government to run sponsored content in an ‘East Asian Politics Channel.’ I would be completely certain that he would absolutely refuse a deal where the Chinese government had some editorial control over this hypothetical channel’s contents. It turns out that many universities aren’t quite so fussy.
Rather, it’s that the categories of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ that journalists (or, for that matter, academics and university administrators) work with, are sociological, rather than stemming from deep principle. They’re open to question and criticism. PhRMA – the organization that Talking Points Memo is working together with is a ‘respectable’ player in Washington DC politics. It’s a big policy actor, with deep pockets and a lot of influence. It is also in my opinion (and the opinion of most scholars working on access to knowledge issues), an organization that has done a lot to corrupt political debate in the US and elsewhere, pushing for policies that have led to widespread misery and indeed (e.g. in the case of AIDS drugs in South Africa), deaths. Hence the announcement. Over the next while, I’ll be looking to publish pieces from a variety of sources talking about the political activities of PhRMA and the pharmaceutical industry in general. One of the reason why PhRMA gets away with so much is because a lot of people don’t know what it has been responsible for. In an ideal world, PhRMA would be treated, like the Church of Scientology, as a pariah. Over the next few weeks, I hope we’ll be able to make the case for why.
This is really for Straightwood, because I know the deeply meaningful and fully explained nature of this video of 50 Cent dubbed over a Jehovah’s Witness exhorting deaf students to abstain from masturbation will appeal to your keenly honed and not in any way homosexual aesthetic.
Ha, just kidding! Sorry, sensei! It’s actually me, your friendly yet irreverent and over-enthusiastic Belle Waring. I read so much manga, dudes. So much. In Singapore, we use the metric system and everything, (which is way more rational, except for acres which are totes intuitive and based on a meaningful connenction to the land) so I know for certain I read a metric f$^Kton of manga. There are just piles around, and John is like “we’re reading Black Butler now?” Me: “Mmmmmaybe. Zoë said she was going to stop reading it at volume VIII. [For free, online at mangareader.net (since we only own I-V) which, OMG it’s gonna kill the print business! But no, because it bitens the ween.] There were about to be zombies (she’s scared of zombies). 1hr 15 minutes later she said the zombies weren’t as bad as she thought. Sebastian’s hot, so.”
The truth is that we never acquire great amounts of anything until a) John has already bought the full (iff sub 20, for he is an frugal Oregonian) run. Then, slowly, like a hopeful NYC resident of his new summer house in Bridgehampton feeding corn to deer, he coaxes us out by telling us that these are, in fact, excellent manga such as normal people read, and we all ignore him and say things like “you bought the hardback edition of Lois Lane: Superman’s Girlfriend, which is like a moving, 12-minute-long youtube-tribute-to-Paul Walker supercut of the Fast and Furious movies, except of superdickery—we don’t believe a word you say, man. Saying you wanted to read the entire thing to us aloud over a series of like 20 f&c*#ng nights ironically is not a valid objection.” And you shouldn’t feed the deer because they are adorable vermin and they eat every single thing you have every planted that is not actively poisonous to deer (don’t think this isn’t a bigass section at at the nursery). That’s why we haven’t read 20th Century Boys, despite owning the books. Or b) the other way we get stuff is I start to like it (this is the win scenario for my children). When I started reading Naruto, we had volumes 1-23. We now have volumes 1-66, roughly 8 weeks later. Why am I reading thousands of pages of comics about ninjas? Oh, golly, I thought you’d never ask!
AND THERE’S A TRICK! It’s a re-telling of a super-classic, well-known, Tezuka Astro-Boy story (which itself is only perhaps 30 pages long?). Like, four things have been modified, max, and those are character or place name changes. So my experience reading it was quite different to that of most Japanese readers or, say, Zoë. I didn’t know what was going to happen, or who it was who wanted to destroy the 8 strongest robots in the world, or what sort of thing Pluto even was. For everyone else it was, how will he do it? Like a magic trick in which you know the desired result, or an elaborate set-up for a joke where you know the punch-line. For you, the presumptive-non-Tezuka-reader, volume 2, in which reluctant warrior North No. 2 must abandon his peacetime profession as the house steward to a great composer in France in order to fight Pluto, is a small Iain M. Banks tragedy, and a very delicious one, that needs savoring, as so few will come our way again. Read Pluto. Give yourself a treat.
Hey, wait, this worked! I can’t possibly even tell you all the myriad reasons why you should read Pluto, much less why I had a personal tragedy befall me unlike any outside childhood when I learned that the US publisher/translator of Gakuen Alice A had gone out of business after putting out vol. 16. I was actually distraught, you can ask John. I was wandering around the house muttering, “I care so much more about Mind-Reader-kun and Mikan-chan than these assholes in Game of Thrones. Autumn may continue fair, and he can kill each and every single ever-loving blue-eyed one of those incestuous fricksticks at a wedding 300 pages from now: I. Don’t. Care. What’s going to happen to Persona? Will Natsume-kun die before he finds Aoi-chan?! AAAAAACK!” The free manga reader peeps helped me out for real, there, ganky, ad-laden page layout from 1998 or no. [Also, shout-out to Stephenson-quoter-kun—I love you man! Keep your nym 4 lyfe!]
Useless final para full of totally irrelevant details that I cannot think of any other place to mention: I will have to explain later why that reveal on whether you can get mangekyo-sharigan eyes (which let you torture people by looking at’em sideways—after being first born into the Uchiha clan natch (so you prolly totally suck BTW)—or, conceivably, getting someone else’s eye-balls/s (so prolly ditto—but hold that thought!)) without killing your best friend was socruce in Naruto 27. (I caused my 20-something employees to fall out laughing recently by declaring that it was a serious problem that the handle/cut-outs on some of these mango-wood and steel chairs were missing, because “the handles are totally cruce!” Cruce rhymes with douche obvs.) OK, next in my string of incomprehensible thoughts, you can have fox-fire, right? Kitsun-ebi? Blue-white flames that play on stuff? You have this if you are a fox yokai (demon) in Japan, so it’s fox-fire, sure. Why do we think it’s fox-fire tho? Given the utter inability of foxes to make any flames whatsoever AFAIK? Right, and if you’re an Uchiha (we’re back in the fictional universe of Naruto here) and you have all this badass ocular jutsu you can get to having ameratsu, which is black flames that go everywhere (until you stop them) and cannot be put out. If you are me you let them keep this /tsu/ phoneme as part of their flame nature (NO ur doing it rong) and think of them as black bitter flames. Maybe like coffee before life-giving condensed milk has been added? Which is known as kopi O in Singapore? CRUCE CORRECTIONS ADDED PER HELFUL COMMENTER JIM HARRISON, CONTRA UNHELFPUL NOTE WRITER. OR POORLY TRANSLATED NOTE WRITER. But it’s because Ameratsu is the sun kami (god)! Her brother is Susanoh-oh, who slew the 8-headed monster serpent that was naturally threatening the world’s happiness. (Like how they allus’ do, serpents. When they aren’t being drafted as ropes to churn the ocean of milk to release the elixir of immortality, and Laxmi, and lots of hot babes. And possibly condensed milk; Indian people may have worked this out, I’m not sure.) I wanted to save you from this tragic lexico-disassociative confusion before you got to Naruto volume 50-something mumble something. This is also why susano-o is a yet further, more awesome stage of ocular jutsu in which you don impenetrable armor of chakra in a form peculiar to you (vengeful, vengeful you), about 100-ft high, that can wield a terrifying sword or (more appropriately?) be an archer—rather than susano-o being a form of ninjutsu peculiar to Louisiana-bound, banjo-duelling ninjas. (If you see what I mean.)
My initial inclination was to put the Zep song “Whole Lotta Love” song here, inviting you to pretend that it says “made a whole lotta sense” and apply that to my post. But then I recall there is a drum solo, so I’ll put a song about kamisamas that is about Ameratsu, and which obliquely suggests that you should not have a fox mononoke to be the guardian (shinshi) of your shrine, pace Kamisama Kiss. (I say this because the fox shinshi look very as if they are going to eat the other shinshi (maybe starting with those goofy raccoon goober dudes) and then all the nommable chibi kami themselves.) Final thought: they have/had wolves in Japan, right? Why everything gotta be about foxes? Wolves are all cool and shit, right?
I’m sure that there’s going to be plenty more discussion here on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (there’s lots of good arguments to be had, but it is every bit the major work that people say it is), but in the meantime, a correction. Dean Baker, in a somewhat grumpy review, says:Rather than continuing in this vein, I will just take one item that provides an extraordinary example of the book’s lack of attentiveness to institutional detail. In questioning his contribution to advancing technology, Piketty asks: “Did Bill [Gates] invent the computer or just the mouse?” Of course the mouse was first popularized by Apple, Microsoft’s rival. It’s a trivial issue, but it displays the lack of interest in the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.
I’ve been seeing the Gates quote circulate a bit among left-leaning friends, very likely because of its structural similarity to a notorious claim by a rather different big sweeping economics book that precipitated a lot of derision (nb though that Gabriel Rossman, despite repeated calumny from He Who Must Not Be Named, decided in retrospect that the mistake wasn’t that big of a deal). Whichever which way, Dean’s use of the Piketty quote is unfortunately rather misleading. What Piketty actually says (p.512 of the proofs version of the book, which I assume maps on to the final text):“As for Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan, each with his own cult of personality (Did Bill invent the computer or just the mouse? Did Ronnie destroy the USSR single-handedly, or with the help of the pope?), it may be useful to recall that the US economy was much more innovative in 1950-1970 than in 1990-2010, to judge by the fact that productivity growth was nearly twice as high in the former period as in the latter, and since the United States was in both periods at the world technology frontier, this difference must be related to the pace of innovation.”
In other words, Piketty isn’t claiming that Bill Gates invented the computer, or the mouse, any more that he’s claiming that Saint Ronald went in there like Rambo with his missile launcher (with or without the help of trusty sidekick JP-II) to bring the Soviet Union to its knees. He’s engaging in sarcastic hyperbole to illustrate the ludicrous way in which popular wisdom attributes vast historical changes to the intervention of singular, godlike culture heroes. This is quite unambiguous in context, especially as Piketty has talked some pages before about Gates’ actual role (in a brief discussion of operating systems). Taken out of context, as it is in Baker’s review, it wrongly suggests that Piketty is ignorant or sloppy to a quite extraordinary degree.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think that this is deliberate dishonesty on Baker’s part. I can see how this kind of mistake can happen (I rely on notes myself when writing reviews; there but for the grace of God …). I also think that the broader point that Piketty’s book has little to say about institutions is a fair one. But Baker’s misattribution to Piketty of a bewilderingly stupid-sounding claim that Piketty obviously does not make is the kind of thing that could go viral (and already is going semi-hemi-quasi viral). Thus, I think, it’s worth pointing out that it’s just not so.
Update: Dean Baker has modified his review to say that the Gates bit was a “throwaway line,” which helps imo clarify his real disagreement.
In many European Countries (fn1), scholars applying for research grants with the National Research Councils can indicate that they had a child, and get additional ‘time recognition’. Many grants, especially the most prestigious and best-funded grants, work with a time-limit, e.g. you can only apply until Y years after getting your PhD degree, or between X and Y years after getting your PhD degree. If you had a baby, you can add a certain number of months to Y – which makes the timeframe more flexible for the applicant.
if you want to be shocked by something in the [ERC] report, you can have a look at their policy towards the deduction of parental leave from the qualifying period for a starting grant: 18 months per children for women, the actual amount of parental leave taken for men. Say what? What is the presupposition here that justifies such a differential treatment? What was wrong with “the actual amount of leave taken” (perhaps times a multiplier to be more family friendly) for both gender? I felt insulted both as a father of two children born in quite rapid succession at a critical period of my career and on behalf of my wife, who apparently is considered by the ERC to be not being devoted to her work for 18 months, even if she worked full-time the day her mandatory maternity leave ended.
Another relevant question is whether the unequal gendered division of child care is still as unequal among academics and their partners as it is among some other parts of the population. I don’t know statistics that focus specifically on this group. But I have many academic friends (and of course also can get some glimpses of the gendered division of care work of my colleagues), and it seems to me that scholars and their partners have some of the most egalitarian gender division of child care of all social strata. In that case, that would be another reason to endorse Z’s proposal of granting each parent for each child born a time extension equal to the actual amount of leave taken (possibly multiplied with a factor).
The European Research Council issued a press release today on the number of applications for its Starting Grants – a prestigious grant of up to € 1,5 Million for scholars who have recently received their PhD degree. Here’s a paragraph that struck me:
In this call, the distribution by the three ERC domains was as follows: 1494 proposals were submitted in ‘Physical Sciences and Engineering’, 1030 in ‘Life Sciences’ and 748 in ‘Social Sciences and Humanities’.
So if we calculate the shares of the applications, we get this:
Compare this with the budget shares that the ERC has allocated to those three areas (see ERC documentation p.13):
Can someone please explain this to me? Or should we perhaps simply interpret this as another sign of the worsening conditions for research in the social sciences and humanities in the European Union?
I can’t say I find much to agree with in this Charles Koch op-ed, in the WSJ. Although I do second Kevin Drum’s amazement that the best emblem they could find of the sort of spirit no leftist could possibly endorse was … an old Daily Kos logo? Really?
But I do think it’s a good sign that the right is branching out from Alinksy to Schopenhauer.
Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.
I knew it! (I had long suspected, but this is the smoking gun!) The Kochtopus is a crypto-Schopenhauerian cult! It is all a subtle plot to deny Americans their freedom – as Schopenhauer denied human freedom! The Kochs seek to get all good Americans to see the World As Representation, thereby inducing ethical denial of the World As Will. (As we know, welfare just encourages people to go on living. That’s why we must cut programs for the poor, to bring about an ideal, Schopenhauerian rapture of ethical nihilism!)
On the other hand, perhaps Koch is a Schopenhauerian in a less metaphysical, more practical sense. He practices The Art of Always Being Right: The 38 Subtle Ways of Persuasion [Amazon].
Could it be?
(Seriously. It’s a good book. Schopenhauer wrote a fine little treatise on motivated reasoning, tracking the beast to its lair, the den of desire to be right.)