Part of me wants to start this blog by saying–what Cheryl said! And then letting it go at that.
But let me try to piece out Mike F’s objections one by one.
First, he said
>>>“Privilege” is an UNUSUAL and UNEARNED advantage.
No. “Unusual” is no part of any definition of the word in any available source.
It is NOT the way the word is used, so any attempt to add “unusual” to it is
Sorry, but no.
Call it unusual, call it “special,” call it anything you want, the simple fact is that if something is the default mode, it is NOT a privilege.
And by default mode I mean what is assumed to be standard–therefore, having the police read your Miranda rights is standard procedure, NOT a “privilege,” not even if they don’t read some other person HIS Miranda rights.
In the case where somebody does not have his Miranda rights right to him, he has been done an injustice, but that does NOT make every instance where someone IS read his Miranda rights an example of “privilege.”
The definintions quoted do nothing to make the point Mike wants to make. In fact, they go to make mine. It’s a “special” thing granted only to a particular group. But most of the examples of “privilege” provided are not of special things granted only to a specific group, but standard things granted to ALL groups, actually all persons as individuals. The fact that those things are sometimes violoated does not–see above
So I’ll go to
<<<<—That’s THE POINT.
THAT >IS< an example of white privilege. A distinct benefit of being born
to a middle class family, or above, in a good school district, with two intact
parents, one of whom is available for ferrying children to extra curricular
activities, making sure they have a good breakfast and lunch or lunch money
etc., etc, in action. Not to mention family or school trips to museums,
exhibits, performances, vacations (for some) to Europe or other world
No, really, that’s not an example of any kind of privilege. It’s an example of luck.
Luck is endemic to the human condition. Some people are born better looking, more musical, more academically or athletically talented, and such people will achieve much more much faster than those of their peers who work just as hard.
Unlike the luck of the genetic draw, however, THIS kind of luck can be replicated by any parent willing to put in the time and effort.
And yes, I mean ANY parent. I give you the thousands of Asian families, newly immigrated, living in dire poverty and working like beasts of burden who do it every year.
That’s not “privilege,” white or otherwise. It’s achievement.
Which explains what’s wrong with this:
>>>>The child did nothing to earn that situation – but that is the situation that
allows them the opportunity to earn an “An “A” in senior year English from a
school that requires a 20-page research paper and the reading of four books and
3 Shakespeare plays.”
But that is nevertheless “white privilege”
Children don’t earn anything–they have, BY RIGHT, what their parents have earned for them and choose to give them.
Part of the motivation for delaying gratification and all that sort of thing is exactly that you can make your children’s lives better and easier than your own was, or than other people’s are.
>>>>The barriers to success are simply immeasurably lower for those white kids in
the middle class and above suburbs than they are for anyone else. THAT is white
No. All of that is the reward for parental ACHIEVEMENT. And it has nothing to do with “white.”
The “white” thing is an attempt to foreclose discussion. Liberals think conservatives and liberatarians and just plain not politicals will be intimidated by the fear of being called “racist” if they protest this kind of thing.
The REAL strong man argument is this one:
>>>It has to be carefully and completely explained to them, and still it seems most
never actually understand, that there achievements are NOT wholly of their own
Why is that a straw man? Because nobody has ever claimed that ANYONE has ever achieved “entirely on their own.” The idea is absurd.
But it still remains a fact that no matter what advantages your parents do or do not give you, YOU must go out and achieve for yourself, and your achievements are rightfully yours–because lots of people with the same backgrounds DON’T.
MOST of the kids that go to those high-end prep schools DON’T end up in the Ivy League. MOST of the kids in those well-heeled suburbs DON’T end up Supreme Court Justices or even doctors or lawyers.
What such people DO achieve, however, is theirs by right of having earned it. It is not a “privilege,” and that is especially true when the parents were dirt-poor Vietnamese refuges who lived in two rooms without hot runnign water for 30 years so they could make sure the kids got to college.
As for this:
>>>Well, that’s the problem. Very, very few seem to give the matter even a moments
thought. Failure to achieve is described in terms making it a moral lapse,
rather than an almost certain outcome of starting from an extremely (relatively)
No, failure to achieve is NOT “an almost certain outcome” of anything except perhaps of a congenital handicap.
And I don’t really know what Republicans are saying about this, but my end position is: inequality is the GOOD news. People SHOULD be rewarded differently based on their contributions to their fellow citizens–and yes, IF their fellow citizens prefer to reward hip hop singers than medical researches, that is what SHOULD happen.
But I’ll admit.
I’d have a lot more patience about this kind of thing if anybody who came waving “white privilege” in my face was in the least bit interested in solving it.
You could, for instance, set up and fully fund inner city schools where the standards are just the same as the ones in Wilton or Scarsdale–and hold to them.
Make the standards at PS 265 just what they are at Andover. Insist on four years of lab science, four years of foreign language, four years of history and English, four years of math through first year calc. Then do whatever you have to do to bring people up to speed, INCLUDING insisting on standards of dress and behavior on school grounds and in class.
And provide all the extra help you want, as much as we can pay for.
Also accept the fact that the first generation to take part in this experiment will almost certainly see high school graduation rates even lower than the ones we’ve got now.
Unfair as it is, one generation is never enough to bring an entire group up to speed.
But we’ve stopped trying to bring groups up to speed. Instead, we yell “white privilege” to let them know they don’t even have to try.
I’ve always thought that the basic impetus behind things like “white privilege”–the charges, I mean–was a deep and underlying racism that thinks (but would never say) that “people of color” really aren’t very bright or talented or virtuous, and we shouldn’t make them feel bad by making them try what we think they can’t do anyway.
When I put up that link in the last post, my intention was to come back the following day and outline what I felt was so very wrong with it.
And there is a lot that is very wrong with it.
But it’s February, and cold, and I have one of those non-sickness sicknesses that makes me fuzzed out and then feel fine an hour later and then…yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Excuses are us.
But today is different. Partially that’s because it’s a bit warmer–something that ALWAYS happens before the last major nor’easter of the season, which is ALWAYS in the first week of March, and which is now predicted to arrive here Monday.
Partially, it’s because this keeps bugging me. So let me get on with it as far as possible.
First, there’s the title: This Comic Perfectly Explains What White Privilege is.
If that’s the case–if this comic is the most perfect explanation possible of the whole idea of “white privilege”–then the concept is even more ridiculous and incoherent than I thought it was.
And a lot of people who claim to be rational actors making decisions only on science and evidence are…well, just say cheating that principle a whole lot.
Her first point is that “I’m 78% more likely to be admitted to a university because of my race.”
The italics are mine, because they matter. And if anybody could prove this, it would be spectacular evidence of “white privilege,” or something “privilege.”
“Privilege” is an UNUSUAL and UNEARNED advantage. If Yale and Vassar are going around saying “we’ll only take 3% of the class in African Americans because we don’t want black people here and we’d rather have white ones,” then that would be “privilege.”
And we’ll avoid, for the moment, commenting on the fact that that is exactly what they do to Asian applicants.
I’m hoping to get back to the complete absence of Asians in this “explanation” at a later point in the post.
Unfortunately for our cartonist, her only “prove” that a higher percentage of whites than “poc” are admitted to universities consists of the statement: “A poc with my exact same grades has only about a 22% chance.”
Now, statistics are often misleading until put into context, but this one is worse than that. It’s entirely meaningless.
“Grades” don’t even begin to tell the story of adequate preparation for college work. Academic standards vary widely across the country, and even across states.
An “A” in senior year English from a school that requires a 20-page research paper and the reading of four books and 3 Shakespeare plays to get there is not the same thing as an “A” from a school that never requires more than a page-long book report and restricts its reading list to short pieces and excerpts of Shakespeare “translated” into modern English. An “A” in senior year math from a school where it consists of introduction to Calculus is not the same as an “A” from a school where it consists of pre-Algebra.
That’s what the SATs are for–to let colleges look past the grades and see what they mean.
What’s more, a “poc”–as long as the color isn’t yell0w–isn’t less likely to be offered admission (and lots of money) from an elite university than a white person, but many times MORE likely.
That’s what affirmative action is for. In fact, a “poc” (not yellow) can expect to be given a 100-300 pt advantage on the SATs from any of the top 20 schools in the country, and on every level from undergraduate to medical school.
Elite universities are flat out desperate to admit “poc” any way they can get them, and they’ll fudge benchline standards, throw fists full of financial aid dollars, and do anything else they can (for instance, shoring up sports teams with extra players and awarding admission for athletic ability) to get within screaming space of their “diversity” goals.
White applicants with the exact same boad scores will not be offered admission, and Asians with the exact same board scores will be laughed out of the room.
And that doesn’t begin to go into other issues, like home and ethnic cultures.
The reason these things never say anything about Asian students is that Asian students defy all the “explanations” of “privilege.” They’re often immigrants or the children of immigrants who came here poor and often live in poverty throughout their childhood, but they still outperform everybody else.
If you’re going to talk about college admissions rates and “privilege,” then you’re going to have to deal with the achievement gap and the culture gap.
And that means two things, neither of which people like this cartoonist want to touch with a ten foot pole.
1) You’re going to have to bring standards in inner city schools up to the standards at places like Andover and Wilton, IN WHICH CASE you’re going to have to accept that, for a generation or two, high school graduation rates are going to be much lower among “poc” than they are even now. (Because it takes a while for culture to catch up and it never does in the first generation.)
2) You’re going to have to give up the idea that all cultures are equally worthwhile for all purposes and accept that getting “poc” into elite universities at the same rates as everybody else will require deliberately eradicating the culture many of them live in now and replacing it with one that valorizes achievement, intellectuality, and education.
Note something about number 2 above, though.
That only holds IF what you want more than anything else is to increase the numbers of “poc” in colleges and universities.
Cultures have different strengths and weaknesses, and the consequences of some will be different than others, but not necessarily without value.
Her second pt is that “The likelihood that I will go to prison in my lifetime is about 4-11%. A poc’s chances run to about 44-50%”
My big problem here is that this isn’t “privilege” of any kind–it’s the default setting.
It is not the case that most of us go to prison and only a privileged few get not to. In a free society, most people–the vast majority of people–don’t go to prison, and shouldn’t.
This statistic would only be evidence of racism–either individual or “institutional”–IF it was the case that “poc” committed no more crimes than white people AND that the circumstances of thse crimes were comparable.
But this is not the case. Not only do “poc” actually commit larger numbers of crimes per capital than whites (never mind, again, Asians, where the crime commission rate is in single digits), but the circumstances are almost never the same. And disparate circumstances bring disparate sentences. Getting caught with an ounce of marijuana gets you one sentence if that’s all you’ve got on you, and another if you’re carrying a gun or a knife.
People like this cartoonist tend to try to get around problems like this by leaving out the details in cases they then proclaim to be “just the same.”
The most egregious example of this kind of deliberate obfuscation concerned the fate of an African American woman in Florida named Marissa Alexander, who was said to have “fired a warning shot” at her abusive partner and been convicted, instead of let off on a stand your ground defense, which we were told she would have been “if she were white.”
Of course, George Zimmerman wasn’t white, either, but that’s another mare’s nest.
The problem with the Marissa Alexander case is that it was not in any way comparable to the Trayvon Martin one.
Not only did Alexander leave the scene once to get a gun from her car and then come back to use it, she stopped again at a neighbor’s house to make phone calls, she told three or more stories to the police on the night of the incident. It went on and on and on.
What’s more, the actual issue was whether the trial court should have allowed her to stage a self defense (of any kind) defense, and the appeals court voided the verdict and set Alexander out on bail because the trial court didn’t.
The Stand Your Ground law is very bad law indeed, but it’s bad law not because it’s “institutionalized racism” but because it’s subjective law. It depends on the subjective feelings of the shooter, and subjective feelings are, by definition, not objectively verifiable.
Of course, if we reject subjective law, we’ll have to reject a lot of what now calls itself sexual harassment law, and sexual harrassment regulation. Which may be why people like this want to scream “white privilege!” instead of dealing with the problem.
Her next point is that “a white male with a criminal record, is 5% more likely to get a job over a man of color with a clean record.”
I’d look into this if I could, but I can’t, because the only reference she gives for it is “jamietheignorantamerican.tumblr.com”
Let’s just say I’m skeptical. Were there comparable levels of education and training? Were the crimes similar, did they all contain similar elements (like drug use, sexual assault or violence)?
I don’t know, and I can’t find out, so we’ll just leave it there.
As to her last point–that media outlets report more on black-on-white crime than on black-on-black, white-on-white, or white-on-black crime…eh. Media outlets provide what sells, so maybe they do.
On the other hand, white-on-black crime is in the single digits, Asian-on-anybody crime is even lower, and it’s entirely possible that they’re just reflecting both the actual statistical rate and the particular circumstances of the crimes in involved.
On the other hand, having had some experience with media, they could just be making it all up.
As for that last bit–”white privilege is the privilege to be ignorant of the world around us”–it’s not only nonsense, it’s profoundly morally evil.
Guilt is individual and intentional. If either of those two are not in play–”institutional” this and “not meaning to” that–then what the purveyors of “white privilege” tropes are peddling is UNEARNED guilt.
Not only do I not think you should “educate yourself” based on such charges, I think that anybody who accepts unearned guilt perpetrates great harm against all the rest of us.
People like this artist should learn to be profoundly ashamed of themselves, and NOT for having “white privilege.”
I’ll just put this up
and see what you do with it.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on something that is…not my usual kind of thing. Maybe I should say it is not my usual kind of thing lately, because early in my publishing career I wrote a couple of one shot novels that were, like this one, very dark.
Doing it now, though, I find myself constantly defeated by the need for a lead character–and no, I don’t think I’m misstating that.
In my mind, this novel is about the way something is in the world. It outlines the commission of a crime, and the way that crime affected people who came in contact with it in many different ways.
But it is not, in any way, a whodunnit–the criminal is known almost immediately, and the puzzle of his motives and personality will not be solved because they cannot be solved.
There are things in this world we cannot know, and the motivations of a mass shooter are one of them, especially if that shooter is dead when the shooting is over.
I am on record as not having much taste for the kind of fiction that is about somebody going out there and Doing Something–but the structure of a long work of fiction is such that it has to have a focal point and that focal point has to be a character whose motivations and action are something the reader can follow and believe, if not necessarily sympathize with.
Part of my problem here has to do with a certain amount of cynicism. I know plenty of possible character tropes for somebody who investigates the facts and personalities of a mass shooting, but at the bottom of all of these is something like a superstition.
We don’t want to actually understand as much as we want a ritual for warding off the evil that threatens us.
The reason that is so is that the reality of mass shootings is somethign we really, really, really don’t want to hear: we don’t understand them, we can’t predict them, we can’t prevent them, and the next one will come when we least expect it, at a place and in a time when we are not ready, and there’s not a thing we can do about it.
Public responses to mass shootings are really remarkable illustrations of this–this ward off the evil thing, I mean. In general, there are two or three that always crop up, each and every time.
The first of these is to label the shooter “evil” or a “monster,” which has the dual virtues of being both meaningless and satisfyingly judgmental. It does not tell us anything at all about what happened, never mind about how to stop it from happening again.
The second of these is actually a derivative of the first. It is to call the shooter “mentally ill.” This is less judgmental, but it has the virtue of making the problem seem solvable sometime in the future, through “identifying” “mental illness” and “getting the mentally ill the help they need before it’s too late.”
This method works as long as we don’t think too much about what we’re saying, and especially as long as we don’t admit to ourselves that “mentally ill” is, like “evil monster,” a phrase without real content.
What we mean when we say somebody is “mentally ill” is that they make choices we wouldn’t make ourselves, and that we lack the imagination to understand how anybody else could.
One of the spectacles that is very common after mass shootings is that of people trying to pretend they don’t notice that none of the psychological markers that would supposedly have predicted the shooting was present in the life or behavior of the shooter before the event.
The only thing in Adam Lanza’s history to indicate he might have been “mentally ill” came in the suggestion somebody made at some point–it might have been his mother–that he might have a mild Asperger’s Syndrome. Nothing about Asperger’s Syndrome predicts any kind of violence at all on the part of the sufferer.
The third response is to hitch the event to your present hobbyhorse and pretend that if you could get what you wanted on policy–on gun control, for instance–these things wouldn’t happened.
All of these responses require that we do not look very carefully at anything.
In the Newtown case, the gulf between reality and the proposed solutions was vast. The guns Lanza used for the massacre would not have been outlawed by a reinstatement of the Assault Weapons ban. Connectict actually had tougher gun control laws than anything the gun control advocates were proposing on the Federal level. Nor would the restriction of high capacity magazines have done much, if any good, since Lanza didn’t use especially large magazines, and his guns were all single-shot. Nor would better background checks have made any difference. Even if Lanza’s mother had been required to reveal the mental health status of anybody in her household who might have access to her guns, Lanza’s mental health status would not have precluded her from having them. Hell, it wouldn’t have precluded him for having guns of his own.
All of these things are, as I’ve pointed out, ways of whistling in the wind, of giving ourselves the possibility of not recognizing the reality here.
“These things are going to happen and there is nothing anyone can do to predict them or stop them” is not a comforting message, and it’s not a satisfying message, either.
We “explain” things and then carefully don’t look at whether our explanations make sense. Adam Lanza was mentally ill! Adam Lanza played violent videogames (actually, he was most enamored of those Lego games that have almost no violence at all).
But here’s the thing.
I don’t want to write yet another book that “explains” what cannot be explained, or that doesn’t face, head on, the fact that it CANNOT be explained.
There may be, somewhere, an actual explanation, or a set of explanations, different for each shooter.
There may be, but I don’t know what it is, and I don’t think anybody else does, either.
There may be, but I don’t know what it is, and I don’t think anybody else does, either.
Certainly none of the propsed “explanations” I have researched holds up under even the lightest of scrutiny.
(And no, getting rid of all the guns won’t fix it. The first school massacre in this country killed 32 children and teachers and was the result of a bomb, no guns involved.)
The problem, of course, becomes something else in the place I’m at now, because I’m writing a book.
And books sometimes require things that real life does not.
A sense of resolution is often one of those things.
At the moment, I’m trying to fix this problem by giving my main character something else in her life that needs to be resolved, and that can be resolved, in and around her working on what happened in the mass shooting she’s concerned with.
I have no idea at all if this is going to work.
So here I sit, at the end of February–almost–feeling very aware of the fact that I have been neglecting the blog.
I’ve got good reasons for that, of course–I’ve had a ton of actual writing to do, the term has started, the office at home is in a sunroom and gets REALLY cold when the temperature goes down to single digits, or worse.
The real problem, however, is that lately I’ve been feeling as if I don’t really have much to say.
Not having much to say is not the kind of thing that stops writers writing on a regular basis. Most of us are willing to say stuff just because we want to go on saying stuff, whether it makes any sense or not.
Recently, though, I have been feeling as if not only do I have nothing to say, but that nobody else does, either.
I do that thing where I almost obsessively keep up with “current events” and end up thinking that I’ve heard it all before, that all the talking heads on all sides of every issue are doing nothing but repeating the same stuff over and over and over again.
They not only don’t say anything new, they say what they’ve always said in almost perfect repetition from the other times they’ve said it.
But it’s not just The Rachel Maddow Show turning into All Chris Christie All The Time, or the Fox News people dredging up Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky to having something to bash Hilary with.
My largely apolitical students are engaged in the same kind of wheel spinning.
This past week I gave them a short story to read called “The Birthmark,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s an early example of what has to be science fiction, and one of Hawthorne’s many protests against the intellectual and social ideas imported into the early US by the Transcendentalists.
If you ever want to see Hawthorne at his most sarcastic, I suggest his novel The Blithedale Romance, which takes apart the Ideal Communist Communities of the period as only someone who had actually lived in one for a while could do.
“The Birthmark” concerns another mania of the movement, the idea that we can somehow make people perfect.
In this story there is a scientist, named Aylmer, who is married to a beautiful and docile young woman named Georgiana. She is so beautiful, in fact, that she is the closest thing to physical perfection that has ever been seen in womankind–except for one thing.
There is a tiny birthmark, in the shape of a human had, on her cheek.
The more Aylmer looks at that birthmark, the crazier he gets. It is an affront to his reason, and to his commitment to science, which he is convinced is capable of knowing all and controling all.
It is an affront to science and reason to allow such an imperfection to continue to exist when it can be remedied by the proper methods. And Aylmer is convinced he is able to devise the proper methods.
Georgiana is not really happy with this, but she’s a perfect docile and obedient wife, and she allows it because her husband commands it.
Aylmer removes the birthmark–and as soon as he does, Georgiana dies.
Now, this is not a particularly subtle allegory. Hawthorne is not a particularly subtle writer, or a particularly fluid one, either. I don’t tend to recommend him, because I think his prose style would drive most modern readers up the wall.
It’s not his prose style I’m concerned about here, however.
My kids have a hard time reading anything, even straightforward nonfiction prose. They have not been taught common literary devises like personification or metaphor. Their vocabularies are very small and the range of their cultural contexts are nearly nonexistent.
So in order to try to bridge some of this stuff, I gave them a running start.
At the end of the class before the class this reading was due, I outlined the basics: the theme is the perfectibility of man. The issue is whether or not it is possible to build a society in which all the bad things–war, crime, disease, whatever–will be gone, whether the people who live in that society want that or not.
Your job is to figure out which side of this question the story comes down on, and to tell me how you know.
So we get into the class where they’re supposed to do this, and I ask them to write down: a) the themep; b) the message (that which side thing); and c) real world examples of the kind of thing Hawthorne is talking about.
Let’s pass over the usual overaching problem, which is that my students do not understand that the author isn’t the same thing as his characters.
Part of my brain says that they can’t really be as clueless about this as they seem to be. They all watch movies and television. They’re used to story structure and actors who play villains in one movie and heroes in the next.
Let’s go to the quizzes they turned in, almost half of which told me that the theme of “The Birthmark” was that “nobody’s perfect.”
It’s bad enough that “nobody’s perfect” makes no sense as a theme for “The Birthmark.” It’s even worse that I actually discussed the theme–gave them the answer–the class before.
The very worst thing is that “nobody’s perfect” is the kind of thing they say to each other, thinking they know what they mean, that actually has no meaning at all.
To the extent to which my students use this phrase in the conduct of their own lives, it’s an excuse–and excuse without actual content, so that they can’t be called on it.
“Nobody’s perfect” means “I don’t have to meet anybody’s standards, not even my own, because it’s all useless anyway.”
Except that it doesn’t actually mean that, either, because if you make them unpack it, they repudiate it.
It’s just a thing people say, without thinking about it.
And not thinking is the point.
My students have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of things like this wandering around in their heads–things they think they “know,” but that actually mean nothing at all.
And in that, they are exactly like the talking heads I watch on cable news channel opinion shows, and exactly like the “professionals” (educational and psychological and medical) who spew advice into the daily lives of children and adults.
It’s like we’re all on some kind of verbal loop, with words passing through us without ever stopping long enough to be identified.
And in doing that, we’re not only not solving our problems or making them worse–although we’re surely doing both of those–but we are engaging in a collossal waste of time.
And I’m beginning to think it is also a deliberate waste of time.
Maybe what we’ve done is to make a farreaching bet–that by clinging to these things that mean nothing but that make us feel we’ve said or thought something meaningful, we can get to the death we pretend isn’t coming while never having to face the fact that we don’t understand anything.
That our lives are meaningless and futile because there is no meaning to be had, anywhere.
Meaning doesn’t exist. Hope isn’t just an illusion, but an absurdity.
Of course, this is the kind of thing religion is supposed to solve for people, but my guess is that it doesn’t, not in the contemporary US, not for most people.
People say they believe all kinds of things, but if you probe at those beliefs long enough, what you mostly find is even more mush, more phrases that meaning nothing but sound like they do, more truisms and platitudes and empty verbiage that nobody is ever going to examine if they can avoid it.
And, yes, that is true of people in the modern humanist/secular movement, too.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this.
On one level, it’s very bad news indeed, because one of the things a society does–whether or not it rises to the level of a civilization–is to provide a framework and foundation for meaning.
When a society can no longer do that, when most of its people get up in the morning and can’t see the point, or burrow into their emotions and fantasies so they don’t have to face not seeing the point–
Then that society is over, even if it goes about its business on the day to day mundane level just as it seemed to do before.
And, of course, eventually, something else shows up. I don’t know if nature abhors a vacuum, but meaning certainly does.
I think we’re on the cusp of one of those “paradigm shifts” Thomas Kuhn was so enamored of.
I don’t know what comes next, although I’m pretty sure it will be neither a mass reconversion to Christianity nor what some people here call “The Movement,” that tissue of fashionable shibboleths about gender, race and class that pretends to be a moral code and is actually a resurgence of penitential monasticism in a new and not very improved form–scrupulosity raised to the tenth power, meant to keep us all focussed on our navels instead of on the questions nobody has the answers to.
There are a fair number of people who think that the Next Thing will be Islam, since Muslims at least actually believe what they believe, and nobody in the West really does any more.
I don’t have the answer to that, either.
So, from AL Daily
Heather McDonald going ballistic on the state of the humanities, and that kind of thing.
I will finish this syllabus eventually.
It is now Thursday, and last night marked the fifth time in a row that I couldn’t manage to get myself to sleep before two o’clock in the morning.
Actually, the two o’clock was good news. On a couple of occasions over this stretch, I have not been able to get to sleep before four, or I’ve gotten to sleep for about an hour and then woken up at five thirty. When I don’t get to sleep until four, I wake up at nine and the day is a mess and ruined.
It’s gotten to the point where I can’t figure out what would make this better.
Usually, if I don’t get to sleep until two on Day 1, then on Day 2 I crash very early and the whole cycle rights itself.
But nothing like that is happening at the moment, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do to get back on schedule before I start teaching next week.
In the meantime, I feel like I’m walking through cotton wool, and my brain is stuffed with fuzz, and I’m not getting nearly enough done.
I might be more patient with myself about all this if my mind was racing through the night on some problem of serious importance.
And I’ve got a few, and that could be what I was thinking of.
Instead, I seem to be obsessing about things that make no sense and make no difference.
I keep replaying arguments I had months or years ago–or, worse, rewriting them in a way that makes me make the points I couldn’t think of at the time.
Or I obsess about plots, or books I’ve read, or something. And my mind goes into overdrive and just won’t stop.
The result is that I do things that are completely nuts. I just tried to send an e mail, and instead of clicking on the “send” button, I clicked on the “save” button and had to go work it all through again.
It gets to the point where I can’t even do what I usually do to calm myself down. I can’t play Solitaire, for instance, because I fuzz out and miss half the moves and mistake the cards and lose over and over again and get frustrated and annoyed with the whole thing.
And if I’m tired enough, I start thinking that all the losing is a Secret Coded Message from the Universe which means…
I don’t know what it means. I can never get quite clear on that.
It is one of the very peculiar things about me that I am sometimes very superstitious, but I don’t believe in any of the traditional superstitions. I have no trouble with black cats or the number thirteen or cracking mirrors or throwing salt over my shoulder–although I do always kiss bread before I throw it out.
That’s a Greek thing.
But even when I was a very small child, I would go through periods where I would invent superstitions out of whole cloth, and then find myself unable to convince myself that they were nonsense, even though I knew very well I made them up.
If you’re going to say this makes no sense, I agree with you. It makes none whatsoever.
But I do it, and no appeals to common sense seem to be at all capable of talking me out of it.
In the meantime, things have to be done because things have to be done. Neither my life nor the world at large goes on hold because I’m behaving like an addled ninny.
Fortunately, bulling things through is something I’m generally good at. How well I bull things through is another story, but you’ve got to go with what you’ve got.
All of this is by way of saying that the lack of blog posts has been as much a matter of this as of anything, because there’s another hallmark of the times when I get like this: I begin to fell that I really have nothing to say.
And maybe that’s true.
Maybe the secret underneath all the blathering we do about everything from the plots of cat detective novels to the meaning of life is that it’s all completely irrelevant to…everything.
Reading the comments on this blog, I am sometimes bemused by the extent to which some of you see the apocalypse coming Right This Minute.
The whole thing gets even more curious because you don’t all see the same Apocalypse coming. Maybe we’ll all die because the ordinary people will rise up against their government/corporate/academic elite masters, or maybe the corporations will mechanize everything to the point where human work is no longer needed and we’ll all starve to death.
This morning, it feels to me as if none of this will ever happen, because it would require absolutely everybody to expend too much effort.
Which reminds me, of course, that I need to go expend some more effort myself.
So, it’s been mostly all right around here lately, even a little on the warm side, if you keep in mind that I never turn the heat on until the house gets below 50 and I turn the air conditioning on really early in the season.
I’ve had something of a messed up sleep cycle, caused by the fact that a few days ago I didn’t just oversleep, but overslept until nearly 9 o’clock, and now my biological clock is completely haywire. One night I couldn’t get to sleep until nearly one, when I usually conk around nine. It’s been a mess.
In the middle of it, I’ve been trying to read a book, called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civiliation by Arthur Herman.
I’m not going to do a big commentary on this thing now. Let me just say that not only is this a book I got for Christmas, it’s a book I specifically asked for for Christmas, and the person who got it for me has been reading it also.
There’s a lot to say, most of it unfortunate, but I haven’t finished the thing, and the time to say it isn’t now.
However that may be, the book did bring up something that I think is interesting, or reminded me of something I think is interesting, so let me get to that.
We talk a lot here about people who have a will to power, whose basic motivation is to control others in virtually every possible way.
These people are, at the moment, busy trying to redefine free adult citizens as anything but actual adults. They’re stupid and deluded, easily swayed by advertising, being manipulated by advertising and demagoguery, incapable of thinking rationally or controlling their worst instincts.
Given that people are such a mess, they really can’t be trusted with actual liberty. They’ll make all the wrong choices and end up doing damage to themselves as well as the rest of us. Therefore, their choices should either be made or manipulated by people who have been “trained” to think differently and who will therefore make the choices “untrained” people would have made if they weren’t such irrational children.
Arguments like this have always bothered me on lots of different levels, including the most obvious one–if our natural state is to be irrational children, how do we know that the “experts” are anything else, or that their “training” is anything but a different kind of irrational childishness?
Eras before ours had a kind of essentialist assumption to fill in here. They believed, with Aristotle, that some people were naturally born slaves, and that others were born to be free and rule.
Our present purveyors of all things expert driven believe the same thing, really, but nobody is going to say it out loud, and it remains a simple assumption without scrutiny.
We tend to talk about the people who set up this kind of thing, who are operating on a will to power–the Nurse Ratcheds, Delores Umbrages, Kathleen Sebiliuses of this world.
And that makes sense. Without such people, the totalitarian impulse can go nowhere.
But there’s something else going on here that we always ignore, but shouldn’t.
If all that existed were the Nurse Ratcheds, they couldn’t get anywhere.
For totalitarianism of any kind, soft or hard, to succeed, it requires a vastly larger number of people who crave security to the point that they are willing to put up with anything, anything at all, to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.
Now, I want to make something clear here.
I am not talking about people who go on welfare or disability or who have Medicaid or food stamps or any of that.
Too often in this country, we discuss the issue of personal responsibility as if it’s code for getting along on your own without “sucking at the public teat.”
In the sense I’m talking about personal responsibility, though, I know, personally, plenty of people on public assistance who do take it and plenty of people (even more) surviving under their own steam who not only don’t, but reject the idea entirely.
The accept responsibility for ourselves means to accept that we are the authors of ourselves. Luck may have a lot to do with our exterior outcomes. Influences surround us and impact us daily.
In the end, however, who and what we are is determined by the choices we’ve made. You can be born disabled and into poverty and still be a person of great integrity all your life.
Or not. That part is up to you.
At about this point in these discussions, I am usually assailed with wailing and weeping and fury and righteousness. I am told that I’m “blaming the victim.” I am told that I’m heartless and arrogant. Lately, I’m also told that I’m “out of touch.”
But note–I am not saying that the poor are responsible for their poverty. Some of them are, and some of them aren’t, and we’ll have to take that up on a case by case basis, if we want to bother to try.
Nor am I saying that the unemployed are responsible for their unemployment–although, again, some of them are and some of them aren’t.
Issues of that kind are complex and vary from person to person.
Even the more obvious things aren’t what I’m talking about. If you’re a teen aged girl and you choose to have sex without any form of protection, you are almost certainly responsible for the fact that you got pregnant.
But you know what? We all get stupid from time to time. Everybody makes mistakes. What I want to know is how you approach the pregnancy and what you do about it and the rest of your life.
There is an awful lot of difference between the kind of person who says, “Okay, I caused that. That’s on me.” and the person who says, “I couldn’t help it! It was out of my control!”
It’s that second thing that fascinates me, and I had a hard time (and a long time) accepting that anybody approached life that way.
When I was growing up, my father had a thing he used to say over and over again: if something goes wrong, hope like hell that it was your fault. Because if it wasn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it.
There are some obvious caveats here–it is, in fact, sometimes possible to fix the problems other people have caused–but as a rough and ready guide to how to live my life, it’s always been pretty effective.
What’s more, from what I’ve seen of people doing it the other way, the other way has given evidence of not being effective at all. In fact, of being countereffective.
It has therefore always seemed to me to be completely obvious that people should, in the majority, opt for the first approach rather than the second.
But lots of them don’t. Lately, I’ve been wondering if the majority of people don’t.
That majority would include people who have jobs and houses and children, who get educations and make sure their children get them, who vote and pay taxes and put out the garbage at night.
And yet, they will tell you, any time you want to ask, that they have no control over who and what they are. They are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. They want restrictions on Big Gulp sodas and bans on cigarettes not because Those People can’t help themselves, but because they themselves can’t.
The take-responsibility people want a government to protect their liberty to make their own choices. The it’s-beyond-my-control people want a government to protect them, period.
I am aware, of course, that I am simplifying the hell out of all of this. I think that’s inevitable in a blog post.
I still think this is something that deserves our attention, and rarely gets it.
For one thing, I’d like to know what I’m looking at.
Are these people who simply feel so vulnerable, and so weak, that the very process of living scares the hell out of them?
Or do they feel so innately guilty that taking responsibility for who and what they are would condemn them forever as irredeemably evil?
Or is there a third possibility?
Remember–I’m not saying these people actually are weak or evil, only that maybe they think they are.
Whatever it is, it makes me a little nuts. And I’m more than a little aware that it takes both the totalitarians and the (essentially childish) vulnerables to make a restrictive society. Maybe they’re two halves on one psychological whole.
Whatever it is, I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.
I know it’s been a while, but it’s been an exciting start to the New Year.
It’s not just that the temperatures have been very low, which makes working in my office very difficult. Unlike every other writer I’ve ever heard of, I like to be able to look out and around when I work. My office is in a sunroom, with two sides of solid windoes.
Ninety nine percent of the time, that works really well for me. I can look up from whatever it is I’m doing and curse the turkeys or commiserate with the squirrels. I’ve seen some pretty neat and amazing things outside my window. And usually, the arrangement makes me very happy.
At minus nine, not so much.
So, I will admit it. I’ve been avoiding the office for a few days, and the cold was bad enough, but then there was the day before yesterday.
The day before yesterday was the day AFTER the night when it was minus 9, and it was still a very cold day.
And at 7:05 that evening, a frozen pipe under my kitchen sink exploded, spewing water everywhere.
The only thing to do was to turn off all the water to the house and wait till somebody could come help–my friends Carol and Richard, who know how to do house stuff, and who also do the website and the blog.
In the meantime, we were not only without water, but without heat, because we have baseboard hot water heat and the system has a safety feature that shuts it down when it detects less than the necessary water pressure in the system.
Carol and Richard showed up the next morning, fixed the burst pipe and turned on the water, and then–the upstairs started heating up immediately and well, and the main floor just…didn’t.
Except it did, sort of. The heat coming out of the baseboard started out as nil and then got to sort of luke warm and then traveled from one end of the house to the other and then…
I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it. Since the upstairs and the downstairs both run on the same pump, it’s not the pump or the furnace itself that’s the problem.
The best guess anybody seems to be able to come up with is that there’s a bubble somewhere in the pipes, and we even think we’ve found the bubble. We’re not too sure what to do next.
Of course, it’s going to be 8 overnight.
In the meantime, though, let’s look at the December list, and then let me make a few notes about the entire year and the entire project.
The December list goes like this:
68) Chris McNab. Deadly Force: Firearms and American Law Enforcement from the Wild West to the Streets of Today.
69) Charlotte MacLeod. The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond.
70) Luis van de Camoes. The Lusiads.
71) Rick Riordan. The Lightning Thief.
72) Theodore Dalrymple. Anything Goes.
t) William Deresiewicz. “What the Ivy League Won’t Teach You.”
A couple of things about December itself.
The Rick Riordan novel, The Lightning Thief, is what’s now called a “young adult” work. I read it because my younger son asked me to. It was his favorite book when he was growing up.
It’s a children’s fantasy adventure, and obviously not my kind of thing. My older son explained this series to be–this is the first in the series–as “Harry Potter for kids who have real problems.”
I ended up finding it interesting on two levels, both of which are personal and idiosyncratic, and may not work for you.
The first and most personal of these levels is that the narrative voice of the main point of view, first person narrator is incredibly similar to my son Greg’s actual voice, both spoken and written.
And although Greg’s problems growing up weren’t the same as Percy Jackson’s, I didn’t have any problem at all understanding why he identified with that character so passionately.
The second level is maybe of more general interest.
The thesis behind these books is that the Greek Gods still exist, still impact our world, and still have children with mortal women. The result is that there’s an awful lot of information about Greek mythology, which I think is a Very Good Thing.
Unfortunately, I also think that that might be the reason why these books were far less popular than the Harry Potter ones. Totally not thinking is not really an option here.
Of course, my two had Edith Hamilton and Ovid almost from infancy, so they had a head start on all this.
I talked about the Chris MacNab on the blog before, so I won’t go into it again. I talked about The Lusiads, too.
The Charlotte MacLeod is one of the better entries in the Peter Shandy series, so I’d definitely recommend it.
The Dalrymple is a collection of essays, and as always very, very good.
As to the year long project itself, a couple of things.
1) I still think I did the right thing by entering a book when I had finished reading it.
The decision to record things like that did, however, lead to a few distortions.
For instance, I spent most of the month of December reading Bruce Catton’s Never Call Retreat, the third in his trilogy about the Civil War written for the war’s Centennial.
It turns out that there is something else besides boredom or distaste that makes me read slowly: material in a field I understand very little about.
The Civil War was a war, which means it was made up of battles.
I am the person who falls asleep in the movies when the battle and action scenes come on.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on at Shiloh and during Pickett’s charge. I don’t know if it was good or bad that Catton helpfully supplied lots of maps.
There is in principle nothing wrong with all that, of course, except that it does give a kind of skewed idea of what my December reading really was, leaving out what turns out to have been the majority of days in the month.
2) The second thing has to do with my decision to leave out what I thought of as “minor reading”–magazines, for instance, and articles in newspapers, on web sites, and that kind of thing.
The problem is that I do an awful lot of minor reading. \
I’ve listed elsewhere on this blog the magazines I read, and there are over ten of them, from every side of the political spectrum.
When I woke up on New Year’s Day, the first two things I read were a story on the website of a local television station about its problems with a local cable provider, and Michael Moore’s essay on Obamacare in the New York Times.
It was only after that I got back to the Catton.
I’ve thought all this over, and I really can’t see any other way to do it. I couldn’t possibly write down all the minor reading I do. I read almost constantly.
Even if I were to exclude by definition things like ordinary mail and e mail, what category (listed or not) would I put my harpsichord e mail list into?
This morning, before writing this blog, I read a series of e mails about how to mount battens on a harpsichord, carried on by people who are professional harpsichord makers.
I don’t know all that much about harpsichord construction, but I’m trying to learn–so maybe this isn’t minor reading after all.
And I do a lot of that kind of thing. I’ve got another list that consists of professional scholars talking about Portuguese history and culture.
And there are others.
3) Looking over the entire list, I think it’s sort of odd. I sometimes go on jags where I read All About Something.
Once when I was in graduate school, I spent several months reading all I could get my hands on about China. That ended up including Mao’s Little Red Book and a volume on the proletarian poster art of the People’s Republic of China, but also Confucius and several 19th century Chinese novels.
If you want to give yourself a serious headache, try reading novels with casts of characters in the hundreds in a world with a very restricted number of surnames.
Okay, the novels were interesting. They were certainly a lot more interesting than Mao’s Little Red Book.
This past year, however, I don’t seem to have been interested in any one thing.
5) And, on consideration, I’ve decided to do it again for 2014.
Part of that is just to see if there’s a difference in the reading from year to year.
I know it’s the kind of thing I should have been paying attention to all along, but I just haven’t been. But I’ll see.
And there’s another reason.
I’m supposed to teach 102 this coming term. Last I checked, that was still on.
And some years ago, I got around a problem in a class by offering to read any book or short story that anybody wanted to give me–to take reading assignments rather than give them.
After a while, I modified this offer by saying I wouldn’t read the Bible any more. I’ve already read it more than once and parts of it in various languages, so I don’t see what reading it one more time will give me.
The volumes recommended to me have ranged from the truly awful (any Chicken Soup book, trust me), to the impossible to explain (Fifty Shades of Gray–I mean, honest to God?), to a little clutch of books that make me wonder if my students are at all representative of the population at large.
In case you ever wonder what people who don’t read read when they get around to it, the answer seems to be watered-down religion and not-watered-down-at-all conspiracy theories.
And very often, the same people are reading both.
Unless Fifty Shades of Gray represents some kind of genre I haven’t run into before–sticky-sweet sentimental porn?–my students don’t read much in the way of fiction, and certainly n ot genre fiction.
In my generation, people who claimed not to like to read tended to read romance novels, but that does not seem to be what is going on now.
I figured I’d give it a shot and see what’s going on now.
Except that, now now, it’s an absolutely gorgeous day, which means it ought to be possible to get things done.
I’d better go do them.
JD sent me this in e mail
And although I’d already seen the Conly book reviewed in NYRB, and posted the review here, I thought I’d put this out for people to see.