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Friday, May 19, 2017

Zombie posts

Efforts to clean up the archives of this blog have resulted in some posts from like 10 years ago being republished as today's posts. Please ignore.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How to become a famous white supremacist without even trying

As far as I can tell from following the media's coverage of Richard Spencer, being a white supremacist - nay, the worldwide leader of white supremacism - requires one qualification and one only: the ability to espouse white nationalist sentiments in grammatical sentences. None of the many think-pieces about him and his important intellectual evolution ever suggests that Spencer has done anything, at least anything beyond writing grammatical sentences espousing cookie-cutter white nationalist ideas. He runs a think tank that has no staff. He writes for magazines that have no readers. He has a decent number of Twitter followers, but not even half as many as this house cat. He has never held public office, and his entire career consists of being a student, then working at a series of publications with serially decreasing readership. Last weekend, he appeared for 15 minutes in a public square in Utopiaville carrying tiki torches with like 12 other dudes defending a Robert E. Lee statue by shouting about how great Russia is.

Nonetheless, he is super famous. More famous than any other white supremacist/neo-Nazi/alt-Right/whatever dude in America today. I bet you do not, off the top of your head, know the name of the leader of the KKK, which is a real white supremacist organization with a long history of doing much worse things than writing essays. But you do know the name Richard Spencer. Nor do you know the names of anyone associated with Stormfront, nor probably even the genteel eugenicists of VDARE, who write for publications that you have probably read. But you know Richard Spencer. (Ok, for those with slightly longer memories, maybe you also know David Duke.)

That makes no apparent sense. Especially if you agree with the general view of the media establishment that white supremacism is a huge problem, why do you know the name of only one self-identified white supremacist in the entire country? Here is why. What Richard Spencer has actually done to garner the rapt attention of the entire national media establishment, and through it, the nation, is to be a person who had the same upper middle class suburban upbringing as them, went to all the same elite schools, and yet somehow ended up espousing the opposite opinions. Not just moderately contradictory opinions, which are undesirable but at least comprehensible because the debate about, say, which welfare programs are good is still pretty open, but out-and-out opposite ones, over which debate is closed. He went to a fancy high school, UVa, UChicago, and Duke, but believes things that no one at these places even bothers to argue against anymore because the consensus against them is just so consensual. And the journalists burn to know, how is this even possible? How can someone who is supposed to be just like me end up disagreeing with me? This being an extremely pressing question of clearly national significance, they set about investigating it, in profile after profile after profile after profile exploring Spencer's childhood and interviewing his former classmates and colleagues. (There are more, but they're all the same "Meet the nutjob crazypants guy we purportedly hate but can't stop writing about.")

Now, there are of course a number of other white supremacists out there who have done about as little for the cause as Spencer, and even some who have done a lot more for it, but they have failed to sustain the media's attention in the same way. There is, for example, the guy who started Stormfront. His son got a little profile in the WaPo last year for leaving the movement, but I don't see The Atlantic and Mother Jones delving into the guy's childhood and interviewing his college classmates to discern how he became who he is. They aren't interested in the "human biodiversity" crowd. I don't think that even Dylann Roof, who shot a dozen people, got this sort of sustained think-piece treatment in the high-brow magazines. What was all these lesser white-supremacists' problem? Their problem was that they didn't go to elite schools and frame their ideas in predictable but slick and grammatical little essays, sprinkled with Nietzsche references. It's not surprising - and therefore interesting - that they became white supremacists, because they were kind of already you know those kinds of people, not our kind of people. And all of those kinds of people are kind of already white supremacists more or less, right? At least none of our kind of people is surprised when one of their kind is found to have acquired a prolific neo-Nazi internet persona and a large weapons cache. But when one of our kind expresses such sympathies, it's absolutely shocking and also endlessly fascinating.

In the past, becoming famous through white supremacy posed certain usually insurmountable difficulties for most people. You had to get pretty committed to it, join an unpleasant organization, rise in its ranks, and then either publish a hugely popular book repackaging your ideas in a totally new way, or, if you were not the literary sort, probably kill a lot of people. But now, it seems that all you need to do is get a couple elite university degrees and then post an essay online announcing your epiphany that the white race is the best race and Hitler had a pretty good idea. Within a week, Slate will be referring to you as the "spokesman" for all the white supremacists in America. Interview and speaking requests will pour in. And if an entire essay seems daunting, I suspect that even a few Tweets to this effect will suffice. Just make sure they're grammatical and occasionally reference writers from an Intro to Philosophy syllabus. The simpler your position, the better, because journalists don't want to argue with you; they just want to be able to categorize you, and then fly out to interview your fourth-grade teachers about what horrible error in your otherwise socially impeccable upbringing led you to arrive at this wrong position. It's super easy! You don't have to commit to much hard intellectual labor in the white supremacist literary archive or even believe what you say, because after a year of simple but inflammatory Twitter posts and tiki-torch appearances, when the media gets bored of you, you can probably just announce that you've converted back to respectable views (or even that you got woke!), and the cycle of media fascination and speaking engagements will start up again. The contract for the memoir will come through. And you'll be set.

So, if you are an unemployed and unattached young person with the requisite educational pedigree (attention humanities majors!), and are looking for a career change, or just a career, and one that doesn't require yet another round of graduate or professional training or a big time-and-student-loan investment, professional white supremacy advocacy maybe be an ideal route for you. Oh, the places you'll go, with our insular, self-obsessed media to enable you!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Dear internet, which movies should I watch?

We're out of stuff to watch on Netflix because we just can't get into the time-sucking High Art Series Television which is the entire tv/movie world at present, so we are returning to DVDs. What are your favorite movies, within the following parameters:
1. Must be available on DVD
2. Not horror movies, mafia movies, or other egregious blood and violence movies, especially involving violence to children, or movies directed by Woody Allen. Probably not sci-fi or avant-garde either.
3. Must have colors and sounds.
4. In short: relatively mainstream comedy and drama from the past 50 (stretchable to 80 if really good) years. Doesn't have to be American, but I think I've actually seen fewer American than international movies in my (very limited) movie-watching life, so my cultural literacy in this sphere could stand to be expanded. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Self-inflicted hate crimes, "normalized"

I've written here before about self-inflicted hate crimes, a phenomenon that seems to have become an even more popular activist tactic in the past couple years, and is now a wholly routine campus occurrence.  There is even an exhaustive website run (by some probable nut) devoted to nothing but chronicling these hoaxes. Two observations on the resurgent popularity of attacking yourself:

Is the term "hoax" to describe these performances really accurate? A hoax implies that the act didn't really happen, but was falsely reported to have happened. In these cases though, the "hate crimes" did happen - the racist graffiti was scrawled, or the posters posted - but their perpetrator just happens to also be their victim. The fact that the hate crime was actually perpetrated raises the question of punishment. This was especially clear in the U of C case a few years ago: while the perpetrator of these supposedly atrocious acts remains at large, students and admins talk a big game about the severe consequences that await him when he is caught. But once he is caught, talk of consequences quickly ends. By calling it a hoax, we imply that nothing actually happened, so punishment is irrelevant, when in fact the exact same act perpetrated by anyone else (or anyone outside the targeted identity group? I'm not sure how this has been treated in cases where the hate crimer targets others in addition to himself) would merit serious consequences.

One benefit of the term hoax though is that it does convey that the campus which inevitably launches into full crisis-and-protest mode as a result was duped. But by the time that becomes clear, no one seems to mind all that much.

The second observation is this: no one even bothers to find these events troubling anymore. Consider the most recent incident, at St. Olaf (Minnesotan liberal arts colleges of Scandinavian origin have been very active in this field recently): student finds racist note on her car, campus shuts down to soul-search, racist note discovered to have been written by student herself (which the article only brings itself to imply at the end). Fully one person quoted in this article finds this revelation "disturbing," but not disturbing enough to induce skepticism about similar future events. Everyone else agrees that it's basically not a problem at all, since "it’s started something good."

Now, of course, all these people who got worked up over fake threats want to avoid looking like fools when it turns out that they were, more or less, fools, so they have a strong incentive to emphasize positive things about these incidents - they brought our campus together! opened our eyes to our real problems! etc. Still, the extreme nonchalance of the people quoted by the MN paper is, I think, something new. It's not universal yet: when the source of the series of anti-Semitic threats to Jewish community centers in the US turned out to be coming from a Jew in Israel, American Jews, including many on the left, did express regret and wonder publicly about the dangers of alarmism. I didn't read very much that suggested that this guy had "started something good" for American Jews by falsely threatening to bomb them. But college campuses are more - shall we say - prone to hysteria and removed from reality.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that practically everyone on college campuses has internalized the arguments about the "structural" nature of racism and other -isms, not always in an entirely accurate way, and so has essentially bought what used to be the argument trotted out by self-inflicted hate-crimers, that they're only making real and visible (in the form of a lie) to others the otherwise invisible and hard-to-pin-down but deeply hostile forces that they feel around them all the time. What was once a completely absurd justification for an absurd crime has begun to harmonize really well with prevailing social theories.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Small children vindicate my preferences

Per Julia's suggestion in my previous post, I ordered Nietzsche's lectures on education to see if they might fit into my course. The book fell into Goomba's hands when it arrived because she retrieves our mail. (Aside: It is amazing how much toddlers want to "help." They are like Aristotle's natural slaves and will do anything for you! The only problem is they're too weak and small to do very much that is useful. So technically, I retrieve the mail because Goomba is too short and hand it to her to take inside the house and this task makes her so happy.) She immediately determined that the book was for her, because it is small, like her, and insisted that I read it to her. I tried to explain that she would not enjoy it, and it had no fun pictures, and etc. Nevertheless, she persisted. So I sat down with her and began reading, and she burst into tears. I had to physically comfort her and immediately switch to Busy Farm and Passover is Coming! (Key line: "Our seder is great; we all celebrate!" This always causes Goomba to throw up her arms in celebration, even if you say it out of the blue with no connection at all to the book.) to pacify her anger.

That's how bad Nietzsche is.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Education will solve all our social problems

I'm planning to teach a seminar on education next year, divided into two parts: the first on ideas about education through the Enlightenment (Plato, Aristotle, Renaissance humanism, Locke, Rousseau), and the second on the philosophy of education in America (Franklin, Rush, Mann, Dewey, Arendt, Freire, the debate in political theory over the Mozert case and the goals of civic education). And then a few concluding sessions on contemporary policy arguments over funding, size, choice, etc. (Incidentally, do you have some other ideas for readings I should assign in this class? I am probably interested in them.)

I've been thinking about this course and the overarching questions that might animate it for several years, but over the past year, I've been repeatedly struck by a view - an article of faith, really - that my students insist on: whenever we discuss any American social phenomenon that could be understood as a problem, like inequality, poverty, technocracy, political participation, media bias, and so on, the solution they propose to it is always more education. More education for the poor, more civic education, more education in discerning fact from fiction, more education in good nutrition and lifestyle choices, just more education, for everyone in every way. Their faith in education's power to fix things is seemingly unbounded. I suspect that this faith is in part due to how much education has done for them personally; they're mostly academic high-achievers. But a substantial part of it is just faith, totally groundless and utopian.

So in addition to the themes I previously wanted to structure this class around, like the tension between equality and excellence in democratic educational philosophy, I now think I need to address this faith in education as universal panacea. But how? I especially want to find a way to show that our great faith in education's omni-transformative power is actually undermining education's effectiveness at every level. How might this argument be made through readings? And how might it be made without disparaging the real (but limited) power of education?

Monday, April 24, 2017

What's good on the internet

- The students of the University of Utopia only really care about "finance, football, and fraternities." And other considerations on the history of general education.

- Aristotle's advice column:
The function of an animal is to serve the needs of human beings. This is both natural and expedient. Your son’s point, that animals which are beautiful should not be eaten, is a valid one, as beautiful animals fulfill our desire for beauty. However, the statement that cows are beautiful is false. No animal that is very small or very large can be beautiful.
- Epistolary romances are a lot more exciting when you're at war and one of the parties is working on the Manhattan Project.

- Indian spelling bee fanatics: Truly a wonderful article. This exchange perfectly captures both the stupid reductionism of democratic educational thinking and its democratic correctives:
“I can give you a different perspective on spelling bees. But these guys won’t like it,” he said. His name was Kalyan Mysore, and he was there with his son, who was participating in the vocabulary bee but had stopped spelling. “You expend effort in this, you won’t get anything out of it beyond doing well in the spelling bee. Because these days, we have word processors, spell-check. So I decided to keep him away from spelling bees.”

The spelling dads nodded in a we-hear-you-but sort of way. “We used to feel that,” Satish said. “The difference is, my daughter is really good at it.” [...]
I mentioned my encounter with Kalyan Mysore, the spelling skeptic. “I call that ignorant,” he said. I suggested that the argument seemed like a decent one: What, after all, is the point of this? Mirle turned to me with derision. “Tell me, what does Usain Bolt use the hundred-meter dash for?” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to answer. “Nothing,” he said...
Later, Mirle told another spelling dad what I’d relayed to him about the question of purpose. “No, no, no,” the man said. He turned to me with an apothegm at the ready. “As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Everything you do is insignificant, but you have to do it.’ ”

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

First words

Goomba's repertoire has finally extended beyond random objects - shoe ("shoes"), tissue ("shoes"), dog ("doh"), doll ("doh"), fish ("shish"), and blueberries (also, incomprehensibly, "doh") - to include her dear parents, "Da" and "Ma." Ma is a very recent addition, since as of last week, we were both Da. But then she looked at me, pointed, and announced "MA!" A great moment of recognition. Now that she has been duly praised for this attainment though, she won't stop saying Ma! whenever she sees me, which is really quite often.

Ever since "shoes" first emerged in November, I've been wondering why these particular words would be her first ones. What's so special about shoes that they merit being spoken first? We don't talk to her more about shoes than pants, shirts, hats, and coats. Why dog? We don't even have a dog. We have a cat and, while she is always happy to yank his ears and tail when she can get a hold of them, she has no interest in saying his name or identifying his species. Not even the fact that her favorite toy is a stuffed cat has motivated her to master the word. Why? Is there any reason behind any of this?

Monday, March 06, 2017

What's good on the internet

- An unrigorous but still illuminating study of the ideology of Silicon Valley. I think the author is wrong to say that their ideology doesn't amount to individualism because they support redistribution and social welfare. Why do they support them? Because their view of the species is essentially that there are a handful of amazing individuals, and then a vast mass of useless proles who need to be bribed to keep their pitchforks down. In a way, that's even worse than previous American individualist ideas like libertarianism, which attributed to everyone an equal potential to benefit from their regime.

- Busyness as status symbol. One of my students sent me this, suggesting that it as an illustration of our readings about ancient vs. modern conceptions of work and leisure. The children is learning.

- "Nostalgia for now."

- PC culture round-up: the PC advocate psychoanalyzed, and something similar and more substantive from Deresiewicz on PC as religious stand-in. The problem is that everything that's not explicitly religious is a functional religious stand-in according to cultural critics, so the line of attack is always losing its persuasive power. He has some good lines ("The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism.") but on the whole, it suffers from the same problems as a lot of other PC criticism. I might have more to say about his essay later, if I find some time between spring break grading to write it.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The decline of normal people fashion blogs

Ever since Extra Petite went pro, so to speak, and started shilling for $500 handbags and advising me on how best to approach my shopping at designer boutiques in Paris, there's been no one to advise me about what's good this season at boring cheap person stores like Loft, or what to wear with navy tights, or which pant cuts look good on short women. What Would A Nerd Wear quit a long time ago. Sidewalk Ready converted to midriff-baring bohemian weirdness not to be replicated in a professional work environment. Other fashion blogs with smaller followings that I used to read just kind of fizzled. Who is left to tell me what to wear?