Sunday, February 25, 2018

Winter Olympics

I don't really like sports, so probably my judgment on this point is of no value, but it seems to me that the Winter Olympics is too niche to be an Olympics. There are so many events, and yet so few actual sports involved. In fact, there only seem to be really three sports - skiing, sledding, and skating - which are then subdivided into like 100 different competitive events. Some of these events are activities engaged in by normal people outside the Olympics - that is, they are sports, like ice hockey and cross-country and downhill skiing - but most of them seem to be activities that are done exclusively by Olympians competing against one another during the Olympics, like all the varieties of luge and speed skating. In fact, none of the sledding-type events even appear to be possible on actual snow during an actual winter. They all require a custom-built structure.

Maybe this is not really true and, in places of perpetual winter like Norway and Canada, luge is a weekend activity and there are even high school leagues? But even if that were true, the Winter Olympics would still not be a truly international sporting competition so much as a specialized meetup of the handful of ice-bound nations technologically advanced enough to develop highly niche uses for skates, sleds, and skis that only 20 people in each country will ever master. And the only one that is fun to watch is figure skating.

The Summer Olympics is not like this. It consists of sports that regular people all over the world actually play. Even the highly technical ones that require lots of specialized equipment, like gymnastics and the equestrian competitions, are things that real people everywhere do at amateur levels. The Summer Olympics is a genuine international athletic competition. The Winter Olympics is just a place to passive-aggressively hash out diplomatic conflicts among nations where it snows.

Also, Goomba, upon viewing figure skating for the first time, had the following to say: "Why her naked?"

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The enduring drama of hating Arendt's Eichmann

Arendt on Eichmann is like the ax that can never be buried for American Jews. Only once you're deep in the Arendt weeds, among only a select subset of scholars and far beyond the reach of regular educated people, will you finally be out of hearing range of the accusations of Arendt's anti-Semitism. But the problem is that you probably never want to find yourself in those weeds, which are full of other predators. So you probably have to stay out in the open with the accusations: Arendt exonerated Eichmann and accused the Jews of facilitating their own destruction by cooperating with the Nazis. Every educated American Jew over a certain age will tell you this, unless he is one of the few grazing out there in the weeds with the snakes. And then the weed-eaters will respond with, no, Arendt was a great genius who spoke five languages and actually fled Nazis while her critics were just provincial rubes.

Ruth Wisse's is probably one of the better versions of this accusation. She goes through the long (so long) history of the accusation and concludes that Arendt's real motivation was not to cover the Eichmann trial but "to impose her understanding on the trial" and
to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction like Bellow’s that “everybody…knows what murder is.”
Taken in one sense that's clearly not right, since throughout her writing, she argues that "the German mind" insofar as it's part of the Western tradition is dead, and was killed by the rise of modern totalitarianisms. That is the reason for the moral unclarity, the inability to rely on conventional categories of judgment. In another sense, insofar as "the German mind" is her own mind and its particular education and cultivation (that is, the education of all German intellectuals of her generation), it might be closer to the truth. She did think she was especially well-equipped to understand the transformations of the twentieth century, and perhaps she was wrong on that count, but this either boils down to an accusation of vanity, or is really another accusation, more limited than the one that Wisse purports to make here but also one with a history, which is that Arendt is really just a secret or unwitting (most such accusers claim that she was, somehow, both) Heideggerian, and by extension, a kind of proto-Nazi herself.

The Heidegger stuff aside, I agree with Wisse that Arendt used and perhaps misused the Eichmann trial as a vehicle to further develop the theory of totalitarianism she had laid out in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But I would like to offer one corrective to Wisse's condemnation, and that is this: in hindsight especially, that theory is more important than Wisse allows.

Most of the writers and scholars who accuse Arendt of whitewashing Eichmann and villifying Israel and the Jewish communal leaders of Europe - in short those who reject the book - are of the generation that was born during or right after the war. For them, the Holocaust was a shocking revelation, its full scope unknown to the American public until years after the war's end. And just as its details and real extent were beginning to emerge into public consciousness, along came "Miss Arendt" to downplay its gravity and even blame the victims. Her timing could not have been worse.

But, a generation or two later, the situation was quite changed. Arendt's intervention had precisely zero effect on the American understanding of the Holocaust. By the 1980s and '90s, the Holocaust was well-established in the public consciousness and was the center of American Jewish self-consciousness. To be Jewish in America was to have a personal connection to it, the closer the better, but a connection to some lesser but parallel form of anti-Semitic violence - a pogrom, perhaps, or the Inquisition, if you had to dig that far back in the family history - would do if necessary. It became a ubiquitous element of the school curriculum - one program, "Facing History and Ourselves," was taught around the country, culminating at some schools in trips to Auschwitz. By the 1990s, no one in America was uncomfortable calling the Nazis evil. In fact, the functional definition of evil had more or less become the Holocaust. There was absolutely no difficulty thinking about it in moral terms, as a battle between good and evil.

The difficulty turned out to be precisely that is was so easy to moralize. Because the Holocaust became a kind of shorthand for all kinds of evil, to be offered to children as the apocalyptic scenario most to be feared, it was so excessively moralized as to become completely de-politicized. It has come to be understood as an example of personal moral failure on a vast scale, or really the sum of many personal moral failures. Many Germans, individually, began to harbor these negative "stereotypes" and "prejudices" (the great buzzwords of my elementary schooling) about Jews, and as these prejudices and stereotypes spread across the land, the people who held them got together and became essentially large-scale playground bullies to the Jews: first persecuting and then killing then. So, goes the moral of this story, if you want to prevent the next Holocaust, don't be prejudiced, and don't be a bully. Remember: every time you pick on a classmate or spread malicious gossip about your friends, you are taking the first step towards another Holocaust. And don't let other people be prejudiced bullies either. Thus, the ubiquitous poem, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist..." Thus, the plots of all children's books about the Holocaust. Everything is about the moral failures of individuals to do the right thing and stand up to the bad guys.

It all sounds vaguely plausible, especially to a child, since it's essentially an account of the Holocaust modeled on childhood social life. The problem is, of course, that in the terms of the poem, if you had spoken out on behalf of the Socialists, the Trade Unionists, etc., you would've been killed right along with them. The Holocaust was not the result of playground bullying on a national scale. It was a political event and it has to be understood in political terms - in terms of regimes and political philosophy, in terms of national histories, in terms of European statecraft. Precisely the argument that Podhoretz used against Arendt has to be explained: "It is one thing to hate Jews, but it is quite another to contemplate the wholesale slaughter of Jews.” As Arendt points out in Eichmann, most European nations had developed robust traditions of virulent anti-Semitism by the time of the war. And yet only one of them contemplated the wholesale slaughter of Jews, and that one was, perplexingly, among the least anti-Semitic. How do we account for that?

Political explanations involving regimes and history are beyond the grasp of schoolchildren, so they were dispensed with, and the moral failure explanation won out. But at a cost. It diminished mainstream Judaism, elevating the experience of victimhood to its center and pushing the "philosophical Judaism" that Wisse values (and even simply Jewish observance) to the sidelines. It gave at least two decades' worth of children a dumbed-down and dangerously misleading understanding of political evil. And ultimately, it turned the Holocaust into treacle.

Unlike the generation whose schooling was in a sense rebutted by the discovery of the Holocaust, mine was infused with the Holocaust all the time - we read about it every year, we wrote essays pretending to have experienced it, we even did a mock Nuremberg trial at some point. I had read every children's book about the Holocaust that my school and public libraries possessed by the third grade. (It should be noted that my experience, having taking place in Skokie, was perhaps more extreme than most, but the basic themes were widespread.) And it always came down to the same point: don't be mean, or you will start a Holocaust. But what was odd was that I was frequently mean, and yet no genocide ever resulted. The result was that, by the end of middle school, this understanding of the Holocaust made Judaism look to me like a hysterical and overbearing cult of victimhood, which I had no interest in joining. When I came across Finklestein's The Holocaust Industry at the library in high school (again, the Skokie Public Library may not entirely resemble your public library in these regions of the Dewey Decimal System...), I couldn't help but seeing his point. This, I take it, is not where Wisse wants the moral view of the Holocaust to take us. 

When I read Eichmann in college, it was a revelation. Here was an account of the Holocaust that explained Nazism as a political event, a regime that developed out of and in opposition to liberalism, rather than a random burst of coordinated meanness. To say the Holocaust was political is not to say that it was specific to 1930s Germany, or to deny anyone's responsibility for it. Arendt's is not some intricate structuralist story that denies human agency. But it does account for the problem that is so obvious even to children: if prejudice leads to genocide, and prejudice is so common, then why are genocides so rare? Wisse is right that Arendt co-opted the  trial to elaborate her pre-conceived arguments, but those arguments were not conceived on the spot and they were not so obviously wrong. Our understanding of Nazis as evil is already so deeply embedded that Arendt's description of Eichmann as banal is unlikely to result in a revaluation of all values, though it might direct some doubts towards bureaucracy and obsession with the imperative to purify one's thoughts of all biases. Having reached our limit of Holocaust moralism, Americans might benefit from some Arendt-as-antidote.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The nose that spited my face

It had to happen someday given my defective nasal constitution, but I finally had a nosebleed while teaching. Actually, it was just before teaching, and I had to go to my class to inform them that due to the obvious fact that my nose was bleeding, our start would have to be delayed, then leave, then return again post-bleed to resume instruction with much-diminished dignity.

Not my finest teaching moment, to say the least.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

How to teach children what you don't know yourself

Now that Goomba is talking and even arguing with us ("There is no cat in that book." "Yes! Yes! Kitty innit!"), we are shifting our thoughts a little from how to keep her alive to how to educate her. Aside from questions about formal schooling, we wonder, would we want her to learn music of some kind? A set of fundamental life skills? Play a sport? Speak a foreign language? Observe a (our) religion? Yes, we think. And then we consider how we can teach her all this, and we conclude - as all bourgie American parents do - that we must give her lessons. Swimming lessons, violin lessons, tennis lessons, Hebrew school, drawing classes, Latin lessons (ok, admittedly, this has not yet been vetted by Mr. Self-Important but it will happen), and so on. Very quickly, it becomes evident that we will 1) need to be much richer to afford all this, and 2) inevitably produce an Organization Kid.

I used to assume that the obsession with classes and lessons and other forms of scheduled, formal instruction denounced by all the contemporary Ivy League Lamenters and Scolders of the Elite came from overambitious, hyper-competitive parents with totally unrealistic expectations for their children's personal achievement and their future professional and social status. Affluent parents forced their kids to study and practice and do all these crazy activities because they heard they were desperate to get them on the narrow road to Yale, Harvard Law, Goldman Sachs, a house in Palo Alto, and a comfortable retirement. But now I wonder if what's really behind these changes in the parenting practices of the college-educated is a deficiency more banal and innocent than overweening ambition or competitiveness: ignorance and inability to teach their own children what they believe they should know.

In my case, I've been disabused of most of the charms of the Ivy League, and the things that I want my daughter to learn are determined by what I think enriches life outside of the necessary rigors of school and work. The great problem is that I don't actually know them myself. I don't know music, or art, or any useful foreign language, or my own religion, or even how to swim (sad fact). So if I wanted my children to know them, I'd have to pay for professional instruction. Now, this is not totally true: I probably know tennis and Latin sufficiently to teach them to a child, and Mr. Self-Important can cover the swimming. But it's mostly true, especially for the things that require long-term instruction to really get anywhere, like music, sports, and foreign languages.

Perhaps other much-maligned bourgie parents are like me: they know enough to know what is good, but not enough to know how to do it. What they want their children to know, they can't themselves teach. They have spent their own lives focused on the technocratic pursuit of academic and professional advancement, and while this was not without any personal rewards (many of them can read literature and teach their children to do the same, for example, and there is consequently no shortage of cultural zeal for reading to one's own children), it was also largely at the expense of skills which they subsequently conclude would have improved their adult lives. For example, I now see how my life would be better if I could play music (specifically the banjo, but I will not burden you or my child with these aspirations), though I was completely uninterested in this as a child. So now they wish to correct these oversights for their children, not primarily out of competitiveness or a desire to signal social status, but because they believe it will make the children happier, but find that the only way to do it is through an insane regimen of formal instruction that would horrify all but the most Victorian onlookers. These at least might be able to appreciate the value of drafting a regiment of tutors and governesses for the education of a child, but only one who does not also go to school for 50 hours a week.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Now I understand why so many parents overestimate their children's intelligence

When you spend two years with a kid who, for the most part, comprehends nothing, does not speak, and mainly communicates by crying, you inadvertently develop really low expectations. So when this creature one day walks up to you with a mop and says, "Mommy I help you clean," you will naturally think, "My child is a genius!" And it will only go downhill from there.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Testing extreme political propositions

One thing I wonder about current politics is why those who oppose various lefty demands, especially demands made by the so-called "campus left," on the grounds that they're unsustainable when enacted on a large scale spend their time arguing this instead of simply demonstrating it. For example, if you think that gender is not really amenable to self-declared change or that pronouns are not a matter of preference, why don't you and your friends (and better yet, many more people whom you've either persuaded to help you for the sake of advancing human knowledge, or bribed) simultaneously declare yourselves to be the opposite sex, or a third sex, or no sex, and demand that everyone around you accept your assertions. If these sorts of demands really are as socially destabilizing as you claim, then the ensuing chaos will prove your point better than any earnest op-ed you submit to the student newspaper. And if they're not, then I guess you'll have to rethink your argument. Either way, the costs to you will be pretty low: campuses are pretty insular, chaos in them will be contained, and you can go back to your old sex at any time.

It seems to me that you could do this with nearly every liberal social demand of the past decade, since so many of them arise out of individual, unfalsifiable assertions about identity or personal history. So when I read articles like this one - pointing out that the present demand to punish all sexual harassers suffers from some obvious difficulties, like an over-broad definition of harassment, a reliance on personal perceptions of offense, and the discovery that "in recent weeks, I’ve acquired new powers. I have cast my mind over the ways I could use them. I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don..." - I again wonder, why not just demonstrate how big a problem this is by using your new powers to accuse not just the Oxford don, but pretty much anyone you'd like to see fired? Accuse the don's entire college at Oxford, the entire editorial staff of a major newspaper. Most of them are probably men, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Get your friends to accuse them too, or just say you "have in your hand a list...", as Berlinski puts it. If the doctrine of "just believe" the accuser is really as malignant as you warn, then its malignancy should be easily made manifest when an entire university department gets vacated or an entire publication is forced to fold under public pressure from unproven accusations of harassment. I really don't think this would have to happen more than once for the difficulties to be widely appreciated.

Of course, this is a form of heightening the contradictions, or trolling, if you prefer, and as a tactic, it has its dangers. And it also obviously requires acting in bad faith, a profound social sin in many quarters. But, the young seek adventure and don't care what respectable people think of them, no? So why hasn't this totally obvious method of persuasion been tried?

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Lady Bird: But what does this movie say about ME?

Peeps, I am old. Not old like OLD, CAN YOU HEAR ME ALRIGHT?, but old enough to have my life depicted in a period film. Is that the benchmark for middle age? I realize my age on a near-daily basis now that I teach people who are, effectively, permanently 20. But it still "wrecks me" (a phrase I recently learned from my students) that the movies find my youth to be suitable material for a nostalgic coming-of-age film. My youth. I am a nostalgic artifact. Like Rory Gilmore, Lady Bird is exactly my age. High school class of 2003 represent. However, Gilmore Girls was a contemporaneous production, whereas Lady Bird is...ughhhhh...a nostalgic period film.

Anyway, the Self-Importants love Greta Gerwig and all the films Greta Gerwig is connected with, including even Damsels in Distress and Mistress America, and also almost all the films Noah Baumbach makes even though yes they're pretty repetitive (but it's a good theme!), so my normative evaluation of this movie is completely predictable and not of any interest.

So let's talk instead about the politics. The movie is about The Youth in the early 2000s, a time when The Youth had nothing significant to pay attention to but themselves, but to themselves they were exquisitely attentive. (Lady Bird overlooks the ubiquitous online diaries for public consumption which Miss Self-Important of course never had...10 versions of and none of those became this blog ahem.) Perhaps this does not reflect well on us, but as Lady Bird notes ("I wish I could live through something"), these were not dramatic times unless you were in New York in September 2001. So the movie is about the perennial subject of peacetime dramas, finding yourself. But since it's not terrible, it's more specifically about valuing the given vs. the chosen.

Lady Bird thinks she hates everything about herself at 17: her name, her hometown, her Catholic school, her lowly social status. The problem with these things is that they're arbitrary, imposed on her by her parents (especially her mother). So she decides to change these things by choosing alternatives: she renames herself something absurd ("Is that your given name?", the theater teacher asks her, and she replies, "Yes, it was given to me by me."), she applies to colleges in New York without a clue as to where that even is, she openly defies Catholicism, she invents a persona to befriend the rich girl in class. The problem, as she realizes by the end, is that all her choices were just as arbitrary as the given things, and no more lovable simply for being chosen by her. At the end, she asks a guy at a party whether he believes in God, and he dismisses the proposition as stupid in a way she would've agreed with five minutes ago, but now she's struck by the irony of such insouciance: "People go by the names their parents give them, but they don't believe in God." So she reconsiders the value of self-assertion against givenness. Maybe her real name isn't so bad, and Sacramento has some charms, and even Catholicism... Look, you know things are heading in a dangerous direction when a character is poised to embrace Catholicism.

But, despite this quite conservative epiphany about the self-constituting value of given things, Lady Bird never really turns right, because it can't quite condemn youth culture, even as it can't really embrace it. Youth culture is depicted as the promise of a lot of potentially exciting experiences (first love! sex! drugs! prom! going away to college!) that in the end are not nearly as exciting as they appeared, but disappointment is no reason to reject it. Anyway, there are no grounds to reject youth culture even if you wanted to. It just exists, ubiquitously and without plausible alternatives, and our task is to adjust to it. What you're supposed to learn, what constitutes "growing up" in this movie, is that, while there remains no way of knowing who you are or what you want except by experimenting with experiences, you have a duty not to cause harm to others in your experimental pursuit of experiences. Of course, you already understood the harm principle as a child, but what you didn't understand was the scope and subtlety of "harm." You learned not to bite and hit and taunt, not to cause overt harm. But the task of adolescence is to understand that causing harm also encompasses causing distress to those individuals to whom you have, for largely unchosen reasons, heightened obligations - your parents, your friends. Only once you understand this expanded version of the harm principle, as Lady Bird does after arriving at college, can you pursue your serial experiences and experiments in living in a responsible way. There will necessarily be disappointments along the way (science tells us that most experiments fail), but so long as you're taking responsibility for yourself and respecting the rights of others (including their rights not to be harmed by you), you are on the right road to...something. Well, the audience is satisfied enough by the time the movie arrives at this conclusion not to worry whether it's really conclusive or whether Lady Bird's road leads anywhere. Her life has only just begun! The future is unknown! The roads before her as yet untraveled! And so on.

Only I worry about it because, as I said, Lady Bird is now me. My life has not only just begun, a bit of my future is known, and several roads have already been traveled since 2003. And I would like to suggest, from a point in the less open future, that serial experimentation in pursuit of culturally pre-formulated experiences undertaken in light of an expanded understanding of the harm principle is never going to stop being disappointing.

On the other hand, the movie could also point in a different direction, though it never does this explicitly. If what is given is arbitrary and therefore of questionable value, but you discover that what is self-chosen is also essentially arbitrary because you had no coherent reasons for choosing except the desire to make a choice, then you might be moved to wonder, what's required to make a non-arbitrary choice? Are there coherent reasons or standards that would lead to a good choice? And then of course you'd become a philosopher. Just like that! Anyway, I trust that you get my point.

In conclusion, in this movie, we were kids. And now we have kids. That is a jarring thought when exiting a dark room in which you had just been immersed in your own adolescence for two hours.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Conversation 2

Mr. Self-Important: Do you know where milk comes from? What animal makes milk?
Goomba: Mama!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What's good on the internet

"The Picture in Her Mind" - A nice defense of Joan Didion against the tedious complaints about her "offenses against good political taste," including her failure to embrace the great truth of feminism. We also watched the new documentary about her on Netflix, but it was not very good. Didion is clearly a person who should be read, and not watched.

"How to Hire Fake Friends and Family" - This guy, who runs a company that hires out actors to pretend to be client's parents and spouses, etc., is extremely reflective. I am most perplexed by his claim at the end: "The happiness is not endless, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without value. The child had a father when she needed him most. It might have been a brief period, and she might know the truth now, but she had a meaningful experience at that time." Is that right?

"How Trump is really changing things" - The original article is gated, but this is a good write-up.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Goomba: Mama go work!
Me: Where does Mama work?
Goomba: Campus!
Me: Yes, and what does Mama do there?
Goomba: Eat pizza!