Tuesday, June 26, 2007

High Culture

In one place in Berubé's "What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?" he says that he wants students to consider the question "Does the United States have an institutional 'high' culture as well as an energetic 'mass' culture?" (113). Aside from being interesting, the question summons up a faint regret that I don't live in New York and associate with the soon-to-be-members of that high culture. It's faint regret, since if you know me you'll know that I am entirely the wrong type of person to associate with such people (see my chilly reaction to New York's self-absorption in the previous post). My life would have to have been unrecognizably different to have gone that way. Nonetheless, I feel bad that I'm almost totally cut off from people who are involved in artistic work, and that I'm so unaware of what's going on in our culture.

I can pick out reasonably 'good' contemporary literature, but I don't think I could sort the 'highbrow' from the 'middlebrow.' With music it's worse--I don't even know if there still is highbrow music. I know that there's music which is heir to the traditions of historically highbrow music, and which would desperately like to be highbrow, but I'm not sure if the set of cultural attitudes are still shared which would support that music having a privileged place. As for the visual arts, I just like it when an artist takes a canvas and paints it one color. That's pretty, and a few people have done it.

Part of the problem is my intrinsic lameness, part of the problem is that graduate school sets you down in a new city, tells you to think about nothing but philosophy, and arranges it so that you will only socialize with people who themselves think about philosophy. A final factor is that my current philosophical interests intersect more with the scientific study of humanity than the humanistic study.

Only New York Can Save Us

The New Yorker:

If a five-foot-seven divorced Jew with a nasal whine is taken seriously as a Presidential candidate, it would at the very least diminish the power of faux symbols in our political life; and a Clinton-Giuliani-Bloomberg race would so thoroughly explode the Sun Belt’s lock on the White House that an entirely new kind of politics might be possible, in which evolution is not at issue, no one has to pretend to like pork rinds, and the past tense of “drag” is “dragged.”

In order for politics to become less about faux symbols it is first necessary for the press to spend all its time discussing the candidacy of a man who has said he has no interest in running. It is necessary, in a sort of dialectical turn, that the road to a substantive politics passes through a period of horse race journalism.

The truly stunning part is the idea that if Clinton wins, we will have an entirely new kind of politics. Let me say it loud and clear, kids: If Hillary wins, two families will have run this country for at least twenty-four straight years. We might as well have a monarchy.


In case anyone who reads this isn't yet aware, I'll be home on June 29th or June 30th. Sadly, I'll leave on July 5th. I know, it's lame to come home for such a short period, but I promise that we shall jointly make the best of it.

Monday, June 25, 2007


I recently read a piece in The Nation arguing in defense of bureaucrats. The article starts out by noting that at many crucial junctures, members of the bureaucracy were the ones who restrained the illegal or unwise actions of this administration. Part of what makes the bureaucracy so effective is that its members are not put in place by the current administration.

"Like teachers at a high school who watch classes of students come and go, the bureaucrats remain while the administrations change. When the current occupant of the White House leaves, his appointed hacks will leave with him, and whether or not someone actually committed to governing takes his place, the bureaucrats will be there, as always, to do their duty."

A more interesting contrast to me is that bureaucrats are expected to be competent. Elected officials and political appointees are often just career idiots who have no business dressing themselves, much less managing disaster relief. Their primary activity is giving speeches, and most of them are astonishingly bad at it. Even a successful career as a businessman or lawyer doesn't mean a person knows how the government should work, and the electoral process doesn't select for those who do. As an ordinary citizen, it's not particularly important to know the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, but for congressmen, it's crucial. Moreover, while bureaucrats can be dishonest, just as politicians can, their positions and expertise create strong situational pressures not to be. It's an insult to a technician to ask him to subvert the standards of his practice. While that fact won't stop some from compromising their dignity, it makes them more reliable than an outside for whom that practice is just a tool or an inconvenience.

Addendum: Maureen Dowd had an editorial on Cheney's failure to safeguard classified documents. After noting that Cheney had steamrolled Colin Powell, George Tenet, etc. during the push for war with Iraq, she closed by saying

Archivists are the new macho heroes of Washington.
Archivists aren't bureaucrats, but all the same principles apply.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Just Suppose I'm Juxtaposed With Youuuuuu!

Via The Situationist I'm being told that the Democrats don't understand the role of emotion in politics, focusing on policy and general wonkishness. At the same time, the New York Times has an article on the new energy bill. There are tax changes, a plan to start charging certain companies for the rights to offshore drilling, and subsidies for renewable energy, all of which sound plausible. Then there's clean coal, which doesn't. Then there's a plan to "give the federal government more power to prosecute companies that engage in “price gouging” on gasoline prices, which is broadly defined in the bill as charging “unconscionably excessive” prices that reflect “unfair leverage.” I think they sorta get it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Pittsburgh Impressions 2

When you've spotted two different Ferraris within a quarter-mile of your apartment this month, you know you're living in the wrong part of town.

Pittsburgh Impressions

One thing that has bugged me is the inexplicable indifference to recycling here in Pittsburgh. University buildings and some enlightened establishments often have containers for recycling, but you could walk several miles on the street without ever seeing a bin. The policies for curbside recycling are opaque and obstructionist. It's so bad that I don't even really care about recycling and I'm annoyed by it.

I think I stumbled on the explanation for it Monday. I glanced at a trashcan featuring the omnipresent anti-littering signs, and realized that they were the reason. Right now, the fight is to recognize that things go in a can once you've used them. Only once that's been mastered is it safe to introduce a distinction between two types of cans. We wouldn't want to lose the progress we've made by confusing people.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Silence, Peon

The best way to inhibit blogging is to generalize Brian Weatherson's observation that "Philosopher Makes Mistake" is rarely big news. If you don't have something constructive to say about the mistake, it's rarely worth a journal article. In the same vein, most of the time when I read the latest jackassery, I start to crank out a post, but stop feeling it's worth it after five minutes. This is especially true when the target of the response is itself something ephemeral, such as a blog post.

Had this post continued where it was initially going, it would have booed an Ezra Klein post on drug patents.

Update: A corollary to this point is that if you're not willing to link to it, you should probably not talk about it. Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers posted about Michael Egnor's extremely bad argument for dualism, but didn't link to the argument on the grounds that it would only encourage Egnor. He then made a second post addressing Egnor's followup. So he's now having a back and forth discussion with someone who is nevertheless not sufficiently important to link to. It's especially obnoxious since the first ten results on google for "michael egnor" don't indicate an obvious way to find the post in question.

There's something appealingly Kantian about this whole bit. By violating the blogging norm of linking to the people you argue with, you end up doing something wrong, not because of a self-subsistent moral truth, but because of the very standards of practical rationality. (Ok, it's a bit of a stretch).

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Philanthropy and Higher Education

Leiter links to a good editorial concerning philanthropy and higher education. The gist of it is that there's no reason to recognize these gifts to elite universities as philanthropy at all. What they are is transfers of wealth among a limited pool of the privileged, noble gestures of making a sacrifice for the sake of one's exclusive club. It's pretty damning stuff, though I should note that the flagship state schools come in for criticism as well. A particularly damning bit of evidence is that at Columbia almost as much is spent on financial aid for students whose families make $100,000+ a year as those in the $20,000-$40,000 range. This is in spite of the fact that Columbia has one of the most enlightened policies concerning financial aid and equality of access among the Ivies and similar institutions.

My addition would be that from a pragmatic perspective, it is quite perverse to claim real philanthropic intent when giving to an institution like Columbia. With tuition and fees being $31,000 a year, it is an extremely expensive proposition to support financial aid. Would students be that much worse off if the money went to Berkeley, Michigan or UNC (in state tuition and fees of $5,000)? As far as helping the least privileged, one wouldn't give to these universities, but ones even further down the totem pole.

If Only I Owed You Nothing

A passage from David Velleman's Against the Right to Die struck me:

I don't pretend to understand fully the ethics of gifts and favors. It's one of those subjects that gets neglected in philosophical ethics, perhaps because it has more to do with the supererogatory than the obligatory.

Sure that's true, so long as you're not talking about human beings. Detailed norms of gift giving are a cultural universal, and if I can further overstep the bounds of my competence, I'll assert that they're never primarily supererogatory. I'm painfully aware of that fact, since I have a neurotic inability to navigate the social practices of gift exchange. Statements like this feed into my hunch that moral philosophers would benefit from more of an engagement with the study of culture, especially anthropology. To be clear, I don't know that Velleman is making any mistake here, since the opinion he's mentioning is one he suggests might characterize other moral philosophers.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Magic Word Politics

I'm pretty sure this will just recapitulate what's been said on a language log post somewhere, but here goes.

Over at Acephalous, a few idiots have picked a fight with Scott Eric Kaufman. The context: NIT, a blog run by an ABC affiliate set itself the task of linking to posts from various blogs in the Nashville area, with little or no editorial activity. The idea was just to be a clearinghouse of other people's statements. If I judge things correctly, it was a glorified RSS reader that was a pain in the ass for someone to maintain. As such, linking to material is not credibly seen as an endorsement of it. Some people didn't get that, but they did ensure that the author was fired. Kaufman pointed out that people who adamantly refuse to pay attention to context, well, suck. Saying this makes Kaufman a white supremacist, who will be exposed to his department (the links give a lot of details, but if you just read the acephalous posts, that's enough).

What's striking about all of this is the underlying ideology of people like Rupp. For them, the very words used in hate speech are so dangerous that they cannot ever be uttered. Rupp wouldn't put things that way-it's crazy, but it's the only way to make sense of what he does say. The words don't have power because they're used to to demean people and express racist attitudes, they just have power by themselves. Anytime they are mentioned, it is dangerous. Even if context makes it clear that the words are being quoted without endorsement, it is equally culpable, because the words still do their damage.

How could that possibly be true? Slurs have their force because they are a certain type of speech act, backed up by the attitudes and the intentions of the people using them. That's why it isn't offensive for Google to show results which have offensive material-it's just mechanical reproduction.

Rupp's response to this is that it's just stimulus-response. I see something that looks like offensive material, I exhibit outrage. I don't stop to ask if my outrage is justified, if there is actually anything offensive, I just react based on my gut. But while we all sometimes respond without thought, we're not entitled to do so. What Rupp et al. do is self-consciously elevate stimulus-response patterns to the entirety of political activity, backed up by a fewself-serving rationalizations.

Aside: I should note that there's a reasonable point that sounds a bit like what I'm attributing to Rupp, but which is actually much different. Obviously, the words used in hate speech have some psychological effect on people, and so it's wise to avoid using them, even in quotations. It was hate speech when one debater I knew of responded to the question "so, what is hate speech?", by the giving the example "go suck on a banana, you dirty monkey..."(with much more in the same awful vein). There are exceptions though: sometimes it is impossible to explain what was said without using the very slurs in question. This case was actually one of them, because the material that was quoted on NIT wasn't an otherwise ordinary post with a single slur in it, but rather a string of phrases. I don't think that any of these phrases are normally expunged from reports of what people said, by the way. So the choices were to either reprint it or print the uninformative "So and so offered a racist obituary. That's bad."

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Put Up or Shut Up

By way of language log, there's a report of research indicating that irrelevant neuroscientific discussion enhances the perceived quality of psychological explanations. The authors suggest that the effect may occur in virtue of deeper failures to evaluate evidence such as the "seductive details" effect or a tendency to favor reductive explanations in general. Neither of these reasons for error would exclusively concern neuroscientific explanations.

Nevertheless, I'm particularly bothered by the report because a moderate portion of my reading includes neuroscientific evidence. I can hope the authors are responsible: one of the study's findings is that neuroscientific evidence doesn't bias readers' judgments of antecedently good explanations. That's only possible if the authors themselves have a strong grasp of the material. If they don't, then they'll be subject to the same effect, leading them to include irrelevant evidence. In that case, the question is whether I'd be fooled. The bad news is that of the three groups studied (naive subjects, students in college cognitive neuroscience courses, and experts) only the experts had an accurate response to the evidence. Ergo, much reading to do for me.