Showing posts with label Curmudgeon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Curmudgeon. Show all posts

Monday, June 16, 2014

Things I Don't Get #3: Writing on Clothes

For all the reasons man may feel constrained, it seems impossible to me that he could find himself without sufficient variety of attire to suit his needs. Shirts and trousers of myriad material, color, and cut accommodate every condition of weather and circumstance and upon this he can layer a still greater variety of waistcoats or vests, finally tailoring-off the look with coats of the dress, frock, tail, or morning variety. This enumeration leaves out additional accouterments of style such as ties and belts, which come in multifarious variety and may themselves be adorned with still more regalia from clips and pins to feathers. Is this array of choices so insufficient that people find it necessary to write on their clothes?

I don't know when or where this sad spectacle began, but I propose it is an unwholesome look. Chiefly, wearing words makes your presence aggressive, to varying degrees to be sure, but aggressive nonetheless. It presumes upon strangers in society to read your message when in polite society words should pass in the course of conversation and according to the good sense of the parties, not by visual command.

Second, the body is not a vessel of expression (thought it can be expressive in painting and dance) and a man's presence should betoken just that, presence. No more or less. When I see my friend, I wish to see my friend, not any other idea however lofty.

Third, consider the messages which clothing carries. Plenty of shirts are mere advertisements for brands, from Tommy Hilfiger to Coach, the pinnacles for social climbers. More and more though I've seen t-shirts–which are undergarments, for the record–with the names of countries on them. Now perhaps some element of national pride is involved, but I've seen people wearing shirts which suggest for them a highly unlikely genealogy. Why would someone who is not Chinese, say, wear a shirt that says China? Speaking of nationalism, what's the deal with flags on shirts and clothing with patterns of flags? If you're wearing a flag, be prepared to be strung up.

As far as sports attire goes, the only people who should be wearing it are the players. They wear the team colors so in the confusion of the game they can tell one another apart. Similar reasoning stands against wearing camouflage-patterns: unless you're hunting or hiding, it's not appropriate. The last fashion statement which needs flogging is that of college and university attire. Aside from the conundrum of why any respectable institution would sell hoodies printed with the school crest, we ought to remember that the institution is a school, not a cult. It's not a good fit for everyone and even if it were, why would you want to endorse it to strangers? Even if your alma mater is worth the title, why would you put its name on a shirt? Would you put your actual mother's face on a shirt?

Since the sorry status quote would seem to indicate we say the obvious, one especially shouldn't put writing over delicate parts of the body. Such a tasteless habit not only encourages what appears to be leering, and even justifies it it, but it invites attention which is often quite unwarranted, a nasty trap for those with the natural inclination to read what is before them.

How do we show support then? you ask. Well, men generally prefer the unorthodox arrangement of words into units called sentences, which are then published. Alternatively we verbally express ideas to willing audiences at select occasions and venues. If you are determined to make a visual statement, though, the time-honored means are buttons, pennants, and flags. Should you need to make a show of whimsy at a party, a mask might serve your humor with more dignity.

Yes, there is probably room for whimsical, worded clothing at casual gatherings of intimates, but we should reserve attire for the spare, dignified expression of the gentleman, who brings but himself.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Alma Mater?

So I'm teaching Petronius again and of course in teaching satire one always must broach the question of whether a character is self-aware. Is Trimalchio aware of just how silly he looks when he wants his favorite gladiator painted on his mausoleum? Naturally not, since the fool lacks the self-awareness for necessary dissimulation. It's no small coincidence to this observation that I received the quarterly alumni newsletter from my alma mater, the reading of which spurred thoughts many and terrible.

 +1 Photoshop
First off, this is one polished turn of the press. It has the gloss of a European fashion magazine and such heft that I retain the Spring issue for summer mosquito-bashing, making it perhaps the most costly bug swatter in history. But is it effective! Yet the publication isn't just a defense against desanguination but a feast for the eyes too, and let me tell you I couldn't have cropped out the cover's background and rendered any finer clouds than the Photoshop master who crafted this masterpiece. The back cover is an ingenious display of diversity and it's doubtful any finer piece of fodder could be confectioned a more tasteless sample of politically correctness. The cover is only marred by the presence of the school seal, whose curling crest seems to me an invidious, serpentine presence. Yet I shouldn't complain about the seal which manages to cram several Latin words into a magazine which is otherwise content to cultivate the haute banal style of the moderately educated middle class.

Yet it's the language of Cicero and Vergil which titles the university's age-defining achievement: a massive fundraiser. One wonders why they settled on  Latin but I suspect it's because they thought it might lend an aura of dignity and authority to what is otherwise shameless whooping for money. The more significant gesture than the title Excelsior, though, is that the official slogan includes a translation of the Latin. It's not without humor and irony that they chose the more poetical and aspirational translation of ever higher, but which is the more depressing possibility: that they thought the poetical reading of the comparative adjective a meaningful twist, or that they didn't even realize what they were writing? At any rate, Latinizing their slogan lent more credulity to their cash grab than their English apologies, which ran from describing the fundraiser as "not gratuitous"  and "not unpremeditated," which explains about as much as the old woman dropping the necklace at the end of Titanic.

Speaking of an expensive exercise in a cosmetic facade which hides grotesque and negligent structural flaws that ultimately culminate in tragic immiseration, let's talk about the school's curriculum. Actually, let's not because 56 pages isn't enough space, it seems, in which to mention what one might learn. It certainly can't be the case that you would raise hundreds of millions of dollars and have a curriculum–aka the course of learning–whose only possible analogy is to running naked through an endless thicket of flaming thorns while chased by the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Then we shall mulch in the shade!
Let then the On Campus section clue you to university happenings. The environment is the theme of the hour, and not only did a nun speak about the need for the church to focus on ecological problems, apparently excluding the fauna of their school's flagellating curriculum, alas, but also a team of students planted trees by means of shovels which were made from recycled guns in violence-plagued neighborhoods. Because that's what terrorized people need: plants. Melt your swords into plowshares by all means, but don't plan on fighting off the drug cartel with a fern and your green thumb.

If that hasn't sent you to the enrollment office, do you want to be a part of Nelson Mandela's legacy of change? Do you want to find out whether empathy can help foster racial justice? Come on! Higher education "can lift people out of poverty," "education is the great leveler," and "the Jesuits really are the best." With all of this stifling political correctness–the president's letter even alternates the order in the phrase "men and women" each time it's used–I'm surprised they declined alumni in the masculine. It certainly can't be they don't know Latin, right? Right? Bueller?

Hold on to that gun before someone
makes a shovel out of it.
Alright, you're a hard sell. Time to trot out the superstars. Denzel Washington went there. Washington, known for such movies as Man on Fire, Inside Man, and Training Day, has been hailed as "the greatest role model"by the first recipient of the Denzel Washington Endowed Scholarship, who went on to proclaim her love for Barney the Dinosaur and Frosted Flakes. Next on the celebrity parade is Mary Higgins Clark, author of 42 best-selling suspense novels, the first of which dates from her famous pre-natal years and tells the story of a zygote which realizes it's carrying the child of a murderer. Alright fine, don't attend, but you'll regret it if you ever stumble upon a murder in a runaway freight train. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Now I'm not saying that I can't take seriously a school who boasts "190% growth" in world-class faculty, cloaks itself in the cheap slogans of the day, softly peddles cheap liberalism, and demonstrates no serious, concrete academic program. Likewise I ignore its foolhardy abstract "devotion to humanity" and the hubris of wanting to leave students "able to shape the world." Instead I merely suggest that such doesn't recommend one as a nourishing mother.

She does have, though, the fool's penchant for self-revelation, if not awareness. Describing the results of a recent renovation, the magazine writes that, "the walls are the only thing remaining of the original structure." Most assuredly.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thanks for All the Fish

New York is supposed to be a rough and tumultuous place. In my experience it has not been so and in these twenty eight years of Big Apple citizenship I can count on one hand the times I've been rudely treated. This number excludes, it goes without saying, curses and epithets hurled from vehicles en passant. Of course you never see an object with so much clarity as when it stands in relief, and hence these instances figure prominently in my mind.

I found myself amidst the third of these spasms of rudeness today, surprisingly at the venue of the city's great gem, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In retrospect my surprise seems unreasonable, for the unruly exist everywhere, but I like to think that great art has a humbling effect on the disposition, and what is rudeness of not the affectation of superiority? It was perhaps a naive thought, but I didn't expect Ugolino to be the most tortured in the museum today. Nonetheless today's experience, in which the group sales associate accused me of lying and threatened to inform my employer that my party hadn't given them sufficient warning for my party of ten, conformed precisely to the pattern of my previous encounters with exemplary rudeness.

The first shared trait is the presence of the raging party's inability to control the outcome. Today's ticket taker knew she couldn't turn away so few students with three chaperones and, as is often the case, impotence in one area expresses itself as aggression in another. The military strategist Sun Tzu struck upon this fact when he wrote that violent language is a presage not to attack, but retreat. As our inevitable entry pressed upon her, the taker grew more imperious, you were told, and admonitory, they'll be contacted, and scolding, as I just said, until at last she grudgingly acquiesced.

The second trait is that the affair was altogether frivolous. Even the dullest people know, it seems, when to be serious, but the timid heart makes a stand when the stakes are low. They plant flags on nameless molehills for petty glories, not Iwo Jima and the Hot Gates. In this case our party, which was barely large enough by their own standards to qualify as a group, could have easily split up into three small groups of four. What havoc would we have wreaked, we little platoons!

The third common element was the breaking not of morality, but policy. Policy, what the managerial mind confuses with law–ius, the fruit of jurisprudence–is quite handily defined as a definite course of action adopted for the sake of expediency or facility. Unlike law which is inviolable because it is grounded, theoretically, in morality, policy exists for the sake of another cause. It can be broken if upholding it will contradict a higher cause or if breaking it won't undermine the cause for which the policy was adopted.

Take a few examples from my own profession, teaching. Having office hours saves me from constant interruption, but students are welcome to drop by. A grace period of two days prevents students from copying returned material, but I don't turn down good work from good students. As Aristotle shows, 1374b, these are circumstances of prudence, in which we arbitrate by equity and do not judge by law, considering more the man than the law, more what is meant than what is said, and the big picture rather than one detail. The museum's policy is obviously designed to prevent the exhibits from being swamped by large groups, a threat which we didn't pose.

I'll leave it for you to determine whether flash mobs of patrons are plaguing large museums today or whether the third largest museum in the western hemisphere can't handle facilitate, say, a few thousand patrons per hour. If the Met cannot, perhaps its custodians can contact the thousands of arenas, theaters, and schools which do this every day, most without two million square feet of real estate. I'll also not consider whether the inconvenience, and it's nothing more if it's anything at all, of showing up in a group warrants mandatory appointments and, by charging a mandatory special fee, an abdication of the museum's founding principle. Passing over that naturally necessitates I not inquire just how if at all the surcharge is spent to compensate for the alleged inconvenience of being part of a group. In charity I won't even wonder why school groups need appointments and other groups do not. Too I'll put aside–because I'm not agitated at all–a fact esoteric to this episode, how the same individual had previously informed me that she realized giving advance warning wasn't always possible and that it would be acceptable simply to show up a tad before the group and pay at the separate counter.  Finally, I won't in generosity even wonder about what mind would with such tenacious gusto and disregard for the obvious cling to such a policy. But I digress...

The final characteristic common to these outbursts was a sense of righteous indignation. These folks all felt entirely justified chewing out your humble blogger, a fact which should cause any balanced individual to pause. Mature people tend to react with moderation because they harbor some doubt about whether they're justified to react as they wish. There's a reason, though, that shooting first and asking questions later is called being trigger-happy, and that's because, as the phrase suggests, there is a mania attendant the abstention from use of senses and intellect. The Greeks had ἔκφων, literally out of one's φήν, or mind, but also carried away, without usual senses, or frenzied. (Speaking of which, a review of the brilliantly-titled late Hitchcock masterpiece, Frenzy, is forthcoming.)

We would be remiss to ignore the Latin origins of rude though, which are plentiful and revealing. The adjective rudis means both uncultivated and in its natural state. Of animals it means unbroken and of skills it means ignorant of. Is not the rude man, or woman, all of these things? Inattentive or ignorant of convention, unshaped by experience and thought, stuck in bad habits. The verb form rudo can refer with no small measure of humor to both the bellowing of an orator and the braying of an ass.

With no doubt the museum could issue an expedient and exculpatory explanation as to why their policy is both necessary and sufficient. With even less doubt will any external independent party be unable to corroborate their justification. The bottom line isn't museum policy, though, but that staff there, and in many places, have changed from old timers who judged by common sense over to the degreed, pantsuited, professionals who flashing their plastic badges prance through the morning line of patrons on their way to serve as the lesser stewards the greatest treasures, they less the patrons of culture than the patronizing custodians of peremptory bureaucracy.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Writing 101

Nothing stupefies the amateur so much as what liberties the experts take with impunity. The amateur toils away in obscurity, following the rules, while the expert tosses them to the wind amid approbation. Harrumph! Yet the grammatical misdemeanors of Ciceronian hyperbaton, of Catullus' elisions, Shakespeare's neologisms, and Eliot's poetical periphrases are not mine to forgive but the Muses', and the beauty of such works is the vindication and celebration of genius over grammar. Of course not everyone billed as an expert owns the name, and it's the venerated balderdash that irks most. The trend today is ostensible authors publishing middlebrow fare  to whoop for their books. Alas, since the passing of its founder, Arts and Letters Daily seems to specialize in promoting this aggrandizement.

Today's Arts and Letters docket brings us the case of Katie Roiphe in The Financial Times. Forthwith I would like to throw the FT editor under the bus with the author. Second, I want to postulate and hopefully demonstrate beyond its exemplarity as bad writing that the piece is a failure to persuade

Even the sloppiest authors usually get the first sentence approximately right.
Do you know someone with insomnia who wakes up at 4am and ends up working and reading novels and cleaning closets and cycling through anxieties until the sky turns pink? I know her and sometimes I am her.
The purpose here is to introduce the character of an insomniac and make her sympathetic and engaging. The detail first, though, that plenty of people wake up at the wee hour of 4AM, or thereabout, to go to work. No pity points there, and while I comprehend that the point is she loses sleep, regardless of when it is, few but the literati elite will sympathize with her pre-sunrise wakeup. Lesson: know your audience.

The author is trying to convey the desperate meandering from task to task that is the torture of the insomniac seeking sleep. The problem is that she hasn't chosen examples which exemplify the condition or linked them, i.e. written, in a way which conveys the condition. She uses polysyndeton, extra conjunctions, which conveys quantity, but quantity is neither the only nor the most important characterization of the experience of insomnia. She doesn't write to convey the variety and often frivolity of the tasks, her desperation, or the interminable duration of the sleepless hours dripping by. There is a substantial disconnect between style and content in which the former betrays the latter to languor.

Now I've relaxed about using the objective case in English, even to the point where "than me" doesn't up by dander, at least when used without a linking verb. Still: I am her? The author doesn't make the mistake later so the possibilities remain that the paragraph was not edited or that the author, or editor, thinks the correct alternative would cause more confusion or grief in its uneducated audience. In either case, unfortunate.

The next paragraph:
I often hear friends and acquaintances talking about being up in the middle of the night, worrying, whirring, working. It’s not a boast but there is, to a certain extent, a personal mythology being advanced. There is a sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps these anxious friends are tapping into. There is a definite and possibly weird element of pride.
Talking about being up in the middle of a lousy sentence. What a prepositional participial mishmash. The asyndeton and alliteration of worrying, whirring, working here is the same mistake as in the first paragraph and is whirring the right onomatopoetic word here? Insomniacs fly quickly about? Before she was cycling and reading. What mixed, unclear imagery. The remainder of the section is a confusion of indecipherable phrases:
  • advancing a personal mythology
  • sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps
  • a definite and possible weird element of pride
Their tales of insomnia are stories about how they came into existence? The morale is sort of counter-intuitive? The pride is definitely present, and possibly weird? The next paragraph, which desperately needs a concrete thesis, hypothesis, or at least definition of something, doubles down on the sophomoric adjectives:
  • pretty universally
  • bad thing
  • possible that certain segments
  • strange level
  • common mystery
Then we read about the "tremendous artifice" of the energy via an example about coffee-drinkers craving more coffee, without explaining how it's related, but she keeps describing "energy" and so we don't know if she's talking about the coffee-drinkers or something else or anything at all.

Oh, and how can you be jangly? By clanging pots and pans? Perhaps she uses the less common meaning of upset, but coffee and/or insomnia now makes you irritable or upset? When? How? Please, dear writer, help me!

The next paragraph is cheap piece of rear-end covering, admitting that some people may be clinically anxious, meaning I don't know what exactly but presumably that in some cases anxiety is objective, involuntary, or a disease. This is just a cheap bow to science and reason as she plunks ahead without investigating how the science might impact her argument. Then she goes on to use the word addictive, so whatever.
There is a particular vitality in anxiety, a sort of nervy power that one can’t say is fun, exactly, but is nonetheless slightly addictive. It can be productive, in a crashing way. It gives us a feeling of motion, of momentum, of wheels turning. One gets used to it, maybe seeks it out. One inhabits it, sets up camp.
This is a noteworthy paragraph because it both demonstrates how not to depict an idea and is the point at which I get annoyed. She keeps using delimiting words like particular, sort of, feeling of, used to without actually following up with a definition, giving use the illusion of explanation. The style is vexing to serious readers and pleasing to the soft-minded. The next sentence is a cake-taker.

The power is not fun (but it is in some way, we're supposed to gather, I guess), but nonetheless slightly addictive? So something which may or may not be fun is anyway addictive. Slightly. Perfectly clear. It's also productive, in a crashing way. What exactly about the act of crashing is meant here? The energy give us a feeling of motion. So is there any actual motion? One maybe seeks it out, but if he doesn't, then does he accidentally set up camp there? 

The next is a sad spectacle that makes you long for a real writer:
She used as an inspiring example an employee who successfully battled stress by stopping to gaze at a tomato plant in the concrete, urban nightmare of his life.
Aside from its Oprah-esque you-can-too tune-in-at-11 mentality, it leaves out a relevant detail: how often did the man gaze: regularly, or once? Makes a difference, no? 

Anyway, you can read on if you want more phrases like invented a thing called, usually sort of blah, and pretty much, but writing like this is frustrating enough when it's about nonsense, but aggravating when it's about something good. It cheats you of both knowledge and experience. A sentence of G. K. Chesteron accomplishes the feat Ms. Roiphe missed:
One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it.
He lures is in with a long unrolling of simple words, grabs our attention with suddenly strike, slows down again to set two locations, and then slows down more as if asking us to lean in for a secret. Halfway he masterfully shifts to the perfect tense, making us feel as if we've missed the point, but rushes on about the importance of that point, finally calling us a fool for having missed it. The experience of reading the sentence is the topic of the sentence. 

It's not unlike Ms. Roiphe's piece with talk of "strange moods" and apparent simplicity, except it works and is beautifully brief, clear, and specific. We are curious about the experience and eager read it again, and it's a pity when you can't say that about writing. I sympathize with Ms. Roiphe's premise and so acutely feel the piece's lack of cogency. How frustrating it is to see just the glimmers behind the words instead of the idea in full radiance. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thinking 9 to 5

Teacher, gardener, cat.
A short time after my first year of teaching I discussed the upcoming term with another teacher, who intimated that I'd completed the curriculum and wouldn't need to do much, if anything, the next time around. My reaction was a moderated version of, "Away, fool!" I was and remain simultaneously flattered and offended by the notion that I've completed anything, seemingly an odd position for a conservative, who by nature looks askance at progress and seeks more to conserve what already exists. Yet while life is not led by the arrow of progress, it is neither sustained by curating hoary antiquity. Instead, living is cultivation in a cycle of renewal. It's about growing, staving off entropy and ennui, and then adding what you can. Nothing is perfected and there are no revolutions, life is the slow, steady mixing of effort, virtue, and whatever comes your way.

I seldom consider what I've done as completed or perfected because I don't think of myself as perfected or, at least in the foreseeable future, ending. Sure, in the short term, things end. Projects have deadlines, payments are due, and other concerns arise, but I'll be back to everything at some point, hopefully bringing something new and finding something buried. This sounds very discursive, very unsystematic, and maybe it is, but I can't imagine having my head in the sand for so long. Maybe it's unprofessional too, but I think students would rather learn from a living person than a fossil who has "completed" his studies. In fact I think the whole educational system of the country would collapse forthwith if students knew their teachers and professors were 9-to-5 intellectuals.

In fact, I've often thought the teaching world would benefit from what's usually and idiotically called professional development, but not of the curriculum-planning, rubric-writing, box-checking, mandate-fulfilling variety. Instead, teachers should, wait for it, study their disciplines. I suggest this not so much to keep up with new developments but for education's salutary effect on the character.

Teacher in summer. url
First, it's exciting to learn, and I'm certain teachers get numb and dumb teaching the same thing over and over. Second, that repetition gives them a false sense of their expertise. It'd do the Gradgrind of an English teacher some good to have some red ink spilled over his own precious prose. Too, maybe the music teacher could put the brakes on his singing and tear out a few tufts of hair while he tries to write a fugue. Maybe everyone in the humanities could actually learn Latin so they could know what they're talking about. Third, teachers should study things outside their discipline, yes because life is bigger and more complex than any one branch of study, but also to feel some sympathy with students who are compelled to switch gears ever 45 minutes. Most of all, the ossified teacher brain will learn that it too must work slowly over time, and that neither 45 minutes nor a day nor a week nor a month nor a year nor is the divinely ordained span of time during which learning must begin and flourish.

Unfortunately the academic calendar, with it's short days and numerous vacations, fosters the opposite of a desire to cultivate slowly over time. In my experience, the less your job requires of you, the less you do, and the less you do, the less you want to do. At the bottom of the spiral you grow to resent the little that you have to do because it feels like an encroachment on your time rather than the focus of it. On top of this, the defined beginning and end, rigid track of courses, and clockwork exams press everyone to perform in a limited time, so everyone grows miserable. The remedy is simple: more work, more learning. In approaching the job this way, summer vacation comes less like the desperately needed crash onto the couch or beach, and more like a shifting of responsibilities from the external and quantifiable to the internal and perennial.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Hell, No

It's always telling when people pounce on a piece news and promptly declare I told you so! So it was with much amusement that I watched the stream of giddy reactions to Pope Francis' comments about salvation. The approbation flowed mostly from liberal quarters, Catholic and otherwise, rejoicing in. . . what exactly?

They interpreted Pope Francis' statement to mean that atheists can get into heaven. Now this might seem a charitable and Christian sentiment, and indeed there is a reasonable path to such a conclusion. For example, it's possible to believe God's love so vast that it simply swaddles all of his children in infinite forgiveness, irrespective of creed or deed. That's variously problematic, though not patently absurd, but it and the assumptions about Pope Francis' recent statement, especially in the context of the ambiguities Fr. Z mentions above, are potentially troublesome.

Namely, because some people are known to be quite bad, few think that everyone is going to heaven. So one naturally then wonders what's worse than what, and then because people can reform, how you can make up for sin. There is of course a simple, orthodox answer: repent in the sacrament of reconciliation. There's surprisingly little need to consider details if you're as good and grateful as possible. Of course, since this discussion revolves around atheists, repentance is not an option. The only alternative then is a calculus computing what you can do in life to make up for sin, a calculation in which all actions are fungible and the result of which is that everyone's tally neatly balances so they end up in heaven. If you do good deeds, then God won't send you to hell just for not believing in him. If you do great deeds, then God won't send you to hell for minor sins. If you do certain good deeds, then God won't send you to hell for not doing certain other good deeds. The conclusion here is that no one's in hell except Hitler and Caligula.

The origins of such expectations are not hard to imagine: it's difficult fully to imagine the joy of reunification with God, therefore our most potent experiences with love and joy are with our loved ones. As a result, we really cannot entertain the idea that our loved ones will be punished, let alone infernally, eternally damned. Can you look at your wife, or brother, or parent, and hold in your mind the knowledge that they're going to hell? If you could, you'd probably be deathly afraid. Yet we moderns don't really fear quite so much, we fret and worry and sputter about minutiae, but we don't fear. My thinking therefore, is that, just maybe, we don't entertain rosy notions about salvation because we believe in God's bountiful grace, but because we've refused to confront our fears. Fears about what kind of people we are, fears about the implications of our beliefs, fears about the unknown.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, one of the great anachronisms of the 20th century, wrote that:
The Church was able to baptize medieval society because it was a society of sinners, but her future is not promising in modern society, where everyone believes he is innocent. [1]
Guilt: what a dismal thought it seems to the modern. To him, guilt is an accident of an insufficiently liberal system of ethics, the puritanism of some obtuse positive law, rather than part of our nature, a part inextricably bound up in our salvation. And so the modern makes paeans to peace and progress and perfection, when the medieval said with humility suscipe deprecationem nostram, and with joy miserere nobis.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Flotilla of Credentials

The worst part about graduation ceremonies is not the speechifying. Nor is it the seizure-inducing bursts of photographic flashes or the heavy, thick spring air. It's not even the sight of that flotilla of vaunted credentials puffing its way through rows of parents. It's the robes.

First offending is the sheer ridiculousness of their design. All poofy and flowing they're just the wrong combination of priss and pomp. Too, could they be more elaborate than with sashes and cords and tassels and hats? And don't forget the stripes, borders, and crests. And hoods, don't forget the hoods, because academia is apparently so complicated for academics that they need to color code each other. Well, that's uncharitable. Perhaps it's simply that the reward for years of study is getting to dress like a Baroque Halloween Oreo.

Worse than this fashion faux pas, though, is the arrogance of wearing one's achievements on his sleeve. And chest, and head, and every other part of the body. If this is not the epitome of arrogance I shudder to see the real thing. All clothing has to do is suggest a quiet, kept dignity, and this sort of peacocking should be verboten and stamped into the dirt. Yes, academic work is quiet and solitary. So? Grad-uation is about promotion, not celebration, and pulling out the fancy dress because academics feel unloved doesn't serve the discipline so much as turn the ceremony into Carnivale. Then again, had Socrates the opportunity I'm sure he would have opted to look like a cross-dressing troubadour on Star Trek.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Knock Knock

Out and about today, your blogger-on-the-move stopped to observe a door. This may sound dull but it was such a fair, husky specimen of pine that I thought of all the good it did for the owner, keeping out all manner of rapscallions, hoots, and antics. Anyway, at some point during its sentry duty, this noble, woody custodian wronged a man. His crime was not being locked or damaged or anything so reasonable and invisibly remedied. No, our door committed the sin of excessive opacity, and for this crime he was sliced open and fitted with a window. Yet the invasive procedure apparently exceeded the skill of the craftsman, for instead of fitting the door with a slick porthole, they slapped a piece of clear plastic between molding on either side. But wait, the horror continues.

You see, as I observed the ingress a visitor approached and knocked. On the plastic. And as the plastic bounced around in its frame I felt the pain of the door, once a mighty gatekeeper who permitted but the faintest noises through to its owner. After this fleeting reflection on door's life,  I felt each dry, hard, clank bounce and multiply through every fiber of my being.

Duly dislodged from my pre-prandial observations, I hurried along with one thought in my head: who in his right mind would have knocked on that part of the door? Why, why I ask! Could this individual not feel the disruptive cacophony of her verberations? In the rueful position of her quarry I would have exercised my right not to answer the door.

There are many ways to get someone's attention, most of them unacceptable. Think of the pomposity which a select breed of churl conveys in summoning a waiter with two slow, deliberate, paternalistic strokes of the hand. Snapping, whistling, and shouting are all right out.  So is touching, tugging, and tapping people.

In hailing a stranger, a gentle pardon me is the only acceptable interjection. Of knocking on doors, two or three gentle raps must do. In either case, if you don' get his attention, there's a hint for the taking.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Lovers of the Latin Mass make various paths in justifying the traditional form of the Roman Liturgy. It is reverent, it is beautiful, it is time-honored. We explain its structural coherence and its sense of motion. We talk about beauty and utility of Latin. True all, but such efforts are mostly useless. What is not useless, however, is our affection for the Extraordinary form.

We just plain love it. The quiet, the focus, the postures. We love the rhythm and gravitas of the Latin. We love the music, whether the ecstasy of high classical compositions, the dense webs of renaissance polyphony, or the unadorned lines of plainchant. We love the feeling of continuity with Catholics of every time and place. We love every bit and the glorious totality of the mass in which one feels at home.

In contrast, I've never heard anyone express any affection about the Novus Ordo, let alone wax poetical about it. Yes, they may like going to an NO mass, but that's because of what it is by nature, or what they think it is, not the form it takes. They like it or respect it because they know it is important, not because its form transports or enraptures them.

They may like singing at mass, but they don't like Marty Haugen. I've never heard anyone express that they love how their lector-neighbor reads the passages, or how their hairdresser distributes Holy Communion. Never have I heard someone confess a call to universal brotherhood when the cantor raises her arm to incite invite, the congregation. I still seek the encomiastic literature praising the seventh inning stretch that is the sign of peace. Now I've never heard anyone even try to defend these practices on empirical grounds, but that's the point: without reference to a principle, the only common appeal of these practices is whim.

Of course these gestures are not intrinsic to the NO and were you to strip them and follow the letter of the reform, you would find a mass resembling the Latin. Doing so of course puts off the progressives, who never consider themselves progressives, which suggests that their loyalties are not to the law of Sacrosanctum Concilium but whatever post Vatican II version of it they first embraced. It was an emotional embrace, too . They turned, and they will not turn again. Never mention that SC promotes chant and Latin and never ask them to point out where it mentions moving altars and receiving Holy Communion in the hand. They turned, but not to SC.

The old days for sure had demerits. Yet for all the degeneration of the ars celebrandi, the old masses inspired devotion. The NO, for all of the hope that it would appeal to the ethos changing times, seems not to have. Have there been more secular generations than those born in the 1970s and 80s, generations born to the boomers who got on board the reform bandwagon?

Worse than failure is the wholesale lack of culpability, a refusal that what they supported might not have served its purpose. It was the hippies or communists or conservatives who were at fault, not the reformers. When I hear such arguments I think of Gordon Ramsay's TV show Kitchen Nightmares. In every episode, the desperate owners with their business on the verge of closing have called in Gordon, who before tasting asks them first to rate their food on a scale of 1-10 and then explain what's wrong with the restaurant. The owners invariably reply that their food is a 10 and the problem is that there are not enough customers. When he tries to change the menu they predictably reply that they don't want to alienate their customers, to which an enraged Gordon replies, "There's nobody in your damn restaurant!"

Likewise, there's no acknowledgement that a flat, languid mass in a modern church, with sappy music, in the common tongue, with disposable missalettes, untrained lectors, hand-shaking, umpteen extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, a rambling and incoherent homily, and asides tossed in here and there, might be harming people. There's no sense of reverence for what worked or responsibility to make sure that what they do is working now. Progress came, and thus improvement.

Or not. Maybe what we have is a sucking lack of vitality. Empty pews, empty coffers. We have an artistic world which can't muster for the dusty paradigm any more than pop-tune wannabes every bit as forgotten and unloved as the Toronto Mass of whenever. We may have traded in the eternal for the ephemeral, but still today the most exciting work is being done in the chant world, where interest and resources are simply exploding. Funny about the timeless.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Masterworks, $1

Reflecting again on my recent Met excursion, I recall another telling moment which occurred upon entry.

As the first of the party to arrive I stepped onto one of the lines to purchase our admission pins. It was a slightly misshapen line, actually, and while the asymmetry first irked me, my position to the right of those ahead me proved useful, for I spied their donations. From these two people who each purchased two pins the museum made a whopping $4. Despite that I handed the teller my own donation whilst beaming with pride, I was aghast.

Consider, though, that you'll find no one with more qualms about state-funded anything than me. Too, the Met has been fairly lambasted of late for being less than forthcoming about the voluntary nature of the contributions. I don't here see those as the issues though, since either way, I want the museum to have funds to operate. Now I don't know an awful lot about its finances and whether it is efficiently run and who of its employees makes what salary. I would prefer to  know soI could give a more precise donation, be it more or less, but the suggested donation is not so implausible as to concern me.

I suppose one could take a principled stand and pay a paltry sum if the museum were known to be corrupt or grossly mismanaged, but to my understanding, the Met is neither, and I hope it continues to exist. Too, I would prefer it to run without tax dollars, therefore I see my contribution as more, not less, important.

Still more to my point, though, I wonder precisely what thought goes through the mind of an individual with a Coach handbag around her shoulder and an iPhone in one hand as she hands the teller at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a $1 bill. Was it for the Tiepolo? The Monet? Was everything she saw worth precisely that to her, or did she determine that what she paid to the Met in taxes was exactly the proper amount? Perhaps she knows what the museum needs to run? Who can say, but I find it hard to believe that your average couture-wearing gadget-toting bourgeois can't spare a little more.

For my part, even if I had some objection to its funding or existence, I would find it hard to walk amidst the masterworks had I made such an infinitesimal contribution to their preservation.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Put More Arts

In the great taxonomy of baffling statements a special place is reserved for those which guarantee that the author has no idea what he's talking about. Since the article in question reads more like press release, I'm not sure the author is so much to blame here. He does, at any rate, open with a doozy.
Increasingly, many colleges and universities are looking to put more arts at the center of campus life and in the process, foster creativity.
So short, so innocent, no? If only he were talking about park benches or lamp posts and not art. What galls me about this sentence is its flippancy, its subtle arrogance. What disrespect is there for nearly each of its words. Please, read the sentence a few times and pause on the words. Now see if the following definitions are familiar to it.
  • College - a col-legium, a speaking together, a collaboration of scholars for learning and fostering the liberal arts and sciences, involving the sharing of ideas in the presentation of lectures and debates. 
  • University - a community of colleges with various purposes whose sum total offers the corpus of knowledge of the day and some unity of pedagogy.
  • Art - techne, poiesis, expression of concept, outgrowth of spirit, through craft.
  • Create - to bring into being
Though the words are the same, the article uses not the language of philosophy, but of bureaucratese. There is no debt to ideas, only utility. Such a statement has more in common with an interdepartmental memo requesting a 2.5% increase in paper production for the month than any artistic credo. Here, college means "place where classes are taught" and university means "big college." Art means "anything called art" and create means "result of activity." The goal here is not love, virtue, beauty, honor, piety, or any such principle, but the cliche art. Art must be put in so art can come out and we'll have more art.

It's a Keyenesian approach to art, really. Never mind the details of life, human nature, and philosophy: put something in so something comes out. It doesn't matter what it is. More is better, so if you need more something put more something. What does anyone with an emotional reaction to art, a love of and fear for its power and fragility, make of such irreverence?

Of course the statement is perfect prelude to what follows where the really gobbledygook starts flowing.
[the] Creative Campus Innovations Grant Program was created "to seed innovative, interdisciplinary programs that brought together artists with a range of community and campus-based partners in order to stimulate arts-based inquiry and elevate the role of the arts in academic life."
So you seed a program to get artists partnered with people to "stimulate arts-based inquiry." Wait, what? What is that, how do you do it, and why would you? And they're elevating the arts on what principle? And why does bringing people together automatically elevate it?

Now it gets real.
While Creative Campus projects fell into both (cooperative and collaborative) categories, the truly collaborative projects proved most transformative for both participants and the larger campus.
Transformative? What did they transform into? Badgers? Muffins? I guess when you have no point to a project, whenever you're done you just say that you "did art" and that it "transformed you." Yay art. Because art.

Friday, May 10, 2013


At mass yesterday, after the post-communion drum solo, I saw one of the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion returning to the altar. No, there was no flood or fire or imminent fiasco which imperiled us and necessitated an extraordinary minister, nor were throngs of parishioners expiring in the lines. The use of extraordinary ministers is of course de rigueur these days. Perish the thought that anyone should be forced, at mass of all places, to sit and pray by himself. Anyway, what struck me was less the lack of necessity for such an exception to the norm, than there realization that serving as an extraordinary minister is perhaps the last thing I'd want to do at mass.

First, I can't imagine receiving Communion at the altar all by myself while the rest of the church looked on. Likewise, I would never want to receive and then go off and do something, whatever it is, without first praying. I suppose it is possible to serve as an extraordinary minister and not receive beforehand, but receiving before ministering seems the default.

Second, I wouldn't want simply to be handed the ciborium full of Holy Communion. I mean, they just hand it off to you, often very casually, I might add. The slightest thought about what the sacred vessel contains should give one pause.

Third, it is not my preference to receive in the hand. I can't remember the last time I did. How can one just touch the Consecrated over and over again? It doesn't compute.

Fourth, I don't think I could actually utter the words. Who am I to assert such a thing? Who am I that anyone should affirm such to me?

All of these objections have in common a reverence, fear even, of the mystery. How can one step into it without a priest's authority and training? Cultivating the reverence needed to offer mass is a nexus of scholarship, self-understanding, discipline, and prayer. So why would one so eagerly step into part of the priest's role?

Most people, I think, just want to help. This is something that they're permitted to do, so why not do it? Such people are, in my experience, pious, often very pious, but it is a certain sort of piety. It is an intellectual piety though which they understand the importance of the liturgy, and perhaps even that there exists an ineffable dimension, but it is not an emotional piety. They don't fear or tremble before the sacrament.

Or maybe they do. For my humble part, I can't fathom why you'd take up such a burden, or how you could truly bear it, outside the context of priestly duties and training. There are so many ways to serve outside the liturgy and so much one needs from it, that the choice baffles me.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Whose Bones?

While teaching short poems, notably Catullus 85, I'm fond of saying that if you to put forth a mere two lines of poetry, they ought to be good. Well today in my Twitter feed I saw the image to the right. Putting aside policy, what does it mean?

First I thought he meant that we individually define ourselves as a nation of immigrants, but that can't be so because I don't define myself as a nation. So then I realized that the president must mean that we collectively define ourselves as a nation, and a nation of immigrants at that. Fine. We're too far into this administration's tenure for such a statement to up my libertarian dander.

How does that sentiment, though, gel with the second sentence? Bones are pretty individual things, to start, so the image of us collectively having bones is awkward. Does the image of "national bones" resonate with anyone? Or are we the bones? Either way we still have our own, actual bones, so when he says "bones," which set of bones is he talking about? Either way, are we a nation of immigrants in our bones, or are we people who define ourselves as a nation of immigrants in the bones? Since the latter seems more likely, I am, according to the president, myself defining the nation as one of immigrants, in the, or I guess one of, the national bones?

I ask again, then, what are the bones made of? Do we constitute the bones, or do we defining ourselves as a nation of immigrants, constitute the bones, or do we actually being, which has not been established, a nation of immigrants, constitute the bones? Does something else entirely constitute the bones? Presuming, though, we're talking about metaphorical bones, he of course means essence, but the image of a bone is not that of a substance which admits a multiplicity of essences, if such a multiplicity is possible politically, philosophically, or metaphorically.

So when he says, "We define ourselves" does he mean define absolutely or partially? He must mean partially since the nation can't be singularly "a nation of immigrants" with no other dimension, but then how can we be so in our bones? As I asked, can we be multiple things in our bones?

What about the reflexive, though, ourselves? This has to be meant with reference to individuals. Do we have collective selves and individual selves? Are we anything else? I guess he meant "We define ourselves constituting a nation of immigrants, but he wrote as. None of these thirty one definitions of as fits the sentence. Maybe he's being rhetorical, using a simile? But isn't his point, which he makes three words later, not that we're like a nation, but that we are a nation? Besides, a simile is between unlike things, of what else can a nation consist than people?

So what's going on here? What's he talking about? This is Ciceronian? It's like Jabberwocky run through an Enigma encoder.

Dear Whomever Wrote Those Words,

There are only two sentences. Why couldn't you get this right? Why?

Thank You.

The Joy of Being Grumpy

Peevish, irritable, surly, ill-tempered. This is how we usually define grumpy, but to me it seems a more specific condition: a loss, usually temporary, of humor and sympathy. Such senses bind us to the world and its people, humor to the light foibles which ask charity, and sympathy to the serious seeking compassion. They also bid us be generous and forgiving to others while aware of our own imperfections.

Meanwhile, the grumpy are not aware of their own flaws, only the foolishness of others. All of the grumpy man's own flaws fade away under a bombardment of irritants. In fact, when you're grumpy you don't recognize the good in anything save the perfect. The world is never more black and white than when you're grumpy. The annoying girl is now a shrew, the slow cashier an imbecile, and the chatty neighbor a pest. Formal becomes stuffy, casual vulgar. People with questionable taste become full-fledged philistines, the frugal folks outright cheapskates.

In fact, apart from the dulling passage of time, only the most incorruptible excellence may snap you out of the grumpy funk. But why spoil a grumpy groove? Rather than trying to pacify oneself with some therapeutic excellence, it's far more satisfying to let the grumpiness boil over into a full-blown rant. A good rant is invigorating and cathartic. What liberation from gentlemanly confines, what control one seems to exercise over the life's ills when one rants and raves.

Unfortunately, it's hard to get a good rant going by yourself and an unfulfilled or half-started rant is quite an unsatisfying experience. What you need is a good friend to stoke the fires of disgust, someone who knows and shares just what ticks you off and who sympathizes with your frustration.

It's curious, though, that sympathy should be both the beginning and end of grumpiness. Perhaps it's because we grow grumpy by disconnecting from the intolerable vices of others, and thus the sympathy of friends returns us to a group to which we can happily belong. Ah, friendship.

Quid dulcius quam habere quicum omnia audeas sic loqui ut tecum? - Cicero, Laelius de Amicitia

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Tulgey Mischmasch

It's always amusing when someone makes a ridiculous statement and then quickly backpedals to a more sensible position. In person, a few glances follow such statements and then everyone begins to chuckle. A good time is had by all and no one thinks the offender a lunatic or even a churl. He just got a little heated up. Occasionally, though, everyone begins to chuckle except the offender, and then all laughter ceases. It really is quite a sight when someone launches into a spirited defense of the patently absurd.

Before we look at a specimen, though, two thanks to Tom Woods. First, I wouldn't have come across the article if he hadn't mentioned the piece. Second, if he hadn't excerpted an interesting portion, I most certainly would not have found it amidst the disjunct prose of an author who finds the wrong word and wrong construction at nearly every turn. In fact, the piece is such a turbid kludge of vapid words clacking together in a mass of syntactical bramble that it's almost unreadable. On the bright side, the style is a perfect complement to the ideas.

All of these events are the slow stripping away of the vestiges of the state, deriving step by step the hell that waits at the logical end of the libertarian impulse, a counterpoint to every argument against state power. From a certain perspective, the state is our greatest invention, for all the horrors it has wrought when wielded darkly. It is the sine qua non of everything else we normally consider to be the triumphs of civilization. Writing, electricity, science, art. None of it is more than dust in the wind without the state to jealously guard it, without a hand shielding the guttering flame from the maelstrom. [Link]
Notice how "the state" is not defined. He employs not a single concept to delimit his encomium for state power, not government or legalism or common law or constitutionalism, not balanced power or natural rights, nor monarchy, republicanism, democracy, or bureaucracy. There is no mention of principles like justice or equity by which one might judge the efficacy of a state. But never mind all that. Never mind too how all such principles would by necessity predate the state which rests on them. Never mind his lack of formal argumentation or empiricism. And never mind that without recourse to the aforementioned principles, processes, and evidence, his essay is but a paean to monopolized authority.

Recall instead, how this author thought so little of us, and so much of himself, that he bothered neither to say something intelligent nor to say it well. What an insult.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Guy

Second presidential terms are fraught with speculation about potential lame-duck status. Does he have enough pull to push his agenda still further forward? It's not a useless question, but it's really just speculation about what the politicians will do, for the people have more or less checked out of the debates. The popular opposition by this time is always fully enraged. Nothing the president does, good or bad, is good. They're exhausted from opposing, angered by policy and indignant about losing not once but twice. Again, this is unsurprising. The reaction of the president's coalition, however, baffles.

You see, if a candidate I supported ever won, I would hold him to the high standard of the ideals he supposedly represents because should he fail, he would discredit my principles. I find it tough to understand the "my guy" philosophy of politics in which one must eternally support anyone and everyone he voted for. Now few would admit to unconditional support of "their guy," but somehow the equation always balances in his favor. Does supporting "x-rights" trump foreign policy and the economy? Does the economy trump education policy? It's like a game or rock-paper-scissors where everybody wins.

So I wonder now, for example, as we sit mired in a miasma of myriad misguided, misapplied, and misanthropic policies, what might finally snap one of the president's supporters from his piper's tune. Every single matter, they invariably say, would have been worse under the alternatives. If so, then there's a rather monumental political problem, wouldn't you say? I have, in fact, received such concessions from the president's men, so to call them, that we are in dire straits with poor candidates, yet they subsequently say that, even so, better to have "their guy" in charge.

Still, though, some attribute no vice whatsoever to the president. His failures all owe to external factors. The GOP, the supreme court, the lobbyists, congress, big business, Fox News, and the American people. In fact the president's only flaw seems to be an excess of virtue which renders him incapable of doing the nasty work necessary to nudge his policies through. He's too respectful, too quiet. He follows the rules. He just won't break those eggs. The great Progress-Bringer lays chained, Prometheus-like, to his virtue as the all mighty GOP pecks away at him, a painted president at the cusp of greatness.

Of course the "conservatives" played their parts as toadies before, doing their dance for President Bush.  The "my guy" mentality is unshakeable and bipartisan. "I'm a pragmatist" they told me. Funny how their pragmatism perfectly coincided with everything Bush did to the exact degree.

This is not to say these two parties won't admit the failure of policy. You only need witness their game of hot potato with the TSA and No Child Left Behind to realize that. But "my guy" had nothing to do with that. And never criticize your guy, because then you'll help the other side.  "We have to win elections." If you have principles, keep them under your hat. The implication there is of course that the machinery of government is powerful and irreversible, so just put the guy who seems best at the helm and hope for the best. We'll try and hold him accountable after we give him the power. How liberal.

It's not always unreasonable to vote for an imperfect candidate, but it should be after an honest reckoning one's principles, of what he's done and what one expects him to do, and without the conceit that because somebody was going to win, that it was moral to turn the gun over to him, for having "a guy" is nothing short of worshipping either man or power, two ends which tend to overwhelm all.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

We Lost the Thing?

One of the graces of aging is the ability, in seeing the same thing over and over again, to reevaluate things. Now you can go ahead and rethink philosophy and works of art, but what I find increasingly fascinating is reevaluating various forms of unreason. More specifically, it's fascinating when a smart person chooses not to apply reason. Now sure, you can revisit and freshly examine things like art and philosophy, but as I get older it is not such idealized species of inquiry which reveal man, but his insanity, his in-sanitas.

Please note I'm not talking about when people step outside their area of expertise, but rather when they forego simple formal logic and even trivial common sense.

The latest of these inquiries into concerted logical vacuity came yesterday when I saw the superfluity of leftwing responses to the recent legislation which had something to do with guns. I say "something to do with" because, not pretending to know the motives of legislators and with the actual effects of legislation seldom matching their titles, I don't want to give any bill any benefit of my considerable doubt.

Anyway, I don't want to talk about the purely ridiculous responses. I don't want to castigate people for defending a bill they didn't read addressing a topic they didn't understand. Nor do I wish to address points of inconsistency, such the slumbrous quotidian indifference from which a select species of democratic citizen wakens on occasion, his maladroit limbs righteously akimbo. What fascinates me is why some intelligent people would refuse to think about the bill and its effects and choose blindly to storm the barricades for it.

My conclusion is that the bill became part of a "thing," a cause, the cause of "gun control," and anything which purports to support the cause must be supported. Never mind the long, circuitous, vale-ridden path from bill to cause to policy to premise. Support

You see if someone wants to stop violent crime, he makes observations, records data, analyzes it, makes conclusions, and acts. Look at this video from Stefan Molyneux's as an example. It undoubtedly took a lot of research and reasoning. Regardless of whether you agree, his approach is reasoned. If you oppose aggression then you'll use reason to find an end to it, because only reason will get you that end.

Yet if you oppose aggression and use a series of unquestioned and unproven assumptions, unless you believe unquestioned and unproven assumptions produce predictable and good results, i.e. you are unreasonable, you're not serious about getting the job done. You've either foregone reason in this instance or are generally unreasonable. Since I think many people possess and use some reason, I believe the former more probable. So why would one forego reason?

Identity, and identity seldom mingles with reason. Some people don't care so much about a cause as being the kind of person who supports the cause. They may or may not believe in the cause, but their primary affinity for it is the way it completes their character.

Now I don't mean this entirely as a criticism and to illustrate that point I'll use a different example. Take someone who values liberty. He loves liberty, but he doesn't do anything to promote it. It's not a bad thing that he values it "internally," so to speak, but he might not care so much about it existing as he does about believing it is good. He's more concerned with his own internal state than the instantiation of the principle. Again, this is not wholly a bad thing but it must be distinguished from actually wanting to make something.

The problem with "causes" then, is that they prey on this ultimately self-centered interest in ideas by trying to implement the ideas, and in doing so they unite people with the same affinity. This validates the virtue of the affinity, which is all the individual cares about. Such is why many people don't care that a proposal does what it says it will. After all, if they were really in it for the idea itself, they'd be doing it already.

Should we, then, single out the progressive for scorn? Typically. For whereas the collectivist pull of political organization is fulfilled in the conservative with religion and/or tempered by his skepticism for all activity, and the same is tempered in the libertarian by a lust for liberty, the progressive has no strong counterbalance to grand-scheming. Hence the current president. It's not so much that progressives are persuaded by his speeches, the oratorical equivalents of Morning Train, so much that they speak the same level of earnest cliché. It matters not whether the ideas are specific, reasoned, moral, or possible to follow, but that they are held.

In such a light, this week's knee-jerk reactions seem, well, insane.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Irritating People and the Concentricity of Relationships

It is often remarked by well-meaning folk of frustrating charity that we ought to get to know people before we judge them, especially if our initial reaction is unfavorable. I agree, but not only out of charity and generosity of spirit, but rather out of gratitude and social responsibility.

You see, we're all rather annoying. Yes, some of us have mastered the arts of charm and pruned our prickly selves down to gentlemen. Most of us, however, are rather rascally. Some more than others to be sure, oh so sure, but we all have our quirks, habits, and idiosyncrasies. Some of us are untidy, others untimely. Some talk to much, some to little. Then you have the special types of irritators like the linguistic malcontents, your grammar nerds, slangtastic hipsters, and verbicidal madmen, the conspiracy theorists, it's the government!, it's the corporations!, it's the Illuminati!, and the conversationally inept close-talkers, mumblers, and loudmouths.

As you can see there's a whole taxonomy of irritating people, but the point is they, we, are legion. Unfortunately, it seems that peeves are easily peeved.

It is therefore vital that we learn each others' hidden virtues so that we irritating people might, either overlooking vices or considering them counterbalanced, befriend or at least accompany one another. And it's important to befriend irritating people because while their relentless stories might bore or vex you, they probably really ticked off someone else. Likewise, there's a very good chance that your fascinating hobby or nail-biting bothers your other friends and they need a little break from you. Relationships are therefore concentric not just with respect to affection as is commonly observed but also temperament. Too we always shift and are shifted around, nearer, and farther from the center, for we can only stand so much of each other.

Now before you cry foul, that this is some terrible cynicism, recall that we can only stand so much of ourselves. Any good and honest man rebukes himself dozens of times a day and that's tiring work.  Hence the great boon to man that is sleep.

So indeed let us indeed in good humor over look each other's vices and gather together in sympathetic disharmony.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Student Debt Stigma

No form of debt is so fiercely loathed as student loans. I'm not perplexed as to why, there are many and good reasons, but I do wonder why the resentment is so vague and often misdirected. What I observe is not principled opposition but rather a pastiche of regrets and sundry indignations. Let me give a few examples and hypotheticals.

One common source of resentment is that education ought be free, or at least free to those who cannot afford it. Though I disagree, this is to me an intelligible position. What I don't follow is why the rage is not directed at professors. If education ought to be free then wouldn't the people with the knowledge, teachers, be chiefly at fault for charging? Now a philosopher a la Socrates might agree and allege that our modern professorial class is nothing more than sophists. I've not, though, ever heard this argument advanced, though it's not an incredible claim. Benefits might follow from a culture wherein many experts take on a few pupils gratis rather than having a select few essentially retire from the profession and teach for a fee.

More commonly, though, I hear the argument that education ought to be subsidized by those with allegedly excess monies, an argument I find unpersuasive because it doesn't shift the burden from educators. Even if you have a right to an education, it doesn't follow that someone third party with no ability to remedy your dearth of education other than that he has some goods which might be seized, bears the responsibility.

Another familiar recipient of debtor rage is the lender. This again is not wholly unreasonable, for the lender should  if only for himself do some investigation as to whether the recipient of the loan will be likely to pay it back. It is in no one's interest that the borrower default, although the lender won't care or bother to do diligence if he's assured he'll be paid even in cases of default. Again, though, this is the less common argument than, well it's more of an accusation really, that lenders are hucksters. That may be true, especially if the government has insulated him from risk, but such doesn't mean the borrower should hate the lender. After all, the borrower doesn't have the money to get what he wants. The lender does, and he's willing to risk it. That should engender some gratitude, if only at the fortuitous availability of resources for your venture

The last object of the indebted student's scorn is the school itself. Classes are too expensive. I didn't get a job after I graduated. Surely many schools are poorly run, but unless you favor the decentralized,  setup I outlined above, an institution is needed, and institutions have overhead. Likewise, you might not have a job, but you bought a curriculum. Probably should have checked the demand first. The school, however, may be at fault. Not necessarily for charging too much or poorly preparing you, but for letting you in.

You see I think there ought to be a student debt stigma. As it is, student debt is a sign of an individual's investment in the humanistic over the economic. Never mind the utterly nugatory "liberal arts" education $90,000 buys you, spending money on education is the shiniest badge of honor. Never mind the predominantly supine collegiate experience of most "students," once they get the paperwork they're graduates. Instead of these honorifics, exceptional student debt should signal one of two things: either you weren't smart enough to get a scholarship, or you went to a school whose standards you didn't really meet, but who admitted you anyway just to take your money.

Of course, that reality is hard to take: that one's a deeply indebted, mediocre talent, with skills nobody needs. So instead the student debtor dwells on the fact he was swindled by a banker, defrauded by a school, and exploited by the government. Actually, that's pretty understandable.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ecce! The Bourgeois Boomer

The life of the mind is fraught with labor, not chiefly cogitation but rather searching, seeking after veritable examples of ideas. It's consuming work and the models are rarely perfect, but we proceed, poring over random political correspondence, obscure Renaissance treatises, and ancient marginalia. Then one day a walking archetype stumbles into our lives and. . . voila. Enter the Bourgeois Boomer via The Huffington Post.

Now to be sure I don't know whether the author himself qualifies as a true Bourgeois Boomer or he's just pandering to a stereotype. I suspect the latter, that's he's just playing to a host of sentiments which few people hold but which do form a somewhat consistent constellation of attitudes which is termed Middle Class Baby Boomer. Real or manufactured, though, the persona of the author and the audience at which he aims typifies the stereotype. Read the article when you're at home so you can wash the pandering off your trousers.

The opening is classic: our dear author is baffled by modern technology. Can't you picture the man, a good soul to be sure, pressing the buttons on his phone in escalating frustration. He's lost in an "endless maze" of technology. This never happened when Suzie Q-Tip, who lived just down the road, was the operator and well she just put you right on through. 

But there aren't any operators left. Or receptionists. Or secretaries. Or typists. Or any number of dozens of jobs that used to be available for millions of people to earn a living.
 O Tempora! O Mores! Suzie's been outsourced! And forget those overseas folks working for pennies so our dear author, a hard worker, can afford this service in the first place.

Then the long awaited reference comes, that to ordinary people. Pardon me, "ordinary people." The quotations in this context need some translation because they indicate we're talking about a particular, special, group of people. They should read,

You know these folks right? Of course you do, you're one of us aren't you? Sure you are, come on in. 
This is nothing but an appalling appeal to people like you. Then we get a twofer, a real doozie in learning about these,

average Americans who needed to make a living wage to live the decent middle-class life that defines what makes our country great.
Not smart people, or kind people, or people with any concrete virtue whatsoever, but average people. Average folks like G. Harrold Carswell, who was not in fact the Mayor of Mayberry but a judge, an average man and an average judge for an average American. And Americans should be represented by their peers. Not by their betters, surely, for that would reek of meritocracy or worse, aristocracy. Yuck. Excellence. How un-American, right?

Ooh look now, a "living wage." Well-played, author. One must adopt the new lingo. And apparently the "middle class life" is what makes America great. The Middle Classe Life, i.e. your life. Not life as in freedom from being murdered, but life as in way-of-life. America is great not because its citizens are free or virtuous but because the middle class lives a certain way. And don't let anyone tamper with that!

The author's following reference to the opening of the Declaration of Independence is pretty slick. It's been prepared by the previous reference to life we discussed. You see he's defined the term above, therefore the reference here carries the weight of his definition. Had he simply appealed to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," he would have run the risk of even readers considering the traditional, Jeffersonian, libertarian, meaning of the phrase and not his dutiful Rooseveltian one. He's also chosen not to re-define the term too nearby the quotation of the Declaration, lest it actually look like he is commandeering or re-writing it. Clever author!

But in today's brave new world, too often driven by Wall Street values, there is no more room for most of these people. As Thomas Friedman, the prestigious bestselling New York Times columnist recently wrote: "every boss ... has cheaper, easier, faster access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. That means the old average is over. Everyone who wants a job now must demonstrate how they can add value better than the new alternatives. ... the skill required for every decent job is rising as is the necessity of lifelong learning."
On no, we're in a "Brave new world!" Of emails and smart phones, presumably. And that world is driven by "Wall Street values," i.e. not "Main Street values." Now our author quotes the Sage of the Times, Thomas Friedman, who ushers in a new age of thought with the observation that people need to add more value to their jobs than people or machines which add less value. My world is rocked.

Aren't we charmed, though, by the outrage of his response:

Well this mediocre ("old average") citizen is relieved to be retired from a job market that demands that every worker has to continually show they can "add value better" than others. And as for the "necessity of lifelong learning," I'd like to know who just is doing all that lifelong teaching?
Translation: I'm not going to prove that I'm better than someone else at my job and I'm not going to learn unless someone teaches me!

I just can't wait to hire this guy.

Now we get the obligatory reference to a New York Times fact that corporate profits are up. Oh no! He continues:

corporate profits are thriving despite -- or more likely because of -- high unemployment. Even if you consider corporations as people -- as the Supreme Court recently declared -- this isn't good news for most of the rest of us people.
This is bizarre in two ways.

First, even if corporations have legal standing tantamount to that of an individual, which one can sensibly argue they should not, it's not as if the corporation is an actual person taking the money. There's no Matrix-like mainframe somewhere hoarding the money. Real, flesh-and-bones people have the money. This observation then, ignorant as it may be, is just a thinly veiled attack at people with more money than that hard-working good-souled Main Street American citizen.

Second, the notion that high unemployment, which we ought read as high American unemployment, is profiting American companies is misleading. It could profit a company outsourcing labor which is more expensive in the US, but the author has conflated total unemployment with employment due to outsourcing, and implied that it is the unemployment itself which benefits the corporations and not the hiring of cheaper labor which results in unemployment. Yes, the unemployment is transitively beneficial, but the sentence could have easily been reworded had the author not wished to make corporations seem nefarious and opposed to average Americans.

Also, consider a few points. First, anyone who fears being displaced could settle for a lesser salary. . . although that would diminish his sacred, "decent middle-class life that defines what makes our country great." We can't have that. We can't have employers deciding how much money their business should make them. Raise the protectionist tariffs! Second, middle class Americans with their savings invested in the stock market often benefit when corporations profit because they're invested in said corporations.

Finally, never mind pesky statistics about older people not retiring and keeping the youth out of the work force, youth unemployment in general, and monetary policy which punishes savings. Pay no attention to such things. Also, ignore the actual effects of automation. Certainly don't ask why the people who make higher wages are more important than the shareholders who benefit from increased profits of businesses and the consumers who enjoy less expensive goods. These aren't the ideas you're looking for. Bourgeois-Boomer solidarity is the name of this game.

The author now concludes:

Technology -- probably even that produced by the slimmer, more efficient United Technologies -- is wonderful. Since at heart I'm an optimist, I believe that eventually many, many new jobs will be created, as they were after the early days of the Industrial Revolution, to make up for the ones that are being destroyed.
And now the caveats. The author wishes to make it known that he is neither a Luddite nor a cynic, traits he has already demonstrated. Now "Technology is wonderful" and "I'm an optimist." He says he has "faith" that new "jobs will be created,"but he links to an article which suggests the government is what made the 19th century profitable. "Jobs will be created" he says, in the passive voice, but he hides the "by whom" in the link. So the author seems to be confessing to some beautiful faith in wonderful people freely working together, economics, but is really confessing to a faith in government force and planning.

The author ends with a recapitulation of his opening shtick, the average older American is amazed by the whiz-bang technology these kids make today.

Between the author's skill at offering the progressive paradigm in broadly pleasing and pandering pabulum and the chorus of squawking praise in the comments section, Mr. Bloch should write political speeches. Perhaps that'll leave him enough money to afford a new iPhone as well as the time to read its manual.