Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Preaching the Social Justice Doctrine

Above the article entitled “Social Justice Revival: Colleges Embrace Social Justice Curriculum” in today’s Inside Higher Education is a revealing photograph. It shows a speaker in a church, behind a pulpit decorated with a banner that reads: “Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize.” Whether ostensibly secular or not, institutions of higher education across the nation have embraced “social justice” as a faith and attempted to re-define their educational missions as proselytizing and their faculties as clergy. I have no problem with priests, ministers, or rabbis preaching to the faithful. But I’m dead set against doing this in our colleges and universities.
Preaching “social justice activism” entails encouraging students to follow a social and political program. Someone must define the tenets of this program. This means that either the administration or some group of faculty promulgates an orthodox creed. Not only are students expected to adhere to this creed, but faculty (the social justice clergy) also come under pressure to conform. Marching together in their officially mandated crusades, the faculty and students leave intellectual pluralism and open inquiry behind them.
It’s fine for students to become active in causes they believe in. Members of the faculty have every right to dedicate themselves to their social and political passions. But institutions that try to direct these causes and passions replace the free exchange of ideas with doctrine.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Trends in Household Income Inequality

Inequality is in the news these days.  I think most of the evidence suggests that incomes in the United States are indeed more unequally distributed than in the past. However, I also think that it is a mistake to attribute the trend toward greater disparities in income to deregulation or, indeed, to any of the policies of recent years. This is because the trend is not a recent phenomenon.

The "gini coefficient" is a measure of distribution that varies between 0 and 1.  When the gini coefficient of household income, for example, is "0" that means that every household has the same income. When it is "1" that means that income is completely concentrated in a single household. In order to look at income inequality in the United States, I've plotted gini coefficients for household income from 1967 to 2010, as provided by the Census Bureau's Current Population Reports, and posted the resulting figure here.

Incomes today are more unequally distributed than in the past. But this did not begin to happen in the era of deregulation.  Income inequality actually began to rise in the late 1960s, stalled briefly during the stagflation era of the mid-1970s, and then resumed a steady rise, with a single sharp upward jolt in the early 1990s.  Household income inequality actually rose more slowly through the 2000s than in earlier years.

As I see it, this simple chart is an illustration of the most important fact about income inequality. It is a consequence of a gradual and long-term change in the nature of the American economy, not a consequence of a one percent elite gone wild with greed. Previously, I have tried to identify this long-term change as the rise of a consumer-oriented, demand-side economy that based economic growth on deficit spending by both government and private individuals. If this is true, increasing spending, whether private or public, will tend to increase inequality, not decrease it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Made of Paper: Szasz and Laing

In the early 1970s, when I was a college undergraduate, the “anti-psychiatry” movement flourished. The libertarian renegade psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was one of its most celebrated exponents. An heir to the classical liberal tradition, Szasz criticized the practice of involuntary mental hospitalization in the United States and other democracies, as well as the use of the concept of mental illness for ideological enforcement in the Communist regimes.  In The Myth of Mental Illness (1960) and other books, Szasz argued that there is a fundamental difference between the physical problems properly described as disease and supposed sicknesses of the mind. The latter were not defined by bodily malfunctions, but by non-conforming behavior and beliefs. Judgments on the kinds of behavior and beliefs considered “sick,” in Szasz’s view, are no more than attempts to impose one’s own system of beliefs on others.  A system of psychiatric diagnoses, according to this perspective, is a secularized religion, in which psychiatrists have taken the role of priests.  Since those who diagnose mental illnesses have the enforcement powers of the state behind them, Szasz argued, the diagnoses are means of policing thought.
One of the big differences between psychiatrically enforced systems of belief and action and religious systems, is that the former deny the moral agency of individuals. Szasz’s earliest criticisms of the mental illness profession were aimed at the insanity defense in law. If an individual is not responsible for criminal actions because of incompetence to make decisions, that individual has no moral agency. Essentially, then, the insanity defense in criminal trials and the insanity concept in general are strategies for denying free will to some individuals.
I found Szasz’s ideas appealing, but also troubling. It did seem to me like the continual invention of new mental disturbances took away both personal autonomy and moral responsibility from growing numbers of people. Diagnoses of mental incapacity seemed tautologies to me: “Why does he act the way he does? Because he’s crazy.  How do you know he’s crazy? Because of the way he acts.” But there are also situations in which individuals’ views of the world make it impossible for them to care for themselves, and we may be warranted in judging them mentally incompetent. One of the consequences of the decline of involuntary mental hospitalization through the deinstitutionalization trend that began in the 1960s was that the homeless population rose. My own preference would be for families or local communities to care for their own incompetents, whether the source of those individuals’ inability to care for themselves. Unfortunately, our immediate social institutions today are frequently not up to this job, 
Another writer associated with the anti-psychiatry movement who influenced my thinking was R.D. Laing, although Laing repudiated the “anti-psychiatry” label.  Laing’s most valuable contributions came fairly early in his career. After he achieved “guru” status, he became increasingly bizarre, although in the context of this writing it would probably not be appropriate to say that he went crazy.  Laing’s The Divided Self, published in the same year as The Myth of Mental Illness, described people as having a need for selfhood or identity, connected to the identities of other people. Psychological disturbances, for Laing, were ways that people coped with insecurities about their existence as selves. 
Laing was once asked if he believed that there was such a thing as madness. Yes, he answered, but it is not a sickness.  He presented mental problems as what one might call spiritual troubles, rather than clinical conditions. Like Szasz, he saw the medicalization of human behavior as objectification and as an unsupportable denial of free agency. If I say that people are controlled by causes outside their own wills, he once remarked, you will say that I am a good scientific thinker. If I say that I am controlled by causes outside my own will, you will say that I am mad and lock me up.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Made of Paper: The Republic

The one piece of required reading that impressed me most in my first year of college was The Republic of Plato. Part of the appeal of the book was probably its literary quality. It is a masterpiece of the art of the dialogue, a dramatization of ideas. I wonder how much irony Plato intended in his work, since he was a literary artist who argued for the banishment of poet and playwrights and a writer who, through the mouth of the Socrates character, voiced mistrust for the written word. Maybe Plato’s dialogues were thought experiments through fiction, a bit like Dostoyevsky’s novels centuries later, more than they were attempts at a philosophical system.
The Republic might have begun my turn toward social thought. Socrates begins the dialogue with the question of “what is just?’ It all starts with morality, then, with what should guide human behavior.  Through the leading questions he asks his pupils and fellow thinkers, he comes to the view that for justice or good to have any real meaning, it must be transcendent, it must refer to the same quality at all times and in all situations and therefore must be outside of times and situations. This line of thought leads to the famous Platonic concept of forms, abstractions that exist in a realm of their own. In order to identify this transcendent quality, he posits that the good within an individual must be the same as the good among individuals. If we can describe the ideally ordered polity, we can use this description to understand the proper order in the lives of individuals, the good that should guide people’s lives.
Plato’s perfect directed society, with its guardians, soldiers and producers, today seems a model of totalitarianism. Max Beerbohm wrote about Plato’s republic and all the utopia’s that had followed it: “Oh, is this utopia? Well,/ I beg your pardon, I thought it was hell.”  Of course, we don’t know if Plato actually meant anyone to adopt this as a plan, and it may have been just a thought experiment. But I think it is a point of departure for social theory because it asks provocative questions about what is a good society, even if we decide to reject the perspective behind those questions. Beyond that, though, I think that a version of Platonic totalitarianism underlies the main currents of modern social science, so that a critique of Plato is a good place to begin a critique of the contemporary social sciences.

The tri-partite image of society is older than Plato and continued to dominate Western social paradigms long after his era. Influenced by sociologist Emile Durkheim, the scholar of comparative religions Georges Dumézil argued, in L’idéologie Tripartie des Indo-Européens (1958), that the tripartition of Indo-European society into priests or rulers, warriors, and laborers or artisans, shaped the development of Indo-European religious and social forms. That three-part division can be seen in the earliest caste system of India (brahmanas, ksatriyas, and vaisyas); and in the early Roman system of flamines, milites, and quirites. During the European Middle Ages, this tripartition endured as three orders of medieval society (the oratores, bellatores, and laborares, or people who pray, people who fight, and people who work).
The big difference between Plato’s ideal society and the earlier and later social images was that Plato’s was not a description of how things are, but a conscious plan for how things ought to be. Plato provided us with one of the first efforts at social planning, the design of human and moral order by an expert or philosopher. This took the philosopher outside of involvement in time and history and made the planner the sole subject acting upon human relations as objects inside of time and history.
The rise of the scientific world view in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although ostensibly Aristotelian, owed a great deal to the Platonic distinction between the thinker’s participation in the undetermined realm of the eternal and the existence of the object of thought in the realm of the secular, historical, and contingent. This can be seen, for example, in Cartesian dualism, in which the objective, material world occupies an ever-increasing area of existence, while thought and agency retreat into a shrinking territory tenuously linked to the material through the pineal gland.
The development of the social sciences, mostly in the nineteenth century, by applying the scientific world view to human relations returned in many ways to The Republic. In the program of Auguste Comte, usually credited with the coining of the word “sociology,” Platonic guardians would take the form of an elite priesthood of social scientists who would seek and maintain the best social order. Modern scientific rationalism differed from the Platonic variety in the former’s empiricism, in its emphasis on a posteriori rather than purely a priori reasoning. But modern social science, especially in its applied versions, has followed the Platonic approach of distinguishing between the experts and planners, who are transcendent subjects, and the social order as an object of design.  Plato’s republic was clearly totalitarian. But it also seems to me that all efforts at the conscious direction of human relations by experts are essentially dehumanizing and totalitarian.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

They Call it Democracy: Affirming the Civic Engagement Doctrine

The education for civic engagement crusade marches on. According to an article in Inside Higher Education, a group of educators met on Jan. 25 at the annual meetings of the Association of American Colleges and Universities to discuss how to carry out the ideas set forth in a recent report on civic learning by the AACU. Written on the recommendation of the Department of Education, this report proposed to make a program for training people in citizenship "an integral component of every level of education, from grammar school through graduate school, across all fields of study" (mathematics? biology? physics?).

Wednesday's meeting struck close to home for me because it quoted both a former faculty member of my university and the president of my university. The latter, who was the keynote luncheon speaker on Wednesday, declared that "we made a decision in 2006 ... to make sure that civic engagement was on the same pedestal (sic) as research and learning and that they were interconnected." Funny thing about the English word "we": it always includes the speaker, but it isn't clear who else it includes. I know that this usage excluded me. As I recall, no one ever took a vote on whether "we" should work some version of civic propaganda into everything we did. Our commitment to democratic engagement was, in a revealing irony, imposed from above.

Using the educational system to inculcate an officially mandated system of social values is an old aspiration among educators with a fondness for social engineering. In his pamphlet, The Schools Can Teach Democracy, initially delivered as an address before the Progressive Education Association in 1939, the "social reconstructionist" educational theorist George Counts argued that the proper business of schools was to create a democratic society through cultivating “democratic habits, dispositions, and loyalties,” as well as relevant political knowledge in students (p. 22). Through schooling, “the entire nation would be subjected to the most critical examination for the purpose of revealing submerged and exploited regions, occupational groups, and racial, national, and religious minorities” (p. 26).   Counts maintained that educational programs should not simply reflect the social order. Instead, they should re-shape the social order through indoctrination along lines dictated by educational experts. He did not say how those experts would be selected or kept in line.

My own view is that in a free society individuals should choose when, how, and whether they want to be involved in social or political activities.  Just as the president of my university has no business telling me what form my citizenship should take, I have no business telling my students what their "civic engagement" ought to be. The present-day program of the civic educators is more sinister than anything in Counts' day because it is a collaboration between government bureaucracy and educational activists to create a systematic, nation-wide campaign of corporatist thoughts and values permeating every school and university. They call it democracy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Made of Paper: Huxley, Burgess, and Dystopia

From high school through college, I read through the works of two British novelists, Aldous Huxley and Anthony Burgess, both of whom are best known for their portrayals of dystopia. Huxley's most famous novel, of course, was Brave New World.  If George Orwell later represented the nightmare future as one of open repression, economic scarcity, and obvious thought-policing, Huxley drew this coming dystopia as scientific manipulation, planned comfort, and subtle direction of thinking in the perfected technocracy. While much of our contemporary corporate and academic environment is Orwellian (mandated speech codes, official orthodoxies, and "war is peace" phrases such as "colorblind racism"), even more is Huxleyan. I have suggested previously that social planning in general entails a Brave New World type of dehumanization.

I enjoyed all of Huxley's works, even his final novel, Island, although I re-read this last many years later and found its description of Huxley's own version of utopia somewhat creepy, dealing as it did with a society raised to ideal harmony through the use of psychedelic plants according to the guru-like guidance of a wise leader. Maybe it suffered being read in the wake of the Manson family and the Jim Jones cult. In my view, Huxley's best work was his early novel, Point Counterpoint, a complex roman a clef about English society in the 1920s.  Mark Rampion, one of the major characters in that book, is an educated man from the working class, based on Huxley's friend D.H. Lawrence, who gives a rebellious outsider's view of the elite. Lawrence also, I believe, served as the model for John the Savage, the opponent of scientific utopia in Brave New World.

Burgess saw a dismal future of juvenile violence in A Clockwork Orange, the celebrated film version of which was good, but not as good as the novel. The Russian-English slang used by the juvenile delinquents in the book could be reproduced only imperfectly in the film. This, like Huxley's novel, deals with the problem of free will versus the scientific control of human beings, although a sub-theme concerns the compatibility of high aesthetic culture and evil. Alex, the protagonist, is a fan of Beethoven who, after being sentenced to prison for rape and murder, takes up reading the Bible for the sake of its violent parts. In prison, Alex enters a behavior-modification program, as a result of which he not only becomes unable to engage in violence, but also unable to endure classical music. As a consequence, he cannot protect himself from other delinquents after his release from prison. Eventually, a series of traumatic events reverse Alex's conditioning, and at the end he finds himself with his own family, pondering his child's probable coming delinquency.

The delinquency and the behavioral manipulation are two parts of a morally empty society, directed by social workers and psychiatrists, rather than by transcendent values. Interestingly, one of the lesser known works by Burgess, 1985, was a commentary on George Orwell. This book is in two parts, the first a critical essay on 1984 and the second another dystopian novella. In the essay, Burgess argues that those who see Orwell's book as a prediction of the future misread it. It was, according to Burgess really about 1948, and everything Orwell portrays in the book is an exaggerated version of England and the world after the war. Along these same lines, Burgess gives us 1985 as an exaggerated version of his own society.  In the novella, humanistic education has disappeared, replaced by intellectually mediocre training in prescribed social attitudes and behavior (what we now call "civic engagement education" or "social justice education"). It is a world of dreary conformity, managed by a social work bureaucracy. The juvenile delinquents in this book cultivate whatever bits and pieces of classical learning they can acquire as rebellion against their establishment (Burgess may have repeatedly fantasized too much appeal for high culture to young criminals).

As in the case of Huxley, the books that I liked best were not Burgess's best known. The one that I would rank above all others was Enderby, which later became the first volume of a quartet and was re-titled Inside Mr. Enderby. A middle aged, eccentric poet, Francis Xavier Enderby falls into an unfortunate marriage and unable to write, becomes depressed and suicidal. His treatment in a mental institution "cures" him of writing poetry and he becomes a bartender. Enderby repeatedly comes back in later books in the series, personifying the marginal and threatened values of humanistic culture and morality threatened by feminism, liberation movements, and all varieties of political correctness, as well as by psychiatry.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Made of Paper: High School Books

My teachers never knew what to make of me.  During many of my early years, I was an uncooperative student with a mind that was usually somewhere other than the classroom.  They couldn’t figure out why I did so badly on my assignments, when I did them, and so well on all the achievement tests. By the time I reached high school, though, I began to pay attention occasionally, when the topic happened to interest me.  A few of the books that influenced me in high school were actually part of the curriculum.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was probably the best thing my sophomore class read. I don’t agree with Ernest Hemingway that all of American literature comes from this novel, but it does occupy a place of privilege in my personal canon. Every river I have seen calls up the image of Huck and Jim on the river, whether that river was the Chao Phraya, the Pasig, the Seine, or the Bogue Chitto. For all the claims that Twain’s work is “racist,” Huckleberry Finn was one of the first fictional treatments of a black man as a full human being (as opposed to the saccharine caricatures of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), in a complex relationship with a white boy. At the same time, it represented attitudes toward race in the nineteenth century realistically and truthfully, without preaching.
I was fortunate enough to have been placed in the top level of a highly graded tracking system, in spite of my orneriness as a pupil. Without tracking, I think I would have done better to quit school and go to the public library, except for the credential. My classmates and I certainly would not have read the books that we did, if we had been in a more egalitarian system. Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain was among the most intriguing of our readings. I wonder if today’s school system, with its close scrutiny of any trace of religion in the classroom would have allowed that today. As it was, my ultra-Catholic English teacher and I were pretty much the only ones in the class who did not think that Merton was completely nuts.

Another book that impressed me greatly, but that most of my classmates did not enjoy, was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Admittedly, this book does not fall into the category of “a spell-binding yarn.” But for those of us who like thinking about symbols and the problem of good and evil, Hans Castorp’s life in the sanatorium offered an evocative meditation on modern civilization.

A different German writer that I read about the same time, but outside of school, was Hermann Hesse. In my Hesse phase, I believe I went through everything he wrote, from Peter Camenzind  to The Glass Bead Game. At the time, Hesse was another one of those cult writers, whose works tend to be excessively praised by followers and excessively criticized by skeptics. But I liked Hesse because he was always transforming himself and because, during a long lifetime of work, his work generally improved.

Literary high modernism appealed to me in these years. We did read T.S. Eliot in school and The Waste Land was one of my favorite poems in late adolescence, appealing, as it did, to my gloomy cultural pessimism. Today, I prefer the understated mysticism of Four Quartets. Outside of school, I read Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound, whom I liked in bits and pieces, although I have never made my way through The Cantos from front to back. I wonder how many people have.

Modernism also provided me with my senior thesis, which was something along the lines of “Language as Protagonist in the Work of James Joyce.” I argued that all of Joyce’s writings should be read as a single work, in language gradually asserts itself as the dominant actor. I did read Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist, and Ulysses for this, but I admit that I read only selections from Finnegan’s Wake. I’ll get to it someday.

As I say, The Wasteland spoke to my gloominess, but one very un-modernist work countered this mood. One day, I was sitting by myself in the audio-visual lab, where I worked as a volunteer (we threaded films onto projectors – it was how they used to show movies in that distant era), depressed about whatever depresses teenagers, when I noticed a thin hardbound book with a cheap cover decorated in leaf designs. I opened it up to find that it held some of the most inspiring poems I’d ever read that made life seem full of breath. By “inspiring,” I don’t mean “inspirational,” but something more genuine. This book was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Still it makes me feel expansive just to think lines from the “Song of Myself.”
High school also introduced me to reading outside of English. I probably would not have done this had I just spent those years in the library. I think it was in my junior year, in Fourth Year Spanish (for those of us who had begun in junior high), that we read Platero y Yo, by Juan Ramόn Jimenez, and some of the works of Pio Baroja. When I was in my senior year, there were only two of us (in a class of one thousand) who wanted to sign up for Fifth Year Spanish. One of our teachers gave up her lunch period and ate in class so that the school could offer us the class. We used to make fun of her behind her back because she teased her hair up, wore heavy makeup, and dressed (in our opinion) too young for a middle-aged woman. What ungrateful little creeps! The class topic was La Literature del Siglo de Oro and we read selections from Cervantes and Calderon de la Barca’s La Vida es un Sueño.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Made of Paper: Discovering George Orwell

About the time I was 15 and 16 years old, I became fascinates with the works of George Orwell.  I don't recall which book I read first, but it was probably 1984. While that may have been Orwell's most important work, I believe I liked his autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London best. Someone said of that book that "going native" is a characteristic of English adventurers (think Sir Richard Francis Burton) and that Orwell in Down and Out went native in his own land. Orwell was a perpetual outsider, which was probably what made him such an incisive critic of his own society and probably also makes him so difficult to place on our "left" "right" political continuum today. As an outsider, he penned the bitter criticisms of the vulgarity of contemporary civilization in The Road to Wigan Pier and Keep the Aspidistra Flying  and as an outsider he decried the shallowness and mendacity of modern politicized intellectual life. Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" (reproduced here) is probably the best thing written on style.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Made of Paper: Books of Early Adolescence

By the time I entered junior high school, I had developed the habit of reading by the author. I’d find an author I liked and then look for all of his (they were pretty much all men) works. I began to enjoy science fiction. The berserker stories of Fred Saberhagen , about the desperate fight of humans against self-replicating robot war machines gone out of control, were among the fictions that made the biggest impression. I also liked reading collections of stories from ancient mythology, especially Norse mythology.  This combination predisposed me for a discovery many other young people were making at the time, the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien has suffered the fate of many “cult” writers; the excessive esteem of fans and the excessive contempt of critics reacting against popularity. When as an adult I read his books to my daughter, I could see his imperfections. Notably, his erudition led him to mimic and mix a variety of literary forms (the folk tale, the fairy story, the myth, and the heroic epic) that don’t always fit well together in a single narrative. But I would still include his books on any list of general recommended readings. The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume in his trilogy, has always seemed to me his best work because of his successful evocation of the relationship among the adventuring hobbits facing a dangerous world.

About the age of fourteen, I grew more interested in social and political issues. Here, I step into perilous territory because I have to acknowledge that Ayn Rand was a big influence on me at this time. If Tolkien has supporters and detractors, Rand has devotees and denouncers. I don’t fall into either camp. The clarity of her reasoning attracted me, but I gradually came to disagree with some aspects of her perspective. Her ideals of human behavior allowed only Howard Roark-type supermen and weak, despicable cheats. As I thought more about her work, I could not see that this left any room for real human beings. She did not, in other words, have a grasp of psychological complexity or an appreciation for people, as opposed to abstract ideals. But I did not altogether reject Rand. I accepted and still accept her recognition of the importance of the individual human ego. Since the social world is composed of selves and relationships among selves, a demand that we be “selfless” is a demand for a society without people.  The refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of rational self-interest is more likely to create hypocrites than saints.

Also at fourteen, I found two books in the public library that exercised a great, if not entirely healthy, influence on me. One of these was The Penal Colony : Stories and Short Pieces, by Franz Kafka. I still think of Kafka as more of a short story writer than a novelist, although I liked The Castle, The Trial, and Amerika, which I read after the stories (I think in that order).  I say the influence was not necessarily healthy because reading Kafka contributed to a tendency toward introversion and self-absorptiion. The tales I liked best, “The Burrow” and “The Hunger Artist” may have been particularly notable for the sense of withdrawal from the external. The other book that I found in the library may have made an even greater contribution in this direction. This was the Discourse on Method, by Rene Descartes.  I was impressed by the author’s program of accepting nothing as true but what could be indubitably proven. His method, though, was to erase everything outside of himself and turn to his own thought as the only sure proof of reality. It was a useful exercise in the history of philosophy, but doubting everything and turning inward was probably not the best psychological path for a teenager inclined toward solipsism.
I did follow some of the more standard authors. It is unfair that Thomas Wolfe has fallen into the category of writers for adolescents. I think he deserves to be appreciated as a major American writer for readers of all ages. But Wolfe’s concentration on fictionalized autobiography of his own youth does give him a special appeal for the young. I loved his expansiveness and garrulity. Since I came from a southern family that still had close links to the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, Wolfe’s novelistic recollections struck familiar notes for me.

I can remember taking long walks to think about the ideas, events, and images in the books I was reading and becoming so lost in thought that I’d fall into a sort of trance. I’d look around and suddenly realize that I’d been walking for hours and that I was miles away from home.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Made of Paper: The Childhood Books

The seventeenth century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo made a wonderful series of portraits, representing human heads and faces as composites of objects such as fruit and leaves.  Arcimboldo’s “The Librarian” is a man constructed from a pile of books, an image especially striking for those of us of literary formation. The books in Arcimboldo’s picture can’t be readily identified, though. Which books make the man?


As I think about the early books in my life, I have to confess that one of the most important texts for me was Watty Piper’s The Little Engine that Could.  Although it may not sound very sophisticated, to this day when I have to face some challenge I still involuntarily hear “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” in my mind.  Sure, the lesson is simplistic and moralistic. But it’s a good lesson, and what’s wrong with a simplicity and morality?

When my maternal grandmother was a little girl, she used to buy every book by L. Frank Baum as soon as it came out. As a result, the bookshelves in my home held first edition copies of nearly all the Oz books.  I have a distinct of memory of lying in bed with some childhood illness, being taken to another world by the Oz books. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion (the mind, the heart, and the spirit) today seem to me like one of the great fictional trinities of the soul, like the three Karamazov brothers.

I can recall, a bit later in life (maybe about second grade), liking the “we were there” series.  These were historical novels that featured children as eyewitnesses to important events in history.  The one I remember best is We Were There with Cortes and Montezuma that told the story of the conquest of Mexico from the perspective of a young boy and girl.

My favorite childhood writer was Edgar Rice Burroughs. I think I read all of the Tarzan books, the Apache books, and most of his Mars and Venus series. I still think that Tarzan of the Apes was a skillfully wrought tale, as well as an evocation of an archetypal idea. Although, of course, I did not make all of the associations when I first read the book, it echoes many of the thoughts from western intellectual history, including the image of the noble savage, concerns about civilization and decadence, and questions of nature versus nurture. Even at the time, it did strike me as strange and fascinating that Tarzan first learned to read in English (from books left in the cabin of his dead parents) and then first learned to speak in French (from a Belgian he rescued).

At the ages of maybe 11 and 12, I enjoyed other adventure writers, such as Zane Gray and H. Rider Haggard. But the writer who made the biggest impact on me at that period was Jack London.  I did like The Call of the Wild, but the most important book for me was The Sea Wolf, which I first read in the summer between sixth and seventh grade. The conversations between the soft, wealthy, humanitarian Humphrey van Weyden (“Hump”) and the hard, individualistic, self-serving Wolf Larsen set me thinking about the complexities of social and political philosophy. Although London apparently meant to oppose the standpoint represented by Larsen, he and his fictional protagonist, van Weyden, were both drawn to the charismatic sea captain.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Degrees and Unemployment

A recent article in Fiscal Times reported that recent college graduates with degrees in architecture had the highest unemployment rate, a fact that the periodical attributed to the housing crash.  I did my own calculations on unemployment rates among college graduates under 30, which is not exactly the same as recent graduates. I also used the individual-level census data from 2009. I came up with a lower rate than the study cited in the Fiscal Times (mine was 11.8%, rather than 13.9%), but this could be because the data were a couple of years old and because I was looking at all young graduates rather than recent graduates. But it supports the contention that architecture is a high unemployment degree.  I wonder, though, if this is a temporary phenomenon, since architects do have a definite occupational skill that could be in demand again in the future. In my calculations, though, the highest unemployment rate was for people with degrees in languages other than what the census classified as common languages, such as French and German (13.8%). School student counseling, which I had thought would have a low rate, came in at 13.6%. Interdisciplinary social science graduates were also pretty likely to be out of work (13.3%). By contrast, English language & literature, liberal arts and history don't look too bad (7.2%, 7.2% and 8.4%, respectively). My discipline, sociology, looks almost like an economic boom field, with a young unemployment rate of only 6.1%.

Of course, we don't know exactly what all of these folks are doing. It might be easier for English majors than architects to get jobs slinging hamburgers, or they might be more willing to take those Among the lowest earners were people with degrees in early childhood education, who had an unemployment rate of only 4.0%. This makes me think that there may be a tradeoff. Sometimes training for a potentially high paying, high prestige job may actually put you in a market in there is more supply than demand, while training in the low-paying field may give you a better bet for employment. Given the point that I have previously made about the continuing demand for workers at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, perhaps part of our problem with unemployment lies in excessively high expectations for widespread upward mobility,

Thursday, January 19, 2012

FIRE and Syracuse U's Attack on Freedom of Thought

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is in my opinion one of the most admirable organizations involved with higher education today.  FIRE is dedicated to preserving freedom of thought and expression in colleges and universities. These institutions should require no such effort, but unfortunately many of them have dedicated themselves to policing the thinking of their students and faculty, instead of promoting the free and open exchange of ideas.

FIRE has now managed to  help a student whose rights have been violated by Syracuse University's School of Education in one of the most outrageous attacks on liberty perpetrated by any academic administration.  Matthew Werenczak, a white graduate student in the school, was engaged in his student teaching at a local middle school. A local community leader complained in front of Werenczak and another white student teacher that city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges, rather than from Syracuse.  Werenczak understandably took this as a racially prejudiced remark and he described the complaint as "racist" on his Facebook page.  In response to this posting, the administration of the School of Education called him to a meeting and required him to seek counseling for "anger management," attend a course on "cultural diversity," write a reflective paper showing that he had seen the error of his ways, and then have the School of Education review his paper to decide whether he could continue in the graduate program. He completed the steps required, but Syracuse effectively expelled him anyway.

This case should make any reasonable person's jaw drop in astonishment. Werenczak's "wrong-doing" was objecting to a racially offensive comment, not making one.  Syracuse apparently believes that its students not only do not enjoy freedom of thought or speech in its classrooms, but that they cannot even exercise these freedoms in non-university media, giving the institution the power to police the minds and voices of students everywhere and at all times.  If any student at any time expresses views inconsistent with officially mandated doctrine, the university can mandate re-education to enforce orthodoxy. Even then, Syracuse maintains no due process, so that a student can be arbitrarily expelled. 

The good news is that Werenczak was readmitted to the School of Education at Syracuse within hours after FIRE took up his case. This makes me thankful that FIRE exists. But the very fact that the organization would need to defend a student against such appalling behavior by the regime at Syracuse to me indicates that there are serious problems with its commitment to the type of liberty essential to higher education. That the events at Syracuse only offer an extreme example of pressures for intellectual conformity at institutions across the nation may be an indictment of academia in the United States today.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Well Off is the Average American Today?

We are currently in a time of economic troubles and many Americans are indeed out of work or experiencing financial difficulties. The relative extent of these difficulties can be overestimated, though. If we look, for example, at the report Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010 issued by the Census Bureau in September 2011 we might question whether our present problems qualify this as a time of crisis.  

Figure 1 in this report, on page 8, shows us the median household income of major racial and ethnic groups in the United States in 2010 dollars. The striking thing about this figure is that it shows median income, the best measure of the economic situation of the average household, rising for all groups. Today, in our time of troubles, all groups are better off than they were back in the 1970s, 1980s, or even early 1990s. Median incomes did generally peak in the early 2000s, though, and have dipped since then. Part of our perception today, then, involves our comparing ourselves to the high prosperity of the very recent past, rather than to our longer historical background. We should keep in mind, also, that inflation-adjusted dollars may underestimate present-day well-being because they attempt to hold purchasing power constant. But what would be the dollar value in 1975 of such common 2010 goods as a cell phone, an ipad, or a GPS?

It is true that the poverty rate is relatively high today. But is it at a historical pinnacle? Figure 4 in this document shows that there are indeed more people below the official poverty line than ever before. But that is because the population of the United States is larger than ever before. As a percentage of Americans, our present 15.1% poverty rate is lower than the estimated rate until the mid 1960s.  The rate has gone up and down since then, but it was as high as it is today in the early 1980s and in the mid 1990s.

Finally, since insurance is such a topical issue today, we might look at Figure 7 to see if it supports perceptions of an insurance crisis. Again, the reason that there are more uninsured people today is that there are more people. Today's 16.3% uninsured is high, but only about as high as it was in the late 1990s and it is not really dramatically different from the low point in 1987. Since this chart only begins in 1987, moreover, we can only speculate that there were many more uninsured people in earlier years. It is true that health care is more expensive today than ever before, but the care also provides treatment that did not exist in earlier years (like those cell phones and ipads). This also means that the overwhelming majority of Americans (83.7%) do have health insurance.

I would not say that we have no cause for economic worry. As I've argued previously, our debt-ridden, demand-side economy raises serious questions about the future well-being of the United States. As we look at our real situation right now, though, we want to avoid exaggeration and excessive alarmism.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Patrick Wilcken's Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory.

I recently read Patrick Wilcken's Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (Penguin, 2010). Lévi-Strauss may well have been the most influential anthropologist of the late twentieth century. More than any other individual, he gave rise to the theoretical approach to the humanities and social sciences known as “structuralism” and to its successor “post-structuralism.” His fundamental idea, derived primarily from the structural analysis of language, was that human kinship relations and mythological accounts expressed systems of thinking driven by the need to order the world according to binary systems of oppositions.
Young Levi-Strauss in Brazil

Although he generally expressed his theories in complex and difficult literary works, Lévi-Strauss also achieved a wider renown among members of the general reading public. His bittersweet, elegiac memoir Tristes Tropiques (roughly “sad tropics”) about his field work in Brazil, published in 1955, established him as one of the great commentators on the labors of anthropology, the questionable benefits of modernity, and the nature of the disappearing life of tribal people. Ironically, as Patrick Wilcken points out in this account, Lévi-Strauss was not much of a field worker and the explorer of the pre-literate mind always felt most at home in libraries. I was reminded of that other armchair anthropologist, the British author of The Golden Bough, James G. Frazer.

Born into a family of secular Jews of Alsatian origin, Lévi-Strauss from his youth found himself at the boundaries of different cultural worlds in the frequently anti-Semitic society of France. His father, Raymond,  was a portrait painter just at the time when the adventurous movements of artistic modernism and the rise of mass photography were making realistic portrait-painting outmoded. From his father, Lévi-Strauss acquired a strong aesthetic sense and perhaps also an old fashioned fondness for tradition that would lie behind the anthropologist’s inclination toward tribal societies and that would come to the surface in the growing conservatism of his later years.

As a student, Lévi-Strauss became involved in socialist politics and studied law and philosophy. After teaching secondary school for a time and marrying Dina Dreyfus, he accepted an offer to go with his wife to Brazil as part of a French cultural mission. The two were appointed visiting professors at the University of São Paulo. Although most French expatriate intellectuals formed insular communities, Lévi-Strauss and Dina became friends with Brazilian writers and artists and they conceived the idea of a journey of ethnographic exploration into the vast inland region of Mato Grosso.

The first forays into the indigenous cultures of Brazil brought Lévi-Strauss into contact with the Caduveo and the Bororo. Prefiguring his later fascination with structural forms in cultures, he became intrigued with the elaborate facial designs of women in the former and the expressions of social relations through housing patterns in the latter. The early studies on these groups helped to establish Lévi-Strauss as an anthropologist. His, however, was far from the ideal approach to fieldwork. His stays with his subjects were brief. He did not speak their languages or have deep grounding in their cultures.  The great journey into Mato Grosso that followed also showed these shortcomings, since it was more of a caravan of exploration than an immersion in indigenous cultures.

In 1938, Claude and Dina Lévi-Strauss and a well-supplied team set out to follow the Rondon Line, the remains of a telegraph line that had been strung earlier in the century, making contact with the indigenous people who lived along the way. Lévi-Strauss had corresponded with the anthropologist Curt Unckel, who had adopted the Brazilian name Nimuendajú. He tried to get Nimuendajú, the foremost expert on the peoples of the region, to accompany them, but the authority was too busy working on his field notes. Although the expedition that followed was amateurish in many respects, Lévi-Strauss proved to be an assiduous note-taker and a talented photographer. Although he would never again do fieldwork after this trek, the Brazilian adventure did inspire some of the ideas that helped to form his theories and it supplied the material for his 1955 memoir.

Lévi-Strauss might well have enjoyed a distinguished career if he had spent the rest of his life in France after the Brazilian expedition, but World War II sent him to another exotic location, where he came into contact with some of the great minds of his time. When the war broke out, he was drafted into the French army. The German invasion and the rapid collapse of France left Lévi-Strauss, as a Jew, vulnerable to Nazi anti-Semitism. At first, he was so unaware of the danger that he requested an appointment to teach in Paris, which was within the German Occupied Zone. However, he soon learned the insecurity of being Jewish even in the unoccupied zone governed by the French administration in Vichy when he was fired under an anti-Jewish statute. The reputation he had made in Brazil earned him an offer of a teaching position at the New School for Social Research in New York, which was taking in German refugee intellectuals. Although he offered to bring his now ex-wife Dina with him, Lévi-Strauss made his way alone to America.

New York enabled Lévi-Strauss to flourish in one of the most vibrant intellectual hothouses of the twentieth century. War and oppression drove many of Europe’s most notable artists and scholars across the seas and New York held the greatest concentration. On board the ship, Lévi-Strauss formed a friendship with the surrealist André Breton and once in New York he associated with Breton and the surrealist artist Max Ernst. Lévi-Strauss and the surrealists shared interests in mythological expressions of the subconscious mind and they became collectors of tribal artifacts in the shops in New York. This environment encouraged Lévi-Strauss to move away from the specialized study of particular human groups and toward patterns of thought underlying all of the mythologies and artifacts Lévi-Strauss and his associates were collecting.

The most important of his contacts in New York may have been the Russian linguist, Roman Jakobson. Jaksobson argued that languages should be understood not as ways of representing the world, but as systems of structural relations, expressing mental patterns. Drawing on structural linguistics, Lévi-Strauss developed the concept of an abstract system of oppositions and linkages lying behind specific cultural relations. This led to a doctoral thesis and to a first major book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) that presented kinship as a code of relations among people.

As Wilcken presents the life, New York provided the foundation for the rest of Lévi-Strauss’s career. The time in New York not only brought him in to the currents of thought of the mid-century, it also helped to bring him into the intellectual establishment. Once back in France, he became an able administrator.  As he produced a steady stream of erudite works, he became recognized as part of the post-war intellectual elite of France. He became particular friends with the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.  Although Lévi-Strauss wrote only a little directly about psychoanalysis and the unconscious, the idea of an unconscious was clearly part of his structural anthropology. In turn, Lacan incorporated some of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas into elaborate and often incomprehensible psychoanlytic theories.

Being Jewish continued to be a barrier to Lévi-Strauss’s acceptance in the inner circle of France. However, the old prejudices were weakening.  After the war, he had almost been elected to membership in one of the most selective circles of the French academic hierarchy, the Collège de France. He had, though, been repeatedly blocked, apparently by the unwillingness of some members to accept a Jewish colleague. In 1960, though, he finally achieved this honor. By the early 1970s, his public appearances and his popular memoir had made him almost a celebrity intellectual, while he had become enough of an established figure that many of the new “post-structuralists” had begun to define themselves in contrast to him. In 1973, Lévi-Strauss reached the pinnacle of French intellectual life, when he was elected to the Académie Française.

Ironically, as Lévi-Strauss moved into the center of his own tribal group, he became ever more a loner. In his own work, he assembled examples and illustrations of his theories from the reports of ethnographers and travelers, some of which were not always accurate. While many were influenced by his writings, he had no close students or successors who would carry on his tradition. Also ironically, as French intellectuals in general tended to move sharply to the left, Lévi-Strauss became much more conservative socially and politically. One of the interesting points made by the biography is that his conservatism was not an aberration at all but was deeply rooted in his anthropological respect for tradition.
Levi Strauss in Later Years

The biography portrays Lévi-Strauss as a polite but distant and stand-offish figure. In interviews with the biographer,  Lévi-Strauss refused to provide much information on his personal life. His first wife, Dina, appears in these pages largely because of her role in the Brazilian expedition. His second wife, from whom he was also divorced, and his third receive only a few lines of text.  Although it does not give a very intimate portrait of a man who apparently did not take readily to intimacy, it does give an account of the development of his ideas. Patrick Wilcken’s critical discussion of these ideas is somewhat limited. He does not, for example, give much consideration to the question of how much tribal people actually do think in terms of abstract binary oppositions, rather than in terms of coming up with practical solutions to the material and social problems that face them daily. I wondered whether Lévi-Strauss described how tribal people really think or whether he was giving his imaginative version of how tribal people would think if they happened to be French intellectuals in loin cloths. Wilcken also does not discuss the problem of how the theories of Lévi-Strauss might be verified or falsified, or, if they cannot be falsified, what use the theories might have beyond giving us pleasurable contemplation.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ipse Dixit: The MLK Cult

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has become a national high holy day, still somewhat behind Independence Day and Thanksgiving in importance, but well ahead of Presidents’ Day and Veterans Day. Official speeches, marches, candlelight vigils, and service activities sponsored by civic organizations, schools, and colleges commemorate Dr. King in cities across the nation.  MLK Day has taken on the character of a saint’s festival, complete with processions and pilgrimages.
In the years since his tragic death, the popular apotheosis of Dr. King has translated him from the status of a fallible mortal to a paragon of moral perfection and preternatural wisdom. Debates over affirmative action, for example, frequently deviate from arguments for or against race conscious policies in employment and education to competing interpretations of the great oracle’s remark about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. It is as if social and political issues can be resolved by invoking the moral authority of the martyr. I don’t know what someone who died in 1968 would think about the public issues of the twenty-first century. I also don’t think this is relevant because, however admirable his courage and public speaking ability, Martin Luther King, Jr. possessed no supernatural insight.
Mark Engler’s article entitled “Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economics” in the Feb. 1 edition of The Nation illustrates both the ipse dixit use of Dr. King’s memory and the highly questionable nature of much of his thinking. The article tells how the martyred sage would solve contemporary problems of recession, unemployment and foreclosure by describing him as favoring two broad economic programs in the United States: a federal jobs program that would guarantee employment to every individual capable of working and a universal guaranteed income.  The latter would not simply maintain every person at level of minimal subsistence, but would lift everyone up to “the median income of society.”
I believe the author of this article quotes and interprets Dr. King accurately.  During the last part of his activism, at least, Dr. King does seem to have moved beyond trying to assure voting rights and nondiscriminatory access to public resources and toward wider efforts at restructuring American society. That is precisely why we should reject the portrayal of this historical figure as an image of saintly infallibility. These economic proposals are at best highly debatable and arguably remarkably foolish.
On the first proposal, the sheer cost of a universal federal jobs program is incalculable. It would mean not just creating work for all, but a massive jobs bureaucracy. The cost would entail the drag on our economy of so much artificially produced employment, in addition to wages for bureaucrats and putative workers. If we wanted to ensure a long-term downward spiral for the American economy, this would be an ideal way to go about it.
In providing jobs for everyone, the government could either mandate that each person take the assigned position or provide that all get the jobs that they want.  The first is a prescription for universal involuntary servitude, a strange goal for a civil rights leader. The second would mean that we would all be able to do refuse to do any work that falls short of our dreams and desires, which would make it impossible to get some of the most essential jobs in our society done.
There have been some reasonable arguments for a guaranteed minimal national income. The negative income tax plan once considered by the Nixon administration (the higher your income is above a certain amount, the more you pay; the lower your income is below that amount, the more the government pays you) was essentially a universally guaranteed income. Some have argued that such a scheme would be cheaper and more easily administered than our current hodge-podge of government assistance programs.  Others have responded that the very fact of guaranteeing everyone an income would simply universalize moral hazard, and also contribute to the problem of filling the least desirable jobs.  Most plans for a guaranteed income, though, make explicit the fact that the level of support would be minimal.  Dr. King’s suggestion that all be supported at the “median income of society” was, to put it bluntly, looney. It isn’t just that giving everyone a comfortable standard is beyond our capability or that to attempt to do so would be as economically destructive as trying to give everyone cushy jobs. This would be logically impossible. A median is a mid-point that divides cases into half below and half above. If it were possible to make a median a new minimum, there would be a new societal median.
In pointing out that Dr. King was not a very good economic thinker, I do not mean to speak ill of the dead. But I think we should stop pretending that, whatever his virtues may have been, he was anything more than a human being of limited judgment and understanding, like all the rest of us. Speculating on what MLK would have done tells us nothing about what we should do.