Friday, March 27, 2009

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Eliot, T.S. 1917. Prufrock and Other Observations

In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.

A few weeks ago I visited my undergraduate alma mater, where I got a rather haphazard, mediocre education--even thought I didn't know it at the time.

Some of the science programs were serious and decent. Science majors graduated and got jobs in labs, went on to graduate programs or medical school. But most of us were majoring in humanities and the general assumption seemed to be that we were there strictly for cultural enrichment. There was never any talk about careers or graduate programs: that was considered crass. Faculty seemed to assume that we would be taken care of: guys would go into the family business or get jobs through connections, and women would marry guys who worked in the family business or got jobs through connections. Some wouldn't even make the pretense of working: they would be "sportsmen" and ladies-who-lunch.

The goal of the philosophy department was to prepare students for careers as upper crust faux-intellectuals. We were there learn how to make conversation about Ideas and chat about interesting "philosophies"--to be polished, finished and groomed for polite society, where it was important to have things to say about Art, Literature, Philosophy and Current Events.

This wasn't so hot for me because I went to college to train for a philosophy professor job. I only found out that I hadn't gotten the training I needed when I got to grad school and was slammed.

Now that I'm an academic myself I wonder why faculty at my alma mater went along with this or why faculty anywhere would voluntarily join the race to the bottom. I suppose the thought is that we in useless humanities disciplines need to sell ourselves by making out that we provide the veneer of civilization, teach students to make conversation about Ideas and inculcate "values" so that the students we credential for upper middle class sales and office park jobs will be able to make conversation about Art, Literature, Philosophy and Current Events as popularly understood and be nice people.

But why would we go along with this? We go though the whole agonizing business of grad school, fight it out in a miserable job market, sacrifice wealth and security, because we love our chosen fields, because we want to do research and teach--like the emaciated Clark of Oxenford, riding his miserable old nag, who would gladly learn and gladly teach. We have tenure--the license to pursue research were it leads us and to teach students as we think right, to show them the wonders of our chosen fields and the pure glory of the life of the mind (as it used to be called). Why do we sell out to provide entertainment, to pander to parents and cater for student's adolescent whims, to give our customers what they imagine philosophy is rather than what we know it to be, which is immeasurably more interesting?

I'm both puzzled and outraged as I see my colleagues going this route, promoting the kinds of junk that parents imagine "philosophy" is and which students, in their immaturity and ignorance, find interesting. We discover that students are interested in this, that or the other kind of bullshit, so that is what we provide. And no one outside of our profession knows any better because they think philosophy is bullshit anyway. We're employed to provide the Discovery Channel version of philosophy so that students can make what passes as intelligent conversation and those who are on board with the agenda think this is astute, cynical and terribly clever: we will feather our nest, add positions to our department, get perks.

But for what? If we wanted this stuff we'd have gone into investment banking

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Suppose you are a smart high school senior interested in astronomy. Heading for college you look for schools with programs in astronomy, astrophysics and strong physics programs that look suitable. You discover that one of these places has a big program in astronomy and offers an undergraduate major. You apply, are accepted, and go to that college.

Now as it happens a few years earlier some members of the physics department came to the conclusion that astronomy just didn't sell. Lots of students were vaguely interested in star-gazing, but very few had the math skills to do astronomy or had any interest in developing them, and none had any real interest in going onto grad school in the field. So members of the department decided that in order to get additional positions and build their department they needed to revamp their program and offer more user-friendly courses.

So, as faculty retired or moved on, they started filling slots with new faculty whose interests were congenial to a greater number of students--including "cosmic studies scholars" and astrologers. By the time you get to this college, most members of the department are astrologers. There are courses in astronomy, physics and math but most of the courses the department offers are on casting horoscopes. The department is proudly pluralistic: it supports work in all star-related studies, including both astronomy and astrology.

Well, what do you know. You don't know much about astronomy: you're a student--you came to this college to learn about it. So you take some courses in physics and math as required, and a bunch of astrology courses, and do well. In your senior year, you have a chat with the chair about graduate programs. He suggests that you consider going into a terminal MA program to prepare for graduate work in the field.

The department at this college it turns out, is geared up to offering the kind of courses that will appeal to students who don't have any serious interest in the sciences. It is not expected that majors will continue on to grad school or pursue astronomy professionally. The aim of the department is to offer students something along the lines of the Discovery Chanel: the kind of thing the general public thinks of as science, with beautiful computer graphics in vivid color and interesting facts about the history of astronomy, without any tedious technical details--Science Lite.

This has worked out very nicely for the department: it's added new positions. But it's not so hot for you: you assumed that successfully completing an undergraduate major would prepare you for a PhD program in the field.

Of course most students who take courses in a field are not going to pursue that field professionally. But it seems to me that even if they don't, they should be getting the real stuff--not astrology, and not even the Discovery Channel. And majors should be getting the real stuff. If a department is committed to offering user-friendly entertainment or edification, it should make that clear and certainly not offer a major.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

AIG bonuses | Salon

The right's brain trust is yelling that the tax is a bill of attainder that will scare off 'the investor class,' but GOP politicians, facing pitchfork-waving mobs who want to string up that 'investor class,' have stopped following orders. The pearl of Alfred E. Neumann wisdom from the right, priceless in its political tone-deafness, is the repeated assertion that bonuses must be paid to retain 'the best and brightest' executives. The best and brightest? Would that be the frauds and mountebanks who made gazillions of dollars on three-card-monte credit default swaps that destroyed the U.S. economy? For Americans who are warming themselves by burning their worthless 401Ks, like the starving artists at the beginning of Puccini's 'La Boheme,' the idea of rewarding these geniuses is like giving a raise to the navigator on the Titanic. This long-overdue outburst of populist rage could mark a decisive shift in Americans' attitudes toward income inequality.

Right. Populist rage and pitchfork-waving peasants. But who was responsible for this mess in the first place if it isn't the peasants who are now wielding those pitchforks?

Don't blame firms: their business is, of their essence, to maximize profit. Don't blame Wall Street fat cats: they were no more greedy than anyone else--they were just in a better position to satisfy their greed. By pure moral luck the rest of us are Cromwells innocent of our country's blood. Truth--which of us wouldn't do the same if we were in their position? People want to get as much money as they can given the amount of time and effort they're prepared to put in. There are a few kids who want to so Teach for America or go into the Peace Corps and more who say they want work for a better world, but there are very few who want to make a career of it.

Blame the voters who kept conservatives in power and pushed the country hard right. It's government's business to promote the interests of its citizens by regulating the activities of the country's self-interested agents--including firms. Citizens cannot expect firms to behave nicely: as near-omnipotent, necessarily self-interested agents they must crush any lesser being if that is in their interest. If citizens object to being crushed their only recourse is to rely upon the state to control powerful private interests on their behalf. If voters don't give the state that power then they have only themselves to blame if they get crushed.

But what were those proletarian Republicans thinking? I doubt that they were even thinking about the possibility that more powerful agents might crush them. Some were even so vain as to imagine that there were no more powerful agents than they.

They were thinking about how they could--and would--crush people further down the pecking order. They wanted to beat up on the mythic Welfare Queen who was living in luxury at their expense. They were persuaded that government as such favored people who were beneath them at their own expense. So, out of what they supposed was self-interest, they wanted government shrunk and drowned in the bathtub.

And now, mirabila dictu, ask not for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee. It was the deregulation and pro-business policies the Republican "base" favored that screwed over that Republican base: the white working class.

So, of course there is a volte face. Now they see that their social superiors are screwing them over and recognize that government can act in their interests so they call on government to regulate, nationalize or control big business and punish the fat cats who screwed them over. They're even prepared to sacrifice the maltruistic pleasure of screwing over others in order not to get screwed over themselves: self-interest trumps sadism.

No one dares to say that it was the lower classes who are responsible for this mess. We need their support and if pitchfork-waving populism gets them on board, that's great. And of course we good liberals are all prissy about "blaming the victim." And some of us still harbor that undergraduate Marxist romanticism about the working class, who were supposed to be "interesting" and "real"--not hypocritical, materialistic and phony like our parents.

But the bottom line for anyone honest and willing to do the calculation is that it was the lower classes who made 30 years of conservative misrule possible and destroyed the economy. They were the ones who were stupid enough to get mortgages they couldn't carry. They were the ones who imagined that they were rich because they could get go into debt to buy expensive, worthless crap and positional goods, and so supported policies that favored the rich. They were the ones who wanted to screw over the poor--until they discovered that they were poor and were getting screwed over themselves.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

God is a Utilitarian!

Public Discourse, More Government, Less God: What the Obama Revolution Means for Religion in America, by W. Bradford Wilcox
A recent study of 33 countries around the world by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde, political scientists at the University of Washington, indicates that there is an inverse relationship between state welfare spending and religiosity. Specifically, they found that countries with larger welfare states had markedly lower levels of religious attendance, had higher rates of citizens indicating no religious affiliation whatsoever, and their people took less comfort in religion in general...How do we account for the inverse relationship between government size and religious vitality? As Gill and Lundsgaarde point out, some individuals have strong spiritual needs that can only be met by religion. This portion of the population remains faithful, come what may. But other individuals only turn to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques when their needs for social or material security are not being met by the market or state...At times of high insecurity, such as the current recession, religious demand goes even higher...This is why, even though Obama’s audacious agenda might provide short-term relief to the economic and social challenges that now beset us, over the long term the Obama revolution is likely to erode first the religious and then the civic and moral fabric of the nation.

Here we have the true conservative argument. The welfare state is bad for religion because it makes people better off. Cut-throat capitalism promotes true religion and virtue by making people miserable, thus providing opportunities for forebearance, compassion and charitable giving.

So much the worse for virtue. If this is what virtue is all about then we're better off in a world where it can't exist--where people are secure and happy and so there isn't any need for charity or compassion. We don't imagine that there's some redeeming benefit in there being paraplegics and amputees so that we have the opportunity to design better wheelchairs and shouldn't think that poverty, misery and pain have value insofar as they provide opportunities for the cultivation and exercise of virtue.

Augustine said that in this world, after the fall, non posse non peccare, but in Heaven non posse pecare. How is this supposed to work? If intentions matter from the moral point of view this means that in Heaven we will somehow be blocked from forming bad intentions. But then what happens to free will? We got ourselves to Heaven by exercising it. God gave it to us knowing that it was dangerous because, presumably, the immeasurable benefit of free will outweighed any risk. Now we get to Heaven only to be deprived of it?

No! It is impossible to sin in Heaven because there no one can be harmed. You can have the most evil intentions in the world and act out of the deepest malice. Do what you will you can't hurt anyone because they are all invulnerable beati, tenured for eternity. By the same token it is impossible to be virtuous since there is no one for whom one may feel compassion, no one who can be an object of charity, no dangers in the face of which one may show courage and no tests of fortitude. Heaven is beyond good and evil.

It is therefore easy to understand the nature of Hell. If your intention is to do harm, you will be eternally frustrated because no one in the afterlife can be harmed. They can only, by the grace of God in conferring on us free will, harm themselves. So you can will to do harm even though in having that desire you harm yourself. It's also easy to understand why Hell can't be permanent. Eventually every soul must get it. Origen was a universalist, but so was Gregory of Nyssa and other unquestionably orthodox theologians.

But God must be a utilitarian, or at least a consequentialist--otherwise non posse peccare means monkeying around with people's intentions and so undermining free will.