Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Don't Ever Call the Cops: The Tamir Rice Story

The Tamir Rice story, and the irresponsible decision not to prosecute his killers, is breaking my heart. And while the worst sufferers are Tamir's family, I have found myself thinking, ever since he died, about the poor soul who called 911. That person was just trying to do the right thing, but the positive, neighborly gesture led to disaster. Calling 911 brought the Cleveland Police, and because the police came a child died. Everything would have better if the police had not come.

I wonder about that 911 caller, who did the right thing and will have to wrestle with guilt because in Cleveland that became the wrong thing. The 911 call specifically said that the person in the park was probably a kid and the gun was probably a fake. Those caveats got stripped away, and the police rolled right up on the poor boy, got out of their patrol car car, and immediately shot him dead. Then they stood around let the child bleed to death.

Before we go through the apologists' spin doctoring, let's remember three things:
1. Tamir got shot within two seconds of the police's arrival. They did not give him time to comply with any order. I do not think they gave the boy time even to comprehend their orders.
2. The fake gun was still tucked in Tamir's belt when he was killed. The police never saw it in his hand.
3. Even Tamir had been a grown man with an actual pistol, THAT IS NOT AGAINST THE LAW in Ohio. Ohio, for better or worse, is an open-carry state, which means that people have the legal right to carry a gun openly in parks. The cops shot him dead although there was no crime being committed, and no appearance of a crime being committed.

That is to say, there was no crime being committed until the cops arrived. The police themselves became the menace, not for the first time in Cleveland, destroying the civil peace they were sworn to protect.

And that leads us back to the problem of the 911 caller. Because one of the practical lessons here is: do not call the police. They are too dangerous. What should be the safe and neighborly thing to do has the most gruesome unintended consequences, because the police turned a kid fooling around on a playground into violent death. I'm sure that caller won't be quick to call the cops back to the neighborhood. How could you be?

And this is just one particularly stark and ugly example of the ways that bad cops destroy good cops' ability to do their jobs. Police work depends on neighborhood cooperation. Always has, always will. It's impossible to solve most crimes without neighbors providing tips and serving as witnesses. (The prevalence of CSI-style procedurals on TV is partly about denying this fact. In the real world, solving a felony with DNA evidence alone is rare.) Keeping peace and preventing crime depends on neighbors being willing to call 911. When you teach a neighborhood not to call the cops and not to trust the cops, because the cops themselves have proved themselves untrustworthy, you are making real police work nearly impossible.

It's not justice or peace. The police are sworn to uphold both. By endangering the citizens they are sworn to protect, they not only pervert their sworn charge, but make it impossible for any peace officer to do the job correctly.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Christmas Star

It's Christmas, the second-most-important Christian holiday and the most important holiday for many Americans. Tonight is Christmas Eve. But for some families, every year, Christmas comes at a moment that seems dark and difficult. Many of my friends are in my thoughts tonight, and my own family is grieving.

This will be our last Christmas with Mom. My mother is in hospice. She spoke during the fall about wanting to make it to Christmas, and she has. I am immensely thankful. I am very sad. We have her; we will lose her. The two truths are not separate.

The winter holidays are about celebration and gratitude. Celebrating is easy. Gratitude is harder. In the good years, in our well-fed and endlessly-indulged country, being grateful for our easy bounty often poses an enormous challenge.We take so much for granted, and understand too little of it as a gift. But when Christmas comes to you in the bleak midwinter, gratitude is even more important. You must dig deeper to bring up your thanks. But this is the most important time to be thankful.

I am grateful, tonight, for all the years of my life that I have enjoyed my mother's love. I am grateful that this Christmas I will see her face and hear her voice. And I am grateful, more than I can ever say, to the family that has supported and surrounded her during her illness. Everything I want for Christmas I have; I have already been given it, year by year and day by day, all the days of my life.

There is a reason that this holiday comes at the dark ebb tide of winter. It is the holiday of consolation in the darkness. The Christian story tells of a miraculous birth in the dead of winter, far from any riches or comfort, in the most unlikely of places. And it offers, in the long night of the spirit, a promise of far-off hope.

That promise is not about tomorrow. There is a reason that Easter is the most important day of the Christian's year, and Christmas the second. Easter is the fulfillment of hope. Christmas is hope that has yet to be fulfilled. Santa aside, Christmas has never been about immediate gratification. The child is born, and nothing outward or immediate changes. He is a baby; his great deeds, his historic role, are decades away. Everything will change, but not yet.

Christmas is not about hope fulfilled, but about hope itself: the faith that the better day will come, no matter how long tonight may last. The promise is fulfilled by being renewed, and we are asked to wait again, to hold hope quietly in our hearts through the long, gray winters. It offers us only the reassurance of a distant star, just above the horizon, clear and steady but beyond our reach. All it promises is that the star is there. And that will be enough.

cross-posted from (and all comments welcome at) Dagblog

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Terrorism, Elections, and Keeping Faith in America

What I would love, more than nearly any other possible thing, is for the Republican presidential to shut their mouths about how frightening Daesh is. That's exactly what Daesh wants, and it is shameful that Trump, Carson, Christie, Cruz, and the rest give Daesh that satisfaction. It is still more disgraceful still to give terrorists any advantage in the hopes of gaining political advantage oneself. But my biggest question is, where is their national pride? When did the Republican candidates forget they were Americans?

I love America. It has done many things it should not, including some things of which I will always be ashamed. But it has also done things that I will be proud of until the day I die. And America has relegated not just one or two despots, but a long, proud list of despotisms to the ash heap of history. We've been doing it for hundreds of years. Some people will tell you that liberal democracies with civil liberties aren't strong enough to defeat fascists or authoritarians or kings. To those people I say only: SCOREBOARD.

Our generally liberal, fairly democratic system has been reliably kicking the ass of more repressive authoritarian regimes for nearly two hundred and forty years. Monarchists, fascists, Communists, Nazis: you name them, we've beat them, because authoritarian systems are fundamentally weak and stupid. Our system is better. Their systems suck. The Islamists in Daesh are just one more pack of narrow-minded totalitarians headed for history's trash bin. To them, I say: join the line.

(While we're on the topic, those assholes in Iraq and Syria are named "Daesh." They're not "ISIS" or "the Islamic State" or - get real for a minute - the "Caliphate." I mean, seriously, in their dreams. They are not a functioning nation, and let alone a return of the Abbasid Dynasty. They're a gang of fanatics who've taken advantage of a temporary power vacuum to claw their way to minor-local-warlord status. Their name is Daesh. They hate that name, and think it's demeaning. So fuck them. That's their name.)

I'm not making light of their crimes, or saying that they do not enrage me. They are, to use the most precise and well-defined terms I can, murdering scum. I have not lost any friends to Daesh, but some friends of mine have; no one Daesh has murdered deserved to die. But the threat they actually pose to Americans is tiny. The vast majority of people Daesh has killed, obviously, are other Muslims. In this country, even if you credit Daesh for the San Bernardino killings, that means they have only barely managed to become approximately as dangerous to the average American as, say, deranged college students. (That comparison is not a joke, and certainly not to me. Not where I work.) Americans aren't in any more danger from Daesh than Americans who work or study on college campuses are in danger already. The proper response to that threat level is mostly to keep calm and carry on. If we could all kept the same stiff upper lip about Daesh that, say, college librarians these days keep, we would be doing pretty well as a country.

To those who talk about Daesh as an important threat, I have to say: compared to what? The nuclear-armed Soviet Union? The Japanese Navy in 1941? Get real. Drunk drivers kill more Americans than terrorists ever have. Puffing up Daesh into some invincible bogeyman gives them what they want, and talking as if America ought to be intimidated by them disrespects some of America's proudest achievements. Let's stop talking about being afraid of them, and begin remembering the things they should be afraid of. Authoritarian movements are justly terrified of liberty, at home or abroad, because free systems make smarter and more flexible decisions over the long term. Freedom scares them because freedom can beat them.

These Republican candidates speak as if it were the other way around, as if freedom were perpetually weak and tyranny always strong. A few of them are just pandering to voters' fear, cynically and inexcusably. But worse still, some of these candidates, maybe even most of them, believe what they are saying. They think a free America is weaker than an unfree enemy, almost any unfree enemy. They believe this despite the empirical weakness of Daesh's position and resources, because they believe, as an article of faith, that repressive ideologies are more powerful than democracy. They believe this without evidence. They believe this despite the evidence. The historical record shows America beating monarch after dictator after generalissimo after king, and these clowns refuse to believe what America's history has repeatedly proved: dictators are weak.

They do not believe in America. They do not believe in democracy or civil rights. They look at our greatest strengths and see weaknesses, ignoring the scoreboard of history. We don't need to make America great again, because America, for all its flaws, has always been great. Donald Trump cannot begin to fathom that greatness. He does not love America, because he has never understood what America is. He is impressed by Vladimir Putin, and vice versa, because he is a coward and a fool.

This is why the Republican plans for fighting Daesh are simultaneously un-American and useless.
They believe in authoritarianism and repression as goods in themselves. They want to take steps with no real security value, to take steps that actually make things worse, exactly because those steps are repressive and against American values. Being un-American is their goal. Closing borders, discriminating against hundreds of millions on the basis of religion, censoring the internet -- none of these things will work to make us safer. They will each make things much worse. But this sorry collection of Republicans want to do exactly these things, because this collection of Republicans is driven by faith. They have faith in repression and in tyranny, and no amount of evidence can shake that faith. They believe, deep in their hearts, that the American experiment will fail, that its success is just an illusion. They are wrong, and America will prove it. Not for the first time, and not for the last.

I have faith that America's success has never been a fluke. I have faith that America has defeated an assorted list of tyrants and tyrannies for good and clearly explicable reasons. I believe that this time will be no different, because none of the important things have changed. I believe that the Tories who talked about George III being unbeatable and the appeasers who talked about Hitler being unbeatable and the frightened fearmongers who talk about "ISIS" being unbeatable have all drunk the same tainted Kool-Aid, the same dreams about the power of tyrants. I believe such Kool-Aid is bad for one's health. I believe that the fearmongers are wrong: wrong about our past, wrong about our future, and wrong about the day before us. I do not believe that we need to choose between liberty and security, or that such a choice is possible. I believe that liberty is the smartest and most prudent path to our continued security, that only a free society can be safe.

America, now just as before, must keep its faith with our Founders, not because the Founders were divinely inspired but because they were such practical realists. They believed in an open society because they saw it could work, and because they saw it working. How many times have we seen that they were right? How many more times do we need to be shown the wisdom and safety of remaining free?

These are the times that try men's souls, as another American wrote, the week of another Christmas, when America's future looked dark and naysayers were claiming that our experiment could never work, because democracy was not strong enough. That was the Christmas of 1776. Nothing that matters has changed.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, November 23, 2015

"College-Ready Seventh Graders"

So, a funny thing happened in Ohio higher education. I don't blog about things that happen at my university, but this decision didn't happen at my university. It happened in the State Legislature, with a new law that affects every public college in the state. And of course, decisions about this law weren't made by people who actually teach college. Obviously, we are too biased, and probably too corrupt, to help make wise decisions about educating young people. That needs to be left to politicians.

We have had, for longer than I have lived in Ohio, a program that allows some high-school juniors and seniors to take some classes at local colleges, counting those courses toward their high school diploma and but also banking them for college later. The idea is that they'll start college with several credits already. I have never heard complaints about this program, and I've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence for its success. So far, so good.

Since this program is successful, the lawmakers in Columbus reasoned, why not expand it? Why not have more high school students take more college classes, and get more credits? Our Governor, John Kasich, has bragged in one of the Republican Presidential debates (the one on October 28), that Ohio students would soon be graduating high school with a full year of college credits, because of this brilliant new law. What is the brilliant part? First, the law opens up the high-school/college program to younger students: to all high school students, in fact. And even better, the law requires colleges to accept "college-ready seventh and eighth graders."

Now, I have not personally met many college-ready seventh or eighth graders, but that is probably because teaching at an actual college biases me somehow.

Now, you may have noticed that I said the law requires colleges to accept college-ready seventh (and eighth) graders. It does not simply allow public colleges and universities to accept those students. Public colleges in Ohio are not allowed to refuse college-ready seventh-graders, however many of them there may be. And, because colleges can be tricky, the law wisely forbids colleges and universities from deciding what "college-ready" means themselves. Public colleges are not allowed to set admissions standards for high-school or middle-school students. Instead, the law tells them what the standard should be, so that lazy professors don't throw up pointless obstacles.

That standard, under the law, is that a seventh grader's GPA count's the same as a high school senior's GPA. No, I am not making that up. All public colleges and universities in Ohio are required to let in seventh graders if they meet the GPA requirement for regular students. If you're trying to keep standards very high, and turn away applicants with anything below a B+ average, then a twelve-year-old with a B+ average in middle school also qualifies. If you're trying to give students who've struggled a chance to succeed, so that you let in students who got Cs in their senior year of high school, then a seventh-grader's Cs are also good enough. Columbus says so.

Of course, pointy-headed academics will try to throw up all kinds of road blocks if you let them, and claim that somehow a B in 7th grade and a B in 12th grade are different things. But who's going to believe that? A B is a B, right? Otherwise, we would use a different letter. And letting educators put up these artificial obstacles about things like "preparation" and "class content" just mean more obstacles to people getting degrees.The point is to give people college degrees, and the professors are an obstacle to that.

Obviously, someone doing seventh grade math, what with the long division and all, is just as ready for college as someone doing calculus or trigonometry in twelfth grade. It's all math, right? And someone pulling an A in seventh-grade English, where the writing assignments are literally dozens of words long, should be all ready for first-year college English, where the papers are hundreds or thousands of words long. Good writing is good writing, yes? If your child is a good writer, and has been told so in middle school, then her essay about what she did on summer vacation should certainly be worth college credit. Most of the punctuation is exactly where it should be.

But then, you shouldn't ask me. I'm just a college professor. What do I know?

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

America Needs More Refugees

The cheap fear-mongering about Syrian refugees loses sight of some basic facts. The United States has taken in refugees before, and that decision has worked out really, really well for us. In fact, taking in refugees has been great for America, and we should take in more whenever we get a chance.

More than two-thirds of Americans were opposed to allowing refugees fleeing Hitler into the United States. But we eventually, grudgingly, mostly, did the right thing, and the influx of refugees into our country was wonderful for us. The United States got a huge infusion of European scientists, artists, and intellectuals, and an even larger group of bright, skilled professionals, tradesmen, business people, students, and workers. Those refugees helped us win the war, and they helped build America's postwar boom. They enriched America culturally and intellectually. They enriched America scientifically, in our universities and labs. And they straight-up enriched America, beginning new businesses and starting new careers.

Our gigantic economic expansion after World War Two also benefited from a big, free bonus helping of educated workers, educated on other countries' dimes. Our classic Hollywood movies are filled with refugee actors, written by refugee screenwriters, and directed by refugee directors. And refugee scientists helped win America win the war, not least the race for the atomic bomb, because we could count on Hitler and Mussolini for regular shipments of world-class physicists. Does the name "Fermi" ring a bell? Or perhaps some of you might remember this fellow:

The European intellectual migration of the 1930s and 1940s was unprecedented and historic, because the upheaval in Europe was unprecedented. But America has been harboring refugees since before it was the United States of America, and those refugees have made enormous contributions to our society and particularly to our economy. All those people who didn't want to accept European refugees in 1938, those people who looked at all those Jewish doctors, scientists, filmmakers, and engineers and just saw some stereotypical rabble of ghetto urchins without shoes, were not just being un-American bigots, which they were, but also (like most bigots) they were being suckers. They were being given an enormous gift, a migrating flock of golden geese, and they could only see their own racist fantasies.

Refugee populations, now as then, include large numbers of people whom you could ordinarily never induce to leave their own countries for yours, including people who under ordinary circumstances would stay put because they were so successful in the old country. People with high degrees of skill and education, whom you could never manage to recruit otherwise, are forced to start over. Immigrants are a huge boost to the economy, period, but refugee groups include a heavy share of super-immigrants whom you're only getting because of historical disruptions. Their hard luck becomes our good luck. We should grab as many of those people as we can.

The Syrian refugees are also people who would not be going anywhere in the normal course of things. They are disproportionately educated, middle-class types who were comfortable and successful before the civil war tore their country apart. (And they are also typically more secular or cosmopolitan; these are the people "ISIS"/Daesh hates.) They are, in short, super-immigrants, with a much higher percentage of doctors, scientists and engineers than you see in standard immigrant populations. We should grab them. We should grab them now. These are people who could make our country grow. We would be stupid not to grab this chance when we can. And I never want to hear Americans kvetching about a shortage of math teachers again, ever.

I can accept that many of our politicians and our talking heads don't want to do the right thing. I've gotten used to that. I also accept, with my routine disappointment, that those people don't want to do the American thing. (But I will note how many Bible-thumping politicians are hellbent against doing the Christian thing.) But could we at least not do the stupid thing? Could we not be enormous suckers? Only a sucker would let a chance like this through our fingers. We have made it more than obvious over the past few days that we don't deserve good luck like this, but we should at least have the good sense to take it.

Is there a short-term cost to taking in refugees who need to start over? Sure. But that short-term cost has enormous long-term benefits, and will reach the break-even point pretty soon. Taking on short-term costs for long-term gain, or what people call "investing," is what capitalism is. And the United States is uniquely situated to make that small investment. Last time I checked, the US had the largest economy in the world, and next time I check that will still be true. Do you know how we got to have the largest economy in the world? Taking in refugees. It is our national business. It is our edge. It is what got us where we are, and we should stick to it. We would be idiots not to.

We have been building our country on refugees' industry, ingenuity, and prior education since before we called ourselves a country. I have particularly warm feelings for one group of refugees, fleeing religious persecution and political turmoil, who settled in my own native Massachusetts. Perhaps you might have heard of them yourself:

And with that, let me be the first to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Profiles in Cowardice

My thoughts are with Paris today, and with Beirut. We were in the airport, waiting for a delayed flight, when the news broke Friday evening, and so the Paris new broke to us through cable TV and the Beirut news did not reach us at all. There is too much to say about these crimes. For now I can only say that the United States has, at this point, precisely the news media that terrorism wishes us to have.

CNN was on the TV above us. And we added a bunch of French new sources to our twitter feeds. Not so shockingly, the death toll reported in France (and by the other European news outlets on our feeds) was always significantly lower than the numbers being thrown around on CNN. I woke on Saturday in the weird position of being both sickened by how many lives were lost and queasily grateful that the number is lower than American media first said. No matter how bad things seem, Wolf Blitzer can always make them seem worse.

In fact, making things seem even worse is American TV's primary job. Profiting from fear is TV news's main business strategy, from your local station at 11 pm to the 24-hour networks. TV news will literally ask us, in its commercials "Should you be worried?" Listen, and you will hear that phrase coming back over and over again. They want their audience as frightened as possible. For a group dedicated to spreading terror, they are perfect.

Long before anything was clear in the reports from Paris. CNN was asking who else should be worried. Should Germany be worried about an attack, since they have so many refugees? Will there be attacks on the United States? Is New York tightening its security? These questions are not just idle and irresponsible. These questions amplify terrorists' signal. The terrorists spent their resources, probably a healthy share of their resources, trying to terrify the people of Paris, and then CNN deliberately terrifies people thousands of miles away for them, for free.

And, like all fear-mongers, cable news (and some right-wing political figures) turned swiftly to a weak, powerless scapegoat for their fears. Friday night, that meant scapegoating Syrian refugees, refugees from Daesh, for violence committed by Daesh. Before the identity of even one terrorist attacker was confirmed, even before the attacks themselves were over, cable news was proceeding as if it were a confirmed fact that the terrorists were refugees. Of course, the investigation so far is finding French and Belgian nationals. Closing the borders to refugees will not keep out Daesh; Daesh already recruits in Paris itself, and in London, and in Chicago. Instead of going after the funding that allows terrorism to flourish, our native fear-mongers demonize the tired, the hungry, and the poor, the tattered refugees struggling to be free. And that, too, is exactly what Daesh wants. Because Daesh does not want those people to escape them.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brett Foster Goes Out Singing

I was blogging today about art, especially about poetry and about grief, but that post was interrupted by the news of an old friend's death. My own thoughts about grief can wait. I will still be thinking them tomorrow. Today I give way to the beautiful, kind-hearted poet and scholar Brett Foster, who has passed out of this world. He was a better man than I have ever been, and I will miss him.

I will leave the best words to Brett himself, and to his poem "Tongue Is the Pen," written during his illness, which is more eloquent than I could ever manage. His poem begins with a citation to Isiah 43, and opens:

I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth ...

I cannot tell you how beautiful a friend Brett was, or how much I treasured him. I can only leave you to read his own words. But I will close with the end of Brett's poem:

And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Joseph's Pyramids and American Popular History

Yes, Ben Carson, who is officially running for President, is happily telling people that the pyramids are not actually pharaohs' tombs, but grain storage built by Joseph from the Book of Genesis. Never mind that there are (for example) sarcophagi in the pyramids. And never mind that the Bible doesn't actually say anything about Joseph building pyramids or in fact building anything (Genesis Ch. 41). Ben Carson isn't worried about archaeology or facts. He sees the rival theory that, yes, aliens from outer space built the pyramids as the main intellectual threat to his position.  I'm not here to discuss how ridiculous Carson's position is. The real problem is that large numbers of Americans believe things almost as stupid as this. Carson is only one outlier in our country's deep and rich tradition of historical ignorance.

We pay lots of attention to Biblical literalists' attacks on science, especially on the science of evolution and therefore on the disciplines of biology and geology. But we politely overlook the pervasive religious attacks on history. As a country, we shy away from public contradiction of the Bible's historical claims. If anything, secular American culture amplifies the historical misinformation found in the Bible.

Let me say, before I go any further, that I am a believing and practicing Christian. I am not writing this because I am opposed to Christianity or to Judaism. I went to Bible study last night. But being honest in my faith means being honest about the things in my own tradition's sacred writings that are not credible as accounts of literal events, the things that I would never accept as reliable in someone else's religious scriptures. Faith is a way of making sense of the world around us, not a way to distort or deny the world. A belief system that has to defend itself against facts is not an expression of faith, but of fear.

I am fortunate that I almost never run into the problem of religious pseudo-history in my classroom. But occasionally, when I teach a survey course on English literature before 1800, I run into a student who has picked up some misinformation from the modern neo-Pagan movement (although these students are not always self-identified pagans or Wiccans). These students will take for granted that in, say, 1400 AD there was a secret but organized and flourishing practice of Celtic paganism in Britain. This is not even close to the truth. Modern paganism was invented over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, over a thousand years after the pre-Christian Celtic religions died out. (Many odd, disjointed bits of pre-Christian culture and folklore did survive, but certainly nobody was worshiping Medb or Belinus for all that time.) While the students might have come by that misinformation from a religious source, deference to their religion does not (and really cannot) extend to allowing them to assert imaginary facts. A Wiccan student doesn't get a free pass to claim that there were Druids running around Chestershire during the period of the Crusades, because that didn't happen.

It would be a different story if we uncovered physical evidence of pagan worship in late-medieval Chester. Fifteen hundred years of an ongoing religious practice across the British Isles would inevitably leave traces behind for archaeologists to uncover. But none of that stuff is there. And there would also be documented references, sooner or later. (The ancient Greeks had a whole bunch of secret, initiates-only religious practices, but they still documented that they had them. Even when a culture doesn't write all of its secrets down, it still writes things like "Never write down the secrets.") And when my studies lead to read myths or legends from extinct religions, I don't take those texts at their word if archaeological evidence contradicts them. Ancient Irish legend is full of warrior heroes driving chariots, but archaeology in Ireland never turns up any chariots. The obvious conclusion is that pre-Christian Irish warriors did not have chariots. (Maybe these legends have been influenced by cultural contact with Greek and Roman epic; I don't know enough to test that theory.) Likewise, the Romans have their beloved Aeneas story, in which their nation was founded by a courageous band of Trojan refugees who sailed to Italy, but the archaeological evidence tells a different story. The digs show Rome growing out of one small Latin tribe, ethnically similar to the other Latin tribes in its area. They weren't from somewhere else.

This is all fine, because no one worships Jupiter or claims to be descended from Aeneas these days. But the Book of Exodus also tells a story of a tribe traveling from a foreign land to their destined home. And there is no archaeological evidence to back that story up. This is generally considered impolite to say, and you can go a long, long time in this country without hearing it mentioned in the mass media. But it is the truth. There is no factual evidence for the Bible's story about a the nation of Israel living as slaves in Egypt, or of an Israelite migration out of Egypt. (My best understanding of the current evidence, which is a long way from my field, is that archaeologists can see the early Jews emerging among settlements of ethnically-similar groups and gradually becoming a separate people. I'm told that part of how you can trace their emergence is that some settlements no longer have any pig bones.) If I am going to be truthful with myself, I need to read the Book of Exodus as symbolism rather than history, because there is no more historical evidence for my faith's story about Moses than there is for the Romans' story about Aeneas.

Most Americans know pretty clearly that the description of the creation in the Book of Genesis and the story of Noah's flood are not backed by modern science. Relatively few Americans know that the description of the Israelites fleeing Egypt is not backed by modern history. I don't simply mean that the miracles in Exodus, the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, are not literally true. I mean that there is no reason to believe that the Jews came from Egypt, or had been in Egypt at all. This certainly includes the patriarch Joseph from the Book of Genesis. But to mention that in the United States is to risk giving offense.

In fact, you can routinely see Biblical accounts of history presented as fact on allegedly educational cable channels, This was true long before those channels sank to the levels of reality-show dreck where the free market has currently consigned them, and it certainly hasn't gotten better. I have watched self-described historical documentaries show the "informational" map showing the Jews' path out of Egypt. And certainly, no one even hinted that there were any serious historians or archaeologists who doubted the accuracy of the Exodus narrative, let alone that most or all serious scholars doubt it. There was no percentage in that. You could only offend viewers (of at least two major religions) who don't want to hear that the Biblical story isn't true.

Let me suggest, in passing, that one of the greatest moral lessons in the Book of Exodus is that faith means heeding exactly the message that you least want to hear. If Moses didn't listen to things he did not want to hear, he would have just turned away from that burning bush and kept walking, because it Exodus makes it very clear that Moses does not want any of what the bush is selling. But the uncomfortable truths are the ones we most need to face. If I turned away from the unwelcome truth that the Book of Exodus is symbolic rather than historically accurate, I would be turning away from one of Exodus's most crucial moral lessons. Using Exodus as a guide to history but turning away from it as a guide to morals strikes me as the worst possible way to read that book.

So here we are in an America where we teach very little history and, worse still, where we indulge our fellow Americans' inaccurate beliefs about history if they got their bad information from a religious text. All of this is done in the service of protecting believers from better knowledge of their own scriptures, of allowing them to read rich, complex religious texts naively and without reflection. And our secular, commercial, profit-driven media actively participates in those religious fictions, because you can make great profits changing money in the temple. The next time you hear complaints that Christians are persecuted by America's "secular culture," and those complaints are due as soon as someone puts up the first "Happy Holidays" sign, remember that America's secular culture promotes Christians' pseudo-history as fact on TV.

It's not just that Ben Carson has an extra-scriptural fantasy about Joseph building the pyramids. It's that many educated, secular Americans don't realize that Joseph was never in Egypt at all. At the other extreme, there are self-described secularists who dismiss everything in the Bible as a fantasy and cannot distinguish historical figures like David or Ahab from legendary figures like Isaac or Joseph. (This is like treating Henry VIII and King Arthur, or Paul Revere and Paul Bunyan, as equally real.)

And in our willful common ignorance, other forms of ignorance flourish: the unending fantasy archaeology of North America, seeking for lost white American ancestors, the pseudo-historical origin myths promoted by people like Elijah Muhammed or Joseph Smith, the inane quest for "ancient astronauts." It promotes sectarian fantasies, like the attempt to rewrite the Founders' religious positions to align them with Christian sects that had not yet been founded, and secular  fantasies: the conspiracy theories about Freemasons and the search for Sasquatch. Ben Carson is ridiculous, but our society has actively and consistently promoted bogus history for a very long time. Carson is just a quicker student than the rest of us.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Praise for the Foremothers

This is how it works: men and women do things - write books, build institutions, start movements - that change your life forever, and the men get into the history books. The women mysteriously fall out of the story, over and over. How many times have you heard or read the words, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to be free"? How many of you can name the writer off the top of your head? That's what I'm talking about. As Virginia Woolf put it, "Anonymous was a woman." Men learn to make their debts to other men public, to make a virtue of acknowledging what they owe their forefathers, and to forget what they owe women.

I like to think of myself as pro-feminist, and I was raised by a woman who had a badge and a gun. But when I list the writers and teachers who have been influences on me, the women somehow get left out. I don't do it on purpose, or know that I am doing it. No one is ever explicitly taught to do that, but somehow in our time and place it keeps happening.

If you asked me which teachers in college had been the greatest influence on me, I would have named two younger men, early in their teaching careers. That is true as far as it goes. Those teachers were obvious role models for me, and bits of their old teaching personae still show up in my classroom. If you asked me who my senior role model was when I was an undergraduate, I would have named a particular eminent man, a beloved and revered figure who was nearing retirement. But while I still think of that professor with affection and reverence, his influence on my own teaching is virtually non-existent. There is no trace of his pedagogy in my classroom. When I was nineteen, under the spell of his charisma, I thought that I would follow his particular specialty myself, but that has not been the case. I stopped studying his field even before I had graduated.

On the other hand, until about five years ago I would not have singled out the influence of the very senior female professor, the person I have blogged about as "Professor V.", who taught the introductory lecture classes for the major. It wasn't until I had finished a PhD, found a job, written a book, and achieved tenure that I began to reckon with her deep and pervasive influence on my scholarly practice. I use some intellectual tools and approaches that Vendler herself seems to think of with dislike or indifference, but there remains a baseline of critical practice that Vendler herself laid down, a bright thread of her influence that runs through the way I read poetry no matter how many other, less Vendleresque, threads I weave. And that level of influence is only more striking because Vendler only taught me intro in a lecture class with hundreds of people. She has never known me as anything but an 18-year-old face in a 10-am crowd. But even her lessons for beginners had an influence I will likely never shake off.

But to be honest with myself, Vendler was not the first woman to have an intellectual influence on me. It is only that, like many other men, I have unconsciously dropped the female influences from my intellectual autobiography. The first book of literary criticism I ever bought, which I bought for myself as a high school student, was written by a woman. The first scholarly book I ever bought, the first book with footnotes, was written by a woman, too. It was Jane Ellen Harrison's Mythology (bought, I think, in the gift shop of the Boston Museum of Science), a book that was probably too erudite to be on the kid's shelf where I found it, but I doggedly read that book and the endnotes too. Partly because Harrison got to me so early, before there was even any intellectual radar to get under, I still have a soft spot for her particular approach to Greek mythology, the so-called Cambridge Ritualist school.

If my childhood interest in mythology led me to Harrison's scholarship, my teenaged interest in science fiction led me to my first book of essays about literature. It was Ursula K. Le Guin's The Language of the Night. Like the Harrison book, it turned up randomly in a gift shop aimed at the young, offered among books it only superficially resembled. Maybe because those books dealt with fantasy or fairy tales, and maybe also because they were written by women, they were offered to young people without much thought given to how challenging those books might be. Le Guin, like Harrison, slipped through the lines because she was being underestimated.

I no longer know how many times I have read The Language of the Night. And while it was not the full-dress academic literary criticism that is part of my job today, it was my first example of how to write an essay about a piece of fiction. More importantly, it was my first model of an essayist's prose, and I could not have had a better. Le Guin's prose, lucid and evocative, as clear and as complex as running water, still gives me my sense of what a paragraph or a sentence ought to be.

I am occasionally complimented by other academics for the clarity of my academic prose. That of course is just what people say when they are being nice to me, and we are still talking about academic prose. I can never really know how clear my own writing seems to other people. But clear writing is, at least, something I value. The most obvious influence on my scholarly writing is my main scholarly mentor, my famous doctoral advisor and his own famously clear and jargonless prose. That is certainly true in itself. He is a great influence on me, and I became his student because I valued many things his work embodies. But I did not meet that mentor until late in my twenties, when I already had a degree in creative writing from another university. Other influences had shaped my writing long before I met Stephen. If I had asked about those influences even a few years ago, the first name I likely would have said is Orwell's, and that's not untrue either. Orwell's essays, and perhaps especially his newspaper columns, have been important. But until the last few months I think I would not have mentioned Le Guin, and she may be the most important influence of all.

I was all too slow to be aware of it, but this is the truth: I am trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. I am always trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. This is no less so because I do it without thinking of it; it is only more so. Her style is the ideal against which I am measured in my own judgment. She is the essayist I wanted to be when I grew up, and she is the stylist whom I, having grown up, would like to be. My fiction shows less of her influence, and is the poorer for it. But as an essayist I am and remain her apprentice. She has never met me, nor I her. But she has left her mark on everything I write. Her influence has only grown stronger, further from the surface and deeper in the structure, as my writing has matured. In the middle of my life, better late than never, I am obliged and honored to acknowledge her as my master.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Where Is the GOP's Mr. Reliable?

Last month when I blogged about the Republican primaries, I was struck by the fact that no front-runner has emerged as the role of the safe, electable choice. Primaries frequently resolve into contests between an establishment choice who runs on electability and an outsider or dark horse who runs on ideological closeness to the party base or, to pick up the dating metaphor from my earlier post, the primary becomes a choice between the safe, reliable suitor your parents want you to marry and the exciting boyfriend or girlfriend with shakier prospects.

The Democratic primary was already falling into that classic pattern in September, with Hillary Clinton offering the respectable, electable choice and Bernie Sanders bringing the this-may-be-crazy be-still-my-heart romance. Over the last month, those roles have shaped up even more clearly. On the other hand, it was remarkable that the contest was all about the exciting, untrustworthy outsider candidate, Trump, but that neither Jeb Bush nor anyone else had managed to establish himself as the Mr. Reliable option. A month later, it's even more obvious that the Republicans don't have a leading "electable" candidate. In fact, the Mr.-Reliable types have only fallen further behind, and Jeb Bush is cutting his campaign budget while he tries to persuade his donors and the media that he isn't already cooked. Today, Hillary Clinton looks more like a safe and formidable general election candidate than ever, and the Republicans seem further away from producing a viable nominee than ever. What is going on over there?

Let me present three possible theories, none of which are completely mutually exclusive:

Theory Number One: GOP Voters Aren't Ready to Settle Down Yet

This argument is simple and has often been made, although it's beginning to get a little frayed. Under this theory the Republican voters will eventually settle down and back an electable candidate once they have sown their wild oats with more ideologically exciting candidates.

This is a pretty good description of what happened in 2012, as Republican primary voters had a series of one-or-two-week whirls with dark horses before settling down and accepting safe, boring Mitt Romney's proposal. One perspective on 2012 claims that most Republican voters knew it would be Romney sooner or later, but wanted to have some fun while they were still single. Under this theory, the problem with the Jeb Bush campaign is that it's too early for the primary voters to settle down with Jeb Bush just yet.

This may still happen in 2016. The best case for this argument is that the real elections haven't started yet, which means the effect of campaign organizations haven't come to bear. There is plenty of room for a well-funded, well-organized candidate to make up a lot of ground once the primaries start, partly through advertising but more importantly through a strong ground game.

Donald Trump has very little campaign organization. Ben Carson apparently has almost no campaign organization at all. Getting little old ladies rides to polling places is not those candidates' thing. They aren't going to do a great job getting out the vote in the early primary and caucus states, but some of their more traditional opponents will. And once we're past the first few states, the rest of the primaries and caucuses will start coming much too fast to build  effective campaign organizations if you haven't already done it. There is a scenario where a Trump or Carson comes out of the first two or three contests with a real but shaky lead but then loses Waterloo on Super Tuesday, just because he hasn't planned to run real campaigns in that many states at once.

The argument against this theory is that none of the "safe" or "electable" Republicans is anywhere close to the standing in the polls that Mitt Romney had four years ago. Jeb Bush isn't even polling at 10%. For the voters to settle down with a Mr. Reliable, they need an identifiable candidate to settle down with. Maybe the Republican voters will get one last fling out of their systems and settle down, but with whom?

Theory Number Two: The Establishment and the Base Have Parted Ways

This is the scarier option, whereby the Republican Party has fractured so badly that the establishment can no longer influence the party electorate's choices. The falcon cannot hear the falconer, and some rough beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Bethlehem to accept the nomination.

Under this theory, the problem is that more than half the primary voters aren't looking for someone electable at all (or that they are so ideological that they cannot reliably gauge electability, because they can't imagine the median voter's perspective). It could be that 2012 led a large number of Republican voters to conclude that settling for a Mitt Romney doesn't work. The voters don't want to settle down. The voters want what they want.

The best argument for this position is the current polls, in which three candidates who have never won a single election between them are garnering more than half the party's support. The party isn't just flirting with exciting dates before settling down. It isn't even choosing between an exciting but irresponsible boyfriend and a dull but reliable fiancee. It's choosing between two irresponsible boyfriends. They're not asking "Trump or Bush?", "Rubio or Carson?", "Romney or Herman Cain?" They are actually asking "Trump or Carson?" That's not choosing between a banker and a street musician. That's choosing between a street musician and a rodeo clown.

The second-best argument for this theory is that the GOP establishment and its media allies have encouraged it. They have spent seven years pushing unrealistic goals on their party base, goals that amount to undoing earlier irrevocable losses. Republicans, including some who knew better and some who apparently didn't, have campaigned on repealing Obamacare, long after it was clear that it would never be repealed. They have appealed to a base that wants Obama impeached, a base where some people fantasize that Obama could somehow have his election invalidated. The rhetoric has not focused on getting past Obama, but on making it as if Obama never happened. And that cannot be done. But the establishment has spent years motivating the base with impossible goals. They can't complain that the base isn't willing to be realistic about what's possible now.

The third argument for this theory is the disarray among the House Republicans, where some members view almost any attempt at pragmatism or realistic governance as treason. That really does suggest a party that's coming unglued. But if that carries over into the nominating process, we should expect maximal upheaval and chaos, because the figures who've been pushed to the front of the primary field are unusually capricious and unstable, prone to strange reversals and vulnerable to self-inflicted meltdowns. Settling down with one of these guys means never settling down. That relationship will be nothing but drama.

Theory Number Three: The Reliable Options Are Unreliable

Sometimes, your parents pick someone for you and they are simply wrong. The person they think will have a bright future is actually going to struggle just to make a living. That nice budding dentist isn't going to get into dental school; the boy who's in line to take over his uncle's dry-cleaning business turns out to be hopeless as a businessman and will end up driving the supply truck. You would be better off marrying your flaky art-major boyfriend who eventually becomes a well-paid product designer.

Under this theory, the party establishment has chosen "Establishment" candidates who are so badly flawed that they don't bring any of the usual benefits "Establishment" candidates have. The so-called "electable" candidates are not electable.

Mitt Romney, who dropped out before the primaries began, is too badly damaged by his last try to be viable this time around. (Certainly, you can't promise the base that Romney will win for them if they give up the guy they really want.) Chris Christie, obnoxious but moderate governor of a blue state, is mired in a scandal that will keep drip-drip-dripping all through the general election, with an outside chance that Christie himself will be indicted. Worse yet, Christie is mired in a scandal that voters understand. It's not some technical thing about which e-mail address he used for what. It's a politician closing a bridge and creating a nasty traffic jam in order to punish some other politician. Everyone can get their heads around that one. And then there's Jeb Bush.

Under this theory, the problem with the Jeb Bush campaign is Jeb Bush. There is no way for Jeb Bush to run without the baggage of George W. Bush. How could there be? And that leaves Jeb(!) with at least three problems: Iraq, the financial crisis, and Katrina. Heckuva job, GOP.

In fact, the idea that any of the smart money has ever been on Jeb Bush for 2016 shows you just how smart that money is not. The idea that even a section of the party establishment wants to get behind another Bush Restoration is evidence that at least part of the establishment's judgment is impaired. Making Bush the nominee demands that the voters get into some hard-core revisionist denial about how the Bush years went, and once we go there the other, flagrantly unelectable candidates are much, much better at that kind of reality distortion. I mean, if you're going to be insane, why not just go with the full-on crazy? This leaves Jeb Bush boring but also unelectable: both a loser and a nerd, with no future AND no motorcycle.

In this theory, it's not that the base has gone crazy and the the establishment can't talk them back into reality. It's that the Republican establishment is crazy too. The base may be louder and less polite with its crazy, but the genteel madness of the establishment runs every bit as deep. The base may not be choosing the unelectable candidates over the electable ones. They may just be in touch with a basic reality the party establishment is too crazy to see: ALL of these people are unelectable in the general, and the primary voters are simply choosing the hopeless case they like best.  If there's no one on the horizon you could settle down with, you should at least go with the one who's the most fun right now.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, October 18, 2015

What Is a "Good" College? Two Tentative Answers

Sometimes, because of my job, people ask me advice about choosing colleges. It's always nice to be helpful, but talking about college reputations can be a minefield. Obviously, you learn quickly that you should never put any college or university down, but that's not enough. People can also get very prickly when you don't praise a particular college enough. Saying it's a good school may not satisfy them; they sometimes want to hear that School X is much better than School Y, or that School X is just as good as School Z, and will feel insulted unless you tell them what they're looking to hear. Then your choices are 1. giving people helpful practical advice that will offend them, or 2. being polite but misleading.

Before you can say anything useful about college choices, or analyze those choices in a clear-headed way, you have to get past the "good school" problem. People do want to know which colleges and universities confer the most advantage on their graduates, which are "better," but they do NOT want to hear anyone say that any college they already have a connection to is not a "better" than another. What is a "good school?" That's the problem right there.

The first half of this problem is that we talk about "good schools" and "bad schools" as if we were talking about educational quality, which is extremely hard to judge from outside an institution and which can vary widely for different students at the same college. Students don't get exactly the same education at the same school; they all take a different series of classes with a different mix of teachers and they each bring different things to those classes, so the range of educational outcomes at each college or university can be wide. What we're really talking about when we discuss "good schools" is the perceived quality of the education. That perceived quality obviously has some relationship to how well educated the students are, but that's only one factor and not necessarily the biggest. Mostly the discussion of "good schools" is about schools' reputation and prestige. That's fine. In fact, I prefer to frame the "good schools" question in terms of reputation, which is a fuzzy concept but still a thing we can measure in the world, rather than in terms of educational quality.

But the question of reputation is the second half of the problem. Because once you have a connection to a school, you have some stake in its reputation yourself. It is better for you if people think better of your alma mater. If your alma mater's reputation declines, that is at least slightly bad for you. And saying that School X is better than School Z does not just convey an opinion; it is a concrete act, an attempt (however slight), to build up School X's reputation. After all, a school's reputation is just what people say it is, so if enough people start saying that School X is better than School Z, School X will eventually have a better reputation than School Z. Conversations about college reputations are never just impartial discussions about the facts. They are part of a complex social interchange, perhaps better explained by an anthropologist, in which participants try to promote (or protect) the reputations of schools in which they have some reputational stake of their own. This is one of the reasons why talking about college reputations at all risks making you sound like a jerk, because actual jerks do spend a lot of time bragging about where they went to school (or where they send their kids to school), and putting down other colleges. But even if you're not trying to be a jerk, the project of talking honestly about colleges' reputations is always at cross-purposes with the people's desire to move the needle a bit in their old school's favor.

How can you evaluate colleges, then? How to have any rational conversation that doesn't slide into boosterism or hurt feelings? I would propose two things that we CAN talk about, as bottom line issues. One is strictly objective and factual. The other is still a bit of a judgement call, but as close to objective as such a question can get. Instead of talking about educational quality or reputation, I prefer to break things down to the questions of Resources and Reach.

What I call "resources" is the basic question of how much money a school spends on teaching its students. How well a college spends its money, and how much educational bang its professors provide for the college's buck, is impossible to know, except perhaps until you have spent four years at of your life at the school and the question has become moot. But how much money a college has to spend, and what it spends it on, are questions with concrete answers.

The cheapest proxy for resources is to look at the college or university's total budget. But that's not the approach I'd suggest. Universities spend their money on many different things, and what matters if you're applying to schools is how much they are going to spend on educating you. A university that contains many different schools (say a business school and a medical school and a school of dentistry) may have an impressive overall budget but the slice that goes to teaching undergraduates may be much smaller. Any university that operates a hospital or medical center is going to have a whale of a budget, but that doesn't mean the budget for teaching undergraduates won't be pinched. And even if you manage to find the budget for just the undergraduate college, schools can spend on many things beside teaching: they might build fancy new buildings, or put in some sweet amenities that attract students. In fact, the standard college visit is about impressing prospective students with all the money that's going to be spent on them, with the shiny new dorms and the big sports stadium and the rock-climbing wall in the state-of-the-art workout center. All of that is designed to communicate affluence and the sense that the student is going to be treated well, but it isn't necessarily connected to how much the college is spending in the classroom. At some places, students get to enjoy the new jumbotron in the football stadium but don't get to meet many full-time faculty for their first two years.

My preferred quick-and-dirty method of evaluation is to look at a few departments where you think you might major and see how many faculty those departments have. I also usually recommend subtracting out people with titles like "Instructor" or "Lecturer," not because people with those titles are not good teachers (they're usually hired only for the high quality of their teaching), but because those are usually lower-paid jobs (usually teaching intro classes) and that indicates something about the amount that the school is spending on educating that particular set of majors. Is this the whole story? Or course not. But it is one real and important part. If you want to major in, say, history at a small liberal-arts college, and one school you're thinking about has five history professors while another school, with the same number of students, has fifteen history professors, that is telling you something that you should not ignore.

Sometimes ask me if College A or University B would be a good place for their son or daughter to study Shakespeare. Getting into the general quality of the schools is like getting into quicksand. But I can say, perfectly factually, that University B only has one professor who teaches Shakespeare. That's not the whole story, of course (and, full disclosure, for years I was the only professor teaching Shakespeare in my department). But it's not none of the story, either, and it's the easiest part to get your hands on.

I also suggest looking at the lists of classes offered over the last four or five semesters: not just the list of courses in the catalog, which sometimes includes courses not taught for years, but the actual classes the department has taught over the last two or three years. And if you are at all interested in going on to graduate school after college, I'd advise searching for all of the books, articles, etc., that the professors in each department have published in the last ten years. There are great teachers who don't publish much, or don't publish much anymore, but a department where no one is producing new scholarship can have trouble placing its students in graduate schools.

The second issue you should consider, "reach," is simply how far a school's reputation stretches. Where does graduating from that particular school give you an advantage? The question of how good a reputation a school has opens up impossible questions and risks hurting feelings. The question of how far a reputation extends is much closer to an objective question.

There are schools which have a local reputation: people in the immediate area of the school (say, in a particular city and its suburbs) are likely to be more impressed by you for graduating from that school. But in the rest of the world, people either have not heard of that school or have no particular opinion, for good or ill, about it. They may recognize the school's name, but not think much more about it than, "Oh, yes. That is actually a college." But in that school's city, having gone to that school may actually be an advantage when you are looking for a job.

There are also schools with regional reputation. People have heard of that school, and think well of it, across an area of several states. A degree from such a school might give you some competitive advantage across the South, for example, or across the Northeast.  Then there are a smaller number of schools with national reputations: having a degree from that school is a good thing on your resume anywhere in the country. Obviously, a school with a good national or regional reputation often has an even better local reputation. A school that's respected throughout the South might be considered a very big deal in its home city. Then there are a few American colleges with international and a tiny handful with global reputations. When a school actually has a global reputation, people recognize its name anywhere in the world. If you have to explain what, or where your school is, it doesn't have a reputation where you are.

Think of it this way: how many British universities can you name? And how many can you say are impressive? Almost every educated person in America has heard of Oxford and Cambridge. And you know that those schools are supposed to be big deals. You may have heard of the University of London, or St. Andrews. They have international reputations, at least. Oxford and Cambridge have truly global reputations. There are a number of other excellent universities in the UK, but I will confess that I cannot distinguish between the reputations of most of those colleges. Is the University of Hull more or less prestigious than the University of Kent? Is Manchester "better" or "worse" than Nottingham? Other than my regard for individual British Shakespeare scholars at those places, I have no idea. Those are schools with national, regional, or local reputations. On this side of the Atlantic, they are hard to tell apart.

Likewise, when you move to a new city in the US, you will hear for the first time about a number of local colleges that are considered fairly prestigious. Those schools have local reputations. It is much harder to realize that this or that college from your own home town, which some of your high school friends dreamed of getting into, is basically unknown where you live now. (Just today I had to explain to my spouse, a professional academic herself, the reputation that a particular Boston-area university has in Boston. That school's reputation is regional at best.) There are, however, a few colleges that have specialized reputations within a particular field: largely unknown to the general public, but well known for people in a particular business. Think of a school with an incredibly strong meteorology program, whose meteorology majors have a national advantage when competing for meteorology jobs, but no one who majored in anything else gets any advantage outside the local area.

The important point here is that local and regional reputations are not illusions. It is not that your new neighbors in your new town are wrong about how good some local college is. The college really does have the reputation they think it has. It just doesn't have that reputation in other places. If you graduate from the college in greater Boston my spouse was asking about today, that degree will serve as an advantage to you in the Boston area, and likely throughout New England. It simply won't give you that advantage anywhere else. Outside the New England states, that's not a "good" school or a "bad" school, but simply a school. HR staff will look at your resume and see that you went to college. If you move to say, Chicago the week after graduation, you will likely lose any edge that the degree might give you in Massachusetts.

How much the question of reach matters in choosing a school depends on what you want to do after college. If you are planning to move after graduation, to enter a profession that will likely require you to move, or to apply to graduate or professional schools outside your area, you are better off if your college has a national reputation. If you plan to live your days happily in or around your hometown, a school with a local reputation might be more than enough. You can go to the Boston-area school my wife hasn't really heard of, settle down on the South Shore, and be just fine. But if your lifelong dream is to go on to, say, medical school at UCLA, then trying to get into UCLA from a school that's only a big deal in Boston is not the best plan. In fact, there are other Boston colleges that might, inside Boston, seem no better than Nameless Boston-Area College, or even have slightly less local cachet, but whose cred travels further. This is when you need some candid expert advice.

The question, both in terms of resources and reach, isn't how good the school is in some abstract way. It's what the college is going to offer you.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Dr. Cleveland's Rule for Evaluating Rumors of Affairs

So, the latest Republican self-immolation in the House apparently has now also spun off nasty little rumors of an affair between two Members of the House. Let me say, straight off, that I don't give a damn whether or not that's true. My issue with today's Republicans is not the conduct of their private lives, but the scandalous and shocking conduct of their public lives. They face important moral questions in the House every day and give immoral answers. When someone is for torture and against feeding the starving, adultery is really not the big moral issue.

But that said, I'm inclined to believe that the rumors are more likely to be untrue than true. I could be proved wrong: it's maybe a 60-40 or 70-30 proposition. But the stories could just be a smear, especially considering the very shaky sources of the accusation so far. In fact, news outlets promoting this story should be ashamed for circulating these rumors without even one good source that can testify to their truth. And I am also skeptical because of my Rumored Affair Rule of Thumb: always be more skeptical of a rumored affair when the people involved are attractive.

Rumors like this get started for many reasons (including, occasionally, because the rumor is true). But people repeat them for reasons of their own. Sometimes, a rumor like this has legs because circumstantial evidence keeps it going. Sometimes, the rumor sticks because people have an ulterior motive that the rumor furthers, as in many political situations. But also, in general, people tend to repeat a sexual rumor if they think it's hot. The sexier the people in the story are, the more people like that story. It's basic human nature. So a flimsy story featuring two attractive people (or just a conspicuously attractive woman) tends to flourish despite the lack if any good reason to believe it. The reason people believe those rumors is because believing them is titillating.

People love love love talking about the rumored JFK-Marilyn Monroe affair, for example, although the evidence seems to suggest that it was basically just a one-night stand. But people love love love talking about it because nearly everyone finds at least one of those two people sexually attractive. Telling that story, or thinking about it, is a way of titillating yourself. On the other hand, you've probably never heard that Bob Hope had a confirmed and quite torrid affair with Ethel Merman, and you will probably blot that information from your mind by the middle of my next paragraph, because you really may not want to picture that.

So my rule of thumb, especially but not exclusively with show business rumors, is to take a story where the protagonists are sexy (by the standards of their profession) as suspect until proven otherwise. When the sexiness of the couple is in doubt, I go with the question of how sexy the woman in the rumor is. Rumors about sexy people fly further on flimsier wings, so when someone tells you a hot rumor about Celebrity A and Celebrity B, what they are really saying is "I enjoy thinking about Celebrity A-and/or-B having sex." They're not necessarily telling you anything else.

The current scurrilous rumor about two Republicans in the House involves two perfectly nice-looking people for their age and profession. They could not star in a teen romance movie, and neither happens to be my personal cup of tea, but for forty- and fifty-something politicians they look pretty good. And, more importantly, the female politician in the story is conventionally very attractive. When that woman's fellow Republicans gossip about her committing adultery, what they are really saying is that they enjoy thinking about that Congresswoman having some illicit sex. And a lot of them are admitting that they would like to be committing adultery with her. Maybe she actually has a lover. But that's not really the point. The rumor flourishes because the men she works with enjoy thinking about her with a lover. It goes with the territory, still, in 2015.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at Dagblog

Friday, October 09, 2015

What Just Happened to the House GOP?

As you have all seen by now, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has dramatically withdrawn from the race for Speaker of the House. As every news story has made clear, McCarthy was undone by the opposition of a group of hard-liners (probably about forty of them). What the news stories don't make clear is that those hard-liners could not have come close to beating McCarthy at the caucus election where McCarthy resigned. The GOP caucus would have elected McCarthy comfortably if he had let them vote. But the forty malcontents who shivved McCarthy refused to accept the result of their own party's election. They were going to vote against McCarthy on the House floor with the Democrats. No news story explains this particularly clearly, but it's that, rather than the details of McCarthy or Boehner's individual political fates, that really suggests a major change.

The usual political logic is you try to get someone you want as your own party's candidate, but then you stick with your party's choice in the election with the other party. If you don't like Pelosi or Boehner (or Gingrich or Hastert or Wright or O'Neill or ...) you vote against them in your own party's caucus vote. But if most of your party still votes for Pelosi/Gingerich/Boehner/O'Neill, you go out and vote for that person, too. The forty-or-so malcontents in the self-described "House Freedom Caucus" are done playing by those rules. Unless they are given what they want (indeed, apparently almost everything they want), they are going to shiv their own party's elected leaders.

Boehner didn't lose support among Republicans in the sense that a solid majority of House Republicans did not back him. He resigned from the Speakership because a minority of House Republicans refused to accept what the majority of their own party wanted.

What this means is that the Tea Party, more or less (the most conservative segment of the House Republicans) has begun to operate like a parliamentary third party. Specifically, they are beginning to behave like the tiny minority parties (often fifth- or eighth- or ninth-parties) who gain disproportionate power in multiparty parliaments like Italy's or Israel's. The major parties in those parliaments, while much larger than the tiny parties, can seldom form a majority coalition alone. Neither Likud nor Labor wins more than 50% of the seats in Parliament. So they have to cobble together coalitions by bringing in various small parties, each of which gets to make its demands. And therefore those small parties get significantly more influence than the number of actual voters they attract would suggest. The tail gets to wag the dog a little bit every time a government forms.

Now, the Democrats and Republicans have both always been somewhat unlikely and unruly coalitions, with pretty strange bedfellows in each party. But mostly, the Democrats and Republicans have mostly operated like single parties, keeping the fractious infighting on the inside. But the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus/Hostage Takers are no longer playing by those rules. They are willing to sabotage their own party's candidate for Speaker of the House, the same way various small Italian or Israeli parties are willing to sabotage their natural allies' chance of building a governing coalition until enough favors have been extracted.

Note here that the group of Congressmen doing this is unrepresentative in two ways. They represent a tiny minority of voters, easily less than 10%. And they are on one of the far ends of the political spectrum. It's not the forty most moderate Republicans demanding to call the shots or they'll burn the whole pool hall down. It's the forty most hyper-conservative Republicans, the ones furthest away from the median voter.

In earlier periods, before the Democrats and Republicans were as cleanly sorted along ideological lines as they are today, a small minority in Congress, suggesting a closely-divided public, usually led to a more moderate, compromise-oriented Congress. There were enough conservative Democrats and enough liberal Republicans that neither party  could make big changes without a big majority. A party with a slim majority in the House could not ram through big initiatives that the other party hated, because the moderates in your own party would vote with the other side. That seemed roughly to reflect the will of the people.

Now the most-conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most-liberal Republican in Congress, and vice-versa. So there's little danger, especially for Republicans, of House members defecting to the other party. Now the danger is that the hardest-line members of your own party (people who, maddeningly, have no closer political ally than you in the world) will betray you and disrupt the functioning of government in order to get what they want. So the current system gives outsized influence to tiny political groups, who are far from the ideological mainstream and have done various things of which the country deeply disapproves. It is not pretty and it is not fair, but it seems to be what our system is becoming. Of course, it didn't used to be this way.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Update from Old Friend of the Blog (or, Kevin Hogan Is Back!)

Four years ago, I blogged about my old friend and colleague Kevin Hogan, a Massachusetts teacher who was ambushed in a parking lot by a Fox News reporter peddling a sex scandal.
Kevin has been suspended from his job. He is in real danger of being fired. And he will likely never find another job as a teacher. That is a sad thing, and not just for Kevin.  Teaching may be the single best thing he does for the world, and the world will be much the poorer if he leaves the classroom.
I was afraid that Kevin's educational gifts - and Kevin is a genuinely gifted educator - would go to waste, unused. But last week I got a surprise e-mail from out of the blue: Kevin Hogan, who has now become an LGBT activist. I cannot tell you how pleased and relieved I am to hear that news. If Kevin is being kept out of classrooms, his talents as a teacher and communicator can still benefit us all in the public square.

And Kevin does have important things to teach us, not least the hard truths of surviving the 21st century's vicious public shaming. He's currently finishing a book, Healing Stigma: A Survivor's Guide to Repairing Identity in the Internet Age, and I am looking forward to reading it. This is news that stays news. We don't yet have our minds around what we, in the internet age, are doing to private individuals, but Kevin's experiences and his thoughtful reflection can help us understand. Here is Kevin on the recent Ashley Madison hack, something widely taken as an opportunity for gleeful internet heckling:
On the morning of August 19th, I woke up early and went online to check the news. A headline in the business section caught my eye: "Ashley Madison infidelity site's customer data 'leaked.'"
A chill crept over me. I ran to the bedroom, where my wife was just waking up. She must have recognized a familiar look on my face, because she immediately reached for my hand and asked what was wrong.
"People are going to die," I whispered to her, dreading the words as I said them. 

You can read the rest of Kevin's post here. It's very much worth the read.

Welcome back to the fight, Kevin. This time, I know our side will win.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ask Me About Shakespeare, Round Two

Over at Dagblog, I'm hosting my second "Ask me about Shakespeare" thread. If you want to watch the steam come out of my ears as I relive my graduate oral exams, that's the place right now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Winnowing the GOP Field with Jane Austen

Scott Walker has left the Republican presidential primaries: the first dropout who was once considered a major contender for the nomination. That, and the departure of Rick Perry, leaves us with only fourteen or fifteen candidates left. In fact, the real number is much smaller than that, because of an economic concept called the Pareto principle; there have never been sixteen choices, because the Pareto principle cuts the number down to a smaller number of practical options. But since I am a book nerd rather than a math nerd, I am going to illustrate this statistical idea with my old friend Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr and Mrs Bennet have imprudently had a family of five daughters and no sons. Since there's no son, Mr Bennet's estate is going to distant relatives when he dies, leaving his widow and five daughters in poverty. The five girls' only hope is to marry well. But since there are five of them, there is the real danger that they will crowd each other out so that none of them gets married. Other characters ask why the Bennets have allowed all five daughters out "into society," meaning the marriage market, at once instead of letting one daughter out at a time, so that Daughter Number Two wouldn't start going to balls until Daughter Number One was married. The Bennets take a laissez-faire approach which hopes that all five girls can find husbands; the neighbors fear a Tragedy of the Commons in which the glut of Bennet sisters on the marriage market keeps any of them from being married.

Neither scenario is correct. Three sisters get married, two do not, and the two who do not are never in even the remotest danger of a marriage proposal. The Bennett sisters offer three, rather than five, real choices for potential suitors. Two of the five sisters are eliminated from consideration by the Pareto principle, which says that any option which comes behind another in all criteria being considered is thereby eliminated from consideration: "Pareto dominated," as they like to say at 538. If I'm choosing a motel for the night, I might balance my choice between low cost on one hand and amenities like good cable or a free breakfast on the other. Maybe I'll go with Chain A, which costs more but provides HBO and a waffle buffet, or the much cheaper Chain B, with its basic cable and continental breakfast. But I am not even going to consider Chain C, which costs $20 more than Chain B but doesn't offer ESPN or breakfast. Why would I pay more not to get a Danish? Chain C is Pareto dominated, eliminated from the field of choices.

Now, the eldest of the five Bennet sisters, Jane, is universally agreed to be the best-looking. She is also easily the nicest of the five. Daughter Number Two, Elizabeth, is the second-prettiest (as we know from the behavior of a failed suitor who only considers looks), but not especially nice; she can have a sharp tongue. On the other hand, Elizabeth is by far the smartest. Meanwhile youngest sister, Lydia, is far and away the easiest of the five. (I tried to find another term like "affable" or "agreeable," but none of these are quite accurate. Lydia is distinguished from her four sisters because she's the one most likely to have sex before marriage.) And of course the sisters are all equal on some criteria, such as wealth and family background. A man who needs a rich dowry, or who can't bear the thought of Mrs Bennet as a mother-in-law, is going to rule all five sisters out of consideration.

An especially shallow suitor (and the novel does have one), would just rank all five sisters by physical attractiveness: Jane first, Elizabeth second, and Mary last. By that standard, Elizabeth would be Jane's closest rival. But most people looking for a spouse are at least a little smarter than that, and choose along more than one axis, so that Jane and Elizabeth are never actually in competition with each other for serious suitors. If you're looking for pretty and nice, Jane is the clear winner, and someone looking for someone like Jane is not going to consider Elizabeth at all. Elizabeth is less physically attractive AND more likely to take your inventory with other people there listening.

On the other hand, there are suitors who value intelligence, and who might prefer Elizabeth to her prettier sister, especially if they put less of a premium on beauty alone. Elizabeth is more than pretty enough to marry, and much, much smarter than most other young marriageable ladies in the novel, so she attracts her own suitors. But there's virtually no overlap between men who pursue Elizabeth and men who pursue Jane. If you're interested in beauty and sweetness, Jane Pareto dominates Elizabeth. But Elizabeth isn't universally dominated because she has something that her sister doesn't. If you're interested in beauty and brains, Jane isn't really in the running because, while she is not stupid, neither is she unusually bright. Jane and Elizabeth each have their own distinct group of suitors and occupy different parts of the decision space.

Likewise, a caddish suitor looking for someone to sleep with rather than to marry is going to be much more interested in Lydia. Jane and Elizabeth may be prettier and, in the abstract, sexier. But they don't crowd Lydia entirely out of the decision space because she offers something they don't. If you're looking for premarital sex, the fact that Jane is hotter doesn't make her a better choice. The sexier sister who won't sleep with you is not a better choice than the still-perfectly-sexy sister who will. So Lydia, Jane, and Elizabeth present three distinct alternatives, appealing to three different kinds of men.

But the other two sisters, Mary and Kitty, are eliminated from consideration because neither offers a genuine alternative to the other three sisters. Instead, they both come off as inferior imitations of one of those three. Mary, who is clearly the homeliest, has staked all her chips on showing off her brains. Her problem is that Elizabeth is still much, much smarter. Mary's attempts to seem smart are painfully laborious, all too clearly the product of ponderous study, while Elizabeth is quick as lightning. And, worse yet, Elizabeth is also much prettier than Mary. Poor Mary can't win, and doesn't. No suitor is going to pursue Mary while Elizabeth is available.

Likewise, Kitty is a paler imitation of Lydia, almost surely the second-easiest. (She clearly knows about some of Lydia's illicit romance and keeps that secret, whereas the other three sisters would almost certainly narc on Lydia immediately.) But second-easiest, in this case, means not as easy. Anybody interested in Kitty is going to be more interested in Lydia. So, like Mary, Kitty is Pareto dominated. She is one of the eliminated choices and has to live vicariously through Lydia's imprudent adventures.

Now, our crowd of Republican candidates likewise represents a number of significant alternatives, each with its own sector of the decision space, and a number of also-rans who are basically ruled out. The candidates are competing on different strengths, most obviously on their conservatism and their electability, but there are other characteristics that resonate with Republican primary voters; the exact list is up for debate. Performance of authority seems to be salient, so that Fiorina doing her best alpha-dog act at the second debate helped her enormously. And, alas, there is clearly a subset of GOP voters that is looking for the best racist dog-whistler.

Trump doesn't compete on electability at all. But he performs authority well, he traffics in various fringe beliefs that are current among some of the party base, and  he doesn't so much do the racist dog whistle as he calls his racist dogs at the top of his voice. If you were planning to run as a maverick outsider and pick up support with some subtle racial signaling, Trump has you beat on every level. He is more of an outsider than any first-term Senator or far-from-DC governor can claim to be. He is also more maverick-y than anyone else, being not merely a maverick but a bull in a china shop, untethered by any restraint or sense of prudence. You can't be more outrageous than Trump. And if you were hoping to pick up a few white-pride voters, Trump had you beat out of the gate when called Mexicans rapists in his announcement speech. Other "outsider" candidates looking for that particular slice of white support are Pareto dominated by Trump.

There are other examples. Huckabee and Santorum are both running as not-very-electable champions of Christian conservatives. But Huckabee is both more appealing to Christian conservatives and more electable than Santorum is (meaning not so very electable, but not as hopeless as Santorum). This leaves Santorum no air to breathe at all. If Bobby Jindal was hoping to be the non-white hardcore conservative candidate, Ben Carson (even more hardcore and less white) has him beat. If Jindal was hoping to be the Chance to Reach New Voters, Rubio has him beat (because the Latino vote is much bigger than the South Asian vote).

Where we are really not seeing much competition is in the Electability sweepstakes, with the candidates whose basic appeal is that they can win in the general election. Right now the primary voters don't seem interested in electability at all; the most recent polls show Trump, Carson, and Fiorina, three candidates who haven't won a single election between them, with more than half the combined support of GOP voters. As I've argued before, the most surprising thing is not how well Trump is doing but how poorly Jeb Bush, the presumptive electable alternative, is doing. And no one has yet emerged as the main electable candidate, the way Mitt Romney emerged last time around. The 2012 Republican primaries featured one main Electable Option, Romney, and a bunch of competitors for the role of Uncompromising Conservative. This time we have a clear Uncompromising Outsider, pretty much safe from challenge on his native turf, and no solid Electable Mainstream Option. In 2012, no Republican could hold onto the Lydia Bennet role for more than a week or two. This time, no Republican has seized the Elizabeth Bennet role for even a week.

The Democratic primary, on the other hand, already has a pretty clear and recognizable shape. There's a party-establishment favorite, Clinton, whose main appeal is her electability, and a dark-horse challenger, Sanders, whose main appeal is his ideological closeness to the base. Then you have a couple of also-rans like Martin O'Malley or Jim Webb,  Pareto dominated by Clinton because they are at once less liberal and less electable than she is. And you have the non-candidate, Biden, sitting out because he would be dominated by Hillary if he got in now (he's slightly less electable and equally mainstream), but that would flip around if Hillary were suddenly undone by a major scandal. (If Hillary turned out to be, say, selling weapons to Iran and using the money to fund the Nicaraguan contras, to choose a purely hypothetical example, she would suddenly be less electable than Biden.)

Where I would expect to see movement in the Republican campaign is on the mainstream, electable side. Trump cannot be beaten at Trump's game. Candidates like Cruz or Rand Paul are going nowhere this year. Neither is Carson, really, even if he's outpolling some more likely contenders right now. But someone could conceivably take over the mainstream/establishment/viable-in-a-general-election role that Jeb Bush hasn't managed to keep or win. Yes, some of the other mainstream/moderate candidates are hopeless. No primary voter would vote for George Pataki, who is both to the left of Jeb Bush and less viable in the general election than Jeb Bush, when they could simply vote for Jeb Bush. The same basically goes for Lindsay Graham. But while Jeb himself can't manage to break ten percent in the polls, one of the other candidates in his general category could overtake him. People like Rubio and Kasich, or even Christie despite his serious problems, would be smart to stick around.  They aren't really competing against all 13 of the other candidates. They aren't even competing against Trump. Not yet. They're competing against Jeb Bush for the position of Reasonable Party Dad that he mysteriously can't nail down. Then whoever manages to establish himself in that role can go toe-to-toe with Trump under the "Yes, but I can beat Hillary" banner.

And if none of the "electable" establishment candidates emerges as a major contender, then we will be on new and unexpected ground.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog