Fantasy Democracy: Notes on Capital, Politics, and Voting

fantasy-democracyLouis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.

That study found that

“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).

In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.

Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,

“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).

That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.

An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,

“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).

Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is

r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).

What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that

“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).

And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches

“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).

In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.

Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:

“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”

And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.

“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.

“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).

The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how

“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).

Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).

That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”

Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:

Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”

Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.

English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.

Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.

Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”

Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.

Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.

Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”

Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!

But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?

In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:

“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.

James Joyce on Writing: “write dangerously”

“The important thing is not what we write,” Joyce tells Arthur Power in Conversations with James Joyce, “but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously” (95).

Though I’ve several books written by people who knew Joyce, I’d never read Power’s book. Menand mentioned it in his “Silence, Exile, Punning: James Joyce’s chance encounters” (New Yorker, 2 July 2012), and I was able to find a cheap copy. [Menand’s title is itself a kind of pun on something Stephen tells his friend Cranly toward the end of Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “And I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning” (247)].

Menand questions whether what we read in Power’s book are the actual words of Joyce or the “gist” of a conversation that took place decades prior to the book’s publication. Would Menand have the same complaint if Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s highly regarded biographer, was the one recalling the conversations? It seems Menand thinks Power belongs, if he should be mentioned at all, in a footnote somewhere, his “renown” based on a single book, and while I agree with Menand that Power misread Joyce’s comment regarding the birth of a grandson, I don’t think Power should be dismissed based on Menand’s “gist” complaint. [An argument ensues, as Gordon Bowker, whose new biography Menand is reviewing, responds, timely, for the question of the journalistic practice of approximating quotes is in the air].

And Arthur Power was a journalist of sorts, an art critic, but he seems to have had skill and talent enough to closely observe and record [he said he wrote daily in his notebook, so the conversations were fresh in his mind when he recorded them], and we certainly have no reason to think that he had motive to misquote Joyce. In any case, Power’s book is full of pearls, and whether the gems contain the exact words of Joyce or simply the “gist,” I found them worth reflection.

But that business I quoted above, Joyce saying, “The important thing is not what we write…,” does he qualify that with this: “A writer’s purpose is to describe the life of his day, and I chose Dublin because it is the focal point of the Ireland of today, its heart-beat you may say, and to ignore that would be affectation” (97). In other words, Joyce seems to be saying that what we do write should come from what we know, what we have experienced.

There’s no doubt Joyce had a sense of humor, and could be an acerbic wit. An illustration of humor: “Yes, said Joyce, I met him [Proust] once at a literary dinner and when we were introduced all he said to me was: ‘Do you like truffles?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘I am very fond of truffles.’ And that was the only conversation which took place between the two most famous writers of their time, remarked Joyce – who seemed to be highly amused at the incident” (79). And an example of Joyce’s acerbic wit: upon hearing of the sad suicide of the socially bumbling and difficult and “irritating” portrait painter, Patrick Tuohy, Joyce had hired to paint his father and later his immediate family, Joyce said, “I am not surprised. He nearly made me commit suicide too” (105).

But reading Power’s book I found my focus going to Joyce’s comments on writing: “A book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality” (95). Joyce seems to have preferred emotion over intellect. I suppose it takes an intellectual giant to argue this: “I know when I was writing Ulysses I tried to give the colour and tone of Dublin with my words; the drab, yet glistening atmosphere of Dublin, its hallucinatory vapours, its tattered confusion, the atmosphere of its bars, its social immobility – they could only be conveyed by the texture of my words. Thought and plot are not so important as some would make them out to be. The object of any work of art is the transference of emotion; talent is the gift of conveying that emotion” (98).

Joyce employed humor in his writing: “In Ulysses I tried to keep close to fact. There is humour of course, for though man’s position in this world is fundamentally tragic it can also be seen as humorous. The disparity of what he wants to be and what he is, is no doubt laughable, so much so that a comedian has only to come on to the stage and trip and everyone roars with laughter” (99). Joyce says, “Out of this marriage, this forced marriage of the spirit and matter, humour is created, for Ulysses is fundamentally a humorous work” (89). As for who is to say what any writing “fundamentally” is, Joyce clarifies, for critic, writer, and reader at once: “Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating?…Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk” (89).

An example of good writing Joyce found in Hemingway’s short story “A Clean Well Lighted Place”: “He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, said Joyce, which is what every writer strives to do…It is masterly…I think it is one of the best short stories ever written; there is bite there.” Yet Joyce’s enthusiasm at the time for Hemingway is tempered and foreshadows so much of what was to come, both for Hemingway and for literature in general: “I admit to his merit, of course, that he is very much of our time. But in my opinion he is too much of our time, in fact his writing is now more the work of a journalist than that of a literary man” (107).

But by literary man Joyce wasn’t referring to the PhD, the academic, the professional scholar, whose polite conversations transpire in private behind the rood screen of the contemporary paywall, but to something more real and immediate and accessible to all: “What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear…Most lives are made up like the modern painter’s themes, of jugs, and pots and plates, back-streets and blowsy living-rooms inhabited by blowsy women, and of a thousand daily sordid incidents which seep into our minds no matter how we strive to keep them out. These are the furniture of our life” (75).

Power, Arthur. Conversations with James Joyce. The University of Chicago Press. 1974. Phoenix edition 1982. Edited with Foreword by Clive Hart. Reprint. Originally published London: Millington, 1974.

Lilliput Press eBook (Feb. 2012) at Barnes and Noble.

On hasty writing and reading

I was struck by Louis Menand’s comment in his review of Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite (New Yorker, July 9 & 16, 2012), that “…’Cronkite’ (HarperCollins), is long and hastily written… (88).” I wasn’t surprised, though, for US culture is Menand’s turf, and his own output, if the measurement means anything, is dwarfed by Brinkley’s in a ratio of about 4:1. Voluminous output doesn’t prove haste. Some writers are long distance runners. But after two decades of churning out a book a year, one’s writing might start to limp. Journalism with daily deadlines often produces its own unique values.

Occasionally, I read something I think might have been hastily written. Hasty writing might result in a piece that is inaccurate, sloppy, shallow, or simply difficult to read. Hasty sounds short, but hasty writing might be too long or too short. I recently started Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America” (DoubleDay, 2010). On page 32, we are told that Bob’s father, Abe, “had a good job working as a senior manager for the Standard Oil Company, and he ran the company union.” But then, in the very next paragraph, we are told that as Bob’s father “…was in the appliance business, his family became the first in town to own a television, in 1952.” What happened to the “good job” with Standard Oil? And how is it that a corporate manager ran the employee union? But I don’t think Wilentz’s book was hastily written, necessarily. The problem is hinted at in his rambling introduction, where he tries to explain the difficulty and danger inherent in writing a history so vast one risks falling into encyclopedic mode.

Janet Groth’s “The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker” (Algonquin, 2012) is a lovely book, and, I suspect, not hastily written, but, again, some writers have a talent for producing smooth running prose that runs for miles and miles without a bump or the need for a rest stop. Janet’s chapter on Joe Mitchell is a comment on haste, for Mitchell seems to have rolled to a complete stop, and for a couple of decades lingered on the side of the road, unwilling to succumb to haste just to get a word out. But enough of that metaphor. The language of “The Receptionist” I suspect is labored over to produce a period sound, a sound that doesn’t always strike my ear as natural, but that language seems appropriate to the era and the subject, and provides a stunning canvas for the memoirist’s vitalic paints.

The blog, as a mode, is a hothouse for hasty writing. I note this particularly in some of the academic blogs I follow, where the language is not so much written but talked into the post, talked in a rambling, lecture-like way, and the posts are almost always too long. These are writers who never had to write for a living, nor consider a general interest audience.

A non-academic and enjoyable blog I’ve been following, titled “The Literary Man” (and associated, obscurely, apparently, since it’s an anonymous blog – and I don’t usually follow the anonymous or pseudonymous, since it’s difficult enough discerning what’s really going on even when one knows the writer – with The New Yorker; and I wonder what Janet would think of the blog’s title, considering her 40 or so male writers on the 18th floor to the 6 or so female), recently posted a kind of poster-post titled “What’s a book hangover?” A book hangover, the post tells us, is the ache produced when looking up to find one has finished reading the book one was so into, suddenly caste adrift back in the real world.

Being “into” a book is a good feeling. Perhaps that’s why I keep so many going at once, in no haste to finish any of them.

Can Business Rescue the Humanities?

While Plato ruefully proposed to banish the poet from his Republic, today’s Humanities aficionados may seek to bar businesspersons from their club. Yet the Humanities are in crisis, as usual, perhaps for lack of sound business sense, while the sound business sensors, often viewed as eschewing the Humanities, may be nipping in the basement of the human condition, where the good stuff ages.

Consider three writers whose business experience may have influenced their writing, and whose writings may calm sweating brows in the Humanities: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser. Kafka worked for two insurance companies, Assicurazioni Generali, and the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where his reports contributed to improvements in workplace safety. One report, for example, commented on “the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.” Wallace Stevens worked for the Hartford, and, having earned a law degree from New York Law School, eventually earned a position as VP in claims, a job he valued. Few of his peers at the Hartford knew or cared about his poems, but when one of his co-workers came into his office one day asking about one of his poems, Stevens told him not to worry about it, for his co-worker was too literal. And Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006, spent a career at Lincoln Life, another insurance company. John Cage said that when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, we find the sound a pleasure; just so, we must turn our attention to the Humanities we do not intend.

This benevolent blogger spent 25 years in the republic of an insurance corporation. After teaching for nearly a decade, he had taken a summer off to consider a career change, selected a national organization headquartered in his hometown of Los Angeles, and bought a new suit of clothes to prepare for the new enterprise. He had been reading Thoreau’s Walden, and was well aware of Henry’s advice, in the opening chapter, “Economy,” to “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes” (para. 15), but he nevertheless bought a new pair of wingtips, on the assumption that these were the shoes worn in the business world. He soon found he was the only one in the office in a pair of wingtips. Everyone else seemed to prefer penny loafers. Thus began his education into business. The office had bells, bells to signal the start of work, bells to signal breaks and lunches, and bells to signal the end of the workday. Indeed, the office had more bells than had any school he could remember, and he was reminded of Poe’s bells, “…Keeping time, time, time…to the throbbing…to the sobbing…to the moaning and the groaning of the bells,” though the office bells touched not the acoustic heart, being electric, and he thought too of McLuhan and Fuller – that old school prepared one to work in a factory, though he watched that factory change with locomotive speed: first the bells were freed, then the men from their ties, and more gradually the women from theirs. But these changes move not linearly, as a locomotive moves, but mosaically, and it’s often difficult to know if change in business is carrying one forward or backward. But the same is true in the Humanities, where bells and ties have also had their heydays, and specialization has now created a mosaic one can read neither “out far nor in deep.”

And one also finds in the Humanities heavy doses of alienation, particularly in the bust phase of the current devaluing of the purpose of a liberal arts education as academic acculturation adulterates, through competitive forces at work in the market place, for schools are part of the commercial marketplace, as they are increasingly discovering, yet business and schools alike continue to lobby for bailouts, and neither seems to have found a purpose and audience that is sustainable in a self-contained strategy and structure. For all the criticism of the “profits” these days, the universities may have dissed their affections once invested so heavily in the public interest. What’s left is elitism, with no access for the underclass, or, increasingly, even the middle class, but can there be a balanced elitism fueled by the working class? There was in California before Reagan set about to dismantle the best university system in the world. Still, one finds no less alienation in the Humanities than one finds in capitalism. For Marx, “the worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should,” but does this not describe the plight of today’s average Humanities adjunct? Why can’t schools run more like businesses? Perhaps they already do, as reflected in the competitive nature of grades, even as inflation has rendered the currency valueless.

For businesses have for some time been operating more and more like schools, creating campus atmospheres, valuing continuing education for employees, including executive training that exceeds anything available in the Humanities (Wharton is a good example), inculcating team atmospheres, and creating and running corporate universities that encourage personal, purposeful growth. But schools lack the sense of urgency that permeates the business world. Tenured professors don’t work full time, think alike (the competition is not for ideas, but to maintain the status quo), too much research is funded at the public trough yet is insulated from public view. The separation of business from the Humanities creates a false dichotomy that nevertheless suggests its own solution. The Humanities should embrace business with a sense of urgency, for their Titanic has hit its iceberg, and that the ship will sink stinks with mathematical certainty.

Degrading School

At least as far back as 1965, education researchers knew there existed no correlation between college grades and subsequent career success. In a review of the literature, “The Relationship Between College Grades and Adult Achievement,” published by ACT (the American College Testing Program), Donald P. Hoyt concluded that “…college grades bear little or no relationship to any measures of adult accomplishment” (paper). Hoyt later served as President of ACPA (American College Personnel Association). In a workshop he gave in 1970, he was still advocating for change in testing, assessment, and counseling that would be student focused: “The need for non-standardized measures occurs in two contexts. First, in helping students plan their future there is frequently a need for appraisal of special talents or inclinations beyond those concerned with academic background or potential. Second, is trying to determine the effectiveness of a given program – such as counseling method, teaching approach, or orientation program – standardized measures are seldom appropriate indicators of success” (paper). The workshop asked three decisive questions: “What is success? What is educational success? And how is a person appraised if he is doing well or poorly?” And how does an individual blend another’s appraisal with his own self-appraisal, particularly if he doesn’t speak the appraisal language? “Part of a middle class background,” Hoyt said, “which doesn’t let you enter freely makes you unable to talk. You can’t understand, you can’t feel, and I feel very much personally this way. I think if not the most significant, this inability to talk is one of the most significant problems in education today.” Yet he advocates for student self-appraisal because one of the most important outcomes of the appraisal process is “knowing who the customer is and knowing how he is proceeding.”

For the most part, Hoyt was speaking to testing assessments, but letter grades, often assigned subjectively, in spite of efforts to create objective rubrics, are also discussed and considered in the question concerning the effectiveness of the assessment process. But does the fact that a grade is assigned subjectively make it any less meaningful? Yet assigning letter grades in the adult student learning environment may lack a persuasive objective. Students may be given a weak rhetorical picture of achievement or progress, what is being measured may not be fitted to what was learned, raw intelligence may be rewarded while hard work may be ignored, and educators may not have reliable assessment data on which to judge the effectiveness of their programs.

Grading is a game of competition, and, increasingly, gamers are opting out. Last year, Harvard announced it would no longer “assume” courses would end with the traditional three-hour exam. The exams are now the exception rather than the rule. Predictably, not everyone was happy with the decision: “Even Harvard’s new General Education courses will abjure finals. We are left wondering: Without exams to prove it, how can students be sure that they are ‘generally educated’ when they graduate? How can the institution itself be sure? Or doesn’t it care?”, came a critique called “Bye-bye Blue Books?” in Harvard Magazine. Of course it cares, but one escapes a rip tide by swimming parallel to shore, not against the current. Meanwhile, grading is still the only game in town, with or without final exams. Louis Menand, writing in the May 21, 2007 New Yorker, said, “American colleges notoriously inflate grades, but they can never inflate them enough, because education in the United States has become hypercompetitive and every little difference matters.” But does every little difference matter? And, if so, matter toward what? Is education like golf? “You’re on your own,” Menand says. “Everything you do in a meritocratic society is some kind of test, and there is never a final exam. There is only another test. People seem to pick up on this earlier and earlier in their lives, and at some point it starts to get in the way of their becoming educated. You can’t learn when you’re afraid of being wrong.” Having to be right all the time both mirrors and shatters the expectation that the student must get an A, every time, on every paper, in every class. Menand concludes with this counter-proposal: “We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days.”

No game is more competitive, where, indeed, “every little difference” is vital to the outcome, than golf. Perhaps graders and graded alike might benefit from a review of the common but deceiving golf card. A par in golf is the number of strokes an average golfer is expected to hit on any particular hole. The pars traditionally are 3, 4, or 5. Comparing golf scores to academic grading, we might say that an Eagle (two under par) approximates an “A” (it being an unarguable assumption that holes in one almost never happen, and when they do it’s a matter of chance, not skill); a Birdie is a “B”; a Par is a “C”; and a Bogie is a “D.” The problem (as the analogy relates to grading) is that most amateur golfers never shoot par; they shoot well below par. The average is D or below. To be an average golfer is to be a below average golfer. That average golfers nevertheless fantasize and consider themselves “A” golfers is one of the emperor wears no clothes hilarities of our time. Golf courses are designed to test the golfer’s mastery of the sport, and some are more difficult than others, and the par for the course reflects this. Women tee off closer to the hole; but amateurs do too, and pros are supposed to hit from the most remote tees. Thus the first, and perhaps only, opponent in golf is the course.

Grades are the business side of school, the currency of the exchange, and the discussion of inflation and deflation is ongoing, as is talk of the need to revalue or devalue, of the value of the grade against some other currency. I wish we could degrade school. Doesn’t that sound funny? Of course that’s exactly what many think we have done. I got the idea for the term “degrading school” from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.

Related: “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,” by Louis Menand, June 6, 2011, New Yorker.

Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm

When Huck decides to help Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he really does believe he’ll go to hell for his actions. Yet he’s awakening from a cultured sleep; he’s being reborn. First, he’s accepted the responsibility of a decision; he must act: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” Huck was born into a culture that passed on as a value the idea that to help a runaway slave was a crime and a sin. It’s a culture informed by codes of honor and shame. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” And at the end of the book, when Huck decides to “light out for the territory,” he’s saying that he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. The orphaned Huck has been born again.

This same sense of honor and shame opens Crossan’s discussion of Mediterranean cultures in his “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Honor and shame are cultural core values, but more, they become the very persona of the culture: “Honor and shame, then, could be defined as the ideology of small, discrete, and unstable groups competing permanently for basic resources that are attained insecurely and maintained precariously but where conflict must be reluctantly transposed into cooperation for the most precious resource of all, marriageable women” (p. 15). But like Huck, Jesus ain’t gonna work on this Maggie’s farm no more, either. It’s clear that honor and shame, as enculturated values, become emotions enabling control, and one must be born again to escape the enculturated entrapments.

We see both examples come together in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the culture described in Huck Finn finally plays itself out, and Quentin’s suicide, prompted, among other things, by his worrying over his sister Caddy’s reputation, will continue forever his argument with his father who has told him that virginity as a value is a man-made tool to control women, the same explanation Crossan argues: “Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men invented virginity not women” (p. 96). But Quentin can’t stomach the irony: “And Father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand” (p. 143).

An example of the controls at work can be seen in Joseph Campbell’s “Tales of Love and Marriage,” from his The Power of Myth. We’re now in medieval Catholic culture, where marriages are arranged, but Tristan and Isolde decide they are, absurdly, in love, in romantic love. Isolde’s nurse delivers the warning, but Tristan, too, has had enough of Maggie’s farm: “And if by my death, you mean the eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too” (p. 190).

A culture’s core values, what it desires, finds expression not necessarily in ideology but in personality, in the masks individuals wear to get along with their neighbors. The existential decision to be born again shucks the mask. James Joyce leaves Ireland and the oppression of the church’s values of honor and shame, its sanctioned hierarchy of rich and poor, ecclesiastical and secular, its discriminations of right and wrong. And Samuel Beckett ain’t gonna work for the text, no more, ripping off the mask with the inside out eyes, the mask that conditions us to see ourselves as others see us, and to find there outside acceptance and respect. Everyone working on Maggie’s farm must wear the same mask.

How we vote is also probably an enculturated core value. Louis Menand, in “The Unpolitical Animal: How political science understands voters (New Yorker, August 30, 2004), argues that “Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.”

“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm, no more” is an existential decision, like Huck’s, and announces a rebirth, affirming that one’s existence precedes one’s essence, and that one has taken individual responsibility for one’s own essence.

Memorialized in Memo; or, where what we purpose proposes to parody

Louis Menand, in the September 20 New Yorker, takes the opportunity, with the recent publication of The Oxford Book of Parodies, to briefly discuss the world of parody, a world that currently, it seems, is too much with us, and “we lay waste our powers,” as Wordsworth said, a mother-lode of potential parody, if anyone knows Wordsworth anymore, for one of Menand’s points is that parody works only on the assumption readers “…[are] presumed to have a lot of literature at their mental fingertips.” In other words, parody is only effective if the reader knows the original.

Yet winter has indeed icussed us, and we are drenched in parody, for parody is now ubiquitous and can occur at random, without antecedent. Parody now springs from its own source; it does not even need a source. Life itself seems a parody of nature. It’s a dark matter, for, as Menand concludes, “…everything is quasi-parodic, when everything presents itself with a wink of self-conscious exaggeration…it has become virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.”

Consider, for example, the memos exchanged between Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ron Ziegler published in Harper’s October issue, culled, apparently, from “100,000 pages of presidential records released by the Nixon Library in July.” Moynihan, 43 at the time and  Nixon’s counselor for urban affairs, wrote, or perhaps dictated, given it’s 1970, a memo to Ziegler, at the time Nixon’s press secretary (at 29, the youngest ever, Harper’s point out), berating the youthful neophyte for walking to a reception rather than taking a seat in an official White House car and riding to the event: “I know that appearances mean little to you, Ron, and that many of the supposed perquisites of the White House office seem more like burdens or even unnecessary expenditures to someone whose life has been so much lived in the more easygoing atmosphere of the Far West…But you have got to keep ever in mind the rule that appearances count.”

The Vietnam War is running; it’s two months after the Kent State massacre of duped students by the even dupier National Guard, and Moynihan sounds more like the counselor for etiquette rather than urban affairs.

Yet Ziegler responds with a full court press: “Can you blame me for disdaining, this once, the sycophantic procession of shiny black Chryslers in which lesser men cloak their insecurities, and choosing instead the leisurely promenade up Connecticut Avenue, throwing a little class on the otherwise benignly neglected locals and reveling in the charms of the summer evening?” But even that is all a throwing off of the scent prelude to Ziegler’s real thrust, the accusation that Moynihan’s real motive is to usurp Ziegler’s position as press secretary, for why else would Moynihan “put out all kinds of bad vibes about me [Ziegler].”

It’s the politics of parody that today draws interest – perhaps parody is always political in its intent, partisan in its tone, for, as Menand says, “it is harder for someone to subvert you if you are already subverting yourself.” As I read and reread the Moynihan/Ziegler to walk or ride memo exchange, I thought surely they can’t have been serious. They had to have been lampooning themselves in private: “1768-74 TUCKER Lt. Nat. (1834) II. 362 Thwarted in the cabinet, baited in parliament, and lampooned in public” (lampoon, OED), and memorialized in memo.