Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

First Semester

In Archives, Uncategorized on December 17, 2010 at 12:00 pm

This is the end of my first semester here at Fletcher. I’m happy to be here—it’s a really healthy institution, just the kind of place I’d hoped it’d be. The biggest pleasure so far has been the students: I actually feel like the rest of the institution is working to keep up with the quality of the students, which is a bit unusual.

Because they’re (er, we’re, you’re) so fascinating, I do wish students would participate in a deeper and more regular exchange of views. The Social List is good for that (and getting better as we get more comfortable with each other), but not as regular or as substantive as would be nice. It certainly doesn’t capture the passion and depth of thought that students demonstrate in, say, class discussions, when we have the encouragement of a participation grade.

That wish has been the basis for Todd, so we’ll try to keep developing the service. Suggestions appreciated. Good luck with finals, and happy holidays!

The Nameless Decade

In Archives, Uncategorized on December 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm

In linguistics, the Whorf Hypothesis states that language defines thought. I think the way we relate to the first decade of this century—the period from 2000 to 2009—is a case in point.

I think that because there’s no convenient name for this decade (“the Aughties”? c’mon), we don’t identify it as a coherent unit, as we do with other decades. In fact, when the decade ended, I literally didn’t notice: I’m only realizing they were a decade almost a year later, as it’s about to be “more than ten years since 2000.” More importantly, I haven’t seen the culture begin to try to sum up the period in the same broad way as other decades.

I think the same thing happened at the beginning of the 20th century. I have a concrete image of every other decade: World War I in the 1910s, the “Roaring” 1920s, and so forth. But the period from 1900 to 1909 is a sort of blank in my mind, during which Theodore Roosevelt may have been president. As it turns out, Roosevelt was president from 1901 to 1909, neatly spanning the period, but these years aren’t packaged as “the Roosevelt era” in my mind because there’s nothing to call them in the first place. One wonders what else we’re not thinking about.

Double Rainbow!

In Archives, Uncategorized on December 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

If you’re stressed out, you might like this YouTube video of a guy seeing a double rainbow outside his house in a national park. The video pretty much speaks for itself, but I do have some thoughts.

First, I think that wonder is one of humanity’s best qualities. We alone have this kind of love and awe for the universe, and what a shame if the universe were without it.

Second, I thought I saw in this video (“What does this mean?!”) the possible origins of religion. The cynical line is that religious beliefs developed when humanity couldn’t face the pain and uncertainty of life without help—but I wonder if religion actually (or also) developed as a way for us to deal with our immense appreciation for the world. Anyway, enjoy finals!

The Dangers of Social Science Thinking

In Archives, Uncategorized on December 14, 2010 at 12:00 pm

The social sciences clarify human behavior tremendously, but they’re also dangerous: because they carry the imprimatur of “science,” we’re in danger of taking their findings as the final word on human nature. To confuse descriptions of how the world is with prescriptions for how it ought to be—and simplifying assumptions with reality—is quite silly, but also quite common and quite harmful.

Victims of this error misapply clumsy and callous modes of thinking to inappropriate contexts. For example, a team of researchers found that studying economics at the graduate level inhibits “cooperation” (which we might call “decency”) in everyday life. In international relations, Alexander Wendt makes the point that the gloomy assumptions of Realist theory are self-fulfilling. More mundanely: have you ever heard someone justify his actions by his Myers-Briggs scores—rather than working to improve the habitual tendencies the test identified?

Every discipline shapes the thought of its students. (If we studied poetry, we might find ourselves becoming wispy and self-indulgent.) But social science is especially dangerous because it approaches human behavior through the essentially inhuman lens of science. Science can define and quantify human experiences, but it is not their native language. We humans ourselves, and our subjective experiences, still represent the final authority on living an honest, engaged, meaningful life. No more passing the buck.

Growth and Stagnation

In Archives, Uncategorized on December 13, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Why do some people keep growing, and why do some people stop? In music, for example, Miles Davis or the Beatles would have continued to evolve for 200 years. But many good musicians’ playing has stagnated: they sound helplessly like themselves, or like a recording of themselves.

I think we stagnate when we latch onto a particular movement, style, or idea, and declare “This is it”: “This is what a jazz trumpet solo sounds like,” “This is what a rock song sounds like.” We reach a level of comfort and familiarity with our discipline—we always sound good, in precisely the way we should sound—and therefore we think we “get it.” Comfort destroys our curiosity, and growth stops.

I think this holds in any discipline. If, for example, we fixate permanently on one approach to development, we’ll quickly lose touch with a changing world. (In fact, this often happens, and cozy, squared-away ideologies like the Washington Consensus are the most dangerous for it.) Our understanding of what we offer the world needs to be strong and coherent, but not comfortable—that’s a bad sign.

Dante and Ulysses (reader response)

In Uncategorized on December 10, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I think that nothing in Dante portrays the beauty and the nobility of the human condition, including its imperfections, better than Canto XXVI of Inferno, where Dante meets Ulysses.

For Ulysses, the greek hero protagonist of the Odyssey, Dante invents an original death, imagining that he attempted, moved by his desire for exploration, to travel beyond the boundaries of the known world (i.e. the Mediterranean Sea) and dying in a shipwreck.

Dante imagines Ulysses in Hell, because he’s a product of the Catholic faith of his era and he can not but condemn Ulysses’s ambition and hubris. Yet, he admires him for his quest for discovery.

…né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta
del vecchio padre, né ‘l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopé far lieta,
vincer potero dentro a me l’ardore
ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto,
e de li vizi umani e del valore…

Nor fondness for my son,
nor reverence for my old father, nor the due affection
which joyous should have made Penelope,
could overcome within me the desire I had to be experienced of the world,
and of the vice and virtue of mankind…

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.

Dante (reader response)

In Uncategorized on December 10, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Where is the source of sanity? It’s not in literature. It’s not in news. It’s not in our professional lives.

I think it’s in relationships. When we feel like the world is crazy, we go to our friends/family/significant other and they make everything right again.

Although it still begs the question: why so much craziness?


In Uncategorized on December 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I read Dante’s Inferno in college, and found Dante to be repellently egotistical. Early in the work, he insists to the reader that his own genius puts him on equal footing with the great classical poets; later, he comes upon a former political enemy suffering in Hell, and delights in betraying him. Why, I wondered, would anyone want to read what Dante had to say? If the fevered imaginings of an egomaniac are great literature, who needs literature?

I recently had an argument about Dante with a friend who loves the Divine Comedy. He pointed me to a section of the Paradiso where Dante sees God, and is completely absorbed in “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” I found Dante’s imagination of such a universal love incredibly moving—perhaps more so because Dante himself is so flawed and partial.

After my conversation with my friend, I concluded that I’ve been asking literature for the wrong things. Literature isn’t the portrait of sanity that I had hoped for, but a portrait of the beauty of the human condition, including its imperfections. Which is well and good, but where do we get our sanity from?

Remembering (reader post)

In Uncategorized on December 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I feel sad that Elizabeth Edwards died, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t know her, and from what I hear I doubt I would have particularly liked her. But watching the stock footage of her on CNN made me realize that what makes me sad is the way we will all remember her. As much as the media try to be even-handed and show pictures of her speaking and signing her book, she’s always going to be the woman who was callously wronged by her overly ambitious, way-too-well-coiffed, philandering husband.

I think we’re comfortable remembering people, but especially women, in this way. They are strong, even extraordinarily so, but not so much for what they did, more for what they withstood. The various campaigns that have taken off to raise awareness about war rape in DRC and other places are also based on this premise. We are shocked by what has been done to those women, and even if we know better, that’s what we think of when we think of them. I think this is a way of distancing ourselves from the bad things that happen to other people. When we feel grief for what has happened to them, we then don’t have to contend with their reaction to it. Someone else’s adversity is sad; their struggle to handle it is painful and prolonged way past our attention span.

Remembering, and this sub-type of remembering that is feeling a simplified grief for someone you have never met, is inherently selfish. That pain isn’t ours to be sad about. But outrage is satisfying wherever we can get our hands on it. So we’re going to remember Elizabeth Edwards as a victim. It’s definitely easier than having to read her book and actually think about what it says.

Julian Assange: Supervictim?

In Uncategorized on December 7, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Today British police arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, on sexual assault charges. I’ve always found it interesting that they weren’t able to arrest him for his activities with WikiLeaks—I’m curious what legal loopholes he’s relied upon.

Am I stating the obvious if I say that the charges against Assange seem suspicious? I suppose I don’t discount the possibility, but it does seem awfully unlikely that he became a sexual criminal at precisely the same time he began embarrassing Western governments.

If the allegations aren’t true, that’s a really dirty trick. Maybe a lot of us won’t be surprised that even liberal Western powers find a way to strike back against individuals who hurt them, but I actually am surprised—I thought the rule of law was less flexible than that in societies like ours. Or did Assange actually do it?