Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Are We Good?

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm

It’s interesting to think that people could be in grad school together, studying extremely complex and specific topics, and yet have very different views of the basic nature of life. In particular, I sometimes wonder whether or not fellow students believe that all people are intrinsically “good,” and what a person who is not “good” is instead.

My own understanding is that everyone is fundamentally sympathetic. Just by being alive, we are in an immensely challenging situation, with pain, unwelcome change, and death being pervasive facts of life. And yet we all seek the best, for ourselves at least, and generally also for the people closest to us. Even if we go hugely wrong, we are sympathetic—good—in our efforts to navigate a difficult life and attain what we think might bring us happiness.

I think your opinion on this question has potentially big implications for your work. For example, would you want to throw yourself into a development project for people who aren’t “good”—say, because their society encourages pervasive corruption and human rights abuses? Or, would you be able to fight a war with the opposite understanding? I’m glad to have my perspective on the intrinsic goodness of people: it’s helped me a lot, particularly in challenging situations. But I’d be very interested to learn what else is out there.

Visit the Midwest! It’s Boring!

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I’m from Colorado, but I’ve lived on the East Coast for most of the past seven years, with only short stays at home. Yesterday, I made a business call to someone in my hometown, and found his friendliness and leisureliness so unusual that I struggled to adapt. I hope I’m not starting to drift from my upbringing, because I appreciate that style immensely.

There is a great deal of sanity in the style of the American Midwest, and it’s often completely lost on the ambitious, coast-hopping people who need it most. It’s the sanity of space, and of boredom. There’s a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest that illustrates this perfectly, in the helpless fidgeting of a Madison Avenue advertising executive (Cary Grant) in the unfamiliar desolation of rural Illinois. Learning comfort in that kind of space is its own kind of sophistication, and one that’s badly needed in this part of the world.

I had a girlfriend from the suburbs of New York City who once called the area between the coasts “the middle of our country,” in a tone one might use to refer to an exceptionally stupid child. That anyone would feel that way about any part of the country (or, indeed, the world) is a tragedy; and it’s a painfully ironic contrast to the tolerance and urbanity a big-city upbringing is supposed to confer. I hate to think of this kind of provincialism, and I hate to think of a life lived without any conception of the value of boredom. If you’re intrigued, the plains of eastern Colorado are quite barren this time of year, and all the hotels have vacancies.

Thomas Friedman, the Popularizer

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I was interested to see that Thomas Friedman is coming to MIT on February 3—interested, first, to learn that he still speaks at colleges after being pied at Brown in 2008. Many people don’t like Friedman, and I think a lot of their annoyance is annoyance at a popularizer: someone who takes a sophisticated, confusing discipline and simplifies and sweetens it enough for a general audience. Serious students of a discipline never like popularizers.

Friedman is a popularizer of ideas. The ideas he puts forward are big and sugary—”The world is flat!”—and he’s a genius at sticking them firmly in the reader’s mind, in large part through repetition of catchprases (one 2007 article contains ten variations on the phrase “green goes Main Street”). For people who analyze these issues seriously, he may seem a boisterous, uninformed buffoon.

And maybe he is. But there is also an upside to popularizers like Friedman: they involve the general population in otherwise esoteric disciplines. Kenny G made people believe they liked jazz, and Robert Kinkade brought what are technically paintings into a lot of houses. Friedman has got a lot of people thinking, in a common language (“The world is flat!”), about globalization and a number of other issues. For that, at least, he deserves a piece of actual pie.

On Culture and Prejudice

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 26, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I’m taking this semester’s Cultural Capital class, which explores the cultural factors that promote or inhibit development. It’s a really interesting field, and one that was essentially banned from academic discourse from the mid-1960s until quite recently. (And not without reason: last semester’s foray into the topic offended a lot of students.) So far, the field does feel nascent and a bit stunted, pervaded by the sweeping characterizations you might have found a hundred years ago in, say, psychology.

The most interesting thing in yesterday’s class was the students’ reluctance to even discuss the topic. I and other young, liberal Americans choked on our words as we tried to describe feelings as plain as, “There appears to be a general difference in outlook between Catholic and Protestant countries.” (Actually, I hesitate to write even that.)

The moral here, I think, is: “Never deny the power of socialization.” Our educational and social environment was not neutral; it profoundly shaped the things we’re willing to talk and even think about. Maybe understanding the way we have shackled ourselves in the name of greater societal goals will help us understand others’ shackles—especially if those shackles seem less benign than an unwillingness to stereotype.

More on Tiger Moms (reader response)

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I appreciated the mail about “tiger moms” and the psychological consequences it bears. However, I am not sure about the idea that “there is nothing culture-specific about ‘tiger moms.'” I think the way you raise your children is a reflection of your idea of persons and societies – if you want, your ideology. In a way, you have to ask the question: what is the purpose of life? Is it happiness, or is it to serve a greater cause? I think that the idea that you raise a child so he will be an happy adult makes sense in an individualistic society; in such a case, yes, you can move to the instrumental question: “does realizing ambitions bring happiness?”

But in different types of societies, you may just expect that your child will serve the purpose of making you – and the family – happy, not necessarily to be happy her/himself. Or, you may have a theological view of society: you don’t want an happy son or daughter, you want a pious one, who will go to Heaven after death. The Catholic sense of guilt is not concerned with shaping happy people; actually, unhappy would probably be better, as suffering is a way of expiating – I am actually simplifying a bit on Catholic religion, here. But, whatever.

So, maybe tiger moms are cultural, in the sense that they are framed in a different view of what being a man, and a son, means. Thoughts?

Tiger Moms

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm

The cover story of this week’s Time is about “tiger moms”: strict, withholding parents who supposedly raise superior kids. My own take is that no new phrase, Atlantic article, or Time cover was necessary: tying affection to performance is an utterly familiar way to raise high-performing kids, and is equally well known to damage them psychologically.

The struggle for a parent’s conditional love is as old as writing—it pervades the Old Testament. Nor is the high achievement this struggle inspires any secret. Howard Stern just gave an interview (it’s the last thing I saw on TV) citing his urge for his father’s approval as the driver of his success in radio, and also as the cause of an “insane” one-dimensional lifestyle of compulsive work. Members of my own family have struggled to win the love of distant parents—moving mountains to do so—and have suffered the predictable psychological consequences. I’m sure your family has similar stories.

The discussion about “tiger moms” has been framed in cultural terms, but there’s nothing culture-specific about it: it’s just forcing ambitions onto your kids. To the extent that realizing those ambitions brings them happiness, they will benefit. To the extent that the pressure warps them psychologically, they will suffer. That’s a simple calculus, and by no means a new one.

Small-Town Living

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I’m about to leave on the ski trip. I never go on trips like this, but in this case it almost feels mandatory: so many students are so enthusiastic about it that the path of least resistance is to join along. I’ve had this experience before at Fletcher, most memorably with the Culture Nights, and it’s something I really appreciate about the school: we really take our institutions seriously.

There’s also a hint of small-town claustrophobia in the Fletcher experience—in the earnest expectancy with which students ask, “Were you at Asia Night?” and their uncomprehending dismay when you answer no. (Replace “Asia Night” with “church” or “the barn raising” or, more chillingly, “the Lottery.”) It’s also in the public nature of romantic relationships here, and the impossibility of staying out of your exes’ sight.

For those of us from urban settings, these experiences could be a gentle introduction to life at close quarters—certainly the life of most humans in history, and a life we may find ourselves reentering if we are interested in, say, rural development. But more than a learning experience, it’s a privilege to be at a place with such commitment to its institutions. That is undoubtedly part of Fletcher’s charm.

Compassion and Monopoly

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 19, 2011 at 12:00 pm

The major problem with classical economics and political science is that they formalize noncompassion. Both disciplines describe a struggle of mutually indifferent “actors” to meet their own neeeds; but this kind of myopia and selfishness is only the nature of a system by the mutual consent of those involved.

The rules of a game are set by the players themselves. If you donate money or property to a bankrupt friend in a game of Monopoly, you make a mockery of the rules on the box. And yet there’s no particular reason not to: who’s to determine how much property is “enough,” or how callously we should treat other real estate moguls? Only the mutually competitive assumptions of the players make Monopoly the zero-sum struggle it often is.

In history, the least compassionate people have often also been the most powerful, and the accepted rules of the world political and economic system have developed accordingly. That may change in a world that is less and less a frontier and more and more interdependent and delicately balanced. If so, we will need to thoroughly rewrite the classical tenets of social science—which cannot happen soon enough.