Noah Millman

The Mirror Up To Nature

I’m late in getting to the whole “it’s not relatable” business begun by Ira Glass’s silly tweet about how “Shakespeare sucks” and continued with Rebecca Mead’s lament, and subsequent responses by Alan Jacobs and Fredrik deBoer. But I have to throw my belated 2 cents in.

Let’s pass over the word “identify” – the word we’re looking for is “empathize.” If you say you can’t empathize with a character, what does that mean? Whose fault is that?

Perhaps it’s the writer’s fault, or the performer’s – perhaps they haven’t really shown you the character from the inside. Perhaps they don’t empathize with her themselves, don’t really know what she’s like.

Or perhaps it’s your fault – perhaps you’re unwilling to follow where this writer, this actor have taken you, unwilling to acknowledge a kinship that feels implicating, contaminating. Perhaps you just haven’t been reading, or listening, attentively enough to understand.

Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault – sometimes it just takes a lot of effort to get cross a chasm of mutual incomprehension. Works produced in radically different cultures, from long-ago eras, composed in different languages: these inevitably require a degree of mediation, sometime a great deal of mediation, before they can be understood well enough to be felt. Some contemporary styles are designed to repel the reader unwilling to put in that kind of work.

There are all sorts of reasons why empathy might fail. But the word “relatable” suggests that it’s the character’s fault. If she were different, made different choices, had different feelings, then I could relate. If all these other people in the universe would only be who I wish they were, instead of who they actually are, life would be so much more pleasant for me. I suppose it would. There are so many, many people who are . . . inconvenient in one way or another.

And not just more pleasant for me – implicitly, for anyone. “Relatability” is a quality imputed objectively to the object. The reader or observer is cut entirely out of the equation. You can’t do that with “identify” – you wouldn’t say a work was “unidentifiable” (or, you might, but you’d surely mean something like “unattributable” or something nothing to do with “relatability”). If I say that “I can’t identify” with Humbert Humbert, I might be admitting to my own lack of empathy – or I might be proud of that fact, convinced that anybody who could identify with H.H. must hare his pathology. It’s a question; it can be debated. But if I say he’s “not relatable” then I’m saying that it isn’t reasonably possible to understand him, empathize with him. The question is closed.

That’s what’s horrible about the word – not that it blames the author or performer (sometimes the failure really is their fault), nor that it demands a place for the self (we’re the only ones who can feel our feelings; “empathy” fundamentally means feeling someone else’s emotions as our own – there’s the self, right there), but that it involves a definitive closing of doors on experience. A conviction that I already know all that I need to know. About the world. About other people. About myself. And I just want to see that knowledge affirmed.

I think that’s what Mead was really getting at with her whole distinction between mirrors and selfies. Mirrors are places where we see ourselves – perhaps unexpectedly. Selfies are ways we show ourselves to other people. Saying, “that work of art is like a selfie” is like saying: that work of art is presenting a public persona (albeit a casual one), a curated version of itself. Moreover, a version that is functionally interchangeable with versions of all other selves – its function is social, not artistic. It’s saying hello. It’s reassuring me that we have something in common, rather than surprising me with the unexpected discovery that we do.

But what about those mirrors?

Well, as it happens, Shakespeare had something to say about mirrors and art – or, one of his most discerning characters did, at any rate:

[l]et your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special overstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

“The mirror up to nature” – it sounds like Hamlet is saying that art (and performance) should strive for verisimilitude, should show us things looking (and behaving) the way we already know they do. Our pre-existing knowledge of reality is the standard against which we measure art. That doesn’t sound too far from what the “relatability” brigade might think.

Stanley Cavell, one of my favorite literary critics would beg to differ with that interpretation:

Why assume just that Hamlet’s picture urges us players to imitate, that is, copy or reproduce, (human) nature? His concern over those who ‘imitated humanity so abominably’ is not alone that we not imitate human beings badly, but that we not become imitation members of the human species, abominations; as if to imitate, or represent – that is, to participate in – the species well is a condition of being human. Such is Shakespearean theater’s stake in the acting, or playing, of humans. Then Hamlet’s picture of the mirror held up to nature asks us to see if the mirror as it were clouds, to determine whether nature is breathing (still, again) – asks us to be things affected by the question.

Yeah, Shakespeare sucks. Indeed.

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A Fast Not Chosen

Tonight begins the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the Jewish collective day of mourning. All the great calamities of Jewish history are collectively ascribed to this day, beginning with the sin of the Golden Calf, continuing through the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and onward to the expulsion from Spain. Traditional observance includes a 25-hour fast, plus observance of the other rites of mourning (no bathing, no wearing of leather shoes, no sex), plus the extraordinary prohibition of most Torah study (because studying Torah is a joyous activity).

Once upon a time, I found Tisha B’Av deeply moving. Chanting the Book of Lamentations on the floor of my synagogue, I felt the kind of primal connection with other generations across time and space that is so central to Jewish religiosity. Tisha B’Av was a time of longing for a return to wholeness that I longed for on a personal level as well – but also an important corrective to narratives of national grievance and triumphalism, a recognition of essential vulnerability, that God’s will cannot ever truly be known, His favor ever truly assured for any particular moment in time. Lamentations, after all, is just that: a lament, a cry of pain, not an accusation or a confession or a call to arms. And the sole traditional rabbinic text studied on the day is an account of the destruction of the Second Temple that begins with a dispute over a mistaken invitation to a party. Such a narrative is perhaps the subtlest way to undermine the perspective of the zealots of Jerusalem, that all that was needed to prevail was faith and will.

I haven’t been observing the past few years, though, and I don’t expect to be observing this year either. That’s part and parcel of a general falling-away that has accelerated of late. Partly it’s a sense that, in our day, with zealotry back on the agenda, lamentation feels inadequate. I feel more sharply the teeth of Vespasian’s unanswered retort to R. Yokhanan ben Zakkai in the rabbinic text I linked to above: “If there is a jar of honey round which a serpent is wound, would they not break the jar to get rid of the serpent?”

Moreover, they say those who fast assiduously will merit to see the reconstruction of the Temple in their day. I am not sure I want to seek that merit, nor am I convinced that fasting is actually the way to earn it.

If you want to understand what I mean by that, take a look at this marvelous article by my good friend, R. Joshua Gutoff, about the excommunication and rehabilitation of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the titans of early rabbinic Judaism. The piece presumes a certain degree of knowledge about Jewish sources, but I think it would be rewarding even to a total neophyte. I love it for the portrait it paints of these men, for the extraordinary empathy of his reading, neither exactly modern nor traditional, but really trying to enter the text as if it were alive. And I weep for the recognition of its truth that liberation and loss are two aspects of the same phenomenon of modernity – even if the modernity in question is nearly 2000 years old.

And its conclusion strikes me as extraordinarily hopeful – and important:

Rabbi Eliezer as outcast remained loyal to rabbinic Judaism at least as much as he had been as a disputant member of the Sanhedrin. Angry? Bitter? Resentful? To be sure. In disagreement? To the end. But by remaining a model of the true excommunicate – outside of the normative community but still tied to it – he may have done the people a greater service than did any of his colleagues. For as Judaism passed from the apprehendable world of God immanent to the chaos we know all too well, it needed an outlaw. Eliezer was that outlaw, and his excommunication did what trials do all too rarely in real life: it allowed the community to see itself, understand itself, define itself, in a way that would last until . . . Well, until the next great transition.

Outside the normative community but still tied to it: it’s a tough balancing act for an outlaw to pull off. But every community needs such outlaws – traditionalist and modernist alike.

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Iraq –> Libya –> Syria –> ???

Daniel Larison, on Max Boot on Libya:

Boot’s criticism is mostly just another desperate effort to try to deny that military intervention and regime change are primarily to blame for Libya’s current state. This is akin to the arguments we heard from liberal hawks when the conditions began to deteriorate rapidly in Iraq: “yes I supported the invasion, but I don’t agree with how Bush has handled things after that.” They evaded responsibility for their support for the invasion by faulting the Bush administration for its poor management of the war, which presupposed that there was a realistic way to destroy another government without unleashing the chaos and violence that inevitably followed. Boot is much the same: he was all for intervening in Libya, but he doesn’t want the negative consequences of that policy to be linked to the Republican hawks that backed yet another ill-conceived war. One would have thought that the experience of occupying Iraq would put an end to the fantasy that a prolonged foreign military presence in these countries ensured stability and security, but it seems not.

Indeed. But here’s the thing: it’s not like alternatives to the Iraq model have worked out well either.

Iraq could not be stabilized for the long term by a direct intervention and a lengthy occupation. Neither could Afghanistan. We must have learned some kind of lesson, because in Libya, we reverted to the late-’90s model of the Kosovo War: we intervened on the cheap, and avoided any occupation, so as not to alienate the population. Turns out, Libya could not achieve stability on its own.

So in Syria, we mostly avoided getting involved. Yes, the Administration declared that Assad must go, made some half-hearted gestures toward supporting the “right” parts of the opposition, and briefly considered air-strikes before jumping at the opportunity to back down. But by and large America stayed out of the conflict. And Syria has descended into chaos, chaos which has spread to Iraq, and empowered an exceptionally odious and hostile terror group with pretensions to grandeur that rival al Qaeda’s.

I’m increasingly inclined to agree with with Richard Haas, quoted in this Doyle McManus column, that the 30 Years’ War is the best point of comparison for what is going on in the greater Middle East. The odds of our being able to engineer a positive outcome by any policy strike me as extremely long. Which doesn’t mean we can avoid having a policy – we are too big and powerful, with too many existing commitments, to be Switzerland. It means that policy is, inevitably, going to be characterized by a lot less “moral clarity” or “strategic vision” than American pundits tend to prefer.

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Jus In Bello, and Ad Bellum

I have been avoiding writing about the war between Israel and Gaza because it is just too depressing for words. I’ve read a variety of pieces that I thought were insightful; here’s one by Gershom Gorenberg, here’s another, an interview with Yuval Diskin, in Der Spiegel.

But I do want to take this opportunity to clarify something in my previous post about the Gaza War. In Linker’s piece that I associated myself with, he says that “[w]ith Hamas and smaller jihadi groups hurling rockets at Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip, Israel is clearly justified in responding” and that the lopsided body count is not in itself evidence that there’s anything morally wrong with the Israeli operation. He then goes on to argue against the war from a prudential rather than a moral standpoint.

I agree with both of Linker’s points about the legitimacy of a response. Deliberately targeting civilians, which is what the rocket fire amounts to, is a war crime, full stop. It remains a war crime even if there was substantial provocation. Once you accept that, it’s very hard not to conclude that a response of some sort is justified.

But that still leaves something important out of the equation – namely, the larger context within which the war is taking place. That context imposes not only prudential constraints, but moral ones.

Israel’s stated goals for this operation are partly military and partly political. The military goal is to destroy, or at least dramatically degrade, Hamas’s war fighting capabilities – destroy tunnels, rocket-launchers, kill or capture operatives, etc. The political goal is to get the people of Gaza to blame Hamas for the destruction wrought by the war, and turn against the organization and a strategy of armed confrontation with Israel.

Leaving aside whether the political goal is likely to be achieved – I think the opposite effect is more likely – it should be clear, from the overwhelming preponderance of the decisions of the current Israeli government, just how limited its political horizon is. Israel does not have a strategy for settling the conflict. It has a strategy, good or bad, for managing the conflict within its current contours. Israel is fighting to preserve the status quo.

That’s the larger context within which the war is being fought. And that context has moral implications for how the war may be fought, inasmuch as we should not desire the status quo ante to be preserved, but the status quo amounts to imposed rule not merely without the consent of the ruled, but over the emphatic, furious, unequivocal refusal of that consent. That’s why it’s fruitless for Israeli spokespeople to talk about how “the IDF deserves the Nobel Peace Prize” for fighting with “unimaginable restraint.” What you’re fighting for – not merely your tactical objectives but your larger strategic objectives – have bearing on how fiercely you can fight. Another way of putting it would be: granting that you can fight very fiercely indeed for a just victory, what would such a victory look like in Gaza? Realistically, not in an imaginary world where Gazans have a different mentality than they ever have in the past, or than other peoples have had in comparable situations.

[Update: thanks to the readers who caught the typo in the headline.]

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The Sailer and Florida Strategies At Work In New Orleans

I’ve spent much of the past two months in New Orleans on a film, an experience I’ll undoubtedly return to in this space again. I didn’t know the town particularly well before going – haven’t been there in 25 years, in fact – so I don’t have much of a basis for comparison. But from what literally everybody down there is saying, the city is in the midst of a radical transformation.

The question, which is what I’m referencing in my title, is precisely why.

In broad brush-strokes, since Katrina a ton of money has poured into New Orleans for reconstruction, some public dollars and some through insurance payouts. Meanwhile, since 2002, the state of Louisiana has had a generous tax credit designed to woo the film industry to town – and credit that, in the years since the hurricane, has paid off to a huge degree in New Orleans and around the state.

That film tax credit is a good example of the Richard Florida strategy for revitalizing a city, a strategy centered on attracting creative types who make a city attractive both to tourists and to residents with disposable income. New Orleans already has a lot of the Florida elements – great food, great music scene, beautiful architecture. Films depend on a lot of the kinds of creative services that Florida thinks are so central. Film is also a heavily-unionized industry, so a lot of the jobs pay quite well. And once you’ve built a critical mass of people with the relevant skills, you get into a virtuous circle where more productions coming to town mean more jobs, which means more film professionals move to town, which means even more productions see the viability of shooting there, etc.

But the Florida strategy is only half of the story of New Orleans over the past nine years. The other half of the story is demographic change – prompted by the hurricane.

Katrina flooded big chunks of the city, including ritzy areas in uptown, not just the infamous ninth ward. But the areas that were heavily poor and black were the most fundamentally transformed, because residents who were displaced frequently didn’t have the resources to come back, couldn’t rebuild their houses, etc. The city as a whole is pretty much back up to its pre-Katrina population levels, but some neighborhoods are still substantially depopulated. And the city’s primary goal is not to facilitate the return of the previous residents, but to rebuild in a way that is most economically beneficial to the city.

This is what you might call the Steve Sailer strategy for urban revitalization: get rid of the least-desireable portion of the population (from the perspective of the tax rolls), and replace them with new people.

The question: which is more important?

I live in New York, where gentrification is a thirty-five-year-old trend. It has changed my city enormously, and I completely understand why long-time residents of a given neighborhood (Bedford-Stuyvesant, say) might get frustrated and angry when gentrification prices them out of their own homes. And why they might get even more frustrated if it feels like the city is facilitating their displacement – by, say, bringing in a Whole Foods rather than a Food Lion. By the same token, I understand the perspective of the city – take a look at Detroit, or New Orleans through Katrina, if you want to see what happens when you ignore the health of your tax rolls. More to the point, it’s very hard to argue with a straight face that high crime, poor services, etc. are good things because they keep a neighborhood from getting too expensive. Nobody actually wants to live with high crime, or corrupt government.

There’s a huge difference, it seems to me, between cause and effect. Between saying, the only way to “improve” the neighborhood is to get rid of the “undesirables,” so let’s “clean out” public housing and take it from there; and saying that one effect – perhaps unfortunate – of “improvements” in the neighborhood is likely to be demographic change. In the latter case, there is the real chance that locals will benefit from economic change as well as suffering. Louisiana’s film tax credit, for example, requires hiring a high proportion of Louisiana residents. Some of those will be people who move to the state to take advantage of the job opportunities – but some will be locals who learn new skills to take advantage of those same opportunities. And people who already own their own homes benefit when gentrification drives up prices. But even if there’s no overt “push,”

Pull and push are both clearly and dramatically at work in New Orleans. And cities are living organisms; they change, or they die. A “new urbanism” worth its name won’t conceive of the city as something static, won’t think of “place” as something fixed, to be preserved against economic and social change at all costs – among other things because preservation itself has clear economic consequences. By the same token, a “new urbanism” worth its name needs to have a notion of how to find a place for everybody in the city, so that America’s great cities aren’t just engaged in a game of repeated deck-shuffling to lure the “right” sort of folks in, and push the “wrong” sort out.

Anyway, none of this is news to anybody who is involved with the issues. New Orleans is just a place where change is happening especially rapidly. It’ll be interesting to see how those who study these things tease out cause and effect there, and whether those advocating for the losers in this process can come up with solutions that don’t threaten the economic and social upswing that is taking place – and whether those on the other side of the table even care.

[UPDATE: Steve Sailer has kindly linked to this post, but objects to my nomenclature:

[M]y contribution has been less advocacy of these liberal measures but exposure of what they are up to. My moral stance is that everybody all across the country is entitled to be aware of what’s going on in liberal cities. . . .

The Sailer Strategy instead is for Americans to be honest with each other about how they are playing Hot Potato with each other, and to unite to import fewer Hot Potatoes for future generations to have to deal with.

The distinction between description and prescription is important, and if Sailer is opposed to the kinds of strategies he has described that many cities use to push poorer residents out – or even relatively indifferent to them – that’s good to know.]

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Stuyvesant: Where the Elite Meet To Compete (and also Cheat)?

Reihan Salam is a traitor to his alma mater:

Whenever critics have griped about the way Stuyvesant does business, my inclination has long been to say, essentially, “Screw you.” Going to Stuyvesant is one of the best things to have ever happened to me. I met two of my lifelong best friends there, and being surrounded by thousands of the city’s scrappiest strivers, most of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants from New York’s outer boroughs, taught me more than I ever learned from any teacher. The same goes for most of the alums with whom I’ve kept in touch over the years.

Yet recently, as Mayor Bill de Blasio, state lawmakers in Albany, and the United Federation of Teachers have called for scrapping Stuyvesant’s current admissions formula, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that Stuyvesant should close its doors. The same goes for elite public high schools like it across the country.

As a Bronx Science alum with a bit of a chip on his shoulder about people (wrongly) thinking I went to the second-best high school in the city, I say: them’s fighting words. How did Salam come to this conclusion?

Well, Stuyvesant has a student population that doesn’t look very much like New York. New York’s public schools are 70% African-American or Latino, but Stuyvesant’s student body has only 3% representation of those groups. But it’s not majority-white – far from it. Stuyvesant, in keeping with a longstanding tradition of catering to intellectually-gifted immigrant strivers, is over 70% Asian.

This is a longstanding political problem – but that’s not the reason Salam has jumped ship. Instead, he argues that Stuy’s pedagogical model just isn’t very good:

Pedro Noguera, also a professor at the Steinhardt School . . . raised an obvious but largely neglected point, namely that Stuyvesant and the other specialized schools aren’t actually that great: “I would not tell a top African-American student to go to one of those schools.” Rather, Noguera explained, he’d encourage such a student to attend a school that offered a more supportive environment and a higher quality of education. He told Capital that the specialized high schools offer “a total sink-or-swim environment,” which he would not hold up as a model.

Noguera is exactly right. The politicians and the education experts who are so fixated on the racial balance at Stuyvesant neglect the fact that Stuyvesant is not built to support and nurture students who need care and attention to excel academically and socially. It is a school that allows ambitious students who know how to navigate their way around a maddening, complex bureaucracy to connect with other students with the same skill sets. Being in a fiercely competitive environment spurs a small number of sleep-deprived students to stretch themselves to the limit, to compete for admission to elite universities. The truth is that while Stuyvesant certainly does send many hyperaggressive students to the Stanfords and MITs and Princetons, students who find themselves in the bottom half of the class often languish without the support they’d get at other schools.

Giving some number of black and Latino students a boost in the admissions process won’t suddenly vault them into the top of the class or erase their need for a supportive environment. It is all too easy to imagine that the locus of segregation would simply shift. Stuyvesant High School as a whole might look more like New York City. But would the top quarter of the class look like it, or would it still be dominated by the kind of students who don’t need a supportive environment to max out their GPAs? Like Noguera, I strongly suspect that the kind of very good black and Latino students who might be admitted to Stuyvesant if grades and attendance were taken into account would be better off elsewhere—and I think the same is probably true of many Asian and white students as well, if not most.

I agree with this – but I’m not sure why that’s a reason to close Stuyvesant, unless Salam believes that a “total sink-or-swim environment” isn’t a good model for any gifted students.

In my experience, only a fraction of gifted students truly benefit from such an environment. But that fraction can benefit to a great extent. As I’ve written about in this space before, the formative experience of my youth was participating in competitive high school debate, which I did at a very high level. I learned more from debate than I did from any class, and I learned so much precisely because it was a ruthlessly competitive activity, pitting me against my peers around the country in contests with unambiguous winners and losers.

Is that the only beneficial pedagogical experience? Certainly not. Is it the best way for most students to learn? I strongly suspect not as well. But it’s invaluable for certain kinds of kids – and not just for debate nerds. It’s a valuable experience for gifted athletes, musicians, math whizzes, etc. But, unavoidably, a ruthlessly competitive environment will produce losers as well as winners.

That’s an argument for a diversity of institutions, for there not being a single “crown jewel” in the system that everyone acknowledges is the “best” school to be from. And guess what? New York has a lot of other excellent schools that don’t select the way Stuyvesant does – as Salam acknowledges:

I have a theory about declining white representation at Stuyvesant. I seriously doubt that it’s because New York City is no longer home to white eighth-graders from affluent families who have expansive vocabularies and solid critical thinking skills and who are more than capable of scoring well on the entrance exam. I’ve met more than my share of such young people. My gut tells me that Stuyvesant has grown steadily less attractive to white families with the kind of social and cultural capital that helps people get ahead in America. These families are seeking out other options, and so have savvy families of all ethnic backgrounds. Over the past three decades, New York’s wealth boom has contributed to soaring endowments at the city’s elite independent schools, virtually all of which are keen to attract talented black and Latino students and which obviously cater to academically gifted white students as well.

More consequential still has been the rise of smaller public high schools, which offer well-defined curriculums that are a better fit for the large majority of students, gifted or otherwise, who need a bit of hand-holding. If you were a college-educated native-born parent living in New York who knows your way around the local high schools, is it obvious that you’d want your child to go to Stuyvesant instead of an excellent school with a mellow, hippie-ish vibe, or one that offers intensive instruction in Mandarin? Would it be obvious if it entailed a grueling commute, like the hour-and-a-half one-way commutes that were routine for friends of mine traveling from the far reaches of Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx? It might have been obvious from the 1970s to the 1990s, when middle-class flight devastated the city’s local high schools, and when getting your nerdy kid into a specialized high school was the only way to ensure that she wouldn’t get beaten up every day at lunch. Fortunately, New York City has come a long way since then.

Right: there are more and more alternatives, both within the public school system and outside of it, and therefore Stuyvesant is less and less the “best” school in the system, and more and more the exemplar of a particular model. Why does that make it obsolete? If it’s obvious that, for many bright and talented students, the sink-or-swim environment of Stuyvesant would be less-than constructive, isn’t it similarly obvious that “an excellent school with a mellow, hippie-ish vibe” might not be ideal for the kind of student who might thrive at Stuyvesant?

Of course, there’s also this:

There is another reason why in-the-know parents appear to be turning away from Stuyvesant. These days, it doesn’t seem to be doing a good job of keeping its students on the ethical straight-and-narrow. In 2012, dozens of Stuyvesant students were caught cheating on a statewide Regents exam, the results of which were utterly inconsequential for the students involved. These were bright kids with bright futures, and they thought nothing of texting the questions on the (totally meaningless) Regents exam to their fellow students. The reporting that followed the scandal, from Vivian Yee of the New York Times and others, made it clear that this particular cheating incident was part of a larger pattern. The students involved in the scandal had grown so accustomed to cheating that it was second nature. And why wouldn’t it be? When you get enough bright young people together and you tell them that academic achievement is everything but that you’re going to load them with enough homework to last several lifetimes, it’s inevitable that corners will be cut.

I am genuinely surprised that Salam’s response to the cheating scandal is to say: the problem is ruthless competition rather than lack of consequences for cheating. Where else in American public life would he apply that wisdom? Stuyvesant has been a ruthlessly competitive place for a long time. Has it also been a hive of corruption? And is he convinced that there is no corruption in the less-nerdy redoubts of the American meritocracy?

There is an enormous difference between saying “we don’t care about your social graces or your family background – all we care about is your academic achievement” and “we don’t care about whether you earned it or stole it – all we care about is your score.” Salam surely knows the difference. Does he see no value in an institution based on the former? Does he really think it will inevitably devolve into the latter, that there’s no way to build an institution that is both highly competitive and ethical?

The core argument against specialized schools is integrationist: that public education is supposed to build a citizenry bound by common experience of equality of treatment. Note that this is very different from what Salam articulates as the goal of integration: “Traditionally, desegregation efforts have been designed to get students from deprived backgrounds to rub shoulders with students from more affluent and stable families, in the hopes of fostering meaningful interracial friendships and spreading the norms that contribute to success later in life.” This is both historically and practically incorrect. Desegregation was fundamentally about assuring equality of treatment. Schools that disproportionately drew wealthier students, brighter students, students from the dominant class, ethnic or racial background, were overwhelmingly likely to get more resources and attention from the system. Schools that had the opposite character, whether because of legislated segregation or simply as a consequence of patterns of residential segregation, would be relatively neglected. And on top of that, the experience of segregation would teach all parties that segregation was natural, normal, a matter of desert – which, in turn, undermines democratic norms.

This is not a trivial objection to selective public schools – it has real teeth. Unfortunately, it’s also true that large, socially-integrated institutions can quickly become internally segregated – kids are extremely good at seeking out their own “kind” and ostracizing outsiders. And it’s also true that large, socially-integrated institutions will, perforce, have an institutional character that is amorphous, one that is not optimally suited to bringing out the best in many of their students – including, quite possibly, the kinds of students who would thrive at Stuyvesant.

There’s an inevitable tension between promoting the democratic experience of equal treatment for all, and promoting the kind of diversity between institutions that makes both for institutional strength and the opportunity for different kinds of students to find a more optimal environment. That tension cannot finally be resolved; we just have to live with it, sometimes leaning more one way, sometimes more the other.

But as long as we have institutional diversity, why shouldn’t the nerds get a school of their own?

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Piketty and Executive Pay

French economist Thomas Piketty at the reading for his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, on 18 April 2014 at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. / Sue Gardner,  Wikimedia Commons

My review of Thomas Piketty’s book, which appears in the current issue of TAC, has been on-line for the past week. Please do check it out if you haven’t already. I’m particularly interested to hear from knowledgable readers of the book whether I am right about the importance of the tail-off in demographic growth in the developed world to the predictions Piketty makes for future growth and inequality. Piketty alludes to the subject a number of times, but never really focuses on it.

There were a few points I made in the review that I couldn’t elaborate on adequately because of space (and because they would be too tangential to the main topic). This probably won’t be the last post I write to pick up on one of those threads – in this case, the question of extreme levels of executive pay.

One of the much-noted oddities of Piketty’s analysis is that his macro thesis is that our future will be one of “patrimonial capitalism” where inheritance matters more than did for much of the 20th century, whereas his data demonstrate that, particularly in the U.S., the growth in inequality over the past three decades has been driven substantially by growth in wage income at the top. This is due in part to the huge pay packages earned by top-performers in finance, but only in part; there just aren’t enough people in finance to dominate the trend. Rather, Piketty asserts, most of the extreme pay packages are in the corporate sector, and accrue to people he dubs “super-managers.” This is a problem for his thesis, because while class origin may be a very important leg up in becoming a “super-manager,” these positions are not actually inherited.

How much this micro-disparity matters to the macro thesis depends on your theory of why pay packages at the top have risen so dramatically. Piketty argues that it reflects self-dealing on the part of the managers, who are able to cow insufficiently independent boards into over-paying them – and he argues in favor of that proposition through a variety of demonstrations that pay appears not to be well-linked to productivity. But this is not an uncontested position. Scott Sumner, in a post that largely deals with another interesting topic to which I may return – ethnicity and productivity - suspects higher productivity really is the driver, and links to a paper that argues that because pay has increased dramatically at the top of a variety of different professions – finance, law, executives of public corporations, executives of private corporations, and athletics – these increases are reflective of a kind of structural change in the economy to “winner-take-all” dynamics, possibly driven by technology.

But what do we mean by “productivity” in this context?

A hedge fund manager earns huge fees for managing capital. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the business is ruthlessly meritocratic: returns are strictly a function of how much money the manager makes for investors in a given year. Now, assume that hedge fund-managers as a category make a lot more money than other comparable finance professionals. What you’d expect, in that case, is a migration of talent from the rest of finance towards hedge fund management – and, as a consequence, some erosion of hedge fund returns and/or hedge fund fees as competition both for investment opportunities and for investor dollars increased.

But another thing you’d expect to happen is for other finance professionals to see their pay increase – because banks and brokerages would need to pay more to prevent their employees from defecting to hedge funds. You’d also expect to see banks and brokerages trying to get into the hedge fund game themselves, chasing those higher returns – which, in turn, would require competing head-to-head with hedge funds for talent. And that would, once again, put upward pressure on finance packages generally.

Now, if we assume that finance is a normal industry, then all of the above should be unproblematic. Talent should migrate to higher-margin activity, and the rest of the industry should adjust. If finance as a whole is more lucrative than other industries, then, similarly, there should be an adjustment as talent pours into finance, and finance would represent a larger fraction of employment and of the economy.

But finance isn’t like other industries. Finance is just a mechanism for allocating resources efficiently. It doesn’t “produce” any goods or services that anybody wants for their own sake. It’s more comparable to law or accounting than to industries like health care, computer software, automobile manufacturing, retailing or education. If finance is growing as a percentage of the economy, that’s prima facie a problem, not a neutral fact.

One way it might be a problem is that pay scales in finance inevitably affect pay scales in other industries, for the same reason that pay scales for one activity within finance inevitably affect other parts of finance. If a trader can make much more money at a hedge fund than at a traditional bank or broker, then she’ll leave unless the bank or brokerage finds a way to raise her pay so she will stay. If traders make much more money than traditional bankers, people will start to leave traditional banking unless pay scales increase to encourage them to stay. So, similarly, if finance is an obviously more-lucrative route than other aspects of business, then pay scales for non-finance executives will have to rise to keep talent from flowing into finance.

This is what I meant when I said the following in my review: “I suspect this income escalator is driven secondarily by self-dealing, but primarily by competition for talent with a fantastically remunerative financial sector.” [Note: there is a typo in the review where "with" was replaced with "within," which, obviously, changes the meaning.] If the financial sector becomes incredibly lucrative, it will draw more and more talent to it, which will depress pay scales in finance (relative to what they would otherwise have been) but which will also raise pay scales for executives in other areas who have (or had, earlier in their careers) the requisite skills to choose to move into finance. Financialization may, therefore, be one important driver of increasing inequality generally between executives and other salaried employees.

Is financialization another species of rent-seeking, though? I suspect it is – but this analysis would still hold even if it isn’t. Finance could grow as a percentage of national income if a large percentage of financial services are, effectively, being exported – if we’re capturing a larger and larger percentage of the world’s demand for financial services. If that were true, then the rise of finance would not be evidence of some kind of corruption in the heart of the American economy. But it would still drive inequality in other sectors of the economy in ways unrelated to productivity, as described above.

I should stress, I’m not sure I’m right about this by any means – I’m really just speculating. But finance loomed so large in the change in the American economy since 1980, and the internal dynamics of finance are sufficiently different from many other industries, that I think it’s always worth raising questions about whether financialization is implicated, even if, on its face, the phenomenon in question looks much broader-based.

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The Stupid War

mikhail / Shutterstock.com

Because I haven’t had the time to write anything of my own, and because he’s already done a better job than I would have done, allow me to associate myself with Damon Linker’s recent column on the current Israel-Gaza war, which he dubs, The Stupid War:

Note that I didn’t say The Immoral War. With Hamas and smaller jihadi groups hurling rockets at Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip, Israel is clearly justified in responding. . . And though the lopsided body count — over 150 Palestinian dead compared to zero Israeli casualties — is striking, it’s not Israel’s fault that its Iron Dome defensive shield has been so effective at protecting Israeli citizens from the more than 800 missiles that have been launched at the country in the past two weeks. If militants in Gaza had better weaponry or Israel was less adept at protecting itself, many would be dead on the Israeli side.

So yes, Israel is morally justified in defending itself against incoming missiles. But that tells us nothing at all about whether the war is wise. And it most certainly is not.

Why not? Because the only reason the war is happening at all is because of Netanyahu’s political miscalculation, and because there is no realistic and concrete aim to be achieved:

Instead of responding like a statesman to the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, by announcing the facts of the case right away and seeking to dissipate the predictable rage, [Netanyahu] went out of his way to encourage it, hoping he could marshal it for political purposes.

He was wrong. And that appalling error of judgment is what has brought us The Stupid War, which will accomplish absolutely nothing beyond creating yet more suffering, mostly on the Palestinian side. What can Israel possibly hope to gain from its ferocious bombing campaign? It certainly doesn’t seem to be stopping the volley of Hamas rocket attacks into Israel. Does Netanyahu expect Palestinians to be cowed into submission? You can’t send an effective realpolitik threat when your opponent considers the status quo worse than any bombing campaign Israel dares engage in.

And what if Israel went farther and all but leveled the Gaza Strip and killed thousands of Palestinians? They might be cowed into submission then, but at the cost of inspiring worldwide condemnation the likes of which Israel has never seen. Even Netanyahu surely knows better than to turn Israel into one of the world’s foremost pariah states in this way.

So what can Israel possibly hope to achieve?

Maybe a brief suspension of Hamas rocket attacks. Maybe. But soon enough, the region will find itself in a new, even more volatile status quo, weighed down even more heavily by anger and injustice, grievance and fear. Israel’s air strikes can lead nowhere but more provocation, more retaliation, and more tragedy for all sides.

And that’s why this war is so stupid.

Indeed, if the Swedish Academy gave a Nobel Prize for political idiocy, Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance over the past month would make him a shoo-in.

The only thing I would add is that Operation Protective Edge shouldn’t be called The Stupid War. Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Cloud were similarly campaigns that Israel backed itself into without a clear plan or objective, and which reached predictably equivocal and unsatisfying conclusions. The Second Lebanon War might be characterized similarly. Netanyahu has some real competition for his Nobel. And no doubt will have more competition in the future.

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Muß Es Sein?

Jonathan Rauch:

The problem is that what the social secessionists are asking for does not seem all that reasonable, especially to young Americans. When Christian businesses boycott gay weddings and pride celebrations, and when they lobby and sue for the right to do so, they may think they are sending the message “Just leave us alone.” But the message that mainstream Americans, especially young Americans, receive is very different. They hear: “What we, the faithful, really want is to discriminate. Against gays. Maybe against you or people you hold dear. Heck, against your dog.”

I wonder whether religious advocates of these opt-outs have thought through the implications. Associating Christianity with a desire—no, a determination—to discriminate puts the faithful in open conflict with the value that young Americans hold most sacred. They might as well write off the next two or three or 10 generations, among whom nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment.

To which Rod Dreher:

If that’s how it has to be, that’s how it has to be. Fidelity to what one believes to be religious and moral truth is more important than popularity. We live in a post-Christian society. It’s going to get much worse for non-conforming Christians before it gets better. How Obama responds to this letter will be a critical bellwether.

But that “if” is really just changing the subject. Does Dreher believe that’s how it has to be? That is to say, does he believe that “fidelity to . . . religious and moral truth” requires Christians to, say, refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings, or any of the other “secessions” that Rauch is talking about?

I think the answer is, mostly, “no.” That is to say, I think Dreher’s belief is that traditional teachings about homosexuality are non-negotiable, but that this doesn’t imply that Christians are obliged in any way to “secede” from a society that rejects those teachings. Christians may be obliged to believe that physical love outside of lifelong marriage between a man and a woman is sinful; they may even be obliged to believe that the determination to pursue such a love and to deny its sinfulness is even more sinful. Does that mean Christians are obliged not to take pictures of their sinful unions? That they are obliged not to hire them to teach their children?

I’m not a Christian, but if I understand correctly, the traditional view would be that “writing off” generations of people would literally be consigning them to hellfire. I’m pretty sure that, for a traditional Christian, that’s an abhorrent choice to make. So how can Dreher blithely accept that as merely a regrettable necessity if the culture at large becomes “post-Christian”?

Rauch, it seems to me, is much more correct in the way he formulates the question. The question traditional Christians are faced with is a pragmatic one, a question about which course will lead to better results, not a question of fundamental principle. The question is whether they should bend over backwards as far as they, without violating their essential teachings, to welcome gay Christians and non-Christians, and meet them wherever they are, or whether they should “build a fence around the law” to make sure that they themselves are not contaminated by a too-close relationship with a certain category of (from a traditional Christian perspective) obstinate sinners.

I don’t mean to suggest that the latter approach is obviously false. I’m Jewish, and though I am very critical of this aspect of my religion, “build a fence around the law” is a venerable Jewish concept. A traditionally Orthodox Jew not only would not attend a gay wedding – he wouldn’t attend a Christian wedding, because that would (from his perspective) be participating in an idolatrous ceremony. But traditional Orthodox Jews also do not live under a religious obligation to spread their teachings to the ends of the earth.

My point is that the question itself is one of consequences. If the former approach is correct, then the folks who are looking for broad exemptions to allow discrimination against sexual minorities are actively harming their own cause. That’s not something to champion.

Dreher could be right that how the Obama Administration deals with these kinds of requests will be bellwether for how the Democratic Party, or even the government more generally, is perceived by traditional Christians. But it’s equally true that these choices to opt for secession are bellwethers for how traditional Christians are perceived by liberals, and even by the general society. That’s not a point to be brushed aside by saying, “that’s how it has to be.”

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All Bad Poetry Is Sincere: Man of La Mancha at the Stratford Festival

Monique Lund, Steve Ross, Robin Hutton and Tom Rooney in Man of La Mancha at Stratford's Avon Theatre
Monique Lund, Steve Ross, Robin Hutton and Tom Rooney in Man of La Mancha at Stratford's Avon Theatre

I resist, in general, the tired conservative complaint that the ’60s ruined everything. Except in one area: the great American musical. From Hello, Dolly! to Hair, it’s a parade of false, manipulative, overwrought sentiment.

Sometimes, a production will be so good that I forget my objections, at least for the duration of the show – such was the case with last year’s Fiddler on the Roof at Stratford. And sometimes, no matter how good the production, it still won’t be enough. Such was the case with this year’s Man of La Mancha.

I should stress that Don Quixote is one of my favorite books of all time, one I’m over-due to re-read and which has served as inspiration for a number of (mostly unfinished) projects of my own. But the musical adaptation could not be further from it in spirit. Gone is the picaresque, and with it all social commentary. Gone is the fruitful ambivalence we feel towards the Don and his madness. Gone is Sancho’s peasant cunning. Gone, most indefensibly, is any motion, any activity at all – the musical begins with Miguel de Cervantes in prison, and fundamentally never those claustrophobic confines.

Instead, what Leigh, Darion and Wasserman give us is a hymn to self-aggrandizing fantasy. And for all the Don’s pretensions to chivalry, self-aggrandizing is the right word. How else can one account for the appalling treatment of Aldonza – by the writers, not the muleteers?

This woman is idolized by Don Quixote as his chaste and pure Dulcinea. He doesn’t see who she could be, her potential; he sees a pure and total fantasy, with no relationship to reality – indeed, he knows nothing at all about her reality, and he does not want to know. She’s disturbed by his devotion, then angered, asking him for the simple recognition of seeing her as she is, loving her for that, if he can, not for a fantasy. The Don won’t budge. But he does come to her rescue when she is treated brutally by that night’s john, and as a consequence of his intervention she is gang-raped and beaten. And even when she throws this abuse at his feet, the Don won’t change: he sees what he wants to see.

But who shows up at the Don’s bedside, to rekindle the fires of imagination when he has made his Christian peace with the necessity of dying? Aldonza, who now proclaims that he enabled her to see something more true than her reality, and that all the abuse she suffered doesn’t matter so long as she can dream that impossible dream. That we’re told, by the musical itself, that this ending has been invented by Cervantes to satisfy the demands of his audience of fellow-prisoners, only makes the insult to the actual audience – who, of course, are similarly gratified – commendably plain and direct.

Man of La Mancha must surely be Paul Wolfowitz’s favorite musical. They should perform it in DC some time with a case of Iraqi refugees, and see how people react.

As for this production: the principal artistic choice of director Robert McQueen and designer Douglas Paraschuk is to keep the reality of the prison where Cervantes is staging his play continually present, a la Marat/Sade. If the underlying argument of the musical were more persuasive, this could be a powerful choice; given the extreme weakness of that argument, the main result I discerned was that I was not carried away by the Don’s fantasies. I never experienced the delight that Sancho or the Innkeeper clearly feel in being charmed by the mad knight, and never saw the world as Quixote sees it. Tom Rooney’s performance similarly leans toward the Cervantes end of his dual role – I never forgot that this was a man playing Quixote rather than Quixote himself. On the plus side, his was a very real-feeling Cervantes – I felt his need to play Quixote, which was quite touching, more than any authentic madness.

Steve Ross was an absolute delight as Sancho, the real highlight of the show from my perspective – he seemed completely genuine, never mugging, and his comic timing was impeccable. Shane Carty was also a pleasure to watch and listen to as the Innkeeper and the judge of Cervantes’s trial by his fellow prisoners, and I could listen to Sean Alexander Hauk (the Padre) sing just about anything. I didn’t find Robin Hutton’s Aldonza terribly convincing, but I really do think it’s a thankless role – I almost think I’d find a performance more alarming if it did convince me.

I understand that the big musicals are a key financial tent pole for the Festival, and that therefore they have every reason to be especially conservative about programming in this area. And there’s no question, the popularity of the big ’60s meatballs appears to be undiminishable. But in the past twenty years, Stratford has programmed Camelot twice, Fiddler on the Roof twice, and now Man of La Mancha for the second time. By contrast, they haven’t done Carousel since 1991. They haven’t done Candide since 1978. They’ve never programmed A Little Night Music, nor have they ever done The Most Happy Fella.

Of course, in the past few years Stratford has also programmed musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris - I’m not saying they are in a rut. I could just use a break from the ’60s altogether.

Man of La Mancha runs at Stratford’s Avon Theatre through October 11.

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