Noah Millman

Teaching Shakespeare, With Love

Meanwhile, sticking with Kevin Drum but returning to a more felicitous subject for this blog, a few weeks ago he asked: why can’t we teach Shakespeare better?

I remember enrolling in a Shakespeare class and looking forward to it. In my case, I actually had a fairly good high school English teacher, but still, Shakespeare is tough for high schoolers. This would be my chance to really learn and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing.

Alas, no. I got an A in the class, but learned barely anything. It was a huge disappointment. To this day, I don’t understand why Shakespeare seems to be so difficult to teach. Was I just unlucky?

Maybe – or maybe I was just lucky. I had an excellent, indeed, foundational experience learning Shakespeare in high school, and then another excellent experience with Shakespeare in college. And I’ve had a great time with Shakespeare ever since, going to the theater, reading the plays, and reading criticism.

I’m not sure I can put my finger on what made the experiences so great. My high school sophomore English teacher was a large personality, a very theatrical fellow (he was also my debate coach). The play we studied was Henry IV part 1. We read the whole play out loud, and Richard played the part of Falstaff – and played it to the hilt. That can’t have hurt.

But he also started off the class with a lecture on the history of the kings and queens of England, to provide us with the necessary political context to understand the story. That should have been deadly. And we spent a lot of the class doing close reading, looking in particular how particular words and images – son/sun, for example – recurred over and over in the text, weaving a pattern of meaning. Those are, in miniature, three entirely different approaches to the text.

The course I took in college was a lecture on the Histories and Tragedies. It’s been a long time, but my recollection is that a lot of the focus was on structure, but we also dipped into the various fashionable forms of literary criticism that were the style at the time (this was the early 1990s). Again, I can’t point to anything in particular about the approach that made me say: that was the key.

Books of criticism have similarly been all over the map. I really enjoyed Northrop Frye’s series of lectures, but also A.C. Bradley, Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt, Frank Kermode, Marjorie Garber, Stanley Cavell - as well as books like Peter Saccio’s Shakespeare’s English Kings or John Sutherland’s collection of essays, Henry V: War Criminal. No one approach dominates in my consciousness. Shakespeare is too large; he contains multitudes.

We’ve been taking our son to Shakespeare plays since he was not quite five years old. He’s seen comedies, histories, tragedies and romances: As You Like ItTwelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard IIIHenry V, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, Cymbeline. He’s seen several plays  - A Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s DreamRomeo and Juliet, possibly others I’ve forgotten - in multiple productions. Sometimes he’s been delighted and sometimes he’s been bored. If the productions are any good at all, he’s generally been able to understand what’s going on, notwithstanding the complexity of the language and the differences from modern usage.

So I don’t know why it should ever be hard to teach Shakespeare. Oh, I can understand why it would be harder to teach some plays than others – I wouldn’t start with Coriolanus - or what some of the barriers might be for students unfamiliar with theater, or terrified of verse, or what-have-you. But those aren’t the kinds of problems Drum is talking about, I don’t think.

It feels like the answer is right there in the Mark Kleiman blog post that prompted his comment originally, a post about Brutus’s “There is a tide in the affairs of men” speech and how it is mis-understood:

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

If I ran the zoo, students would first watch a good performance of whichever play they were going to read, and then act it out for themselves. That might actually give some of them a taste for drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?

See, here’s the thing: many of the most famous Shakespeare “quotes” are misused relative to their original context, and this isn’t something new. It’s not just “there is a tide;” it’s also “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” and “what’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,” or “now is the winter of our discontent” – to say nothing of outright misquotes like “where art thou, Romeo?” It is perfectly possible – indeed, easier – to be culturally literate without actually being cultured. Appreciating dramatic irony is much harder work than memorizing facts and quotes.

But here’s the other thing: Shakespeare works even if you don’t get any of that. If you don’t understand that Brutus is making a stupid decision? His speech is still great – and the moment still works in performance (or should). If you don’t understand that Juliet isn’t pining for Romeo, she’s wringing her hands about having fallen in love with a Montague? Her speech still works – because she’s also pining for Romeo, wishing he were there. These scenes work with and without that consciousness of irony.

And the layers of irony go deeper than Mark Kleiman acknowledges in his post. It’s not just that Brutus has the wrong strategy, and therefore we’re supposed to see “Brutus’s soaring oratory is entirely ironic; the scene warns against rash risk-taking rather than encouraging it.” The very reason we find Brutus attractive and Cassius unattractive, the very reason why Cassius needed Brutus in the first place for his plan to have a chance of succeeding, cannot be separated from the reason why Brutus makes the “wrong” move at Philippi. Brutus does what the noblest Roman of them all would do. Shakespeare isn’t teaching us a lesson about either military strategy or rhetoric. He’s showing us character and fate – reality.

More than anything, it seems to me, teaching Shakespeare requires love of Shakespeare, more than many authors, because Shakespeare’s greatness looms over him like an intimidating proctor, making us feel that if we don’t “get” that greatness then we’ve somehow learned nothing, prompting us to cut him down to our own size. None of that is necessary. Shakespeare comes in all sizes, rewards just about every level of engagement. That should mean shallower students come away with some emotional and intellectual experience that is meaningful, even if they never understood what the big deal was, while students capable of plumbing the depths get a glimpse of an author proper likened, like Julie’s love, to the Bay of Portugal.

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You Know What’s Murder? Politics Is Murder

The Texas Tribune / cc Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera
The Texas Tribune / cc Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Kevin Drum asks a frequently-heard question:

Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores? . . .

If you look at actions, rather than words, it just doesn’t add up. Lots of people oppose abortion, but with very few exceptions, they very plainly don’t react to it the same way they react to a genuine murder. Their emotional response gives the game away, even if they’ve convinced themselves otherwise intellectually.

[Rep. Steve] DesJarlais [a pro-life politician who, it was recently revealed, encouraged his then-wife to have two abortions] is a good example. If he had encouraged the murder of two children—real murder, of kids who were a year or two old—he wouldn’t merely be having a tough primary. Regardless of whether he had managed to avoid conviction for his acts, he wouldn’t even be able to run for office, let alone be even odds to win. He’d be a pariah. That’s how people react to actual killing. But it’s not how they react to encouraging abortion.

I think there’s a real point here – but not the point that Drum thinks. It’s not that abortion opponents don’t really care about abortion as such, but only about sexual mores, but that political language is necessarily corrupt because its purpose is pornographic in the sense that it is intended to provoke action, not increase understanding.

So let’s be a bit more flexible in our language if we actually want to understand. “Murder” is categorically unjustified and deliberate homicide. But there are lots of other kinds of killing out there. There’s negligent homicide. There’s manslaughter. There’s justified killing – killing in self-defense, for example. There’s killing in war. Then there’s the killing of non-human animals – routine killing for food as well as the routine extermination of a variety of pests.

The shorthand way you say, “that kind of killing is just wrong” is to call it murder. As in “meat is murder” or “hey, hey, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today?” Or, for that matter, “abortion is murder.” Saying that doesn’t mean that you intend to treat everyone associated with the act as if they were literal murderers. It means you want to awaken people’s consciences to the fact that, if they really thought about the situation, they’d see that murder is not an inapt description. It means you want to change the world so that, one day, slaughtering a pig, or carpet-bombing a city, or having an abortion would be seen, socially, as an abominable act.

I know a man whose mother, when in the late stages of terminal cancer, wanted to commit suicide, and enlisted his aid to achieve her goal. Which he gave her. His actions were illegal in the jurisdiction in which they were committed. He’s clearly, at a minimum, an accessory to a killing; depending on what he did (I declined to learn the details), you might argue that he’s guilty of murder – under existing law, not some hypothetical future law. Am I obliged either to conclude that I have no problem whatsoever with assisted suicide, and be an advocate for changing the law, or to treat him as I would treat O.J. Simpson? Why? Who made that rule, and whose authority compels me to follow it?

Do some animal welfare advocates really believe that killing animals for food is murder? Maybe not – but clearly some of them really do believe that killing animals for food is profoundly unjustified killing, and that the conditions under which animals are killed in modern industrial agriculture are especially evil. That doesn’t make them hypocrites if they stay friends with meat-eaters.

Do some opponents of American foreign policy really believe that the Iraq War amounted to the “murder” of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians? Maybe not – but clearly many of them really do believe that the war was profoundly unjustified, that those deaths should be on the conscience of every American, and that we must radically change our ways and make national amends for committing a heinous crime. That doesn’t make them hypocrites if they debate on civil terms with people who see things much more hawkishly.

Do some opponents of abortion really believe that it is murder, as in, no different from breaking into your neighbor’s house and taking an axe to her children? I doubt it. But clearly some of them really do believe that abortion is profoundly unjustified killing – heck, plenty of people who are pro-choice have moral qualms about abortion, at least in some circumstances, qualms that have nothing to do with panic about women having too much sex and everything to do with worries about encouraging a cavalier attitude toward nascent life. And they aren’t hypocrites if they stay on good terms with people who have had abortions, or encouraged their partners to do so.

Of course, if they have no reaction at all, are completely unfazed by the revelation that somebody who they thought of as being profoundly opposed to abortion turns out to have gotten multiple women pregnant and then encouraged them to abort, well, that would say something. But there’s a whole spectrum of plausible reactions that are consistent even with believing that abortion is categorically wrong – in and of itself, and not as a proxy for disapproval of the behavior that led to pregnancy.

To me, the story about Rep. DesJarlais (assuming the summary above is accurate – I know nothing about him) says little about the sincerity of the beliefs of those who oppose abortion. It says a great deal, though, about the corrupting effects of partisan politics on moral crusades, something I’ve harped on before in this space. I really, really do believe that the more seriously you take the proposition that abortion is categorically immoral, the more morally imperative it is for you not to hitch your wagon to the star of either political party. Nothing is more corrupting of the anti-abortion cause than its subsumption into a culture war that is fundamentally – fundamentally – about making it easier for politicians to get re-elected.

I recognize that, as someone who does not vote pro-life, that position may sound self-serving. But I assure you: though I may be wrong, it’s what I actually do believe.

 

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Shakespeare’s Elusive Politics

I’m sitting on line to get tickets to John Lithgow in King Lear in Central Park, so maybe I’ve got Shakespeare on the brain, but it really does seem like a bunch of people are saying sweeping and questionable things about the Bard these days, not just Ira Glass. Via Steve Sailer, I see that Noah Berlatsky thinks we should respect Shakespeare’s art, but be prepared to criticize his politics, because “Shakespeare was a conservative,”

in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

For all the complexity and nuance of Shakespeare’s plays, his political allegiances were clear. James I was his patron, and Macbeth in particular is thought to be a tribute to the King. It even includes a reference to the Gunpowder Plot assassination attempt at James. That reference is made by Lady Macbeth as part of her effort to convince her husband to murder Duncan. The villainous traitors in the play are thus directly linked to traitors against James.

Macbeth isn’t a one-off to flatter the King, either: Rebels and usurpers in Shakespeare’s plays are always the bad guys. . . . Othello shows that Shakespeare’s sympathies are not just with kings, but with any authority figure, as the sneaking underling Iago attempts to overthrow his noble Captain. It is significant here, too, that (as many critics have pointed out) Iago has no real motive for his animosity. He does not articulate a critique, or even a complaint, about the way Othello exercises power. Instead, he simply says:

I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Rebellion against one’s superiors is presented as a matter of misguided jealousy and intrinsic spite. Similarly, the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who aspires to the hand of a woman above him in social standing, is a hypocrite and a fool. The Puritan political resistance, or the Puritan ideological opposition to hierarchical norms, is never voiced, much less endorsed.

Jack Cade might beg to differ about the lack of voice for leveling rebels, though you would be hard-pressed to argue that Shakespeare ever endorsed his point of view. Nonetheless, I feel like this is far too pat. I have a strong sense that a cherry or two is being picked.

I don’t read Shakespeare as a political polemicist. He wasn’t Brecht or Ibsen. For that matter, he wasn’t Marlowe. But if that’s your standard, then Chekhov would also have to be classified as a conservative, which he most certainly was not.

I think it’s safe to say that Shakespeare accepted the social order as simply a part of his world. He didn’t write in order to change it. Did he endorse it, though? That’s harder to discern – among other things because essentially all the words Shakespeare wrote, he wrote not in his own voice, but for characters to say.

Take Ulysses’s speech from Troilus and Cressida, a frequent brief for the “Shakespeare is a conservative” proposition:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

That’s a pretty emphatic statement on behalf of maintaining the existing social order and structure of authority. But it’s not Shakespeare’s statement. It’s Ulysses’s. Ulysses, a character generally understood from Homer’s time on down as the tricky, political one, the manipulator. Shakespeare’s Ulysses makes the speech as part of an effort to convince Agamemnon to endorse his plan to trick Achilles into returning to the war. It’s hardly surprising that such a speech would help win the favor of the person at the top of the social hierarchy. Moreover, Ulysses is a Greek, and the English in Shakespeare’s time disdained the Greeks in favor of the Trojans, who they considered their legendary ancestors. Why, then, should we assume that Ulysses speaks for Shakespeare in any way?

Berlatsky bases his case more on Shakespeare’s plots than with his words, but his examples strike me as distinctly strange. Malvolio, yes, is a social upstart and an unflattering portrait of a puritan. But is Twelfth Night a play that argues against marrying outside one’s class? Why, then, are we to applaud when Sir Toby makes a love match with Maria? Malvolio never argues for tearing down social distinctions; he’s a snob and a climber. And yet – he’s still a sympathetic figure! At the end of the play, Olivia acknowledges that he has been treated very poorly, as indeed he has, and admonishes her people. That’s one of the extraordinary things in Shakespeare: even villains like Shylock, Edmund, Aaron the Moor, and comic butts like Malvolio, get their moments to defend their perspective on things, their moment to justify themselves – and their moment to earn our empathy. Which is not the same thing as approval.

And what, pray tell, does Berlatsky make, I wonder, of All’s Well That Ends Well? Are we supposed to believe that Helena is the villain of the piece, and that Bertram was right all along in scorning her for her low birth? The play can certainly be read as a caution to the Helena’s of the world to be careful what you wish for, but when every single character in the play, including the King himself, calls out Bertram for being ignoble in character for making so much of the difference in blood, it strains credulity to think that Shakespeare’s art essentially endorses Bertram’s view of the social order.

Meanwhile, sometimes Shakespeare’s rebels are heroes. Brutus is the hero of Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all” – certainly a more admirable figure than the rabble-rousing cynic Mark Antony. Now, he’s also a pretty conservative figure, though not in the sense that Berlatsky means. He exemplifies a distinct set of ancient, small-r republican virtues that existed in tension with the ideology of absolute monarchy in Shakespeare’s day. But he was certainly a rebel. And certainly a hero. He was a tragic figure, but to compare him to Macbeth is ludicrous.

Another Roman play cuts more deeply against Berlatsky’s argument: Coriolanus. The common people of Rome are portrayed as fickle and shallow, but Coriolanus, an authentic military hero as well as the scion of one of Rome’s leading families – in other words, an aristocrat of merit as well as of birth – is a violent-tempered militarist who would rather kill all his countrymen than admit that he can only properly rule with the consent of the governed, and who winds up getting himself torn to pieces instead. Are we supposed to believe Shakespeare agreed with him? It’s hard to discern where Shakespeare’s sympathies lie in this dark tragedy, but if this is a brief for the worldview described in Ulysses’s speech above – which Coriolanus would surely agree with – it’s a pretty strange one.

The histories would seem to be the strongest ground on which to make the case for Shakespeare’s essential conservatism, but even here we find a noble rebel: Hotspur. Far from being portrayed as evil, he is universally acknowledged to be noble, and guided by high motives rather than base ones. He may be foolish – well, he’s clearly foolish, and hot-headed – but the very king against whom he is rebelling bitterly wishes that he were his son, that’s how much he admires him.

Indeed, the arc of Shakespeare’s history plays tells a very different story about Shakespeare’s politics, inasmuch as he had any, than the one Berlatsky tells. It’s a complicated story, though, so I’m going to put it in a new section.

*     *     *

Shakespeare began his career with a series of history plays – the three parts of Henry VI – that recounted England’s vivid, recent and traumatic past: the War of the Roses. It would be comparable to a young Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill starting their careers with a massive three-part epic about the American Civil War. There’s a sitting Lancastrian king, Henry VI, of somewhat dubious legitimacy, and a rival faction – the Yorkists – with fairly comparable claims on the throne, aiming to supplant him (and eventually succeeding in doing so). Because it isn’t clear who is the legitimate ruler, the land bleeds. A fourth play, Richard III, completes the sequence, with Richard serving the function of the “scourge of God,” eliminating, one by one, everyone tainted by a century of usurpation, until the field is clear for Henry Tudor, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, to kill Richard, take the throne, marry the last survivor of the rival house, get crowned Henry VII, and end all dispute.

This isn’t particularly good history, of course; it’s Tudor propaganda (though, also, really effective drama). And if that were all Shakespeare wrote it would make Berlatsky’s case fairly well. But that wasn’t where Shakespeare stopped. Instead, some years later, he set out to pen a new tetralogy, the prequels to these early plays. And the politics that emerge from the “Henriad” – the sequence from Richard II through Henry V - are quite different, and far more interesting, than the politics of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays.

Richard II is, I would argue, Shakespeare’s most overtly political play. It’s rarely produced, because it isn’t one of his most dramatically effective. But it deals with precisely the kind of question that Berlatsky suggests Shakespeare avoided: what do you do when the legitimate monarch is a ninny? Not someone weak and vacillating, unwilling to exercise authority – someone who acts tyrannically and has horribly bad judgment. What do you do?

Shakespeare’s answer is, basically: I don’t know. Henry Bolingbroke is plainly a usurper; nobody thinks Richard is an illegitimate king. Just as plainly, everybody who is anybody in the kingdom is hoping that usurpation works – Richard, from the moment he leaves England to suppress a rebellion in Ireland, loses essentially all of his support, and never gets it back. As Richard himself comes to realize, and articulate, there is no concrete manifestation of the supposed charism of divine right. It’s all just “ceremony.”

Richard II was a dangerous play to write, because it exposed the hollowness of monarchy’s pretensions to right. Supposedly, it was used to precisely the political effect that any monarch might have feared, with a revival being staged in conjunction with the Essex rebellion, and Queen Elizabeth herself crying, “I am Richard II – know ye not that?” (Though, there are more recent questions as to whether this episode has come down to us in a distorted form). Whether Shakespeare intended it to cause or stir or not (I doubt it), and whether or not it actually did, what it manifestly shows is a writer grappling with a genuine political stumper that struck at the heart of his world’s political order. That’s not something Berlatsky’s Shakespeare would do.

The next three plays, depicting the rise of Henry V from youthful wildness to sober military chieftain, continue to follow this central question: what is a king, really? Henry IV, Hal’s father, knows his rule is illegitimate, and spends his years of rule crushing rebellions by the same people who put him in power, yearning to go on a crusade to try to win divine favor to overcome the stain of usurpation, and fretting about whether his son will lose it all. In his last breath, he suggests to that son that he get himself involved in a foreign war; nothing would do better to distract the people and disarm his domestic opponents. This, Henry V duly does, invading France on a trumped-up pretext (the scene with the clergymen who bless the venture is breathtaking in its cynicism, and hilarious).

But Henry V is, very clearly, the picture of a good king – of some sort. He cleans up his act, and stays clean. He ruthlessly cuts off and punishes his old friends when they break discipline and threaten order, even having one of them hanged. He prays to God, sincerely. But he knows, all along, that he’s operating without any guarantee of divine favor, precisely because his father was a usurper. He is constantly trying to push responsibility onto somebody else, somebody more worthy – he tells his clerical advisors that if the war in France is unjust, it’s their fault, because they advised him he had right on his side – and is brought up short when one of his own men, whom he chats with around the fire while reviewing his troops in disguise, bluntly tells him that the king is the one who will have to answer for all the death and destruction the war will bring. It’s too heavy a burden for a mere man, who doesn’t embody the nation.

And so King Harry sets out to embody the nation in a novel way, not by developing a second, political body in the form of the nation, but by developing a second ear, a second voice. When he was still the prince, he learned to “drink with any tinker in his language,” and now, on the field of battle, he proclaims himself a Welshman, unites English with Irish and Scots, and then claims France as well, wooing his bride in a fractured French. He wanders among the troops at night in disguise as one of their number, and proclaims that anyone who fights with him will be made a gentleman, no matter how lowly born.

This is a new kind of politics, one we can recognize: one based on popularity, the common touch, an identification between ruler and ruled that is personal, not based on a theory of divine right. It’s an incipiently democratic politics, very far from the ideology of divine right. And it’s a largely sympathetic portrait. Shakespeare’s King Henry V isn’t a populist riling up a mob like Mark Antony does at Caesar’s funeral. He’s just a good politician – better than his notoriously political father ever was. He may kill his friends – he may commit war crimes, for that matter – but we can’t help but like him, because he seems like one of us.

*     *     *

Of course, at the end of Henry V, Shakespeare reminds us that it all went to shit when he died (and that he already wrote four plays showing us just how bad things got, in France and then in England). His son, Henry VI, didn’t have his father’s personal qualities, or maybe nobody could have held together the kingdom, and incipient empire, that Henry V bequeathed.

A vision of politics that says that legitimacy is important, and that without it it’s harder to rule peacefully, may well be called conservative – but if so, we’re setting the bar for conservatism pretty low. (Am I supposed to believe that anyone who denies, or even qualifies, Mao’s dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” is now a conservative?) What you can’t say is that Shakespeare wrote plays that blithely assume a world in which right ultimately triumphs, authority must be respected, and the most important thing is for everybody to know his place, and stay there. The very plays that grapple most directly with these questions portray a very different vision – a much more realistic, pragmatic and complex one than Berlatsky implies.

Steve Sailer ends his piece by citing Robert Conquest that “everybody is conservative about what they know best,” and saying that Shakespeare must have been a conservative because he knew so much about so much. I’ll buy that. The thing about knowing so much about something, though, is that it makes it ever harder to be definitive; the more you know, the more you know about how little you really know. That’s my kind of conservatism, and I’m happy to say it was Shakespeare’s. But a vast imaginative sympathy that crosses all lines of social distinction, and a healthy skepticism, even cynicism, about the designs of power, sounds like a pretty good description of my kind of liberalism as well.

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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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