Do Poets Write Verse this Good?

Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky, like the blue bell of a vacuum, lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fragrance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousandfold on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city. (John Updike, “In Football Season” from Olinger Stories)

Rating Professors is Arbitrary

So warns Jacques Berlinerblau:

Professorial prestige, I contend, is an awfully arbitrary thing.

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

Well, practice has a habit of trolling theory. Let’s imagine an experiment. All four of our hypothetical tenure-track anthropologists are asked to submit an updated CV and all of their relevant publications. Upon their arrival, these materials are scrubbed of any identifying markers. The anonymous files are then forwarded to a panel of experienced academicians, no-nonsense types who understand how the game is played. Their task: Figure out which CV corresponds to which sage employed at colleges ranked 1, 23, 75, and 149.

Our arbiters, I’m convinced, would fail this blind test. They would fail even if we asked them not to look at mere quantity of publications but quality as well. That’s because the contestants would all look puzzlingly similar. The judges might assume that the assistant professor at Clark worked at Southern California. And, yes, it is not unthinkable that they would place the Oklahoma State ethnographer in New Jersey. The problem is not that the Princeton person is a slouch. The problem is that all four are publishing a lot and all are very impressive on paper. Ergo, it would be impossible for the judges to distinguish between scholarly Coke and Pepsi.

Does this apply to New York City pastors?

What about U.S. Senators?

What about platforms makes an author more of an authority than another author?

What I Learned about My Brother

Today is his birthday and he shares it with Bob Dylan.

Of course, Dylan is better known than Don Hart. But they share the same birthday and they are both musicians. Talk about harmonic — see what I did there? — convergence.

But Don Hart is way better know than IiiiiiiiiiIIIIIIII.

America First as NIMBY for the Nation

Old neighbors in Philadelphia are objecting to a business that is expanding its hours and footprint:

Past residents of Chestnut Hill, through great effort, created a vision for the neighborhood. We owe them a great debt and we believe that we have a duty to be just as vigilant and visionary as our forebears.

Nearly 40 years ago, under the auspices of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, and well covered by this newspaper, a covenant was hammered out between the owners of the Chestnut Hill Hotel and its near neighbors on Ardleigh Street. This was no easy task. It took the efforts of hundreds of Chestnut Hill residents, city politicians, and the CHCA. The covenant runs in perpetuity with the property.

Such covenants are extremely important and should not be discarded or ignored in a willy-nilly fashion. Certainly, any attempt to supersede or challenge the covenant should be presented and discussed with the parties involved. Such was never done with the neighbors on Ardleigh Street. Only the heavy construction work we heard coming over the fence in the dead of night alerted us that something was happening. Now we are faced with a fait accompli, and our only recourse seems to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to have our living covenant recognized. How is this at all neighborly?

As development proceeds in Chestnut Hill, all of us should be concerned about the abrogation of covenants. Ours is not the only such covenant here, and by acceding to the development whims at the Chestnut Hill Hotel property without any review, all such covenants are mocked and threatened. I appeal to the CHCA to take careful note.

Finally, the system set up to monitor local development, which includes building codes, zoning and the associated permits, are not to be ignored. All those seemingly petty requirements – the posting of permits, height restrictions, propinquity to elementary schools – are important. And again, the wider community should take note because what is scoffed at and ignored in our neighborhood is coming your way sooner or later. There is and will continue to be voracious demand for development in Chestnut Hill.

Given the demographics of the place, I assume many of these concerned residents are liberal politically and supported Hillary Clinton in last year’s election for POTUS. But imagine if these same people thought about the United States, its borders, and the expectations underwritten by the Constitution the same way that they think about their neighborhood and what threatens their way of life.

If they did that, would they really have trouble understanding people who voted for a president who campaigned to take borders seriously, to put national interests first, and who annoyed a lot of citizens who disdained rather than cared for Americans living in fly-over country?

Deep inside every American, conservative or liberal, beats a Not In My Back Yard heart. Why the outrage when the wrong side shows it has a pulse?

Why Liberty U. May Be a Better Place to Study than Duke

Jerry Falwell, Jr. may have and still does support Donald Trump, but I doubt he’d let happen what Paul Griffiths, a very smart Roman Catholic scholar, is now experiencing for not submitting to sensitivity training (thanks to Rod). Griffiths’ description of the consequences of the politics of identity is a reminder that we have more to fear than Donald Trump:

These disciplinary proceedings are designed not to engage and rebut the views I hold and have expressed about the matters mentioned, but rather to discipline me for having expressed them. Elaine Heath and Thea Portier-Young, when faced with disagreement, prefer discipline to argument. In doing so they act illiberally and anti-intellectually; their action shows totalitarian affinities in its preferred method, which is the veiled use of institutional power. They appeal to non- or anti-intellectual categories (‘unprofessional conduct’ in Heath’s case; ‘harassment’ in Portier-Young’s) to short-circuit disagreement. All this is shameful, and I call them out on it.

Heath and Portier-Young aren’t alone among us in showing these tendencies. The convictions that some of my colleagues hold about justice for racial, ethnic, and gender minorities have led them to attempt occupation of a place of unassailably luminous moral probity. That’s a utopia, and those who seek it place themselves outside the space of reason. Once you’ve made that move, those who disagree with you inevitably seem corrupt and dangerous, better removed than argued with, while you seem to yourself beyond criticism. What you do then is discipline your opponents.

If only liberals were liberal.

The United States of Fear

I think I have the way to form a more perfect union in this place we call the USA. It is to recognize that all Americans share a sense of fear. Anxiety is what unites us in the U.S. Consider the following.

Andrew Sullivan writes respectfully about reactionary conservatism and even grants its plausibility:

Certain truths about human beings have never changed. We are tribal creatures in our very DNA; we have an instinctive preference for our own over others, for “in-groups” over “out-groups”; for hunter-gatherers, recognizing strangers as threats was a matter of life and death. We also invent myths and stories to give meaning to our common lives. Among those myths is the nation — stretching from the past into the future, providing meaning to our common lives in a way nothing else can. Strip those narratives away, or transform them too quickly, and humans will become disoriented. Most of us respond to radical changes in our lives, especially changes we haven’t chosen, with more fear than hope. We can numb the pain with legal cannabis or opioids, but it is pain nonetheless.

If we ignore these deeper facts about ourselves, we run the risk of fatal errors. It’s vital to remember that multicultural, multiracial, post-national societies are extremely new for the human species, and keeping them viable and stable is a massive challenge. Globally, social trust is highest in the homogeneous Nordic countries, and in America, Pew has found it higher in rural areas than cities. The political scientist Robert Putnam has found that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Not very encouraging about human nature — but something we can’t wish away, either. In fact, the American elite’s dismissal of these truths, its reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude “racism” or “xenophobia,” only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel.

And is it any wonder that reactionaries are gaining strength? Within the space of 50 years, America has gone from segregation to dizzying multiculturalism; from traditional family structures to widespread divorce, cohabitation, and sexual liberty; from a few respected sources of information to an endless stream of peer-to-peer media; from careers in one company for life to an ever-accelerating need to retrain and regroup; from a patriarchy to (incomplete) gender equality; from homosexuality as a sin to homophobia as a taboo; from Christianity being the common culture to a secularism no society has ever sustained before ours.

Notice too that conservatives are not the only ones who are very, very afraid. It’s also feminist philosophers. But even they can’t claim privilege for their phobia:

I want to explore a much more general issue raised by this whole affair. This has to do with concept of harm, which keeps being raised. The main charge against Tuvel is that the very existence and availability of her paper causes harm to various groups, most specifically to members of the transgender community. This is a puzzling and contentious claim that deserves serious reflection.

The editorial board statement specifically refers to “the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication.” As the concept of harm is standardly used in legal contexts, this would be a tough claim to defend. It is certainly possible for someone to suffer material or tangible loss, injury, or damage as a consequence of a 15-page article being published in an academic journal. The article might be libelous, for example. But there is no such charge here. The only individual mentioned by name besides Rachel Dolezal is Caitlyn Jenner, and it seems implausible to say that Tuvel has harmed Jenner by “deadnaming” her (i.e., using her birth name), given how public Jenner has been about her personal history.

The authors of the editorial board statement have nothing to say about how they understand harm. This already should give pause for thought. Philosophers, whatever their methodological orientation or training, usually pride themselves on sensitivity to how words and concepts are used. This makes it odd to see no attention being paid to how they are understanding this key concept of harm, which is central to many areas in legal and moral philosophy.

But the statement does clarify what the authors believe has caused the harm: “Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.”

And here I thought we were supposed to be afraid of Trump. Imagine the harm a POTUS can do. But in the United States of Fear, an academic paper poses a threat capable of generating the kind of fear that many endure with our incautious and vicious president.

The question is whether those with fears can recognize fear as a basis for personal identity. Can we go from the specific to the general and recognize fear is something that every American experiences? If so, then we may finally have a common point of reference for a shared existence. We are united in fear.