Sunday, July 18, 2004

Why I'm Not an Advice Columnist

Dear Cary,

The problem is baseball. Well, baseball and this terrific new woman I have been seeing. Here's the thing: I love Major League Baseball. It is one of my consuming passions. ...But there's this woman. She is funny and smart and beautiful... There's just one problem: She roots for my team's biggest rival. ...So recently, these two teams, her team and my team, went head to head, and my team lost. And badly. And repeatedly. Which would make me kind of miserable under the best of circumstances. But I feel even worse because I know that, not so deep down, she is happy. She is unhappy for me, because she is wonderful and kind and I think she may love me a little. But she is happy for herself. And I can't stand it. My knowledge of her happiness is eating away at me. It feels like disloyalty -- I care so much about my team, and how can she take pleasure in something that is causing me so much pain?

Dear Baseball Fan,

You should break up with her immediately. Since this is the kind of problem that would only really matter to a ten-year-old, I infer that you are way too young to be dating. This can only end with a prison term for her.

Stay in school, keep away from drugs, and maybe in ten or fifteen years you'll be ready for a mature, adult relationship, the kind in which this sort of "dilemma" would seem like a silly joke.

Jesus H. Christ. Inside baseball

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

I'm a Believer

The comments on this Crooked Timber post are entertaining, in a depressing way. Note the sneering, oh-so-superior tone in most of them, especially the one that called the Believer article's author "ignorant." (This means, I think, "not an insider, hence not worth taking seriously.")

The article in question, whatever its flaws, does make some criticisms that seem pretty accurate to me:

  • There is a huge flood of scholarly publication in English and other literary disciplines, most of it inconsequential, fated to be read only by its author, a couple of journal editors, a few referees, and possibly the author's colleagues.
  • A great deal of this publication is written in a rarefied, self-consciously obscure dialect that is incomprehensible to people who lack a graduate education in English.
  • Many scholars of English literature don't see anything wrong with this.
  • Perhaps there is nothing wrong with it. But of course that conclusion is hard to swallow for a lot of outsiders, given that the subject matter of this scholarship — literature — is arguably meant to be read and enjoyed and learned from by a larger group of people than the small number of professionals who get paid to study it.

    The question that Crooked Timber's commentators (with a few welcome exceptions) want to avoid addressing is the social utility of the current situation. Most literary scholarship goes unread by most of the profession, and even more so by ordinary readers. So if current literary scholarship has social utility, it must be indirect, by providing an atmosphere of continued scholarly inquiry for teachers that will, in some ways, filter down to students both while they are in college and in later life. (This is true for scholarship in other academic disciplines as well; there are few practical applications of number theory, for example, but it is still an indispensable subject in mathematics departments.)

    What concerns me is whether this indirect utility justifies the large expenditures that are currently being lavished on it. In most colleges, literature departments are the largest of the humanities departments. There are hundreds of journals of literary scholarship, and thousands of literature professors cranking out more articles to fill those journals. Is the money that goes to pay for the production and distribution and cataloguing and storage of this scholarship well spent?

    At a time when this question is being raised more and more urgently — by college financial officers and especially by students and their parents facing skyrocketing tuition — it might be advisable for the discipline to encourage the production of less scholarship of higher quality. It might be advisable in any case for literary scholars to focus on studying literature, instead of producing pastiches of scholarship in areas in which they have no real expertise — sociology, history, political theory, philosophy. And it is definitely advisable for journal editors and conference committee members to start exercising some good judgment by actively discouraging the meaningless jargon, radical-chic posturing, and adolescent obsession with bodily fluids and orifices that have become objects of ridicule both inside and outside the profession.

    But I see little chance of this happening inside the academic echo chamber. Right now, most English departments are like SUVs: they're comfortable and fashionable and they make the people inside feel important and powerful. But they're too damned expensive for the results we get. The money well hasn't dried up yet, but it will, and I feel for the people who have to make hiring decisions when it does.

    Crooked Timber: What for are English professors?

    The Believer: In the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower

    Saturday, July 03, 2004

    Babysitting Iraq

    Ted H. calls attention to a frequently overlooked fact about motivation, namely that people's interests can overlap.

    "X did it for Y's sake" is not, I repeat not, incompatible with "X did it for X's own sake."  Perhaps X views Y's interests as including his own.  Or perhaps X thinks that promoting Y's interests will cause his own separate interests to be promoted as well.
    We recognize instances of this all the time. If I offer to take my nephew to the park so he can play, I may very well expect to enjoy watching him, and spending time with him. I am doing this for his sake, and also for my own, since in this case furthering his interests also furthers mine.

    Ted applies this principle to the Iraq war:

    It is thus possible that the Bush Administration went to war in Iraq with the aim of promoting its interests by promoting the interests of the Iraqi people.  That's been my reading of the situation all along[...]
    I think Ted is right to reject the notion that the Bush administration must have had some ulterior motive that was really responsible for the drive to war. Like him, I'm not quite to the point of believing that the decision-makers in this administration are so irredeemably evil that they couldn't possibly have been serious about helping the Iraqis.

    Ted goes on to say:

    To show that there's something unsavory about the Administration's motives, you'd need to show that prominent members of the Administration don't believe the unifying theory.
    Here's where I have my reservations. I do think there was something unsavory about the administration's motives, or at the very least questionable about them. For another salient fact about interests is that they can coincide, or fail to coincide, in complex ways. To return to the example of my young nephew: it's easy enough for me to conclude that my interests (in enjoying his company) are furthered by accompanying my nephew to the park, or to story time at the library, or to a petting zoo. Suppose I were to offer to babysit my nephew for a week, in even greater furtherance of those interests. Might it be rational for my sister-in-law to be a little reluctant to accept that offer?

    I think so, and here's why: while in some cases I might further my interests by furthering those of my nephew, there are bound to be other cases in which I do not. People's interests are complex. I might decide, after a day or two, that the law of diminishing returns renders my nephew's company considerably less entertaining than at first. Perhaps I'm now more interested in reading a novel, despite my nephew's vigorous entreaties to take him back to the park. If I intended to further both our interests, but now furthering his does not further mine, whose interests will win out? And if I'm torn over the question of whether or not to take him to the park again today, how will I react if he wakes up at 3:00 AM, badly in need of a diaper change? How robustly am I motivated to pursue his interests when they are directly opposed to mine? If my sister-in-law has any doubts on the matter, she'd be well advised to decline my offer.

    Back to the Iraq case: no doubt many of the top members of the administration believed that they would further their interests, and the interests of the United States, by invading Iraq. Once that belief is exploded (and by this point it has been thoroughly exploded), what motives will dominate? To put it another way, does anyone think that the administration would have invaded Iraq if they believed that it would ultimately damage them politically? A commitment to help others only when I can profit from helping them is not a very deep commitment to their welfare. First and foremost, it's a commitment to my own. Their good figures only accidentally.

    Unfortunately, the history of the occupation suggests that many of the military's and CPA's decisions in Iraq have been primarily about furthering the administration's ideology and making political capital, from Bremer's obsession with Polish-style privatization, to staffing the CPA with politically reliable Republicans, to the famous statue-toppling. In these cases, the likely benefit to the Iraqis has been of distinctly secondary importance.