Free speech at Harvard

Nov 21st, 2002 7:59 pm | By

Two stories about Harvard in the Boston Globe in the last two days raise a lot of interesting if intractable questions. The first tells of a plan for a Law School committee “to draft a speech code that would ban harassing, offensive language from the classroom.” It is interesting that “another professor’s comment that feminism, Marxism, and black studies have ‘contributed nothing’ to tort law” is included by the reporter in a list of “racial incidents.” Is that comment, that opinion, really a racial incident? By what definition? But perhaps even more unnerving is the name of the new group: the Committee on Healthy Diversity. Oh dear. What sanely skeptical adult does not want to pack a bag and light out for the territory on being offered such a Committee? ‘Give me Sickliness any day!’ will surely be the cry. ‘I don’t want to be healthy,’ one hopes all those jaundiced overtired law students are muttering. But in this healthy climate, Randall Kennedy told Alan Dershowitz that his language was insensitive and that students should not be embarrassed (law students!) to answer. Dershowitz told Kennedy not to try to silence him, and in a very healthy moment Philip Heymann pointed out that teachers at law schools are supposed to challenge students to defend their opinions. “Making someone uncomfortable should not be prohibited,” he said. Indeed not. Perhaps Harvard Law needs another committee: the Committee on Instructive Discomfort.

The second story perhaps errs in the other direction. The subject is the reinvitation of the poet Tom Paulin to give a lecture, after the invitation had been rescinded because of protests over “an interview with an Egyptian newspaper that quotes Paulin describing Brooklyn-born Jews living in Israeli settlements as ‘Nazis’and ‘racists’ and saying that they ‘should be shot dead.'” Now the English department has “argued strenuously for reinviting Paulin and sending a message that the English department supported free speech, even if it is controversial or offensive.” Without taking a position on whether Paulin should be uninvited or reinvited, it is possible to note that surely saying people should be shot dead is something beyond merely controversial or offensive. Perhaps there is a good case to be made for the notion that a poet should be able to say such things, or that free speech depends on allowing even incitement to violence, or that the First Amendment would be fatally weakened by giving in to such protests. But the case can’t be made if the terms are fudged. If one wants to defend incitement to violence as free speech, then one has to call it what it is and not something else.

Fact and Fiction

Nov 20th, 2002 5:42 pm | By

A remarkably rich essay by Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian is full of matter relevant to the concerns of Butterflies and Wheels. His subject is the difficulty and subtlety of distinguishing between fiction and fact, what he calls the border between the two, and the necessity nonetheless of making the distinction, of continuing to patrol that border, and resisting any postmodernist temptation to shrug and say it’s all the same thing. Garton Ash mentions Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, a fictional account that presented itself as a history until the end. “Schama suggests that history as storytelling, as literature, must reclaim the ground it has lost to history as science, or pseudoscience. I entirely agree; but from this particular literary device it is not a long step to the postmodernist conclusion that any historian’s ‘story’ is as good as any other’s.” I don’t agree with the history as science part. Historians examine, evaluate, and interpret evidence just the way scientists do, after all. History is also literature (but then so can science be), but it has to be accurate, self-correcting, open to criticism, just as science does. Perhaps the border between fact and fiction should be better patrolled whereas the one between history and science should be done away with.

Which is not to say that the job is an easy one. Garton Ash goes on to consider the unreliability of witnesses and of memory, the way the mind generates narrative to make sense of facts and experiences that perhaps don’t make sense in reality, the need for selection among the mass of events and facts in the world, the morality of truth, and the fact that we believe people who warn us not to believe them. In short he examines the paradox we all bump into many times a day, that truth is both elusive and necessary.

Question Which Assumptions?

Nov 19th, 2002 4:55 pm | By

There’s a dreary little story in today’s Guardian. Chris Woodhead, former head of the Office of Standards in Education, wants to question the assumption that more and more education is a good thing. He opposes raising the school leaving age to eighteen or nineteen. “Such proposals have more to do with massaging unemployment figures than the needs of the economy.” All right, but while we’re at it, let’s also question the assumption that education is a tool of the economy and not, say, the other way around. Let’s question the assumption that the only question to ask about more schooling is whether it trains the student for a job. Let’s question the assumption that education is an instrumental good and not an intrinsic one, and even more let’s question the assumption that people are the equivalent of tools or bits of machinery. Let’s think about what education is good for besides providing drones for the economy.

But the economy is the government’s business, and education as a good in itself is not, people will say. But it is not self-evident why this should be so. Questions of value are mixed up in all these areas, so we might as well make them explicit and address them. If education is not a good in itself but only a fancy name for job training, then what of critical thinking, clarity, getting it right, accuracy, truth? Why worry about them at all, unless we need them for our jobs? Perhaps we should decide that engineers and doctors and chemists should be trained to think well and the rest of us can just muddle along in a blur, believing whatever makes us feel good. But Butterflies and Wheels is dedicated to the proposition that that is not the case, and that surely entails thinking that education is an inherent good and that fourteen is too young to abandon it.

Elitism, Egalitarianism, Passionate Attraction

Nov 15th, 2002 7:16 pm | By

An interesting article in the Guardian discusses the paradoxical way the discoveries of ultra-elitist Newton were found by Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, Jefferson and Adams and Franklin, Saint-Simon and Fourier, to be full of progressive implications. Gravity affects all people everywhere, which made Newton the supreme philosopher of equality during the French Revolution. Fourier connected the gravitational principle of “passionate attraction” with the free love of his Utopian communities. And oddest of all, “in the debate between John Adams and Benjamin Franklin over a unicameral or bicameral legislature, it was an appeal to Newton that resolved the dispute. Adams argued that only a system with both a House of Representatives and a Senate conformed to Newton’s third law of motion: that to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A fascinating detail, that. One thinks wistfully of the is-ought gap and wonders if Franklin (the friend of Hume, after all) thought to mention it.

But even more one wonders, not for the first time, what it is that people mean by “elitism”. It’s a handy term of abuse that gets thrown around a lot but seldom defined. In some circles it is quite popular, even mandatory, to call scientists elitist. But what does it mean? Does it just mean knowing something? Does it mean exclusion and exclusiveness? A belief that an elite (of whatever kind) should be in power and run things? Do we mean a Platonic belief in Guardians and Philosopher Kings? Or a belief that leadership in various kinds of organisations (hospitals and clinics, schools and universities, learned societies and businesses) should be allocated on the basis of merit or proven ability (however defined and tested and measured) rather than at random or by a popularity or beauty contest? Is it a belief that good things are better than bad things? That there are such things (however defined and chosen) as good books, ideas, paintings, theories, arguments, inventions, products, and also bad ones, and that it makes sense to prefer the good ones? Is it the belief that good books and ideas are better than bad ones but not (for instance) the belief that good athletes or rock stars or models or film stars or sitcom actors are better than bad ones? Or the belief that good books and ideas matter more than good film stars or sitcom actors? Is it the belief that a thing can be popular, even very popular, even almost universally popular, and still not be very good? Is it a sense of superiority to people who don’t share one’s elevated tastes? Is it some of these and not others? Is it all of them but at different times? Or is it all of them at all times. It is a word that could do with some defining, it seems to me.

18 to 34 Nirvana

Nov 14th, 2002 4:11 pm | By

There is a story in today’s Guardian about US newspapers competing to attract the ever-popular 18 to 34 year old “market”. Apparently they are crashing into one another and banging heads in a foolish way in Chicago, as each tries to be dumber than the other. The whole subject gives one a feeling of despair. It is so taken for granted that the point of the enterprise is for newspapers to insinuate their way into everyone’s wallets. It is made so drearily obvious that the actual dissemination or clarification of news and knowledge and understanding is just a kind of pretext for or prettification of the real work of delivering customers to advertisers. Is it any wonder that alien abductions and crop circles and energy-healing go down a treat while science and reason are looked on as killjoys and dull plodding wonder-challenged literalists.

Fantasy and Skepticism

Nov 12th, 2002 6:11 pm | By

SciTech Daily Review currently has a link to this highly interesting 1996 article from the Skeptical Inquirer. It cites studies by George Gerbner and others that say people who watch a lot of television are more likely (than those who don’t) to be hostile to science and friendly toward pseudoscience, including after controlling for education and other variables. It then goes on to detail the way science and skepticism are the bad guys in several movies and tv shows, while nice, regular, credulous people are the goodies. Of course, this has been true as long as the ghost story has existed (which is probably as long as humans have), because it’s such an excellent device, to have a lot of skeptics around scoffing until the Monster comes along and bites they tiny heads off and nibbles on they tiny feet. Think of Horatio in Hamlet, saying “Tush, tush, ‘twil not appear,” when of course it does. It’s all part of the game of the flesh-creeper, the hair-raiser, the spooky story. But all the same, things that are just part of the game can have consequences.

It’s hard to imagine what to do about the problem though. Perhaps everyone who watched one hour of Alien Abducters Are Coming up the Stairs could be required to follow it with an hour of Critical Thinking Skills for X-Files Fans. But who would enforce such a thing? Perhaps all the tv sets in the world could be so programmed. But then what of Magic Realism? Every time Salman Rushdie put a radio up someone’s nose or Harry Potter learned a new game, would we all have to read a corrective? And then would we all have to listen to an army of literary critics and novelists and therapists telling us why imagination is essential? No, it’s unworkable. And yet it probably is true that all the Dumb Skeptics stories do shape people’s attitudes to skepticism. What can one do, other than start a new website…

British Academy prize shortlist

Nov 11th, 2002 1:22 am | By

This is an exhilarating article in the Guardian about the six books on the shortlist for the British Academy prize, “launched last year to celebrate the best of accessible scholarly writing within the humanities and social sciences.” What an excellent idea for a prize. Two words that don’t normally seem to go together–accessible and scholarly–joined up and rewarded. Accessible scholarly writing is perhaps my favorite kind of reading, there is a lot of it about, and more attention should be paid to it. It always strikes me as odd how much more glory there is in writing fiction, even (all too often) quite mediocre fiction, than there is in writing good or even brilliant history or biography or sociology or philosophy for an educated but broad public. Simon Blackburn’s Ruling Passions, Richard Jenkyns’ Virgil’s Experience, Terry Pinkard’s Hegel, just to take three examples more or less at random that I (more broad than educated perhaps) have found illuminating as well as inspiring, should all be better known than the latest memoir of house-hunting in Tuscany or novel of angst in Hampstead.

The article gives a summary and brief discussion of each of the six, and I want to rush out and read each one of them. Long live books for the general reader, and prizes for those who write them.

Invisible Assumptions

Nov 8th, 2002 7:19 pm | By

This review in the London Review of Books considers a number of inter-connected ideas that are so taken for granted, so entrenched, so the way we all think now, that they are invisible and hence not questioned, even (or least of all?) by people who pride themselves on questioning such things, and even make a living at it, or at attempting it.

For instance the assumption that the self and concern with it are warm and objectivity is cold. And the assumtion that warmth is good and coldness is bad. Then, the assumption that the way to consider these issues is via morality rather than epistemology (which could imply that morality is more important than epistemology and hence should be able to trump it, which is an idea whose implications Butterflies and Wheels is keen to examine). The assumption that knowledge is not worth much sacrifice. Above all, the idea that referring everything back to the self, that subjectivity, refusal ever to let go of or forget the self in something outside it, is somehow healthier and better and more sane than self-forgetful absorption in something larger.

Levine recognises the zest for brute facts among his Victorian witnesses, but sees it as a reaffirmation of warm-blooded subjectivity against cold objectivity, the self protesting against its obliteration. There is, however, at least as much evidence that the precise source of the pleasures reported, artistic as well as scientific, was the escape from the self and the whole tedious burden of the personal. What made the self monstrous for Victorians was that there was so much of it, and all so tiresomely familiar. The yearning for objectivity may have been almost as much a flight from boredom as a quest for knowledge.

Perhaps the war is over

Nov 7th, 2002 11:50 pm | By

Steven Pinker’s new book The Blank Slate is reviewed
in The Nation, the US’s oldest leftist magazine (which I’ve been reading for years), this week. The review is long, favourable, and not opposed to evolutionary psychology. I say ‘not opposed’ rather than sympathetic because the latter seems an absurd word to use about scientific research. It’s not as if evolutionary pyschology is going to have hurt feelings because some people disapprove of it. As Steven Johnson points out, advocates of the ‘blank slate’ view of human nature are being made into Flat Earthers by the science. But there are still a good few of them about, and it is both surprising and heartening to find a sentence like the following in a stalwartly lefty mag.

It may not convince everyone of the merits of evolutionary psychology, but it should certainly undermine the default assumption that the Darwinian theory of the mind is implicitly a reactionary one.

Not Good for the Mind

Nov 5th, 2002 4:13 pm | By

Richard Dawkins says that the real damage done to children by the Catholic Church is not “a little fondling,” but what it does to their minds. This is not a conventional or (in the general estimation, especially in the US) polite thing to say, but I think it is profoundly true. There is the fear of hell, for one thing, as Dawkins says, and as we’re all familiar with from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as well as our own pasts or those of friends. One does have to wonder why people are so immovably convinced of the general benevolence of religion, when that kind of terror-mongering is part of it.

But even more than that, there is the early training in bad thinking. “I think it’s a very demeaning thing to the human mind to believe in a falsehood, especially as the truth about the universe is so immensely exciting,” Dawkins says. Indeed. And it’s not only demeaning, it’s disabling. If one has been trained to believe one falsehood, what is to prevent one from believing in more? From believing any falsehood that happens to appeal? And if that is one’s mental habit, how can one think clearly about anything at all?

Cleaning the closets

Nov 3rd, 2002 7:50 pm | By

There is a difference between amassing a great many facts, and acquiring or conveying knowledge or understanding. There is also a difference between exploring every possible detail and speculative possibility of Poet X’s sex life, and writing a good intellectual biography. The review of yet another new biography of Byron indicates that we have yet another example of the first part of the equation instead of the second. There has been a rash of such biographies in the last decade or so, profoundly anti-intellectual works that undertake to clean out the closets of various writers and thinkers without stopping to ask why we care about those closets if we don’t care about the work. We know more than we knew before about the neuroses of Virginia Woolf, the repressions of Henry James, the bad marriage of T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens’ secret mistress, and (over and over again) the undeniably colourful life of Byron. But so what? If that’s what we want, why bother to look to writers for it? Why not just watch a soap opera, or better yet, just go out and work up a colourful life of our own? As Duncan Wu says at the conclusion of his review,

But it is a sad comment on our culture that a fully researched biography such as this has little to say about what made Byron a great poet, while devoting several hundred pages to proving that he was a closet homosexual whose cover was the exaggerated number of female conquests which were his chief boast.

Elitism or Meritocracy?

Nov 3rd, 2002 5:50 pm | By

Frank Dobson, a Labour M.P. and former Secretary of State for Health, has an article in today’s Observer that assails the ‘elitist’ policies of Tony Blair’s government, particularly in education and health care. The health issue seems reasonably straightforward: he says that less money is being spent in poorer areas, and that does sound like a policy that favours the already favoured. But in education, surely things are not quite so simple. There is a worry, among those who agree with Dobson, about a proposal for super A-levels to challenge super-clever children. Dobson parses the idea this way:

“This idea that gifted children need super A-levels comes from people who want a privileged minority to be able to look down on young people who have passed ‘just’ A-levels.”

Well. That is one possibility, certainly, but surely there are others? Surely there is more than one way to look at the subject, and more than one possible motivation for wanting to see students challenged to stretch as far as they can? Is the most spiteful or invidious motive automatically the correct one? Is education solely a mechanism for getting ahead? Is it solely a pretext for humiliating other people? Is it solely a slotting-device for the hierarchy? Could a desire for more demanding education possibly have anything to do with thoughts about education being an intrinsic good as well as an instrumental one? Could the subject, in short, be a little more complex than that comment makes it sound?

Oh, rapture

Oct 29th, 2002 3:40 pm | By

Tim LaHaye was on the US public radio show Fresh Air last night. He is a minister, a fundamentalist, a pillar of far-right politics, a former honcho in the Moral Majority, and…a best-selling novelist. To put it mildly. He is the co-author of a series which has sold (I cringe to relate) 50 million copies. The ‘left behind’ series. For those who have the good fortune not to know what on earth that is, the subject matter is ‘the Rapture’. You know. When Jesus shouts in the sky and all the believers are instantly taken up into heaven, to leave the rest of us down here to be tortured for all eternity (after a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing with End Times and tribulations and killing all the Jews and the Anti-christ and never being able to find a parking space).

I have been aware of this delightful cultural artifact for a long time, but have also been doing my best to ignore it. But I listened last night, and as of course I knew it would be, it’s even worse than I thought. I was repelled but not at all surprised by the obvious relish plus loathing in LaHaye’s voice when he talked about all the people who refused to ‘call on God’ (and thus were doomed doomed doomed), about the way they ree-bell, and their attitude. And the air of faintly surprised generosity with which he said he hoped that as many as a billion people might be saved. And the naive fatuity with which he said that because Jesus said ‘Whosoever believes…’ that means he meant everyone, without stopping to reflect that Jesus didn’t actually speak English or that the translation might possibly not bear out his interpretation. But I was (I shouldn’t have been, but I was) a little surprised to learn that the rapture crowd believe that the Bible predicts that ‘one world government’ and world peace are part of the plan of the Anti-christ. Not figuratively but literally. Now there’s a reassuring thought. And there are 50 million of them sold.

Anger is energizing

Oct 28th, 2002 5:50 pm | By

Now that’s what I call good news. A piece in yesterday’s New York Times says that, popular wisdom to the contrary notwithstanding, pessimism and anger are not necessarily always unhealthy and their opposites not necessarily always therapeutic. Just exactly what I’ve always thought! I’m a basically cheerful sort, I think, but it’s an irritated sort of cheerfulness–the two go together. I get a lot of energy and motivation from my generalised anger. It means there are things to do, mistakes that need pointing out, stupidities that need correcting. One likes to feel useful. Julie K. Norem, a psychologist and author of the book The Power of Negative Thinking, says that anger is an energizing emotion. I feel vindicated, and joyously indignant.

‘Barbara S. Held, a psychologist and professor at Bowdoin College, argues that it’s time to end what she calls the “tyranny of the positive attitude in America.”‘ I couldn’t possibly agree more.

The oracular mode

Oct 27th, 2002 11:22 pm | By

Judith Shulevitz wrote of Harold Bloom’s new book Genius, in the New York Times Book Review:

“He repeats himself so often that his favorite words acquire the ring of revolutionary slogans (Originality! Vitality!) or ritual denunciations (Resenters! Historicizers!). He makes grandiose and indefensible claims without explaining or arguing for them. He cloaks himself Wizard-of-Oz-like in the polysyllabic hermeticism of cabala and Gnosticism, with little seeming regard for the violence his borrowings may do to those systems or to the comprehensibility of his prose.”

Just so. I had the same problem with The Western Canon; Shakespeare; How to Read and Why. Bloom used to be (and still is when he wants to, it’s just that he mostly seems not to want to any more) an excellent close reader–something of a genius at it in fact. But he’s given that up now for the oracular mode, and he does indeed endlessly repeat himself and make tiresomely magniloquent claims, without troubling to argue for them. I love his passion for literature, and his passionate resistance to what he calls (often, often) the school of resentment, but for that very reason (as well as others) I wish he would bother to make a case for them rather than simply announcing them. It can be contagious, that kind of thing, and at a time when there is so much bad thought being flung around, it is incumbent on everyone to think and argue as well and clearly as possible. Bloom certainly knows how, and it would be nice if he could get over his taste for the jeremiad.

At the Bookfest

Oct 20th, 2002 4:25 pm | By

I went to the Northwest Bookfest yesterday to hear Steven Pinker and William Calvin talk about brains and evolution. Pinker is here on a book tour with his new book The Blank Slate, and I also went to hear him Friday evening. The Bookfest event was particularly interesting, because it was a dialogue and a little bit less planned than a lecture necessarily is. Calvin is a neuroscientist at the University of Washington who, as he pointed out, like Pinker tends to write books for the general public. His latest book, A Mind for all Seasons, is about the likely ways climate change and the evolutionary pressures that go with it shaped the human mind, and he and Pinker discussed the probable ways such pressures work. It was clear that this sort of thing has an element of uncertainty; that it’s plausible, seems to fit, to work, to explain and make sense; but is not proven. I was glad to see the subject presented this way, since the provisional status of much of evolutionary theory can present a gap in the fence for those who dislike evolutionary psychology (and they are legion) to rush through and try to tear the barn down, all the more if it’s not acknowledged.

It’s such an interesting subject. That’s one of the odd things about people who dislike evolutionary theory: they miss out on this compelling line of thought. The possible links between Ice Ages, drought, the opening up of the savannah, abundance of game animals, and the human cerebral cortex, are surely fascinating. It seems a waste to ignore them. Still, there is less hostility than there once was. The water stayed in the pitchers. There was one hostile questioner, whose voice quivered with (I couldn’t help thinking) somewhat histrionic indignation as he asked Pinker what was to prevent some future tyrant from getting eugenic ammunition from The Blank Slate. ‘If such a tyrant actually reads the book,’ Pinker said calmly, ‘then I’m not worried.’ His answer was greeted with applause, and Homo histrionicus shrugged and sat down.

Biography as Story Time

Sep 14th, 2002 8:16 pm | By

Two articles in The New Republic in the past year or two, one about Theodore Roosevelt and the other about John Adams, are also about the oversimplification of history. Wilentz says the Adams biography is too reverential and respectful, too much of a hagiography. Stansell says the Roosevelt is too incurious, too movie-like and you-are-there-ish, too long on detail and much too short on questions and analysis. Is this inevitable in writing popular biography and history? Does one absolutely have to choose between writing a book that’s fun and entertaining and not too difficult, and one that actually explores and interrogates the subject rather than merely telling a story about it? Is it entirely out of the question to present history in such a way that general readers can gain some understanding and some idea of the questions historians ask? I don’t see why it should be. There is a fine line between popularisation and dumbing down, but it’s unfortunate that people so often opt for the easier (and probably more lucrative) course rather than making the effort to write about ideas even in a popular book.