Simone Weil v. Jarvis Cocker

Attention conservation notice: I take 1000 words to give you the “amazing revelation” that experience can teach you things. Then I bizarrely suggest that you should go be a dilettante hipster farmer. I finish off with a career announcement and an intro to a new post series on the blog.

In 1934, Simone Weil took a year’s sabbatical from her job teaching philosophy to go work in a factory so that she could better understand the plight of the working class. Was this an admirable act of intellectual curiosity, putting your money where your mouth is, making sure that what you are working towards corresponds to what people actually need? Or was it an example of an out-of-touch elite “slumming” in a way that’s ridiculous and borderline offensive? The action certainly fits with Simone Weil’s other behaviour where the consequences for others aren’t super well thought out. Like the time she tried to persuade the Spanish Republicans to send her on a covert spy mission ignoring the fact that, being French, she would have a lot of trouble passing for a Spaniard. Or joining up with a commando unit despite being so bad at marksmanship that her comrades had to waste their time protecting her rather than her doing anything to help them. These actions are object lessons in the idea that good intentions are not enough. And joining the factory sort of also seems like that. It’s doing things that look good but don’t actually do good. Simone Weil was a prominent writer and philosopher — she could clearly do more for workers as a philosopher, than she could working at the Renault factory.

Apart from the missed opportunity, it’s also easy to be against this kind of thing for hypocrisy reasons. Pulp covered this point in their hit song “Common People” where Jarvis Cocker sneers at rich people living like the poor: “still you’ll never get it right / cause when you’re lying in bed at night / watching roaches climb the wall / if you called your dad he could stop it all”. It’s hard to avoid the idea that Weil was “playing at being a worker” and feel kind of insulted on behalf of the people who had to spend their whole lives at the factory.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. While I still think it can be done in a hypocritical and not well-thought-out way, I have come to believe that since lived experience is the best teacher, seeking it out is the morally right thing to do. Far from being worthy of mockery, what Simone Weil did deserves respect and emulation. If you want to advocate on behalf of people working at car plants, as she did, you have to know what matters to people working at car plants, and what car plant workers’ lives are actually like. You can say “believe the people who have the experience“ all you want, but this doesn’t actually cover it. For one, actually working in a car factory is by far the best way to get that second-hand perspective anyway. It’s also true, though, that as an outsider, you can’t tell how important one concern is relative to another. Working in the factory will make you a more perceptive judge. People are going to opine on any number of issues — if you’re not a car factory worker, you have no idea what is part of the reality of how life as a car factory worker is, and what is some external opinion.

It’s not that you’re going to learn everything you thought was right is wrong, but that lived experience can bring up issues you may never have thought of. It also has a way of being convincing in a way other things aren’t. So even as I find myself learning new things and changing my mind less and less due to argument, I still find myself learning new things. And changing my mind overall more and more — because of personal experiences.

But what about the fact that Simone Weil only did it for a year? Isn’t that not nearly enough? Jarvis Cocker says “Everybody hates a tourist / Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh / And the chip stains’ grease will come out in the bath”. Of course, the more all-encompassing and long the experience, the more you learn from it. However, I think this is overhyped. Whatever “the learning curve” means, it’s true that you learn the most right at the beginning.

I worked as a steel tier for less than three weeks. Granted, the main thing I learned on that job is how incredibly shitty some jobs can be. And how easy it is to get tendonitis. As a co-worker on another labour job told me later, “they give you that job when you first join the union so that you don’t complain about any of the other ones”. But that’s not the only thing I learned there. Knowing how to tie rebar is (hopefully) never going to be a skill that is vital for me, but both a realistic picture of what that job is like and talking to other people working there was very valuable to me. It’s been the same at everything else I’ve tried doing. And it’s been especially true of teaching.

This is why my new piece of political advice is: for issues that you care about, if you can manage to, actually go and do it. If you want to be active in food politics, work on a local farm. Yes, you might be a dilettante. Yes, you might be the annoying hipster who doesn’t know how to farm and is a laughingstock. But I guarantee that you will learn more than you would by just reading about the issue and believing what the farmers say. And you’ll be doing the right thing. And when you do read to learn more, you will be more informed about what information is important and trustworthy. Do you want to understand factory work? Be like Simone Weil, and go work in a factory for a year. It will inform what you are saying, and what you learn from then on.

This is one reason why, knowing that I will be teaching math to welding students, I decided that I needed to take a welding class. And I was right. I am never going to be a good welder. But I am already much better at understanding what welding is like, and what skills you need for it. It’s been incredibly worthwhile (not to mention really fun, but that’s a special case that won’t always be true).

I am coming to see learning through experience to be the most valuable thing that I can do to know about the world and to be a more useful person. So it is partially with that in mind that I have decided to leave teaching to try something different. Of course, that wasn’t my motivation. The fact that my new job (technician on a high energy physics project) involves going to CERN is kind of the big draw. But it’s one reason I think I’m doing the right thing.

So for now, my time as a teacher is coming to an end. What did I actually learn? In the next few posts on this blog, I hope to write about some of the things I’ve changed my mind on as a result of working as a teacher. As for “Common People”, I still love the song, but I no longer share its worldview.

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If you prick us…

On Feb 8th ’17, Alexei Navalny, a nobody, with 0% chance of winning, but someone who stated that he will seek to be a candidate in next year’s Russian presidential election, has nevertheless, facing double jeopardy, been found guilty of embezzlement of state funds, in a politically motivated trial, which barring success in appellate court, will prevent him from participation in the upcoming election.

After browsing the state owned “Perviy Kanal” website, I found no mention of this seemingly newsworthy item.

I write this, simply so that there’s evidence of one more person with eyes capable of reading and digits capable of typing who did not fail to notice that this occurred.

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Trump Prediction Update

When zipppa wrote a post of Trump predictions, I laughed at the jokes. But last week, when McCain and Rubio indicated they would support Tillerson for State, thus totally killing Téa Leoni’s chances for that position, I really began to worry what that meant for the matchup. And today, reading the Washington Post’s story on Trump’s conversations with the President of Mexico and PM of Australia, my worries increased where I got to this passage:

Trump told Peña Nieto in last Friday’s call, according to the Associated Press, which said it reviewed a transcript of part of the conversation, “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”

Even in conversations marred by hostile exchanges, Trump manages to work in references to his election accomplishments. U.S. officials said that he used his calls with both Turnbull and Peña Nieto to mention his election win or the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

Honestly, I did think the Trump presidency would be this bad, but I really really didn’t think it would be this fucking stupid.

I think my issue was that I never listened to Trump for long periods of time, and, expecting some exaggeration from a pro-Clinton and sensation-seeking media, I figured Trump’s public pronouncements were “almost as stupid as the media makes them out to be” and not “an order of magnitude stupider”.

Would be more funny if it wasn’t so frightening and sad, etc. etc.

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Thanks, Obama

REN0724 ObamaObama has been President for most of my adult life, and it is weird to consider that very soon he won’t be. I will always sympathize with him, but he wasn’t a good or successful president. The reason why: I don’t think it’s controversial that the world and the U.S. are in worse shape now than they were when Obama was elected. The main factor in this is the election of Donald Trump, a disaster of historic proportions. Of course, Trump’s election is not exclusively – or even primarily – Obama’s “fault”. But it happened in reaction to Obama’s presidency. Trump and the Republicans can quickly work to undo most of Obama’s other positive achievements. For now, it seems fair to me to say that the primary legacy of Obama’s presidency is the election of Donald Trump.

Most or all of Obama’s achievements – Obamacare, the Paris Accords, the EPA rules on carbon, the Iran nuclear deal, Dodd-Frank, changes in the tax system, etc., can quickly be reversed. Jon Chait makes the counterintuitive claim that Obama’s legacy can endure, but I don’t buy it. His argument mainly consists of two parts: (a) lots of stuff happened on Obama’s watch that isn’t in the purview of U.S. government and (b) Trump and Republicans may pay a political price for undoing Obama’s achievements. I think it’s not right to give Obama so much credit for (a), and overly optimistic to think Republicans have no aims other than staying in power for (b).

Obama had a theory about how the world works. I sympathize with Obama, because I thought his theory was correct. It seemed like careful, small nudges in the direction Obama thought the world should go were the best way to proceed. But they weren’t. Trump’s election has shown that he was wrong.

In his farewell address, Obama spoke as if he still believed in this vision. But I don’t. Not anymore. As Anton Chigurh says, “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” And I am very doubtful that Obama believes it anymore either. I think he is scrambling to figure out a new way to see the world and how he should act with the power that he has in it. I think moves like the UN resolution on Israel are examples of this scrambling.


It’s not useful to talk about whether a President is a “good guy”. The moral decisions of the US presidency necessarily involve knowingly killing innocent people for complicated geopolitical gamesmanship reasons. If someone does that and is not horrified every minute of every day, his morality is at least not one I can recognize. But Obama was a person I admired.

There’s one more reason I will appreciate him more than his achievements warrant. Unlike most politicians, he seemed extremely, sincerely worried about trying to do a good job. Maybe that’s not much – after all, Mark Zuckerberg also seems to be sincerely worried about doing a good job, and I think electing Mark Zuckerberg as President would be terrifying. Still, it’s a surprisingly rare trait: I don’t think Trump, Bush, or either Clinton possess it. But Obama did, and I am grateful for that.

So, bye bye, Obama. And Thanks.

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2016 in Review: Articles etc.

Here are some interesting things I read on the internet in 2016, in this episode of “no value added”


U.S. Politics

Life and Culture

Fiction and Essays

  • The Inner Ring C.S. Lewis gives a commencement speech
  • On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi William Tenn writes, well, you’re not convinced you should read this from the title? What do you need, a hand-printed invitation, maybe?


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2016 in Review: Quotes Part 2

…continuing with quoting stuff…

Now, setting a booby-trap for a respectable citizen like a head master (even of an inferior school to your own) is not a matter to be approached lightly and without careful preparation. I don’t suppose I’ve ever selected a lunch with more thought than I did that day. —P.G. Wodehouse The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy

I think the accusation that someone has read Derrida is always offensive —Geoffrey Pullum

This reminds me of Ploetz, Dr. Charles Ploetz, one of the vicarious tormentors of my youth, who wrote the most comprehensive French grammar in existence. This work was so maddeningly comprehensive that it contained all the exceptions to all the rules, and all manners of expressing the same thing in different ways. Ploetz’s last words were “je meurs, but it is equally correct to say je me meurs.” —Edith Templeton The Surprise of Cremona

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. —Albert Camus

This show would be so bad if there were no anthropomorphic animals in there, but there are so it’s raw and beautiful. —Peli Grietzer on “BoJack Horseman”

I remember […] coming to the distinct conclusion that there were only two things really worth living for—the glory and beauty of Nature, and the glory and beauty of human love and friendship. And to-day I still feel the same —Edward Carpenter My Days and Dreams

Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. —C.S. Lewis

That winter, Alice Toklas, Picasso, and myself took a villa in the south of France. I was then working on what I felt was a major American novel but the print was too small and I couldn’t get through it. In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she said, “No.” I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day. —Woody Allen A Twenties Memory

The Hollow Earth theory was not going over well in the quarry. —Neil Gaiman Good Omens

Centralised control is a necessary pre-condition of Socialism, but it no more produces Socialism than my typewriter would of itself produce this article I am writing.  —George Orwell Catastrophic Gradualism

Election morning, thousands of left-footed shoes were distributed to Roma voters with the promise that if Bajram won the election by nightfall, right-footed shoes would also be distributed.  —Alexander Clapp in the Baffler

Taheri-Azar’s incompetence as a terrorist is bewildering —Charles Kurzman in FP

Such conflicting questions ride
Around in my brain:
Should I order cyanide
Or order champagne —Cole Porter I am in Love

Художник, не стремись быть современным. Это единственное, чего ты, к сожалению, как бы ни старался, не сможешь избежать. —Сальвадор Дали

There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it. —C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity

There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it. — Mark Twain

Suppose you are walking in a thunderstorm, and you say to yourself, “I am not at all likely to be struck by lightning.” The next moment you are struck, but you experience no surprise, because you are dead. —Bertrand Russell

If you say guns kill people one more time, we will shoot you with a gun, and you will, coincidentally, die. —joke NRA bumper sticker

the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence. —Vaclav Havel

When one arrives for the first time at a city, and especially if one arrives at night, the people in the streets have, just for that moment, a special quality: they are adepts in a ritual the traveller doesn’t know; they are moving from one mystery to another. —V.S. Naipaul The Middle Passage

No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the Internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all. —Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker

Возьмем для примера трех лидеров живой и неживой природы: лидер из неживой природы — солнце, лидер из животных — ёжик, из человеческих изделий — айфон… —Ариша Назанская

The Council of Eleven Nations Terrestrial wants no trouble with the Vegans over a sliver of land like Israel, not in these times with what’s going on in the galaxy: If both sides in the Vegan Civil War are going to claim the place as holy territory because the men they call the founders of their religions once walked in it, let the bivalves have it, says the Council, let them fight it out between themselves. —William Tenn On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi

Listen, it could have been worse. As Esther said to Mordecai when he told her of Haman’s plans to massacre all the Jews of Persia—it could have been worse, but I don’t for the moment see exactly how. —ibid.

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2016 in Review: Quotes Part 1

Here is the first part of this year’s quotes list

“Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.” —Heidegger quoted by Meghan O’Rourke

“To catch a bus you have to think like a bus” —tumblr user neptunain

“All men are selfish, brutal and inconsiderate—and I wish I could find one” —Shulamith Firestone quoted by Amber Frost

“—Завидуешь, Леня?
—Завидую факту, а не объекту.” —Василий Гроссман Жизнь и судьба

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people” —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

“The occupational hazard of the literary intellectual is to believe that he is redeemed by consciousness.  He knows, for example, what mean-spiritedness is, and he is, of course, against it; therefore, he need have no further worries about falling into it himself.” —Norman Podhoretz

“Male urination is a form of commentary” — Camille Paglia

“//Marriage,/The ultimate double dare” —A Softer World

“In the life of every human being there is a point in time where each discovers that one is only what one is. All at once we realize that the world no longer concedes us credit for our future, it no longer wants to entertain seeing us for what we could be… We find ourselves to be creatures without potential. No one asks us any longer, ‘What do you want to do?’” —Jean Améry quoted by Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story

“Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.” —W.H. Auden The Fall of Rome

“Странник прошёл, опираясь на посох, —
Мне почему-то припомнилась ты.
Едет пролетка на красных колёсах —
Мне почему-то припомнилась ты.

Вечером лампу зажгут в коридоре —
Мне непременно припомнишься ты.
Что б ни случилось, на суше, на море
Или на небе, — мне вспомнишься ты.” —В.Ф. Ходасевич

“Welcome to Meteor Deflection Corp. Our quest is to maximize shareholder value this quarter.” —@InstanceOfClass quoted by Scott Alexander

“Like, you just messed up at reading a book. You read a book so poorly that you died.” —Ryan North describing choose your own adventure books

“’Lots of exciting outdoor recreation opportunities,’ they said—but they didn’t add ‘for the survivors.’” —Jeremy Stewart Theory of North

“Принес ей ‘Технологию Секса”. Книга замечательная. Первую страницу открываешь, написано “Введение”. Уже смешно.” —Довлатов Компромисс

“It’s sad that a family can be torn apart by something as simple as a pack of wild dogs.” – Jack Handey

“Человек без бороды умным быть не может” —Герман Стерлигов

“CORRECTION: Boris Johnson’s award-winning limerick about the Turkish president referred to Erdogan as a wanker who performed a sex act with a goat. A previous version of this article included the prompt for the poetry contest, which included a different sex act, also with a goat.”  —Buzzfeed corrections dept.

“I once asked Danny Dorling why, when I was at school, geography was about the shapes of rivers, but now all the best-known geographers seem to be Marxists. He said it’s because when you look at a map and see that the people on one side of some line are rich and healthy and long-lived and the people on the other side are poor and sick and die young, you start to wonder why, and that turns you towards deep-causal explanations, which then lead in the direction of Marxism.” —John Lanchester

“Insofar as the other great antagonism is that of classes, could we not also imagine a homologous critical rejection of the class binary? The “binary” class struggle and exploitation should also be supplemented by a “gay” position (exploitation among members of the ruling class itself, e.g., bankers and lawyers exploiting the “honest” productive capitalists), a “lesbian” position (beggars stealing from honest workers, etc.), a “bisexual” position (as a self-employed worker, I act as both capitalist and worker), an “asexual” one (I remain outside capitalist production), and so forth.” —Žižek being Žižek

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