What “the personal is political” means for privileged groups

This is going to be a post about identity politics, and what it means to identify with a privileged group. Since it wades into the morass of present day politics, it’s not likely to brighten your day. So I will give the backstory to how this thought came about, since that does involve information that might brighten your day. We here at Rated Zed care about our readers, especially when that care can come about through my preferred writing trick of *starting* every piece with a long, irrelevant aside.

It starts last year, when I saw a paper about complex organic molecules being intuited to exist in the underground ocean on Enceladus based on mass spectrometry on the Cassini spacecraft. I don’t know much about planetary science, so I don’t know if I should find this exciting. But I did find it exciting, and it made me feel better.

So, to share the positive feeling, I thought I would go on social media and post a link to the paper. Here is the link, in case you’re interested. Unfortunately, the social media platform I chose for the purpose was twitter. Twitter is a social media platform that I used to like, but that has taken steps in the interim to become worse in every way as a way to maximize rage-based engagement. The top tweet that I saw on my feed was this:

But yeah, could you imagine ANY white dude asking himself without prompting, “is it REALLY that we’re that good that we win 80% of the awards, or is patriarchy and white privelege giving me an unfair advantage???” Hahahahah

As a white dude, I am precluded by rules of internet engagement from going “well, actually” about this tweet. I, unsurprisingly, disagree with the premise that this is a question white dudes don’t grapple with, but that’s neither here nor there. Talking about it isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.

Instead, I want to focus on what such an unpromptedly introspective white dude would do, if he did come to ask himself this question. Whether such a person really exists is something we will have to agree to disagree on. 

So okay, imagine yourself a white dude who is writing sci-fi (this is a stunningly easy exercise of the imagination for me btw, not sure about you), and you notice that white dudes are winning a lot of the sci-fi awards, like way out of proportion to the amount of white dudes that there are, or even white dude sci-fi writers that there are. 

One possibility is you look at this and go “hey, us white dudes must be pretty good at sci-fi, huh?” and you start identifying with white dudes, and being proud of your identity as a white dude. This is kind of bad because it’s a failure of analysis (ignoring white privilege and so on), and also because it sounds like you’re about to join the Proud Boys, which is never a good sign. 

So hopefully the outcome isn’t starting to identify with white dudes in general. Another possibility is that you notice the trend and think it’s bad, but absolve yourself from it. *I’m* not a white dude, you think. Or at least, I’m not one of *those* white dudes. And, like, maybe you have another identity you can use. You’re a Russian Jew (probably, if you’re reading this blog).  And that’s a way better outcome than ending up a White Nationalist, but it’s still a failure of analysis (claiming to not be a white dude, when you are in fact a white dude). 

The third possibility is that you notice the trend, think it’s bad, and include yourself in it. You realize that you winning a sci-fi award would be more of the same, so you decide not to publish your book, for example. Except that this is kind of a huge sacrifice and I don’t think anyone should actually make it. If you’re a writer, it doesn’t make sense to stop writing simply because you belong to an over-represented group. Nor does it make sense to stop trying to advance your career: the fact that lots of other white dudes are doing really well for themselves isn’t actually that helpful to you in this instance. You think that people like you should hold fewer prestigious positions, but that’s not going to stop you applying for prestigious positions.

And as a result, there is a disconnect. When a black writer wins a sci-fi award, she’s winning both for herself and for her cause. When a white dude in this category does, it’s good for him personally but bad for his cause.

This doesn’t just apply to writing sci-fi. For instance, I’m someone who likes teaching physics, and I’ve recently been applying for physics teaching jobs. For a teaching job I applied for, part of the application was to give a diversity statement about how hiring me as an applicant would advance the diversity goals of the college. I did answer the question truthfully in a way that played up what I could offer (open educational resources initiatives which help poorer students, focussing on accessibility in online courses, etc.). But realistically, one great way to advance the diversity goals of the college is to hire someone from an underrepresented group. That works in two ways: it directly increases the number of underrepresented physicists at the college right away, and also gives a role model for students from underrepresented groups to emulate. I can’t provide that. I can fall back on non-white-dude identities: I’m Jewish, I’m an English language learner, an immigrant, etc. But Russian Jewish dudes are actually not underrepresented in physics in any way (this is what I like to call the art of the understatement). Would physics be better off if fewer people in physics were Russian Jewish dudes? The answer is obviously yes. Except in the case of Russian Jewish dude #83024, me, because I’d like a job teaching physics.

In other words, it’s not true that I can’t escape the privilege of being white and male. I can, very easily! But escaping it is actually a very large sacrifice and I am absolutely not willing to make it. I can be cognizant of that. But how much does that buy anyone? If privilege helps me get a job that someone else could have gotten, does me feeling bad about it help? I don’t think so.

I’m not trying to complain here. It’s a better situation to be in to be at an unfair advantage and agonize how to respond to it than being at an unfair disadvantage. All I’m trying to point out is that there isn’t an honest option. And maybe that’s okay. Shut up and calculate. If you end up in a position of power, do more to promote underrepresented voices.  But if getting your dream job, winning awards, doing well in your field, all of that, is supposed to go against your ideological beliefs, something’s gonna give. Either you live with a huge amount of cognitive dissonance, or your ideological beliefs change.

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Posted in politics, teaching | 2 Comments

The Zolltan imminent geopolitical disaster prediction special

There are a couple good reasons to not make this post. The first is that I’ve been hoping for a long time that zipppa would make it instead. The second is that it is in really bad taste. And nevertheless, here we are. This isn’t about the end of the world. Been there, done that. This is just about the next bad thing that will happen. There are a lot of potential imminent geopolitical disasters left on the table. Will the US invade Venezuela? Will a no-deal Brexit cause food riots and general chaos? So, zipppa, if you want to predict the other conference, well, you know what to do.

(1) Baltics kinda-invaded / (8) N. Korea and U.S. unite, attack S. Korea Baltic invasion is a veteran team that has a lot of experience and great pedigree. We were really excited about them about four-five years ago, but it remains to be seen whether they still have the quickness to prevail in today’s league. The no. 1 seed may be vulnerable to a younger team, but not this particular young team: NK-US barely squeaked into the playoffs against such teams as “Another attempted caliphate” and “scientists mutating viruses to be much more deadly and then accidentally releasing them”. For them, it’s an achievement to just make it, and they should enjoy the sights, but barring a complete collapse, Baltic Invasion should be able to handle the upstart.  Baltics in 5.

(3) Kashmir / (6) Facebook-induced murder pandemic Kashmir is a stacked team with loads of geopolitical disaster talent, but it appears that it doesn’t have the feistiness that the playoffs require. Their timid showing recently, with an easy deescalation, shows Kashmir to be the kind of team that is afraid to go to the dirty areas. Especially Imran Khan, who was once a promising prospect, acting extremely reasonably should throw cold water on any thoughts of Kashmir turning into a huge geopolitical disaster anytime soon. Meanwhile, the prospects for FIMP have been tearing it up in the minor leagues. Their solid fundamentals, breadth of talent, including such former unknowns as murderous Buddhists in Myanmar, and embrace of analytics means they are truly a complete team. Bet on the upset. Facebook in 4

(2) Iran-Israel war / (7) Pan-global White Nationalist Uprising Two relatively uninspiring teams, Iran-Israel gets such a high seed by virtue of winning the always fearsome Middle East division, but is just too small a team to have the physicality needed to go far in the geopolitical disaster playoffs. Meanwhile, pan-global white nationalists are pursuing an obviously self-contradicting strategy. One has to wonder about their coaching staff. It figures to be a grind. Don’t turn to this series for entertainment value. Playoff series are not about teams in a vacuum, though, they’re about teams facing each other. And in this case, Iran-Israel can easily outmanoeuvre and out-smart the opposition. Iran-Israel in 5

(4) The Death of Putin / (5) A Rogue Nuclear Submarine We’ve been seeing terrorists getting nuclear weapons in the playoffs for so long we feel like we know what to expect. Observers around the team worry that pushing from the playoffs every time around is really hurting development — is the best strategy to get top end young talent by “tanking” and doing terribly, like ISIS is currently doing, for example? But there’s a new strategy for terrorists wanting nuclear weapons that’s not exactly tanking: submarining.  Stories like this remind us that there is still room for a lot of inventive approaches in the game. Meanwhile the smooth transitions following the deaths of all-powerful autocrats recently have made us think that managing the death of Putin will not be as difficult as it seems. And besides, Putin seems pretty healthy. Subs in 6

Posted in shit we have no idea about, The future | Leave a comment

The Democratic Candidates

Seeing how well my playoff predictions went, maybe my predictions shouldn’t be listened to by anyone. So I’m not going to try to predict who will win the Democratic nomination for 2020. Instead, I want to give something that’s not very common on this blog: non-jokey, sincere opinions about the people I think have a chance of winning the nomination. Now that Joe Biden has declared, I think the field is at last finalized, so it seems as good a time as any to do so.

Warren: Warren seems genuinely smart and pretty relatable. She is the candidate I like most as a person. But she is such an incredibly bad personal politician that I really hope she doesn’t get nominated because she would lose badly and look like a total incompetent while doing so. Luckily this also makes her unlikely to get nominated. Everything about her campaign just screams desperation which is a bad thing to scream. Instead of being president, she should be the person the next democratic president hires to decide and implement their agenda.

Buttigieg: I think the Buttigieg candidacy is predicated on the idea that what we need is a person like Obama, a mild-mannered younger intellectual who’s gonna be inoffensive and competent most of all. There are people who campaign on that promise who then deliver mild-mannered competence (Obama) and those who don’t deliver it (Macron). So basically, the absolute upper limit of a Buttigieg presidency is Obama, and the lower limit is below Macron. I like Obama. But then we’ve had Obama. And my conclusion from Obama is that Obama gives you Trump, and Macron gives you the gilets jaunes and [whoever is gonna be elected after Macron who I assume is going to be very very very bad]. Is it really worth it? I kind of think it’s not.

Beto: A straightforwardly worse version of Buttigieg. There’s no axis I can think of on which he’s better, other than having a cooler punk past, but that’s not worth that much because a punk that’s running an establishmentarian presidential candidacy is really really not a punk.

Kamala: As a candidate, Kamala would hasten the realignment of US parties even further away from a left-right alignment to a globalist-nationalist one. As someone who is much more sympathetic in the US to a left party than to either a globalist or a nationalist one, I don’t want this to happen. I think she could win, and would be a better president than Trump, in the same way that Hilary could have won and would have been a better president than Trump. If she wins the nomination, which I think she has a decent chance to, I will work to try to get her elected. But I think nominating her is risky, and also moves the world into a bad direction that I hope the world doesn’t go into.

Bernie: Bernie is a good guy. My original opinion was that he doesn’t seem super smart, in the sense that he doesn’t have any plan for achieving the things he says he plans to achieve, and it’s not clear to me that it’s because he doesn’t want to achieve them. In a sense, he’s less “professional” than the other candidates which is a disadvantage in terms of getting things done. But then Matt Yglesias persuasively argues that he is actually quite good at achieving things, but just has a rhetorical style that makes him seem like someone who isn’t super politically savvy and not into achieving things because those attributes are popular. Whether Bernie is a secret pragmatist or an ineffectual revolutionary, there is very little to no downside to electing him as a result. If you think the US could stand to move in the direction that Sanders wants to move it in, you should welcome him even if you don’t agree with the specific policies he proclaims. He’s not going to get his specific policies, but he is probably going to succeed in moving the US in his direction. One reasonable worry about electing Sanders last time around was that, hey, is the rest of the world going to be less sure about what America is going to do now, and is that going to lead to instability? But is the world opinion of the US really going to get topsy-turvied by moving from Trump to Bernie? I don’t think so. And I think Bernie would beat Trump. As a result, if I had a vote in the primaries, he is who I would vote for. The other reasonable worry is that he is very old. This is true.

Gillibrand: Her name should be pronounced with a hard g, like gif. Other than that, she seems like Hillary Clinton without being as smart and also without the Clinton-specific baggage. That would have been enough to win in ’16, but I don’t know if it’s enough this time around. She would be a caretaker president who would not make things any better and is unlikely to deal with the problems facing the world in any way, but is also unlikely to make things actively worse through incompetence or adventurism.

Booker: it’s hard to cheer for someone whose whole thing is that he’s that much of an obvious fraud and also a non-charismatic loser. But I think he would probably make the best president of the choices available. He seems aware of the need for big changes, but is not so ideological as to be totally inflexible. My concern with voting for him in the primaries is whether he is going to beat Trump. Trump can smell loser-ness and attack it like a shark, and that sounds bad for Booker who is a huge loser.

Uncle Joe: I think Biden is a fundamentally decent person. He has a history of some bad ideas, like campaigning on splitting Iraq in three last time he ran. This is a worrying situation not just because it was a bad idea but because it was a weird idea, too. The combination of bad+weird means that he is overly confident in his bad judgment, and that is scary to me. I think the reason he’s the most popular Dem so far is that his job as VP was mostly acting as a figurehead. Thus people conceptualize him as being a figurehead for his own presidency, but I don’t think he actually would be. So you have to think about what he would try to get done as a president. And I think it would be bad. On domestic issues, the primary will push him to a set of commitments far to the right of any other Dem. As someone who thinks US domestic economic policy needs to move left, I think that is not a good result.

Posted in politics, shit we have no idea about | 2 Comments

Prediction Special: 2019 NHL Playoffs

Here we go!

The East:

(1) Tampa Bay / (8) ‘Lumbus In one sense of the word “to have,” Tampa has to win this series because they’re a really great team. In another, it’s Columbus that has to win, because they’ve gone all in and three of their best four players are upcoming UFAs (yes, this also means this is the greatest Blue Jackets team ever assembled and better than we’re likely to see any time in the near future and… well, think about that for a second before complaining about how tough it is to be the fan of whatever team you like). So the Blue Jackets are desperate. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from dating that I think can generalize to hockey, it’s that you miss like 92.9% of the shots you take, and probably you shouldn’t have taken those shots to begin with. But if there’s a second, it’s that greater desperation doesn’t always lead to better results. And Columbus’ situation could be a distraction, especially since half the Blue Jackets will be using away games as an opportunity to take field trips downstate to look for real estate. On the plus side, Tampa is also really fun to watch, so it’s great if we get to keep watching them for another round. On the minus side, this will likely be bad for Columbus, and figures to be the city’s most embarrassing moment until it has to get renamed in a few years. Bolts in 5

(2) Washington / (7) Carolina Carolina is primed to be a positive surprise. They have a potent attack led by Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and excellent midseason acquisition of Nino Niederreiter. If you’re ignoring Carolina, that’s not fair. There’s no joke here, those are just excellent names in addition to excellent hockey players. The Caps, meanwhile, have also been impressive, and despite their relative lack of depth, look better going into the playoffs this year than last year when they won. The difference between the two will come down to this: the Caps have a proven quantity and one of the best playoff goaltenders of all time in Braden Holtby. For the Canes, goaltending remains a questionmark. Although it must be said: if you have to have a punctuation symbol describe your situation in goal, this is still a step up for the Canes from last year’s tandem of the pilcrow and those punctuation marks you use in comics when you aren’t allowed to say “fuck”. Was the previous joke motivated solely by me learning a new word and wanting to use it? Yes! “Fuck” is such a useful word. I can’t believe no one told me about it before. Anyway, I think the series will be close, but ultimately it will be Caps in 7

Flortheast Grudgematch: Boston / Toronto Speaking of teams that are unfairly ignored, we have… whatever is the opposite of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Lots of teams get hyped, of course. But it’s Leaf fans that can’t stop getting high off their own supply. Somehow the Leaf fanbase is the most arrogantly overconfident group I’ve seen for a team that hasn’t won a playoff series in over 15 years. I think the general Torontonian arrogance is compounded because they’re such a poster boy team for “doing it right” by analytics standards, and GMed by a young guy who’s not a “hockey man”. This makes pro-analytics people see them in a rosier light than they deserve. Dom Luszczyszyn had the Leafs as the 2nd best team in the league for most of the season, and there is just no way they’re the second best team in the league. So making fun of their implosion would be fun. But look, it’s not like I like the Bruins. Ultimately, if we’re being fair, this is two great teams in a series that’s likely to be super entertaining. Though Toronto has faltered down the stretch, some of that came from a lack of motivation. They’re bound to be motivated now, and I think the Fredrik Andersen will ultimately come through, and Toronto will finally slay the dragon.  Leafs in 6 and hey, if they don’t, we can all laugh at them and that’ll be fun.

The Metro Still Sucks Grudgematch: Islanders / Pittsburgh This on the other hand, is two teams neither of which seem to me very good. The Islanders rode into their position on the back of unsustainable save percentages from their goalie tandem, which seem to be falling off a bit (c.f. that part where I said they were unsustainable). Meanwhile Pittsburgh still has a great core of Crosby, Malkin and Letang. But both Malkin and Kessel are having off years, and they have a rash of injuries and simply bad players on defence. Although since being traded to the Penguins, Gudbranson has been… well, not Gud, exactly, but not Bad, either. Call him Middlingbranson. Still, the fact that he and Jack Johnson are on the Pens defensive corps brings pause. Despite that, the Pens’ strong finish and a continuation of Crosby’s unreal season should be enough to overcome the Islanders, whose only advantage in terms of personnel is in Barry Trotz. I have a lot of faith in coaching being a real skill and Barry Trotz being a very good coach, but just because he won a Stanley Cup last year, doesn’t mean he can suddenly make any worse team beat a better one game in and game out.  Pens in 6

The West:

(1) Calgary / (8) Colorado The Avalanche are coming in on a high. Ever since legalization in Colorado I guess that’s normal, but in this case, I’m talking about their winning streak up to the last game of the season, and the timely return of Mikko Rantanen. It’s great that Colorado’s first line is healthy, since that is pretty much the entirety of the team. Colorado is more of a one-liner than a Steven Wright joke. Although they have gotten points from throughout the lineup, in terms of shot contributions and possession, the Flames are not exactly paragons of depth in their forward lines, either. This series looks like it’ll be as offensively shallow as an episode of Big Brother. The difference will come on defence, where the Flames are several echelons above the Avs. And with home ice advantage allowing Calgary to try to shut down Colorado’s one dangerous line more often than not, I think this will be an easy win. Flames in 4

Conference III Grudgematch: Winnipeg / St. Louis Winnipeg got home ice advantage in this series, which is crucial, because according to a recent player poll, Winnipeg is the worst road city in the league. The attitude towards Winnipeg can be best summarized by an anecdote: I once asked a new acquaintance where they were from. They responded “Winnipeg”, followed quickly by a sigh and a “yeah, that fucking place”. The Blues will find themselves with nothing to do but attend the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, watch Guy Maddin movies, and cross underground at Portage and Main. And then the Jets will taunt them with “What are you doing in Winnipeg? We are on this team, what’s your excuse?” Morale will sag, and the Blues players will be further confused by experiencing the entirely unfamiliar feeling of looking forward to going home and just hanging out in Saint Louis. Jets in 6

(2) Nashville / (7) Dallas Don’t really care. Picked a result at random. Stars in 6

California Grudgematch: San Jose / Las Vegas I am going to be cheering for the Sharks all the way, but I just don’t believe in them here. They’ve been free-falling without Karlsson, since he is the only one on the team that knows how to fly (yes, I’ve made a version of this joke in every single playoff prediction on ratedzed over the years and am not about to stop now). I haven’t seen any news on whether he’s at 100% or whether he will definitively be back. Without him, they are severely overmatched. But even if he is back, the Sharks are likely to be done in by the suspect goaltending of Martin Jones. And if Martin Jones falters, as he likely will? Dude, you’re getting A. Dell. (And that’s also bad). Vegas, meanwhile, has looked impressive since the trade deadline. Turns out, like a seedless plum, they were just lacking a Stone. Now that Fleury is back from injury, their goaltending is also in a better place than San Jose’s. I hate to say it, but Vegas in 4

Posted in hockey, The future | 1 Comment

Who Killed the Dinosaurs?

I’ve been told that my college draft post was “too verbose for a joke”, and here we lean into that criticism.

dinosaurs

Ah, the good old days

As Lenin knew, “What is to be done?” and “Who is to blame?” are the eternal questions which we never get tired of asking. But it’s the second one which we also never get tired of answering. Today, we consider it with respect to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Who, or what, is to be blamed for their untimely demise? The answer may surprise you.


Version A: Capitalism. The thing to realize about the extinction of the dinosaurs is that it is a media narrative that is being fed to us. Am I saying that there was no meteor impact 66 million years ago and that the K-Pg extinction event didn’t happen? Of course not. The impact is well-documented, and the effect it had on Earth’s fauna is not in doubt. What I object to is the narrative that this effect was the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Ask yourself: what does the category “dinosaurs” mean? You will quickly see that it doesn’t mean anything. By any biological account, birds are within any clade that includes all the things we consider dinosaurs. And birds are not only not extinct, they are ubiquitous. And are, say, moas or ostriches that different from their 66 million year old forebears? It’s clear that there is absolutely no scientific justification for claiming dinosaurs’ extinction. So why do we say that dinosaurs are extinct when they are some of the commonest sights among us?

Here we have to return to another of Lenin’s famous questions: who benefits? It’s obvious that it’s the entertainment industry who stands to gain the most from the lie. The myth of dinosaur extinction lines the greedy pockets of Disney and Universal Pictures, who can continue to sell tickets to roller coaster rides and reruns of “The Land Before Time”. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. The cover-up is being perpetuated by the dinosaur-industrial complex in order to sell us trinkets and movie tickets.


Version B: Government Interference. Sure, the dinosaurs went extinct, but we don’t have to accept that they stay that way. Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequel Jurassic World (2015) show us that a modern world with dinosaurs can be imagined. So to ask yourself whose fault the extinction of the dinosaurs is is not to ask who piloted the meteor 66 million years ago, but why the conditions of dinosaur non-existence persist to this day.

The answer is that biological science hasn’t yet reached the stage necessary to make the un-extinction of dinosaurs possible. So what is holding science back? Looking at the everyday lives of scientists, you see people whose lives aren’t about looking for breakthrough innovations, but mired in grant applications, ethics reviews and bureaucratic red tape. In an area as dependent on individual inspiration which very few people can possess, this has a stifling effect.

Small-minded politicians can’t even imagine the harms their regulations cause to mundane everyday life. Is it any wonder they can’t accurately control their effects on a world that is yet to be invented? But we can imagine a different world, with the power of innovation unleashed by the market rather than tied to what is politically in fashion. Without burdensome red tape and “safety” regulations, is there any doubt that dinosaurs would have long been revived? So why do we accept the status quo? The government has so many people telling us all what and whether we should, that we forget to imagine what we could.

Posted in politics, whimsy | Leave a comment

Three Silences

Here are some translations I’ve tried doing recently. They’re here in chronological order of original poem. I think the Voznesensky translation turned out best.

Fyodor Tyutchev’s Silentium!:

Speak not. Remove yourself and hide
Your feelings and your dreams inside
Your soul’s immeasurable depths.
There let them rise and let them set
As wordlessly as stars afloat
At night. Regard them — and speak not.

How can a heart itself express?
How can another hope to guess
That which you are living by?
A thought, once uttered, is a lie.
Explosion clouds the springs of thought.
Be nourished by these springs — speak not.

Let inner life be your desire.
Your soul contains a world entire
Of musings magical and strange
Exterior noises will derange
Their course. The sun’s harsh rays will blot
Their lustre. Listen — and speak not!

Osip Mandelshtam’s Silentium:

She has not yet assumed her form.
She is the music and the word,
And so, for all life in the world,
An endless and unbroken bond.

The ocean breathes with stately calm,
But madly is the day lit up,
And, in its black and azure cup,
So is the pale lilac foam.

O, that my lips may reattain
That mute primordial condition
That, like a crystalline rendition
Of purest note, remains unstained!

O, Aphrodite stay as surf!
Word, be the sound you were to start!
And heart, grow shy of fellow heart
As one with that which gives life birth.

Andrey Voznesenskiy’s Silence!:

Silence, silence is what I want…
Are my synapses fried, or what?
Silence…
so the shade of the pine tree
shall caress as it brushes by us
flirtatiously, giving goosebumps
down the spine, to the metatarsals.
Silence…

As if someone turned off all sounds.
How to name the hue of your brows?
Understanding is never loud.
Silence.

For sound lags behind light.
Too often our mouths gape open.
The real is what can’t be spoken.
Living by colour, by feel, is right.

After all, skin is also a person,
it has its impressions, its voices.
For the skin, it is touch that’s music,
like hearing responds to birdsong.

Gossipmongers, say, what’s the news?
Bet it’s critical, vital stuff!
Have you blatherers blabbered enough?
Silence…

Something different engrosses us:
The unknowable turn of nature.
As the air becomes smoky and acrid,
We will know that the herdsmen pass.

So it’s evening. The pot’s on the boil,
And they sit and smoke, shadow-quiet.
And the dogs’ tongues, like lighters’
Tongues, shine in silence.

Posted in translation | 1 Comment

Scandal for School

America’s belief in the greatness and goodness of its elite has been shaken to the core by the college admissions scandal. The scandal involves the nouveau riche set of actors and businessmen bribing their children’s way into elite colleges by faking, among other things, having learning disabilities and being good at water polo. William H. Macy was just using the Stanislavsky method for an upcoming role as “the William H. Macy character”, but the other perpetrators have no such excuses. What everyone was sure was a true meritocracy of actually learning-disabled water polo enthusiasts has been exposed as nothing but a pathetic sham. Americans look out at their charred wasteland without any hope for the current generation of college students to redeem them. 

But at least it’s better to know.

It would seem, then, that the worst is over. The guilty shall be duly punished to the tune of having their children attend the nearest flagship state schools (the horror!), and the rest of America can at least sleep safe knowing that the menace is past and the hallowed halls of Harvard, Yale (and for some stupid reason USC), are once again filled worthily. Or can they?

Not so, say astute pundits (e.g.: Libby Nelson at Vox). After all, this scandal merely exposes that the meritocratic patina of elite schools was a ruse to begin with. What of legacy admissions? Or donations to the school being considered in evaluating student candidacies? Or racial quotas that keep Asians out of the ivies? Or even the fact that water polo ability counts towards college admission in any way? Perhaps the real scandal, one that the bribery accentuates, is how far away from meritocratic the admissions process really is. 

Wow, you think, shaking your head, these pundits sure are wise. I guess we should reform the admissions process to be more meritocratic. 

Wrong again! You’ve fallen for an obvious trap! 

This is because any current conception of meritocracy is rigged to benefit the upper class to begin with. What goes into a college application? School grades, with an eye to what school the applicant attended, extracurricular activities, standardized tests and application essays. First, the rich can ensure little Llewellyn and Braelynn take a week’s worth of photo-ops with starving Malawians. That’s extracurriculars taken care of. The rest can be made up with a platoon of essay coaches, tutors, and test prep specialists. This is the usual claim. I briefly worked as a college prep tutor, and I kind of doubt that most of us made all that much difference to be honest, but then, surely, there are better tutors than I. And then of course that life of ease and leisure that adds a certain invisible bonus to everything you do. Any attempt to judge college applications on merit will just give more to the already haves.

So the whole current concept of meritocracy is flawed. So be it. With grim determination you roll up your sleeves and start looking for a formula for true meritocracy. It’s a hard job, but the future of the country is at stake.

Not so fast, because you’ve been fooled again. Because you see, any true meritocracy would also be bad. After all, it’s not like the current overclass aren’t smart and hard working, as Ross Douthat explains. This isn’t the problem with our elites. They may not be meritocratic, but they are already meritocratic enough for us to see meritocracy isn’t going to solve the problems we have. Increasing meritocracy isn’t stopping the best and brightest from tearing each other apart in twitter fights to the death or spending 120 hours a week I-banking. Meritocracy isn’t preventing a simultaneous gridlock and hyper-polarization that makes everyone scared and anxious for the future. All more meritocracy would change is that the elite overclass could behave with smug justification that they’ve earned it, because, after all, they are really the smartest. 

At this point, anyone can be forgiven for giving up. What is a college admissions department to do? They can’t take bribes personally, can’t outsource the taking of bribes, shouldn’t take the people who they think deserve it, and also, even if they could somehow fairly figure out the people who do deserve it, they shouldn’t take those people either. We can only applaud innovators like Iowa State who find a way around the conundrum.

Overall, however, the outlook seems pretty bleak. 

Well, we are nothing if not problem solvers, though, and I believe I know how the system can be fixed.

The issue is that our scope has been too narrow. We ask about admissions to, say, Harvard, and our concern is how to correctly choose admissions to a hyper-selective college that will then determine an enrollee’s entire future life. In the winner-take-all race, it’s no wonder that every choice is bad. In other words, the way to deal with the conundrum of admissions is to reduce the pressure to get into Harvard above all else. How do we do this, you ask? Should we just go out at night and destroy Harvard property like some sort of drunken Yalie? No! There is a much more civilized, though potentially less stimulating, solution, and it comes to us from the no less venerable tradition of American professional sports: the entry draft. For example, the NHL has had great success at creating league parity for non-Vancouver-based teams. Colleges can be fixed in the same manner. Rather than have students go through a long admissions process, at the end of each school year, have the colleges that fared worst at the rankings that year have first pick in choosing their incoming student body

You’re stunned by how sensible this plan is of course, but, if you follow professional sports, you might have one reservation: won’t colleges tank? Once they see they’re not going to win the US News & World Report Championship, their incentives would be to suck as much as possible. Isn’t that, you know, bad? To which we respond, don’t be silly. If you think colleges would tank, you don’t know the competitive spirit of students, professors and dedicated administrators. They are always in it to win it, and tanking is not in their blood. It could never, ever, ever happen. And well, if it did, we can just institute a lottery system for the top pick.

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