App Locally

There’s been some grumbling on the web about neighborhood information services such as NextDoor — the gravamen is that such services are inherently racist, or foster racism.

There’s a solution. Move to a different neighborhood. I live on the South Side of Chicago and while I wouldn’t call the NextDoor service here spellbinding, you don’t see messages from people freaking out because they saw a black person drive by. The astonishing reason behind this is that 80 percent of the people in the neighborhood are themselves black. Instead, you have requests for information about house painters and dog walkers, announcements of festivals, complaints about noise, calls to pester the alderman about this or that traffic issue. Normal people dealing with normal stuff. Some lifestyle scuffles, but Pantone numbers don’t enter into it.

It’s not the apps that “have a racism problem.” It’s the composition of the neighborhoods. Do something about that before you blame the software designers. Or have the apps become the reality itself?



Further to the Man who Forgot Words

At the aquarium the other day, a perfectly warm-and-fuzzy slide show meant to raise the public’s ecological awareness was prefaced with the title screen:


Now of course I know what they wanted to do: harness two slogans that people normally respond to in push-button, sleepwalking fashion, “one world” evoking those feelings of kinship with animals and nature, “making a difference” prompting us to get out our checkbooks and do something for the human-created organizations that are supposed to protect bits of nature. But having spent months reading the wrong kind of books, I couldn’t help thinking that if you are all about “One World,” “making a difference” must be the beginning of the downhill trend. If Laozi had been on that advertising account team, “One World: Stop Making Those Differences” or “Unmake a Difference” might have been the more consistent message (but then, who would have written checks?).


An Unhelpful Thought

Zhuangzi– the great Zhuangzi, who seems to go everywhere with me these days– is credited with a nugget of wisdom that in virtually all translations reads similarly. 荃者所以在魚,得魚而忘荃;蹄者所以在兔,得兔而忘蹄;言者所以在意,得意而忘言。吾安得忘言之人而與之言哉?

I take Burton Watson’s translation as the baseline for English versions: ‘The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

Fair enough. No need to paraphrase. Zhang Longxi pointed out that “a man who has forgotten words” wouldn’t be much use as a conversation-partner, so we should probably read that clause as meaning “a man who will forget words” (and, by implication, capture my meaning). Also good.

But one problem remains, and that’s the parodic quality of Zhuangzi. He constantly picks up some pearl of wisdom, fits it into a slingshot, and uses it to shatter another vessel of wisdom that had been gathering dust on the shelf. Were it not for the lack of corroborating texts, I would be tempted to think that the first three segments, about fish, rabbits, meanings and their respective traps, were quoted from some source that took them straight as a proof of the priority of meaning over words; and that then Zhuangzi (whoever that might be) took things to their logical endpoint by saying, “Well, if you think that, then you’d probably advise me to find somebody who has forgotten words and have a word with him, right?” In other words, the problem Zhang Longxi fixed might not be the problem that needs fixing; Zhuangzi might have been laughing at the solemn ends-and-means calculus of conventional attitudes about language. The first three segments would be as it were in quotation marks, and the absurd conclusion would be where our author wants to go. Zhuangzi fans, your reaction? Or have you all obediently forgotten words? (Must go check on those fish-traps.)


The Allergens Among Us

It appears that the people least likely to develop life-threatening allergies are those who live on farms. Why is that? Farms are full of biota– from the charismatic megafauna Bossie and Fido to the worms in the apples and the fungus in the hay and the bacteria that break down the compost. Not to mention the boll weevils, locusts, ticks and other assorted annoyances. Living in such a place for a few years is great for training the immune system. You develop lots of antibodies and — I would assume — the hormonal equivalent of reflexes that deal quickly with new menaces. Resilience, let’s call it.

A college is (or should be) like a farm. You will run into many taxa there that you didn’t know existed. You will encounter people who think and say that [INSERT NAME OF GROUP THAT YOU BELONG TO] should be expunged from the face of the earth. You will hear that people who [INSERT NAME OF BEHAVIOR THAT YOU SOMETIMES PERFORM] should pay the presumed cost of their activities, even [INSERT NAME OF UNDESIRED OUTCOME, WHETHER DEATH, DISEASE, OR RESIDENCE IN CONCENTRATION CAMP]. You will hear people say that it’s all your fault that [INSERT DESCRIPTION OF THINGS BEING SCREWED UP]. People will try to intimidate you, to make you feel powerless, guilty, and/or small.

And because in college the ground rule is that we use reason, not force, to talk our way through things (this rule may not hold in Texas), you will develop a set of responses to these non-fatal threats. You will reexamine your previous beliefs and discover that when you defend them in public, you need a better reason than the fact that your mother, your priest, your TV role model, or your favorite teacher in high school held those opinions. You may discover that your previous identity-group, rather than being the plucky, heroic and endangered minority you always thought they were, are in many people’s eyes a danger to the public, or just a bunch of silly cranks. You may eventually go back to that group, but it will be on a different basis, because you have been exposed to the outside air. Or you may find a different group for yourself, with whatever degree of continuity with your prior self that you find plausible. If your college did the job it’s supposed to do, you will have developed intellectual resilience, something analogical to the immunity-building powers of life on the farm.

The analogical counterpart to antibiotic soap, to the removal of all threats to identity and belief, is what certain nice people who are basically on the same side as me in substantive matters call “safe spaces.” Patrick Henry College is a safe space for young Republicans. Oral Roberts University is a safe space for young evangelicals. Parents choose and pay for such safe spaces. But those safe spaces are not giving people the experience that I associate with college. They should be given a different name– “incubators” perhaps.

My classroom is a place where people can say stupid things and receive a (somewhat) respectful hearing and response. If you say an intelligent thing, you’ll have to back it up with facts and inference, because we’re not going to learn anything from it if you arrived at that smart remark by chance– we want to be able to reproduce it under other conditions. It is a fact of our life in literature that we must spend a lot of time on texts in which people behave badly– enacting mass murder, rape, cannibalism, incest, etc, and worse yet, uttering justifications for them all. Because I hate to cause pain, even indirectly, I will alert the sensitive to such content, but I can’t guarantee that every potentially troubling detail will be flagged in advance. Sugar-coating the barbarity of human history, or sweeping it under the rug, will only leave you with missing teeth and a lumpy carpet.



A friend from Beijing brought me a bottle of rice wine with a pagoda on the label: 塔牌紹興酒, or “Pagoda Brand Shaoxing Wine.” It reminded me of an earlier incarnation of that apparently famous brand, made in Taiwan: different bottle shape, different label, almost the same name, but complemented with an English transliteration: TART-PIE. There’s a whole theory of language in that designation.

The word for “pagoda” or “tower” is, in fact, borrowed in Chinese as a transliteration of “tart”: you can buy shuiguo ta, or fruit “pagodas,” in Taiwan. Before anyone gets excited, let me point out that they’re one-storey affairs. Knowledgeable consumers are aware that the “ta” is there as a transliteration, not as a unit of meaning. “Pie” is sometimes represented as pai (meaning “send,” fourth tone, 派). But every unit of sound, every syllable, in Chinese writing carries some kind of meaning. The translator of the Taiwanese rice wine label must have assumed that English works in the same way. If you wanted to translate the Pagoda Brand name, then, you would have to find words in English that had meanings and were phonetically similar, thus Tart-Pie. The absence of any relation between the wine and tarts and pies initiates the English reader into the way Chinese pastry buyers deal with “sendings” and “pagodas”: they just step over the misunderstanding and enjoy a fully semantic though partly nonsensical universe.



the First Seven Jobs meme

  1. Lutenist of fleas, Wallace Stevens Industries
  2. Apprentice dragon butcher, Nanhua Zhengjing Supply Co.
  3. Supreme Court justice
  4. Secretary-General,  NATO
  5. Golf
  6. Drink
  7. Television

The Vienna Circle’s Tangent


On the main marble staircase of the University of Vienna, brass letters set into the floor mark the event. “On 22 June 1936 Moritz Schlick, a leading member of the Vienna Circle, was murdered on this spot. An intellectual climate poisoned by racism and intolerance contributed to the act.”

I had always assumed that Schlick’s assassin was inspired by race hatred. It turns out, though, that the only Jewish thing about Schlick was the philosophical case he made for Einstein’s relativity theory (a piece of “non-Aryan science” according to the Nazi thought leaders). His murderer, a former grad student with a grudge who blamed Schlick for his own failures in love and career, had been stalking him for years. Stalkers will stalk, malingerers will malinger. But it was 1936 in Vienna. The murderer made no attempt to run away. Once arrested, he had his fan club. He claimed to have done the deed to purify the nation of a quasi-Judaic philosophical “decadent.” And with the benefit of a pliant jury and a bit of an insanity defense, he was out of jail within two years.

Schlick’s murder set other members of the Vienna Circle on their path out of Austria. Carnap came to Chicago, and another story began.

A climate of hatred and violence: it not only precipitates murder, but retrospectively justifies it. The university is right to call this to the attention of everyone going up and down the stair.


Ebola and Ethics

Ebola and ethics? Sure. Don’t listen to anyone who thinks that an emergency calls for desperate measures including the suspension of that pesky distinction between right and wrong. In fact the existence of an emergency calls for us to be especially attentive to all that ethics stuff, not to treat it as annoying paperwork that you sign your way through on the way to doing something ruthless and necessary. See the Letters column of the British Medical Journal if you don’t believe me.



“An Armed Society is a Polite Society”?

Really? People go around saying it. But, please, ma’am or sir as the case may be, I beg to differ, if you don’t mind. Seek the proof in the pudding. We have got ourselves the most heavily armed society on earth, and I don’t see us being any less rude, overbearing, hot-headed, irrational, stubborn, nasty or mean than any of the neighbors– indeed, our behavior speaks louder than the words of a hack sci-fi writer, sometimes abusively attributed to Jefferson. Pretty soon the only form of politeness we’ll know is the twenty-one-gun salute.


Inflation Prophets

Around 2008– that is, for the non-USAns, two presidential election cycles ago– I remember a lot of dark muttering around various dinner tables about the “messianism” of Obama supporters. People on the left, that is, and some of the most philosophically and historically alert ones, were afraid that the expectations lifting the candidacy of the previously little-known senator from Illinois were going to swerve into something sinister. As it happened, nothing less messianic than Obama’s presidency could be imagined. Obama has governed within the limits of the law, not even testing those limits; far from that, he has failed to take a lot of opportunities that the law would have allowed him, and that would have made possible a deep change in our political culture (such as allowing war-crimes investigations to go ahead for the Bushocracy, before he got too deeply involved in the criminality of war himself). In Max Weber’s terms, he has let routine, not charisma, run the show. That’s the sign of a virtue. Maybe not the virtue we needed foregrounded for all of the last eight years. But a virtue nonetheless.

Messianism is certainly something to worry about. It is a symptom of an impatience that wants to throw off all legal restraints, the very restraints that make possible the “freedom” that Americans, those masters of paradox, trumpet loudest when they are trying to anoint someone as lord and master over them. For this we have historical parallels.

Countless “saviors of the twenties”… achieved a position of “great significance especially in the years of inflation from 1919 to 1923 and then again during the Depression of 1929 to 1933″… In 1922, a Berlin correspondent for the Kölnische Zeitung described these “prophets of the street” as follows: “For the past one or two years, the advertising boards in Berlin have been covered with announcements of disciples of the future and prophets who are advertising their lectures (often at considerable admission prices). Catchwords and quotations from the Bible always play a role in the advertisements. The old constellation of ideas surrounding the apocalypse has gained new life, as it did in earlier times of crisis… The existence of such prophets is a dangerous symptom of the mental state prevalent in Germany today.” (Klaus Schreiner, “Messianism in the Weimar Republic,” 311-362 of Peter Schäfer and Mark Cohen, eds., Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco [Leiden: Brill, 1998], 338-339.)

The important thing about these saviors is that they promise to suspend all existing laws, treaties, and institutions, and simply “emerge as the bearer[s] of divine powers of mercy and fate” (337). One enthusiastic student essayist wrote in 1920:

In our misery, we long for a Leader. He will show us the way… The true Leader surely has no selfish motivation, just one, regal motivation, that he must be the Leader because he is it by nature…. The Leader is not guided by the masses, but by his mission; he does not flatter the masses; he proceeds harshly, uprightly, and ruthlessly, in times of good and evil. The Leader is radical; he is wholly that which he is, and he does wholly that which he must. The Leader is responsible; that is, he does God’s will, which he embodies…. God grant us the Leader and help us to achieve true fealty. (Käthe Becker, “Führerschaft, eine Rede vor der Vereinigung ‘Deutsche Jugend,'” in Deutschlands Erneuerung, vol. 4 [1920]: 563, cited in Schreiber, “Messianism,” 336.)

I have replaced “Führer” in Schreiner’s translation with the more ordinary term “Leader” in order to downplay the connotation that the word “Führer” has acquired in English as applying to one moustachioed individual only, because the date of the quotation proves that it’s not a matter of a manipulative individual or an evil genius, but of the fervent passivity of a mass movement begging to be led, pleading to be dealt with “harshly and ruthlessly.” There was a demand for a Führer, a howling demand, already years before the author of Mein Kampf stepped upon the stage. A well-prepared stage. I blame the preparers: the ones in Versailles as well as the pamphleteers, flag-wavers and revanchards.

And if someone had dealt with the root causes of the frenzy in a timely manner, perhaps the hero cult would have subsided. Inflation prophets will arise. They aren’t the evil itself but “dangerous symptoms” thereof. It shouldn’t be impossible to tap the top tax bracket, employ a few million people in infrastructure repairs, have an honest discussion about race, immigration and exclusion.

I didn’t worry too much about messianism in 2008. Perhaps I should have worried about disappointed messianism. But I do worry about it in 2016.


Commemoration in Another Key

My father would have been 80 yesterday (that’s how far it is to July 3, 1936). We slipped out to a jazz club in the South Loop by way of celebration. Think of it: in July ’36 Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton were still in their prime, Miles Davis was ten years old. An unpredictable zigzag was born.



Quasi-Domestic Situation

I know these people– let’s call them B and E. For years now, B keeps threatening to leave E. Every time, E makes concessions and allows B to renegotiate the terms of the relationship, always in B’s favor. Finally, after a new installment of threats, B has departed– but is now trying to reestablish visiting rights on B’s own terms, presenting this as a favor done to E.

E’s friends are relieved that B is gone and are telling E to change the locks. A court order might be necessary.


The Play of Analogy

Republicans have dismissed as a “publicity stunt” a continuing sit-in protest over gun laws by Democrats in the US House of Representatives.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said the protesters were more interested in headlines than tackling gun violence. (BBC News, 23/6/2016)

Would you let a poisonous snake wander around your house while children and guests were there?

Although Goebbels, no stranger to killing, went around with a cyanide pill hidden on his person, and I suppose that was his right, he didn’t think to carry a dose sufficient to carry off another fifty or three hundred people, or to toss it in the water supply. We Americans are a generous people.

A theology professor in our neighborhood shot himself and his wife the other day. Why was he in such a hurry? Because convenience was right at hand, and we Americans love convenience. I am reminded of something about “seventy times seventy,” from a guy who must have lived in a more slow-moving era.

Rikki Garni said it best: “The dictionary is the only loaded gun we keep in the house.”


Branching History

In 1869-1870, the government of Ulysses Grant sent a confidential envoy to the Dominican Republic to talk about statehood. Yes, statehood: a treaty of mutual assistance and free trade was proposed, with the opportunity to join the other states of the American Republic (just recently sutured back together after the unpleasantness of 1861-65) in the adventures of liberty, manifest destiny, and the Monroe Doctrine.

Grant saw in San Domingo a few advantages. A safe harbor for our navy, in order to keep the Caribbean sea lanes open; a market for our manufactured goods; even a country in need of the development that thousands of recently liberated black Americans could provide, if they could be induced to move there. (This was the moment of the Ku Klux Klan’s rise; by opening a new channel of emigration, Grant may have thought he would deprive the Klan of its target and raise the price of labor in the South.) The United States was casting about for an empire, and this would have been the first stage of an imperial expansion on the same basis as that whereby the West was won (or lost, if you think about it from the Mexican point of view). That is, influx of population, building of republican institutions, and finally integration into the fold as a new state, with full protection of constitutional rights as they were then understood.

Consider what in the end happened. Occupation of Cuba and the Philippines (1898). The Panama Canal Treaty. The ambiguous status of Puerto Rico. Purchase, under war conditions, of the Virgin Islands. Interference in Haiti, the DR, Venezuela, and on and on. All activities that earned us the resentment of most people in those areas, who experienced the US not as a space of freedom and security, but as a gun butt. History could have branched a different way, whereby we would have enlarged our selves, not stomped on our others.

Which is not to say that assimilation would have been easy or inevitable. The embrace of the Inviting Gringo might have been as little acceptable as the bayonet of the Demanding Gringo. But think about it. What would be the national character of a United States that had accepted its Spanish-English bilingual destiny already in 1870?

It was not to be. Grant had neglected to bring the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on board– indeed, he hadn’t even briefed them about his secret initiative. They were not happy about it. Charles Sumner, usually a loyal party man, bristled. Speeches were made decrying the chaotic and violent character of the Dominicans’ government, which rendered them unsuited to statehood (curiously, inasmuch as the Wild West was shooting and brawling its way to statehood during these same decades). Worst of all was the prospect of mixed-race people becoming citizens of the United States. Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri torpedoed the initiative with these words:

Fancy the Senators and Representatives of ten or twelve millions of tropical people, people of the Latin race mixed with Indian and African blood; people who have neither language, nor traditions, nor habits, nor political institutions, nor morals in common with us; fancy them sitting in the Halls of Congress, throwing the weight of their intelligence, their morality, their political institutions and habits, their prejudices and passions, into the scale of the destinies of this Republic.
(cited in Robert S. Levine, _Dislocating Race and Nation: Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literary Nationalism_ [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009], p. 209)

I can fancy it. So could Frederick Douglass. And if more people had been able to imagine it in 1870, we would have a different set of problems to deal with today, but white supremacy might not be one of them. What would be (indeed, what is) the point of building a wall between two groups of US citizens?


Rat Productivity

The earliest recorded behavioral experiment with rats took place around 250 BC.

            Li Si was a native of Shangcai in Chu. In his youth he served as a petty clerk in the province. In the privy of the clerks’ quarters he saw how the rats ate the filth and how, when people or dogs came near, they were frequently alarmed and terrified. And when he entered the storehouse he saw how the rats in the storehouse ate the heaps of grain and lived under a big roof, never having to worry about people or dogs. Li Si sighed and said, ‘Whether a man turns out to be worthy or good-for-nothing is like the rats—it all depends on the surroundings he chooses for himself!’ (Sima Qian, Shi ji, translated by Burton Watson as Records of the Grand Historian, vol. 1, Qin Dynasty [New York: Columbia University Press, 2002], p. 179.)

We who teach in colleges are generally lucky rats in Li Si’s terms, especially if tenured. But measures of well-being do not correlate with an absolute or static level of comfort; beyond a certain level, the marginal utility of increased income tapers off. What makes academics happy is engagement, participation in discovery, and a sense of control.

In a global health organization I work with, we have found in many resource-poor settings that the effect of salary raises on the subjective well-being of clinicians is negligible compared to the effect of giving doctors and nurses the tools they need to do their work well. And doctors and nurses who are satisfied with their work conditions are better at helping their patients. This strategy of enhancing effectiveness has been notably useful in counteracting brain drain among medical personnel in poor countries.

Li Si forgot to compare the productivity of the two groups of rats (in his defense, it’s hard to see what a measure of rat productivity would be). But any academic behaviorist can. The best times in my career have been when I’ve had a strong posse of like-minded people working with me to expand a frontier of knowledge or teaching; the worst have been years when colleagues wasted each other’s time with bickering, squabbling over shrinking resources, defending positions or undercutting each other. And when I think back over the causes, I note that the main factors creating a negative climate for the “life of the mind” have been, ultimately, administrative. If someone wanted to “disrupt” (in the old sense of the word) teaching and research in a certain sector, there is no easier way than to institute a competition for shrinking resources. That will hinder new projects from developing, reward non-cooperative behavior by actors who are less affected by the diminished resources, and reduce commitment by those who have other outlets for their energies, not to mention distracting attention from the things that brought us here in the first place. And if the resources are shrunk in an abrupt, startling, non-transparent way, without discussion of alternative scenarios or opportunities to cooperate in managing scarcity, you’ll have some disturbed rats.


And So I Sat Down to Write my Academic Memoir

I am privileged to have spent much of my adult life in the company of people for whom fat-shaming is a more grievous injustice than starvation.

(With an opening line like that, it will have to be a posthumous memoir. I couldn’t stand to read the reviews.)


Liberal Education as Radical Proposition in the Late Ming

(A talk for the 2016 Weissbourd conference, “Does Liberal Education Need Saving?”)

Just at the moment when the liberal arts are under attack in America as being a merely ornamental excrescence, Chinese university administrators are trying to reform the curriculum in order to include more general education and more seminar-style teaching. Cao Li 曹莉, a professor and dean at Tsinghua University, finds this risky. “Many universities,” she says,

are rushing to join in the adventure of internationalizing higher education with foreign capital. All these shifts and transformations pose severe challenges to the Chinese university, one of which is the problem of how the identity of a Chinese university can be defined and upheld. In this regard, liberal education cannot ignore the strategic importance of maintaining national identity and cultural self-consciousness…. [T]he model of the American university is being invoked to rationalize and standardize university of education. We will have to realize that one of the most disturbing results of globalization is the standardization and homogenization of cultures, which threatens to deconstruct nationality and dismantle national consciousness as well as cultural confidence…. To break out of such a globalizing paradigm both culturally and intellectually is a challenge to all nations and their educational enterprises.[1]

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