Violence and the sacred on campus

Dan Wang has an interesting piece, “Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror,” that you should read before you read this one, because I’m going to agree slightly and disagree slightly with it. He writes:

Where should we expect Girard’s predictions for mimetic crises to run most rampant? At places where values are confused and people are much the same. To me, that description best fits one place in particular: the American college.

I think he’s right about the way American colleges are homogeneous and the way homogeneity can create mimetic conflict, but that kind of mimetic conflict is also limited to a relatively small group and, in a political sense, they’re mostly activists (I argue something very similar in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent,” which is based on my experiences teaching college students). Ninety-five percent of college students are not that susceptible to mimetic contagion for many reasons, one important one being that, for the most part, they have no idea what’s going on (and I include myself when I was a college student and arguably now) and are more interested in self development, partying, getting a job, and getting laid than they are in mimetic competition for status-oriented pursuits.

That being said, I also suspect that, the richer the students and the society, the more prone we are to mimetic conflict. In the absence of real problems humans tend to invent ones. That, for example, is one of the more charitable readings of Trump as president: we’re so rich that we feel we can elect an unqualified buffoon to office and get away with it. If we felt we were facing real crises, we’d be warier of electing a buffoon.

Back to Wang:

Mimetic contagion magnifies small fights by making people focus on each other. These processes follow their own logic until they reach conclusions that look so extreme to the outside world. Once internal rivalries are sorted out, people coalesce into groups united against something foreign. These tendencies help explain why events on campus so often make the news. It seems like every other week we see some campus activity being labeled a “witch hunt,” “riot,” or something else that involves violence, implied or explicit. I don’t care to link to these events, they’re so easy to find. It’s interesting to see that academics are increasingly becoming the target of student activities. The Girardian terror devours its children first, who have tolerated or fanned mimetic contagion for so long.

Remember, though, that the crazy campus protests and the abuse of the campus bureaucracy occurs among a small number of students at a small number of schools—to return to an earlier point, the students at Yale are rich and satisfied enough to go bonkers over Halloween costumes; students at community colleges are too worried about paying the rent. The vast majority of students respect and admire free speech and get the importance of free ideas. Those events that “so often make the news” make the news because they’re pretty uncommon, even at rich, well-marketed schools.

One problem campuses do have, however, is that the more reasonable students are often reluctant to challenge the crazier, noisier ones. And these days, contingent faculty (like myself) are reluctant to explicitly challenge the crazier and noisier ones, because when college administrators see a ruckus they mostly want that ruckus to go away, and one easy way to make it go away is to make sure there are no extra sections next semester. The student soon graduates and the adjunct goes away even sooner. Ruckus solved!

Don’t get me wrong—those events are bad and the administrators (and sometimes faculty) should stand up for the freedom to speak and think. But always think about the incentives facing the actors in a given situation when you start applying highly abstract moral reasoning from outside the situation.

Wang notes many of the ways that students engage in zero-sum competition:

Once people enter college, they get socialized into group environments that usually continue to operate in zero-sum competitive dynamics. These include orchestras and sport teams; fraternities and sororities; and many types of clubs.

There’s a lot of truth there, but I’m not sure fraternities and sororities are good examples. There, I think the students are less in the grip of mimetic contagion and more in the grip of simple libido (which brings us to an easier supply-demand story and perhaps evolutionary biology story—as I argue at the preceding link). They have zero-sum qualities, but people can and do start new fraternities and sororities, and I don’t know that most fraternities and sororities have the kinds of hard caps that make them truly zero sum.

I’d say that the worst mimetic crises are actually experienced not by undergrads but by humanities grad students (Wang addresses grad students towards the end of his essay). In the humanities, there are almost no jobs after graduation. The field has become highly political in nature and grad school has become cotillion for eggheads. The dearth of jobs and challenges in getting them is one reason grad students are willing to do and think whatever their professors say: the students need to do everything right if they’re going to have an even remote chance of getting a real gig. Over time you get nonsense like most of “literary theory” and Alan Sokal debunkings.*

Science isn’t immune to mimetic crises, but at least scientists have the real world as a fairly objective measuring stick. From what I’ve observed, the humanities have the most serious crises, followed by the social sciences, and followed finally by the hard sciences. Business and law schools are probably somewhere near the rank of the social sciences (and Wang’s Thiel quotes about MBAs are great).

Then Wang shifts to talk about Big Little Lies, and his reading of the show is also excellent:

I haven’t watched much TV recently, but the new show I’ve liked best is *Big Little Lies* on HBO. Rich suburban moms, with desires mediated by their children, are incited towards violence against each other in gorgeous Monterey, California. Who can resist?

I can! I watched a couple episodes and while the murder premise held my attention initially, the stultifying atmosphere of stupendously rich and childish idiots drove me away. It wasn’t funny enough to justify itself. In other words, I dislike it for some of the reasons Wang likes it. But seeing it through that Girardian lens makes me like it better, or at least understand it better. You could also do a good Girardian reading of the first season of UnREAL, which is my favorite recent TV show.

Then there’s this, which is just important and probably underrated:

Because acts of youth are more easily recalled, our future elites will be made up of people who’ve managed to keep their records unsullied. What happens when most records of our life are accessible via Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or blogs? I think that makes it so that our future leaders will be selected for whether they were willing to be really boring in their 20s, who have no recorded indiscretions that might derail a Senate confirmation. Are these the people we want to be governed by?

Among my friends I hear a common joke or refrain: “I could never run for office after last weekend.” Or: “I could never run for office after the pics I sent her.” Except it’s not really a joke (though in the age of Trump I begin to wonder how true it is: maybe the electorate is more accepting than I’d previously thought). And you know what? I could never run for office. I also have a terrible personality for politics, but many people who show political promise can’t run in a polarized world that remembers everything. Not until the culture changes.

I’m not a Girardian and whenever I’ve started his books I’ve felt torn in two: some passages and sections are brilliant and some are idiotic, and sometimes brilliance and idiocy are right next to each other. Is the latter the price of the former? I just looked for my copy of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, but I can’t find it and suspect I must have donated it somewhere along the way, assuming that I’d never read it again. My copy of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World seems to have also disappeared.

Still, after the thousand words above, I do wonder if it would be a good idea to tell college students that they are susceptible to mimetic crises. There is no good mechanism for doing so right now, but the idea is a good one. I also favor explicitly telling students that some majors and paths to graduation are pretty bogus in terms of learning and are mostly there to keep students happy (they get a degree), professors happy (they get a job), and administrators happy (they get tuition money). One could at least conceive of colleges telling students to be wary of mimetic desire. One cannot conceive of them telling students to be wary of the incentives the college itself faces.


* It’s still possible to find humanities articles that would make the kinds of moves that Wang does in his post: take someone interesting, comment on its relationship to some larger society, and tie it into some work of art in a novel-but-readable way. Today, though, that style of peer-reviewed article has mostly disappeared under an avalanche of bad writing and “theory.”

Why read bestsellers

Someone wrote to ask why I bother writing about John Grisham’s weaknesses as a writer and implied in it is a second question: why read bestsellers at all? The first is a fair question and so is the implication in it: Grisham’s readers don’t read me and don’t care what I think; they don’t care that he’s a bad writer; and people who read me probably aren’t going to read him. Still, I read him because I was curious and I wrote about him to report what I found.

The answer to the second one is easy: Some are great! Not all, probably not even most, but enough to try. Lonesome Dove, the best novel I’ve read recently, was a bestseller. Its sequel, Streets of Laredo, is not quite as good but I’m glad to have read it. Elmore Leonard was often a bestseller and he is excellent. Others seemed like they’d be bad (Gillian Flynn, Tucker Max) but turned into favorites.

One could construct a 2×2 matrix of good famous books; bad famous books; good obscure books; and bad obscure books. That last one is a large group too; credibility amid a handful of literary critics (who may be scratching each other’s backs anyway) does not necessarily equate to quality, and I’ve been fooled by good reviews of mostly unknown books many times. Literary posturing does not equate to actual quality.

Different people also have different views around literary quality, and those views depend in part on experience and reading habits. Someone who reads zero or one books a year is likely to have very different impressions than someone who reads ten or someone who reads fifty or a hundred. Someone who is reading like a writer will probably have a different experience than someone who reads exclusively in a single, particular genre.

And Grisham? That article (which I wish I could find) made him and especially Camino Island sound appealing, and the book does occasionally work. But its addiction to cliché and the sort of overwriting common in student writing makes it unreadable in my view. But someone who reads one or two books a year and for whom Grisham is one of those books will probably like him just fine, because they don’t have the built-up stock of reading that lets them distinguish what’s really good from what isn’t.

Briefly noted: Camino Island — John Grisham

Somewhere I read an article, now lost to me, about Grisham that convinced me to try Camino Island. Unfortunately, it’s bad from the first page and even the second sentence:

The imposter borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford. In his letter, on perfectly forged stationary, “Professor Manchin” claimed to be a budding scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald [. . .]

You don’t need the word “budding.” It’s a cliché and adds nothing to the description. Almost any “soon-to-be doctoral student” is a “budding scholar.” On the same page we learn that the letter “arrived with a few others, was duly sorted and passed along [. . .]” How does one “duly” sort things? Are some things “unduly sorted?”

A little later, a sentence begins, “His was a gang of five [. . .]” Even something simple like “His gang had four other members” is less awkward.

Some dialogue is good:

“The manuscripts, all five of them, were insured by our client, a large private company that insures art and treasures and rare assets. I doubt you’ve heard of it either.”
“I don’t follow insurance companies.”

That comeback is nice, but even the first part is repetitive. If an insurance company is willing to insure manuscripts, then it’s obviously not, say, a car insurance company—we don’t need to know that it “insures art and treasures” because we already know it ensures this company’s.

I gave up after about a quarter of the book because it’s so consistently badly written. If you see any Grisham revisionism articles, don’t believe them. Read something else. The collected works* of Elmore Leonard are a fine place to start.


* This is no longer a figure of speech: the Library of America is in fact collecting his works and publishing them, as the link shows.

Briefly noted — Do I Make Myself Clear? — Harold Evans

If you’ve read in the vast genre of how-to-write books—everything from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to John Trimble’s Writing With Style to Zinsser’s On Writing Well—you’ve already in effect read Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. It’s a good book, just not one that advances the art or covers material you’ve not seen covered elsewhere.

It starts with Orwell and “Politics and the English Language,” which indicts “bad English for corrupting thought and slovenly thought for corrupting language,” then goes to say that “eternal vigilance is the price of intelligent literacy.” Problem is that I don’t think we’ve been vigilant and I don’t see signs of increasing literacy—in political terms, if anything we see the opposite. The kinds of people who need to read Do I Make Myself Clear? don’t read and don’t care.

Elsewhere we find that

There is no compulsion to be concise on either the Internet or the profusion of television and radio channels; and in writing of every kind, Twitter apart, we see more words, more speed, less clarity, and less honesty, too, since with “demand media” you never know whether a review of Swan Lake will conceal a hard sell about toenail fungus.

I like a good rant as much as the next guy, but do we know we’re seeing “more words, more speed, less clarity?” How do we know? How would we even measure this? I don’t know. Does “speed” mean speed of writing, speed of reading, both, or neither? I don’t know that either. Knowing is hard.

To be sure, there’s a long history of language exhortations violating the very rules they posit (few of those who decry adverbs and passive voice fail to use both). But it can be interesting to apply the same principles being espoused to the work doing the espousing, to see if it follows its own command.

Links: Typewriters, generational conflict, yoga and Houellebecq, MacBooks, and more!

* Call it a comeback: Typewriters attracting new generation of fans.

* “The Old Are Eating the Young.” And the young don’t realize it and/or aren’t voting appropriately to it.

* “There is no ‘Thucydides Trap,’” on China and many other topics. Here is another piece on similar topics: “Are China and the United States Headed for War?” The answer is “Probably not,” but on the other hand countries have historically done stupid, counterproductive things for no good reason.

* “Nobody Will Make Us Do Yoga: A Conversation with Michel Houellebecq.” As weird and hilarious as you’d like it to be.

* “Air Force budget reveals how much SpaceX undercuts launch prices.” Wow.

* “Mini-review: The 2017 MacBook could actually be your everyday laptop.” I may switch my laptop to one, but I also have an iMac.

* “Why Fathers Leave Their Children,” yet it oddly never mentions financial incentives or child support—a bizarre oversight, even in a short piece.

* “The U.S. has forgotten how to do infrastructure.”

* When pop stars have Instagram, they no longer need record labels.

* Fundamentals in fiction and the question of obligations.

Links: Maryland comedy, car sharing, the structure of politics, sexuality, and more!

* “Battle over bare-breasted women brews at one of Maryland’s busiest beaches” Likely SFW, as it’s in the Washington Post, and one gets the sense the writer had a good time with this one. The illustrative photo included shows a seagull, alas. When we fight over this maybe things are pretty good because we have time to worry about the dangers(?) of bare-breasted women on beaches.

* “Automakers Race to Get Ahead of Silicon Valley on Car-Sharing.” Good news all around.

* “How Insurance Companies Can Force Bad Cops Off the Job.” A novel approach to a serious problem.

* “Why Sacrifices by the Rich Won’t Fix Social Welfare;” points rarely made. Notice:

If we look at the overall fiscal position of the U.S. federal government, we are spending beyond our means and the future will require some mix of spending cuts and tax increases. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office: “To close the gap solely by raising revenues would require a revenue increase of about 33 percent, and maintaining that level of revenue, on average, each year over the next 75 years.” I would submit that revenue increases of such magnitude are unlikely or perhaps even impossible, and thus any new spending will have to come out of other government spending. In other words, for better or worse, we’ve already committed to spending that tax increase on the wealthy that you were planning to use for other purposes.

* “Get Congress Back to Legislating, Not Just Budgeting: Yuval Levin, an expert on the budget process, explains how a congressional power grab in the ’70s led to paralysis today.” Again, not the sexiest or most fun piece, but it is essential for understanding what’s amiss in government today.

* “Congressman Is Hit in Multiple Shooting;” maybe something like this is what it will take to get gun control back on the agenda, since Congress may become much more interested in it if Congresspeople have a personal stake. We’ve already somehow decided as a society that routine mass shootings, including mass shootings of children, are just, you know . . . something that happens.

* Pornhub is the Kinsey Report of our time? (At New York Magazine and likely SFW.)

* “Why Ethereum is outpacing Bitcoin,” noting that I don’t understand Ethereum well.

* On “Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between) — Cindy M. Meston David M. Buss.”

Briefly noted: Deep Thinking — Garry Kasparov

If you’ve read Average is Over you’ve gotten enough of Kasparov’s book to skip it; the abstract lessons from the second section of Average is Over are similar to Deep Thinking‘s. Still, human-computer play remain underrated and also remains a key metaphor for what human-computer interaction will look like in the near future. Computer-assisted driving is maybe the most familiar aspect right now, and that sort of dynamic will likely increase as time goes on and as the number of transistors that can inhabit a given area continues to increase.

Deep Thinking is most interesting about halfway through when Kasparov describes in detail the conditions under which he played the famous 1997 Deep Blue match. Before and after there is some interesting material but less than one would like. Maybe I’m just a sucker for narrative, and the middle section is primarily narrative. Still, the more I read of Kasparov the more I think I should read more, and his writing about Putin and Russia is consistently insightful. If you want a conventional review of Deep Thinking, Robin Hanson’s “Grandmasters vs. Gigabytes” is good.

There are few aesthetically beautiful sentences but still some useful observations. For example:

Connections between chess skill and general intelligence are weak at best. There is no more truth to the thought that all chess players are geniuses than in saying that all geniuses play chess. In fact, one of the things that makes chess so interesting is that it’s still unclear exactly what separates good chess players from great ones.

That last sentence is true of novelists and other writers too. “Good” and “great” can be felt and the critical faculty can be honed over time, but specific definitions remain elusive. Oddly, though, two pages later Kasparov returns to notions of greatness in a way that almost contradict the quote above:

When Der Spiegel asked me what I thought separated me, the world champion, from other strong chess players, I answered, ‘The willingness to take on new challenges,’ the same answer I would give today. The willingness to keep trying new things—different methods, uncomfortable tasks—when you are already an expert at something is what separates good from great. Focusing on your strengths is required for peak performance, but improving your weaknesses has the potential for the greatest gains.

So there is an answer to what separates good from great (“The willingness to try new challenges”) or there isn’t? Both sections are interesting and both might be true, but this is the sort of internal contradiction editors (or Kasparov’s ghost writer / assistant, Mig Greengard) are supposed to find.

Then there are sentences like, “It’s a privilege to be able to focus on the negative potential of world-changing breakthroughs like artificial intelligence. As real as these issues may be, we will not solve them unless we keep innovating even more ambitiously, creating solutions and new problems, and yet more solutions, as we always have.” Everyone else seems to be for innovation, making me tempted to come out as anti-innovation simply to be contrary.

But there are very useful sentences too, like the last one here:

How professional chess changed when computers and databases arrived is a useful metaphor for how new technology is adopted across industries and societies in general. It’s a well-established phenomenon, but I feel that the motivations are underanalyzed. Being young and less set in our ways definitely makes us more open to trying new things. But simply being older isn’t the only factor that works against this openness—there is also being successful. When you have success, when the status quo favors you, it becomes very hard to voluntarily change your ways.

Success is never final. Yet we, collectively, never seem to know that. Peak performance sustained over a lifetime may have to incorporate this idea.

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