Automatic, unthinking opposition is bad

Elon Musk actually believes Rex Tillerson could be an ‘excellent’ Secretary of State” strikes a skeptical tone about Tillerson, but so far I haven’t seen a strong explanation about why he wouldn’t be. There is much to dislike and fear about Trump—I in particular worry about the way he raises the risks of global nuclear war—but it is unwise to automatically oppose anyone he proposes for his Cabinet or anything he does.

It is also not impossible that Trump will appoint a good FDA commissioner. It is possible that House Republicans will reform Social Security, which is an unmitigated good for anyone under the age of 40 or so (barring a sudden, unexpected takeoff in growth, the Social Security and Medicare edifices will not provide anything like current benefits when people my age are the age of current recipients; workers my age are paying taxes for the fiscal services old people get that we ourselves are unlikely to get when we are that old, and that ought to affect our voting patterns (it doesn’t)).

One should reserve opprobrium for where it is deserved and not fire it off generically, especially based on innuendo or simple partisan affiliation. Again, that is not to approve of Trump or most things House Republicans favor, but it should contextualize the discussion. As far as I can tell, Tillerson could be an excellent Secretary of State (he could also be a terrible one). I know very little about him and wish to avoid castigating him or anyone else based on automatic partisanship.

Doing so is of course hard, for reasons Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind and Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels describe in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Those books are too long to describe briefly, but both show that most people are partisans first and thinkers about individual issues second, or third, or even fourth. There is much evidence for this case, perhaps the most interesting being the last election: Trump is not a Republican in an ideological or issue-based sense, but he did get the nomination and most Republicans and nominal Republicans voted for him anyway.

I’m also not sure I could enumerate the qualities of a good Secretary of State versus a bad one, and I wonder how many people with strongly stated views on Tillerson could. I wonder how many could say anything useful about his views and background. I can’t.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age — Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly

The first chapter of All Things Shining is strong and so is the second, on David Foster Wallace, but the book gets duller as it goes on, sustaining as it does its readings based on other books. There is something curiously empty about it, like a modern art museum that is much duller than a celebrity’s Instagram account. It is too well mannered. Academia’s mores rules. All Things Shining encourages us to find shining meaning in things but it itself doesn’t feel shiningly meaningful, as even sections like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift do.

Deciding that something is boring is easier than fully understanding why something is boring. I haven’t quite figured out the “Why” question regarding All Things Shining. The book does remind one of why great novels endure; story is still powerful and narratives without story are hard to sustain, especially when many claims seem somewhat dubious:

Modern life can seem to be defined by [uncertainty]. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to finding ourselves at last occasionally wavering. Far from being certain and unhesitating, our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.

I said that this is “somewhat dubious” because it is, even if we do face many choices. At bottom we each have to choose for ourselves what is important, and then pursue that thing. It might be pleasure or technology or words or research or money. Universals are likely absent and “The burden of choice is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It proliferates in a world that no longer has any God or gods, nor even any sense of what is sacred and inviolable, to focus on our understanding of what we are.” The “burden of choice” also comes from the fact that many of us can pay the rent and pay for food, which leaves us with more time for self-contemplation. Maybe too much time.

I’m fond of telling students that you know you’re an adult when you realize that, if you can’t pay the rent and pay for food, you won’t have anywhere to live or anything to eat. Sometimes a focus on base material conditions is helpful. And forgetting that a very large number of people are justifiably focused on this issues is sometimes too easy for tenured academics.

Some paragraphs are both useful and yet I wonder what polls would say:

The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age.

Did the average Greek of Homer’s era live intense and meaningful lives? What about their children? What happened when their children died? Or was the average Greek covered in shit (link likely safe for work), slaving away to support a tiny number of nobles who focused on political games, consuming the marginal product of labor of the peasants, and fighting pointless, zero-sum wars with other nobles?

Still, the book has some interesting sections, and it is a deeper discussion of its issues than you’ll find on most of the Internet The discussions of craftsmanship are glancing but perhaps most interesting. Maybe if Wallace had conceptualized himself first as a craftsman and then as an everything else things would have gone better. Maybe not, though, and it’s hard to criticize one of the most truthful writers of his generation for not doing even better than he did.

Man’s search for meaning goes on.


Praise, criticism, and hypocrisy around people you know

I got some pushback on two recent posts, in which I said “Bess Stillman is the best med school essay writer there is” and that Mate is good but that I’m not an unbiased observer. The basic thrust of the pushback is that I shouldn’t talk about books or services or people I have a direct connection to. But I don’t think it’s true: Dr. Stillman is the best person in her genre I’ve ever seen, and Mate is the book that young straight guys (and probably some older straight guys) need to read. It’s possible to praise those works without compromising intellectual integrity, and indeed if I thought either of their works weren’t good I’d be silent. Silence is often tact; I’m sure some people I know dislike or feel neutral towards Asking Anna or The Hook, and for the most part they’ve said nothing. But approval matters too, and Dr. Stillman’s admission consulting and Mate are worth your attention; attention is the scarcest commodity in the modern information economy and I don’t want to waste mine or yours.*

We live in an information-rich and insight-poor environment. Much of the writing masquerading as insight isn’t, really, and I want to imagine that I’m ever-so-slightly changing the ratio of information to insight. That happens not only around books or ideas I write about, but also about books or ideas or services by people I know—and there is still a key difference between people who I know in real life and people I don’t. For as long as humans are humans personal interactions will matter. That’s why I only do book interviews in person: there’s a different energy there that unlocks ideas not unlocked via written interviews. I’m not saying one medium is better than the other—they’re different—but I am saying the outcomes tend to be different in ways hard to define but easy to feel and notice.

Within this context, it’s possible to be silent when something is not worth attention and loud when something is. If you’re writing bad things about your significant other in a public space, you should really reconsider who you are married to, dating, or sleeping with. Actually, the person you are married to, dating, or sleeping with ought really to reconsider you. The place to offer (suitable delicately phrased) criticism is in private, not on the public Internet.

I of course am not the first person to discuss these matters and I won’t be the last. They’re matters tact, money, and interest, which never go out of style and are always a challenge for every era, and arguably moreso for ours. Authenticity is a bogus concept and yet it’s everywhere (and its bogosity makes it attractive to marketers and other people with shit to sell). I like to think I’m disinclined towards bullshit, in the Frankfurt sense, while still being able to speak to books, works, products, and services that I know through personal connections. So I include disclaimers about potential conflicts of interest where they’re relevant and otherwise try to say things that are true and interesting. The world has an eternal shortage of statements that are true and interesting.

* That’s also one reason why I no longer write negative reviews of books or other materials that are bad in uninteresting ways.

One definition of brilliance: willingness to appear to be the fool

From The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

[In 1939] Szilard told Einstein about the Columbia secondary-neutron experiments and his calculations toward a chain reaction in uranium and graphite. Long afterward he would recall his surprised that Einstein had not yet heard of the possibility of a chain reaction. When he mentioned it Einstein interjected, “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht!“—”I never thought of that!” He was nevertheless, says Szilard, “very quick to see the implications and perfectly willing to do anything that needed to be done. He was willing to assume responsibility for sounding the alarm even though it was quite possible that the alarm might prove to be a false alarm. The one thing most scientists are really afraid of is to make fools of themselves. Einstein was free from such a fear and this above all is what made his position unique on this occasion.

“Einstein was free from such a fear:” are you?

(Incidentally, as Eric R. Weinstein points out, “Over the past two decades I have been involved with the war on excellence:”

In the past, many scientists lived on or even over the edge of respectability with reputations as skirt chasing, hard drinking, bigoted, misogynistic, childish, slutty, lazy, politically treacherous, incompetent, murderous, meddlesome, monstrous and mentally unstable individuals such as von Neumann, Gamow, Shockley, Watson, Einstein, Curie, Smale, Oppenheimer, Crick, Ehrenfest, Lang, Teller and Grothendieck (respectively) who fueled such epithets with behaviors that indicated they appeared to care little for what even other scientists thought of their choices.

But such disregard, bordering on deviance and delinquency, was often outweighed by feats of genius and heroism. We have spent the last decades inhibiting such socially marginal individuals or chasing them to drop out of our research enterprise and into startups and hedge funds. As a result our universities are increasingly populated by the over-vetted specialist to become the dreaded centers of excellence that infantilize and uniformize the promising minds of greatest agency.

Are you part of that war? I suspect Einstein cared little for respectability except when it came to being right.)

Links: Generational gaps, dating apps, writing and dreaming, tech intellectuals, and more

* “How Anthony Weiner Exposed the Insecurities of the 1960s Generation: A half-century after the sexual revolution, the make-your-own-rules folks are no longer quite so sold on free love.” This has Camille Paglia-esque overtones.

* Dating app Tinder catches fire.

* Conversations with John le Carré.

* “An Aspiring Scientist’s Frustration with Modern-Day Academia: A Resignation.”

* Margaret Atwood on books.

* “The Tech Intellectuals;” perhaps I am one?

* “The Patriarchy Is Dead Feminists, accept it.”

* More on the fight between science and philosophy, except that science wins so soundly that characterizing the debate as a “fight” is silly.

* ‘Think About Characters Like a Sphere’: How John Cheever Wrote Inner Turmoil.

Lisa Levy, Alain de Botton and the meaning of intellectuals and their relationship to sex

Lisa Levy’s How to Be a Pseudo-Intellectual (actual title: “How To Think More (But Not Better): Alain de Botton’s School of Life”) isn’t really about de Botton’s How To Think More About Sex so much as it is about throwing rocks at de Botton’s intellectual middle road from the high road where most supposed scholars are unread, unloved, and unsexed.* It’s true that How To Think More About Sex is de Botton’s weakest book, to the point that I didn’t bother reviewing it because it’s so bad; any pop evolutionary psychology book from the last ten years offers more and better information, and sex is arguably the field least informed by the philosophy and philosophers most often in de Botton’s purview.

But his other books are fun and informative. Levy writes that “he often seems like a grad student who shows up to seminar having done just enough of the reading to participate by jumping on other people’s comments, but who never makes an original observation of his own.” Maybe “an original observation” is overrated in philosophy, especially compared to accessibility. Levy writes that “he tends to meander and summarize after a quotation rather than using it to drive his own argument forward,” but if de Botton meanders in an interesting way—which he usually does, in books like The Architecture of Happiness and his novel On Love, which is charming (a word that never appears among academics trying to prosecute dubiously original arguments)—then he’s at least doing one thing better than 90% of those allegedly being original. For one thing, he’s writing clearly enough to make a judgment about originality; how many doctoral dissertations and tenure books are written in impenetrable, deliberately misleading jargon, such that it’s difficult or impossible to tell whether an argument is original?

Most people trying to make “an original observation of [their] own” don’t seem to make actual original contributions but do bloviate quite a bit. If more people admitted to synthesizing and fewer had to pretend to originality, we’d probably live in a better original world. Levy says that “he’s not exactly Michel Foucault,” and I’d call that a very good thing.

That being said, however, Levy is right that “This might in fact be the most boring book ever written about sex.” Sex might also be the field that, of all that de Botton has addressed, philosophy is the least well-equipped to handle, especially compared to current psychology and biology.

Still, the funniest bits of The Consolations of Philosophy concern the number of aged philosophers in their twilight years who fall for vapid but hot teenage girls and adult women, which could arguably tell us more about the nature of life than all of their books combined; actions speak louder than words, as the cliché goes, and what one wants in the midst of composing a monumental manuscript may be different from what one wants when confronted with real people. De Botton describes how the 43-year-old Schopenhauer “turns his attentions to Flora Weiss, a spirited girl who has turned seventeen,” and feels “revolted” by his gift of white grapes. Nietzsche, similarly, faced rejection from “a twenty-three-year old, green-eyed blonde” named Mathilde Trampedach. From there, “a succession of similar rejections took their toll” in his marriage proposals, caused in part, perhaps, by “his extraordinarily large walrus mustache” and “his shyness.” Later still, he chased around a twenty-one-year-old hottie (my word), who “was more interested in Nietzsche as a philosopher than a husband.”

Perhaps we should consider philosophers’ work in light of their lives, and the lessons we should take are not necessarily those entombed in The World as Will and Representation or On the Genealogy of Morality. Alas, however, that de Botton might have instead worked to write original observations that go unread in a university library somewhere instead.

* Hannah Arendt and a few others famously excepted.

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