Thursday, January 13, 2005

Going pro with the whining game

The first half of this Yglesias post concerns the lack of fun at Harvard and how we wished they'd serve more popcorn chicken. If I hadn't found the good folk of HRSFA, I might be with him on lack of fun, and back in my carnivorous days, I was definitely with him on popcorn chicken.

But what this old Perspective editor really wants to do is pick a fight with former Harvard Salient editor Ross Douthat for going pro with the campus conservative game of whining about how awful academia is. I haven't read Ross' book, which hasn't come out yet, but the blurb about "the trumping of intellectual rigor by political correctness and personal ambition" raises my suspicions.

The blurb is only a minor datum here. Ross' attack on lefty academic blog Left2Right in the Weekly Standard a few weeks ago gave me a picture of how his career is taking shape. Consider this ridiculous bit about Left2Right's contributors:
These are thinkers, after all, who have given their lives to left-liberalism in its purest, most theoretical form, in which all the significant questions have been settled and the only remaining difficulty is determining how many sexual identities can dance on the head of a Rawlsian pin.
Ross willfully misleads his readers about what these people have spent their lives doing. I know the published work of four L2R contributors -- Velleman, Deigh, Darwall, and Railton. They're all famous for their work on practical reason -- they spend their time arguing about things like whether all practical rationality is means/end rationality, and whether thinking A is the morally right thing to do implies having some motivation to do A. There are huge disagreements between the four of them on these issues, which are at a level of abstraction so utterly removed from contemporary politics as to support no particular ideological stance. (Substantive doctrines about morality do appear at the end of Railton's 1986 paper "Moral Realism", but you'd have to do a lot of extra argument to turn Railton's conclusion into an endorsement of any particular political view.) This stuff about sexual identities is utterly disconnected from any of their work. You only write garbage like this if you're trying to earn the wages of hackery by slandering intelligent liberal professors.

Maybe Ross' book will be accurate in its criticisms of Harvard -- as I said, I haven't read it, and there are plenty of things at Harvard worth criticizing. The rest of the publisher's introduction gives some reason for hope that the book will deal with many aspects of life at Harvard, not just those that lend themselves to cheap shots against academia. But I'm suspicious. The Right is very good at promoting conservative members of generally liberal groups and using them to discredit the institutions associated with those groups. Taste the crocodile tears at the end of this Armstrong Williams column that makes an internal NAACP strategy dispute into a reason to say, "This is a crime. This is a shame. This is the sad state of the nation's most storied civil rights organization." I'm sure there's lots to be gained in being the Harvard man who finds any excuse that exists (and some that don't) to bash Harvard. It keeps the right-wing troops marching and you probably don't even need to be as pathetic a creature as David Horowitz. But it's not a proud way to make a living.


Dennis said...

I'm kinda tempted to respond to the first half of that Yglesias post over there, but think I'll stick with here. As to the boring people, I'll readily wager that any Harvard student dropped in a room with 20 other random Harvard students will consider all but two of them nerds, dorks, final club boys, hippies, conservatives, liberals, theater kids, jocks, workaholics, or otherwise socially undesirable and the last very worthwhile; I also consider the probability negligible that any two people will like/dislike even close to the same people for the same reasons. And with 6,000 undergrads at any given time that's about 300 people you largely identify with; don't know why Yglesias never found his (don't know the boy, though I'm pretty sure the separation is two degrees).

Also, in defense of the fun czar, I'd note that the article specifies that he's there to help groups throw events. As someone who has thrown group events at the big H of various kinds on various scales, let me say this: your average room party requires two signatures from potentially hard-to-find people. A generic student group throwing an unspecified event open to the public (as the examples from the article surely are) should consider talking to at least thirteen different bureaucracies, and more as soon as the event gains any characteristics at all. The actual number for a fixed event is probably more like three or four, but it's more than plausible that concentrating all the knowledge on the topic somewhere is a very good idea indeed. Whether it's a good use of money is another thing; there is, though, a rational basis here.

Salient kids write for the Weekly Standard? If I remember the Salient, it was easily bad enough to disqualify the editor from writing anything ever again; my days of disrespecting the Weekly Standard are definitely coming to a middle...

Lastly, popcorn chicken rocks.

Blue said...

I think the only question is, will a Fun Czar change things such that people who believe Harvard is NOT fun, believe it IS fun? While people might have very different couples there (what the Fun czar can do, and why they believe harvard isn't fun), I don't think anyone believes the answer to the aforementioned question is yes.

Will the czar do other things: consolidate bureacracies? convince prospective students that Harvard cares about fun? quell some student anger over eliminating the dean of students? make campus parties easier so less parties are finals clubs or insane (like the mather lather fiasco)? Provide employment to someone's nephew that can't find anything better to do than be the fun czar at a small low-party college?

Probably yes.

DevP said...

What? Ex-Salient psycho-cons are self-whoring hacks? Shocked, I tell you.

And damn all, if Ross can work for the Standard, there's no unearthly reason I don't get my book published in a year.

Dennis said...

The issue with the "Fun Czar" is really the Crimson's name -- an ex-student helping students make events happen on Harvard's payroll isn't exciting unless it plays into a narrative, in this case the self-evident "Harvard is no fun." So let me say this: the guy's job is not to make Harvard fun. It can be spun that way, but it just isn't so, and success or failure should not be judged on those grounds.

d locke said...

Neil, all I want to know is: Are you going to help me maximize utility by coming out for some Ypsi nightlife tonight?

Call me, sucka!