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On “going to war with the army you have

I think a possible "moral sea change" is going to depend on how severe the economic crisis really is. Everyone who went through the Great Depression become hard-working disciplined virtuous savers for the rest of their lives. Of course their kids turned out to be colossal fuckups, but because THEY grew up in a time of material prosperity.

On “Poulos on Taylor on Re-Structured University Education

William Brafford: "So maybe you are saying that studying under someone isn’t an end in itself, but rather a means to participating autonomously in the various conversations that comprise the humanities, and moreover it’s no longer the only possible means to that end and possibly not even the best means. And you’re taking James to mean that studying under someone is an end in itself, which you find to be delusional?"

Yes. That was a very clear formulation, thank you.

It may also be my bias that I think "apprenticing" yourself to any thinker, no matter how brilliant or great, is debasing and contrary to the spirit of intellectual inquiry. Learning from them, yes. But in my mind "apprentice" connotes a sense of submission, whereby the master authoritatively "transmits" his doctrine to you and you more-or-less passively accept it. That's not a bad thing in, say, medicine--actually is a very good thing! I wouldn't want a third year medical student to go around inventing new surgical procedures. But the humanities/epistme are fundamentally different from tradeskills/techne. And the most important thing is to think for yourself--to figure out your own interpretations, your own philosophy, and ultimately your own values and what kind of meaningful life you want to life. We look to great works and thinkers and events of the past for guidance and wisdom, but ultimately we have to carve that path forwards on our own. The Shakespeare critic or the Buddhist priest or Plato or even Jesus can't "transmit" that kind of human self-knowledge. That's something everyone needs to discover for themselves.

Re: Katherine: I agree the average person will not be exposed (or rather, will not expose themselves) to a wide variety of intellectual thought outside of the university, and for that reason among others it is a very good thing that we have universities. However, the question I'm raising is whether the process of "highest education" (that is, the pursuit of intellectual and spiritual truth as an end in itself) must take place in the university or within the context of an "apprentice-master" relationship. I am sorry it seemed like I was attacking the university itself or attacking the role of teachers/mentors or attacking the handing over of wisdom from generation to generation. My first post wasn't very clear. But I don't mean to do any of those things.

Re: Max: I suppose we can say that formal education is necessary but not sufficient for true intellectual inquiry. Obviously people need to know how to read and so forth, and hopefully also have a basic knowledge base of some sort. They need a “tradeskill” in the topics of the conversation. But I really question whether a person could not understand Shakespeare without guidance. I think your typical college graduate or smart high-school student (without a background in literature) could go to the library and read his plays without too much trouble. Then if they want to learn more they could go on the internet and visit various Shakespeare websites and read the millions of words of commentary published on Shakespeare, and through that commentary perhaps branch out to other playwrights or novelists or philosophers or what have you. Then he could reflect deeply on all that he’s read. It’s not clear to me that this self-directed process of learning would be inferior to a more formal education through the university.

I agree humanities learning takes place through dialogue and conversation. However, again, the question is whether that conversation needs to take place in a structured formal setting. I argue not, especially not for “highest learning.” Lectures are easily replaced by higher-quality books; discussions can be replicated on the internet, also at a higher level of quality. I suppose a great mentor is hard to find by yourself. William Brafford’s example of the Shakespeare critic is a good one. Of course that depends on you living next to the critic’s university, being able to get in, to afford it, having the time to attend, etc. Not exactly a very likely set of circumstances. Realistically speaking most of the great thinkers we wrestle with are either dead or inaccessible. But even assuming a mentor all he can do is guide you and prod you in this or that direction of inquiry. It’s still up to you to actually make the inquiry, to read the relevant criticism and history on Shakespeare yourself, and then reflect deeply on that reading. What I am arguing is that really learning philosophy, literature, history, etc.—the process of “highest education--is an INHERENTLY autodidactic process. It is a process of doing a lot of reading, doing a lot of reflecting on what you read, and talking with other people (dead or alive) about your reflections. For a very long time that process was only possible in universities, because that was literally the only place where the books were, or where the scholars were. But that’s not true now. Almost all published material, anywhere, is available to almost everyone in the world for almost free. If they want it.

On “Let’s not call it exceptionalism.

but why call your project exceptionalism at all? That's such a loaded word with too much baggage. It would be like if I wanted to call isolationism "exceptionalism," you know, like shogun Japan, and then advocate for this new concept of "isolationist exceptionalism." But that would just be confusing and a lot of people wouldn't understand what i was saying. I think William's point is spot on.

going back the last thread, there's nothing wrong with striving to be better than you are, or better than other countries/societies/people. People like to be the best. That's I think a perfectly laudable goal. I also think you're right that this sort of idealistic striving is particularly important in the American context as a grounds for common identity and purpose. But in what sense is this definition of American idealism consistent with "exceptionalism" as it is understood in a historical and political sense, which doesn't involve striving so much as it does an assertion of imperial superiority? Even liberal exceptionalism always had that imperial cast to it. So I question if you couldn't just find a better word for what you mean. Like, well, progressivism (I suppose that's taken).

On “An Exceptionally Moral United States

E.D. Kain: "What you are saying seems to be that the very term “exceptional(ism/ist)” has been co-opted by what really amounts to apologists for American hawkishness. There is no shame in being fiercely proud of one’s country; there is a wide divide between nationalism or show-patriotism, and true (profound) pride in one’s homeland."

i think that a investigation of the history of the concept of exceptionalism will show that it was never in any sense "co-opted" by the hawks but in fact from the beginning always was, and always will be, a vehicle for the manifest destiny of the hawks and their pretensions to empire via military and economic conquest. It is no accident that the so-called exceptionalists have continually turned a blind eye to three centuries of domestic social injustices stretching from slavery all the way through gay rights. However they never met a war they didn't like.

I like your family metaphor for patriotism, though I prefer to analogize love and pride for country to love and pride for one's parents. However, just like it is childish to really believe your parents are objectively the best and most superior parents in every respect, as opposed to just your parents with many wonderful qualities and achievements but also flaws and mistakes, national exceptionalism is a primitive myth that ought to be discarded by civilized people.


Jaybird: "And, for the record, I think that most of your critics agree (though not in so many words). If there is a crisis in some 4th world country, the general attitude is that The US Ought To Do Something. "

I do not agree.

The underlying assumption behind trying to save the rest of the world is that by virtue of our wealth and power and just general awesomeness we have the authority (economic, political, military, moral, religious) to go around trying to reshape other societies in our superior image. Our attention is directed outward, at other people, instead of inwards, at ourselves. That is the logic of empire.

But we do not have this kind of authority. That is not a moral statement I am making, it is an empirical fact of reality. The history of the United States over the past four or five decades is one of overextension in disastrous overseas ventures of marginal utility while ignoring long festering problems at home. We were so focused on the travails and tribulations of faraway people that we forgot about putting our own house in order. The truth is that no empire in human history, not Rome, not the British and not America, has ever had the kind of unlimited power necessary to legitimately claim the mantle of god-like authority over the entire human race. We are not gods. And our imperial delusions and pretensions, just the ones of all those who came before us, can only ultimately end in disaster. The more unrecoverable blood and treasure we fling away into the ephemeral wind of empire, the less we have to take on the core problems of the home society. The last Presidential administration literally spent more time worrying about the oil sharing revenue agreement in Iraq than it did about the collapsing health care system in the United States. Empire corrodes in this fundamental way our sense of which things are truly important, and which are peripheral. And now we see the result: economic, financial, political, military, social catastrophe. In attempting to overreach our authority beyond all reasonable limit, we lost much of the authority that we actually had.

It is long past time we shed the arrogance and the delusions of exceptionalism. Not only because it is wrong, but because it's crazy and insane. we can put out as many random brush fires in the middle east or africa as we want, it won't matter, because those are simply marginal concerns of little true importance. meanwhile half of black kids don't graduate high school and the manufacturing sector outsourced itself to to the third world and we're drowning in trillions of dollars of debt and real wages have been stagnant for decades and and the banks have a death grip on the political process and our obsolete mid-20th infrastructure is crumbling and the only discernible industrial policy we have is to build a lot of tanks and fighter jets and bombs. Oh, and China and India are growing at astonishing rates. Oh, and peak oil. And climate change. and massive technological change. Forget about the rest of the world, it will be a great, defining generational challenge to just save ourselves.


Mark: okay, i apologize. I didn't read your post carefully.

That, said I still don't understand what Exceptionalism is really good for. You seem to be saying that our ideals and society are a sort of inheritance or birthright that's been passed down to us from previous generations, and it's our obligation to keep that inheritance in good shape and maybe even improve upon it. As far as that goes, I think that's right. But we can accept those obligations without asserting that they are objectively exceptional or superior ones. That's what galls me about the triumphalist America-as-hero-of-the-world narrative. Exceptionalism is fundamentally premised on an assertion that we're better than some other societies in some essentialist (as opposed to contingent) way. It defines us in relation to other countries and makes our conception of ourselves dependent on them. Thus the constant fear that random X bogeyman (Soviet Union, China, India) is going to usurp our place as the "shining city on a hill," and the constant arrogance that we somehow deserve to be, or should be, there indefinitely. You acknowledge this undercurrent of exceptionalism when you define it as, "the US government should have as a major goal to be the single most ethical government on the planet." Why *most*? Is it really so important to make it as a goal of national policy an explicit project to make ourselves *superior* to others?

Why can't we just say that we ought to try to improve ourselves and be better than we were, irrespective of what the rest of the world is doing or not doing? I suppose that way of thinking isn't very exceptional, but on the contrary very ordinary. I strongly believe everyone would be better off if we adopted it.


Mark Thompson: "If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost."

what?????? Torture is evil. It is the evilest, most intrinsically wrong thing that is imaginable. Wiping out hundreds of thousands of civilians with an atomic bomb is also incredibly evil. The fact that they are so evil is all the goddamn justification we, or anyone else, need to not do them.

that has nothing to do with whatever delusions you've cooked up in your head about the blinding greatness precious purity of America or whatever. It actually disturbs me greatly that you think one needs to be an American exceptionalist in order to be sufficiently disgusted with the direction this country took over the past decade. Simple ol' patriotism is quite enough, I think.

On “Poulos on Taylor on Re-Structured University Education

come on. Are you really comparing a medical residency with reading Shakespeare? Obviously one of those things can be done over the internet and one cannot.

To clarify, i never implied that we shouldn't have schools or universities. And I think we ought to bring back the core curriculum in the humanities that used to be a staple of an undergraduate education. What I strongly take issue with is Poulo's delusion that "highest education" in the humanities (as opposed to medicine, engineering, business, hairstyling, or any profession that demands actual tradeskills) is to be found in some sort of apprentice-teacher relationship in some university tower. That's not been true for a very long time. It's a stunning laughable contention in fact.


p.s. This might be a personal thing. Poulos is upset that a few decades from now there won't be anyplace he can go to write a dissertation of "life after Napoleon." I think it is safe to say that the rest of us will not be too upset.


poulos is a lunatic.

Why the fuck would ANYONE who's interested in the humanities want to be "transmitted" with "authoritative knowledge"? And to actually PAY for the right to be "transmitted" to? Who the fuck would do that?

Maybe in the 11th century AD. You know, before printing, or libraries, or cars, or the internet. And back when Aristotle and Aquinas (and Jesus, of course) were considered deities whose sacred texts would be "transmitted" from generation to generation within the select esoteric elite. But NOW? Any kid can log on to a computer for free and literally have every major religious, philosophical, and literary text ever written at his fingertips, plus massive encyclopedias, plus endless commentaries and explanations of those texts, plus communities of people devoted to their study. It's all there, if he wants it. But there is no "transmission." Because the kid is in control. He doesn't study "under" anyone; rather, he's self-educating himself, he's thinking for himself, drawing on whatever sources interest him. No knowledge is authoritative, but all is contingent and incomplete. It is up to the kid to decide for himself what he wants to learn. THAT is the fulfillment of the true promise of an education in the humanities. There is no gatekeeper anymore, nor would there be any point to one. The internet's democratization of information is the final stake in the heart of the obsolete apprentice-teacher model. What was once open only to the select (the university) is now open to the masses.

of course Poulos, being a lunatic, actually thinks this is a bad thing.

On “Ladies and gentlemen…

i wonder what they really say.

On “the Web has a lot less to teach the print media than you think

wow, fast response.

you should do another post on the way forward for journalism, i'd love to hear your thoughts. I don't think the situation is as pessimistic as you make it out to be. On the national level there are basically only 5 or so U.S. papers that do serious investigative journalism and all of them are hugely famous brands that will be able to survive the coming newspaper purge. Steve Coll's thoughts on nonprofit newspapers are well worth reading. Even now there are enough rich people out there to fund multibillion dollar endowments for the WashPost and New York Times. And this may be a pipe dream, but I always thought that universities could get into the reporting business; they already subsidize student newspapers and many of them have journalism schools. Why can't they run some papers, too? The "size" of most newspapers is, I think, somewhat illusory. Even a staff of just 5 full time reporters can do very serious and impressive work. Remember that the raw mechanics of reporting are actually far easier than they used to be, before there was the internet, blogs, email, wikipedia, etc.

Local beat reporting (a la The Baltimore Sun in Season 5 of The Wire) is a tough one and I admit it is in deep shit. David Simon has a great article about that here. I'm not sure what will replace papers like the Sun except that it's absurd and ridiculous that in a 21st century information age--when reporting is easier and less expensive than ever, and the audience for that reporting is bigger and more informed than ever--we won't be able to figure out some means or another to save the industry. I guess I'm an optimist.


newspapers have never actually made money off the print copies themselves. The $2 dollars or whatever or so they charge is nowhere near the costs of the ink, the paper, the machinery, etc. The real money comes from selling ads; it's just that when people can put classifieds for free on the internet that's a lot fucking harder to do.

I'm not sure what your beef is with the forecasts about the death of print newspapers when, of course, those forecasts were totally right. It's true that there was no other path for newspapers to take. That was the whole point, that it was a dying industry made obsolete by technological change. But we don't care about newspapers (or at least we shouldn't). We care about reporting. While the newspaper executives were running around like cockroaches with their heads cut off, the journalists should have been trying to figure out to save investigative reporting in a world where exposes of a secret CIA torture program are no longer subsidized by T magazine and Sunday Styles. That's a conversation that's only just starting now, years late.

yes, there's schadenfreude. There are people dancing on the graves of the newspapers. I am personally one of them. It's sad that good, wonderful and important reporters are losing their jobs. But the reality is that there were never that many of them. For the last few decades the vast majority of newspapers have been a colossal failure. They chased easy profits instead of doing the hard reporting of challenging power or investigating the deep social corruption which (it should be clear to all now) has brought this country to the brink of economic, political, and moral collapse. This is especially true for the the crappy local papers that have folded so far. When the New York Times goes bankrupt (as it well may) that'll be a whole different story. But the Seattle Post-Intelligencer? A hollow corporate product stuffed full of stories stolen from the wire services, useless sports coverage, and douchebag right-wing columnists? Good fucking riddance. The death of the corporate MSM media may be the best thing that ever happened to real journalism.

On “Jindal: debt is bad when we say it is

jindal is to obama as Shia Leabouf is to Optimus Prime. just not, not in the same league.

if he's the best the Republicans have to offer we might as well just call the 2012 election now.

On “I, troll

points well taken. One possible response: we interact with different kinds of people on the internet that we wouldn't normally know IRL. I'm not convinced that if this guy met you at a bar and started talking to you about his adventures at Wal-Mart, you wouldn't call bullshit on him there, too. Another response: it's true that people behave differently on the internet than in other situations, but that's a good thing. We should make those social distinctions--it'd be weird if I interacted with my boss, my mom, the President of the United States, that girl I'm hitting on, etc. all in the same way. Similarly our conversations on the internet have their own conversations-on-the-internet-specific norms, which are different from the norms of a face to face chat, or an academic symposium. That doesn't make your internet persona "fake," anymore than your work persona or your high-school-buddy persona is fake. It's just a different social space. Response three: let's not generalize the internet. I behave totally differently on LOOG than I do on facebook. some of the stuff i write on facebook is incredibly, unbelievably heartfelt, things i'd never say IRL, even to the same people. LOOG is more like an philosophy deathmatch arena--the point is to wrestle with the Big Issues, right?-- and i don't mind being rude if that's what's called for.

On “incoherent blockbusters and the Dark Knight

yeah, and extreme aggression about movies, books or music too :)

maybe i shouldn't have used CAPS. Some clarification: i don't disagree with your list of the plot holes (besides the "supervillain defense" i mounted above). it's still not clear to me how TDK is in any way more of an incoherent blockbuster than, say, Return of the King, which won Best Picture. my point about one-dimensional people is not about TDK but real life.

still buddies, a'right?


p.p.s. i (mostly) second James' post above.

p.p.p.s. the fact that you think people like joker don't exist (that is, that one-dimensional people don't exist) is pretty shocking to me. the unrealistic part of the joker character is his talent, NOT his mind.


the joker is no more (or less) unrealistic than Batman. no, a normal bad guy couldn't pull off the stunts the Joker pulls. that's why he's a supervillain. That's why his adversary is a guy who drives around in a 500 million dollar car beating up criminals with his hands. I don't think you realize in what dangerous territory you're in here, freddie. You are questioning not just bad plotting but the foundational premise of all superhero stories from the Illiad to the Matrix. do you really wanna go there man?

p.s. the Dark Knight was AWESOME.

On “Same Sex Marriage and Nomenclature

i haven't followed your posts on gay marriage closely so sorry if you've laid this all out before. But would you support doing away with government-sanctioned marriage altogether? Replace with "civil unions" that are the legal equivalent, except broadened to include every type of human relationship--so if me and my bachelor pad roommates want to enter a civil union and get hospital visitation rights, we can do that. Eliminate tax breaks and only allow one designated person to have access to traditional monetary benefits. If necessary, impose certain costs (i.e. a license fee) on the civil union contract to prevent abuse.

basically the idea is to detach the concept of family from outdated notions of gender and genetics.

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