Explaining Academia: Conversion Experience

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, formerly Pope Benedict XVI, likes to tell a story from Jewish tradition.  When the Enlightenment was in full swing, the story goes, a young man full of evangelical fervor for the new learning set out to argue with an old, distinguished rabbi.  When he burst through the rabbi’s door, the young man found the old man pacing around the room, reading a book and deep in meditation.  As the young man was about to launch into his harangue, the rabbi merely glanced at him, held up a finger, and said “yes yes, but… what if it’s true after all?”  He then went back to pacing the room while the young man, stunned, sank to his knees from the force of sudden doubt.

ComputerNerd_062513-617x416Y’all need to understand that the vast majority of people inside the academic-industrial complex have been there their entire lives.  For most of them, this is one of the keys to their entire psychology.  Unlike the young man in Ratzinger’s story, they’ve never met the rabbi.  They’ve never had any doubts.  They’ve never heard the other side’s argument.  Indeed, they are metaphysically certain the other side doesn’t actually have an argument, just a collection of prejudices.

I know that seems difficult to accept.  But think about your own college days, if you had them.  If your college experience was what all the brochures say it is — you know, with the glorious rainbow of diversity on the front cover and the attentive students in intimate classrooms — you probably did experience a whole variety of new viewpoints.  But for the vast majority of us, I’d wager, we pretty much hung out with like-minded people, pretty much all the time.  Stoners hung out with stoners, party kids hung out with party kids, pre-med guys did…. whatever the hell they did for all those hours in the library while the rest of us were partying and smoking out, and comp-sci guys spanked it alone in their rooms.

Professors did that, too.  Only they were the ones who actually showed up to those weird club meetings advertised at the most obscure corners of the notice board at the student union.  And then they went to grad school, which is basically one of those club meetings 24/7/365.  And then they became professors, whose paycheck, lifestyle, and very identity depends on being in that club.  So where are they going to get exposed to contrary perspectives?  At work?  Most people don’t talk politics at work, but for professors, work is politics, and vice versa.  Through the internet?  We all know that the internet just reinforces preconceived ideas (not to mention making us objectively dumber) — think of all the clowns who are still out there in this, anno domini 2015, claiming that Obama grew the economy, cut taxes, and shrunk the deficit.

Surely they’re not going to get it from their intellectual pursuits.  I touched on this in the “Radicalism” post, but Theodore Dalrymple says it so much better, with such biting irony:

According to [leftwing intellectual George Lakoff] people view the world through the lens of their metaphors, which he thinks provide them with the framework of their thought. Since the 1980s, liberals have allowed conservative metaphors to take over their own metaphoric framework, so that all discussions or arguments about social policy are carried out on conservative terms. Liberals waste their time and effort in arguing from the evidence (conservatives, of course, can have no evidence); they should instead be working to get conservatives to accept a different metaphoric framework.

Note the bit in parentheses — indeed, conservatives can have no evidence, because Lakoff’s theory is explicitly designed to deny them any.  Stripped of all its polysyllabic mumbo-jumbo, Lakoff’s “frames” idea simply states that liberals have evidence, conservatives have rhetoric.

In other words: Conservatives are suffering from “false consciousness,” which is what leftists have been saying since the middle of the Nineteenth fuckin’ Century. The phrase itself comes from Georg Lukács and his apes, Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse, but the idea has been central to Marxism from the start.  I want y’all to take every word in this next sentence 100% literally: Marxists know their beliefs are the objective, scientific truth.  When Marx writes about capital-H History requiring this or that, he really means it — there is an anthropomorphic Force out there called History, and it has conscious designs, and things will unfold just as Marx says they will.  The fact that it hasn’t all gone according to plan isn’t due to a flaw in Marx’s theory — remember, it’s not a “theory,” it’s stone-cold scientific fact — but because some other Force has gotten in the way.  Just as the cult leader’s prayers have kept the world from ending on the exact date he specified, so “false consciousness” has impeded — but not cancelled! — the inevitable glorious revolution.

Again: I am NOT kidding.  Yes, this is infantile.  Yes, this “argument” has more holes than Swiss cheese, and more stolen bases than Rickey Henderson.  Yes, these people are doing exactly what they accuse bitter clingers of doing, and yes, they damn sure know it.  Because yes, this is a religious dogma, full stop, and they damn well know that, too.

Consider what that means.  Think what would happen if they actually met the rabbi, like the young man in Ratzinger’s story.  We’re not told what happened to him, but it’s easy to imagine it.  His whole life would have to change.  Maybe he didn’t become a believer — that ambiguity is one of the wonderful things about the tale — but he most definitely would have to reorient his entire life.  He’d doubtless lose all his friends.  How could he stand to be around them, with their dogmatic certainty, and their unshakeable belief in their own superior intellects?  How could they stand to be around him, a brilliant young scholar who couldn’t even handle a superstitious old crank?  He’d have to leave town, change jobs, and maybe even change his name, lest the tattered remnants of his once-brilliant reputation shame him wherever he went….

That’s IF they ever met the rabbi, mind you.  Most of them don’t, and never will, and everything about their daily existence is designed to make sure they won’t.

And that, my friends, is another reason profs believe their own bullshit.

Explaining Academia: Apologia

In case you’re wondering, this is why I write these things.

Every so often, a liberal tells the truth.  It’s rare, but it happens.  It’s wonderously rare that a liberal is actually right about something… but again, it happens every once in a blue moon.  Jonathan Chait just had one of those moments:

But it would be a mistake to categorize today’s p.c. culture as only an academic phenomenon. Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

[The link is from Ace of Spades, by the way].

The stuff I’m giving you in the “Explaining Academia” series may be new to you (and if it’s old hat, let me know; I’ll stop), but most of this junk has been around since the early 90s.  It has always been toxic, but in the low-tech environment of academia — and professors are the most conservative people on the planet about everything except Marxism — the pathogens were largely contained.  Thanks to grads getting on social media, as Chait writes, containment has been broken.

It was ever thus.  As I explained here, I’m wary of Religious History analogies — most people don’t know it; those that do tend to want to argue about it — but the professoriate = clergy comparison is apt.  Twitter is to “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” what the printing press was to Luther’s 95 Theses — Luther himself referred to his proposition as a dispute among monks; he was horrified by what the peasants made of his doctrines; and he urged the swift and brutal annihilation of the rebels by princes of whatever faith.

You can extend this out as far as you like, for as far as your Religious History goes.  Luther, at least, had formal training in theology.  Once John Calvin — a lawyer — got ahold of it….

In case it isn’t clear: I believe that most academics know, in their secret hearts, that what they teach is destructive, dyscivic nonsense.  That’s one of the reasons they make no effort to actually practice what they preach — the short-haired lady with the ¡Viva la Revolución! bumper sticker on her late-model Escalade would be beaten to a pulp by pissed-off campesinos should she actually drive out to the fields and canneries and slaughterhouses to harangue them about solidarity, just as the African-American Studies faculty lives in the whitest gated community they can find.  Radicalism is just a parlor game, played for fun and profit and the occasional mate-swapping opportunity.  They have no intention of letting this stuff out into the real world.

But, alas, they have no choice.  They’re not very bright, and they’re dogmatically ignorant, and so technology — which would’ve caught up to them in any case — has caught them utterly flat-footed.  Chait may not consciously know it — ignorance of basic history being liberalism’s flux capacitor — but somewhere deep down he senses what inevitably happens when doctrinal disputes spill over to the masses.  He’s getting ready to bolt, and with this article, he’s alerting the more socially attuned rabbits that the wolf is just over the horizon.

Explaining Academia: Some Kinds of Monsters

Another part of the answer to “why do profs believe their own bullshit?” lies in the realm of group psychology.  We could use a few different metaphors here.  We could say it’s kinda like Reverse Stockholm Syndrome — you can force kids to parrot your opinions back to you as if they were facts, and if you do that long enough, you lose sight of the fact that they are opinions.  Or we could liken life in a college town to a cult’s milieu control — the College Republicans have about three members, everyone knows what “ayurvedic” means, and you have to go to the supermarket in another town to get milk that comes from cows.

Or we could talk about Metallica.


Back in 2003, the heavy metal band Metallica was struggling with the creative process.  Their longtime bassist had just left / been driven out of the band, and they were forced to audition a new member while writing a new album, dealing with their lead singer’s crippling alcoholism, and battling burnout.  So their management team called in a shrink, “performance-enhancing coach” Phil Towle, to help them resolve their issues and get on with the record.  Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were also on hand, documenting the whole thing.  Their film, Some Kind of Monster, was released in 2004.

Go watch it.  You’ll understand academia a whole lot better.

You’ll notice, for instance, that the members of Metallica are in their 40s, and have been full-time professional rock musicians since they were 18.  But not just any rock musicians.  To this day, Metallica pretty much is heavy metal — the film’s opening title card says they’ve sold nearly 100 million records, and I’d bet they’re still one of the few, if not the only, heavy metal bands most people could name off the tops of their heads.

It’s not just a job, in other words.  It’s an identity.  Garth Brooks has sold more records than anyone, including Elvis and the Beatles, but nobody apes his style.  Hell, I’d be willing to bet most people couldn’t pick Garth Brooks out of a police lineup.

That's why he wears the hat

That’s why he wears the hat

Again: this man has outsold Elvis, but you could easily find yourself shooting the shit with him on line at the DMV and be none the wiser.  But anyone can recognize a metalhead…. and Metallica is largely responsible for that.

So…. what do you do when your entire identity involves teenage rebellion, but you’re no longer a teenager?  When you are, in fact, middle-aged, and worth a small nation’s GDP?  The members of Metallica haven’t had the kind of problems their fans have since about 1986, but their entire lives are centered around acting as if they do.  It’s a fascinating train wreck of a conundrum, and you can watch it all unfolding.

Singer James Hetfield used to compensate with alcohol — he supposedly drank a bottle of Jagermeister a night for years — and his decision to get sober causes much of the film’s tension.  Drummer Lars UIrich (of Napster infamy) has a very, very, very expensive art collection — one controversial scene shows him making about $7 million in a half an hour auctioning part of it off at Christie’s — but he doesn’t seem to know the first thing about art.  Guitarist Kirk Hammett comes off as the normal, well-adjusted one, and he once said (in a scene that didn’t make the movie, alas) that coming home from touring feels like having PTSD, because now he has to do things like take out the trash.  Ulrich and Hetfield were best men at each others’ weddings, but they hardly seem to even know each other, let alone actually like each other.  It’s bizarre.

Again, this is a metal band.  These guys aren’t intellectual giants (though Ulrich certainly seems to think he is).  But their world is so different from everyone else’s, and their lives are so caught up in a particular identity that MUST not chage, that the only real parallel is… academia.

Think about it.  What could you even talk to James Hetfield about?  Work?  He’s never done anything remotely like a 9-5 job, so how could he relate to yours?  And if you ask him about his, well, that’s an interview, and that’s part of the job, too.  He doesn’t have any hobbies.  How could he?  He was either playing music, writing music, or getting blitzed his whole adult life.  Relationships?  His wife was Metallica’s costume designer, and I’m willing to bet you’ve never nailed even one anonymous groupie. Kids?  Sports?  Movies?  I’m sure rock stars do those things, but not in the normal way.  You’re just a fan in the stands.  He’s James Hetfield, the Metallica guy, and “being James Hetfield” has been his real job for three decades.

Professors aren’t rock stars, of course, but there’s one very important parallel — their identities are their jobs, in ways we can’t really grasp.  I don’t have to pretend to be intellectually omnicompetent to do my day job, and I don’t get pointed out on the street.  People aren’t weirded out when they see me at a bar or run into me at the grocery store.  If you’re a prof in a college town, though, that kind of thing happens.  A lot.  You can never just kick back and be yourself, the way James Hetfield can’t just kick back and be himself.  You’re always “Professor So-and-So,” the way he’s always “The Metallica Guy.”

untitledWhich brings us to this dude.  The guy in the Cosby sweater is Phil Towle, the shrink Metallica’s management brought in to help them get St. Anger recorded.  Now, if the Metallica guys were to ask me to take a crack at their dysfunction, I’d say something like “Y’all are profoundly fucked-up individuals.  A lot of that isn’t your fault, but a lot of it is.  The first thing you have to figure out is, why are you recording this in the first place?  Do you even want to be a rock band anymore?  And if not — and I suspect not — you’ve got to find some other identity for yourselves.  You know, husband, father, art critic… that kind of thing.  Get some hobbies and interests that don’t involve smashing guitars and screaming about killing people.”

Towle doesn’t do any of that.  Instead, he teaches them a new way to communicate: In psychobabble cliches.  They’re still putting on the same victim role that got them to this point (in both the positive and negative senses), but now they’re verbalizing it like freshmen at a mandatory sexual harassment seminar.  And an interesting thing happens — the more Metallica starts to sound like Towle, the more Towle starts to sound like Metallica.  At one point he’s even suggesting lyrics for a new song, and there’s a scene where the musicians discuss the proper way to let him know he’s not really in the band.

What you’ve got, in other words, is four people with no real identity cloaking themselves with fifty-cent words.  Towle doesn’t know what he’s doing any more than Metallica does, but they’re all damn sure it’s big and important and meaningful, because they describe it with words like “paradigm.”

Sound familiar?

There’s one last scene that’s worth mentioning.  At the end of the film, Metallica auditions three or four guys for their new bassist.  Most of them have sufficiently metal pedigrees, but one dude — long-haired and tattooed like the rest — lists his main credential as “Alanis Morissette.”

You oughtta know her....

You oughtta know her….

Obviously a gig’s a gig to a working musician, right?  Playing bass on songs like “Isn’t it Ironic” pays the bills, no doubt.  But…. this guy’s auditioning for Metallica.  The greatest, biggest, most genre-defining metal band of all time.  And they’re perfectly ok with it.  He doesn’t get the gig, but they’re just as happy jamming with him as with the other guys from hardcore acts.  They can relate to him, because gigging is about the only thing they can relate to.  Being on the Jagged Little Pill tour gives him far more in common with the guys who wrote Kill ‘Em All than any normal person could ever have.

That’s the weird, hermetically-sealed little world of academia in a nutshell.

Explaining Academia: Egghead Economics

Another part of the answer to “why do profs believe their own bullshit?” has to do with how compensation works in the ivory tower.  Let’s talk $$$.

In my experience — so, yeah, this is anecdotal, but I have a lot of anecdotes — most professor types have no real world work experience.  Zero, zilch, zip, nada.  For the ones who didn’t go straight from high school to college to grad school to academia, the only brief stop on the tour was a resume-padding year or two at a nonprofit, or the Peace Corps, or Teach for America, or some such nonsense.

In other words: For these people, money has only ever come from one of two places

  1. Daddy; or
  2. The Government.

Is it any wonder why they have a hard time distinguishing between the two?  Having no experience with capitalism, it’s no surprise they don’t know the first thing about it.

monopoly guyNor can they get any experience with it in their “jobs,” even if they wanted to, because academic “work” by its nature lacks metrics.  Everyone who has ever sat through a corporate quality-control spiel (or followed a pro sports draft) hates the word “measurables,” but it’s a damn handy concept.  They’re an objective standard that’s used to determine compensation.  Academics don’t have those.

How could they?  Most jobs have actual outputs — mechanics have “cars fixed;” doctors have “patients cured;” even phone jockeys have “customers serviced.”  If it helps, think of professors like middle managers in a call center.  The phone monkeys* have to answer X number of calls a day, or per hour, or whatever, and that’s how you can tell how well they’re doing.  But how do you measure the managers?

Profs, of course, do have one “measurable” — papers published — and tenure committees rely on it almost exclusively.  But how much work goes into one of those things, and what’s the ratio between work hours and cash money?  For real-world jobs, the calculation is pretty easy — each phone call taken in X time is worth $5; each fan belt changed in X time is worth $15; a cured cold is worth $50; etc.  Obviously I’m oversimplifying the compensation process quite a bit, but we all understand that there’s at least some math in play, and that the ratios are at least kinda reasonable — even the best customer service guy in the history of the world isn’t going to get paid $500,000 a year to do it, and even the world’s worst (competent) doc isn’t going to work for $7.50 an hour.**

In other words, working joes understand that a direct, at-least-theoretically measurable relationship exists between “time spent using one’s job skills” and “the size of one’s paycheck.”  Academics don’t.

sQzKNnLet’s look at it from the back end. (I know, I know, I really should stop that).  Instead of trying to figure out how much work goes into getting a paper published, let’s start at the beginning, and measure, if we can, all the work that goes into getting into position to publish in the first place.  Let’s look at the becoming-a-professor process, and see if we can’t put a dollar figure on that.

First you have to go to graduate school, in which you have three interrelated objectives

  1. Finish your coursework
  2. Pass your comprehensive exams
  3. Write your thesis

Coursework, at least, has a number attached to it.  Most Humanities PhDs end up taking somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-100 credit hours’ worth of courses, split up between core courses in a specific field, ancillary requirements like foreign languages, and “thesis hours” for writing (these count as credit hours even though you don’t actually attend class in most cases).  An “hour” is exactly that – one credit hour equals one hour of your butt in a classroom chair.

In other words, getting your PhD requires about as much classroom time as a tough work week out in the real world, but spread out over five or six years.  Are you starting to see the problem?

It’s not all butt-in-seat, of course.  But that’s where things start getting really fuzzy.  A typical humanities course is a 3-hour seminar which meets once a week.  The typical workload — “homework,” if you will — is reading a book each week, plus writing a 2-3 page response paper on that book (in theory, you spend the three seminar hours talking about issues raised by the book, and all the books tie together in a comprehensive overview of the subject).  There’s also the “seminar paper,” anywhere from 15-50 pages of original work on the class’s topic.

Go ahead and monetize that for me.  How fast do you read?  How well do you write?

Comprehensive exams and theses/dissertations have no hours attached.  They can’t.  A comp exam, in theory, tests the depth and breadth of your knowledge of a subject area, and that’s what those “response papers” are for (if you do it right, they’re all the study notes you need).  Similarly, “seminar papers” should feed into your thesis, which does require a lot of additional research and writing in most cases.

All in all, it is — or, at least, can be — a lot of work.  Problem is, it isn’t compensated work.  All that is preliminary to getting hired, at which point you now have two completely contradictory objectives:

  1. Teach class; and
  2. Perform — and publish!– original research.

Your paycheck bears no relationship to either of these.  Good teachers — as measured by student evals and the occasional classroom visit — don’t get salary bumps.  You won’t get tenure if you don’t publish, but you don’t get comped for your research and writing time in any routinely-measurable way.***  How could you?  Most research, lab sciences most definitely included, is a dead end.  You could luck into the exact thing you need your first day, or spend months wading through stuff and never find it at all (this is why R&D budgets are such massive sunk costs, and why so many tech companies have effectively outsourced all their R&D to the universities).  The only thing that matters is that you publish.

Everybody with me?  Input bears no quantifiable relationship to output.  Indeed, the only professorial activity that might kinda sorta have a mathematically identifiable relationship with your bank account is grading papers, and — here’s the kicker — you did the exact same thing to pay the bills back in grad school, for about 10x less pay.

Such cute little proletarians

What a deal, right?

The point, again, is that you have no idea what your labor is actually worth.  Neither quantity nor quality of man-hours worked has any easily identifiable relationship with your paycheck.  Nor does the quality of the product determine compensation, because how could it?  Free markets are great, but how much are Friedrich Hayek’s ideas worth?  What’s a fair market rate for three hours of, say, Tom Sowell’s cogitations?  Even published papers, the sine qua non of academia, don’t operate according to market principles — you don’t get paid to publish articles, and nobody gets rich writing academic books.  There’s no market, in other words, and so nobody ever has to say “no, no, my thoughts are far too valuable to sell to your journal at that price; double your offer or I’m going to the next publisher.”

And yet.. professors do get paid.  Handsomely.  And they’re lavishly compensated in other ways, too, as our friends at Harvard have so thoughtfully illustrated for us.  And that’s why Sowell’s definition of an “intellectual” (which is a pretty good tl;dr summary of this post, incidentally) is “one whose ‘work’ begins and ends with ideas.”

So let’s bring it all together.  You’re actually paid pretty well, but you have no idea that you’re actually paid pretty well, because “pay” isn’t really a thing in your world.  Money has always kinda just, you know, appeared, in the form of Daddy’s allowance, or student loans, or research grants, or your university paycheck, which you get for…. doing… .stuff.  Sort of.  You’ve never had the experience of asking for a raise, or negotiating a contract, or selling a product in an open market (indeed, there’s such a glut of PhDs relative to jobs available that turning down a job offer is almost unheard of; you take what the college offers and thank your lucky stars you got it).

Come at it from that perspective, and so many ivory tower attitudes start to make sense.  Why shouldn’t the minimum wage be $25 per hour?  Why shouldn’t there be a “maximum wage,” and why shouldn’t we just confiscate the “excess” money from “the rich”?  Why shouldn’t “health care” be “free”?  And why do our taxes keep going up, the more we vote on lavish government spending?



*No offense to phone monkeys.  I’ve been one.

**Obviously my comments apply to the liberal arts only.  Lab science professors tend to be leftists, too, but I have no idea why.  They work in very different conditions, and their work is testable, replicable, and often results in patents, some of which are quite lucrative indeed.  I have no idea how they get infected with the Social Justice Virus.

***Typically, you have to apply for “research grants,” usually from the Feds (further reinforcing the Government = Daddy equation).  The problems outlined in the rest of that paragraph still apply — you might get a grant for $5000, find exactly what you need on the first day, and bank the rest.  Or you might blow the whole wad and find nothing.  Grant size has no relationship, in other words, to even the amount of work you do, much less its quality.


Explaining Academia: Jargon

Nate Winchester asks

Will the next part in the series be an explanation for when/how the professors go from doing the job, to actually believing in their own BS?

To which I replied that a full answer is beyond my ken, as I’m not a developmental psychologist.  I was only half kidding — the dictum that “liberalism is the lifelong effort to make high school turn out right” nears Platonic perfection in the ivory tower.  But I can offer at least a partial explanation, and it has to do with jargon.

Or, if you prefer, esotericism.  I’m using “jargon” here in the pejorative sense, like when you go to the emergency room and some know-it-all young resident rattles off a bunch of portentous Latin at you.  “You’ve sustained a transverse fracture of the fourth metacarpal with dorsal angulation” instead of “you broke your hand.”  But it doesn’t have to be pejorative.  “You broke your hand” works for most people, but the injury described is also known as a “boxer’s break,” and if you actually are a martial artist, you need to know that, since you’ll need to lay off certain specific activities longer.  And if you’re a professional martial artist, and you’re going under the knife, the surgeon will definitely need to know both the type (transverse) and location (4th metacarpal) of the fracture.  Jargon, then, can be not only useful, but necessary.

indexEsotericism, on the other hand, is jargon that’s designed to baffle the uninitiated.  It’s not bad in itself, necessarily — as any number of horror stories have shown, you don’t want the demon-summoning instructions just sitting out on the coffee table — but in most cases its true function is to preserve the priesthood in power.  Think Scientology.  Who would ever join if they hit you with the Galactic Overlord Xenu stuff straight out of the gate?  You need to master a formidably dense array of technical terms (and, not coincidentally, pay a whole shitload of money) before you get to the sci-fi.

This, when you come down to it, is jargon’s primary purpose within the ivory tower.  To be able to critique, say, radical feminism — and I really can’t recommend McCain’s series enough — you need to understand what they’re saying.  And that can be a full-time job.  For instance, McCain quotes this juicy bit of lunacy

“Far from being ‘natural,’ phallic sexuality is a moral and political activity. . . . Men’s sexual behaviour is not caused by hormonal dictates. It is because the penis serves the ideological function of symbolizing ‘human’ status that it is so heavily charged with erotic energy, and not because it is driven by testosterone. Men must keep using it because they need to keep proving that they exist, that their ‘humanity’ is inextricably entwined with penis-possession; women must be constantly used by it to prove that men exist, that the sum total of a man is his penis. . . . Anything and everything must be subordinated to penile activity if men are to be what phallic ideology requires them to be.”

Believe it or not, this would qualify as straightforward prose in the ivory tower.  Very little of it is coded.  In the vulgate, this passage says that men stick their dicks in women because the only way men know they exist is through the act of dick-sticking.  If you’re not actually pumping and thrusting at the present moment, fellas, you aren’t really real.

If you’re not actually doing that, guys, please go find a vagina — stat! — so that we can continue.  Ladies, please be patient…. Everybody back?  Ok.

Let’s observe a few things about this passage, starting with the bolded terms.  Decoding the jargon, we get this:

Phallic sexuality implies that there are other kinds of sexuality — vaginal sexuality, for instance, and I suppose oral and anal sexuality, too (sorry for being crude, y’all, but it’s really unavoidable when you’re talking about this stuff…which is also one of the functions of jargon).  Which I suppose is true enough, if you take it in a “natural” sense — men and women have evolved quite different mating styles, as a brief scan through a thoughtful “game” blog will show you….

But Thompson, our author, specifically denies that she’s talking about biology.  That’s why “natural” is in quotation marks up there.  Instead, she claims that “phallic sexuality” — for which we’ll read “masculinity” — is moral and political.  Those terms are so overused in academia as to be nearly meaningless, but they still have an important implication: That all of this — by which, again, I mean masculinity — is conscious and voluntary.  (Nobody is unconsciously political, or moral on autopilot).  In other words, I don’t see this

aliceevestartrekintodarand automatically feel a rush of hormones.  I have to decide that I find this woman attractive, and the thought “gosh, I sure would like to have sex with her!” isn’t mental shorthand for all the chemical stuff going on in my gonads.  That’s nature, my friends, and according to our author, it doesn’t exist.  Understood as a moral and political act, my thought — “gosh, I sure would like to have sex with her!” — is incomplete, and therefore meaningless.  It needs to be followed with “because that would prove, to me (and, coincidentally, to her) that I exist.”

No, I’m not kidding.  Go back and read it again.

What we’re talking about, then, is ideology, which in academese means “moralized politics.”  This is one reason why communication across the political divide can be so tough.  For conservatives, “ideology” means “set of first principles.”  So, we can say things like “free markets are a part of our ideology” and mean nothing more than “we are convinced that free markets produce better results than the alternatives.”  But leftists use the academic definition.  For them, “ideology” is always mixed up with morality, so when they hear “I believe in free markets,” they also hear “because I hate the poor / favor increased inequality / fuck minorities.”

And then there’s this:

 It is because the penis serves the ideological function of symbolizing ‘human’ status that it is so heavily charged with erotic energy, and not because it is driven by testosterone.

Let’s contemplate that for a sec.  Pretend this is a freshman dorm, and it’s two in the morning, and we’ve all had a few bong rips.  What does signal “human status,” anyway?  Like, with animal rights and stuff.  Surely a healthy chimpanzee has a higher quality of life than a comatose human with irreparable brain damage?  Anything you can say about the chimp to deny it its rights — it doesn’t have moral sensibilities, it doesn’t have political responsibilities — can also be said of Brain-Dead Brad, no?

I’m not trying to be cute or facile, y’all.  I really want you to think about it.  What makes you human?  And then contemplate Thompson’s answer: Having a dick.  According to her, one is only human — one is only a conscious, political agent — if one has a penis.

Again, I’m not kidding.  Read the passage again.  Tell me how that doesn’t follow from what she wrote.

But wait.  Notice the underlined term it.  What does that mean?  This pronoun is used five times in this short passage, and every time it means — or, at least, could mean — something different.  Or it could mean nothing.  The word first appears in the sentence I just quoted, where it refers to… what, exactly?  The ellipses don’t help (the sentence McCain left out reads: “Men do have a choice and they can be held to account when they exercise their freedom to choose at women’s expense”).  So no help there, because the very next sentence is all about the penis being charged with erotic energy.  And then “it” appears again in the next sentence, not being driven by testosterone.  I think she’s referring to the dick there, but I’m not willing to put money on it.

And that’s the one of the purposes of the words “charged” and “erotic energy.”  If you don’t know what those mean — and there’s no way to tell from the quoted passage — then it’s very hard to follow the pronoun shifts.  Are we still talking about the “human status” that is supposedly signaled by the penis?  Is it the penis which is somehow charged with this mysterious erotic energy (but not plain ol’ testosterone, which you can see in a test tube)?  Or are we still in the realm of “ideology”?

From thence, this:

Men must keep using it because they need to keep proving that they exist, that their ‘humanity’ is inextricably entwined with penis-possession; women must be constantly used by it to prove that men exist, that the sum total of a man is his penis

On the surface, the first part of the sentence is a straightforward — though crazy — ontological and epistemological claim.  Men only know (epistemology) that they exist (ontology) through the act of dick-usage.  But, again, what is the “it” which is being used?  The penis?  Phallic sexuality?  Ideology?  Human status?  Or the mere symbol of human status, which is coextensive with, but not identical to, a penis?

The part after the semicolon only adds to the confusion.  Again, what is the “it” that is constantly using women?  And no matter what value we assign to “it,” Thompson seems to be claiming that men actually cease to exist — that they actually blink in and out of existence like quarks — if they’re not fucking.

Right?  I mean…. right?

And here’s where you see the usefulness of jargon, in all its glory.  Because you could, of course, read Thompson’s statement as an at least somewhat reasonable — though stridently and clumsily expressed — comment on our society.  Are men who can’t get laid subject to all kinds of social ostracism?  You know, omega males and all that?  And at least some part of attractiveness is culture-bound, right?  I mean, I find this chick smokin’ hot

belly-dancers-23abut Rubens would no doubt find her scrawny and malnourished.  It’s not all hormones, in other words.  And yes, I do have a choice not to leer at her, just like I could choose not to re-post this

sQzKNnbecause, really, it’s just prurience, and I am objectifying her (and I am enjoying it, not least because she complains so much about being objectified).

Jargon, in other words, gives you plausible deniability.  If someone with the power to shut down Ms. Thompson’s program were to ask her “do you really believe — and teach your students — that men pop in and out of existence like quarks, depending on if they’re in the process of fucking?”, she could straight-facedly deny it.  “Of course not!  I’m just highlighting the social construction of gender.”  Followed by some UVa / Duke Lacrosse-style “fake but accurate” bullshit.

If, on the other hand, Ms. Thompson needed to play the more-radical-than-thou game — like, say, for publication or tenure purposes — then yes, men do pop in and out of existence like quarks, because the Ideology of Phallic Sexuality requires it.  “It” is a moral and political act, after all — what’s so hard to understand about that?

Ok, I'm just being a jerk now

Ok, I’m just being a jerk now

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is at least part of the reason why eggheads start to believe their own bullshit.  As I hope I’ve shown in that sentence-by-sentence analysis — and I’m sorry for putting y’all through that — it’s almost impossible to argue with this stuff.  If you don’t speak the code, it seems outlandish… but that’s probably because you don’t speak the code, right?  I mean, after all, this woman has a PhD; there’s gotta be something to it.  Maybe if you knew what “erotic energy” and “ideology” meant.  On the other hand, even if you do speak the code — and, alas, I do — you still can’t decipher it, because constantly-shifting pronouns and very careful use of the passive voice mean you’re never on firm ground.  Where the hell did this “phallic ideology” even come from in the first place?  Beats my pair of jacks…. maybe it’s somewhere else in the book, but who has time to go fishing for it?  Meanwhile, the paper’s due in two days — you better get something down, and it better be what the prof wants to hear!

Explaining Academia: Radicalism

One of the things I’m trying to do with the “Explaining Academia” series is answer a question lots of conservatives have:  Why do “intellectuals” say such baffling, stupid shit?

Sorry for the crude language, but I want to keep this fairly close to earth.  See, one of the main problems with academia is that its working assumptions are cloaked in this bizarre, nearly impenetrable idiom.  Part of that is simple ego-stroking — you have to be very, very Smart indeed to know what “heteronormativity” means! — but a lot of it isn’t.  It’s mostly a bait and switch.  If you knew just how crazy these people and their “ideas” are — that this is what the American people have taken on trillions of dollars of debt for — you’d demand that all liberal arts programs be destroyed, and the earth salted around them.

For a specific example of how it all works — be forewarned, it’s disturbing — I can’t recommend Stacy McCain’s “Sex Trouble” series enough.  He’s actually read the writings of the “gender studies” loons, and taken them at their word.  Y’all have no idea how bad it is.  I’m going to make general remarks here, because it’s not just the feminists, and they’re not the worst (they aren’t actively celebrating terrorism, for instance… unlike more than a few in the Race, Latin American, and Middle Eastern Studies departments).

don-draperIvory tower types have what marketing guys call a “product differentiation problem.”  All laundry detergents are basically the same, right?  Ditto instant coffee brands, cable providers, dental floss… basically, the more commonplace a thing is, the tougher it is to gain market share, and the greater the need for advertising.  Think of pro sports stadiums.  The New England Patriots, for instance, play in Gillette Stadium (razors).  The Steelers play on Heinz Field (ketchup).  The 49ers new field is Levi’s Stadium.  The St. Louis Cardinals play in Busch Stadium, while the Milwaukee Brewers play in Miller Park (lite beer).  The list of basically interchangeable financial-services companies that have stadiums is endless.  Or, just to stick with a theme….

danica.patrickI know, I know — the bikini pic was much better.  But you get the idea.  If any of those companies delivered a hands-down better (or even unique) product, they wouldn’t have to plaster their logo all over a cute chick.

This is academia’s problem in a nutshell.  And it’s multidimensional.  Colleges like Harvard and Yale can coast on their names.  But what distinguishes Directional Tech from Bovine University?

For the students, of course, it’s football.  No, really.  But what about inside the ivory tower?  How do academics sort and rank each other?

Not a faculty meeting, alas

Not a faculty meeting, alas

It’s a tougher problem than you might think.  For one thing, the idea that one professor can “know” more than another, and thus be “better” at professing, runs afoul of pretty much every leftwing piety there is:

  • Postmodernists deny that anyone can actually know anything
  • Feminists would call such a claim oppressive, because patriarchy
  • Blacks would would call such a claim oppressive, because racism
  • Third Worlders would call such a claim oppressive, because imperialism
  • All three groups would claim that nonwhite nonmale ways of knowing are incompatible with white male ways
  • The whole idea of hierarchy is one of the underpinnings of capitalism

Et cetera ad nauseam.  But you can’t simply duck the issue by saying all instructors are created equal, because — insults to egghead amour propre aside — education is a product like any other, and professors expect to get paid.  Yes, even the Marxist ones.*

Hence the severity of the product-differentiation problem.  As we all know, the vast majority of profs are liberals.  Well, then — how do you tell one liberal from another?  Pick any two professors with similar research interests.  Their working assumptions will be identical because their politics are identical.  Their politics are identical because, as we’ve noted, the only way to get tenure is to publish “original” research — which in practice means making everything explicitly political.  It’s not enough to simply say “here’s how some female writer uses metaphors” or “here’s some dude from the 14th century with unusual opinions.”  That’s “antiquarianism.”  To get published, one must make the explicit claim that these people matter, that, say, Aphra Behn is far more important than John Dryden, or E.D.E.N. Southworth than Nathaniel Hawthorne, because vagina.**

The only way to stand out, then, is to be More Radical Than Thou.

That’s why intellectuals say such baffling, stupid shit.  Did, say, Joyce Trebilcot really believe that a lesbian feminist society — whatever that might be — is the only “morally justifiable” one?  It doesn’t matter.  It’s obvious that such a society, were anyone foolish enough to attempt its creation, could hardly sustain itself, much less reproduce itself.  If you take more than a few steps down the road of her initial premises, you arrive at pure, shit-flinging nihilism.  And this is both true and obvious for any clever postmodern theory you can name.  Hell, it’s true for Marxism, a fact which professors themselves can’t help but know — the old tsarist “intelligentsia” were the first ones against the wall when the Bolsheviks seized power.

Truth doesn’t matter, and evidence left the building with Elvis.  The only way to get paid is to publish, and the only way to publish is to stand out.  The only way to stand out is to make ever-more-ridiculous claims about ever-more-obscure topics.  It’s all so very, very capitalist.  Don Draper would wholeheartedly approve.



*Make that, especially the Marxist ones.  As the lone conservative in any faculty lounge will tell you, the nicest car in the staff parking lot always belongs to the out-n-proud Communist.

**We’re leaving aside the obvious contradiction here, that claiming some chick writer is objectively better than a male contemporary contradicts every single liberal dogma there is.  It doesn’t have to make sense, y’all — it just has to make money.

Explaining Academia: “Social Constructions”

I urge you all to peruse the comments on Morgan’s post.  First, because of this

sQzKNnAnd then because of this:

And this makes some people [i.e. liberals] just pig-biting mad. They want to see frumpy pear-shaped women in pant suits — or, no women at all — in any position that has visibility. Ultimately, what they want to do is eradicate gender, because gender is a definition.

They’re related, I promise.

All due respect to Morgan (who along with Philmon is my blog-godfather), but he’s wrong on this.  Gender’s not a definition, and they most definitely don’t want to eradicate it.

Let’s start with that magnificent piece of ass up there.  What, is that offensive?  The lady in question sure seems to think so — she’s on record as being against “objectification.”  And yet, there she is, bent over the hood of a car in a bikini and stripper heels.

Now, normally this is where I’d write “thus proving cognitive dissonance is bullshit” (sorry, Gary).  But that’s not the case here.  What Ms. Patrick is incoherently expressing when she talks about “objectification” is what these people have drilled down to a mantra — the “social construction” of gender.

IMG_1072Sorry about the image (and that’s the last time I’ll do that to you without warning, I promise), but the premise behind both pictures is the same, and it’s important.  These young ladies aren’t objectifying themselves by writing “slut” on their chests, for the same reason Danica Patrick isn’t objectifying herself by dry-humping a Porsche — you can’t objectify yourself.


Karl Marx wrote:

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

This is Leftism’s core concept.  Without it, Leftism is nothing but the loose, self-contradictory conglomeration of petty grievances that we all know and love.  With it, those grievances cohere into dogma.

Most Leftists don’t cite this dictum of Marx’s anymore (I doubt that most of them have ever actually heard it), because it’s so obviously a Gem — we can only know what our social position allows us to know, and therefore we don’t know things as they really are.  But if you change that bit about “social being” into “social construction,” it not only sounds less Gem-like, but it even seems true.  It comes out of the realm of philosophy and into the real world.

So many of our social norms and conventions are just that, and a great deal of our behavior — almost all of it, in fact — can be reduced to either conformity with social norms, or rebellion against them.  And it’s plain as day that these change over time — If you fell out of your cradle into a time machine, for instance, and got warped back to 10th-century Scandinavia, you’d grow up a Viking, right?

Your behavior — indeed, your very identity — back then would be “socially constructed” Viking-ness, just as your identity now is socially constructed American-ness.  Capisce?

Gender works the same way.  In India, for example, male friends hold hands, and the beauty salons you see on almost every street corner are presumed to be men-only (the ones that also serve women specify “unisex”).  American men generally find this weird, just as Indian men no doubt find it weird that American men consider this

1253293349to be macho behavior.

If you understand it in that sense –and that’s how it will be presented for the first five minutes of your freshman Humanities course — it’s interesting and useful.  It explains why your great-grandma can’t balance a checkbook, why your grandpa can’t cook, why your mom and dad looked at you funny when you busted all this out for them over your first Christmas break, why you’re an American and not a Viking.

The problem, of course, is that lots of folks don’t stop there.  If it’s all a social construction (which we’re taking as read), and if society can change (as experience shows), then the potential to change people themselves is theoretically limitless.

Let’s take another example from academia.  Here’s Frankfurt Schooler Erich Fromm, trying to duck the obvious historical fact that Marxist regimes are police states:

Marx saw that political force cannot produce anything for which there has been no preparation in the social and political process. Hence that force, if at all necessary, can give, so to speak, only the last push to a development which has virtually already taken place, but it can never produce anything truly new. “Force,” he said, “is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.”  It is exactly one of his great insights that Marx transcends the traditional middle-class concept — he did not believe in the creative power of force, in the idea that political force of itself could create a new social order. For this reason, force, for Marx, could have at most only a transitory significance, never the role of a permanent element in the transformation of society.

The last sentence, which I’ve highlighted, is the crucial one.  If force is “at all necessary,” Fromm assures us, it won’t be permanent force.  Which, after all, is embedded in the concept — once you’ve sufficiently changed men’s social being, then their consciousness will be permanently altered.  You don’t have to keep breaking eggs once the omelet is made.

Notice what’s missing from that sentence, though.  Indeed, it’s missing from the whole paragraph.  Who is the subject?  Who, in other words, is doing the forcing?  Who uses the force?

19a01zcazkzh1jpgThis is the key verbal slight-of-hand of the phrase “social construction.”  When you put it in terms of force, as Fromm does, the trick becomes obvious — his essay was clearly written as an apologia for the KGB.  Construction, on the other hand, is a positive word.  And yet it, too, is active, which is why “social” is always attached to it.  Society is doing the constructing… and society, as we’ve seen, is infinitely malleable.

This phrase does two useful things for the Left.  First, and most important, it maintains that sense of plausible deniability, that carefully crafted passivity, that keeps individual Leftists from taking responsibility for their actions.  “Society” is an abstract noun, and “construction” can mean almost anything.  It allows the Left to act without fear of consequences.  Something they don’t like is “constructed,” you see… but if the specific “solution” they go to the mattresses for ends up making the problem worse, then in comes “social” to bail them out.  It’s the emotional — and moral — equivalent of the old saw about selling populist policies to dumb voters: Privatize benefits, socialize costs.

The second benefit is related to the first.  Since we can’t define “society” (or, really, “construction”) this phrase allows the Left to be both victim and victimizer, subject and object, simultaneously.  Danica Patrick can cash the check for appearing nearly nude on a magazine cover, and whine about being “objectified” by the “patriarchy.”  Dan Rather can use the phrase “fake but accurate” without his head exploding.  Above all, you can call yourself a “Progressive” without ever defining a goal, even though the word “progress” is by definition teleological — in normal English, “to progress” always implies “toward something.”  Best of all, everything is always malleable, always in flux — it’s “constructed” — but since it’s social, you can change the “construction” by bossing people around.  Change their social being, after all, and you’ll change their consciousness.

This is why “gender” will always remain undefined, and always with us.  They don’t want it to go away, but they do want it to mean whatever they need it to mean, whenever they need it.  It’s a definition that’s subject to change without notice, and the changes will always have the force of law, even if today’s definition is 180 degrees away from yesterday’s.  Because it’s “socially constructed.”

Just Be Wrong!

At least 33% of what’s wrong with American culture is encapsulated by this statement, from “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons*:

And again, I appreciate 99 percent of the New Era of Sports Thinking. We’re unquestionably and undeniably smarter now. But you also read and hear so much more hedging, so much more stammering, so much presenting-both-sides-of-the-picture, so many timid arguments because writers don’t want their opinions thrown back in their face later. It also enables certain radio hosts and television hosts to take comically strong stands, one way or the other, simply because everyone else is setting up shop somewhere in the rational middle. They don’t have to be right; they just have to stand out. It’s much easier to stand out in 2015, that’s for sure.

In a more sensible era, the folks who took “comically strong stands” would be rightly regarded as comics.  More importantly, note the rationale: “writers don’t want their opinions thrown back in their face later.”  Again, in a more sensible era, this would be rational — a pundit who regularly got big things wrong would lose his job (“10 Reasons Why Wally Pipp Will Be the 1926 MVP!”).  But this is the internet era, and as Vox has shown, making fun of idiots who get literally everything wrong all the time is a viable business model for both the critics and the idiots.

The problems we face aren’t amenable to timid, middle of the road arguments.  More importantly, they can’t be solved by people with mingy, timid characters.  Be wrong!  And if you’re wrong, admit it like a man.  That’s the true middle ground between weak sauce and hyperbole, and if more people embraced it, a lot of our problems would be a lot less pressing.


*I really can’t stand Simmons, but Grantland.com is fascinating.  Its schtick seems to be “we’re middle-aged men pretending to be teenage girls,” and it does what David Stove said JS Mill did — it performs the valuable service of making important mistakes clearly.

Explaining Academia: “Theory”

Further to Morgan’s piece, here, I can tell y’all a few inside-baseball things about the academic-industrial complex.  I live in a college town; I interact with profs and grad students all the time; I once made the mistake of entering a graduate program.

Short version: Yes, they really are that dense.  About all kinds of stuff.  Much of that is on purpose.  But a lot of it isn’t.  This post (which will perhaps become a series if y’all are interested) will hopefully help explain why.

Today’s topic: Theory.

Normal people consider the word “theory” more or less synonymous with “hypothesis.”  I have a theory that Napoleon ate some bad frog legs on the morning of the Battle of Waterloo, and that’s why he lost.  The records to prove this might no longer exist, alas, but in principle it’s demonstrable.

That’s not what “theory” means in the liberal arts, though.  Take “gender theory,” for instance.  Here’s a reasonably clear explanation:

Gender is a socially constructed interpretation of human behavior patterns. Specifically, gender refers to the ascription (by self or others) of differential social statuses based upon shared understandings of what constitutes masculine and/or feminine behavior. As such, gender typically involves two interrelated components built upon the acceptance or rejection of societal norms concerning masculinities and femininities. First, gender may refer to an internal feeling that one is a male, female, both, neither, and/or somewhere in between or beyond these categories. Because gender is dependent upon behavioral expectations and norms, once individuals know those expectations and norms, the individual can adopt behaviors that project the gender he/she wishes to portray. One can think of this side of gender like a role in a theatrical play – there are specific behaviors and norms associated with genders just like there are lines and movements associated with each character in a play. Adopting the behaviors and norms of a gender leads to the perception that someone belongs in that gender category.

On the one hand, all this is perfectly true.  This paragraph is (among other things) spelling out what we mean when we say “Social Justice Warriors sure are a bunch of pussies.”  We have a set of cultural expectations of manhood — straightforwardness, steadfastness, ability to use logic — that they’re either not meeting, or deliberately subverting.  In other words, this:

pajamaboyIt’s also obvious that these expectations change over time — think of the early-imperial Romans’ sneering dismissal of Christianity as a religion for women and slaves.

So far, so good.  This is calm, reasonable, even useful — if you want a naturalistic explanation of how Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, part of that explanation must include the change in attitude from “a religion for women and slaves” to “a religion for manly legionaries.”

Problem is, this calm, reasonable, useful stuff also contains a bait-and-switch: The key terms are open-ended.

“Ascription.”  “Construction.”  “Perception.”  “Performance.”  Those could mean anything, everything, or nothing.  “Gender” basically becomes a verb, and indeed, ivory tower types frequently use it this way — I can’t tell you the number of academic papers I’ve had to read titled “Engendering X,” where X is a social process, or even an inanimate object.  If “gender” is only this — a performance, an attribution, a construction — then everything can be gendered.

For instance: I’m a man, and I’m explaining concepts to you.  How typically male!  How patriarchal!  I am the active doer — my knowledge penetrates you — and you are the passive receiver.  I have put you in the “subject position” by writing this.  By acting as if my interpretation of gender theory is the only one, I am forcing you to accept it.  I am, in prof-speak, “reifying patriarchy” with this post.

Except… I’m a woman.  I’m not explaining things to you; we’re collaborating.  We’re producing knowledge together.  Each of us brings our own unique perspective, and we share.  That’s what the comments are for!

In practice, then, “theory” becomes a kind of get-out-of-evidence-free card.  I can’t prove that Napoleon’s dodgy frog legs lost him the Battle of Waterloo, but I can sure as hell “prove” that he fought the battle in the first place because the Duke of Wellington questioned his manhood.  And that’s History, a discipline that still at least kinda sorta has to make a nod to facts.  It’s far, far worse in Literature, or any of the “Studies” departments, which have been fact-free zones from jump street.

Feel the patriarchy

Feel the patriarchy

As I said at Morgan’s place, the irony of this is: It’s purely commercial.  In the academic racket, one only gets tenure by publishing, and only original “research” gets published.  This isn’t a problem for the sciences, or even humanities like archaeology (though those guys have to dig up a new pharaoh or something).  But what about the liberal arts?  There’s only so much you can say about Shakespeare or the Civil War, right?  So you don’t.  You take your pet obsession and “theory” the shit out of it, and pretty soon you’re getting paid to claim that dressing up like a chipmunk and cruising leather bars “raises provocative questions about the performance of gender.”

I wish I was kidding.


Ace of Spades posts this Tweet re: Charlie Hebdo:


This is the nth mass murder jihadi scum have perpetrated on the west, and that “anti-Muslim backlash” the Left and the media (BIRM) are drooling with anticipation for keep fretting about hasn’t happened yet.

One wonders how long this state of affairs will continue.