Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | January 19, 2014

Sunday Link and Quote Collection

1. Harold Pollack: “The late, not-so-great era of WASP ascendency”:

Sure the old WASP elite was a tad snobbish and stodgy. These were hardly their worst problems. Under WASP hegemony, corruption and incompetence were actually quite common in high places, more common than today, in fact. Perhaps the misconduct and stupidity produced fewer scandals. if so, that was only because these behaviors were better-concealed from public view.Where is the honor or the character in maintaining a system of exclusion to protect one group’s social and economic privileges at the expense of others?

The unapologetic exclusion of Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, Catholics. and women did not enhance the integrity or the technical competence of American government. Nor did it noticeably improve elite professions such as scientific research or clinical medicine to exclude these same groups. … Our current elites should do some serious housecleaning, but not out of any misguided nostalgia for the unfair and mediocre non-meritocratic era we’ve left behind.

2. Freddie deBoer: everyone wants to be the underdog:

My subjective experience of how we talk about technology is that those who advocate a substantially digitized life think of themselves as besieged Davids, when in fact by every rational measure, enthusiastic technologists are Goliaths.

A perfect example of what I’m talking about is Jonathan Franzen, and the phenomenon of “The Internet Reacts to Something Jonathan Franzen Said.” It’s a cyclical pattern where Franzen, being something of a tiresome pedant, complains about a particular technology-mediated practice, and the entire online world obligingly goes insane. As Maria Bustillos pointed out, there’s something profoundly pro forma and obligatory about all this. Franzen wants to be a martyr, his editors want pageviews, the Twitterati want to rage about something, and everyone gets what they want. But there’s an essential lie to this dance, and that is this notion that Jonathan Franzen is somehow a powerful cultural force against which only the collective might of the internet can stand. In reality, the very fact that the collective is so reliably aroused, and aroused to such absurd vitriol, demonstrates that Franzen is a fringe figure in that conversation, speaking for a tiny constituency that has almost no power to define the online social space. The publications and writers that attack him are the ones who actually create shared cultural values, not Franzen himself. …

Or take this massively self-important piece about the future of writing in TechCrunch by Jon Evans. Evans invokes David Foster Wallace in his argument that conventional tastes in writing are constrained by a stuffy style that is out of touch with mainstream use. He also invokes Orwell, which proves once again that people will invoke Orwell to support literally any argument, no matter what their position. (Orwell was many things, but he was no populist, and particularly not when it comes to writing.) Like essentially everything written on the subject of language change, it posits this powerful edifice of traditionalists who snootily look down their noses at the masses and use their power to maintain the status quo. This is true essentially anytime people complain about “the grammar police” or those who want to maintain a traditional definition for a word. Speaking as someone in the world of composition and language: this elite does not exist. There is essentially no constituency for maintaining the stuffy old ways. …

I could go on. As I’ve written before, the perfect example of this lies in the ostensibly hated, secretly beloved divide between low and high culture. Despite their absolute economic and cultural dominance, video game and comic book and sci-fi fans continue to rage against an imagined coterie of elites who sneer down at their tastes. But the reality is that almost every aspect of traditional high culture is mortally threatened, with beautiful art forms like ballet and opera fighting for their very existence while video games and superhero movies rake in billions. Yet those who love pop culture feel an existential need to maintain their posture as underdogs, for reasons that simply elude me.

3. Noah Smith has a post on bullshit, Tribal Reality, and how we rely upon and work with second-hand information. An excerpt:

Back in the days of low technology, one person’s observation was just about as powerful as another’s. If there’s a table in the room, any non-blind person can see it. Without technology, everything is like that. So in a low-tech society, while you have to worry that people might be lying to you, you don’t have to worry that someone else can see something important that you can’t. Get enough people in the room, and the majority will always be right. In other words, in a low tech society, Consensus Reality (which occasionally is Tribal Reality) is as good as you’re ever going to get.

Of course, in low-tech societies, there were always a few people who insisted that they could see a reality that others couldn’t see. These people often became cult leaders, and the successful ones became prophets of new religions. But these new religions brought war and social upheaval, so traditional societies put mechanisms in place to stamp these dangerous people out. Cult leaders were burned as heretics. It was the sensible thing to do.

But then something changed: Technology reached the point where one person, wielding superior tech and possessing the specialized knowledge to use it, could uncover useful information that had the power to really affect people’s lives. With his telescope and astronomical data, Galileo could learn that the Earth really did go around the Sun. With his chemistry equipment and microscope and epidemiological data, Pasteur could learn that tiny invisible microbes caused infectious diseases. If a million people disagreed with Galileo or Pasteur, the million would be wrong, and the one would be right.

This was the first time in human history that this had ever happened.

Please do read the whole thing.


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