Posted in Culture, History, Politics, Populism, Sociology

Colin Woodard: Maps that Show the Historical Roots of Current US Political Faultlines

This post is a commentary on Colin Woodard’s book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.  

Woodard argues that the United States is not a single national culture but  a collection of national cultures, each with its own geographic base.  The core insight for this analytical approach comes from “Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University [who] formulated [a] theory in 1973, which he called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement. ‘Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been,’ Zelinsky wrote. ‘Thus, in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.’”

I’m suspicious of theories that smack of cultural immutability and cultural determinism, but Woodard’s account is more sophisticated than that.  His is a story of the power of founders in a new institutional setting, who lay out the foundational norms for a society that lacks any cultural history of its own or which expelled the preexisting cultural group (in the U.S. case, Native Americans).  So part of the story is about the acculturation of newcomers into an existing worldview.  But another part is the highly selective nature of immigration, since new arrivals often seek out places to settle that are culturally compatible.  They may target a particular destination because its cultural characteristics, creating a pipeline of like-minded immigrants; or they choose to move on to another territory if the first port of entry is not to their taste.  Once established, these cultures often expanded westward as the country developed, extending the size and geographical scope of each nation.

Why does he insist on calling them nations?  At first this bothered me a bit, but then I realized he was using the term “nation” in Benedict Anderson’s sense as “imagined communities.”  Tidewater and Yankeedom are not nation states; they are cultural components of the American state.  But they do act as nations for their citizens.  Each of these nations is a community of shared values and worldviews that binds people together who have never met and often live far away.  The magic of the nation is that it creates a community of common sense and purpose that extends well beyond the reach of normal social interaction.  If you’re Yankee to the core, you can land in a strange town in Yankeedom and feel at home.  These are my people.  I belong here.

He argues that these national groupings continue to have a significant impact of the cultural geography of the US, shaping people’s values, styles of social organization, views of religion and government, and ultimately how they vote.  The kicker is the alignment between the spatial distribution of these cultures and the current voting patterns.  He lays out this argument succinctly in a 2018 op-ed he wrote for the New York Times.  I recommend reading it.

The whole analysis is neatly summarized in the two maps he deployed in that op-ed, which I have reproduced below.

The Map of America’s 11 Nations

11 Nations Map

This first map shows the geographic boundaries of the various cultural groupings in the U.S.  It all started on the east coast with the founding cultural binary that shaped the formation of the country in the late 18th century — New England Yankees and Tidewater planters.  He argues that they are direct descendants of the two factions in the English civil war of the mid 17th century, with the Yankees as the Calvinist Roundheads, who (especially after being routed by the restoration in England) sought to establish a new theocratic society in the northeast founded on strong government, and the Anglican Cavaliers, who sought to reproduce the decentralized English aristocratic ideal on Virginia plantations.  In between was the Dutch entrepot of New York, focused on commerce and multiculturalism (think “Hamilton”), and the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania, founded on equality and suspicion of government.  The US constitution was an effort to balance all of these cultural priorities within a single federal system.

Then came two other groups that didn’t fit well into any of these four cultural enclaves.  The immigrants to the Deep South originated in the slave societies of British West Indies, bringing with them a rigid caste structure and a particularly harsh version of chattel slavery.  Immigrants to Greater Appalachia came from the Scots-Irish clan cultures in Northern Ireland and the Scottish borderlands, with a strong commitment to individual liberty, resentment of government, and a taste for violence.

Tidewater and Yankeedom dominated the presidency and federal government for the country’s first 40 years.  But in 1828 the US elected its first president from rapidly expanding Appalachia, Andrew Jackson.  And by then the massive westward expansion of the Deep South, along with the extraordinary wealth and power that accrued from its cotton-producing slave economy, created the dynamics leading to the Civil War.  This pitted the four nations of the northeast against Tidewater and Deep South, with Appalachia split between the two, resentful of both Yankee piety and Southern condescension.  The multiracial and multicultural nations of French New Orleans and the Mexican southwest (El Norte) were hostile to the Deep South and resented its efforts to expand its dominion westward.

The other two major cultural groupings emerged in the mid 19th century.  The thin strip along the west coast consisted of Yankees in the cities and Appalachians in the back country, combining the utopianism of the former with the radical individualism of the latter.  The Far West is the one grouping that is based not on cultural geography but physical geography.  A vast arid area unsuited to farming, it became the domain of the only two entities powerful enough to control it — large corporations (railroad and mining), which exploited it, and the federal government, which owned most of the land and provided armed protection from Indians.

So let’s jump ahead and look at the consequences of this cultural landscape for our current political divisions.  Examine the electoral map for the 2016 presidential race, which shows the vote in Woodard’s 11 nations.

The 2016 Electoral Map

2016 Vote Map

Usually you see voting maps with results by state.  Here instead we see voting results by county, which allows for a more fine-tuned analysis.  Woodard assigns each county to one of the 11 “nations” and then shows the red or blue vote margin for each cultural grouping.

It’s striking to see how well the nations match the vote.  The strongest vote for Clinton came from the Left Coast, El Norte, and New Netherland, with substantial support from Yankeedom, Tidewater, and Spanish Caribbean.  Midlands was only marginally supportive of the Democrat.  Meanwhile the Deep South and Far West were modestly pro-Trump (about as much as Yankeedom was pro-Clinton), but the true kicker was Appalachia, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump (along with New France in southern Louisiana).

Appalachia forms the heart of Trump’s electoral base of support.  It’s an area that resents intellectual, cultural, and political elites; that turns away from mainstream religious denominations in favor of evangelical sects; and that lags behing behind in the 21st century information economy.  As a result, this is the heartland of populism.  It’s no wonder that the portrait on the wall in Trump’s Oval portrays Andrew Jackson.

Now one more map, this time showing were in the country people have been social distancing and where they haven’t, as measure by how much they were traveling away from home (using cell phone data).  It comes from a piece Woodard recently published in Washington Monthly.

Social Distancing Map

Once again, the patterns correspond nicely to the 11 nations.  Here’s how Woodard summarizes the data:

Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherland, and the Left Coast show dramatic decreases in movement – 70 to 100 percent in most counties, whether urban or rural, rich, or poor.

Across much of Greater Appalachia, the Deep South and the Far West, by contrast, travel fell by only 15 to 50 percent. This was true even in much of Kentucky, the interior counties of Washington and Oregon, where Democratic governors had imposed a statewide shelter-in-place order.

Not surprisingly, most of the states where governors imposed stay-at-home orders by March 27 are located in or dominated by one or a combination of the communitarian nations. This includes states whose governors are Republicans: Ohio, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

Most of the laggard governors lead states dominated by individualistic nations. In the Deep South and Greater Appalachia you find Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who allowed spring breakers to party on the beaches. There’s Brian Kemp of Georgia who left matters in the hands of local officials for much of the month and then, on April 2, claimed to have just learned the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals. You have Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who on April 7 denied mayors the power to impose local lockdowns. And then there’s Mississippi’s Tate Reeves, who resisted action because “I don’t like government telling private business what they can and cannot do.”

Nothing like a pandemic to show what your civic values are.  Is it all about us or all about me?

Posted in Academic writing

Patricia Limerick: Dancing with Professors

 

In this post, I feature a lovely piece by historian Patricia Limerick called “Dancing with Professors: The Trouble with Academic Prose,” which was published in the Observer in 2015.

Everyone disparages academic writing, and for good reason.  No one reads journal articles for fun.  Limerick, whose work shows she knows something about good writing, finds the problem in the way academics try so hard to sound professional.  From this perspective, writing with clarity and grace carries the stigma of amateurism.  If it’s readily understandable to a layperson, it’s not tenurable.

“We must remember,” she says, “that professors are the ones nobody wanted to dance with in high school.”  We not approachable or accessible and we like it that way.  Any loser can be popular; the academic aspires to be profound.

So we learn turgid writing in graduate school, as part of our induction into the profession, and we stay in this mode for the rest of our careers — long after we have lost the need to shore up our initially shaky credibility as serious scholars.  We constrain ourselves from taking flight with language even after the shackles of grad school have fallen away.

Don’t miss her discussion of how academic writers are like buzzards on a tree limb.  Really.  It’ll stick with you for a long long time.

Enjoy.

Typwriter

Dancing with Professors:

The Trouble with Academic Prose

Patricia Nelson Limerick

Professor of History, University of Colorado

In ordinary life, when a listener cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange:

Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying.

Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly.

But in scholarly writing in the late 20th century, other rules apply. This is the implicit exchange:

Reader: I cannot understand what you are saying.

Academic Writer: Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me.

The exchange remains implicit, because no one wants to say, “This doesn’t make any sense,” for fear that the response, “It would, if you were smarter,” might actually be true.

While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right_wing scholars and most left_wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language.

University presses have certainly filled their quota every year, in dreary monographs, tangled paragraphs and impenetrable sentences. But trade publishers have also violated the trust of innocent and hopeful readers. As a prime example of unprovoked assaults on innocent words, consider the verbal behavior of Allan Bloom in “The Closing of the American Mind,” published by a large mainstream press. Here is a sample:

“If openness means to go with the flow,’ it is necessarily an accommodation to the present. That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it.”

Is there a reader so full of blind courage as to claim to know what this sentence means? Remember, the book in which this remark appeared was a lamentation over the failings of today’s students, a call to arms to return to tradition and standards in education. And yet, in 20 years of paper grading, I do not recall many sentences that asked, so pathetically, to be put out of their misery.

Jump to the opposite side of the political spectrum from Allan Bloom, and literary grace makes no noticeable gains. Contemplate this breathless, indefatigable sentence from the geographer, Allan Pred, and Mr. Pred and Bloom seem, if only in literary style, to be soul mates.

“If what is at stake is an understanding of geographical and historical variations in the sexual division of productive and reproductive labor, of contemporary local and regional variations in female wage labor and women’s work outside the formal economy, of on_the_ground variations in the everyday content of women’s lives, inside and outside of their families, then it must be recognized that, at some nontrivial level, none of the corporal practices associated with these variations can be severed from spatially and temporally specific linguistic practices, from language that not only enable the conveyance of instructions, commands, role depictions and operating rules, but that also regulate and control, that normalize and spell out the limits of the permissible through the conveyance of disapproval, ridicule and reproach.”

In this example, 124 words, along with many ideas, find themselves crammed into one sentence. In their company, one starts to get panicky. “Throw open the windows; bring in the oxygen tanks!” one wants to shout. “These words and ideas are nearly suffocated. Get them air!” And yet the condition of this desperately packed and crowded sentence is a perfectly familiar one to readers of academic writing, readers who have simply learned to suppress the panic.

Everyone knows that today’s college students cannot write, but few seem willing to admit that the professors who denounce them are not doing much better. The problem is so blatant that there are signs that the students are catching on. In my American history survey course last semester, I presented a few writing rules that I intended to enforce inflexibly. The students looked more and more peevish; they looked as if they were about to run down the hall, find a telephone, place an urgent call and demand that someone from the A.C.L.U. rush up to campus to sue me for interfering with their First Amendment rights to compose unintelligible, misshapen sentences.

Finally one aggrieved student raised her hand and said, “You are telling us not to write long, dull sentences, but most of our reading is full of long, dull sentences.”

As this student was beginning to recognize, when professors undertake to appraise and improve student writing, the blind are leading the blind. It is, in truth, difficult to persuade students to write well when they find so few good examples in their assigned reading.

The current social and judicial context for higher education makes this whole issue pressing. In Colorado, as in most states, the legislators re convinced that the university is neglecting students and wasting state resources on pointless research. Under those circumstances, the miserable writing habits of professors pose a direct and concrete danger to higher education. Rather than going to the state legislature, proudly presenting stacks of the faculty’s compelling and engaging publications, you end up hoping that the lawmakers stay out of the library and stay away, especially, from the periodical room, with its piles of academic journals. The habits of academic writers lend powerful support to the impression that research is a waste of the writers’ time and of the public’s money.

Why do so many professors write bad prose?

Ten years ago, I heard a classics professor say the single most important thing_in my opinion_that anyone has said about professors. “We must remember,” he declared, “that professors are the ones nobody wanted to dance with in high school.”

This is an insight that lights up the universe_or at least the university. It is a proposition that every entering freshman should be told, and it is certainly a proposition that helps to explain the problem of academic writing. What one sees in professors, repeatedly, is exactly the manner that anyone would adopt after a couple of sad evenings sidelined under the crepe_paper streamers in the gym, sitting on a folding chair while everyone else danced. Dignity, for professors, perches precariously on how well they can convey this message, “I am immersed in some very important thoughts, which unsophisticated people could not even begin to understand. Thus, I would not want to dance, even if one of you unsophisticated people were to ask me.”

Think of this, then, the next time you look at an unintelligible academic text. “I would not want the attention of a wide reading audience, even if a wide audience were to ask for me.” Isn’t that exactly what the pompous and pedantic tone of the classically academic writer conveys?

Professors are often shy, timid and fearful people, and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage. When you write typical academic prose, it is nearly impossible to make a strong, clear statement. The benefit here is that no one can attack your position, say you are wrong or even raise questions about the accuracy of what you have said, if they cannot tell what you have said. In those terms, awful, indecipherable prose is its own form of armor, protecting the fragile, sensitive thoughts of timid souls.

The best texts for helping us understand the academic world are, of course, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Just as devotees of Carroll would expect, he has provided us with the best analogy for understanding the origin and function of bad academic writing. Tweedledee and Tweedledum have quite a heated argument over a rattle. They become so angry that they decide to fight. But before they fight, they go off to gather various devices of padding and protection: “bolsters, blankets, hearthrugs, tablecloths, dish covers and coal scuttles.” Then, with Alice’s help in tying and fastening, they transform these household items into armor. Alice is not impressed: ” Really, they’ll be more like bundles of old clothes than anything else, by the time they’re ready!’ she said to herself, as she arranged a bolster round the neck of Tweedledee, to keep his head from being cut off,’ as he said, Why this precaution?” Because, Tweedledee explains, “it’s one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in a battle_to get one’s head cut off.”

Here, in the brothers’ anxieties and fears, we have an exact analogy for the problems of academic writing. The next time you look at a classically professorial sentence_long, tangled, obscure, jargonized, polysyllabic_think of Tweedledum and Tweedledee dressed for battle, and see if those timid little thoughts, concealed under layers of clauses and phrases, do not remind you of those agitated but cautious brothers, arrayed in their bolsters, blankets, dish covers and coal scuttles. The motive, too, is similar. Tweedledum and Tweedledee were in terror of being hurt, and so they padded themselves so thoroughly that they could not be hurt; nor, for that matter, could they move. A properly dreary, inert sentence has exactly the same benefit; it protects its writer from sharp disagreement, while it also protects him from movement.

Why choose camouflage and insulation over clarity and directness? Tweedledee, of course, spoke for everyone, academic or not, when he confessed his fear. It is indeed, as he said, “one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in a battle_to get one’s head cut off.” Under those circumstances, logic says: tie the bolster around the neck, and add a protective hearthrug or two. Pack in another qualifying clause or two. Hide behind the passive_voice verb. Preface any assertion with a phrase like “it could be argued” or “a case could be made.” Protecting one’s neck does seem to be the way to keep one’s head from being cut off.

Graduate school implants in many people the belief that there are terrible penalties to be paid for writing clearly, especially writing clearly in ways that challenge established thinking in the field. And yet, in academic warfare (and I speak as a veteran) your head and your neck are rarely in serious danger. You can remove the bolster and the hearthrug. Your opponents will try to whack at you, but they will seldom, if ever, land a blow_in large part because they are themselves so wrapped in protective camouflage and insulation that they lose both mobility and accuracy.

So we have a widespread pattern of professors protecting themselves from injury by wrapping their ideas in dull prose, and yet the danger they try to fend off is not a genuine danger. Express yourself clearly, and it is unlikely that either your head_or, more important, your tenure_will be cut off.

How, then, do we save professors from themselves? Fearful people are not made courageous by scolding; they need to be coaxed and encouraged. But how do we do that, especially when this particular form of fearfulness masks itself as pomposity, aloofness and an assured air of superiority?

Fortunately, we have available the world’s most important and illuminating story on the difficulty of persuading people to break out of habits of timidity, caution, and unnecessary fear. I borrow this story from Larry McMurty, one of my rivals in the interpreting of the American West, though I am putting the story to a use that Mr. McMurty did not intend.

In a collection of his essays, In a Narrow Grave, Mr. McMurty wrote about the weird process of watching his book Horsemen Pass By being turned into the movie Hud. He arrived in the Texas Panhandle a week or two after filming had started, and he was particularly anxious to learn how the buzzard scene had gone. In that scene, Paul Newman was supposed to ride up and discover a dead cow, look up at a tree branch lined with buzzards and, in his distress over the loss of the cow, fire his gun at one of the buzzards. At that moment, all of the other buzzards were supposed to fly away into the blue Panhandle sky.

But when Mr. McMurty asked people how the buzzard scene had gone, all he got, he said, were “stricken looks.”

The first problem, it turned out, had to do with the quality of the available local buzzards_who proved to be an excessively scruffy group. So more appealing, more photogenic buzzards had to be flown in from some distance and at considerable expense.

But then came the second problem: how to keep the buzzards sitting on the tree branch until it was time for their cue to fly.

That seemed easy. Wire their feet to the branch, and then, after Paul Newman fires his shot, pull the wire, releasing their feet, thus allowing them to take off.

But, as Mr. McMurty said in an important and memorable phrase, the film makers had not reckoned with the “mentality of buzzards.” With their feet wired, the buzzards did not have enough mobility to fly. But they did have enough mobility to pitch forward.

So that’s what they did: with their feet wired, they tried to fly, pitched forward, and hung upside down from the dead branch, with their wings flapping.

I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to meet a woman who had been an extra for this movie, and she added a detail that Mr. McMurty left out of his essay: namely, the buzzard circulatory system does not work upside down, and so, after a moment or two of flapping, the buzzards passed out.

Twelve buzzards hanging upside down from a tree branch: this was not what Hollywood wanted from the West, but that’s what Hollywood had produced.

And then we get to the second stage of buzzard psychology. After six or seven episodes of pitching forward, passing out, being revived, being replaced on the branch and pitching forward again, the buzzards gave up. Now, when you pulled the wire and released their feet, they sat there, saying in clear, nonverbal terms: “We tried that before. It did not work. We are not going to try it again.” Now the film makers had to fly in a high_powered animal trainer to restore buzzard self_esteem. It was all a big mess. Larry McMurty got a wonderful story out of it; and we, in turn, get the best possible parable of the workings of habit and timidity.

How does the parable apply? In any and all disciplines, you go to graduate school to have your feet wired to the branch. There is nothing inherently wrong with that: scholars should have some common ground, share some background assumptions, hold some similar habits of mind. This gives you, quite literally, your footing. And yet, in the process of getting your feet wired, you have some awkward moments, and the intellectual equivalent of pitching forward and hanging upside down. That experience_especially if you do it in a public place like a seminar_provides no pleasure. One or two rounds of that humiliation, and the world begins to seem like a treacherous place. Under those circumstances, it does indeed seem to be the choice of wisdom to sit quietly on the branch, to sit without even the thought of flying, since even the thought might be enough to tilt the balance and set off another round of flapping, fainting and embarrassment.

Yet when scholars get out of graduate school and get Ph.D.’s, and, even more important, when scholars get tenure, the wire is truly pulled. Their feet are free. They can fly whenever and wherever they like. Yet by then the second stage of buzzard psychology has taken hold, and they refuse to fly. The wire is pulled, and yet the buzzards sit there, hunched and grumpy. If they teach in a university with a graduate program, they actively instruct young buzzards in the necessity of keeping their youthful feet on the branch.

This is a very well_established pattern, and it is the ruination of scholarly activity in the modern world. Many professors who teach graduate students think that one of their principal duties is to train students in the conventions of academic writing.

I do not believe that professors enforce a standard of dull writing on graduate students in order to be cruel. They demand dreariness because they think that dreariness is in the students’ best interests. Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that is what editors want, both editors of academic journals and editors of university presses. What we have here is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding, where everyone thinks that the other guy is the one who demands, dull, impersonal prose.

Let me say again what is at stake here: universities and colleges are currently embattled, distrusted by the public and state funding institutions. As distressing as this situation is, it provides the perfect setting and the perfect timing for declaring an end to scholarly publication as a series of guarded conversations between professors.

The redemption of the university, especially in terms of the public’s appraisal of the value of research and publication, requires all the writers who have something they want to publish to ask themselves the question: Does this have to be a closed communication, shutting out all but specialists willing to fight their way through the thickest of jargon? Or can this be an open communication, engaging specialists with new information and new thinking, but also offering an invitation to nonspecialists to learn from this study, to grasp its importance, and by extension, to find concrete reasons to see value in the work of the university?

This is a country in need of wisdom, and of clearly reasoned conviction and vision. And that, at the bedrock, is the reason behind this campaign to save professors from themselves and to detoxify academic prose. The context is a bit different, but the statement that Willy Loman made to his sons in Death of a Salesman keeps coming to mind: “The woods are burning boys, the woods are burning.” In a society confronted by a faltering economy, racial and ethnic conflicts, and environmental disasters, “the woods are burning,” and since we so urgently need everyone’s contribution in putting some of these fires out, there is no reason to indulge professorial vanity or timidity.

Ego is, of course, the key obstacle here. As badly as most of them write, professors are nonetheless proud and sensitive writers, resistant in criticism. But even the most desperate cases can be redeemed and persuaded to think of writing as a challenging craft, not as existential trauma. A few years ago, I began to look at carpenters and other artisans as the emotional model for writers. A carpenter, let us say, makes a door for a cabinet. If the door does not hang straight, the carpenter does not say, “I will not change that door; it is an expression of my individuality; who cares if it will not close?” Instead, the carpenter removes the door and works on it until it fits. That attitude, applied to writing, could be our salvation. If we thought more like carpenters, academic writers could find a route out of the trap of ego and vanity. Escaped from that trap, we could simply work on successive drafts until what we have to say is clear.

Colleges and universities are filled with knowledgeable, thoughtful people who have been effectively silenced by an awful writing style, a style with its flaws concealed behind a smokescreen of sophistication and professionalism. A coalition of academic writers, graduate advisers. journal editors, university press editors and trade publishers can seize this moment_and pull the wire. The buzzards can be set free_free to leave that dead tree branch, free to regain to regain their confidence, free to soar.

Posted in Academic writing, Wit, Writing

Wit (and the Art of Writing)

 

They laughed when I told them I wanted to be a comedian. Well they’re not laughing now.

Bob Monkhouse

Wit is notoriously difficult to analyze, and any effort to do so is likely to turn out dry and witless.  But two recent authors have done a remarkably effective job of trying to make sense of what constitutes wit and they manage to do so wittily.  That’s a risky venture, which most sensible people would avoid like COVID-19.  One book is Wit’s End by James Geary; the other is Humour by Terry Eagleton.  The epigraph comes from Eagleton.  Both have the good sense to reflect on the subject without analyzing it to death or trampling on the punchline.  Eagleton uses Freud as a negative case in point:

Children, insists Freud, lack all sense of the comic, but it is possible he is confusing them with the author of a notoriously unfunny work entitled Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.

Interestingly, Geary says that wit begins with the pun.

Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time.

In poems, words rhyme; in puns, ideas rhyme. This is the ultimate test of wittiness: keeping your balance even when you’re of two minds.

Groucho’s quip upon entering a restaurant and seeing a previous spouse at another table—“ Marx spots the ex.”

Geary Cover

Instead of avoiding ambiguity, wit revels in it, using paradoxical juxtaposition to shake you out of a trance and ask you to consider an issue from a strikingly different angle.  Arthur Koestler described the pun as “two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot.”  There’s an echo here of Emerson’s epigram, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”  Misdirection can lead to comic relief but it can also produce intellectual insight.

Geary goes on to show how the joke is integrally related to other forms of creative thought:

There is no sharp boundary splitting the wit of the scientist, inventor, or improviser from that of the artist, the sage, or the jester. The creative experience moves seamlessly from the “Aha!” of scientific discovery to the “Ah” of aesthetic insight to the “Ha-ha” of the pun and the punch line.  “Comic discovery is paradox stated—scientific discovery is paradox resolved,” Koestler wrote.

He shows that wit and metaphor have a lot in common.

If wit consists, as we say, in the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time, this is exactly the function of metaphor. A metaphor carries the attention from the concrete to the abstract, from object to concept. When that direction is reversed, and attention is brought back from concept to object, the mind is surprised. Mistaking the figurative for fact is therefore a signature trick of wit.

Hence is it said, kleptomaniacs don’t understand metaphor because they take things literally.

Both wit and metaphor have these qualities in common:  “brevity, novelty, and clarity.”

Read my lips. Shoot from the hip. Wit switch hits. Wit ad-libs. It teaches new dogs lotsa old tricks. Throw spaghetti ’gainst the wall—wit’s what sticks. You can’t beat it or repeat it, not even with a shtick. Wit rocks the boat. That’s all she wrote.

Eagleton picks up Geary’s theme of how wit and metaphor are grounded in the “aha” of incongruity.

There are many theories of humour in addition to those we have looked at. They include the play theory, the conflict theory, the ambivalence theory, the dispositional theory, the mastery theory, the Gestalt theory, the Piagetian theory and the configurational theory. Several of these, however, are really versions of the incongruity theory, which remains the most plausible account of why we laugh. On this view, humour springs from a clash of incongruous aspects – a sudden shift of perspective, an unexpected slippage of meaning, an arresting dissonance or discrepancy, a momentary defamiliarising of the familiar and so on. As a temporary ‘derailment of sense’, it involves the disruption of orderly thought processes or the violation of laws or conventions. It is, as D. H. Munro puts it, a breach in the usual order of events.

“The Duke’s a long time coming today,” said the Duchess, stirring her tea with the other hand.

Eagleton Cover

He talks about how humor gives us license to be momentarily freed from the shackles of reason and order, a revolt of the id against the superego.  But the key is that reason and order are quickly restored, so the lapse of control is risk free.

As a pure enunciation that expresses nothing but itself, laughter lacks intrinsic sense, rather like an animal’s cry, but despite this it is richly freighted with cultural meaning. As such, it has a kinship with music. Not only has laughter no inherent meaning, but at its most riotous and convulsive it involves the disintegration of sense, as the body tears one’s speech to fragments and the id pitches the ego into temporary disarray. As with grief, severe pain, extreme fear or blind rage, truly uproarious laughter involves a loss of physical self-control, as the body gets momentarily out of hand and we regress to the uncoordinated state of the infant. It is quite literally a bodily disorder.

It is just the same with the fantasy revolution of carnival, when the morning after the merriment the sun will rise on a thousand empty wine bottles, gnawed chicken legs and lost virginities and everyday life will resume, not without a certain ambiguous sense of relief. Or think of stage comedy, where the audience is never in any doubt that the order so delightfully disrupted will be restored, perhaps even reinforced by this fleeting attempt to flout it, and thus can blend its anarchic pleasures with a degree of conservative self-satisfaction.

Like Geary, Eagleton shows how a key to wit is its ability to hone down an issue to a sharp point, which is captured in a verbal succinctness that is akin to poetry.

Wit has a point, which is why it is sometimes compared to the thrust of a rapier. It is rapier-like in its swift, shapely, streamlined, agile, flashing, glancing, dazzling, dexterous, pointed, clashing, flamboyant aspects, but also because it can stab and wound.

A witticism is a self-conscious verbal performance, but it is one that minimises its own medium, compacting its words into the slimmest possible space in an awareness that the slightest surplus of signification might prove fatal to its success. As with poetry, every verbal unit must pull its weight, and the cadence, rhythm and resonance of a piece of wit may be vital to its impact. The tighter the organisation, the more a verbal slide, ambiguity, conceptual shift or trifling dislocation of syntax registers its effect.

There is a strong lesson for writers in this discussion of wit.  Sharpen the argument, tighten the prose, focus on “brevity, novelty, and clarity.”  Learn from the craft of the poet and the comedian.  Less is more.

One problem witb academic writing in particular is that it takes itself too seriously.  It pays for us to keep our wit about us as we  write scholarly papers, acknowledging that we don’t know quite as much about the subject as we are letting on.  Conceding a bit of weakness can be quite appealing.  Oscar Wilde:  “I can resist anything but tempation.”

Everyday life involves sustaining a number of polite fictions: that we take a consuming interest in the health and well-being of our most casual acquaintances, that we never think about sex for a single moment, that we are thoroughly familiar with the later work of Schoenberg and so on. It is pleasant to drop the mask for a moment and strike up a comedic solidarity of weakness.

It is as though we are all really play-actors in our conventional social roles, sticking solemnly to our meticulously scripted parts but ready at the slightest fluff or stumble to dissolve into infantile, uproariously irresponsible laughter at the sheer arbitrariness and absurdity of the whole charade.

And don’t forget what Mel Brooks said:  Tragedy is when you cut your finger, and comedy is when someone else walks into an open sewer and dies.

Posted in Pandemic, Resilience, Systems

The Triumph of Efficiency over Effectiveness: A Brief for Resilience through Redundancy

The current covid-19 pandemic has shown a lot of things that are wrong in American society, including terrible leadership, a frail social safety net, and a lack of investment in public goods.  But one that has particularly struck me is the way our socioeconomic structure has been taken over by the logic of efficiency over the logic of effectiveness.  In the name of efficiency, we have focused heavily on keeping costs down in both our economy and our health system.

Industry does this by developing global supply chains that take advantage of cheap third world labor and the low cost of shipping and also by instituting just-in-time delivery of supplies to factories.  The former puts us at the mercy of events on the other side of the world, and the latter leaves us with no inventory to tide us over until supplies resume.  As we have seen, the result is that that production can shut down over night, with no easy way to get it going again any time soon.

There is a similar pattern with health care.  In the interest of cost efficiency, we have reduced the number of hospital beds and the amount of critical care supplies to what is needed during ordinary times.  Excess capacity, in both production and health care, is deemed wastefully inefficient.

The core problem with this strategy is that effectiveness depends on a certain degree of inefficiency.  To be effective, a system of production or medicine needs a cushion of excess capacity in order to tide it over during difficult times.  Both need a store of supplies that is considerably in excess of what is required under more routine circumstances.   And both need a certain amount of redundancy:  multiple suppliers of the same goods, multiple hospitals providing the same service.  For a system of production, health care, or national security to be resilient in the face of extreme demands, we have to be willing to subsidize the kind of excess capacity that we will need in a crisis.

The military has long understood this, so it is continually preparing for war in times of peace.  When a threat emerges, you don’t have time to spend a year of two getting up to speed with training, munitions, transportation, and — yes — hospital beds.  Because of this, we now see naval hospital ships gliding into the harbors of New York and Los Angeles to provide a small assist during our severe shortage of medical capacity.  What have the ships been doing for the last few years?  Preparing for a future emergency.  That’s very inefficient, but it’s also critically important for national survival.

Hospital ship

A healthy society — one with a strong survival instinct — needs to be willing to provide public subsidies for health emergencies that may be infrequent but are totally inevitable.  We need to build up excess capacity in the face of future uncertainty.  Industry already seems to be getting the idea that the fetish of lean productive capacity may be hazardous to the survival of many firms.  It seems likely that in the future firms will recruit multiple suppliers instead of one on the other side of the world and will build up inventory.  They can’t afford another disaster like this one.

What worries me is that our system of health and public welfare may not take the same prudent steps in planning for an uncertain future.  In the last 50 years, our public sector has been hard-wired to the ethic of efficiency, in which prudent capacity building is seen as reckless waste and where major responsibilities of government are outsourced to private providers.

But if we show a little foresight, we might learn the lesson of the current pandemic and shore up our public capacity for withstanding future shocks to our system.

Posted in Higher Education, History

The Exceptionalism of American Higher Education

This post is an op-ed I published on my birthday (May 17) in 2018 on the online international opinion site, Project Syndicate.  The original is hidden behind a paywall; here are PDFs in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

It’s a brief essay about what is distinctive about the American system of higher education, drawn from my book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education.

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The Exceptionalism of American Higher Education

 By David F. Labaree

STANFORD – In the second half of the twentieth century, American universities and colleges emerged as dominant players in the global ecology of higher education, a dominance that continues to this day. In terms of the number of Nobel laureates produced, eight of the world’s top ten universities are in the United States. Forty-two of the world’s 50 largest university endowments are in America. And, when ranked by research output, 15 of the top 20 institutions are based in the US.

Given these metrics, few can dispute that the American model of higher education is the world’s most successful. The question is why, and whether the US approach can be exported.

While America’s oldest universities date to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the American system of higher education took shape in the early nineteenth century, under conditions in which the market was strong, the state was weak, and the church was divided. The “university” concept first arose in medieval Europe, with the strong support of monarchs and the Catholic Church. But in the US, with the exception of American military academies, the federal government never succeeded in establishing a system of higher education, and states were too poor to provide much support for colleges within their borders.

In these circumstances, early US colleges were nonprofit corporations that had state charters but little government money. Instead, they relied on student tuition, as well as donations from local elites, most of whom were more interested in how a college would increase the value of their adjoining property than they were in supporting education.

As a result, most US colleges were built on the frontier rather than in cities; the institutions were used to attract settlers to buy land. In this way, the first college towns were the equivalent of today’s golf-course developments – verdant enclaves that promised a better quality of life. At the same time, religious denominations competed to sponsor colleges in order to plant their own flags in new territories.

What this competition produced was a series of small, rural, and underfunded colleges led by administrators who had to learn to survive in a highly competitive environment, and where supply long preceded demand. As a result, schools were positioned to capitalize on the modest advantages they did have. Most were highly accessible (there was one in nearly every town), inexpensive (competition kept a lid on tuition), and geographically specific (colleges often became avatars for towns whose names they took). By 1880, there were five times as many colleges and universities in the US than in all of Europe.

The unintended consequence of this early saturation was a radically decentralized system of higher education that fostered a high degree of autonomy. The college president, though usually a clergyman, was in effect the CEO of a struggling enterprise that needed to attract and retain students and donors. Although university presidents often begged for, and occasionally received, state money, government funding was neither sizeable nor reliable.

In the absence of financial security, these educational CEO’s had to hustle. They were good at building long-term relationships with local notables and tuition-paying students. Once states began opening public colleges in the mid-nineteenth century, the new institutions adapted to the existing system. State funding was still insufficient, so leaders of public colleges needed to attract tuition from students and donations from graduates.

By the start of the twentieth century, when enrollments began to climb in response to a growing demand for white-collar workers, the mixed public-private system was set to expand. Local autonomy gave institutions the freedom to establish a brand in the marketplace, and in the absence of strong state control, university leaders positioned their institutions to take pursue opportunities and adapt to changing conditions. As funding for research grew after World War II, college administrators started competing vigorously for these new sources of support.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the US system of higher education reached maturity, as colleges capitalized on decentralized and autonomous governance structures to take advantage of the lush opportunities for growth that arose during the Cold War. Colleges were able to leverage the public support they had developed during the long lean years, when a university degree was highly accessible and cheap. With the exception of the oldest New England colleges – the “Ivies” – American universities never developed the elitist aura of Old World institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, they retained a populist ethos – embodied in football and fraternities and flexible academic standards – that continues to serve them well politically.

So, can other systems of higher learning adapt the US model of educational excellence to local conditions? The answer is straightforward: no.  You had to be there.

In the twenty-first century, it is not possible for colleges to emerge with the same degree of autonomy that American colleges enjoyed some 200 years ago before the development of a strong nation state. Today, most non-American institutions are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the state; governments set priorities, and administrators pursue them in a top-down manner. By contrast, American universities have retained the spirit of independence, and faculty are often given latitude to channel entrepreneurial ideas into new programs, institutes, schools, and research. This bottom-up structure makes the US system of higher education costly, consumer-driven, and deeply stratified. But this is also what gives the system its global edge.