the wonderful discoveries of used books: Platonist Gregory Vlastos and Classisist G. B. Kerferd

I’m quite a fan of used books, as most friends know, and books in general. But used books are almost always wonderful. I really like it when I encounter a book that somebody has marked up. What did they find interesting? That’s one of the few nice things about reading on the iPad: you can see what becomes a popular mark.

Yesterday, I got a very nice surprise in the mail. I ordered an older book–one I would normally take out from USC’s library–but it was only a few dollars used on Amazon. It was G.B. Kerford’s The Sophistic Movement. It will be a pretty familiar among readers of ancient philosophy because it’s an important book by a distinguished scholar, George Kerford, who passed in 1998.

Here’s a picture of the cover:
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I leafed through it and saw, comrade! A prior owner had scribbled some notes in Greek to annotate the key citations. Here, the reader has filled in a line from Plato’s Lysis (216a).

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I think it’s:

καὶ ἡμῖν εὐθὺς ἄσμενοι ἐπιπηδήσονται οὗτοι οἱ πάσσοφοι ἄνδρες, οἱ ἀντιλογικοί, καὶ ἐρήσονται εἰ οὐκ ἐναντιώτατον ἔχθρα φιλίᾳ;

It’s a bit where Socrates is being particularly irritating and speaking of things through anti-logic: Why, at once these all-accomplished logic-choppers will delightedly pounce on us and ask whether hatred is not the most opposite thing to friendship.

How wonderful, I thought. But then I looked at the front page and found this wonderful inscription.

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It’s an author’s copy that he presented to a friend–in this case, Gregory Vlastos. Now, Vlastos will be a familiar name to classicists and those interested in ancient philosophy, and he wrote some key pieces. One, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, is a key work in modern study. He also wrote one of the seminal pieces on Plato’s justice: Vlastos, G. 1977. The theory of social justice in the polis of plato’s republic . In Vlastos, Interpretations of Plato: A Swarthmore Symposium.

I don’t know for certain that the cribbing in Greek in the margins of my little book, which came to me at random from a small Amazon vendor, came from Vlastos himself–he might have passed along the book to a keen student–but the inscription was enough for me catch my breath and make me smile. I shall treasure my little book and continue thinking about it, written by a scholar in Durham (Kerford) and then inscribed and sent to his colleague, Vlastos, then at Princeton, with his “very kindest regards.”

Ben Carson, his mom (aka The Real MVP), HUD, and management versus leadership

My brilliant (and gracious) colleague Richard Green commented on Ben Carson’s appointment on KPCC. His brother shared this interview on Fboo, and one loudmouth Trump supporter immediately condemned Richard as typical leeeebral…and then had to admit that he hadn’t even bothered listening to what Richard said before jumping in to yell and scream about liberals, and to note that Carson “grew up in the projects so of course he is qualified.”

Way to show us that you, right-winger, epitomize rationality, open-mindedness, and everything wonderful about reason that we damn libs do not.

Carson did not, in fact, come from the projects. Now, the NYT reported this bit about Carson’s life, so it’s a mistake that anybody could make, and he did come from a neighborhood where, to put it mildly, his success was not guaranteed. Richard Green notes this, and says that while Carson’s story is impressive, it’s also exceptional. Not everybody is born as gifted as Dr. Carson, and it’s a bad idea socially to set up systems where only those as gifted as Carson gain skills and flourish. You wind up with much less overall when you let people fail because they are surrounded by barriers to success.

The GOP is fond of doing this: they trot out exceptional people like Condeleeza Rice or Dr. Carson and say “Ha! Proof that blacks can make it in America if they only sacrifice and try.” It’s proof for them that the system rewards merit and the problem resides with the people not the system. But, as Richard suggests, society winds up with much less made of human potential when we expect individuals to tear down all the barriers themselves. (Conservatives say “No, that’s why there are churches” etc))

Beloved colleague Richard, however, misses another rather important point: it sounds like Dr. Carson’s mother was exceptional, too, as in “You the Real MVP, Mom.” She worked three jobs to keep them out of public housing because, I assume, she wanted him to have a different peer group. I have questions about what the difference between ‘the projects’ and his neighborhood really are; it can mean the difference between schools, too, and then we get into a significant Mom-Public Service difference question.

My point, however, stands: Dr. Carson is not the only exceptional individual in this story. It sounds like his mother sacrificed and worked extremely hard for him to have opportunities. Like Abigail Adams, Ms. Carson made some pretty damn big contributions to society with her work raising her boy, and it’s the kind of work that gets rendered invisible and swept away when we focus only on how accomplished Dr. Carson is.

Of all the many contributions that Rawls makes to justice thought, the way he argues that growing up in families that teach good character is also a matter of good fortune (moral luck, to put in Bernard Williams terms) excited me the most. It’s absolutely true that you can pull yourself up in America. I did, to some degree. But it helps–a whole freaking lot–if you get born into a family of people who sacrifice for you and believe in you. Everybody comes into this world naked and helpless, and what greets them when they arrive is a big deal.

As Richard answered in his discussion with public radio, I don’t really know what Trump is thinking, but I have a guess. I think he just likes Ben Carson, and Trump doesn’t see management as a function of expertise at the upper echelons of an organization. Evidence for the fact that Trump likes him: DT was always reaching out and poking and touching him onstage during debates, and as awkward as that was, I think it was Donald Trump being friendly, and DT clearly has trouble with personal boundaries. Evidence for the latter is obvious. Whenever asked about anything that involves details, Trump talks about “his people” or “the guys with the yarmulkes.” “People” fret the technical stuff. Business dudes at the CEO level routinely switch industries. MBAs do not specialize in industries. They specialize by skills set: marketing, management, finance, etc. Trump thinks the folks he’s choosing are good leaders and that makes them qualified enough to be executive officers in agencies.

I don’t know really what Trump is doing, and I think people have been a little too quick to assumed there is a crafty, crafty, wiley strategy behind All Which Trump Does. I do think everything he does with the media is carefully choreographed, but I don’t think there are grand political strategies going on here, except insofar that he is actually listening to Preibus. How much does that matter? I don’t know.

We can get very blunt: the history of cabinet appointments suggests that we can and do have complete idiots as titular leaders and while damage can get done, leadership at the cabinet level is not necessarily about the details. Dr. Carson is not an idiot: he believes some things I think are pretty weird, but he’s clearly not incapable. The question becomes: what kind of expertise ought one have to lead? Not to manage, but to lead? How much of Carson’s new role is leadership versus management? Trump has emphasized the former.

In today’s world, if you think that people should be educated in order to engage in democratic leadership, it’s rather easy to pull out the lazy trope “ELITIST” among knee-jerk whiney types or, dressed up in fancier language, “fascist Neo-Platonist Supporter of Philosopher Kings.” I think it’s fair to say that no, I don’t think being a nonspecialist disqualifies you from democratic leadership. And yet the practicality of specialized public administration goes back a long ways: ancient sources from Egypt and Babylon show a highly sophisticated, hierarchical structure of educated people who reported on up to leaders who didn’t specialize, but who were born into their positions. Plato hardly invented the technocrat, and my read of Plato is that he did note some pretty severe drawbacks of having experts run things.

In other words, we probably don’t need philosopher kings, but it’s genuinely helpful if at least somebody knows something about what’s going on, and it helps a bit if leaders are willing to consider that in the directions they choose to go.

Regardless, what does Ben Carson’s “nearby” knowledge of the projects from 40 years ago really get him? (Maybe he’s younger than that; I am too lazy to look it up.) His advocates say “he never lost touch” with those neighborhoods, but I have questions. I grew up poor in rural Iowa in the 1980s. Do I know rural Iowa now that haven’t been to it in 20+ years? Housing policy has changed a lot during that time, and so have many of the issues that center on public housing in the US. Perhaps Dr. Carson has kept abreast better than I have. What my growing up poor in Iowa and moving on to a successful career has gotten me is that I am a person without a country: my colleagues in the academy, whether they admit to it or not, tend to think that people where I’m from are stupid and backward, and thus whatever poverty occurs there must be the fault of those there, and in turn, the less I speak of my life and experiences there, the better. People from back there hate California and hate academics, and now I’ve lost any and all common sense I ever did have for all that fancy book-learning instead of “the real world”, like somehow I don’t have to pay my bills or deal with cranky, powerful people who can make my life difficult. IOW, neither side thinks I can ever possibly understand anything about anything.

What I do have is empathy for poverty and impatience for those who think there is no social mobility, with an equal amount of impatience with people who think everybody can make it in America if they just try.

Back to Dr. Carson: a lot has happened in housing policy in 40 years, and a lot has happened in housing projects and poverty since then: mass incarceration took some steroids during the time period, for one, and programs that were in place to help his mother, and him, get access to social programs that helped him get where he is, regardless of whether he chooses to acknowledge those or not, and regardless of how great he, personally, is, or how great his mom was. Again, it helps if somebody at least knows a little about what is going on.

My coping mechanism for the next two years: Yes, Minister is available to stream on Amazon

Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne are sorely, sorely missed in the Schweitzer-Miller household. There are multiple television shows of my youth that had great influence on me as a kid growing up as I watched PBS all the time. (Not much else came in all that well.) This show was one of them.

It’s opening, drawn brilliantly by Gerald Scarfe, always emboldens me to make art even if I don’t draw well conventionally.

Me, Thomas Aquinas, and Why I Got No Time for All the “Let’s Understaaaaaaaaaaaaand” Sermons

First of all, understanding voting is hard. I’m not an expert on voting; I gave up on the social science on voting. Why? Because it’s vast, and when I was avidly following that literature, I found very few credible knowables for those outside party affiliations.

But I’ve sat through the last “We just need to understaaaaaaand each other” and “You liberals need to understaaaaaaaand all the pain of the white working class” sermons I am going to.


Look, people, I probably know more about the GOP platform that 90 percent of the people who voted for the GOP. It’s not that I don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaaand them. It’s that I don’t want what they say they want.

Is that really so wrong? Is lecturing me on my need to underssssstaaaaaaand them ANY different or less patronizing than liberals who think people need to be educated? Is it really impossible to believe that I understand them perfectly well and still just don’t want what they want?

No, it’s not.

It’s not that I didn’t listen or that I don’t read other people’s sides. I do. I just think their policies are the wrong way to go.

So here’s the deal: I am the opposition. You win some elections, you lose some elections. My side lost this time. Ok. But there’s no “oohhhhhh let’s all get along and support the new guy.” I don’t wish him ill; I hope he doesn’t get any horrible disease from his can o’tan, and I also hope nobody tries to hurt him, or heaven forbid succeeds. I’m looking forward to whatever pretty outfits Melania plans to wear to all the tedious things she is going to have to go to now. I admit to some schaudenfreundish tee-heeing at how much less fun being president is going to be than running for president, but hey, maybe he will find hidden depths and wind up liking the job.

But I fervently hope they fail to implement every single thing they promised because I think every single thing PEOTUS has said in the last year, and just about every single thing in the GOP platform, are dumb things to do. I’m not going to help make those things happen. It’s not my duty to support what I consider bad public policy. I dissent. Period.

I don’t have to be a good sport. My side lost. The other side is in charge. They have their turn. They spent 8 years obstructing. That’s what opposition *does.* I didn’t expect the other guys to be *nice* when they were out of power. And they weren’t, in case any of you missed the bit where Charles Grassley and Mitch McConnell hosed the Dems out of a SCOTUS nomination. They had the power to do it, they did it.

That happens in politics. The other team has the ball. Maybe they will prove me wrong and all their policy changes will be wonderful.But I’m not going to help them find out. Not my job. It’s their job now. It’s my job to make their job hard enough that they want to make some deals to win me over. That’s my job now.

For all the liberal guilt everybody wants to drench themselves in, for all the gloating that “teh smug liberalz have been shown a thang or two—horsepoop. I have been scraping conservative social media feeds for 3 years (doing some work on open carry and assumptions about the public sphere) and plenty of these people are JUST as smug, snotty, patronizing, and insufferable as Matt Taibbi or anybody else people want to drub for smugness on the left. People who are convinced they are right about things are annoying, but it’s EVERYWHERE and neither side has a monopoly on asshats. Go look at #leftstupid if you don’t believe me. Ya wanna understaaaaaaaaaaaaand why they think you’re stupid? Because you don’t agree with them, that’s why. And that’s all.

Boy, howdy, deep.

It may be appealing to say that we need to understaaaaaand each other, but it’s also deluded at some point. America is pluralistic, and there are interests that are not going to be reconciled by kumbayah appeals to civil society. For somebody who believes life begins at conception, there is no amount of me explaining my side that is going to move them. We are not going to come together. I don’t think a person who believes that life begins at conception is a monster or an idiot (though, from what I’ve scraped from the web, plenty of those folk think people like me are). I just think they are wrong to put the well-being of what think is basically a group of cells over the well-being of a woman who is already in the world. They think I am wrong to weight these things the other way. I don’t want them to have their way in our collectively governed space. They don’t want me to have my way in our collectively governed space.

I’ve read Aquinas on when life begins and ends. It is remarkable–remarkable–thinking; and plenty of his interlocutors have built very good arguments for why the “at conception” people are right, and I am wrong. I read a big pile of it.

I clocked in the damn hours to understaaaaaaaaand.

But I still think I’m right to come down on the issue where I do, after all that anguished study.

That’s it. We understand each other perfectly fine. We just don’t agree. And that’s what we have to live with. Nothing more, nothing less.

As to the jerkfaces painting swastikas, I understand them, plenty. I don’t know how much of Trump’s coalition they represent; supporters tell me it’s a tiny fraction, teenagers engaging in youthful rebellion, etc etc…but even a tiny fraction is gross. To hell with them. I don’t owe them my time. If one starts choking next to me in Denny’s I’ll do the Heimlich. But beyond that, they can call back for my empathy when they aren’t celebrating a political ideology that killed millions of people. Toleration has limits.

Shaun King’s 25-part series on stopping police brutality gathered in one spot

I’ve been working through this Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves, and to make the Shaun King material easier to read in order on my iPad, I decided to make a Table of Contents to all the links, and it makes sense to share.

Introducing a 25-part series on how to reduce police brutality following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

  1. Solutions for police brutality can begin with our overwhelmingly white male justice system
  2. To help fix police brutality, cops can no longer have less training than the average cosmetologist

  3. Police officers should be routinely tested for drugs and steroids like American athletes

  4. If you want to be a violent racist and never lose your job, become a police officer
  5. Police officers should be required to have a college degree
  6. Every city and state in America must ban racial profiling
  7. 911 operators must ask about mental health issues, a small change that could save lives
  8. To combat police brutality, hire more female cops — studies show they’re better at keeping their cool
  9. Why we must require cops to live in or near the area they police
  10. Communities of color are massively over-policed — effectively criminalizing color itself
  11. American police must be regularly tested for racial bias
  12. American police, who see humanity at its worst, must be regularly tested and treated for PTSD
  13. Why we must take police brutality cases all the way to the Supreme Court
  14. Good police must speak out against bad officers
  15. If nurses and doctors can treat the mentally ill without shooting them to death, so can American police
  16. Why police body cameras are failing, and the exact policies we must enact to unleash their power

  17. If a police officer must use force against a suspect, it should match the ‘crime’

  18. Every American police officer must have three weapons other than guns on them at all times
  19. It must become illegal for police to act violently using only their inaccurate imaginations
  20. American police departments are revenue generating monsters, policing for profit must be banned
  21. Police must record statements explaining their use of force immediately after each incident
  22. All use of force investigations must be turned over to an independent agency with binding instructions
  23. Police departments that fail to report killer cops don’t deserve federal funding
  24. Changing the culture of police brutality needs to happen on the state and local level
  25. Police officers, local prosecutors are two of a kind

Look, people, “welfare state” and “having a few beers with your buds down at the local” are not perjorative terms

My Twitter feed exploded yesterday because I got some retweets and some people who wanted to argue the following points.

1) Rural people are rugged individualists! They don’t want your stinkin’ welfare!

2) It’s not about economics! It’s about how awesome the rural lifestyle is and how you city people don’t respect it!

3) Rethink those last two paragraphs, Missy! How dare you patronize the hypothetical logger and protray this marvelous, wonderful, magnificent, noble man of toil as a drunk?

Ok, let’s handle these in order.

1) I said welfare state. I did mention straight up welfare payments, as those are an option in the welfare state, but welfare state policies include a whole host of market interventions, from Coasean transfer payments to make-work infrastructure programs to social insurance programs, like unemployment insurance.

The welfare state reflects the notion that the state exists, in part, to have a managing role in distributing the spoils of economic growth right along with fostering economic growth. The welfare state is at times denigrated as the “nanny” state, but I’m old-fashioned: I don’t think there is any real point to government unless it is there to help foster the well-being of its citizens.

The neoliberal conception of state, which dominates and has since Reagen-Thatcher, views the state as an entity that exists solely for enabling markets and economic growth, but remains agnostic about who gets the spoils, because, according to Chicago school neoclassicists, any intervention that redistributes downward will slow down aggregate growth, and it’s better to have a bigger pie overall than a smaller pie, as smaller share in a bigger pie is better than a bigger share of a smaller pie. And LIBERTY! Whoo hoo!

Those of you who are good at math know that that last statement is not, necessarily, true; it depends on the percentages and the relative size of the pies. And my first argument yesterday had to do with just this problem: free markets and austerity could well mean a dwindling share of a bigger pie, which means relatively labor in all parts of the world, skilled and unskilled alike, watch while a tiny percentage of people get vasty rich. It’s hard to be free when you are so poor you have to eat whatever crap capitalists make you eat. But hey. LIBERTY.

What does this have to do with rural areas? Trump talked trade protectionism, which is a welfare state approach. Nonetheless, structurally, rural areas are still at a locational disadvantage. If we want money to flow in that direction, it takes a recalibrating of the policy mindset away from neoliberalism and towards a welfare state mindset. I don’t have a problem with that.

But it will also take a specific policy decision to vitiate the locational disadvantage of rural areas relative to major metros even within the United States. I don’t think it will be sufficient to keep jobs from going to Mexico or China or India or Laos. Rural labor and small town labor may be less expensive than central city labor, but it’s not that much less expensive, and I don’t see a locational advantage in Ohio over any footloose industry. We can try to protect steelworkers, specifically, and that will help out Ohio and Pennsylvania. But higher wages there are going to mean higher prices in construction, and that has consequences for labor elsewhere in the US. With trade protectionism, you don’t generally get high wages and low prices: it’s possible under very specific circumstances, but it’s also possible that, like minimum wage laws, better compensated labor (US labor) raises prices.

(Don’t shoot the messenger. If we want places to prosper, we have to make a normative decision to do that. I’m in.)

I had some arguments that land is cheap and rural areas are closer to natural resources, so rural places have advantages in those dimensions. And that’s true. But if cheap land and resource proximity where all that and a bag of chips, rural areas wouldn’t be troubled economically. Cheap land is a sign of something, and it’s not locational advantage. Cheap rural land is not scarce.

2) It’s about the magnificence of the rural lifestyle and how you city people don’t respect us! I am actually not willing to engage much with this argument because I think it’s hogwash. I’m from a rural area, and in general, people there are not this childish.

Like anything else, whiteness and small-town-ness can be a construct of identity politics, I suppose. But honestly, folks, nobody is thinking about *anybody else* on a day-to-day basis, and that stands for me as well as you. I think “flyover country” is rude and never say it, but can I tell you the number of times I’ve had to sit through people from various small towns in Iowa lecture me about how they flew through LAX once and thus they “hate Los Angeles” with all the violence and the traffic and the Mexicans (this is said out loud), etc etc. Nobody ever really understands anybody else’s places or love or hate for those places.

I grew up in a small town. I didn’t like it. I like where I live now. Just like I don’t like Cherry Garcia ice cream (I know, right?), I prefer one thing to another thing, but I’m pretty sure that people who like Cherry Garcia know what they are about, and our difference in preferred mode of living is just that, a preference, not some grand indicator of taste.

As to the magnificence of the rural lifestyle, sure. If you like it, great. Good on ya.

The other reasons this whole “rural pride” argument strikes me as off the wall is that goes where everybody says it shouldn’t: straight to white supremacy. If rural pride is really… “We are the REAL AMERICA”…uh-huh. No, America is a pluralistic place, and has been for a long time now. The fact that anybody thinks they need to be on top of the heap in such a construction is a problem, both socially and politically, and when -=6combined with Donald Trump’s grossest associations and comments, it’s a fast road from “I voted for Donald Trump because he understands I’m the REAL AMERICA in small-town USA” to “raciss small town voter.”

I’m sure that’s true in some instances. What I don’t buy is that reflects a majority of small-town and rural voters, nor do I believe that this sentiment about THE REAL AMERICA is something isolated to small towns. In other words, I suspect that there are raciss voters in metro areas, too. We wouldn’t have gated, lily white suburbs as big as they are if we didn’t.

3. You’re mean and patronizing to Cramer’s hypothetical logger because you assumed he or she is a trifling drunk.

Let’s look at exactly what I said:

Ok, that’s legit. Hard physical work is hard work. I respect that. But um, where were you, hard-working logger, when I was home Saturday nights studying until my eyeballs bled so that I could pass vector calculus and Jay Sa’Adu’s nonlinear optimization class? Having a few beers with your buddies at the local? Sounds easy to me.

How does anybody get “trifling drunk” out of that? People can go to a bar and have a few drinks without getting falling down drunk. It’s a thing that people do for fun in places where it’s possible and they have/make the time to do it. I’m thinking that there is cultural baggage wrapped up the idea of going to a local bar, but I sure didn’t bring that baggage to the discussion.

First of all, the fact that I said anything, anything at all, as a woman with PhD put a target on my back. How dare I speak? Let alone speak up for myself, let alone start from the assumption that I succeeded at something? Those are *ALL* supposed to be determinations made outside of myself, where I, the unworthy female supplicant, make sure everybody knows that they are just as smart, just as accomplished, etc etc lest they feel their status threatened by me in any way, shape or form. Mustn’t be uppity or anything.

Well, screw that. I’m done apologizing and pretending I’m just l’il ole me, who benefited from affirmative action and tons of gummint help, etc etc. I moved 800 miles away my family; I left everything I knew. I did this because I took the terms of the neoliberal social mobility ladder: you either scramble and move, or you get left behind. I scrambled. I moved. I lived and fought out my career in comparative isolation. I had help and support along the way, but I worked my ass off. Andy and I sacrificed, again and again and again, so that I could build a career. I got lucky. An able-bodied logger got lucky in his/her own way, too, being born into the world with a body healthy enough to work at all. I’m grateful for all the luck and help. But those don’t mean I didn’t and don’t work.

If you think it’s easy to get where I’m from to where I’m at, you do it.

Mores to the point…having a few beers with your buddies on Saturday night at the local is not a sin. It’s convivial. It’s social. Sitting down and playing a game of euchre and having a beer or two is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Substance abuse is a different story, but it’s not like rural areas have a monopoly on that problem.

There are all sorts of ways that sitting down and having a beer with a friend at the local makes sense: it’s one of the things that sucks about LA that local bars are very rare. (Scale; no matter the neighborhood, it’s likely to have far too many people to be really intimate.) But the friends you have a beer with are also the friends who will help you harvest your corn if you get sick; their kids might babysit your kids; they will help set out sandbags when the flood comes.

In other words, having a few beers is part of the social life of a place, unless you are a Puritan, and I am not. Community matters, in its various forms and expressions. One of my favorite episodes of House was one where Foreman meets a bright young Traveler boy who loves to read and learn, but makes the decision that he will never leave his family to go to college. Getting an education wasn’t as important to him as staying with his people. At the end of the episode, Foreman watches the boy walk to the parking lot, surrounded by his big, boisterous, happy family…and then the last scene shows Foreman, in a beautiful apartment, eating his dinner all alone.

Those are choices, and the first choice is legitimate, too; so is Foreman’s choice (it was, basically, the choice I made, too). My point in making the contrast between having a few beers (a pleasant activity) versus me studying until my eyeballs bleed is that the two are different ways of being in the world with different consequences and different modalities of investing. I studied; some people hate to study. There are different rewards and sacrifices to those activities. I moved to a place where nobody really cares if I am homeless because of the economic opportunities the place offered; people who stay where they grew up stayed in a place where people are invested in them.

The point of the welfare state, by the way, should be that neither of those two choices should entail such crippling poverty that a ‘choice’ is no longer a viable one.