Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tribal Knowledge

Fox News's hostile interview with Reza Aslan has lit up the internet. (See Michael Maiello and Historiann for two of the smarter takes.) Obviously, interviewer Lauren Green's insistence that something must be very wrong for a Muslim to write a book about Jesus, and that such a book must be wrong, is a problem. But Green (and her producers) are simply peddling a toxic version of an idea that lots of us entertain in various forms. The idea that a non-believer cannot understand (or worse, should not be allowed to speak about) a belief is only a more aggressive outgrowth of the common conviction that being a believer, or identifying with some specific group, gives you a special insight or understanding denied to outsiders. The conviction that no Muslim could write a "fair" book about Jesus grows from the belief that Christians, by virtue of being Christians, understand Jesus better than anyone else possibly could. That sense of privileged understanding comes from one's social identity, not from actual knowledge, and can be actively hostile to such knowledge. In the Reza Aslan example, faith in Jesus Christ might be construed as more important than, for example, the ability to read Biblical Greek. To a certain kind of Christian, a Muslim who can read New Testament Greek represents not one but two problems. Aslan's scholarly accomplishment is perceived as a threat to "knowledge" derived by other means.

This is by no means limited to Christians, or to religious believers. I happened to read Janet Malcolm's In the Freud Archives the week before the Aslan interview. In that book, Malcolm deals, fairly indulgently, with the common claim among Freudians that only someone who has undergone Freudian analysis is entitled to an opinion about Freud. Only insiders, only properly initiated believers, can be authorities on the subject. (Replace "Freud" here with "scientology" and "Freudian analysis" with "dianetics counseling" and see how that sounds.) And this insistence that outsiders could not possibly understand led important Freudians to restrict access to factual evidence. (Malcolm also weirdly treats this as not-unreasonable.) The custodians of the Freud Archive refused to allow scholars to see biographical evidence about Freud, including letters in his own hand, unless they were sure that the scholar was a true believer who would stick to the current Freudian orthodoxies. The facts are a threat to  belief.

A less toxic but more annoying version of this behavior that I run into a lot is some people's conviction that they have a special insight into certain literature because of their ethnic background. There are, unfortunately, Irish-American students who are profoundly convinced that they have special insight into James Joyce or W. B. Yeats because of their "Irishness." This is observably untrue. Being named O'Shaughnessy doesn't give you any special insight into Ulysses, or guarantee that you'll understand any of it. Likewise, you occasionally run into Brits who are convinced that anyone who is not English or (if the person in question is Scottish or Welsh) not British could ever properly understand Shakespeare. There's much more I would like to know about Shakespeare's works, but I am willing to match my current knowledge of the subject against David Beckham's at any time. He can bring along Posh Spice for help.

But followed to its conclusion, this identification with the literature of one's tribe can shade into racism; the presumption of privileged understanding is, after all, a presumption of privilege. An English racist gives himself credit for Shakespeare's works, despite not having been much help writing them, and presumes that this gives him one-up on, say, a Pakistani immigrant who got at least as much Shakespeare in school as the Englishman did. The English racist may not understand a quarter of Henry V, but he takes credit for it because it was produced by "his people." Indeed, literary scholarship once actively promoted this racialist approach. You can still find old anthologies with titles like "Poems of the English race." Similarly, the Irish-American undergraduate who gives himself credit for Joyce, Yeats, and Heaney is in danger of slipping into the belief that his ethnic group possesses certain kinds of innate superiority. The more seriously he takes that belief, the uglier it has the potential to get.
There's nothing wrong with taking a particular interest in something because of your tribal affiliations. (I've got my Yeats and Heaney on the bookshelf.) But believing that you have special access to understanding it is a problem, not least because it keeps you from doing the work required to actually know about something.

I'm a practicing Christian and Reza Aslan is not. But Reza Aslan can read the Christian Gospels in the original and I cannot. That means he has a lot of things to say that I'm interested to hear. I'm going to make my own decisions about my beliefs at the end of the day. (I also know a translator of the New Testament and I acknowledge his superior learning, but I don't go to the same church he does on Sundays.) I'm perfectly happy to admit that Reza Aslan knows things about my religion that I do not know myself. If I refused to admit that, I would cut myself off from learning more.

In the end, tribal knowledge isn't about knowing. It's about believing one knows. That is a very different thing.  And at a certain point, actual information starts to feel like a threat to one's tribal certitude. Nothing is more dangerous to the illusion of knowledge than facts. There's more than one reason that Lauren Green didn't let Reza Aslan talk about his book. She might have learned something about the historical Jesus, and that would have been intolerable.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Larry Summers Is Bad with Money

So, apparently Larry Summers is now the leading candidate for Chairman of the Federal Reserve. This is a bad idea, for lots of reasons, not least of which is that Summers' sudden ascendancy is a sign that The Usual Suspects are talking him up, and it's The Usual Suspects who not only got our economy into this mess but made our government's top priority not getting out of the mess "too quickly." Summers himself was one of Obama's leading economic advisers during the first term, and neither his advice nor Obama's first-term policy were effective in turning the Great Recession around. The result of Summers's advice was always too little, too late. It was Summers who insisted on asking Congress for a smaller stimulus package than the economy needed, on the theory that the smaller package would get passed. Of course, Congress took that smaller package and cut it down even more.

Larry Summers is also responsible for doing major financial damage to America's largest educational non-profit. People mainly remember Summers's stint at Harvard for the way it ended, with Summers making stupid and self-destructive remarks that cost him the job. That's a real problem; without wading into everything problematic about that speech, it displays a lack of discipline that may be disqualifying. But people generally don't focus on the dire financial consequences of Summers's leadership. Summers's bad economic decisions cost Harvard a staggering amount of money. His main legacy at Harvard is an enormous hole in the ground.

During the bubble/boom years, Summers decided to put billions of dollars of Harvard's endowment into complex financial derivatives, mainly interest rate swaps. He got his way. After all, wasn't he an economist? Hadn't be been Treasury Secretary? Surely, he knew what he was doing. But Summers put three and a half billion dollars into some of the most toxic and illiquid investments possible. When the crash happened in 2008, those investments got hammered: a billion dollar loss for starters, followed by hundreds and hundreds of millions more in interest and bankers' fees as the school had to borrow money at a disadvantage to meet margin calls on all those toxic securities. All told, Harvard lost nearly $11 billion dollars of its endowment in the crash. It survived; going from $37 billion to $26 billion is not the end of the world. But it is an enormous waste, and Summers made it worse by billions. That money has not been made back. And Washington power players are now seriously talking about putting this man in charge of our national bank. Really.

[UPDATE: Here's a piece from Bloomberg setting all of this out in greater detail.]

But that's not all. Back in the heady days of the bubble, Larry Summers decided to bend one of Harvard's oldest fiscal rules. Harvard, which is rich in part because it has traditionally been cautious with its money, has a long-standing rule about not starting construction on any new buildings until after it has raised the cash. First you get the money, then you build the building. It's not complicated, and it works. (As I've said elsewhere, one of the biggest differences between a fiscally sane university and a university headed for financial trouble is that a healthy university raises the capital for new buildings and an unhealthy university borrows it.) Larry Summers was impatient with that rule. And he wanted to build a huge new science building across the river from Cambridge, in Boston's Allston neighborhood. So he broke Harvard's money-in-the-bank rule for new construction. He had the pledges for the money he needed, so he gave the go-ahead. Then the 2008 bust hit, and the donors who had promised money no longer had the money they promised.

Harvard's contractors had dug the hole for the foundation of that big, ambitious new building when the money dried up. So they stopped work. Harvard (and the neighborhood) was left with nothing but a five-acre hole in the ground. That hole is still there. It's been there longer than it takes to get a Harvard degree; the students who graduated last month have never known a Harvard that did not own a massive hole in the ground. Harvard hopes to do something about that hole next year, maybe.

Is the five acre hole in the middle of a major city going unused? Of course not. Rats are using it.

That's what Larry Summers's fiscal mind brought to the richest university on earth: a gaping five-acre pit. That is the genius being proposed as leader of the Fed. Because here's the truth: the American economy is another huge hole, even bigger than the one in Allston, dug in 2008 and still, all these years later, not filled in. The work has not even begun. Larry Summers is not the man to get us out of that hole. He's one of the men who dug it.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Stockpiling Books

I've been buying a lot of books this summer. That's not "a lot of books" by the usual standards, because I've always been a better-than-average bookstore customer. Lately I've been buying a lot of books even for me. But I haven't been buying them to read. I've been buying books to write.

Over the last two years, I have been steadily squirreling away books I need for the book I'm writing. Every scholarly book is built out of earlier books, in pretty visible ways. If you want your book to say something new, rather than just parroting what has gone before, you're actually going to need to build it from more books, not fewer. If you read shallowly, you'll end up saying what everyone else said. If you have a question that someone else hasn't asked, you'll have to dig for hints and clues and small pieces of evidence through dozens-to-hundreds of other books that were after different questions. If people don't already know (or think they know) the answer to your question, there's going to be a lot of research.

(Fiction is also built out of earlier books, but less obviously. A novelist or short story writer can only create something that seems fresh after she's read and digested hundreds and hundreds of other works of fiction. If you've only read a dozen novels in your whole life and then try to write one yourself, what you come up with will sound appallingly close to one of those dozen. You will sound like someone trying to imitate your favorite writer, and it will basically be fanfic. You probably won't even realize how close you are to outright plagiarism. It takes a lot of reading to get a sense of all the possible moves you can make in a story and to digest a bunch of different influences before you stop trying to sound like someone else and start trying to sound like yourself.)

Now, you can't research an academic book without an academic library and inter-library loan. But writing requires keeping a bunch of other books handy for a long stretch of time. You'll have to root back through those books repeatedly to check one thing or another, and won't necessarily foresee exactly what you'll need to look for day to day. So after a certain point, depending on the library for those books becomes either inefficient or anti-social. You need to be able to check facts as you write. You can't always be stopping short and making out a list of things to look up on Monday. On the other hand, the more useful a book is, the less fair it is to hog the library copy while writing something that takes years to finish. You don't want to be the guy who's had the standard biography of Milton out of the college library since 2008.

So, I've spent the last two years buying a book here and a book there, as I happened to find things on used-book shelves, building up a small collection of books I knew I would need for the project I've been researching. Over the years I spent writing my dissertation and then turning it into my first book, I collected a bunch of specialized monographs and reference works I needed for that project. Because my second book takes a different methodological approach, I have to accumulate a new section of my personal working library.

But over the last six weeks, the buying has picked up intensity. Instead of buying a couple of books every month, I've purchased a couple of dozen since May. Part of that was opportunity, the result of visits to used-book stores while traveling with my spouse or of finally seeing things at a good price on Every individual book was a good or excellent bargain, at least five or ten times cheaper than a new book from a university press. But I bought a lot of them, including multi-volume sets, more than enough to make me reorganize the shelves in my study. I've walked into bookstores and walked out with a box, more than once.

This newly serious book-buying feels like part of a new intensity in the writing process. The work is picking up steam, and so the reading and fact-checking have to keep pace. The preliminary phase of research and drafting is done, and now I'm starting the first really serious push. If I can sustain it, that push will take the next two years or so. During that time, I will have to work on lots of other things beside the book, but it will be the central project and there should be periods of fairly intense and sustained writing. I need a solid core of particular reference material in my writing space in order to keep momentum, need to be able to put my hand on exactly the volume I want at a specific moment in order to keep from slowing down. Assembling the books I need is like stockpiling supplies and equipment for the long push. I'm tooling up.

How this big push actually turns out won't be clear until it's done. At the moment I feel like the next two years will be the central and crucial part of the writing process. But I might be further from the end than I think. It's hard to know exactly where you are in the process of your second academic book, because the experience of writing your first book doesn't give you a clear road map. Writing that original, started-out-as-a-dissertation book is a torturous and often backward process. You start out with a few seminar papers and some ideas, and try to bootstrap them into a dissertation; because you've never written a dissertation before, you have to figure out the rules of that genre as you go, and often piece out the actual, workable structure for that document fairly late in the game. Then you've got a book-like object called a dissertation which you have to reverse-engineer into another, very different piece of writing, an actual publishable book. That process frequently demands more unexpected and sometimes radical restructuring, even very late in the game. The final version of my book was written almost exactly backwards: most of chapter four had been written first, followed in order by chapters five, three, two, one, and the introduction. While I would always recommend writing the intro last, and while I do plan some late tweaks to chapter one so that it sets up the rest of the book smoothly, that's not generally a writing process I want to reproduce.

This time I started with a clearer structure and a clearer plan. Putting a book together the hard way will teach you to appreciate how they're put together. So the sequence of writing might be more straightforward this time around. But writing a book in such a necessarily chaotic and haphazard way doesn't give you a feel for how a more normal version of the process goes, or where you might be in the process. You learn how to do it, and you learn that you never want to do it this way again. Writing the first book is about getting across the finish line alive. Writing the second book is about learning how writing one is actually supposed to work. Or at least that's my story right now; I'm sticking to it as long as I can.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Muslim Brotherhood Blows It

cross-posted from Dagblog

One of the most startling things about the terrible events in Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood, the great-granddaddy of all Islamist movements, has blown its shot at governing the country, a chance the Brotherhood spent decades waiting and planning for. That does not excuse the military coup, and the Brotherhood isn't the only party to blame. But there's no point in pretending that Morsi and the Brotherhood have been defenders of constitutional democracy either, and their refusal to share power or respect civil process helped create the mess their country is in tonight. Those protesters in Tahrir Square are real, and their anger is real, and it's the Brotherhood that made them angry. Even if you took the Brotherhood's own position on events, that the military was just looking for an excuse for a coup, the Brotherhood gave them that excuse.

If any Islamist group seemed capable of profiting from the Arab Spring, it was the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. They are the original Islamist party, founded in the 1920s, and they long ago became a major and venerable national institution. They are heavily involved in charity work across the country. They have steadily resisted decades of military rulers, and the British before them. They have proved themselves capable, for long stretches, of non-violent resistance, and they proved impossible for Farouk or Nasser or Mubarak to root out, because the Brotherhood has become an intrinsic part of Egyptian society. We are not talking about some upstart freak show like al-Qaeda, who are literally good for nothing but mayhem. The Muslim Brotherhood are Islamists, not jihadists. They're supposed to be the grownups, focused on building the country. And while I've admitted that I disagree with nearly all of their policies, I once had guarded hopes that the Brotherhood would settle down and become a normal political party inside a constitutional framework. The Brotherhood was, for many reasons, the Islamic religious party most capable of growing up, sharing power, and being a responsible role model for other Islamist groups. Now they've blown it.

The big mistake is refusing to share power. They have ruled like the single-party apparatus they used to resist, when the most important thing is to build national unity and make sure all constituencies are represented. That Morsi won the presidency with 51% should have been a warning, and it was. But Morsi refused to accept it. (51% of a presidential vote is okay in a mature democracy, where all the major parties are in agreement on the really big things, like who our national allies are or what form of government we have. A 51% victory in a brand-new democracy is a mandate to reach out and make partners, because you need them.) Morsi chose to rule like a dictator, issuing decrees to give himself more power and decreeing the court system powerless against him. I'd prefer to see the courts and not the army rein Morsi in, but Morsi himself made that impossible.

And while ignoring any constituency but their own, the Brotherhood ignored the constituency that toppled the Mubarak regime. The Brotherhood waited decades for their movement to topple the generals, but it did not. The Mubarak regime was only toppled when a new protest movement, not associated with the Brotherhood and not necessarily sharing its goals, appeared in the streets. This was the revolution the Brotherhood was waiting for, but not the one they planned. They have spent the past two years treating the revolution that actually took place as if it had been the revolution they originally expected, a revolution of and by the Brotherhood alone. They ignored their revolutionary partners, who had put them in power in the first place. Now the people they refused to treat as partners are back in Tahrir Square, and the Brotherhood hasn't been shown any idea what to do about that except to try to hold on. It took them only two years to change places with Mubarak, in the worst possible way.