Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ask Me About Shakespeare, Round Two

Over at Dagblog, I'm hosting my second "Ask me about Shakespeare" thread. If you want to watch the steam come out of my ears as I relive my graduate oral exams, that's the place right now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Winnowing the GOP Field with Jane Austen

Scott Walker has left the Republican presidential primaries: the first dropout who was once considered a major contender for the nomination. That, and the departure of Rick Perry, leaves us with only fourteen or fifteen candidates left. In fact, the real number is much smaller than that, because of an economic concept called the Pareto principle; there have never been sixteen choices, because the Pareto principle cuts the number down to a smaller number of practical options. But since I am a book nerd rather than a math nerd, I am going to illustrate this statistical idea with my old friend Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr and Mrs Bennet have imprudently had a family of five daughters and no sons. Since there's no son, Mr Bennet's estate is going to distant relatives when he dies, leaving his widow and five daughters in poverty. The five girls' only hope is to marry well. But since there are five of them, there is the real danger that they will crowd each other out so that none of them gets married. Other characters ask why the Bennets have allowed all five daughters out "into society," meaning the marriage market, at once instead of letting one daughter out at a time, so that Daughter Number Two wouldn't start going to balls until Daughter Number One was married. The Bennets take a laissez-faire approach which hopes that all five girls can find husbands; the neighbors fear a Tragedy of the Commons in which the glut of Bennet sisters on the marriage market keeps any of them from being married.

Neither scenario is correct. Three sisters get married, two do not, and the two who do not are never in even the remotest danger of a marriage proposal. The Bennett sisters offer three, rather than five, real choices for potential suitors. Two of the five sisters are eliminated from consideration by the Pareto principle, which says that any option which comes behind another in all criteria being considered is thereby eliminated from consideration: "Pareto dominated," as they like to say at 538. If I'm choosing a motel for the night, I might balance my choice between low cost on one hand and amenities like good cable or a free breakfast on the other. Maybe I'll go with Chain A, which costs more but provides HBO and a waffle buffet, or the much cheaper Chain B, with its basic cable and continental breakfast. But I am not even going to consider Chain C, which costs $20 more than Chain B but doesn't offer ESPN or breakfast. Why would I pay more not to get a Danish? Chain C is Pareto dominated, eliminated from the field of choices.

Now, the eldest of the five Bennet sisters, Jane, is universally agreed to be the best-looking. She is also easily the nicest of the five. Daughter Number Two, Elizabeth, is the second-prettiest (as we know from the behavior of a failed suitor who only considers looks), but not especially nice; she can have a sharp tongue. On the other hand, Elizabeth is by far the smartest. Meanwhile youngest sister, Lydia, is far and away the easiest of the five. (I tried to find another term like "affable" or "agreeable," but none of these are quite accurate. Lydia is distinguished from her four sisters because she's the one most likely to have sex before marriage.) And of course the sisters are all equal on some criteria, such as wealth and family background. A man who needs a rich dowry, or who can't bear the thought of Mrs Bennet as a mother-in-law, is going to rule all five sisters out of consideration.

An especially shallow suitor (and the novel does have one), would just rank all five sisters by physical attractiveness: Jane first, Elizabeth second, and Mary last. By that standard, Elizabeth would be Jane's closest rival. But most people looking for a spouse are at least a little smarter than that, and choose along more than one axis, so that Jane and Elizabeth are never actually in competition with each other for serious suitors. If you're looking for pretty and nice, Jane is the clear winner, and someone looking for someone like Jane is not going to consider Elizabeth at all. Elizabeth is less physically attractive AND more likely to take your inventory with other people there listening.

On the other hand, there are suitors who value intelligence, and who might prefer Elizabeth to her prettier sister, especially if they put less of a premium on beauty alone. Elizabeth is more than pretty enough to marry, and much, much smarter than most other young marriageable ladies in the novel, so she attracts her own suitors. But there's virtually no overlap between men who pursue Elizabeth and men who pursue Jane. If you're interested in beauty and sweetness, Jane Pareto dominates Elizabeth. But Elizabeth isn't universally dominated because she has something that her sister doesn't. If you're interested in beauty and brains, Jane isn't really in the running because, while she is not stupid, neither is she unusually bright. Jane and Elizabeth each have their own distinct group of suitors and occupy different parts of the decision space.

Likewise, a caddish suitor looking for someone to sleep with rather than to marry is going to be much more interested in Lydia. Jane and Elizabeth may be prettier and, in the abstract, sexier. But they don't crowd Lydia entirely out of the decision space because she offers something they don't. If you're looking for premarital sex, the fact that Jane is hotter doesn't make her a better choice. The sexier sister who won't sleep with you is not a better choice than the still-perfectly-sexy sister who will. So Lydia, Jane, and Elizabeth present three distinct alternatives, appealing to three different kinds of men.

But the other two sisters, Mary and Kitty, are eliminated from consideration because neither offers a genuine alternative to the other three sisters. Instead, they both come off as inferior imitations of one of those three. Mary, who is clearly the homeliest, has staked all her chips on showing off her brains. Her problem is that Elizabeth is still much, much smarter. Mary's attempts to seem smart are painfully laborious, all too clearly the product of ponderous study, while Elizabeth is quick as lightning. And, worse yet, Elizabeth is also much prettier than Mary. Poor Mary can't win, and doesn't. No suitor is going to pursue Mary while Elizabeth is available.

Likewise, Kitty is a paler imitation of Lydia, almost surely the second-easiest. (She clearly knows about some of Lydia's illicit romance and keeps that secret, whereas the other three sisters would almost certainly narc on Lydia immediately.) But second-easiest, in this case, means not as easy. Anybody interested in Kitty is going to be more interested in Lydia. So, like Mary, Kitty is Pareto dominated. She is one of the eliminated choices and has to live vicariously through Lydia's imprudent adventures.

Now, our crowd of Republican candidates likewise represents a number of significant alternatives, each with its own sector of the decision space, and a number of also-rans who are basically ruled out. The candidates are competing on different strengths, most obviously on their conservatism and their electability, but there are other characteristics that resonate with Republican primary voters; the exact list is up for debate. Performance of authority seems to be salient, so that Fiorina doing her best alpha-dog act at the second debate helped her enormously. And, alas, there is clearly a subset of GOP voters that is looking for the best racist dog-whistler.

Trump doesn't compete on electability at all. But he performs authority well, he traffics in various fringe beliefs that are current among some of the party base, and  he doesn't so much do the racist dog whistle as he calls his racist dogs at the top of his voice. If you were planning to run as a maverick outsider and pick up support with some subtle racial signaling, Trump has you beat on every level. He is more of an outsider than any first-term Senator or far-from-DC governor can claim to be. He is also more maverick-y than anyone else, being not merely a maverick but a bull in a china shop, untethered by any restraint or sense of prudence. You can't be more outrageous than Trump. And if you were hoping to pick up a few white-pride voters, Trump had you beat out of the gate when called Mexicans rapists in his announcement speech. Other "outsider" candidates looking for that particular slice of white support are Pareto dominated by Trump.

There are other examples. Huckabee and Santorum are both running as not-very-electable champions of Christian conservatives. But Huckabee is both more appealing to Christian conservatives and more electable than Santorum is (meaning not so very electable, but not as hopeless as Santorum). This leaves Santorum no air to breathe at all. If Bobby Jindal was hoping to be the non-white hardcore conservative candidate, Ben Carson (even more hardcore and less white) has him beat. If Jindal was hoping to be the Chance to Reach New Voters, Rubio has him beat (because the Latino vote is much bigger than the South Asian vote).

Where we are really not seeing much competition is in the Electability sweepstakes, with the candidates whose basic appeal is that they can win in the general election. Right now the primary voters don't seem interested in electability at all; the most recent polls show Trump, Carson, and Fiorina, three candidates who haven't won a single election between them, with more than half the combined support of GOP voters. As I've argued before, the most surprising thing is not how well Trump is doing but how poorly Jeb Bush, the presumptive electable alternative, is doing. And no one has yet emerged as the main electable candidate, the way Mitt Romney emerged last time around. The 2012 Republican primaries featured one main Electable Option, Romney, and a bunch of competitors for the role of Uncompromising Conservative. This time we have a clear Uncompromising Outsider, pretty much safe from challenge on his native turf, and no solid Electable Mainstream Option. In 2012, no Republican could hold onto the Lydia Bennet role for more than a week or two. This time, no Republican has seized the Elizabeth Bennet role for even a week.

The Democratic primary, on the other hand, already has a pretty clear and recognizable shape. There's a party-establishment favorite, Clinton, whose main appeal is her electability, and a dark-horse challenger, Sanders, whose main appeal is his ideological closeness to the base. Then you have a couple of also-rans like Martin O'Malley or Jim Webb,  Pareto dominated by Clinton because they are at once less liberal and less electable than she is. And you have the non-candidate, Biden, sitting out because he would be dominated by Hillary if he got in now (he's slightly less electable and equally mainstream), but that would flip around if Hillary were suddenly undone by a major scandal. (If Hillary turned out to be, say, selling weapons to Iran and using the money to fund the Nicaraguan contras, to choose a purely hypothetical example, she would suddenly be less electable than Biden.)

Where I would expect to see movement in the Republican campaign is on the mainstream, electable side. Trump cannot be beaten at Trump's game. Candidates like Cruz or Rand Paul are going nowhere this year. Neither is Carson, really, even if he's outpolling some more likely contenders right now. But someone could conceivably take over the mainstream/establishment/viable-in-a-general-election role that Jeb Bush hasn't managed to keep or win. Yes, some of the other mainstream/moderate candidates are hopeless. No primary voter would vote for George Pataki, who is both to the left of Jeb Bush and less viable in the general election than Jeb Bush, when they could simply vote for Jeb Bush. The same basically goes for Lindsay Graham. But while Jeb himself can't manage to break ten percent in the polls, one of the other candidates in his general category could overtake him. People like Rubio and Kasich, or even Christie despite his serious problems, would be smart to stick around.  They aren't really competing against all 13 of the other candidates. They aren't even competing against Trump. Not yet. They're competing against Jeb Bush for the position of Reasonable Party Dad that he mysteriously can't nail down. Then whoever manages to establish himself in that role can go toe-to-toe with Trump under the "Yes, but I can beat Hillary" banner.

And if none of the "electable" establishment candidates emerges as a major contender, then we will be on new and unexpected ground.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Loving Shakespeare's Language, Then and Now

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine carries an elegantly written lament by Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University, who has come to believe that his students don't love Shakespeare's poetry as poetry anymore:
Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at Harvard are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of his words than I was so many years ago or than my students were in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif. What has happened? It is not that my students now lack verbal facility. In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual and resembles the texting and blogging that they do so constantly. The problem is that their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid. It is as if the sense of linguistic birthright that I experienced with such wonder had faded and with it an interest in exploiting its infinite resources.
To this, I say: Okay. Maybe. But also maybe not. But if this is so, it isn't a naturally occurring phenomenon. It results from a changed set of educational emphases. Focusing on the poetry as poetry, and relentlessly working over the rhythms and images and word choices, was the central enterprise of college English Lit classes over roughly the middle half of the 20th century. And because that was what high school and middle school English teachers had learned how to do in college, that was what they passed on to students in middle school and high school. If Stephen Greenblatt came to college already loving Shakespeare for the beautiful language, it is because he had come to college through an educational system where studying Shakespeare meant studying the beautiful language.

There was a move away from this system (which went and still goes by the name "the New Criticism") starting roughly in the 1980s. Here's another passage by a scholar of Greenblatt's generation:
In graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s, I found myself deeply uncertain about the direction I wanted my work to take. I was only mildly interested in the formalist agenda that dominated graduate instruction and was epitomized in the imposing figure of William K. Wimsatt. His theory of the concrete universal -- poetry as "an object which in a mysterious way is both highly general and highly particular" -- seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery.
Wimsatt was one of the intellectual giants of the "New Criticism," the so-called "formalist" attention to poetic language above all else. But our former graduate student couldn't limit himself to that approach. So he struck out in a new direction and pioneered a new critical approach to Shakespeare which centered on using history to illuminate the texts in new and innovative ways.

He is, of course, Stephen Greenblatt. The second passage is from Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, page 1.

A few quick acknowledgements: Greenblatt is legitimately the most famous and influential Shakespeare scholar of his generation. He has basically been Shakespearean Number One for years now. I don't know him personally, but we are one degree of separation apart in dozens of directions. And I will admit, right now, that he has been a major influence on my own work. I'm a big, big fan. (I knew right where to find that second passage, didn't I?)

Now, I have never believed that Greenblatt's work meant turning away from the poetry itself. But many of his many, many critics have said exactly that. They view the question as either/or: are we talking about poetry, or are we talking about "early modern culture?" I have always viewed the question as both/and: the intellectual tools that Greenblatt provides supplement the older toolbox originally filled by Wimsatt and the boys. (I spent my first year in college being subtly but relentlessly drilled in the older skill set by one of Greenblatt's most distinguished colleagues. That experience has turned out to be much more formative than I once admitted to myself.)

Greenblatt's NYT Magazine piece reads from one viewpoint like an inadvertent mea culpa, bemoaning all the changes that Greenblatt's critics once warned that Greenblatt himself would bring to pass. Kids don't love Shakespeare's poetry any more! We told you this would happen! But I read it instead as evidence that Greenblatt himself has always been a both/and type. He didn't turn away from Wimsatt's methods because he thought they were wrong. He took them as proven, and moved on to a different area where things needed more clarification. Loving the language was always something he presumed as part of the basic approach. And certainly, at the beginning of his career, with decades of educational infrastructure teaching every English major to use and value those Wimsatt-y New Critical skills, Greenblatt could safely take them for granted.

But the real problem with the NYT piece isn't that Greenblatt pines for the older approach that he himself helped to dethrone. The problem for me is that Greenblatt, whose own ground-breaking work has been on examining social and cultural context, ignores the context of the educational system itself. Greenblatt 2015 writes about falling in love with Shakespeare's language as a spontaneous personal event, wholly distinct from the educational system around him. (He even leads off with a middle school teacher's failed attempt to win him over to Shakespeare, so that he can imply that his love comes from himself and not from school.) But Greenblatt circa 1985 teaches us to be suspicious of those claims, and to look for the ways that the society around the individual loads the deck.

People in Greenblatt's generation encountered the message about Shakespeare's beautiful language over and over again, maximizing the chances that it would eventually stick. Students today encounter the message that "Shakespeare can be cool in some exciting new medium!" over and over again; if students who got that message relentlessly until high school graduation reproduce that message themselves in college, that's not exactly supernatural. People don't fall in love with Shakespeare entirely and spontaneously on their own. Someone else always passes notes for him in study hall.

If Stephen Greenblatt wants students to love the Shakespeare that he loves himself, he needs to woo them for that Shakespeare. He needs to show students those poetic beauties and give the students opportunities to savor them. He needs to woo persistently without pestering, to allow the wooed party room to breathe without letting the courtship run cold. He needs to keep the object of desire before the students' eyes until they decide that, deep in their own hearts, they desire it for themselves. It's a tricky process. It's not easy, and it doesn't always work. But we've been doing it for a long time, and it has a name. It's called "teaching."

cross-posted (and all comments welcome at) Dagblog

Thursday, September 03, 2015

In Praise of Fred Rogers

A county clerk down in Kentucky, Kim Davis, is refusing to do her job, getting herself thrown in jail for contempt, and posing as a martyr. Once again, an extremist and divisive version of Christianity, obsessed with minor points of doctrine and followed by only a minority of Christians, is presented to the American public as "Christianity." This is nonsense, of course. Only a tiny, tiny minority of Christians believe that handing same-sex couples a wedding license is somehow sinful. And disapproval of homosexuality is an incredibly minor Christian doctrine which some theologians exclude altogether, while on the other hand not setting yourself up as judge over your neighbors is a core Christian belief. I could go on, but then we'd be talking about Kim Davis instead of actual Christianity, which is just what Kim Davis wants.

I'd like to talk about a positive example instead: a genuinely devout Christian who spent decades in the public spotlight and did nothing but good there, who never turned his faith into a weapon of division but used it, day after day, to welcome and include all comers. I am talking, of course, about Mr. Rogers.

Or rather, I am talking about the Reverend Fred Rogers, ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963. Rogers was, according to virtually everyone who knew him, a deeply committed believer. But he never preached on Sundays. The TV show was his ministry. Let me go further: it appears that the seminary that ordained him considered the TV show his ministry. Fred Rogers was, as Brother Elwood puts it, on a mission from God.

But you won't see or hear any explicit Christian symbolism on Mister Rogers's Neighborhood. It's not there. And I don't mean it's cleverly disguised, either. That was not Fred Rogers's game. The Kingdom of Make-Believe isn't some C. S. Lewis feed-the-children-Jesus-when-they're-not-looking propaganda. King Friday XIII is not God, X the Owl is not Jesus, and Donkey Hote is not the Holy Ghost. When Mr. Rogers feeds the fish, he's not doing some Christian fish symbolism. He's just feeding some fish. There is nothing sectarian in Mister Rogers's Neighborhood. There is nothing exclusively Christian about it, nothing aimed at one religious group and absolutely nothing aimed at converting or indoctrinating Fred's audience of impressionable preschoolers. This was by design. Terry Gross, of NPR's Fresh Air, once asked Fred why there wasn't any Christian symbolism in the Kingdom of Make-Believe. Fred answered, simply and directly, that he never wanted any child to feel excluded in the Kingdom of Make-Believe.

But not being sectarian or exclusionary does not mean that Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood was not Christian. Remember, the people who ordained Fred a minister explicitly told him that his show was his ministry. Fred's refusal to exclude children or insist on any doctrinal labels was part of the show's Christian mission. He did without the superficial religious symbols in service of a deeper Christianity.

Where was the religious content, then? Everywhere. And I mean that. Almost every syllable spoken on that show came from Fred Rogers's religious convictions. (Everything that he did or said on the air was deliberate and purposeful. Every show is a meticulously crafted and executed lesson.) The core message that Fred made sure to include in every single show, more than once, was the Christian message of universal, unconditional love: "I like you just the way you are." The central lesson, every day, was that the children watching were people deserving of love. Fred didn't talk about being Christian. He made himself an example of Christian love.

Now, you don't have to be Christian to entertain the idea of every individual's fundamental worth and dignity. There are secular versions of that. But the idea that every human is unconditionally worthy of love is both at the very heart of Christianity and broadly palatable to non-Christians. Nearly every religious tradition includes a mix of core ideas that are nonetheless widely attractive to outsiders and more peripheral beliefs that often serve to define sectarian boundaries. Most people can get on board with Talmudic teachings on justice and integrity. Most people are not eager to embrace the "can't touch the light switch on Friday nights" rule. "Love thy neighbor" is a big, ecumenical hit. "Stained glass windows are sinful idolatry" is, more or less by its nature, designed to divide and exclude.

The two kinds of religious teachings do very different things. There are a set of moral and philosophical positions, which offer believers guidance in the big questions. And there are a set of generally minor and sometimes even peculiar doctrines that serve to mark group identity and form community. "How do we live a just life?" is an essentially but not exclusively Jewish question. "Is it okay to eat milk and meat together?" is a question about whether you're Jewish. Religious groups focused on conflict with outsiders tend to focus on these relatively peripheral, sect-specific positions (or put another way, sects focused on peripheral doctrines tend to focus on conflict with outsiders). During the heyday of Christian-vs-Christian religious violence in Europe, back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the stained-glass-or-no-stained-glass question was treated as crucial, with love-thy-neighbor and thou-shalt-not-kill taking distant back seats.

Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood was all core principles and no checkpoint shibboleths. Fred was not interested in sectarian identity, because universal love has no room for Us vs. Them. He never talked the talk. He unrelentingly walked the walk. He did not preach lessons. He provided an example, and in doing so proved truly exemplary. 

Although he became a cultural touchstone, Fred Rogers's message was deeply counter-cultural. Our society, although superficially and nominally Christian, has a deep emphasis on teaching children to compete, to earn their parents' approval and too often their parents' love. Our children are bombarded throughout their childhood with messages about winners and losers. (Even the self-esteem movement, widely derided for not teaching children to compete enough, accepts the winners-and-losers premise, destructively telling children that they are all winners rather than pointing to a value system beyond winning.) There's no room in that for I like you just the way you are, but Fred Rogers insisted on that room. He made space for that message where there had been none. The only shame was that when students grew out the the pre-kindergarten age on which Fred focused, there weren't equally powerful voices communicating that message to first graders and up.

And part of Fred's greatness as a teacher (and make no mistake, Fred Rogers was a great master teacher) was his deep and evident humility. Humility is another central Christian virtue that doesn't get much attention or love in our nominally Christian country, but Fred embodied it. Listen to him singing on the show. He's obviously not a professional singer. He doesn't have a "good," i.e. media-ready singing voice. He'd get cut immediately on American Idol (a show obsessed with competition to the point of, what's that word, idolatry). But singing well is not the point. Fred is not embarrassed, and you aren't embarrassed for him, because his ego has nothing to do with it. He doesn't care whether or not his voice is good or bad. Singing is just something that helps his lesson, and so he does it, with the impeccable confidence of the utterly humble. That humility was part of his educational genius, because it meant that nothing was ever about Fred. It was always about the student learning.

What matters to Fred is not the technical polish of his singing, but the connection he makes with the kids. Singing is a way to make himself more emotionally present to them, to connect. And the very fact that he's singing in such an unpretentious way underscores that he is opening himself up to the kids, creating intimacy and trust. He is telling them that he won't laugh at them because he knows they won't laugh at him. (Ask yourself this: who do YOU feel comfortable singing in front of? See what I mean?) And the singing, which starts every single show, communicates something essential about the value system: it's not important to show off. You don't sing to impress other people, let alone to show who is a better singer. You sing to people as a way to connect with them. We are a country of showing off for the neighbors. Fred Rogers made every lesson about loving the neighbors, in every sense of that word.

Fred Rogers bore witness to his Christian beliefs every time he stepped in front of a camera. His Christianity was always inclusive and never divisive. It's humbling to watch, because I will never be that good a teacher or nearly that good a Christian. But being humbled is part of the point.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog