The Tyranny Of Merit: What’s Become Of The Common Good?

Despite some half hearted references to other cultures, this book is distinctly aimed at America. While I agree with much of its premise (which is more about assumptions of merit; that those who more deserve it, while those who have less are intrinsically inferior, because they lacked the necessary merit), I was made hesitant early on by his relatively uncritical acceptance of Weber’s famed Protestant work ethic as a sort of modern source (though he also notes earlier, also biblically inspired ideas about meritocracy).

My fascination with Thomas Jefferson got a jolt when he compared the introduction of the SAT to Jefferson’s idea of providing education to America’s ‘natural aristocracy.’ In Jefferson’s view, small, local schools would exist in part to unearth the small number of geniuses from among the ‘rubbish.’ Conant, the man who came up with the SAT, also wanted to find those select few. It was never intended to expand access, but only to find what Jefferson would happily would have agreed was his natural aristocracy.

Solutions are few and far between, but I don’t ask Sandel to be Rawls (who, incidentally, gets a minor, but definite, raking over proverbial coals). And I liked his idea of changing college admissions to a modified lottery process. For example, a competitive Ivy League university will get tens of thousands of applicants, something more, or at least close, to half of which can be reasonably considered to be qualified and otherwise equipped to succeed there. Take that number and give out acceptances based on a lottery. I like it. The book as a whole, however, feels like it somehow fell short. The analysis goes into depth on issues, but always feels like it pulls back and doesn’t go all the way in ways that I can’t quite put my finger on.

‘My Education’ By Susan Choi

I’m not sure why I decided to read this book. I’d read her much acclaimed Trust Exercise and had found it fascinating, well-written, yet finally unsatisfying.

I wonder if I feel the same way about this one?

The surprise ending (should I give it away? I don’t know) didn’t tie things up the way it should have. Not that things should have been tied up with a proverbial neat little bow. Indeed not. Messiness was a sort of theme of the novel. But the surprise didn’t seem to ‘justify’ what preceded it. Or rather, the surprise diminished what came before.

This isn’t the surprise, but one nice twist to what begins as a campus novel is that the handsome, rakish professor with a reputation for sleeping with graduate students is not the love interest; it’s his wife.

And the affair between her (a professor in her right, I should add) and the protagonist, a young woman, is painfully and beautifully messy. The friction and the fights and the character flaws are oh so wonderfully and naturalistically conveyed. And when the novel, near the end, skips ahead more than a decade, Choi captures the cycles of life by pairing the protagonist with a husband who is, in his own, quiet way, as manipulative, demeaning, and controlling as was that earlier, dramatic and cruel lover.

Which is perhaps why I felt let down. After so perspicaciously depicting the relationship and its reverberations through the main character’s life, surely it deserved better (though I enjoyed the suggestion that she was, in the end, a secondary character in her own story)?

‘Peril’ By Bob Woodward And Robert Costa

I remember being told that newspapers were deliberately written at a fourth grade level. I, uh, um… I can kind of see that here.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish I had properly learned AP style, but for heaven’s sake, men, modulate your sentence structure just a little! Reading these short chapters, containing short sentences and simple language is surprisingly exhausting. I’m not saying it’s like reading Ulysses, but I never reading such basic writing could be so tiring.

Despite, the title, the book was less terrifying that I had suspected. Yes, it’s terrifying, just less so. You never get a good view of Trump (the authors might have tried engaging in just a little psychological theorizing, just to jazz things up). He’s just an angry guy with a short attention span and a potty mouth. If Woodward and Costa were inclined to psychologize, they might have suggested that childhood trauma left him an emotional child, who things ‘I won’t be your friend anymore’ is a viable threat to a grown man. But they don’t do that.

You probably won’t learn anything you didn’t already know if you read newspapers… at all. I mean, did you really not know that Trump is a petulant, foul-mouthed man-child who never grasped the realities of governing?

It’s fair to say that reading Woodward’s Trump book (I know, Costa is a co-author) is less about learning the facts than playing DC cocktail party games of identifying who the sources are. It’s an easy game, because you can clearly see his secret ‘sources’ burnishing their patriotic credentials and engaging in a drawn out process of explaining that ‘it’s not my fault’ or ‘I was the only thing standing between the Constitution and Trump’s gold plated toilet.’

The book also suffers from splitting its time between Trump and Biden. At first, my interest was perked by insights into Bidenworld, but that is just so much less compelling than Trump’s unhinged bucket of crazy. The only thing that really caught my eye was the deeply petty excuses that Senator Susan Collins fed to Woodward and Costa to justify being Lucy to the football of bipartisanship (I kid you not, one was that Ron Klain shook his head too vigorously during an Oval Office meeting; she really is a piece of work, I must say).

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

I enjoy a lot of early twentieth century pulp, but I have no illusions that many of them are… insensitive to certain issues. But nothing quite prepared me for this level of unbridled racism. I wasn’t surprised by the anti-Asian racism (though ‘Yellow League’ was a bit blunt), but it around thirty odd pages in when the protagonist announced his intention to disguise himself as a ‘dago seaman’ that I properly understood that this was some serious Citizens Council stuff.

And spelling ‘clue’ as ‘clew’ everywhere… sure by the second quarter of the twentieth century we’d more or less agreed on that particular spelling? Sure, apparently, we were all unreconstructed racists, but did the white race have no redeeming features? Mr. Sax Rohner, Esquire, suggests that no, no we did not. Way to throw me under bus, dude. Can you try not to be completely terrible? You’re making the Doc Savage book I read look like a joint project of W.E.B. Du Bois and Lao-Tze.

It could also be compared to Riddle of the Sands, which was written to warn England of the dangers posed by Germany ahead of the First World War. This book was similarly written to assure racist whites that their MAGA fever dreams Asian infiltration are not, as rational people believed, the unfortunate side effect of too much Fox News and having skipped their court mandated drug counseling sessions, but a real thing that is actually happening because only racists are smart enough to connect the dots and see that Hugo Chavez killed Kennedy to steal the election for Ho Chi Minh so that President Bernie could hand Fort Knox and the nuclear football over to the severed head of Karl Marx who had been living in a jar with Doris Day and controlling the world from Berkeley, California.

The titular insidious one was, apparently, creating a Pan-Asian power bloc to rival, if not overcome, western powers. Of course, the author missed the rising power of Japan in favor of a more generalized racism, despite the fact the novel’s 1913 publication took place less than a decade after the Japanese had soundly spanked Russian in a brief and decisive war.

The hero, a sort of polymathic super detective, rather like a leaner Doc Savage, has a distressing tendency to occasionally speak in all CAPS like the tweets of a teenage girl or a LOSER ex-president, which, granted, is less offensive than his frequent digressions into anti-Chinese diatribes. His sidekick is a more laid back type, speaking with normal capitalization and engaging in less active racism; more of an armchair bigot, if you will.

The episodic nature makes me suspect it was originally published in serial form in monthlies. It moves quickly, but then so do most adventures from this time. Also in common adventures from this time, a lot of deus ex machinas, which I wouldn’t have minded so much if it weren’t for, you know, the racism. That sort of makes everything feel more irritating.

Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism

I don’t mean to say it is not a well written book. It is even, dare I say, seductive. Nor that its points are not well taken. Ms. Applebaum brings a certain intimate knowledge of Eastern European and English politics.

I used to read her columns in The New York Times before the paywall was instituted (which I do not begrudge; I proudly subscribe to my own, local paper and some magazines, but like the multiplying streaming services, I can’t subscribe to them all), but it’s been a while and my understanding of her positions has faded somewhat.

So while reading all of her interesting anecdotes and well-made points, I keep thinking, who did she remind me of? Htichens? No, someone more… irritating. Then it hit me! Thomas Friedman! A well worn gasbag of a neoliberal, technofetishist, with a penchant for name dropping that would make Gore Vidal feel ashamed. Friedman was neoliberal masqeurading as center left and Applebaum was neoliberal who was rather openly center right (Tory, really, though her husband was once with the quite right leaning American Enterprise Institute), with solid smattering of classical liberalism. She doesn’t have Friedman’s veneer of Bernard Henri-Levy-ism (and neither try to pull of inimitable coiffure and sartorial exposures), but, yeah. A less irritating Friedman, but because his conclusions are always so facile and suspect, I immediately began to suspect her, too.

Which is not to say that she deserves to be splattered by drunken Pollock with Friedman’s bloviating brush. I’m just saying that I’m suspicious.

She also notes that some of what the new Trumpist conservatives (like… wait for it… seriously, she name drops… Laura Ingraham) says is ‘real.’ Why am I implicitly impugning it’s real ness through the use of what amounts to air quotes? Because the first thing she mentions on her list is cancel culture, which is – and I can’t emphasize this enough – not real. Unless you’re talking about our God-given, Constitutional right to have a talk show or be highly paid to write poorly research columns for that publication. Now, I am doing her slightly wrong, because she notes that it’s cancel culture on the internet, but… I’m sorry. No. There are lots of terrible things out there, but no. Just… no. But she does say that Laura Ingraham once went on a date with Trump and found him unbearable. So that gave me a small amount of pleasure that almost made up for one millionth of one percent of the hatred, violence, and chaos that demented t—t consciously stirred up.

The most interesting idea in Twilight, which she readily credits to others, is key the personality trait in those susceptible to a longing for an authoritarian society: not closed mindedness, but simple mindedness (her phrase, not mine; I would have looked for a less charged way to put it). A dislike of complexity leads to seeking guidance from figures who explain that the world is simple (and often a more than a little manichean). Diversity and different ideas and experiences cause anguish in those who thrive under simpler concepts.

The other (sort of) interesting idea is the medium sized lie. Unlike the big lie of old fashioned fascists, the still big but less gargantuan lie of modern authoritarian parties dominates. While she didn’t use this example, something like the incendiary references to hordes of immigrants at the southern border (arriving in caravans?) came to my mind.

Studying With Miss Bishop: Memoirs From A Young Writer’s Life

I am a fan of Gioia, but more as a figure than a poet (though his translation of Dante is superb and that, too, is poetry). I enjoyed his novella length essay on the Catholic writer in contemporary times and felt he was one of our best Poet Laureates in terms of actually promoting poetry (I love the poetry of Charles Wright, but he was marvelously disinterested as Poet Laureate). I was pleased to read that he was a young fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and got his start reading At the Earth’s Core (the first of his Pellucidar books).

Beyond our shared love, this is a lovely little book. I wish that he had delved more into his own experiences around class and race, but I also recognize that this is not that kind of book.

He examines how his interactions (mainly as a young poet) with five poets and writers affected him. While he notes a funny encounter with a drunk James Dickey (who resented a negative review that Gioia wrote), the reminiscences are by and large fond and positive.

My personal favorite was the chapter about the classicist, Robert Fitzgerald (I loved his translation of The Aeneid), but section on Ronald Perry, an apparently talented, but mostly unknown poet, is the most affecting. It is a beautiful meditation on mortality, in the end. Perry’s literary reputation was small and his memory limited, most likely, by the lifespan of those who knew him. Most writers will not be remembered.

Review: The House On Vesper Sands

The House on Vesper Sands is not the kind of book that I usually pick, but I read a review of it (I believe it was in a sort summary of interesting, recent mysteries) and was sufficiently intrigued to borrow it from the library. It was 60% very good and 40% disappointing, mainly for not having stuck the landing and for shoving threads together rather than properly tying them off.

We never actually meet the main villain nor see him at work (though we do get a look at a secondary villain, who O’Donnell tries to position as the real main baddie but… well, like much of the final quarter of the novel, wasn’t as successful as might be hoped).

The two threads are brought together at the end and, well… the somehow seem to more just be in the same room, rather than really feeling like an organic coming together.

On the positive side, it’s a wonderful gothic 1890s London and the three main protagonists are wonderful, especially Inspector Cutter, who actually made me laugh out loud with his impatient sarcasm. But Cutter is also rather opaque. Readers can easily guess the villains, but we are never properly given to see how the sleuths get there.

I would still recommend this book to my mystery-loving mother, except that it has sort of magical element (given a pseudo-science gloss), which strikes me as not her sort of thing.

The Return Of (Bar)Timaeus

Today’s reading featured a blind (but soon to be sighted) man named Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.

I perked up because Timaeus is also the name of my least favorite (this far) Platonic dialogue.

Battling The Gods: Atheism In The Ancient World

Protagoras, Democritus, and Prodicus (the last of which I had never heard of before, but was apparently famous for his comparative atheism) are produced as examples, but never quite come together as genuine examples of what we might consider atheists.

The book is fascinating, but not a small amount of it feels like fascinating filler. I loved reading about who was at Callias house to hear Protagoras speak and the intellectual foment of Periclean Athens, but joy does not a hypothesis prove.

It seems less a history of atheism, despite the author’s valiant efforts, than is is a book illustrating that religion and religious belief in the classical period of the Mediterranean was more complex than it is given credit for. And I was frequently reminded with Sir Roger Scruton’s tendency, when speaking of religion, to go reference the Roman household gods as things that were honored, without necessarily being deeply believed in.

But even in that argument, one can reply that it is limited in the sense that this is elite history; in fact, it is a history of philosophers. Even if you believe he has proved the existence of something like modern atheism in classical Athens or imperial Rome, he has not proved that it was widespread or even that it existed beyond Cicero’s dinner parties.

But it’s fun to read about Cicero’s dinner parties and the many, mostly non-Plato/Aristotle/Socrates philosophers of that ancient time and worth spending a little time with them, even if no important points about atheism were actually made.

Thomas Jefferson: A Modern Prometheus

First, let me credit Professor Moses with being the first person I have read to refer to Thomas Jefferson as ‘the Count of Monticello.’ As someone deeply impacted by both Thomas Jefferson and Dumas’ epic novel of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, I applaud without reservation.

Jeffersonian agrarianism from Locke’s idea that property derived from making use of the land. Against speculators, rentier capitalism, and… American Indiana making ‘unprofitable’ use of the land.

On the whole, his criticism and occasional fury are well merited, I must allow. His showing that Jefferson was not the child prodigy and possibly not as intellectually gifted as Franklin and Hamilton feels a little petty, but is possibly a necessary corrective to Jefferson’s (unwarranted, I reckon Moses would say) reputation for such great intellectual gifts as inspired Kennedy to make his famous remark about Jefferson dining alone to a group of Nobel Prize recipients. He actually spends almost the entire chapter on genius casting shade on Jeffersonian claims to it, before ending that chapter by concluding that, yeah, he actually was pretty darn smart.

Moses also made some nice references to Jefferson’s relationship to various works of history and philosophy, some based on direct knowledge (because Jefferson wrote down his thoughts) and some conjectural (like suggesting that Jefferson must have absolutely hated Plato’s dialogue, Crito).

I must also allow that when I defend Jefferson or feel defensive when he is attacked is possibly my own white privilege rearing it’s fish belly pale head.

I must also allow that this an absolutely terrific book. I don’t know who you are, reading this blog (besides my mother, of course), but whoever you are, this a fantastically researched, elegantly thought out work and you should read it.

I think I am the first to read this copy, which I borrowed from the library. The paper feels wonderfully new and so lovely to the touch. I remember in the Tin Drum, the narrator asking for a ream of virgin paper. This paper, too, feels virgin.