This Blog is Stolen Property

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Take That, Max Weber!

Max Weber dreamt of an ideal type of bureaucracy that had the potential to liberate the governance of organizations from cults of personality and the arbitrary exercise of power. He saw in this ideal bureaucracy a type of administrative power that was fair, impersonal, and rational.

Max Weber never worked for my employer.

I got a letter on Tuesday stating that my health insurance has been cancelled. But my deduction is being refunded.

What the fuck????

I have been on the phone almost non-stop for the past several days, talking to every single person at this place who might possibly be able to help. Or at least tell me what in the hell happened.

But everyone I talk to tells me to talk to someone else. I've logged more phone time than a teenage girl during prom season. And I have yet to hear if Debbie really really likes my dress or if she's just pretending so that I'll let her ride in the limo with us.

The most help I've gotten is from the guy who said: "Well, maybe you can, you know, like buy some insurance somewhere."

Yeah, buddy. I wish I'd thought of that.

The funny thing is, what Weber and everyone else say about bureaucracy, that it's "impersonal," is starting to feel very untrue. It's starting to feel VERY personal.

So now I have to worry about encroaching paranoia as well as getting sick while I don't have insurance. Great. Just great.


I've been going through some handwritten notes for work and came across this word, plain as day and in my own handwriting:


I have no idea what it means.

It almost looks like: "sang indecorously."

Which is, by the bye, the only way in which old Feemus ever does sing.

The context gives no clue. It's not even clear what part of speech it's meant to be. I wonder if I was having a stroke or something while I was writing?

I once did some translating for someone from a very old and much-transcribed manuscript. As is often the case, the scribe(s) didn't know the languages well--or at all--and so the some of the bits were just almost gibberish. It took me hours just to figure out what language some of the stuff was in.

This was like that, except that 1., I wrote it in what I presumably intended to be English, and 2. I wasn't getting paid.

Still, I'd like to know what the hell it means.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Women in Science Redux

Two years ago Larry Summers, then-president of Harvard University, attended a conference at which he said that differences in "intrinsic aptitude" may explain why there are so few female scientists at top universities.

As I'm sure we all remember, this caused a firestorm and was one of the factors that led to the resignation of an already beleaguered Summers.

The controversy played out in the press as a fight between political correctness and free speech. Which, of course, it wasn't. Summers' supporters portrayed him as a maverick intellectual whose only interest was in pursuing the truth, fighting against the forces of PC thuggery.

Well, they're back.

Steven Pinker and Alan Dershowitz asked Summers to be a guest speaker in their course on "Morality and Taboo" this past semester at Harvard. For Pinker and Dershowitz, Summers is a victim, "a martyr of taboo in the ivory tower," according to an article in the Harvard Crimson.

What Summers has consistently failed to understand, and what Pinker and Dershowitz seem to ignore, is the context of these statements. Summers wasn't a scientist looking for gendered patterns in brain activity--he's an economist who was spouting off at a policy conference. It's appalling that he refuses to understand how damaging it is to explain away the under-representation of women in the sciences by biology (based not on, you know, on any knowledge of biology, but on his sense of how the world works and the fact that--I'm not kidding--his daughters play with dolls).

This is the "logic" of The Bell Curve: underperformance by historically marginalized people is due to natural inferiority. It's a way of decoupling the present from the past in a way that lets us off the hook. I'm not equating racism and sexism, but those who deflect questions of race and gender inequality often use the same rhetorical strategies and promote the same status-quo-ism. There's no need to confront and elminate our prejudices if we can naturalize them. There's no need to make structural changes in our culture to address bigotry if we can prove that bigotry is based in biology.

Now, I'm not saying that Summers is a misogynist or a racist (even Cornell West acquitted him of the latter charge after another startlingly imprudent conversation).

Again, it's a matter of context. A matter that Summers refuses to acknowledge. In his speech before Pinker and Dershowitz's class, he threw out the possiblity that fewer women are in the sciences because they pursue other careers due to their "superior verbal abilities" in evidence in early standardized tests.

But the merest glance at how people respond to these "superior verbal abilities" is enough to show how not analogous this is to the "women in science" issue. Boys lower test scores on the verbal portion of these tests are regularly attributed to a different developmental timeline--the assumption is that boys are later but not lesser. Another response to these differences is to ask how we are failing boys in terms of language education. The Times recently devoted several Sunday columns to this very issue.

And since the world of belles lettres is dominated, for any number of reasons, by male writers, these lower scores do not contribute to any widespread cultural assumption that men aren't good with language.

What's so frustrating about this, is that Summers does understand the importance of context when it comes to issues that matter to him. He famously said in a speech in 2002 that academics who were advocating for the divestment from Israel were “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent.”

Implicit in this statement is an understanding of how important context is. When the debates about divestment from South Africa were going on there were people of good conscience, black and white, on both sides of the debate. And no one who supported divestment was accused of being anti-white or anti-Afrikaaner or anti-Dutch or whatever.

Because those are not relevant categories. While there presumable are people who hold these prejudices, the prejudices are not historically significant, because white Dutchmen have never been the victims of large-scale race hatred.

But the state of Israel declared its independence in the wake of an unspeakable mass murder, facilitated by the anti-Semtisim of not only Germans but of the rest of the world who let the genocide happen without doing anything until millions of lives had already been taken. Anti-Semitism is something to be taken seriously (although perhaps taking it seriously means not using it as a label to hurl at anyone who disagrees with you).

That Summers can't see the important of context when it's anyone's but his own, that he can't understand why people think that his statement was "sexist in effect if not in intent," is offensive. That Steven Pinker piggybacks on this to support his own reductive biodeterministic theories is annoying. That Dershowitz uses it to get some publicity is unsurprising.

But it's important that we not let Summers' martyrdom obscure the fact that we need to find out how to get all our students to succeed at the level of their abilities, not at the level of our expectations.