Correspondents Afield, Per Birthday

July 30, 2010

Today, your faithful editorial staff turns 26. Please excuse the celebratory absence.


Affirmative Distraction

July 29, 2010

Please excuse this article’s being here posted in place of overdue original content, but it makes some good points, and makes them well… especially for The New York Times. Though, it’s heartening that venerable rag hired Ross Douthat and let him write this. Mr. Douthat, in addition to NYT columnist, doubles as film critic for National Review and hails from New Haven, Connecticut. He joined the paper in 2009 and his career will bear watching.

In March of 2000, Pat Buchanan came to speak at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Harvard being Harvard, the audience hissed and sneered and made wisecracks. Buchanan being Buchanan, he gave as good as he got. While the assembled Ivy Leaguers accused him of homophobia and racism and anti-Semitism, he accused Harvard — and by extension, the entire American elite — of discriminating against white Christians.

A decade later, the note of white grievance that Buchanan struck that night is part of the conservative melody. You can hear it when Glenn Beck accuses Barack Obama of racism, or when Rush Limbaugh casts liberal policies as an exercise in “reparations.” It was sounded last year during the backlash against Sonia Sotomayor’s suggestion that a “wise Latina” jurist might have advantages over a white male judge, and again last week when conservatives attacked the Justice Department for supposedly going easy on members of the New Black Panther Party accused of voter intimidation.

To liberals, these grievances seem at once noxious and ridiculous. (Is there any group with less to complain about, they often wonder, than white Christian Americans?) But to understand the country’s present polarization, it’s worth recognizing what Pat Buchanan got right.

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

This was particularly pronounced among the private colleges in the study. For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

This may be a money-saving tactic. In a footnote, Espenshade and Radford suggest that these institutions, conscious of their mandate to be multiethnic, may reserve their financial aid dollars “for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students,” leaving little room to admit financially strapped whites.

But cultural biases seem to be at work as well. Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America.”

This provides statistical confirmation for what alumni of highly selective universities already know. The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike. Among the white working class, increasingly the most reliable Republican constituency, alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories that Beck and others have exploited — that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Marxist hand-picked by a shadowy liberal cabal, that a Wall Street-Washington axis wants to flood the country with third world immigrants, and so forth.

Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland. In the Bush years, liberals fretted about a looming evangelical theocracy. In the age of the Tea Parties, they see crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs everywhere they look.

This cultural divide has been widening for years, and bridging it is beyond any institution’s power. But it’s a problem admissions officers at top-tier colleges might want to keep in mind when they’re assembling their freshman classes.

If such universities are trying to create an elite as diverse as the nation it inhabits, they should remember that there’s more to diversity than skin color — and that both their school and their country might be better off if they admitted a few more R.O.T.C. cadets, and a few more aspiring farmers

Playing The Ponies

July 23, 2010

If the D.C. social circuit turns itself out for any function this year, it will be the America’s Polo Cup, the equestrian sport’s equivalent of the similarly-named sailing event.

Or so hope Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who plugged the event (which they’ve organized) on Carol Joynt’s “Q&A Cafe” program in Georgetown. The pair formerly made headlines bluffing their way into President Barack Obama’s first state dinner, gaudily sans invitation.

The aspirational couple.

Since, they’ve been chomping impatiently and loudly at the D.C. social bit. To their advantage, that particular bit is unusually susceptible to chomping because of the transitory nature of that city: the in-crowd changes every four-to-eight years, providing for a cultural memory more myopic than, say, Greenwich, Connecticut.  

The headlining event will be the match between the United States and Costa Rica. The Cup has long been an event of political and cultural significance in D.C., as diplomats and industrialists from competing nations migrate to host countries for the duration of the tournament. President Warren Harding was in the stands in 1923, meeting and greeting benefactors (established and potential) from around the polo-playing world.

The 2011 America’s Polo Cup will be held on the National Mall, set back from the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Since it’s not sanctioned by the Federation of International Polo, the match is largely thought a spectator event. There is no word yet from the organizers as to the price of tickets, or if security will be any tighter than a White House state dinner.

Like most things Salahi, the Polo Cup is already a little fraud-tarnished: its website once listed India’s Kingfisher Beer as a sponsor but Yashpal Singh, president of Kingfisher’s parent company, disagreed. “We are not sponsoring this event and have informed the people managing this event of that… We have sent legal notices to this effect, and he keeps on advertising us as a sponsor. I don’t know what world he’s living in.”

Land Rover withdrew its sponsorship in 2009, when a charity associated with the event was investigated by the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs for tax irregularities.

The Mechanical Soul

July 18, 2010

Quartz wristwatches were first introduced for sale in 1969 by Seiko; their introductory model was called the Astron. Owing to its electronic oscillator, which is regulated by a quartz crystal (from which this type of watch derives its name), the Astron kept superior time to mechanical watches powered by a wound spring. Because its internal machinery is much less complicated, Seiko’s watch and millions of quartz watches since were able to be mass-produced on a scale that allowed affordability. Later models were made automatic, so that motions of the wrist caused an internal rotor to spin and generate electricity to power the watch.

Like most things electric, quartz watches quickly overcame mechanical ones and, like most things hand-crafted, mechanical watches have become more dear. They rely on a wound mini-spring to activate a balance wheel, which ticks back and forth at a constant rate and is divided by a gear train into hours, minutes, and seconds.

Mechanical watches, via Breguet.

The internal machinery of a mechanical watch is wondrous; in England, a watchmaker’s world is said to be no larger than a postage stamp. Craftsmen pour over magnifying lenses fixed to workbenches and, to the consternation of modernity, spend years assembling miniuture gears and rotors by hand and tweezer. They produce hundreds of beautiful machines, each as unique as the fingers which wound its springs.

That human touch comes at a price. The labor-intensive nature of mechanical watchmaking means pieces retail for thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars. Several range in the hundreds of thousands, or more: a Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon recently sold at auction for $1,240,400.00.

Though a seven-digit price tag is hefty, the appeal is undeniable. Most things people do and enjoy are made to be quick, efficient, and require as little effort as possible. Television shows can be set to record themselves and computers connect to wireless internet signals automatically as soon as they turn on. Modern technology is a world of convenience. Anything that takes a minute longer to perform a task than its competitor, loses. Yet, people lust after Rolexes, not Timexes, and save to afford a Panerai, not a Seiko.

The appeal of the mechanical watch, in a world of computerized simplicity, is its man-made complexity. Mechanical watches need winding and repairing; they’re fussy and, even in the most perfect condition, don’t keep time as well as a quartz watch, or nearly as cheaply. Yet, they’re coveted. They come off a workbench, not an assembly line. Owners enjoy a connection to the craftsmen who labored over them, and appreciate knowing that the gears and jewels and springs inside were placed and wound by human hands. The connection between craft and product is another layer to the watch, a dimension quartz can’t duplicate, not for all the speedy electricity in the world.  

As efficiency spins toward infinity, we recognize that we stand to lose something in the spinning. We stand to lose the humanity of workmanship. The soul of craft is at stake and, as it becomes ever more endangered, we prove ever more willing to pay for it… to our credit.

A Good Cigar

July 13, 2010

“A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.”

-Rudyard Kipling, The Betrothed (1886)

The Brain Drain

July 12, 2010

This web log has long (and maybe ironically) championed old-fashioned books. Not just the words in them, which can be chopped up and re-packaged on e-readers, but of the whole experience: the look, heft, smell, texture of paper books. There’s a tactile experience in reading a real book that can’t be replicated via binary code, not for all the 1’s and 0’s in the world.

This is relatively self-evident, or ought to be, but corroboration is always nice. Enter New York Times columnist David Brooks, who recently described a study proving that children who grew up in households with over 500 books stayed in school longer, and did better there, than those who didn’t. (The reason is probably that parents who collect many books are more likely educated themselves, and so more likely to encourage their children’s education, compared to parents who care little for books and don’t own any.)

Conversely, Duke University researchers Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd found that the spread of high-speed internet access varied inversely to reading and math scores on standardized testing. As computers gained, math and reading suffered.

This is nothing new. Computers aren’t the same as books and they never will be. There is something deeply better about books, something worthwhile in them that can never be duplicated online. It’s the difference between participating and observing; holding and smelling a book, turning pages and hearing them crinkle, adjusting a reading lamp… all create a more palpable, effective experience that lends itself more readily to development (intellectual or otherwise) than do glowing monitors and sparkling pop-ups.

In his new book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that an over-abundance of computers, and our subsequent over-reliance on them, is creating a culture which suffers from a generally withered attention span. He cites a mountain of research which proves time and again that overexposure to the hectic website world degrades our ability to think and reason.

Philanthropy agrees with Mr. Carr: programs which provide books to underprivileged students tend to find their beneficiaries performing better than do programs which provide computers. The important part isn’t whether students have the books or not, but rather how they see themselves. Students who gather a personal library begin to see themselves as readers, as members of a club, and it’s a club they begin to want to enter more deeply into. The club is marked by hierarchy: the literary world is one of structured classes, from the highest-brow to the lowest common denominator, to Stieg Larsen somewhere in the middle. And as with any tiered system, the obvious goal is to climb. Kids start with what they’ve got but quickly begin to eye the loftier branches, Tolkien and Davies and Fenimore Cooper, and then reach for the real heights.

The Internet morlocks have an entirely different experience. Their world respects no hierarchy; indeed, it abhors one. The entire point of the blogosphere is to put amateurs of questionable literacy on distributional par with the main-stream media. No journalism degree, no experience, no proficiency with the English language? No problem. Blogs are free and billions of people read them every day. Pull down the tiers, up with the classless Internet! “Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old,” writes Mr. Brooks. “The new media is savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, anti-authority disputation.”

The two cultures (the tiered respectability of books and the Internet’s sense of teenaged entitlement) are bound to produce disciples of different abilities, like good parents and bad parents. Those of the books are better-developed and better learners.

Essayist Joseph Epstein once wrote about the differences between being well-informed, hip, and cultured. The Internet might help with the first two… certainly, it keeps us well-informed (to the extent we force it to).

But cultured? That’s something entirely outside the Internet’s ability to convey. Culture comes from appreciation: of what’s good and what’s not, of what’s valuable and what’s not, of what deserves recognition and what doesn’t. And appreciation comes only from consideration, which requires patience. Patience, of course, is one of the things the Internet has failed miserably to cultivate in its adherents. The literary world, says Mr. Brooks, explaining its value over the computerized one, “is better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.”

Mind The Guns

July 6, 2010

Dr. Keith Ablow explains the importance of guns to the citizen psyche, at home and abroad, to the Fox News online portal.

The right to bear arms is a critical component of feeling competent and autonomous as individuals, rather than relying on the [historically uncertain] goodwill of a super-powerful, unassailable government. A disarmed population is, by definition, a population that has ceded the power to defend its homes against the local, state, and federal government.

This implies a level of trust much more consistent with that which children have for parents than that which thinking adults have in the institutions they have created to perform vital functions like defending the nation, keeping the peace, maintaining schools and providing clean water.

A disarmed population is allowed the toxic luxury of feeling that our way of life and our safety from oppression come without the tremendous responsibilities and moral complexities of wielding force. The same people who passively pay taxes that put tanks in the streets and fighter jets in the skies of our nation’s enemies cringe at the idea of owning guns themselves – projecting their survival instincts onto an all-powerful father figure (the state).

Every gun privately and legally owned in America is a tiny impediment to the citizenry assuming a docile, nearly delusional perspective that the world will always be predictable, that one’s home and loved ones will always be safe, and that government will always tend toward light and never toward darkness.