Caro and Auerbach’s Homer

Another note about reading Robert Caro: one of the great things about his books is that they frequently offer thrilling brief histories of subjects that are only peripheral to his main biographical focus.

So, picking up The Power Broker, you might wonder: do I really want to read 1344 pages about Robert Moses? But you don’t have to. One section, for example, consists of a mini-biography of Al Smith, leading up to the moment when he became Caro’s patron and political mentor. Similarly, Caro’s Master of the Senate—the third volume in a biography of Lyndon Johnson—begins with a wonderful introduction to the Senate of the nineteenth century.

Caro’s technique reminds me a little of the “Odysseus’ scar” chapter in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach points out how when Homer introduces a new element in the story, he helpfully fills in all the necessary information that would allow the reader to understand its significance, even if this means pausing to interject seventy verses of background in an eighty-verse narrative. When Odysseus returns home and his housekeeper recognizes him by the scar on his thigh, Homer provides a flashback to tell us about the origin of the scar; when Robert Moses falls under the sway of Al Smith, Caro pauses to tell us the story of Al Smith’s life; when Lyndon Johnson becomes a senator, Caro pauses to tell us the story of the U.S. Senate… 

Everything is made external and brought to the surface for the reader’s benefit (in contrast to the way that external details have significance primarily as a prompt for internal meditations in some of Virginia Woolf’s writing, as Auerbach describes in a later chapter).

Literature, Politics

Muckraking and Documentary Film

Thought for the day: I’m reading Robert Caro’s wonderful biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. At one point, Caro describes the central role that muckraking journalism played in fueling the progressive reform movement. It was not only that the journalists drew public attention to issues that had previously been hidden from public view. They also performed the more basic role of collecting facts in an era when government had for the most part not yet entered the fact-collecting business.

I remember being surprised a few years ago to learn that the U.S. government made no attempt to measure the size of the economy until the Great Depression. (Simon Kuznets invented the notion of GDP while working to address this problem at the NBER.) But according to Caro, the lack of basic data-collection went even further than this prior to the progressive era. In the later nineteenth century, city governments did not even keep numerical track of their budgets—sources of revenue, amounts spent. When a municipal government discovered that it was unable to pay its bills, it would often simply issue some bonds.

It struck me that while newspapers are in decline today, there is a new form of muckraking that is on the rise, and could be compared to the progressive periodicals of an earlier era in some ways: documentary film. Just as powerful magazines like McClure’s regularly provoked policy reforms in the last Gilded Age, our current Gilded Age has seen several documentaries succeed in provoking changes in public attitudes. The first example that comes to mind is The Invisible War, which deals with sexual assault in the U.S. military. Apparently, the film drew Senator Gillibrand’s attention to this issue and played a significant role in bringing about the legislative responses. Other examples of surprisingly influential, muckraking documentaries would not be hard to find: Blackfish, An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove

So, even if newspapers can no longer afford thorough investigative reporting because the public stopped buying classified ads, maybe documentaries can partially fill the gap. And ironically, some of the same forces that have made in-depth newspaper reporting less economically feasible have made documentary-making more feasible. The same Internet that destroyed the classified section has created a new avenue for documentary film distribution through streaming video services.


Why are defenses of the humanities so weak?

Every few weeks, I’ll come across an article diagnosing or lamenting the decline in the humanities, or the crisis in the humanities, or the collapse of English departments.

I’m sure there are already good, strong defenses of the humanities out there. But it seems to me that many of the ones I read are extremely wishy-washy. They’ll refer to the value of shaping the soul, or something like that—which is no doubt a good general label for the kinds of valuable things that humanistic study can offer, once one already understands what these things are. But it’s not a helpful label, because it’s too abstract. If you don’t already know, concretely, what the study of literature, history, philosophy, etc. can do for a person, saying that they can help shape young people’s souls will shed little light. No one who doubts the value of reading novels and poetry and Plato will be at all persuaded by someone saying things like: “They’ll make you a complete person, someone who is able to critically reflect upon her place in the world…”

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ll sometimes come across defenses of the humanities that fail by being too narrowly specific, or specific in the wrong way. To say that the world needs departments of English, Philosophy, or Art History because they help teach students how to write critically invites obvious objections such as: if the goal is teaching critical writing, why not just teach critical writing? Why spend so much time reading Milton? Similarly, the argument that the humanities teach the valuable skill of how to critically analyze cultural objects invites well-founded objections such as: what is the value of critically analyzing all of these cultural objects, in such great depth? Why do we need so many people to learn the history of film, or of medieval lyric? Sure, you might enjoy Bertran de Born, but a lot of people enjoy a lot of things. What is the value to society, or to yourself, of indulging and refining your enjoyment of aesthetic objects for four years?

(Actually, the argument that studying the humanities is valuable because it refines our aesthetic perceptions—makes us able to perceive subtle differences that we would otherwise have been blind to—isn’t an entirely worthless argument. But standing alone, I’m not sure it’s strong enough to justify the kind of commitment to humanistic study that defenders of the humanities wish to preserve.)

Also, combining these two justifications under the banner of “cultural literacy” doesn’t solve the problem. As J.M. Coetzee noted: “[i]f critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself?”

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The Zombie Economist

Because the surrounding posts probably sound too much like an unnecessary lecture, here is some animation…

(These are three videos I put together during the summer of 2012, when many voices in Washington and in the economics community were still insisting that America needed more austerity in order to emerge from the aftermath of the financial crisis. Most people seem to think that Episode Three is the good one, maybe because it does more right-wing economic name-checking than the other two. Also, a tip of the hat to John Quiggin for the “zombie” metaphor.)

Literature, Religion

The Book of Job: Some Thoughts

I don’t know if anyone else has been reading The Book of Job lately. But let me tell you, the story is problematic.

Basically, one day the Devil comes along, and God’s like: “Hey, have you ever noticed my servant Job? He’s so blameless and upright. He’s the best guy in the whole land of Uz.” And the Devil’s like: “That’s just because you made him so rich with she-asses.”

So, naturally, God turns this into a bet. He’s like: “Okay, you can take away all of Job’s possessions. He still won’t turn against me.”

Let me point out that the Devil didn’t try to start this bet. He didn’t even ask if he could take away all of Job’s stuff. The whole thing is started by God.

So the Devil gets to work. One day a messenger runs up to Job and tells him his sons have been killed and all of his she-asses were taken. And then another messenger runs up and tells him the sky started raining fire and it burned up all of his sheep and some more of his sons. And then a third messenger runs up and says a big house just collapsed on all of Job’s remaining sons and daughters. All of this happens in about thirty seconds.

Oh, and apparently children count as possessions, because God is never like: “Hey, I didn’t say you could kill Job’s children!”

So Job cuts off all his hair, but then he’s like, “You know what? I didn’t have any stuff when I was born. I was fine then, and I’m fine now. Thanks, God.”

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