Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Lord of the Inner Rings

Snoots are also tubes used by photographers to control the direction and dimension of a light beam as in this stargazer fish, shot by Ryo Minemizu at Osezaki, Shizuoka, Japan.

David F. Brooks ("The Art of Thinking Well") is off on this year's Nobel Prize for Economics, awarded to Richard Thaler for his work in behavioral economics, a completely justified critique of economics proper and its reliance on the fiction of a Homo economicus whose behavior is always governed by rational self-interest.

Not for me to second-guess the Nobel committee, even on as whimsical a science as economics, but I've complained about Thaler before (also in the context of a Brooks column, as it happens), on the way that essential insight—people's behavior is not governed by rational self-interest, but is in fact emotional, often poorly informed, and frequently nuts—never gets plowed back into theory for the construction of less utopian models of the economic behavior of real humans. Instead behavioral economists find themselves working on techniques whereby you and I can overcome our irrationality and outsmart our neighbors; on the broad scale methods of tricking the public into acting in their own self-interest, as in Thaler's and Sunstein's celebrated Nudge, but in the hands of lesser thinkers than Thaler into the territory of the economic self-help book, as in Gary Belsky's and Thomas Gilovich's Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes And How To Correct Them: Lessons From The New Science Of Behavioral Economics (1999), the kind of economics that David F. Brooks can really sink his teeth into.

Brooks, indeed, starts out kvetching that Thaler's work isn't self-helpy enough:

But Thaler et al. were only scratching the surface of our irrationality. Most behavioral economists study individual thinking. They do much of their research in labs where subjects don’t intimately know the people around them. It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, “the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” And when we don’t really know a subject well enough, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts,” and go with whatever idea makes us feel popular.
Eliot was always so anxious to feel popular. (Not: Eliot was concerned about the danger of appealing to emotion in poetry criticism, which might lead the critic to "take leave of the data of criticism, and arouse the suspicion that he has been diverted into a metaphysical hare-and-hounds. His end does not always appear to be the return to the work of art with improved perception and intensified, because more conscious, enjoyment; his centre of interest changes, his feelings are impure.") Those two quotes are used together, Dr. Google tells me, in a new book, How to Think, by the C.S. Lewis biographer Alan Jacobs (on pp. 20-23).

Sure enough, next paragraph,

This is where Alan Jacobs’s absolutely splendid forthcoming book “How to Think” comes in. If Thaler’s work is essential for understanding how the market can go astray, Jacobs’s emphasis on the relational nature of thinking is essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now.
Jacobs makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.
Are we in one of those columns where Brooks offers praise for a new book in return for lifting a bunch of quotations from it, to make it look as if he's read a lot of stuff he hasn't read? Reader, we are.

That sentence, "Jacobs makes good use of C.S. Lewis's concept of the Inner Ring," is a nice tell, with its suggestion that Brooks has a wide familiarity with different writers' use of the concept of the Inner Ring so that he can judge how Jacobs compares to the rest, while in fact he doesn't even know where the concept comes from, which is Lewis's Memorial Lecture at King's College, London, in 1944, thanks, Dr. Google, and what Lewis says isn't that there "may" be an Inner Ring but that there always is:
And here, too, at your university—shall I be wrong in assuming that at this very moment, invisible to me, there are several rings—independent systems or concentric rings—present in this room? And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoi calls the second or unwritten systems.
And when Brooks goes on to say,

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted. As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
he is similarly fudging Lewis's declaration that everybody, not excluding C.S. Lewis or David F. Brooks, is driven by this desire:
I believe that in all men's lives at certain periods, and in many men's lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.
And unaware that he's a slavish Inner Ringer, himself, he turns to denouncing those who attempt to liberate themselves from it (don't know whether this bit is coming from Jacobs or not, as my GoogleBooks version has a lot of holes). Distancing yourself from a Ring is an "impediment to thought":

Other people will resent the Inner Ring, and they will cut all sorts of intellectual corners in order to show their resentment. These people are quick to use combat metaphors when they talk about thinking (he shot down my argument, your claims are indefensible). These people will adopt shared vague slurs like “cuckservative” or “whitesplaining” that signal to the others in the outsider groups that they are attacking the ring, even though these slurs are usually impediments to thought.
(A nice touch that both of those epithets are easily and I expect often applied to David F. Brooks, showing his own resentment here. There is nothing vague about the concept of "whitesplaining", by the way, but Brooks will never be able to learn this, or that in informing Ta-Nehisi Coates of what Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks instead of attempting to listen to TNC, he really is impeding his own ability to think.)

The upshot is that he ends up with a strange conclusion about what we need to do about irrationality in political discourse: Consciously creating a new Inner Ring of the Reasonable:

After all, think of how you really persuade people. Do you do it by writing thoughtful essays that carefully marshal facts? That works some of the time. But the real way to persuade people is to create an attractive community that people want to join. If you do that, they’ll bend their opinions to yours. If you want people to be reasonable, create groups where it’s cool to be reasonable.
A ring of people who take such pride in lacking strong opinions that they will bow to David F. Brooks. He may or may not be thinking of his list of "individual beacons of intellectual honesty today: George Packer, Tyler Cowen, Scott Alexander and Caitlin Flanagan, among many" and the Yale Political Union. I'm not sure old Packer would really welcome being the token "leftist" in the group.

The whole idea may be said to be exactly the opposite of what C.S. Lewis recommended in his King's College lecture:
The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.
Fortunately, Brooks's plan won't work. (It's a funny recurring fantasy of conservatives that you can will a circle of coolness into being, where it's "cool to be conservative", and conservatives can set standards for dress, popular entertainment, and so on—and a deep misunderstanding of the fact that true cool can be created only by deep désinvolture, by those who really don't care at all, who care even less than you or I do to say nothing of David F. Brooks.)

The other big lifted quote, or quotoid object, was from the late David Foster Wallace:

Jacobs notices that when somebody uses “in other words” to summarize another’s argument, what follows is almost invariably a ridiculous caricature of that argument, in order to win favor with the team. David Foster Wallace once called such people Snoots. Their motto is, “We Are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else.”
Jacobs uses "in-other-wordsing" (on page 107) as a specialized kind of straw man specious argumentation, but it has nothing whatever to do with Wallace's word; Jacobs refers to Wallace (starting p. 139) in what looks from the GoogleBooks preview like a really enchanting discussion of "what English usage and the Democratic Spirit have in common", taking off from Wallace's 2001 review of Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (reprinted in a kind of director's cut longer version in the 2006 collection Consider the Lobster), where he mentioned a family joke in which language usage snobs were referred to as SNOOTS (part of the joke was that the word was an acronym but nobody could agree what the initials stood for), including Wallace himself, of course, torn, like me, between pride in his SNOOT knowledge of the most arcane grammatical rules and shibboleths and love for the anarchy of the vernacular.

In other words (Wallace's essay doesn't once attack rhetorical in-other-wordsing, but uses the phrase "in other words" six times in the short version published in Harpers, in case you were curious), Brooks hasn't even read the page he lifted the quote from, preferring to make up his own decontextualized hypothesis of what it means.

Alan Jacobs isn't going to reject the book plug—who would? And the publisher's already given it a top spot in the publicity. All the same, somebody has to protest. It's bad enough that the Times prints stuff written to make it look as if Brooks has read things he hasn't, pretending to have read five sources when he's only got one, and little more than glanced at that, in clear violation of well-known rules on plagiarism
In all situations, students who are confused about the specific punctuation and formatting must nonetheless make clear in written work where they have borrowed from others—whether it be a matter of data, opinions, questions, ideas, or specific language....
But it's really too much to allow him to make those stolen things say something they don't even say.

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