How not to talk about LeBron James

Ok, let’s start with something light. As some of you may or may not know, there’s this guy, his name is LeBron James, and he’s pretty ok at this whole basket-ball game. Cool. You might also know that James used to play for a certain Midwestern team but then decided after becoming a free agent to take his talents to Miami. That’s ok too.

What’s not ok, in fact what’s really stupid, is the conversation surrounding James. I don’t mean the whole “OMG HOW COULD YOU LEAVE US” bit that Cleveland was doing, which is the equivalent of a guy who lives in his parents’ basement and schedules his showers to coincide with the full moon wondering why his girlfriend left him. I also don’t mean the part of the James conversation that goes “OMG HOW TACKY” because, shit, you media people have been all but fellating him for 7 years and you wonder why he thinks he’s god allmighty? No, what I’m referring to is the pernicious strain of commentary that alleges that LeBron James will never be “great,” and specifically that he will never be as good as Michael Jordan.

Now it goes without saying that most sports commentators are idiots. We’re talking here about people whose job it is to take what Alvy Singer’s second wife referred to as “a bunch of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop,” and finding something to say about it other than “that one guy is really great at stuffing a ball through a hoop.” It turns out that watching this hoop-stuffing is a lot of fun for many people, and if you’re smart like Bethlehem Shoals or a small number of other worthwhile writers, you’ll find something interesting to say about the game that goes beyond the stupid and formulaic (apologies for the redundancy). Maybe you might write about what basketball tells us about the state of economic or race relations in the country, or about how the game has evolved over the decades, or about some interesting statistical metric (FORESHADOWING) that tells you something you didn’t know before.

But chances are, if you’re a sportswriter, you’re an idiot who has trouble dressing themselves. So of course you’re never going to write anything interesting because that would require you to have interesting and novel thoughts; much easier to simply pick up a common thread (“LEBRON WILL NEVER BE JORDAN”), add your own contribution (“I AGREE”), and laugh all the way to the bank while people who actually know what they’re talking about weep into their gin. It’s not only an easy thing to do, but it’s also an easy way to score points off cheap moralism. Of course you can never go back and implicate yourself and your ilk in promoting James to the skies, but you sure can turn around and scoff and pass cheap, stupid judgments that make you feel good about yourself.

This all would just be par for the course except for one problem: LeBron James is really great. It doesn’t matter how you feel about him personally; the guy is an absolute monster on the court, excelling in almost every statistical category for his position. He scores, he assists, he rebounds. He’s nearly unstoppable in the open court, an insane combination of speed, power, and accuracy. He is clearly the best player in the NBA today, and the LeBron-Kobe comparisons are simply laughable: Kobe wasn’t even the best player of the decade in his prime, and he’s in no way better now than James, who just has more of everything. Given these unarguable points, Jordan, as the universally acknowledged best player of all time, remains the only real point of comparison for James.

But that comparison cannot be made by talking heads on TV divorced from the facts. There is one thing, and one thing only, that will determine James’ status in the basketball hierarchy, and that is his performance on the court. And that performance can be measured, across many dimensions. It’s measured by some obvious metrics like points scored, field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists, and some non-obvious ones like PER and win shares. How do we know that Jordan was great? We know this because he leads the NBA in all time win shares per 48 games with an astounding 0.28 in that category (incidentally, Jordan led both the 80s and 90s in that stat; it also happens to be what James is averaging for the 2010-2011 season in the same category). We know this because he’s third on the all-time scoring list, and could have easily been first if he hadn’t missed two seasons. We don’t, incidentally, know this because Jordan has 6 titles (a statistic which means nothing for assessing individual greatness). But what we do know, and the reason why we’re justified in putting Jordan on top of the pyramid, is that he really was a great performer as quantified by just about any objective measure of basketball excellence.

For the same reasons, we can be nearly sure that barring catastrophic injury, James will finish his career (which I suspect has a good decade left in it) as one of the best players of all time. Simply projecting his career arc forward and integrating with respect to time allows us to confidently conclude this. And again, we know that this is so (or, for future events, have good reason to believe it) because we possess multiple statistical tools indicating this. We don’t need “intangibles” or “hunger” or “will to win” or any of this other bullshit that gets talked about year after year by the sports media, which reflexively in the absence of any semblance of original content will reach for tried and tired cliches. All we need to know is: what is James doing on the court? And we have the information that allows us to evaluate his performance and that’s all that matters. He could never win a championship in his life and conceivably end up being a better player than Jordan if he plays better as measured by the relevant indicators.

Of course, being better than Jordan would be incredible because Jordan is every bit the statistical monster that James is and then some. But so what? If we’re being honest assessors of basketball excellence, then we should admit that there is a possible (indeed, even plausible) combination of statistical indicators that would amount to a player who is better than Jordan. Maybe James will be that player and maybe he won’t, but the final judgment can’t be rendered without the relevant information. To simply declare Jordan the best by fiat and then assert that James can never measure up is not only to belittle James’ skills, but Jordan’s too. It is the recourse of the lazy and the stupid, not of anyone who is interested in evaluating the game with open eyes.

Edit: The main thesis here, just to avoid confusion, is that statistical methodology trumps “gut feeling,” when it comes to evaluating players. If at the end of the day you like Jordan better than James because of certain aesthetic preferences, that’s fine; what matters is that any initial degeneracy is broken by reference to some objective factors rather than “I like player x/I don’t like player y.”

Once more unto the breach, dear friends

I can’t stop thinking.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that way. When I was young, I would eat breakfast while reading the backs of cereal boxes; not because the backs of cereal boxes were particularly edifying but because I was obsessed with words. I didn’t have a consciousness of this at the age of ten, of course. All I knew was that I liked reading the words on the back of the boxes. Later, for reasons now lost to the dusts of history, my parents took out a Time subscription and my limitless desire for words found a new object. And ever since a very young age, I’ve never been at ease when I’m not consuming or producing words in some way.

I’ve been consuming words for a long time now. That process has pushed so much information into my head that, mentally, I swim in it. One cannot, after all, get away from oneself; I find myself walking through airports and unbidden a thought comes into my head and then I have to process it in some way, torture it into a semblance of coherency. I don’t know how to turn that off and I certainly wouldn’t want to. But despite it I feel an inadequacy in my approach to the situation; it’s too undisciplined, too unbalanced. There aren’t enough pressures on me to put my disparate ideas into a structure that makes sense, and the nature of my work is such that, with the exception of those ideas that pertain to that work, I won’t find that kind of pressure there. Perhaps I’m insufficiently motivated to apply that pressure to myself. That certainly has been the case in the past: I’m irresponsible and undisciplined at the best of times.

Every year, we go through a farce we call New Year’s resolutions, which at this point are a comical performance we put on for our friends and families, while winking. I’m trying to do that dance this year, with a measure of sincerity. Arbitrary phases in the solar cycle may not mean anything, but we like to think they represent an opportunity to change something. This text is one step towards the things I would like to change. My goal isn’t as specific as losing a certain number of pounds or accomplishing a certain set of tasks, but rather to work on self-discipline, manifesting it in both physical and intellectual aspects. The end goal, I suppose, is to be swimming through that river of thought in the directions I want to go, rather than being carried along like a piece of driftwood. We’ll see how much I manage to get done in the course of the year, but now, refreshed by a nice little vacation, is as good a time to start as any.

Happy New Year, people.

The future under Republicans

Many States in Mexico Crack Down on Abortion

Thanks Mexico, for giving us a preview of what reproductive rights will look like if Republicans get their way. It’s considered generally impolitic in today’s world to say that you’re going to arrest women for having abortions, which is why anti-choicers will always dodge that question. But make no mistake: this is exactly the goal they have in mind. This is pretty much what will happen to poor women in conservative states if Roe is overruled.

To be against choice is to be in favor of forced birth, apparently even to the extent of placing any woman showing up to a hospital with gynecological issues under automatic suspicion.

Inglorious Basterds

I have wanted to say something for a long time about Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” I have a complicated relationship with QT; most people of my generation regard him as an unquestioned genius, whereas my opinion of him is usually inclined towards the critical. I didn’t really like the “Kill Bill” movies, wasn’t moved by “Pulp Fiction,” or “Reservoir Dogs,” and in general thought that Tarantino’s best film was the film that was least “like” him, “Jackie Brown.” So I can’t say that I had any a priori disposition towards liking “Basterds.”

Nevertheless, fairness demands that I acknowledge the film’s general quality. There’s probably no other filmmaker of such a renown who can film conversational scenes of the quality that Tarantino pulls off. Indeed, I think that the scene in the German tavern may well be some of the best 40 or so minutes ever shot on that theme. The way it’s written and played is simply beyond reproach; Tarantino keeps the entire situation balanced on the point of disaster which, when it inevitably comes, strikes with cruel efficiency and swiftness. In fact, one can probably say that about several of the longer scenes in “Basterds,” including Landa’s initial interrogation and Shoshanna’s preparations for the theater fire: they are exquisitely constructed set pieces that unfailingly hurtle towards a violent and (sometimes literally) explosive resolution. But insofar as this is Tarantino’s great strength and a demonstration of his best qualities, it seems also to be an exhibition of his greatest weakness; to wit, nothing about “Basterds” really feels like a complete movie. Rather there is a feeling that the whole thing is stitched together from disparate, somewhat related scenes which don’t particularly add up to a coherent whole.

That’s a stylistic observation, but there’s a content-related observation that’s worth making too. Which is: why does this movie eixst? What, exactly, is it for, anyway? That question is directly related to the entire fake-history conceit that drives the movie’s secondary (non-Shoshanna) plot. After all, if you’re going so far as to conceptualize a world in which Jewish death squads terrorize the German countryside during World War II, there must be some kind of idea behind it. I’ve engaged in arguments elsewhere on the Internet (specifically, on Pandagon, around the time “Basterds” came out) where one explanation offered was that this was meant to stand the traditional view of Jews as passive victims on its head. But having thought about it since then, that doesn’t seem at all right to me. The Basterds as characters are only barely fleshed out; they have minimal personalities just adequate to make them slightly more appealing than cardboard cutouts. Moreover, it seems pretty odd that this group of Jewish fighters isn’t actually being led by a Jew, but by a half-Apache, half-Italian from Tennessee (if I remember this right). One sure way of demonstrating Jewish agency might have been, you know, to actually put a Jew in charge of the whole operation (never mind acknowledging the Jews who actually contributed to the war effort; that would defeat the fake-history premise). Outside the general premise of the Basterds’ existence, they and their storyline are actually incredibly boring (with, again, the notable exception of the tavern scene). The Shoshanna storyline is, at least, generally comprehensible (and the movie is far, far more about her anyway than it is about the actual Basterds) and probably could have stood on its own as a complete film. But the Basterds’ half of the film (if it can even be called that; it’s really Aldo’s half of the film), seems tacked and unnatural.

The violence in “Basterds” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either. Unlike in, say, “No Country for Old Men,” much of the violence in “Basterds,” doesn’t seem in service of any particular goal. The Bear Jew? The two Jewish suicide bombers? The glee with which frankly gruesome and cruel acts are committed? It’s rather hard to find intrinsic motivations for any of this. Is the point that Jews could be just as cruel in their retalliation to their oppressors? That seems to be one possible reading, but certainly another equally plausible one might be that once you descend to the level of a Nazi executioner, it’s hard to tell the two apart. Perhaps this moral ambiguity is intentional. Amanda Marcotte argued that the unapologetic violence is intended as a reaction to movies like “The Reader,” which tried to look at the personal lives of Nazis, but it’s hard to pick this out from the actual contents of the film. If that thesis is true, then the ambiguity I’m referencing is a weakness, not a strength. And, most puzzlingly, when Aldo has a chance to commit an act of violence which would have some real meaning and consequences for him, he chooses to forgo killing Landa, though of course he would have been eminently justified in doing so. The carving of the swastika into his forehead has the air of an act of showmanship more than anything.

The films ending leaves me deeply unsatisfied. I’m thinking in particular of the scene at the end in which Shoshanna is killed. It unfolds thusly: as the German soldier (I forget his name) lies bleeding to death, Shoshanna catches a glimpse of a film in which he starred on the screen. Momentarily enchanted by his handsome visage, she bends over him, whereupon he shoots her with a concealed gun just as Marcel sets fire to the theater. A warning about the seductive power of images and the hazards associated with taking them for a truth? Yes, I would say so, but in the context of “Basterds,” it feels a bit cheap. After all, we’ve just sat through more than 3 hours of an alternative history which may have had a point other than offering a fantastical version of WWII, and to have such a coda to it is almost like an admission that it’s all been a joke. For surely, if we heed the scene’s warning and apply it retroactively to the movie itself, that’s a plausible conclusion to draw. And it brings us right back to the question of “Basterds'” purpose and whether it can sustain any idea beyond “beware the treachery of images.” Furthermore, it would call into question any interpretations of previous scenes that could lead to anything resembling moral engagement. If in the end, everything is an ironic inversion, then how can we be justified in taking any individual part of it seriously?

Maybe it’s unfair to criticize Tarantino according to canons that he may not necessarily adhere to. But I think a lot of people do see a kind of seriousness in his work, so at least from that persepctive, I think these criticisms are relevant. At least to me, it seems that Tarantino is perpetually unable to let even movies ostensibly attempting to address a serious theme take their course without, in the end, giving the game away with a typically ironic maneuver which makes it hard to take seriously anything that came before it. This is really disappointing to me, because I think with his talent and his ear for conversations, Tarantino could be a truly great filmmaker if he could only let go of his constant need for ironic posturing. Instead, for me, he remains an unquestionable technical talent that resides below the upper tier of directors. Of course, for some people, that ironic posture is one of his greatest merits; de gustibus, etc. Perhaps there isn’t even a way to separate it from his other skills. I suppose we’ll see in the not-too-distant future if a 60-year old Tarantino moves beyond this.

Shut the fuck up about baseball

Holy shit, you mean baseball players took performance enhancing drugs?! My monocle!

Shut the fuck up about it, it doesn’t signal the collapse of Western civilization, you sanctimonious assholes. Big fucking deal, some jock cheated in some stupid game. The world didn’t end, your innocence isn’t lost, you’ll live through it. Stop writing stupid stories about it, idiots.

Who needs facts?

Not John McWhorter. In his review of Amy Wax’s book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies, McWhorter waxes (ho ho) poetic about the persuasiveness of the argument, but completely fails to relate just what it is that makes it persuasive. The review begins, as such things so often do, with a complete strawman:

There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community.

Notice the unspoken assumptions smuggled into this sentence. First, it is simply assumed that such a “school of thought” exists, although none of its representatives are even identified, much less given a voice. The second assumption is that this school (whatever it is, if it even exists) believes that government must be the “main force,” in helping the black community; is there even a metric that allows one to compare who or what is a “main” force and what is an auxillary? I would suppose that if one actually spoke to people who study issues of this sort, one would discover a much more nuanced view on the role of government in bringing about racial equality.

The review, and, I must assume from the text, Wax’s book itself, contains one of those horrible appeals to analogy which is neither illuminating nor valid. McWhorter paraphrases it thus:

Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible.

How this is supposed to teach us anything about the history of African-Americans is unclear. Justice is “impossible,” under this analysis because the framework of the “parable” is structured to prevent it from being possible. Even internally the example isn’t particularly coherent; we might well ask what happens if the truck driver has paralyzed the pedestrian, which would seem to be a reasonable question given the analogy. Now, the pedestrian can’t learn to walk, no matter how hard he tries! What kind of justice does the pedestrian, now crippled for life, deserve in this case?

Of course, to even begin to make this counter-argument is already a problem because it implies the acceptance of the analogy, which is in no way legitimate. Collisions between truck drivers and pedestrians are individual processes; the condition of blacks in America is not an individual process but a historic one. Truck drivers didn’t create structural conditions that continuously result in pedestrians being run over, whereas white America unquestionably did create (and continues to perpetuate) structural conditions that leave blacks at a disadvantage.

McWhorter goes on:

The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.

The italics in the quotation are mine. Let me first object to the use of the word “implacable” here as a mean rhetorical trick designed to move the faulty analogy out of the realm of debate. In fact, as is clear after minimal reflection, nothing about this logic is implacable at all; it’s actually quite faulty and not at all applicable to the situation in question, which in any case ought to be treated on its own merits. But even granting this false analogy, I still have to wonder by what mechanism of elimination Wax has concluded that “nothing else will work.” Does Wax’s book contain a thorough examination of various social programs together with an analysis of their performance? I don’t have the book, but I suspect that it’s not something you can do in 190 pages (and anyway, Wax is a lawyer, not a sociologist, so likely such an analysis would be beyond her expertise anyway). In fact, one might suppose that there are lots of things we haven’t tried that could certainly alleviate the difficulties that blacks face in America; for example, we could end the ludicrous and patently racist “war on drugs,” which locks up young black men at unprecedented rates. I doubt that this would solve every problem ever, but it sure would help. In the next paragraph, McWhorter’s argument (really, Wax’s argument, but McWhorter seems to agree with it) gets downright weird:

Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the “brick wall” obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fix—Wax is making no moral argument—but that they alone can fix.

Let’s grant for a moment Wax’s argument that discrimination today isn’t a “brick wall.” I don’t believe it’s true, but for the sake of argument I’ll allow it. It still remains true that the people alive today are the victims of actual discrimination from decades past. Since I assume that no one would make the argument that racism just disappeared abruptly, even if one believes it doesn’t really exist today, then certainly one must grant that blacks were, in fact, discriminated against in the past. What that means, for those of you who are adept at following causation, is that blacks today are living with the end product of that discrimination. Wax clearly acknowledges this, but wants to pretend that in this brave new world, that doesn’t really matter. I can’t see how this is a coherent position. Those structural deficiencies created by explicitly and implicitly discriminatory policies still exist. I’ve already mentioned  the war on drugs, but you can just as easily look at the difference in funding between urban and suburban school districts. When I was a high school student in California, I was lucky enough to attend a very rich school whose tax base was La Jolla, one of the wealthiest communities in the state. But I also had the chance to see numerous other campuses, which were decrepit by comparison. So long as such stark and undisputed inequalities persist, it’s hard to see how Wax’s apparent belief that we have done all we can could possibly stand up under scrutiny.

McWhorter acknowledges these difficulties at the end of the article, though in a rather oblique manner. Before he gets there, he throws out a couple of studies without a lot of context: that completing high school and delaying having kids is conducive to success, that the IAT is not the best indicator of discriminatory behavior (this is asserted and nothing is cited in support, but let’s roll with it), and that poor women don’t marry the fathers of their children not because the fathers are unemployed but because they are not dependable. The obvious question that arises here is how those factors are disentangled; wouldn’t someone who is undependable be likely to be unemployed? Potshots are thrown at random “black radicals” (who, I’m guessing, are probably of little relevance to the overall struggles of day-to-day life in black communities anyway) for failing to address out-of-wedlock births and Jeremiah Wright is trotted out to complete the parade of horribles.

What’s disappointing about all of this is that at the end, it’s not like McWhorter doesn’t understand that government has a role to play. Having thrown out some pretty categorical statements early on, he effectively backtracks to admit that government can in fact do things like improve educational equality, ease the transition of felons back into society, and enforce civil rights violations. And that it should be doing those things. Still, he can’t help but sign on to this paragraph from Wax:

The government cannot make people watch less television, talk to their children, or read more books. It cannot ordain domestic order, harmony, tranquility, stability, or other conditions conducive to academic success and the development of sound character. Nor can it determine how families structure their interactions and routines or how family resources—including time and money—are expended. Large-scale programs are especially ineffective in changing attitudes and values toward learning, work, and marriage.

Government can certainly not do any of those things by fiat (although the last sentence seems of dubious validity). But it can, and should, try to create conditions in which those kinds of attitudes will flourish. Poverty, as I suspect McWhorter would acknowledge, has a logic of its own that has little to do intrinsically with whether one is black or white. For historical reasons, we have a black underclass in this country, but being black doesn’t somehow cause you to adopt the “wrong culture.” On the other hand, there is a clear causal connection between being black and finding yourself the persistent victim of structural inequalities predicated, in the not-too-distant past, on racial discrimination. Once you find yourself a member of that underclass, with the corresponding limited horizons and substantially greater day-to-day travails, you can’t just will yourself out of it. Well, maybe if you’re really good, you can, but the average person, black or white or anything in between, is going to struggle, and understandably so. To think otherwise is just fantasy. It’s especially bizarre for Wax to ask,

Is it possible to pursue an arduous program of self-improvement while simultaneously thinking of oneself as a victim of grievous mistreatment and of one’s shortcomings as a product of external forces?

Well, is it? It would seem that Wax believes the answer to this question is negative, though this isn’t stated anywhere. But more importantly, what if one really is a victim of grievous mistreatment and one’s shortcomings (a loaded term in and of itself) are actually a product of external forces?

McWhorter concludes his review with the suggestion that saying that government and personal choices both have a role to play is like having your cake and eating it too. But I would counter that such a statement is simply a truism, and that Wax is playing a dishonest shell game. On the one hand, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the great injustices perpetrated against blacks over the course of this country’s history; on the other hand, such an acknowledgment leads naturally to the conclusion that this isn’t just a private problem but a social problem that can and should be addressed in policy. And that’s not acceptable to Wax for whatever reason, so she quickly has to swap in the idea that we’ve already done all we can and the rest is the responsibility of the black community. Nevermind that this isn’t supported by any real evidence and that so much more can actually be done. And this is why discussions of culture never really get you anywhere; they simply serve to redirect the discourse from the actual, useful things we as a society can do to blaming black people for not being committed enough to not being poor. McWhorter is right when he says that “the bulk of today’s discussion of black America is performance art,” but not in the way he thinks.

First thing we do, let’s kill all the tenured professors

Sloppy thinking about tenure abounds on the Internet. Not surprisingly, the major opponents to tenure are conservatives, academic and otherwise, whose “arguments” consist of leveling scurrilous charges against tenured professors. Not that there aren’t left critiques of tenure too, but since they’re virtually invisible, I’ma just ignore them for now.

A recent “story” at Slate examines this case and unsurprisingly finds it convincing. It really has all the hallmarks of terrible reporting: inapplicable analogies, numbers taking out of context, extensive citations from conservative critics with long records of writing about how horrible tenure is (while, paradoxically, enjoying the benefits of the institution themselves).

I mean, why would you even write this:

Imagine you ran a restaurant. A very prestigious, exclusive restaurant. To attract top talent, you guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution. The only catch is that all cooks or waiters would have to start out as dishwashers or busboys, for at least 10 years, when none of these protections would apply.

It sounds absurd in the context of the food-service industry—for both you and your staff. But this system has governed academia for decades.

TENURE DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY! That’s not the rationale for why tenure exists, at all. Arguments by analogy are, in general horrible; you can’t just take an out-of-context scenario from one profession and transplant into another. Just because tenure might be an absurd idea in restaurants doesn’t mean it’s an absurd idea in academia, because there are qualitatively different imperatives at work in the two institutions.

Nor do the numbers make an ironclad case for eliminating tenure:

Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor with tenure for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million.* Public universities pay $10 million over the same period. And because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation. University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they’d be in the black.

The level of stupidity in this paragraph is just unbearable. So, let’s take it as a given that a university professor costs their institution between $10 and $12 million over the course of their time there. Is that a lot? A little? Who knows?! Compared to what? I guess it’s probably a lot if you want to pay professors the same as janitors, but there’s no obvious context for any of these numbers. So if universities tenured 15 fewer professors then ceteris paribus they’d be in the black? How about if more public funding went to our universities, maybe then they’d be in the black too! But no, obviously the answer is to get rid of people who are doing useful and interesting work because god forbid we might use public funds to reinforce the country’s intellectual infrastructure. That’s an unthinkable proposition for noted hack Mark Taylor.

Speaking of Taylor, it’s quite ironic that a professor of religion, surely one of the least useful titles in academia, should be advocating these cuts. Where does he think they’re going to come from, exactly? The engineering school? No, the engineering school has fellowships endowed by Intel and industry funding. You know whose neck they’re going to come for first, Mark Taylor? Yours. Of course then they’ll basically get rid of everyone who doesn’t bring in their own funding, leaving universities to be little better than technical institutes, but don’t think you’re going to escape the purge.

Other notable highlights:

  • Critics say that tenure hurts students by making professors lazy.

Well, does it, asshole?! But why do research when you can just fling unsubstantiated allegations (Critics say!) of unquantifiable moral turpitude at people. Critics of Chris Beam say writing dumb articles for slate makes him blow goats.

  • Tenure can also discourage interdisciplinary studies

Does it? Who knows? Certainly not Ace Reporter Chris Beam. When I am King Shit of Reporting Mountain I will prohibit the use of the word “can” except as a direct citation backed by a graph. A pretty graph.

  • Besides, says Taylor, the idea that a tenured professor can finally “speak out” is absurd. “If you don’t have the guts to speak out before, you’re not gonna have it after.” Even tenured professors still have all kinds of incentives to keep their heads down. There’s still research to fund, administrators to placate, time off to negotiate.

Ah yes, I will certainly take contrarian Mark Taylor’s word for it. Certainly I have never heard of any professors ever speaking out on any topic of interest!

What’s really disappointing about this reporting is how much better it could have been. I bag on Taylor, but he’s written some fairly correct stuff on the decline of the university as a center for actual learning and on the over-production of graduate students. Those are real problems that, tenure or no tenure, should be tackled in some way, and ones that are worth reporting on. It’s also true that the tenure track tends to be unfair to women, a point which the article mentions but ends up basically glossing over. Of course, the real elephant in this room is the continued commercialization of the university, the endless proliferation of its administrative apparatus (which, let’s be honest here, eats up way more resources than some English professor), and the chronic unwillingness of the public to actually fund its educational institutions. Maybe tenure is a problem, maybe it’s not, but it’s so low on the totem pole that addressing it is like trying to extract the mote from your eye while you’re being impaled on a beam.