The Journal of Applied Impossibility
I began this on February 21st-ish, 2021. But I always keep my hot takes on a back burner until they're no longer relevant, so I'm sure that if this post ever meets the light of day, the story will be very old news.
In response to this and this and this, a friend sent me this.
I think I find Wilkinson's blog post irksome -- and I'm trying to work through (1.) why that is,
(2.) whether it matter that it's irksome, and
(3.) what about my thinking is or ought to be different for my having read it.
I have to admit that I find myself among the partisans here, and it's very difficult to know whether I am "objective" -- and if (as I suspect) I am not, it's also very difficult to know how to correct this. I have already noted my suspicion that "objectivity" is overrated. But there's a difference between
being clear about one's perspective and being blinded by one's biases. The latter is to be avoided, the former lauded, but neither is evidence of the other, and we should not mistake them for such.
I hope it will help if I can at least be forthright about my biases at the outset.
Part of my reaction to the whole event is this: In my narrative reconstruction of this story, I am like Scott and I am most certainly not like The Times. I wonder how I might receive this story differently if it had unfolded seven years after I received tenure at Notre Dame.
In this world, the institutions all work fine, just as they are supposed to. We all trust the tenure process. We all trust the institutional hierarchy that says that reputations are built on hard work and justly earned. In this world, of course I believe what I read in NYT! Of course they made the right call! and of course it's an accident if they didn't once or twice, and of course it's worth it. The Times has a policy. A POLICY, I say! Things must be done just so! Who does this blauuaughh!er think he is? A POLICY is a POLICY.
But I do not live in that world. I live in a world in which "the institutions work just fine" means that I deserve to be unemployed, a washout from Academe. One of my very best friends deserves to wash out of the same career, another dear friend deserves to wash out of it too, and another of my very best of friends, who's more impressive than anyone I know, in terms of both credentials and publications has a medium-tier job. It's like finding out Rick Bayless got hired at Applebee's. Because this is the world I inhabit, the idea of the institutions themselves being failures and full of malice makes much more sense. I am open to the idea in a way that imagine I might not be otherwise.
For some reason, this makes me think of Heidegger getting Husserl's old job. I imagine Martin getting the call about that. Most philosophy people in the continental tradition think Heidegger is brilliant. He is at least significant.* But did he deserve that spot? I'm sure that he accomplished a lot (for whatever definition of "accomplish" includes whatever philosophy professors do). But his being there was a result of a system being perverted. And however much the history of ideas may have been shaped by this fact, it does not make the event normative.
I suppose this is an opportunity for me to practice gratitude. I have been given a gift to see something more clearly. Those for whom a system works are disinclined to see its failures.
As I write this (now January of 2022), a buzzword in political discourse is "misinformation" -- and folks everywhere are wondering how so many can be taken in by it.† I would like to suggest that part of what is happening is the disconnect between those within the institutions, for whom the institution is (by definition) working well, and those on the outside. CNN probably seems much more credible when their logo is on all of your paychecks. But if the system is not working for you, it's much more likely that you mistrust it. This makes sense when I say it out loud, but it only makes sense to me because I have been on the unpleasant end of institutional failure. If everything had gone according to plan for me, I would imagine that systems, plans, and policies are the sort of things that generally work for everyone. Wilkinson wants Scott to imagine why a perfectly functioning system such as The Times would have such a reasonable policy. But when you experience the negative consequences, it's possible to see the policy as less reasonable, and to wonder about how well the institution is really functioning, and for whom.
* From all I can tell, "significant" means "people read him." In this case, reading someone because s/he is 'significant' might be a disease, rather than a good idea. Regardless, I've never been able to make very much sense of Heidegger. His writings appear to be an unhealthy mix of kooky, wrong, and impenetrable. However, I have matured a great deal since grad school, and I can now say at least two nice things about him: 1.) He has written grammatically correct German sentences, and 2.) He is not the Nazi who ruined the Charlie-Chaplin mustache.
† From the best I can see, the prefix 'mis-' is used here to mean "that which I disapprove of." The term miss is used as a pronoun, and one sees this often when security is called to escort someone off the premises: "Come with me, miss."
I write about all sorts of things. This is one of the places where I do it.