Ph.D. Octopus

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by Bronwen

In case you were getting discouraged by the state of the media in America, take a look at the newest ‘-gate’ to hit Britain: Pastygate.

Yes, that’s right: the Chancellor has added VAT to hot takeaway foods from places other than restaurants.  Apparently this is unfair because Osborne hasn’t had anything from Greggs lately.  This has ignited the popular press of the country, as well as launching new ad campaigns for pasty proprietors.










This in turn was followed by a predictable stampede of politicians to the local Greggs, Cornish Pasty Company, etc.

Dave prefers West Cornwall Pasty Company

As the Economist notes:

Like a glacé cherry topping off a Greggs iced tart, the media day culminated with Ed Balls, the Labour shadow chancellor of the exchequer, inviting the television cameras to film him confidently striding into a branch of Greggs to order eight sausage rolls. These were not all for him it emerged (though he is a big chap, and in training for a marathon). Some were for the awkward, besuited southerner behind him who turned out to be his party leader, Ed Miliband.

We love Greggs!

But the Economist points out that this is all about class and the perceived end of British institutions.  I can see that, I guess. The Greggs ad pointedly uses George Osborne’s real first name, Gideon, for instance.  And the Daily Mail pretty much comes right out and says that Cameron is out of touch with normal people.  This is veering pretty close to the dangerous ‘real America’ territory of Fox News.

But as a neutral observer, what I really see is further indication that The Thick of It is spot on in its depiction of the complete lack of control that politicians have over the media here.  Unlike in the US, where the Right thinks there’s a ‘Liberal Media Bias’ and liberals know that Fox News is basically a paid propaganda arm of the Republican Party, in Britain it’s pretty obvious that no one in the media likes or has any respect for any political or governmental figures.  Add to that newspapers’ desire to make anything into a scandal, and you have tabloid gold.

Fittingly this all emerged in the same week that The New Yorker ran a piece on Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail.  But really, nothing says it better than the Daily Show.

Moat Gate

Written by apini

March 30, 2012 at 06:52

Posted in class, politics

The Feminism of Dirty Dancing

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by David

I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time on Monday night. I know, the fact that it took me this long to see it is a real shanda (scandal).

I saw it on the big screen, with my wife and some friends and a few hundred screaming feminists (screaming with glee at the sight of a shirtless Patrick Swayze, that is). Prior to the film, one of the event organizers, my friend Irin, interviewed the movie’s screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein. The evening was organized by Jezebel, with proceeds going to benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund, an all-volunteer organization that helps provide funds to poor pregnant women who want abortions but cannot afford them.

Much has already been written about this showing, by Irin herself, by the Wall Street Journal‘s Sarah Seltzer, and by Esther Zuckerman of The Village Voice. Indeed, between these articles and Irin’s earlier piece arguing that Dirty Dancing is “the greatest movie of all time,” I’m not sure what I can really add to the conversation. Nevertheless, I’ll share my main take-aways from the evening [spoiler alert]:

1) I knew the movie was popular, a cult classic seen countless times by North American girls and women, but I had no idea how big it was internationally. In Australia, truck drivers watched it at repeatedly at rest stops. In Germany, the dubbers were so obsessed with having the mouth movement at least resemble German words that they translated Johnny Castle’s signature line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” to “My Baby belongs to me. Is this clear?” And apparently that’s the line they love and remember. Ah, the Germans: always thinking everything belongs to them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

August 11, 2011 at 07:19


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by Bronwen

There is a new, serious crisis in East Africa.  I recently saw a facebook meme that expressed what is officially referred to as ‘aid fatigue’ or ‘crisis fatigue’.

BREAKING NEWS: We need to send money to the following country: USA. There are many without food, shelter, and clean drinking water. Residents are going without heat for the winter, no a/c for the summer. Millions are without jobs. Need health care for the sick. Stop sending money overseas. We have people here that lack basic human needs. Do you have the guts to re-post this?? AMERICA FIRST!

In a time when life is uncertain for so many Americans (see Peter’s post on this blog last week), it’s not surprising that this should emerge.  Middle class life is perceived to be (and could very well be) perched on the edge of a steep decline.

So these Americans would probably be delighted to know that they do not have to carry the whole burden by themselves.  The Daily Nation also has an interesting, and a number of letters to the editor that point out a side of the crisis which will probably not make it into the US or UK news:  Kenyan contributions to the relief efforts through a variety of initiatives, like Kenyans for Kenya.

A number of recent projects have been dedicated to stories about the emergence of an African middle class.  This one is particularly good, although its choice of sample countries is perhaps a bit odd.  The blog Africa is a Country focuses on ‘everyday’ Africa.  The FT has also recently started a quarterly magazine, This is Africa, which brings business and investment stories and interviews from the continent to readers in the US and Europe.

However, in general there is both less interest in and a certain discomfort about the African middle class.  Why?  I think there are a couple of important reasons. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

August 5, 2011 at 07:23

Posted in Academia, Africa, class

The New American Underclass, the Unraveling of America, and Bruce Springsteen: A Review of Someplace like America

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By Peter

According to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project, the vast majority of new hires made since the Great Recession has started have been in low wage jobs. People are losing mid or high wage jobs and gaining low-wage jobs. Meanwhile the wealth gap between races is the worst in 25 years. Black families have lost half their median family assets, and Hispanics have lost a shocking 2/3rds of their median household assets.

From a bird’s eye view, then, the Great Collapse of 2008, which many of us thought would be the death-knell of neoliberalism, has turned out to be its best friend. As is often the case, capitalism will come out of the crisis reorganized and restructured, with access to desperate low-wage workers, who no longer even expect mid-range wages, a larger reserve army of the unemployed in order to keep those with jobs in line, and a radical Tea-Party led (and Democratic- abetted) assault on unions, government regulation, and social services. Those who still have jobs are working more hours and seeing their responsibilities multiply, while getting paid less. The age of austerity may finally realize Milton, Barry, and Ronald’s dream of destroying the post-war social compact.

And yet, as Dale Maharidge points out in Someplace like America, a new book of photographs and stories from the Great Recession, for most low-income America, the Great Recession (or as he calls it “The New Great Depression), began decades ago. Since at least the 80s, Reaganite economic policy has created a growing underclass of Americans, who have largely seemed invisible to American society. For a brief moment in 2009, Mahardige remembers, journalists were interested in the tent cities springing up outside of cities in California and Florida. But they wanted to hear about people who had just lost their jobs. In fact, most of the residents had been struggling for years, even during the supposedly good times of the 90s. The Crash simply broke the camel’s back.

In some ways its an underclass whose lives seem familiar to us: the men and women who ride railroads, sleep under bridges, squat in abandoned factories, hover outside of overcrowded breadlines, and drift from town to town drawn by rumors of work seem all reminiscent of Woody Guthrie songs and John Steinbeck novels. But it also deeply alien to see it today, which is why many of the most jaring photographs juxtapose images of 21st century American consumption (a Kenny Rogers ad, a faded Office Depot sign, a Wal-Mart, etc…) next to images of 21st century poverty, to familiarize us with a phenomenon we were told doesn’t exist anymore. Suburbanization and the creation of highways has, to a large degree, pushed this poverty out of sight. The poverty rate in the suburbs, where poverty tends to be much less visible, has been skyrocketing.

In many cases, these are men and women who have known better. Much better. There is a sense of bewilderment to the unraveling of the Fordist social compact, as people can’t quite understand why they don’t have the opportunities their parents did. There is B.T., found selling his life’s possessions alongside a highway in Tennessee, in order to buy food. He was an auto mechanic for years, and was laid off a year and a half ago. “I’m ashamed. I’m the kind of guy who works. I always worked… I haven’t gone to the church yet, because I’m a little embarrassed,” he says. His area of Tennessee was devastated by NAFTA, as the Oshkosh factory closed up and went to Honduras.

The authors go to Youngstown and follow the diaspora of workers, scattered after the devastating closures of the steel mills. In a shack outside of Houston, they find one. His grandfather had worked in the mills in Youngstown, he had hauled steel. When it all crashed down, he lost his job, drank, and drifted. Now he “babbled nonsense… a creature that once was a man,” and lived on the streets. They interview Sally, an “upper-middle class” mother, whose husband was a business-owner. Now she’s waiting outside a food bank in Michigan with a crowd of people. “None of the 224 faces,” she stands with, “register as being any different from those you’d see in a suburban shopping mall.”

One picture is of a family—the baby stares directly at the camera– while the family is too embarrassed to look-up —in line at a free health care clinic in rural Virginia. The caption is the kicker: The Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps used to only work with the “desperately poor” in third-world countries. Now it operates largely in rural America.

True poverty, Maharidge points out, takes some time to kick in. At first, when people lost their jobs in Youngstown, they survived. Some found new jobs, others accepted lower pay. Many drifted on unemployment or disability. But eventually these supports dry up, and the longer you’re out of work, the harder it is to get new employment. You are evicted or foreclosed, your family or friend gets sick of you crashing with them, and you move on. Maybe you hear about an opportunity a couple of towns over, but can’t afford a hotel room or a deposit on a rental. So you begin sleeping in your car. Gas and maintenance becomes too much, so you hitch or walk. Many sell blood or begin scrounging food from wastebins, at first in moments of despair, later as an everyday activity. The embarrassment and stress gets to people, who begin abusing drugs or alcohol. Many are victims of theft, murder, or rape, and rarely do the police investigate.

As the Great Recession continues (and it is continuing for most people…) the middle class is falling into the lower class, the lower class falling into the poor, and the poor falling off the social map into the informal economy of scrounging, subsistence farming, petty thievery, homelessness, prostitution, and the like. There are almost certainly more Americans who live like this then, say, Americans who watch the Daily Show. Mahardige and Williamson introduce us to “Edge men,” people who have completely given up on the prospect of employment, and squat or set up tents outside of cities, to live permanently outside of society. With years of high unemployment, and millions of so called ‘99ers approaching the end of their benefits, we better get used to seeing these people.

The authors of Someplace like America had previously collaborated on Journey to Nowhere, which had the distinction of inspiring a number of Bruce Springsteen songs, including Youngstown. There is a line in that song, “those big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do,” referring to the destruction of the steel mills. It comes directly from an unemployed steel worker Joe Marshall Sr. There is an odd section of Someplace like America, where the authors meet Springsteen and sneak into the abandoned Jeanette blast furnace (the “Jenny”) to contemplate what’s happening to America. I’ll give Bruce, who wrote the introduction to this book, credit. In his own way he’s been warning about this stuff for decades, while much of the left couldn’t even use the word “class.” During the heady days of Morning in America, while the Democratic Party began its now unbreakable marriage with Wall Street, he was writing about the consequences of these policies. He saw the future better than most political pundits did.

Even many of us on the left aren’t nearly as comfortable talking about poverty and class, as we were in the 30s. We’re comfortable with racialized urban poverty, which makes sense in our post-68, urbanized, information-age worldview, but have pushed rural poverty (white or black) completely out of our imaginations. We live in Brooklyn or Cambridge or San Francisco or Portland, little bubbles that have done much better than the rest of the country. Our discourse is almost completely unable to talk about poverty except as a technocratic problem. The moral core of the problem—that some have so much and some have so little, and that this is a result of collective decisions we have made—can not fit into our ideological imaginations.

Which is why the photographs by Michael Williamson are so important. I wish there were more. It’s a book that is self-consciously in the tradition of Let us now Praise Famous Men (the authors previously had done a follow-up, called And Their Children After them) and Dorthea Lange. The photos are stark black and white images, often of destroyed mills or houses, with only slight traces of human activity. When he focuses on a human subject, often the faces are obscured, as the child pumping water by hand, from the only source of fresh water in Bayview Virginia, a rusty iron spigot. B.T., the unemployed mechanic selling his life’s possessions from the back of his truck, looks down, ashamed of what he’s doing. Perhaps my favorite photography is of “Edge Man Ed.” You only see him in silhouette against a gigantic garish photograph of smiling Kenny Rogers smoking a cigar. Ed had saved the plastic sheeting from a Rogers’ billboard and was using it to make a tent out of.

Williamson walks a fine line, between drawing attention to the poverty and helplessness of his subjects and trying to find the dignity and resolve in their faces. It’s hard not to see the same tension in how Mahardige talks about the subjects or we think about them. Too much pity makes them degraded victims; too little anger is inappropriate.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

July 28, 2011 at 14:34

X-Men: First Class – a Fun Movie for Historians

with 2 comments

by Weiner


I saw X-Men: First Class last night. Really good movie. It was especially fun for historians, and not only because it fictionally ties in to real events like the Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War. It also deals with the modern academic trifecta of race, class, and gender in relatively interesting ways, of course using the notion of mutants to complicate these matters (oh, no I used the term complicate! the next thing you know I’ll be trying to problematize something!).

I’m not sure I have anything to add that hasn’t already been said better by Matt Yglesias or by Susan Polo or by Neo-Prodigy at The Chronicle. So check those posts out, but BEWARE OF SPOILERS.

What I will say is that January Jones must be the world’s worst actress. Unless she was supposed to play a mutant super-villain in the same way she does Betty Draper. Still, it was an awesome movie, and you should see it.

Written by David Weinfeld

June 8, 2011 at 19:21

Posted in class, film, gender, pop culture, race

Grant Hill vs Jalen Rose: The “Uncle Tom” Controversy in Historical Context

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by Weiner

With the Final Four coming up this weekend, I figure it’s better late than never to weigh in on the Grant Hill vs Jalen Rose controversy. Well not exactly weigh in, as I don’t really feel the need to pick a “side,” but rather to put their spat in some kind of historical context.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a nice summary with far better commentary than I can offer over here. But I’ll give you some basics:

Rose (left) was a member of the 1990s Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team, known as the “Fab Five” for their five African American stars, including Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson. As wikipedia notes, the “Fab Five” became well-known for bringing a hip hop style into college basketball, and later into the NBA. The team reached two NCAA championships, losing both, including the 1992 championship to the Duke University Blue Devils, led by future NBA star Grant Hill.

The class contrast was stark. Hill’s father, an NFL running back, had been educated at Yale, his mother at Wellesley College, where she roomed with Hillary Clinton.

In the recent  ESPN documentary, The Fab Five (which Rose produced), Rose, who grew up poor and never knew his father, reflected on this divide:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

April 1, 2011 at 19:31

The Trial

with 10 comments

by Luce

I went to jury duty last week at the sleepy Middlesex County Courthouse in Somerville, MA and ended up sitting on what appeared to be an open-and-shut civil trial with relatively low stakes. I was there at 8 and out by 3, and within those 7 hours something I’d always abstractly known was brought home experientially: that the legal cards are really stacked up against certain segments of society.

It is not a profound thing for an historian to say that her legal system is flawed. And yet, as someone who has invested her life in “knowing more,” it was jarring to be asked to make a decision directly impacting two people’s financial situations on evidence that would  hardly support half an undergraduate term paper. As historians we are taught to keep digging through the archives, to distrust every seemingly obvious discourse, to employ a hermeneutics of suspicion, to doubt the possibility of ever discovering a “truth,” to consider the entire intellectual, social, cultural, political context of one’s narrative. For historians everything is a relative “lie,” since every claim depends on the claimant’s positionality.

In order to determine whether a woman should be awarded damages from an apartment manager she had accused of negligence due to a loose railing that ostensibly caused her to fall and break her collar bone, a jury of 6 (plus 1 alternate) listened to 2.5 hours of testimony by 3 witnesses–one the manager, one the woman, and one the woman’s friend. The questioning was constrained by legalese, yes and no answers to cross-examination, constant interruptions by the judge asking the lawyers to rephrase their questions or rephrasing their questions for them to make them understandable to the witnesses. Photos were shown of the staircase, though they had been taken at some vague time after the incident and so provided no real evidence of the situation of the staircase at the time of the incident. But significantly this point was hardly emphasized, and my fellow jurors kept referring to the photos as if they represented the exact same situation the woman herself had encountered.

Here’s the thing. At the end of the day this was basically a “he said, she said” case. She said that she had gone to the owner’s apartment building at 2am to bum a cigarette from a friend, had walked up two flights of stairs hanging onto the railing, fell back when the railing loosened and broke, lay on the floor for five minutes calling for help and then walked home, called a personal injury lawyer first thing in the morning, but waited 9 days to go to the hospital after the pain failed to subside. He said that everything she said was a lie, that the railing was in good condition, and that he was an excellent apartment manager.

I relied on the questioning of two smarmy lawyers who used their time both to ask leading questions and to engage in character assassinations. To the woman from the defense lawyer: “Isn’t it true that there’s a picture of you drinking a bottle of alcohol outside that building?… You don’t work during the day, correct? You just lie around all day?… You are on the following medications…” To the manager from the plaintiff lawyer: “You’re not from this country, are you? Lebanese?”

In order to decide a case that in the end turned on the plaintiff’s inconsistencies and the defendant’s more polished responses, the judge told us that we would need to judge the credibility of the witnesses in order to judge their evidence. Easy enough, right? Just decide if we believed them based on whether, to us, they were believable.

And yet how was I to judge what was credible for a woman on the margins of society? “The moment she said she was going out to bum a cig at 2am I knew this thing was bogus,” a fellow juror said. But why? The definition of negligence runs along the lines of a resident or guest experiencing injury due to lack of upkeep by the owner. A woman going out to score coke at 2am could still be the victim of a faulty railing, right?

This is when the sociology of the trial became both interesting and determinative. My fellow jurors were mostly middle-class native-born Bostonians — mothers, a school cafeteria worker, a musician/tech guy. There was one biology PhD, who convinced me even further of the need for analytical thinking developed through the humanities. I of course was the effete humanities academic. And as such I was the self-designated devil’s advocate; to my fellow jurors, the naif and fool. Because despite inconsistencies in the woman’s story, despite her decision to call a personal injury lawyer before visiting the hospital, and despite, or in fact because — a stance that makes my a priori assumptions just as problematic as my fellow jurors’ — this was a woman who was not in great physical or mental shape, who had a 9th grade education and apparently no job, who according to her own testimony lay around all day and then stayed up all night watching TV, I wasn’t so sure that her testimony was discreditable.

No she didn’t act as I would have. Yet from the beginning she inhabited a body vastly different from my own: older, heavier, much more unwieldly. A fall for her would likely have been an almost-tumble for me. If I were a woman without a paycheck or health insurance, maybe I would have first called a personal injury lawyer to discuss whether I could get the landlord to cover any potential bills. Perhaps I would have had a friend who’d had a similar experience, or maybe I would have watched so much TV with its ubiquitous ads for personal injury lawyers that that just seemed the natural first call. Maybe I would have waited 9 days to go to the hospital, because it’s easier to make a call than board a bus, because my body already hurt and I was used to everyday discomforts, because I was lazy, yet in the end still had a broken collar bone. Yet her story was inconsistent even on which part of the railing had fallen off and at which step she had fallen. But if it were 2am and I was on a number of medications, including a possible sedative (information that was never extracted though a sleeping pill was listed amongst her prescribed medications) and had had a bad fall, would I necessarily remember? Would I then remember to remember to get my story straight?

Trials encourage a lack of imagination and in their emphasis on judging what is “credible” to you, rather than, perhaps, what is “conceivable,” they encourage judgments often rooted in subjective socioeconomic positions. I was struck by the class politics involved in the jury’s deliberations–something I don’t often focus on very much in my own historical writing.

“This is a huge waste of our time. She’s a bum,” said one of the middle class working women as if that point were decisive. I felt the need to suggest that even bums have legal rights.

“It’s all a scam–they’re a bunch of scammers trying to take a hard-working man. Look at her, can’t even make $75 rent on section 8 housing some days, all her money going to cigarettes when she has asthma” said another about the woman’s friend. I countered that even those whose life decisions we don’t agree with might conceivably be telling the truth about a negligently managed stairwell. Yet all my fellow jurors’ minds were made up before they entered the deliberation room. And to be honest, so was mine.

Perhaps I’ve felt the need to write this blog post to make up for the fact that in the end I voted with the other jurors in a unanimous judgment finding the apartment manager not negligent. Despite my feeling that we couldn’t possibly really know what had happened, that the woman might at base have been telling the truth despite her inconsistencies, and that the entire process actively discouraged empathy and imagination, there was simultaneously no way to find the manager negligent. He could just as easily have been telling the truth as she, and favor fell on the side of inertia.

On the other hand, the jury didn’t need my vote — they only needed 5 of the 6 — and so I could have registered a symbolic vote against a system in which a person who existed outside the dominant behavioral norm was never going to receive a fair trial within the legal norm. Yet despite my counters and protestations during jury deliberations, I didn’t. I’m still not sure why.

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 19, 2011 at 00:30

A Modest Proposal: Job Creation through Incarceration

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by Nemo

For the past few days, thousands of Georgia prisoners have been striking against their poor working conditions. The strikers—by demanding actual wages and fair working conditions—risk undermining one of the America’s few areas of global economic competitiveness. Ever buy packaged Starbucks coffee? Ever buy a mouse from Microsoft? Ever shopped at Wal-Mart? Chances are you have benefited from a quality product made in the USA—by prisoners. Prison labor represents one of the few ways that American companies can compete with the low wages offered in the developing world. Prison authorities must break the Georgia prison strike—the fate of the American worker might depend on it.

Although Georgia–unlike dozens of other states–has barred the age old right for prisoners to work without pay for private companies, it has managed to cutback on many costly state and municipal jobs by making prisoners do them instead. With their irresponsible protests, the strikers risk creating better working conditions at prisons more generally.

This is especially the case since Georgia has been so innovative in making prisons economically productive. It spends less on prisoner upkeep than nearly anywhere else does in the country. As one journalist has observed “Prisoners are confined in overcrowded cells, with very little heat in the winter months and sweltering heat in the summer.”

Georgia has also cut back on wasteful government spending by denying prisoners access to any educational opportunities beyond the General Equivalency Diploma. After all, if prisoners had access to education, it might increase the chances that they would never return to jail, and thus deny the state its right to their unpaid labor. With nearly 1 in 13 of Georgia’s citizens either in prison, probation, or on parole, these huge labor reserves provide a great way to reign in runaway government spending.

Snake River Correctional Institution Call Center, Oregon. Ensuring that those telemarketing calls you receive during dinner are "made in the USA."

Georgia’s prison employment has been a particular boon to the state’s black community. While comprising 30% of the state’s population, African Americans make up 63% of the state’s prisoners. This provides the community with well-needed jobs. On this point, Georgia has established itself as a leader in a broader national trend.  As Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed, “Of the 2.3 million people in American jails, 806,000 are black males.  African-Americans–males and females–make up .6 percent of the entire world’s population, but African-American males–alone–make up 8 percent of the entire world’s prison population.” Thus, the prison strike threatens not only American financial competitiveness, but also employment opportunities for some of the nation’s most economically disadvantaged citizens.

The good news, however, is that America holds the world’s largest prison population. If prison officials make sure to shutdown this peaceful protest with maximum force—as they seem intent on doing—this important system of competitive labor management stands a high chance of remaining in place. In fact, if Georgia succeeds, President Obama might follow the state’s example in launching the “job creation” package that his liberal supporters have long been demanding. Indeed, with federal judges now ruling the health care mandate unconstitutional, Congress should consider re-opening debtors’ prisons for Americans who cannot afford to pay their health care bills. This might not solve the health care crisis, but it would go along way to reducing unemployment.

Written by Julian Nemeth

December 13, 2010 at 17:47

“The Social Network” Review

with 10 comments

by Weiner

Here is my review of The Social Network. I guess I should start by offering a spoiler alert.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. While I may not have been as impressed as the countless critics who have heaped mountains of praise upon it, I found it extremely entertaining and thought-provoking. Unlike many movies nowadays, The Social Network was not overly long (a brisk two hours), and though it could probably have been a tad shorter, I was never bored. The acting is excellent all around. The dialogue is slick and fun if occasionally a bit forced and contrived. I will say that the movie will undoubtedly be more enjoyable to those with some affiliation or knowledge of Harvard, but I would recommend it to all, especially to those 500 million of us who use Facebook.

It’s important to distinguish between the real Facebook and the fictional Facebook of The Social Network, just as it’s important to distinguish between the real and fictional Mark Zuckerbergs and the real and fictional Harvard Universities.

The real Facebook has its critics, mostly on issues of privacy. Nonetheless, I am a huge fan of the website. Its practical uses are numerous: keeping in touch with old friends, making new ones, sharing photos. For my purposes, Facebook has also served as an intellectual forum. My friends share thoughts and articles, others respond and raucous but intelligent debate often ensues (the debates are sometimes mindless and annoying, but overall a net positive). Indeed, it was because of these very Facebook wall posts and debates that Wiz approached Wotty and me to start this blog: he accurately noted that it was something that we already did on Facebook, so we might as well make it more organized and official. I share all my posts through my Facebook and Twitter accounts. So for those of you who enjoy PhD Octopus, you have Facebook–and Mark Zuckerberg–to thank.

As for the real Mark Zuckerberg, I can only offer limited comment. Though we overlapped at Harvard, I never met him, though in the interest of full disclosure, I did go on two dates with his sister Randi (I had a good time and I think she did, though nothing ever came of it). But since I never met him, I can only go by what I’ve heard and what I’ve read. I’ll admit that in most articles, especially this one from The New Yorker, he comes off very badly. The judgment of a 19 year old is not the same as that of a more mature adult, but it’s also true that many people don’t change all that much of the course of their lives.

One thing that the real Mark Zuckerberg and the fictional Mark Zuckerberg seem to have in common is that they aren’t all that concerned with money. For Harvard graduates there are plenty of tried, tested and true routes to financial reward, the most common being investment banking and consulting. But from what I’ve read, it seems that Zuckerberg did not invent Facebook for the money so much as for the power, and for the desire to leave his mark on the world. To me, that’s somehow more admirable, or at least less douchey.

Apart from this similarity, there appear to be obvious differences between the real and fictional Mark Zuckerbergs. Other critics who know more than I have documented the movie’s falsehoods more effectively than I will here, but suffice it to say that Zuckerberg never had any real interest in Final Clubs and had a serious girlfriend throughout most of the time depicted in the film. He did not invent Facebook to get back at one girl or win over another, or even to become more popular. He did so to fill a demand of Harvard social life–I remember people were annoyed they did not have access to other dorms’ interal university-run facebook sites–and because it was a great idea with potential for growth. Facemash, the first Harvard site Zuckerberg invented that was deemed sexist in The Social Network, in fact had pictures of both men and women.

This inaccuracy has led critics to point to the movie’s misogyny, and they raise a good point. If the story of Facebook is not a male story, it is a story whose principal characters are all men, and Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher would probably have been wiser to give women an even smaller role than to portray them in the offensive manner in which they did.

My own prejudices led me to sympathize with the fictional Zuckerberg. The character, portrayed brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg, is at the center of a story that may not have gotten Facebook’s founding right, but certainly painted an accurate, if exaggerated portrait of Harvard undergraduate life.

I can attest to the spectacular lameness of AEPi parties. Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity, has a mixed reputation nationally, but an especially bad one at Harvard, where frats are considered the poor man’s Final Clubs. In some ways, this was literally true: the frats at Harvard, because they did not have fancy mansions right by campus, appealed to a less elite, or elitist, clientele. As a result, they were generally eager to attract members, and were basically inclusive rather than exclusive. I never joined one, but appreciated them for that.

The Final Clubs were another matter. If the wild party depicted early in The Social Network was a bit over the top, it’s also true that clubs were well known as places to get alcohol when bars were closed, along with cocaine and other drugs. A member always guarded the door, filled with undeserved power and authority, determining which students could enter, always preferring women to men (the more attractive the better) and generally distinguishing between the cool and the undesired, from the Club’s perspective of course.

The sexism and misogyny of the Clubs is real and has been written about extensively. It is both unacceptable and pathetic. Yale’s Skull and Bones is co-ed now, as are Princeton’s Eating Clubs. I have no doubt in a generation or less, the Final Clubs will finally admit women as well.

The shameless classism bothered me much more. After all, female Final Clubs did and do exist at Harvard (with much less power and money and their disposal), but their membership is, in my mind, just as unpleasant as the male variety: generally obnoxious and wealthy. This was not universally true, and some Club members were good people (some of my best friends were in Final Clubs!) but as a general rule it held. I had no desire to join one. Moreover, I could never afford to be in a club on my own, and I was not about to ask my middle-class parents for a few hundred dollars a semester so I could get drunk with a bunch of d-bags and prey on similarly unappealing women. And that’s if any Club would have deemed me cool enough to be a member, which is highly unlikely.

With my own anti-Club bias, I found The Social Network‘s relatively favourable impression of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss upsetting. I never knew the cartoonish would-be villains in real life, but I have a hard time imagining that they were anything other than sensational douchebags.

Not only did they enjoy tremendous inherited wealth and privilege, and the undeserving prestige that comes from membership in the Porcellian (regarded as the most elite Final Club), but they also benefited from excessive athlete worship, ever-present at Harvard, if not as pervasive as at places like Duke, where Fuck Lists are made that venerate varsity athletes as demi-gods. I am reminded of Alexander Portnoy, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, who lamented the existence of WASP men, “engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift and powerful halfbacks for the college football teams called Northwestern and Texas Christian and UCLA,” guys who always got the girls ahead of the alienated Jewish intellectuals.

And so I couldn’t help but root for the fictional Zuckerberg, who put the WASPy athletic Winklevii in their place. There is a Jewish angle to the film, mocked by Nate Heller as “a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture.” And yet I think the tale the movie tells, if not quite accurate as a portrayal of Harvard in 2003, is nonetheless important when looked at through a different lens.

There’s a sense in which “new money” is “Jew money.” The Jewish immigrant, first from German lands and later from eastern Europe, had an enormous and disproportionate impact on the American economy.  And so the fictional Zuckerberg enters the Harvard universe as a dorky outsider, only to turn the WASP world upside down, to the point where he mockingly proclaims that he could buy a Final Club himself.

This Zuckerberg’s most astute observation may be when he remarks that the old-money Winklevii weren’t upset about not getting their website or their millions, but they were upset because for once in their lives, things didn’t go their way. The word “entitlement” comes to mind, and no scene better encapsulates this than their meeting with then Harvard president Larry Summers, who tells them to quit whining and come up with their own idea.

The real Larry Summer is some kind of genius. He is also a man without many social graces, and actor Douglas Urbanksi captures this perfectly. Though Summers has been criticized on this blog, and I’m no fan of him as an economist, I liked him as president of Harvard, as did the majority of the undergraduate population. I admired his opposition to the anti-Israel Divestment campaign, his drive to increase financial aid, his belief in over-hauling the Core Curriculum, his support for the hard sciences and and his skepticism towards area studies. I also loved the way he would down 4 slices of pizza in a sitting at off-the-record sessions with The Harvard Crimson, and I find it hilarious that he frequently falls asleep at meetings.

Beyond all this, however, the character of Summers–Harvard’s first Jewish president–fits in perfectly with Sorkin and Fincher’s anti-WASP narrative. As reviewer David Denby of the The New Yorker describes the movie’s Summers-Winkelvoss encounter:

one can feel, in this seemingly unimportant scene, history falling into place, a shift from one kind of capitalism to another. Fincher and Sorkin wickedly imply that Summers is Zuckerberg thirty years older and many pounds heavier. He has the same kind of brightest-guy-in-the-room arrogance, and little sympathy entitled young men talking about ethics when they’ve been left behind by a faster innovator.

It would be nice to think of Zuckerberg as a sort of Jewish Horatio Alger type in 2003. Truth gets in the way of course: the real Zuckerberg comes from an upper-middle-class Jewish family; his sister went to Horace Mann and he went to Exeter. When I was at Harvard, many Jews were on the inside of Final Clubs looking out. The same is true today. Jews are over-represented (based on their proportion of the population) and extremely comfortable at America’s elite institutions.

Nonetheless, the story in the movie works, though Sorkin takes some license to make it work especially smoothly: Divya Narendra, the Winklevoss’ South-Asian sidekick, is portrayed as something of a nebbishy outsider himself: the real Narendra is athletic and handsome (I met him in the summer of 2002, before any of this went down). At the very beginning of the movie, Zuckerberg makes fun of a fictional ex-girlfriend “Erica Albright,” noting that her last name used to be Albrecht, as her family too sought entry into a more elite, more gentile realm.

Zuckerberg’s opening conversation with Albright may be the most realistic scene in the movie, not for the too sharp yet entertaining dialogue, but for the disdain that so many Harvard students hold towards less selective universities and the people who attend them. I noticed this when I was there, I notice it even more today. I’m an elitist, and I think a certain amount of elitism is ok and even good, but Harvard probably goes to far, telling its students over and over that they are “the best and the brightest” from day one. It often turns smart people into worse human beings. Though economist Greg Mankiw disagrees, Matt Yglesias notes, “most Harvard undergraduates are pretty unlikeable.” I think an important reason for this is because Harvard becomes the most important part of their identity. This effect can be resisted, but only with difficulty. The best treatment is repeated and constant exposure to less elitist individuals, though it can take several years to cure. This, more than anything, is what Sorkin and Fincher got right about The Social Network.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 11, 2010 at 15:18

T.S. Eliot and Grade Inflation

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by Weiner

T.S. Eliot entered Harvard in 1906. He graduated in 1909, a year early. You might think the Nobel prize winning poet would have had a stellar college record. Well you would be wrong. In his freshman year, he received C’s in German and History, a C- in Government, and B in Greek, though he did flag down an A in English literature, the only half-course he took. His sophomore slump proved even worse. He earned C’s in French, and one of two Greek course and philosophy courses, B’s in the other Greek and philosophy courses, and D in German. In his final year, he improved, earning B’s in a Comparative Literature class and an English class, as well as in a pair of Latin courses, and a couple A’s in two other courses in Comp Lit.

To be honest, my undergraduate record was not all that much better. Soon after I entered Harvard in the fall of 2001, Patrick Healy’s Boston Globe article exposed the “dirty little secret” of Harvard’s rampant grade inflation. He presented some interesting history, noting that professors gave high grades to help students avoid the draft, and rebutting political science professor Harvey Mansfield‘s claim that grade inflation came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when “white professors, imbibing the spirit of affirmative action, stopped giving low or average grades to black students and, to justify or conceal it, stopped giving those grades to white students as well.”

A follow-up Healy article looked at other elite universities who capped their honours in a more appropriate manner. Harvard seemed to budge. For the next four years, I and several of my peers blamed a grade inflation crackdown on our supremely average transcripts, though general laziness was the more likely culprit.

I suppose T.S. Eliot might have been lazy too, and clearly never suffered for his poor grades. I suspect, however, that the curriculum he faced was simply much more demanding. Looking over the transcripts of Alain Locke and Horace Kallen (the subjects of my dissertation) as well as several of their peers who attended Harvard between 1900-1910, I see a ton of language study (which is frequently more intense than your typical lecutre course), mostly full year courses, and often heavier course loads. When looking at Locke’s philosophy assignments in college, I was struck by how similar they appeared to work we could receive today. Of course, philosophical questions are supposed to be timeless, but I wondered why students doing similar work 100 years ago received much lower grades on average?

One reason might be financial. Students like Locke and Kallen, who did not come from the upper crust of American society, often had to apply for scholarships to help fund their stay every year. No “need-blind” admissions” and guaranteed financial aid for them. As a result, you saw more and more students opting to graduate a year early, as both Kallen and Locke did, rather than soak up the Harvard experience, as seems more commonly the case today (I see this much more at NYU, which has worse financial aid and less of a campus life, than I did it Harvard).  Indeed, Kallen petitioned to graduate early because he needed to finish college to help support his family. He lived two of his undergraduate years in Boston’s Civic Service House, where he volunteered and helped teach recent Jewish and Italian immigrants. The wealthier students lived on Harvard Yard or similarly close to campus, and had a much easier time getting to and from class.

Still, Kallen somehow managed to graduate magna cum laude, or so he noted several years later, though the award did not appear on his original transcript. Locke’s grades were better, and far better than his classmate Van Wyck Brooks‘s, whose transcript is littered with C’s and D’s. While some people I investigated got really good grades, like future logician Henry Sheffer, most of the transcripts I’ve examined (hardly a random sample, but still interesting) were thoroughly average. Which is probably as it should have been.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 21, 2010 at 12:56


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