Dynamist Blog

Dynamism Has No Candidate

Daniel Weintraub captures the sad--and fearful--state of the presidential race. (Registration required but this site used to cost $500 a year.)


I tuned into the CNN/YouTube Republican presidential debate Wednesday night and was surprised to see so much fear. I thought the GOP was supposed to be the "daddy" party -- all strong and manly. But these guys were quaking in their loafers about any number of threats to our safety and livelihoods. From Islamic terrorism to Chinese manufacturers, European farmers, Mexican laborers and even Canadians (yes, Canadians!), the Republicans seem to think the world is about to take us down. Their solutions vary. Some want to curl up in a little American ball to shield ourselves from attack. Others want to "stay on the offense" with the military to keep the bad guys at bay. Nobody really conveyed a sense of confidence in the future, or in the American people's ability to prosper peacefully in a more competitive world.

Of course, the Democrats are not much better. They deny that the Islamists are a threat but see even bigger monsters in the economic closet and are even more eager than the Republicans to protect us from competition and change.

The sad thing is that these candidates must know that a lot of voters share their insecurities, or they wouldn't try so hard to feed them. But doesn't anybody on the campaign trail speak for dynamism, the creative spirit, innovation, and the potential of individuals to do great things? Doesn't anybody running for president think that Americans can compete -- even thrive -- by participating in, not fleeing, a growing global economy? This is the dawn of the Information Age. The world is changing fast. Yet these folks all sound as if they think it's 1955. The Cold War and the Red scare all over again.

I work in what's commonly thought to be the 21st Century equivalent of the buggy whip industry, yet even I have a far cheerier outlook about the future than any of these guys exhibited last night. It was almost as if they were trying to channel Lou Dobbs, or they were hypnotized by that great CNN fearmonger on their way into the studio.

PS to my Republican friends: I know CNN did a lousy job picking the questions and half of them came from people with links to Democratic candidates and causes. But they didn't pick the answers. The candidates still had their say. And in two hours of yakking, I don't think I heard a single sentence expressing confidence in the ability of individuals to pursue happiness on their own. Isn't that what the Republicans are supposed to be all about?

If you prefer horse-race analysis, check out Robert A. George's debate blogging.

The Nature of Objectivity

The always-interesting historian of science Peter Galison, author of Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps and Image and Logic, has a new book called Objectivity, co-authored with Lorraine Daston. Examining scientific atlases from widely diverse fields, they trace the overlapping histories of three different scientific ideals: "truth-to-nature" (representing the underlying type of, say, a particular species of plant), "mechanical objectivity," and "trained judgment" (finding patterns and "family resemblances" in many samples). Objectivity, they argue, only emerged as an ideal in the 19th century:

Like almost all forms of moral virtuosity, nineteenth-century objectivity preached asceticism, albeit of a highly trained and specialized sort. Its temptations and frailties had less to do with envy, lust, gluttony, and other familiar vices than with witting and unwitting tampering with the visual "facts." The relation of this particular form of disciplining the self and the kind of image desired was close: just insofar as one could restrain the impulse to intervene or perfect, one could allow objects--from crystals to chrysanthemums--to print themselves on the page. Put conversely: Seductive as it might be to "see as" this or that ideal, the premium for objective sight was on "seeing that," full stop. But in the view of late nineteenth-century scientists, these professional sins were almost as difficult to combat as the seven deadly ones, and they required a scientific self equipped with a stern and vigilant conscience, in need not just of external training but also of a fierce self-regulation.

Mechanized or highly proceduralized science initially seems incompatible with moralized science, but in fact the two were closely related. While much is and has been made of those distinctive traits--emotional, intellectual, and moral--that distinguish humans from machines, it was a nineteenth-century commonplace that machines were paragons of certain human virtues. Chief among these were those associated with work: patient, indefatigable, ever-alert machines would relieve human workers whose attention wandered, whose pace slackened, whose hand trembled. Where intervening genius once reigned, there, in the nineteenth-century scientists proclaimed ever more loudly, hard, self-disciplined and self-restrained work would carry the day.

In addition to the sheer industriousness of machines, there was more: levers and gears did not succumb to temptation. Of course, strictly speaking, no merit attached to these mechanical virtues, for their exercise involved neither free will nor self-command. But the fact that the machines had no choice but to be virtuous struck scientists distrustful of their own powers of self-discipline as a distinct advantage. Instead of freedom of will, machines offered freedom from will--from the willful interventions that had come to be seen as the dangerous aspects of subjectivity. Machines were ignorant of theory and incapable of speculation: so much the better. Such excursions were the first steps down the slippery slope toward intervention. Even in their failings, machines embodied the negative ideal of noninterventionist objectivity.

Eventually, this ideal became untenable and was succeeded by trained judgment. While we often equate objectivity with science or truth, Daston and Galison argue convincingly that it is only one of many, sometimes contradictory, scientific virtues.

Objectivity is one epistemic virtue among several, not the alpha and omega of all epistemology. Objectivity is not synonymous with truth or certainty, precision or accuracy. Sometimes, as we have seen in concrete instances, objectivity can even be at odds with these: an objective image is not always an accurate one, even in the view of its proponents. Objectivity is neither inevitable nor uncontested. Indeed, juxtaposed to alternatives, it can even seem bizarre. Who knowingly prefers a blurred image marred by artifacts to a crisp, clear, uncluttered one?

Why, then, is objectivity so powerful as both ideal and practice? How did it come to eclipse or swallow up other epistemic virtues, so that "objective" is often used as a synonym for "scientific"?...

All epistemology begins in fear--fear that the world is too labyrinthine to be threaded by reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect too frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstartion; fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive. Objectivity is a chapter in this history of intellectual fear, of errors anxiously anticipated and precautions taken. But the fear objectivity addresses is different from and deeper than the others. The threat is not external--a complex world, a mysterious God, a devious demon. Nor is it the corrigible fear of senses that can be strengthened by a telescope or microscope or memory that can be buttressed by written aids. Individual steadfastness against prevailing opinion is no help against it, because it is the individual who is suspect.

Objectivity fears subjectivity, the core self....[T]here is no getting rid of, no counterbalancing post-Kantian subjectivity. Subjectivity is the precondition for knowledge, the self who knows.

This is the reason for the ferociously reflexive character of objectivity, the will pitted against the will, the self against the self. This explains the power of objectivity, an epistemological therapy more radical than any other because the malady it treats is literally radical, the root of both knowledge and error. The paradoxical aspirations of objectivity explain both its strangeness and its stranglehold on the epistemological imagination. It is epistemology taken to the limit. Objectivity is to epistemology what extreme asceticism is to morality. Other epistemological therapies were rigorous: Plato's rejection of the senses, for example, or Descartes's radical doubt. But objectivity goes beyond rigor. The demands it makes on the knower outstrip even the most strenuous forms of self-cultivation, to the brink of self-destruction.

Reading the book, I began to understand why I've never embraced my own profession's celebration of objectivity. Real objectivity would turn the journalist into a C-Span camera, simply recording data without any sort of selection or pattern-making. With all due respect to C-Span, good journalism in fact requires trained judgment: about what's important, what's interesting, what's worth telling. Good journalism includes story telling and analysis, even in straight news stories and all the more in features or analytical pieces. Mistaking fairness or accuracy for "objectivity" only confuses journalists, their audiences, and their critics.

My Superpower

Your Superpower Should Be Super Speed
You're quick witted and fast to act.
Your mind works at warp speed. From your perspective, everyone else is living in slow motion.
You get so much done, people have accused you of not sleeping.
Definitely not a couch potato, you feel a bit crazy if you're not busy doing something.

Why you would be a good superhero: You're be the first on the scene... and likely to finish the job before anyone else shows up

Your biggest problem as a superhero: Being bored by everyone else. Including other superheroes!

What Should Your Superpower Be?

Actually, I sleep all the time, especially lately.

Glamorous Activism, Then and Now

This puffy LAT piece on young celebrities' brand-building activism--"Many in Young Hollywood, especially actresses, are aligning themselves to social causes like never before"--just proves there's nothing new in Hollywood. Here's a parallel passage from Margaret Farrand Thorp's 1939 book America at the Movies.

Even further from the original base of glamour are two new qualities: culture and an interest in serious social problems. If a star in the 1920's dressed expensively to suit her type, drove a high-powered car, rode fearlessly, and swam well it was not at all necessary to assure the public that her Hollywood villa had a library or that she knew something of art and music; but just run through a fan magazine today:

"There is little of philosophy, psychology, matters political or sociological that Bob Montgomery has not read and studied. He is Duco-ed with the drawing-room manner. He might, superficially, seem to fit in with the Hemingways, the Noel Cowards, all the Bright Young People. But he can also hold his own with scientists, engineers, medical men, learned professors."...

Deanna Durbin is a pacifist. She showed a reporter her school history book with a paragraph which she had underlined with red pencil. "It was Nicholas Murray Butler's estimate that for the money spent on the World War every family in ten countries could have had a $2,500 house, $1,000 worth of furniture, several acres of land [and so on]. 'Isn't it dreadful?' said Deanna. 'Not so much the money, as the millions of people killed.'" Ten years ago such a statement would not have added to the glamour of a youthful star, but at least it is safely away from present conflicts.

That last line is quite the understated zinger. (Here is Time's 1939 review of the book.)

My New Look

hat.jpgThanks to the many readers who've sent their good wishes for my recovery from breast cancer. I've now had three rounds of chemo with three more to go, one every three weeks. (Most of my hair fell out about two weeks after the first round.) On the whole, the treatments haven't been as traumatic as I feared. Thanks to drugs to prevent nausea and boost white blood cell production, I haven't suffered the two worst side effects of chemo: nausea and immunosuppression. Mostly I've just been exhausted for the first week or so after each round.

Nobody's Normal, Or Why Jeans Never Fit

My new Atlantic column takes on one of my favorite subjects: how to accommodate human heterogeneity. Or, if you prefer the less abstract version, why it's so hard to find jeans that fit and what businesses are doing to attack that problem. Here's the opening:

As a teenager, I squeezed into size-12 jeans. Over the past three decades, I've put on about 20 pounds, mostly below the waist. I now wear a size 6. People in the garment business call that bit of flattery "vanity sizing." Sizes aren't what they used to be.

But some things haven't changed. No matter how low the digit on the hang tag, trying on clothes is still a frustrating, even traumatic, experience. Though designed as a mere convenience, clothing sizes establish an unintended norm, an ideal from which deviations seem like flaws. There's nothing like a trip to the dressing room to convince a woman—fat, thin, or in between—that she's a freak. Her torso is too long for the jacket or too short for the dress. Her arms are too short for the blouse that fits her bust. Her seat is too flat for the pants that hug her waist. Her hips nearly split the skirt that fits her waist. The more tailored the garment, the greater the problem. (Men's clothes are easier, because they tend to be looser and because, as one industry expert puts it, men "have fewer bumps.") Jeans are particularly troublesome. With its body-hugging fit, America's egalitarian uniform provides little room to hide deviations from the norm.

And nobody's normal. Sizes are standardized. Bodies aren't.

Clothing sizes reflect a classic modern dilemma, a conflict between human heterogeneity and mass production. Standardized sizes made inexpensive, off-the-rack garments economically feasible. They gave shoppers a reliable guide to finding clothes in self-service shops. (Historically, the biggest advocates for standard sizes were mail-order catalogs, whose customers couldn't try on the clothes they were buying.) Standardized sizes seemed efficient and scientific. Clothes could be as predictable as screws or frozen peas—and as regimented and impersonal as an assembly line.

Read the whole thing here--but do it by Friday, when the free link expires. (Or subscribe and get access to the whole Atlantic archive, going back 150 years.)

Just in time for the return of pantyhose, while researching the column I learned the reason for something that has always baffled me: Humid summers aside, why do so many women hate pantyhose and why, more specifically, do they complain so much about tight waists? I've never minded wearing hose, much less found them "the bane of womanhood." But it turns out that's because I'm a physical freak. Pantyhose, even more than most women's trousers, conform to size standards that assume a big difference between waist and hip sizes. As a result, their waistbands are too tight for most women. My waist-hip ratio may be praised by evolutionary psychologists but it's hell to shop for, unless you're buying pantyhose. Better data about actual body shapes is good news for most women--and, perhaps, for slow pantyhose sales--but not for me.

In other column news, The Atlantic has let last month's column, on the great housing divide, out from behind the subscriber-only wall.

ArchivedDeep Glamour Blog ›

Blog Feed

Articles Feed