Saturday, September 9, 2023


 Short story long:


I got held up by Peretz’s extended recounting of TNR publishing Charles Murray’s and Richard Herrnstein’s notorious 1994 essay, which was way before I came onto the scene there. I did that in 2007, (catching I think its last good wave).

Their piece is “straight outta” The Bell Curve. Typically, reading his memoir, I don’t linger over anything, just keep reading and I guess unconsciously form my varying impressions as I go. Peretz glosses the article, recounts the toing and froing over publishing it, notes the reaction and then goes on to make general observations about how the content relates to what he sees going on in America.

I got held up because I’d never read the infamous chapter in The Bell Curve about race and IQ, only snippets and then a whole host of commentary. I by that formed some notions about that chapter. Peretz’s gloss has a different emphasis than what mine was.

So I decided to see for myself. As Internet magic would have it, I found the 1994 TNR essay. It’s long, and while I didn’t digest every argument, I got a decent sense of the whole. I saw that my emphasis was off. I then went back and forth between Peretz’s extended account and the essay itself. The essay, an “apologia”, is a fairly long defence of what’s in that Chapter. 

My mis-emphasis was my thought that CM and RH were more diffident about, and more qualified in, saying genetics were predominantly causal in group IQ differences as opposed to nurture. The authors here candidly state the “settled social science” (my phrase) is that there exist heritable group IQ differences among races/ethnicities—two concepts they treat synonymously, and that environment does not explain away much of those differences.

They note, for one example, the backwards recital of a sequence of numbers as a reliable G indicator, noting how that’s about about as culturally neutral and neutrally accessible as testing can get. For another, they note that when socioeconomic apples are compared to other racial socioeconomic apples as one moves up the socioeconomic ladder, then the Black White/Asian IQ gap tends to widen. 

Fwiw, I found in some respects CM and RH, their version of the social science granted, at places paradoxical and at others at odds with themselves in mounting their conclusions. 

They speak of “ethno-algorithms” and a certain kind of positive ethnocentrism in noting identifiable cultural and achievement markers among groups in which group members do and should take pride; yet they stipulate that no individual is predetermined by those identifiable features; individuals are just that and what may be general for the group need not be specific for any one person.

They indirectly plant the idea of inferior intelligence by saying that it’s not that important to the whole of the group or the individual; they say groups and individuals with lesser intelligence shouldn’t be judged on that account and should do whatever it is that they do best; otoh, the broad thrust of The Bell Curve is that IQ is a major general determinant of who’s successful. So how not important? 

As an odd capper, they conclude with questions to be answered. One is, if group differences are irrelevant to specific individuals within the group, then individuals must be treated as such. If so, then why even study group differences? Of course they provide no answer, just say it needs further discussion. 

But for all of this, it sets the stage for what I want to say about Peretz’s account. He’s often incomprehensible or inapt or inaccurate or just plain wrong or some combination of them.

For example, just after he notes the general conclusion as to heritable group differences in IQ, Peretz says CM and RH:

…used a statistical study of race, genetics, and intelligence to argue that group differences were so important that they made human beings more different than similar and human values relative…

If you can unravel this and map it all fours on to the essay, then I yield to you. CM’s and RH’s precise and recurrent point is that no individual is necessarily bound in endowment or conduct by their ethnic group. So strong is this point with them that, as noted, they end by questioning the viability of such group studies. 

Peretz says:

…Murray thought his research showed that different racial and ethnic groups had different heritable traits—whites had higher IQs than blacks, and blacks had more artistic “vitality” than whites. Genes, he said, coupled with culture, made differences like these impossible to bridge. His philosophy of “conservative multiculturalism” was to accept what each group can do…

Trouble here is, Peretz too quickly puts a gross overstatement in their mouths. They say something more qualified and nuanced and finally the opposite of what Peretz ascribes to them. They do speak, as I mentioned, of ethnic groups having identifiable cultural markers. That’s an irreducible quality among all groups, by definition as it were. 

Their point is that African Americans were marginalized and put down throughout US history to the point of interiorizing feelings of inferiority. They should recognize and take pride in all of the many major achievements of their group both as a good in itself and to countermand that terrible history of oppression, psychological and of course horribly otherwise. 

Peretz misses this point and has CM and RH reductively making Blacks vitalistic and leaving it at that. Nowhere are CM and RH so reductive. Nowhere do they speak of, as Peretz has it, anything “impossible to bridge”. Peretz has them straitjacketing Blacks into a caricature while Murray and Herrnstein have decidedly not spoken in these terms. Again, just the opposite, black individuals’ potential, like individuals from any group, can be unlimited. 

Peretz says

….Practically speaking, this meant no more affirmative action, no more worrying about the inner cities, and no more efforts at integration: let the tribes coexist in peace, and let the outliers in each tribe—whites with a sense of rhythm, blacks who excelled at math—rise and thrive in the free American open…

None of this follows from the piece’s analysis. And you can tell by my last few paragraphs how insultingly, vulgarly off, offensive and reductive what Peretz says is. 

I have innumerable examples of these inaccuracies and distortions. I don’t want to dun you with them. So I’ll just offer one more among the many. 

….Murray’s was the mirror image of Michael Lerner’s vision, a *particularist response to a collectivist one. Lerner pointed to politics as the ultimate solvent; Murray said politics could solve nothing. Lerner escaped from individuality through the solidarity of the state; Murray escaped from individuality through the solidarity of the tribes. Lerner used utilitarian corporate systems to justify and apply his statism; Murray used social scientific systems to justify and apply his tribalism….

Here isn’t Peretz internally inconsistent?  He speaks of  CM’s “particularist vision” in contradistinction to Michael Lerner’s (who was Hillary Clinton’s guru, according to Peretz) “collectivist one”.  What can a particularist vision be but one that focuses on the individual? Whereas doesn’t a collectivist vision focus on the group or maybe all citizens as the collective?

There’s a debate as to the meaning of “We the People” in the preamble to your Constitution: one view is, it’s about individual American citizens within a group; the other is, it refers to all people as but one collective group. I’d think Peretz’s distinction tracks that same difference. 

If so, if Murray’s vision is “particularistic”,  then what does it mean further on in this quoted paragraph for Peretz to speak of Murray escaping from “individuality through the solidarity or the tribe” or to speak of Murray justifying and applying his tribalism?  Btw and for that matter I don’t know what Peretz means by “Lerner used utilitarian corporate systems to justify and apply his statism;”.  Elsewhere Peretz ascribes this same indecipherable “utilitarian corporate systems” smear to both Clintons.

Here by contrast is Murray’s and Herrnstein’s more capacious view: (paragraph breaks mine)

….We are also not trying to tell African Americans or anyone else what qualities should be weighted in their algorithm. Our point is precisely the opposite: no one needs to tell any clan how to come up with a way of seeing itself that is satisfactory; it is one of those things that human communities know how to do quite well when left alone to do it. 

Still less are we saying that the children from any clan should not, say, study calculus because studying calculus is not part of the clan’s heritage. Individuals strike out on their own, making their way in the Great World according to what they bring to their endeavors as individuals—and can still take comfort and pride in their group affiliations.

 Of course there are complications and tensions in this process. The tighter the clan, the more likely it is to look suspiciously on their children who depart for the Great World—and yet also, the more proudly it is likely to boast of their successes once they have made it, and the more likely that the children will one day restore some of their ties with the clan they left behind. 

This is one of the classic American dramas…

So, to sum up this short story long, Peretz’s account here is revelatory of certain weaknesses that most of us are likely to gloss over without double checking the various things he writes. Most of us don’t read that way. I don’t. It was only by chance that what he said about publishing Murray got me curious enough to check it out more critically.

So, in his theorizing and opining, he must be taken with boulders, never mind grains, of salt. I remember now from his TNR blog that he wasn’t a close reasoner. He made many of leaps of logic; he often made wild unsupportable pronouncements parading as incisive, telling insights; and he made many just plain mistakes. I had fleeting glimpses, senses, of some head scratching generalizations in reading along with him here but I glided over them until his account of the Murray Herrnstein essay caused me to to pause and linger. 

Much of what he says in his memoir by way of: analysis of issues; what various thinkers say; social and cultural conditions; his opinions, judging by this example, is badly and baldly slap dash and leaves a lot to be desired.


*(Updated note: it may be that Peretz’s reference to CM’s and RH’s “particularist vision” is meant to apply to particular groups as in ethnicities rather than to particular individuals. That  would obviate the internal inconsistency between individuals and tribes. But Peretz’s thrust, RH and CM finding resolution in tribes, still contradicts their transcending emphasis on every individual’s unique endowments and possibilities, their “tribe” notwithstanding.

 Moreover, where here Peretz criticizes what he sees as an escape, a descent, into tribalism, pervasively elsewhere in his memoir, he lauds the reality of “peoples”, how their inheritedness comprises them, as a starting point for how better to see the world and approach its problems. He raises “peoples” so understood over global internationalists who see “one people, one world”, which to him is but gauzy cant.)



Further note to Ken:

At the risk of you not minding me breaking my promise, here’s a bit more.

When Peretz moves through the history of what led up to the creation of Israel and what went on there thereafter, agree with him in whole or in part or not, he’s certainly brisk but compellingly informative. I like that he acknowledges some brutal Jewish doings during the 1948 war. That’s sensible of him rather than, as is often done  by Israeli supporters, bending facts to fit a narrative. 

Peretz’s being in the thick of things is never more apparent than when he, Walzer and someone else whose name escapes me successfully lobby Kissinger to convince Nixon to arm Israel during the 6 Day War.

Then things really take off when he writes about the history of TNR, its creation, its ownership history and original sensibility, his purchase of it, whom he hired, their personalities, their ideas, all their great exchanges and some of the editorial positions TNR took. Here he hits what’s to me thus far his memoir’s high note. He’s righteously unabashed in his pride at TNR aggressively confronting the old guard, the Protestant internationalists and idealists, especially the wealthy ones with TNR’s new-feet-on-the-ground Jewish tilt, with its emphasis on “peoples not individuals”. All of this is fabulous reading, totally engrossing. 

But then he shifts back to Harvard, Chapter 11, and he imo regresses to the weakness of the first 55 pages or so, the predominant quasi gossip. A dizzying array of name checking hits us with brief biographical notes but not typically and sufficiently—there are exceptions—counterbalanced by their ideas or other substantive details about them.

And then when he gets to New York, it gets worse. He talks about matters financial, the big monied people he befriended, including crooks like Milliken and Boesky. It gets oddly tiresome and produced in me a feeling a of being let down from the previous exhilarating heights. 

That’s where I ended on last read.

I hope things pick up as I start to round the clubhouse turn.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

A Further Note To Ken On Reading More Of Martin Peretz’s The Controversialist


I won’t keep doing this, I promise. 

But I read another +/- 55 pages and it got much better. 

Still all the quasi gossipy stuff, but he does take you breezily into the thick of the political things he involved himself in. 

I’m old enough to have lived in my head with some of what and whom he describes. So it’s geared up into pretty compelling reading. 

I’m just at the point where conference he helped organized got taken over by radicals and turned upside down from what he intended and planned for. 

What I’ve read does have the quality of, as they used to say on an old TV show, “You Are There!”.

A Short More Nuanced Reading Of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”?


The question mark in the title of this post wants to know if this reading makes sense.


Whether this song is explicitly racist or baldly glorifies the Confederacy and other such incendiary claims are straw men that evade the claim that a reading of the song that among other things expresses regret for the lost cause cannot be ruled out. IE the song can plausibly be understood in part as an expression of regret for the lost Southern cause. 

After all, its title and refrain say, “The night they drove old Dixie down”. How can that not be read as expressing regret, regret for “old Dixie” with its connotation of comfortable familiarity, of, in a word, home?

Or how about: 

Like my father before me

I will work the land

And like my brother above me

Who took a rebel stand

He was just 18, proud and brave

But a Yankee laid him in his grave…?

The contrast between praise and pride mixed with terrible sadness for his lost brother and his brother’s cause—“took a rebel stand”, proud and brave”—and the coldness toward the enemy—But a Yankee—is of course understandable. But isn’t it laced with warm regret and contrasting cold impersonal hatred for the other? 

After all, what was his brother rebelling against; what was he proud of; on what was his courage expended? Was it not all about a way of life that defended slavery and saw the enemy as that which would take that slave-based way of life away? Does not Virgil Kane’s regret go to all of this as well of course to his own deeply personal loss? The song is written from the perspective of a southerner during the Civil war, for goodness sake: how could its regret not take in all of the foregoing?

Defences of this song are off the mark when they respond to the song’s alleged explicit racism or its explicit championing or the Confederacy. Those are defences against what isn’t there and deal not at all with what more layered is there.




Your reading of the song is, I think, inarguable in its identification of regret for what the war has cost Virgil, and I think that the narrative POV is intentionally that of the rural working class southerner whose family had no slaves (they worked the land themselves) and was not directly involved in the economic power structure of the slaveholding South.

It seems to me that hostility to 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' is often fueled by the sense that it's an apology for the Confederacy, but for me it's more complicated -- Lee is a distant figure just passing by, and the lyric turns immediately to "I don't mind choppin' wood" and I've always thought that the lines "Take what you need and leave the rest" could refer to the Confederate forces forcibly recruiting young guys, not to the Union.


Great point about Virgil, his family, not owing slaves.

I sense that in his pride at his brother’s rebel stand, and his seeming affirmation of his brother’s own pride and bravery, there’s among other things regret at the loss of “old Dixie” a huge component of which was slaveholding. That’s what I meant by “layered”. It’s layered within the overall regret the song gives voice to. 

Apparently, RR was moved to write the song after meeting Levon Helm’s Arkansan family.

A factoid: I read that the reference to “the Robert E. Lee” is to a passing steam ship named that. 

I agree and tried to say that criticism of the song as an, as you say, apology for the Confederacy is inapt. Something more subtle and nuanced is going on but that includes, I’d argue and as I just noted, by necessary implication the defeat of a way of life that among other things was built on slaveholding. 

My sense of “leave the rest” was a reference to Northern troops by war’s end ransacking virtuality everything as they moved along. But you could well be right. 

On further maybe final reflection, I can’t see criticism of the song that I thought I could see. If The Night…shows Virgil lamenting the driving down of old Dixie and all that is included in that, then that’s what it’s expressing. The portrayal and drama of his genuine sense of tragic loss, I now think, subsume that criticism. 

This maybe final view of it all just came to me now in the midst of writing this note.

You’re a heck of a midwife. :-)

Monday, September 4, 2023

Note To Someone On Reading First 60 Pages Of Martin Peretz’s The Controversialist

 Ken, I finally started his book. Have read about the first 60 pages. I tend to read stuff in chunks. He starts with an introductory broad sweep of who he is as a kind of brainy psychological type and as a Jew, and how as both he fits into big movements in America occurring during his growing up and then early adult years. 

I found his self preoccupation and self inflation striking but only mildly irritating.

His autobiographical sketching of his Jewish childhood was not uninteresting.

But then when he traces his time at Brandeis and then at Harvard, which is where I left off for today, it reads mostly like a long series of name checking/dropping. It’s probably a little interesting to people familiar with the names in the way a gossip column might be. But to the lay reader I can’t see what interest it would have. 

Plus, he writes that someone said he’s a skimmer not a plumber. IE he skims the main points but doesn’t dive in. 

Well, so far I’d maybe give him a gentleman’s C- for skimming. 

He pays the ideas of the people he mentions only brief lip service, when he pays any attention to their ideas at all. 

True, he gives Marcuse some intellectual time of day, noting his attempt to synthesize Marxism and Freud. But it’s incredibly superficial. I’ve just read an absorbing although short account of Marcuse’s ideas and as MC Hammer said, Peretz “can’t touch this.”

 Peretz much more typically is interested in giving us biographical factoids about the names he checks/drops.

I’ll keep reading. 

Hey, I like gossip as much as the next guy.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Notes On NYT Guest Essay On Restoring Civics To Mandatory College Courses

NYT guest essay by Debra Satz and Dan Edelstein


I think the article is self-congratulatory sophistry, but as self-congratulatory sophistry goes, excellent.


Your comment on self congratulatory sophistry preset me to a jaundiced view of the piece going in. I hope unaided by your Reveen-like hypnotic take, I’d have come to have the same view of it as in fact I have.

But not hypnotic enough for me not to be stronger in my dislike or this piece than you. “Excellent“ as a descriptor doesn’t come rushing to mind. More like self satisfied liberalism in a bad sense of liberalism.

My first problem arises with the glib dismissal of what DeSantis is trying, in effect Pardy inspirited, to do in Florida. His attempts to battle woke need more than a dismissive one liner compared to the imposition of the woke ideology on college campuses aided and abetted by the DEI establishment. He may have been heavy handed in this but it amounts to a graduated banning of trans, gender and generally sex education matters in public schools till age appropriateness is reached. I’m not fully aware of other state imposed constraints and some may have gone too far but as I and Chris Rufo see it, it’s a pitched battle and in the fog of war collateral damage abounds. It’s fair to knock DeSantis on these grounds but a self satisfied dismissive swat with the acontextual once sentence hand is absurd.

My next more diffuse problem is that while I agree with American schools from elementary school on up to college requiring learning American civics, this piece suffers from over and under/misemphasis.

 “Over” is the claim that civics courses are an (the?) answer to intolerance and hyper partisanship manifest in the attack on free speech. On a good educational model every course provides an answer if taught liberally in the best sense of liberally, captured in one formulation here: 

"...Liberalism both believes and doubts, and “…indicates a pattern of culture which criticizes itself... It has customs and standards of behaviour. But it also has...the attitude of...questioning its own dominant beliefs and standards... The liberal both believes and doubts...and... if an individual or a group will hold fast both to custom and intelligence, then its experience will inevitably be paradoxical and divided against itself. The being who seeks intelligence is a divided personality.”

Mill, coming from a different angle, has of course something to say about it as well as have countless others.

These op ed folks have 0 to say about that vis a vis courses generally. Civics must (singularly?) come to the rescue. 

“Under/mis”, unless I misread this essay, S&E have nothing or too little to say about the virtues of grounding in American civics for Americans and students coming from abroad to study in the States. A little soft power here flexing subtly its muscles for the latter?, Why not?

 My next problem is the defensiveness as to under/mis, which is to say, conceding the Americanness and Western Europeanness of the American tradition of Civics as a limitation needing amelioration:

“The limitations of Western Civ are evident from its title. It exposed students to Western ideas only, implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) suggesting that these ideas were superior to those from other cultures.”

They amplify this concession by diluting that very Americanness and Europeanness:

“At Stanford, since 2021, we once again have a single, common undergraduate requirement. By structuring its curriculum around important topics rather than canonical texts, and by focusing on the cultivation of democratic skills such as listening, reasonableness and humility, we have sought to steer clear of the cultural issues that doomed Western Civ.”

Last not least as a problem is smugly predominately fixing the blame for the lapse in teaching civics on the market demand for student as consumer individual choice and the market based turning of universities effectively into vocational schools.

Not that there isn’t something to this critique but its predominance is obtusely one sided and in tension with what S&E have already noted:

“Eventually, these limitations proved intractable. In 1987, activists at Stanford denounced the “European-Western and male bias” of the university’s first-year requirement, then called Western Culture. The course was replaced with a program that had no Western focus…”

They then argue against what is a relative straw man in arguing for what’s more important than individual choice, thus subtly consolidating their misplaced main diagnosis.

They obtusely go on predominately to fault the “market” for the jettisoning of civics instead of acknowledging what wokery has wrought.

In their self satisfied tweedy elbow patch liberalism replete with obfuscation, evasion and shooting wide of the mark, S&E by their mediocrity here highlight the strength of Pardy’s piece.


I found their article superficially clever but believe it is profoundly intellectually dishonest.  They gotta know they’re gaslighting.

I thought it started off well:

We believe that this intolerance of ideas is not just a consequence of an
increasingly polarized society. We think it also results from the failure of
higher education to provide students with the kind of shared intellectual
framework that we call “civic education.” It is our responsibility as
educators to equip students to live in a democratic society whose members
will inevitably disagree on many things. To strengthen free speech on
campuses, we need to return civic education to the heart of our

For sure.  Can't disagree with a single consonant.  But then, for me they
head straight south to Sophistryland:

Many colleges said the change was a pragmatic one, given the
disagreements about which texts should be mandatory. We believe there was
another reason universities turned toward an à la carte curriculum: They had
come under the spell, like much of society at that time, of a free-market
ideology. In this vision, individual choice and individual advancement take
center stage. Requirements are recast as paternalistic; freedom is
understood as doing as one pleases..."

Yeah, right.  It was free-market ideology.  Sure. That's the ticket.
Couldn't possibly be ideology from the other side of the spectrum.  Nah.

Struck me it wasn't an intolerance of ideas that led to the abandonment of civics courses, it's that there's an ideological intolerance for specific ideas - Western culture and inevitably, its odious invention, classic liberalism.  Other ideas have become not only predominant but exclusively acceptable in academia and society, based on critical race theory, postmodernism and related ideological corrective lenses. 

 That's certainly more akin to my brother's experience as an academic with a 40 year career.


We’re agreed.