LitHub article on Great Books and transphobia

Hello friends. Some weeks I feel sad I don’t have a fancy popular substack that people pay me money for. This is not one of those weeks. Those substack writers have to produce something at least three times a week–meanwhile I’ve gone at least two weeks without posting anything. No particular reason, just been busy.

Big news around here is the publication of my article on LitHub: “Why The Culture Of the So-Called Great Books Is Hostile To Trans People”. It’s about how the Great Books nurture a tendency towards rationalism (the idea that you can intuit truths about the world through pure reason), and rationalism can often lead people to absurdities.

Rationalism is great. I’m a rationalist a lot of the time. If you want to be sure about anything in the world besides your own experience, your choices are, essentially, rationalism or religion. But the problem with rationalism is that the method often leads to absurdities, and if you stick rigorously to your rationalist system, you’ll make arguments that fly clearly in the face of reality. In other words, you look like the transphobe living in a world that’s FULL of men with XX chromosomes who claims that the idea of an XX male is a delusion being propagated by “transgender fanatics.”

By the standards of internet transphobia it didn’t arouse an immense amount of furor, but enough to exhaust me. To be honest, many things about the world today baffle me a bit. I don’t really understand the obsession with trans people. I don’t get why Republicans would pass abortion laws that might doom their own wives and daughters to death if they were pregnant with a non-viable fetus. I don’t really understand why people (on both left and right) are trying to ban books from libraries or prevent professors from speaking freely. Seems just very odd to me. I know the right wing is a clearer and more existential threat, but I meet more left-wingers, and it just perplexes me when I meet a left-wing author who, say, agitates for a publisher to cancel a book, or require authors to use sensitivity readers, or for someone to lose their job for something they said or wrote.

I just don’t understand how someone can be a writer and not want maximal freedom to do their own work, and to me it’s intuitively obvious that if you’re trying to censor other people, then you’ll end up censoring yourself. If you accept the idea that offended feelings can merit a book being removed from shelves, then you’ll always be worried in your own writing about who you’re offending.

You might not call it censorship, maybe you call it accountability, but fundamentally there’s a difference between giving someone information and preventing them from getting it. And wanting to stand in the way of people getting information is just baffling. What qualifies me to know what other people ought or ought not read?

Oh well, it doesn’t bear thinking about, and it’s become tiresome to write about all this political stuff.

Lately I’ve been studying computer programming. Not in any very serious way, simply as a hobby. I started using a note-taking software, Obsidian, that’s very powerful and expandable. I imported some information from my excel spreadsheet into obsidian, and I’ve been using that information to make charts and graphs and table and perform various analyses. This has involved learnings bits and pieces of coding–most of which is like magic, I don’t understand it, but just write the words and something happens. The funnest most recent thing is using dngrep to do find/replace on large quantities of files, so put the data into the right format. Making an elegent regex expression is just really interesting and fun. Another good tool is, which lets you test out your expressions in real-time.

They say that an education in the humanities makes people more flexible, more able to adapt to a number of different roles, as opposed to a technical education, where you become rigid and might find your skills superannuated. I don’t know if it’s the education that causes that difference (assuming it really exists) or just a lifetime of working with machines rather than people. Someone with a humanities education can only work with people–there’s nothing else you can do, there’s no other concrete skill–even if you’re shoving words around, they’re ultimately meant to influence other human beings. But a coder is directly working with a machine. What they write and do is evaluated on the basis of how well it makes the machine perform. So there’s a certain difference in occupational dynamics. I don’t think the education itself is less useful than a humanities education–coding is extremely rigorous and logical, and I think it would benefit people in a number of areas of life. I suppose what it doesn’t prepare you for is ambiguity and uncertainty, but nobody is particularly good at handling those things, at least in my experience.

I got off my African books kick, and I’m now reading John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash of 1929. I think that I revisited his work (I read The Affluent Society years ago) because of an article in the NYRB about Keynes. Not sure how that got me to Galbraith but for some reason I picked up this book. He’s a beautiful writer–so dry and clear. It’s a pleasure to read, even though I’ve heard the story of the Crash so often that even its minor figures, like Charles Mitchell, the Fed Governor who was a heavy speculator himself, have become like old friends to me. It’s kind of like comfort reading:

Andrew W. Mellon said, “There is no cause for worry. The high tide of prosperity will continue.”

Mr. Mellon did not know. Neither did any of the other public figures who then, as since, made similar statements. These are not forecasts; it is not to be supposed that the men who make them are privileged to look farther into the future than the rest. Mr. Mellon was participating in a ritual which, in our society, is thought to be of great value for influencing the course of the business cycle. By affirming solemnly that prosperity will continue, it is believed, one can help insure that prosperity will in fact continue. Especially among businessmen the faith in the efficiency of such incantation is very great.

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  1. nolancapps0

    Great article! And really interesting to point to rationalism as a direct link between transphobia and loving the Great Books. I appreciate your challenging the notion that reading good books automatically makes us better thinkers or better people.