Like many long-term students aspiring to careers in academia, I pay my bills by tutoring the children of the local well-to-do. It’s not a job that comes with a good healthcare plan or a fabulous salary, but it does offer certain perquisites. Chief among these is regular exposure to the ingenuous curiosity of the youthful brain. There are few exercises so intellectually stimulating as responding to questions one wouldn't have thought of oneself -- reciting, out loud, answers that one has taken for granted all one’s life – and suddenly realizing they sound quite silly, and ought not to be taken for granted at all.
The substance of this post arises out of the confluence of two such questions.
Question, the first:
Last week, one of my students asked me to define “jingoism.” I gave my standard reply: “intensely competitive nationalism.”
This elicited the proverbial Blank Stare.
The error was entirely mine. After a summer preparing fifteen-year-olds for standardized tests, (very much an exercise in broad but shallow vocabulary coaching) I had neglected to take into account the fact that this particular student was only twelve and had, as yet, little or no introduction to European history.
Somehow, though, he had run into the word jingoism and now required not merely a definition, but an Explanation.
So I shifted gears and dove into the five minute version, a brief history of European Nationalism, the role of the French Revolution, Empire (with a capital ‘e’), the scramble for colonial possessions, the catastrophically bellicose opening half the twentieth century, and finally usage notes pinning the term’s temporal median somewhere between the Crimean and Great Wars. (I did not sing him the song.)
Question, the second:
“Will the Hyperloop really work?”
Perhaps the Hyperloop needs some introduction, although CNN has featured it rather prominently on its online news website. In frustration at what he considers to be a complete and utter failure in cost-benefit-analysis by those responsible for the planning of California’s proposed high speed rail system, Elon Musk (modern tech entrepreneur par excellence) has offered a counter-proposal: a high speed tube/capsule system he believes would be a better solution.
Musk’s claims were, as usual, quite bold, perhaps even dubious, and so had inspired the curiosity (skepticism in fact) of that particular student.
The engineering problems of the Hyperloop not yet having been solved, I was forced to respond with the teacher’s equivalent of the Blank Stare.
In this case, however, the error was my student’s, as he (needless to say) was saddled with a burdensome close reading of Musk’s own white paper and an essay considering its effectiveness as a rhetorical piece.
As I was driving home later that day, I found myself bringing my own opinions to bear on the Hyperloop issue.
Interestingly (and perhaps faintly damning-ly) my instinctive reaction was markedly chauvinistic. As it usually does when left unchecked, my brain began spewing the sort of unverifiable partisan vitriol I most despise in the public fora.
“Well, Elon, you shouldn’t be surprised that California is building a massively expensive, overregulated, overstaffed, environmentally hamstrung boondoggle. These are the same people trying to ban e-cigarettes because they pose an “unknown” health risk. You can’t expect that pack of boobs to do real cost/benefit analysis. They can’t even do the simple arithmetic necessary to fund their own pension liabilities…If Texas wanted to, it could build two hyperloops from Dallas to Houston and back for half the cost without the ridiculously overpriced union contracts, and if any animals or plants had anything to say about it, well, let’s just see if them bring it up in the next legislative session blah blah blah et cetera ad nauseam.”
As you might have guessed, this is the part of my brain that I regularly have to chain up in the basement to keep it at all in-line, but even then, I think it spends most of its incarceration down there plotting new and more egregious rhetorical excesses.
In this instance, I got the chains on relatively quickly, and was left in the ensuing mental silence to ponder my own impulsive rush into provincialism. It is fine, I think, to be proud to be Texan. And as an adherent of the federalist sect of modern democracy, I am permitted, as well, to prefer the policies of one state to those of another. But just beyond any further discrimination seems to lurk the same jingoistic fanaticism whose folly I had spent five minutes expounding on only a few days previous. Was it really that easy to step a hundred years back into the bad old days of, “My country is better than yours – if you don’t believe me just have a look down the barrel of this gun and see for yourself!”? Apparently yes.
Thus the following dilemma:
How could anyone be so foolish as to believe there could be a better state than Texas?!
Let’s try again.
Thus the following dilemma:
At what point should we expect honest preference to give over to polite, grudging tolerance?
For those of us who contemplate involvement in public policy, the burden of drawing this line becomes all the more onerous, as it is the business of policy makers (excepting, of course, the most slavish devotees of their own constituencies) to impose the policies they think best on the populations for which they are responsible, knowing all the while that a not insignificant minority will resent, if not actually resist, said imposition.
And for the police, to whom it often falls to physically confront violations of public policy, how much more crucial the question, “When to let fall the hammer, and when to withhold?”
Ultimately, I suspect that the answer, or rather, answers, to this question cannot be reached via any universal criteria, but rather must be drawn from unique analysis of each case.
I hope, therefore, that this may serve as an introduction to an ongoing series, in which I look closely at examples that seem to rest on the horns of this particular dilemma.
For a sneak preview of my first target, take a look at NPR’s recent story on federal drug policy enforcement in Mendocino, California.