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America’s Anti-Agoge

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“….Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot. This habit, if practiced, would, as he believed, enable them to scale heights more easily and clamber down precipices with less danger.”

– Xenophon, The Polity of the Lacedaemonians

Be quiet! In your position, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman! Then why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you? You should step down! If that is what you think of being headmaster, you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”
Jerelyn Luther, the Shrieker of Yale

“I personally am tired of hearing that first amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.”

– Brenda Smith-Lezama, Vice President of the Missouri Students Association 

Much has been written this week of the protests at Mizzou and Yale universities now sparking more absurd copycats elsewhere.  Pundits have covered the dangerous illiberalism of campus political correctness and speculated that the students are the result of a generation of helicopter parenting. There were earlier essays recently on the “coddled” nature of elite university students generally and skewered Ivy League students in particular as the products of a deeply flawed, intellectually shallow,”meritocratic” rat race that serves as the gateway to the nation’s elite. There have also been conservative suggestions that the students lack the maturity to vote and a furious counterattack by social-justice faction lefties defending the students and their authoritarian anti-free speechsafe space” ideology.

While all interesting and moderately important, I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter.

Up until today, every society in history has had a process, formal or informal, to prepare the next generation of leadership and inculcate virtues in them that would assure their society’s cultural continuity and physical survival. The ancient Chinese mandarinate was based on mastery of Confucian classics; the British Empire had its public schools and storied regiments where the sons of the gentry and peerage bonded; the samurai and daimyo of Tokugawa Japan continued to uphold bushido and cherish antique tactics in warfare centuries after Japan’s unification made such things more ritual than reality.

The definitive example of an educational rite of passage from student to member of the ruling class however, remains the Agoge of ancient Sparta. Established, according to Spartan legend, by the semi-mythical law-giver Lycurgus, the agoge (“the upbringing”) existed to mold Spartan boys through a ferocious training regime into the hoplite soldier-citizens who comprised the social apex of Sparta’s militaristic oligarchy. The agoge ceaselessly battered the students with physical exertion, corporal punishment, exposure to the elements and hunger in a bid to harden them  in mind and body. There’s much about life under the agoge that moderns, even admirers of classical Greece, would find distasteful or even appalling, but it was very effective at inculcating that ascetic toughness, communal discipline, martial prowess and laconic wit that Spartans prized.  For at least three centuries, the agoge helped sustain Sparta’s qualitative military edge and its hegemony over the Greek world and subsequently, its political independence for two centuries more. Not a record that was frequently matched in history.

America too has a system of education to prepare – or rather, certify – our future business, academic, judicial and political leaders based on matriculation at a small number of highly selective, elite universities and liberal arts colleges. Broadly speaking, this includes roughly the top 100 higher education institutions ranked by US News & World Report and narrowly, for filling the very top tiers of finance, law and government service, the Ivy League plus a handful of comparable schools. This would place Mizzou at the bottom of the barrel of our elite education system while Yale is at the very pinnacle. The kids going to exclusive, elite, universities are very bright for the most part, but even more so they are wealthy.

This upper class status includes the campus protestors screaming loudest about their wretched oppression. The hunger striker of Mizzou’s father is a multi-multi-millionaire while the Shrieker of Yale reportedly comes from the relative poverty of her parents $750,000 home. The aggressive authoritarianism on display at Yale, Mizzou, Amherst, Dartmouth or Claremont is less the “Rage of a Privileged Class” than the petulant tantrum of the 1%.  In other words, despite their heroic efforts at a public pathos orgy of political correctness to portray themselves as victims in grave danger as they bullied and assaulted professors other students, these are spoiled rich kids used to getting their way, pitching an unholy fit to get undeserved power over others who disagree.

However obnoxious and unlikable these petty tyrants are or how totalitarian their demands to end free speech and academic freedom, fire and expel all their critics or put social-justice commissars in charge of every university department, they didn’t educate themselves. The students embody, perhaps in a more militant form, what they were taught. The problem isn’t that this year has a random surplus of student radicals, or that sinister racist conspiracies exist in the administrations of our most left-wing universities as protestors claim or that these helicoptered students are all psychologically fragile waifs raised in a culture of self-love and psychodrama. No, the problem is that the system to educate our future leaders tends to inculcate deep hostility and loathing toward their fellow Americans, extolls anti-empirical, witch-hunting dogmatism as a virtue while rewarding narcissism and anti-social aggression in interpersonal relations. This needs to change.

We have built an American anti-Agoge that cultivates values, ethics and habits in future leaders that are politically repulsive in their authoritarian rejection of Constitutional rights and are antithetical to ruling wisely or well. At times they would seem to conflict with a life as a functionally competent human being. Half of all Yale students in this pressure-cooker require at least some mental health counseling. This is an astounding statistic. Imagine if Polybius or Livy had written that half of the sons of the Patrician class were at least slightly mad. A toxic ruling class that is certain that they have been victimized by the citizens they govern and who lack the normal resilience to withstand minor stresses of life without concocting conspiracy theories or taking to their bed is a recipe for disaster. In a liberal democratic state such as ours, dependent as it is on the values of an open society to function politically, this state of affairs is a sign of political decay and creeping oligarchy.

What is to be done?

We did not arrive at this juncture overnight and fixing a fundamentally broken academic culture will take time, but here are a few simple suggestions to start.

  1. Legislation to Secure Academic Freedom, Due Process and Free Speech on Campus:  This will defang the PC bullies, social justice warriors and their allies in university administration by hamstringing their ability to coerce and punish dissent. Obviously, this will be easier in public universities but these provisions could be attached to receiving Federal funds, including guaranteed student loans.
  2. Draconian Reduction of University Administrative Positions relative to Tenured Faculty: This will save a great deal of money better spent elsewhere in by axing bureaucracy while de-funding and disempowering the diversity commissariat on campus that is the source of much illiberal mischief. Again, this is a matter more for state level action initially.
  3. Restore a Core Undergraduate Canon rooted in Real Courses in Real Academic Fields: This will reduce the Melissa Click problem of academic sinecures for full-time radical political activists posing as professors with Fifty Shades of Gray “scholarship”. The money saved by getting rid of an army of administrators in #2 leaves a lot of room to hire mathematicians, biologists, historians, economists, physicists, philosophers and linguists who earned a doctorate in something real.
  4. Require Elite universities Receiving Federal Funds to allocate 20% of their Student Body to Students from Middle-Class, Lower Middle Class and Working Class backgrounds, Geographically Balanced: I have mixed feelings about this in principle, but it would definitely break up the overwhelming UC-UMC Superzip monoculture at our gateway institutions and bring new talent and perspectives into our ruling class that the university administrators at present work extremely hard to systematically exclude. It will also increase social mobility and provide competition for the progeny of our game-rigging “meritocratic” elite.


None of these will usher in a utopia. Much of radical academia will muddle through doing what they have been doing until retirement, but the system itself will be on a trajectory for better health rather than for getting steadily worse.

Jottings 14: Sincerity of the snake-handlers

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — a death at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, and a glance at the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord ]

There’s something very simple and profound about the sheer faith the snake handlers of the Holiness tradition bring to their worship. It’s not yo my aesthetic taste, and the doctrines espoused are, to my mind, literal-minded and unwise — but the faith, the trust moves me.

Pastor Jamie Coots has now died of snake-bite in the course of woship:

Like the police chief, Jeffrey Sharpe, interviewed above, in my own way and to my own degree I feel saddened by dis death.


I find myself feeling a similar fellow-feeling for the worshippers in this church, with it’s quite similar rusticity and simple ways. And what interests me here is that the group worshipping here is one whose theology I have very little sympathy for — the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord or CSA, a Christian Identity paramilitary church whose 200-acre compound was besieged and shut down by the FBI in 1985.

The opening of this video, from the trailer for Silhouette City directed by Michael Wilson, show us the worship of the CSA — and much as I dislike their racism and proneness to murderous violence, I find there’s something affecting in what this clip shows of the simple hearts of the believers. Reading Tabernacle of Hate, the autobiography of Kerry Noble whose quest for Christ brought him in contact with the group before it became infected with racism and hate, who went on to become its second in command and eventually left in disgust at all the hatred, I have the same feeling — of a simple piety led horribly astray.

Here then is the clip — it’s the first 35 seconds I’m inviting you to watch — the movie then turns to present day, more mainstream uses of militant Christian imagery:


I don’t want to leave you on the sour note of CSA Christianity — so let me turn back to the Holiness snake-handlers.

For a deeper glimpse into their ways, you could do worse than to watch this documentary:


May pastor Jamie Coots rest in peace.

This, on Jamie’s son Cody Coots, from The Christian Post yesterday:

The deadly rattlesnake that delivered the fatal bite to “Snake Salvation” pastor Jamie Coots in Middlesboro, Ky., last Saturday will be back in church to help praise the Lord in another heart-pounding service this Saturday, according to his son, Cody Coots.

Cody, 21, who will be burying his serpent-handling father on Tuesday night, told TMZ that the snake will not be killed. His father’s death, he says, was “God’s way” of taking him home, and his family will embrace the deadly rattlesnake that delivered his death sentence at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro again this Saturday.

Sunday surprise 14: G&S Effect

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — like father, like son — Gilbert & Sullivan, Shakespeare and the video game Mass Effect ]

Some of our readers will no doubt recognize the “model of a modern Major-General” from Gilbert & Sullivan‘s “Savoy Opera” The Pirates of Penzance. He’s definitively British, and it’s a sign of the strength of the “special relationship” between the US and UK that the G&S operas have now won a place in many American hearts.

For those of you who don’t know your G&S, or do and would like to be reminded, here’s a Joseph Papp presentation of Pirates, with George Rose playing the Major-General, Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, and Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, from NYC’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park [available on DVD]:

And here for your convenience, since the words fly past at quite a lick, are the lyrics —

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;a
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news, (bothered for a rhyme)
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore, (bothered for a rhyme)
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform:c
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin,d
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery –
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy – (bothered for a rhyme)
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.e

For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.


Now for the fun part.

My son David, who had never heard of the “modern Major-General”, was visiting me yesterday, and very proudly played me the ring-tone on his cell-phone.

It turns out he’d taken it from a video game called Mass Effact 2, which is his current favorite — and when I asked, he showed me a video of the game character called Mordin singing it:

Zing! His favorite game has a character who sings a variant on the G&S song! Like father, like son!

Here are the (revised) lyrics:

I am the very model of a scientist Salarian!
I’ve studied species, Turian, Asari, and Batarian.
I’m quite good at genetics (as a subset of biology),
because I am an expert (which I know is a tautology).

My xenoscience studies range from urban to agrarian –
I am the very model of a scientist Salarian!

Too cool!


So we got to talking about games, and Shakespeare — David has been studying Romeo and Juliet — and it turns out that although David feels Shakespeare is very skillful with words, and brings the human emotions out very directly in his plays, he’s more deeply gripped by Mass Effect 2 than by Romeo and Juliet, because it felt more “natural” to him, at least partly because he could navigate it at his own pace.

So this issue wasn’t that Shakespeare was boring or old, but that some games have developed new ways in which narrative can be enjoyed that can take one deeper into the story.

As an admirer of my friend Bryan Alexander‘s work on new narrative forms in his book, The New Digital Storytelling, this gave me a refreshing new perspective on games: that the pacing and interactivity themselves potentially take the narrative experience to a new level.

David made another observation: that he can learn from the little details of a game as much as he learns from the same game’s major plot points — and he used the Scientist Salarian song as his example. When it’s sung, standing alone in Mass effect 2, it’s a minor incident in the game. And whereas in Romeo and Juliet, each speech is intended, word for Shakespearean word, to create a powerful impact, Mordin’s song in Mass Effect 2 is like many other aspects of the game, there only to build a slow familiarity with a character.

It is not until Mass Effect 3, in fact, that the full impact of Mordin’s song hits home.


In Mass Effect 3, the character Mordin decides to sacrifice his own life to end the genophage sterility plague which has been aflicting the Krogan, one of the other races in the game. We know he is sad to relinquish his life in this way, because he had earlier expressed a desire to retire to a beach somewhere and “perform tests on sea shells.”

Explaining why he is going to sacrifice his life — and his dreams of retirement — in this way, he says:

My project. My work. My cure. My responsibility.

Sadly — terrified yet proud, then — having made his decision, he sings again the “Scientist Salarian” song:

That, says David, is why I have invested so much time in playing this series of games.

Mordin singing this song in each of two separate scenes doesn’t mean much until we have seen both in sequence. And although the lyrics of the song he’s singing doen’t directly tell us what he’s feeling, experiencing the entire story with him across two games reveals that he is in fact terrified — and reveals it in a disturbingly more intimate way than if he had simply stated it as a fact: it’s his intonation as he sings the song that second time that shows us his terror and his determination.

The second time around, because players have grown to know Mordin through dozens of hours of gameplay, his decision and death scene are truly heart-wrenching.

As I watch that second song for the third time, I see what David means.

Test pilot and astronaut Joe Engle meets the Academician

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — how an exchange of Cold War stories broke the ice for US-Soviet cooperation in space ]

Joe H Engle, X-15 test pilot and Space Shuttle pilot


I was talking with a friend, ML, and she told me this story of her cousin, USAF Maj Gen Joe Engle (ret’d), test pilot and astronaut, which I reproduce below from a NASA oral history interview. It is the tale of the exchange between diplomatic enemies which opened up joint US-Soviet NASA-MIR collaboration in space — an extraordinary, exemplary dialog. I believe Zenpundit readers will find it powerful reading.


To set the stage..

When Engle was asked to go to Russia to prepare the way for a joint commission between the US and Soviets to explore the possibilities of space cooperation, he remembers saying:

I was about as right-wing military as could be expected and I had spent a good deal of my professional career on the end of a runway sitting alert to go after them. I said, “I think I’m probably the last guy in the world that you want on that or that they want to see come and work with them.”

To which the response was:

“Well … that’s really kind of why I want you there, as a piece of litmus paper. … I figure if you can make it work and if they can work with you, why, then anybody will work.”

So Joe Engle went to Russia in January 1995, and things did not begin smoothly — but I’ll give you the rest of the tale in his words:

I went over with a group of two or three people and we had scheduled visits with the deputy head of Rosaviacosmos, RSA [Russian Space Agency], and RSC [Sergei Pavlovich Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation], Energia. The gentleman who had been identified to be Tom [ie Gen Tom Stafford]’s counterpart on the joint commission, who was Academician [Vladimir F.] Utkin, who is the most respected rocketeer that Russia’s ever had — well, next to Korolev, but most respected living one, an old gentleman, just a big bear of a guy.

We were not doing well at all. Mr. [Boris D.] Ostroumov had essentially thrown us out of RSA and Mr. Semyanov did throw us out of Energia. He didn’t want anything to do with us, didn’t want any independent—they didn’t know what an independent review group was. It wasman entirely foreign concept to the Russians. They were more prone to the stovepipe, of this enterprise has this task to do and you turn the finished product out and it will fit with this finished product, and you don’t talk to each other. Everybody was very, very closed door about it. So they didn’t want the idea of anybody looking over their shoulder, even their own people looking over each other’s shoulder.

It was a difficult concept to sell, and we were just about to say, “This doesn’t look like it’s going to work.” In fact, I had called Tom from over there and he said, “Well, pack it up and come home.” He said, “We’re not going to waste our time on this.”

And I remember telling him, “Well, we got one more guy, the guy you’re supposed to be the co-chair with, and I’ll go see him, because we can’t move the flight up anyway. It costs too much money to move the flight up.”

So we went to Academician Utkin’s, and he was pretty much the same way. I remember going in and being told to go in and sit in his office and wait for him. He walked in, and at that time, they didn’t have phones with pushbuttons. Each line had a separate phone, so he had fourteen phones on his desk, I remember, and a big map, a wall map of the Soviet Union. It was still Soviet Union then to them. Finally he walked in, strutted in, and sat down at his desk and started making some phone calls. We were sitting there, [William] Bill Vantine was with me and there was an interpreter present.

Finally, after about, I think, about twenty minutes, he turned and he said,”So,” through the interpreter, he said, “So, you are going to tell us how to go to space?”

I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible, but not wimpy about it, and I said, “No. No, sir. We’re here to join with you and go to space together and see if we can combine our resources.”

He reacted with a couple of things about, “But you want to use our space station? You don’t have a space station. You want to use ours.” Finally, he leaned back in his chair and he said, “Let me tell you. I was the head of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program for the Soviet Union and I designed the SS-19,” which was a superb rocket, booster, and he went to the big map on the wall and he said, “We had — ,” and he started going through the numbers of missiles that they had targeted for New York and Chicago [Illinois], all our major cities. After he’d completed, he walked over and he sat down and he folded his arms and looked at me.

I remember saying, “Well, sir, I know that you did exactly what you thought was the right thing to do for your country.” I said, “At the same time that you were doing that, I was sitting in a [Boeing] F-100 [Super Sabre] in Aviano, Italy, with a nuclear bomb strapped under the belly,” and I walked up and I pointed at Aviano, Italy, and I said, “I had one target, one bomb and one target only, but I felt I was doing the same thing for my country that you were.” I said, “My target was this airfield right here,” and it was back in Hungary; it was not in Russia, but it was in the Soviet Union. I said, “That was my target.” And it’s amazing, the intelligence that the Russians had on us at the time.

He said, “Yes, I know.” And he said, “You would not have made it.”

I said, “Well, I think I would have made it.” I said, “My route was to fly up this –” We had memorized our routes so that we didn’t have to look at maps, so I followed the track up the river valleys and I said, “You had antiaircraft here and you had radar here, so my route was to go around these hills and on in.”

And he started to scowl and he said, “You would not have made it back.”

I said, “No, I would have run out of fuel before I got back, but I was going to bail out in Austria. I felt if I could get to Austria, why, I would make it back.”

And he sat there and he just scowled at me for a while, finally pushed his chair back and he got up and — he was a big guy — and he started to walk around his desk toward me, and I figured that — he wasn’t smiling at all, and I thought he was going to cold-cock me, so I figured I’d stand up and take it like a man. [Laughs]

I stood up and hadn’t really got my breath from standing up and he just grabbed me and gave me one of those big Russian bear hugs and he said, “It’s better this way, isn’t it?” [Laughs]

I recall just before he said that, when I finished I said, “This was what I was doing, but I really think that we have the opportunity to take off our gloves and do something together for the whole world.” And that’s when he didn’t smile, but he walked around and he said, “It’s better this way.”

So he set the commission up. A month later, when Tom went over, it was all set up and ready to go, and it’s been working for over — well, it’ll be ten years coming up next year. And even Academician Utkin said, “We’ll try this, but these things don’t ever last more than a year or two.” [Laughs]


For more on the contrasting philosophies of the US and Soviets with regard to their fighter aircraft and space programs, and what it took to reach accomodation, read on from the tail end of page 16.


Monday, December 9th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — I got caught in a cascade of images, swept away — and then, Mao ]

This gesture seems to me to have the quality of a caress…

in which case a caress in Kyiv is not so different from piano music in that same city…

or, as it might be, cello music in Sarajevo…

or for that matter, simply standing motionless in Tienanmen Square…

or planting flowers in Washington, DC…

Caresses, music, stillness, flowers… there’s a kinship there.


But then again, maybe these gestures are too idealistic for the realist’s “real world” — and to quote Chairman Mao in refutation of that last image:

Every Communist must grasp the truth, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”


I keep coming back to that first image — stunning!

The thing about it — to my eye — the humanity is clearly visible on both sides…

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