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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.

Tomorrow (October 6th) and tomorrow and tomorrow

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Apocalypse Tomorrow: predicting another failed prediction ]

The Author and Giver of all good things, as the Collect for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity calls Him, provided us with both an Authorized Version of his book (1611) and a Revised Version (1881, 1885); told the story of the earth’s creation in Genesis 1.1 — 2.3 and revised it in Genesis 2.4 — 2.24; and has now supposedly revised its ending from last week until, yes, tomorrow. From today’s Guardian:

world will be annihilated wed oct 6 2015


It seems to me the Guardian is playing this, a little tongue in cheek, as a minor skirmish in the alleged Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom:

Scientists have several theories about when Earth will be destroyed, although none of the data points to this Wednesday.

Assuming tomorrow is much like today and further tomorrows await us, in other words, science will be vindicated, much to the discomfort of the religious, no?

But wait — even the most starkly religious seem to be hedging their bets these days..

“There’s a strong likelihood that this will happen,” McCann said, although he did leave some room for error: “Which means there’s an unlikely possibility that it will not.”

Chris McCann, leader and founder of the eBible Fellowship, is the guy who, in this instance, has updated Harold Camping‘s failed predictions to provide his own.


It was Shakespeare‘s Macbeth who suggested somewhat bleakly that tomorrows would follow tomorrows in an unbroken stream “till the last syllable of recorded time”. And you’ll note that even that last phrase is an undated prediction, made by a fictional character on a stage within a stage..

Is Strategy Dead?

Friday, May 1st, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

[Photo credit: Peter Velter]

Is strategy dead?

Strategy seems to be widely admired in Western governmental circles, but no longer practiced in matters of state.

I am not saying strategy has been forgotten. Far from it. Strategy is still debated,  honored nostalgically (“ah, Containment!”), passed on ritualistically in war colleges, frequently demanded by opposition politicians and its value is regularly extolled in white papers. We admire, ruefully, the use of strategy by others (Beijing, Moscow, ISIS) and regret the sting of its lack in our own efforts. We have universities that grant degrees in strategic studies, scholars who write learned tomes on the art of strategy. Americans love business strategies, sports strategies, investment strategies, learning strategies, strategies for your career, strategies for self-improvement or to find the perfect mate.  We call a very wide variety of non-strategy things “strategy” because we love the word so much. The only thing we don’t seem to be able to do with strategy is practice it.

All of this other “strategy” noise is merely the sound of mourning for an art which has been lost.

Why can Westerners no longer “do strategy”? The reasons I suspect are twofold but are interrelated: The Europeans as a whole now lack a military capacity that would render a strategy meaningful. America, by contrast, still has great military capacity but chronically lack a strategy that would make American use of force meaningful in any given conflict.

In both cases, the root problem is political, albeit expressed differently.

Europeans are largely in agreement as to the nature and purpose of their social contract and choosing to dismantle their Cold War defense establishments was a decision financially consistent with the strong European preference for extremely generous welfare statism and free-riding on American military power. Let’s not mince words, the nations of Europe are in retirement and are unwilling to fund even their basic national security needs, much less their NATO obligations. It is a calculated choice to hollow out NATO and the Europeans made it a decade ago.

Americans by contrast, are deeply polarized as to what kind of nation they wish to be at home. These divisions over fundamental cultural values and social mores have created a kind of schizophrenic, Frankenstein monster, “meritocratic” ruling class that shares a bottom-feeder, careerist, anti-democratic, ethos of oligarchy while fighting vicious kabuki partisan battles to keep each side’s exploited grass-roots political tribe energized, angry and divided.

Because American wars are now fought and opposed primarily for domestic partisan advantages that lead to later financial career advancement for politicians, strategy has largely been displaced by politics and by law, an honorable discipline likewise under siege and partially mastered by our political class to warp for their own benefit. Politicians are far more comfortable with politics and law (most are lawyers, after all) than strategy.

Politics, of course, has always played a role in formulating strategy. It is politics which envisions ends and crafts policies that frames and sustains the use of strategy to claim rewards on the battlefield and the conference table. There should be, when things are going well, harmony in the relationship of politics, policy and strategy. The problem arises when politics attempts to substitute for strategy or leaders are willing to pay high strategic costs abroad for transient and trivial political benefits at home.

In my view, that is where we are today, but I realize opinions vary. So I will ask again:

Is strategy dead?

New Article: “Who Lost Russia?” at The Chicago Progressive

Monday, March 30th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have a new piece up at The Chicago Progressive:

Who Lost Russia?

If you are old enough to remember the iconic moment when Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank on CNN and defied leaders of a KGB coup and then watched seventy years of Soviet communism swiftly collapse, you are old enough to know that Russia did not ever need to become our enemy again. And Russia, whose siloviki regime of President Vladimir Putin is absurdly threatening Denmark with nuclear war, sponsoring insurgents in Ukraine and flirting with fascism at home, officially regards the United States as the main enemy. It did not have to be this way. A question that should be asked, not by historians but by American citizens of their leaders, a question that is not being asked by our media:

“Who lost Russia?”

There is plenty of blame to go around – and we should not be shy about admitting our share….


….The Russian state, moreover, is hollow. Were Putin to die tomorrow or become seriously ill, there’s no assurance of an orderly transition of power to a legitimate successor. Or even that Russia would, in the medium term, not begin to disintegrate as did the Soviet Union before it. The world can ill-afford the emergence of a Weimar Russia, isolated, deeply hostile but politically unstable and bristling with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons….

Read the rest here, at The Chicago Progressive.

It sure Ain’t: Elkus on Why Congress Isn’t Good at Foreign Policy

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Adam Elkus had a nice post on the sound and fury over the open letter by 47 Republican senators to the government of Iran, asserting Congressional prerogatives regarding contractual relations with in foreign powers:

“Congress Isn’t Good At Foreign Policy.”

In the midst of the ongoing fracas over GOP congressional officials’ attempt to undermine Obama’s Iran policy initiatives, Max Fisher made the observation that maybe Congress just isn’t that good at foreign policy after all. Other analysts warned that legislators were “bullying” the US back into another Iraq war,  and others hyperbolically denounce the insistence of GOP hawks that they sign off on the war against the Islamic State. In particular, Foreign Policy‘s Micah Zenko, however, was far more puzzledthan upset about Congress’s apparent desire for an open-ended war in Iraq juxtaposed with its fury over Obama’s initiative to make peace with Tehran: 

Funny when Congress weighs-in on FP:  Start open-ended airwar, no problem. Broker non-binding nonpro agreement, outrage.Zenko, however, is by no means alone. Other critics have similarly slammed Congress, arguing that it acts as if Obama is no longer the president, and ridiculing GOP insistences that Obama must include a ground war plan in his strategy to defeat the Islamic State. To hear some critics, the opposition-dominated legislature is reckless, irresponsible, even potentially traitors against the state. There was, however, something quite fishy about this. Hadn’t the roles reversed, as we had seen this kind of fight before but in the opposite direction

The biggest problem with many of these criticisms, however, was their denigration of the legislature. The way it sounded, a disinterested observer might be forgiven for wondering if someone should be exercising, ahem, some oversight over that silly Congress before it really makes a mess of things! But it was not so long ago, however, that Zenko and many othershad a different opinion about the executive branch and its use of power vs. the legislative branch. That, namely, the latter needed to reign in the former. Oversight was the name of the game, and Congress and the Senate apparently really needed to exercise sorely lacking control, opposition, and critical questioning when it came to an President that was about to drone, Navy SEAL, and air-war America into “endless war.” [….]

Read the rest here.

My thoughts, in brief….

The clerical-security regime in Tehran was probably a distant third as a messaging target for Republicans, coming behind activist conservative primary voters and the Obama administration itself. The letter is, in other words, a stupid, meaningless, P.R. stunt to play to domestic politics and indicates Republicans are not serious about stopping or improving any potential Iran deal or forcing the administration to submit any agreement to the Senate.

Furthermore, the truth is that many Democrats in Congress are uneasy about Secretary Kerry giving away the store to Iran to secure anything he could call “a deal”, are smarting from six years of habitually high-handed treatment from the inept White House staff and the conveniently timed  indictment of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is critical of Obama policies toward Iran and Cuba. If Senate Republicans were intent on peeling away unhappy Democrats into a veto-proof majority for an Iran related bill, the letter was an unneeded jab in the eye to their Democratic Senate colleagues who might otherwise be persuaded to register their discontent.

That said, the ape-shit reaction of the Obamabot faction of the Left (which is neither the whole Left nor the entire Democratic Party) to the Republican Open Letter is illustrative of the creeping authoritarianism and increasingly illiberal nature of American politics. These people really think down deep that their guy is a kind of King and that Americans can be guilty of Lèsemajesté and that Lèse-majesté is “treason” and the politically treasonous or “mutinousshould be jailed. Essentially, a plurality of one of the major political parties really likes the idea of the US government behaving like a Hugo Chavez-style dictatorship. Really.

Lastly, my confidence in the Obama administration to negotiate responsibly with Iran is effectively zero. How can an insular group that takes little outside advice and won’t negotiate (or even talk) with their own supporters in Congress (!), much less the majority Republican opposition, get the better of foreigners that they understand even less well?

Immaturity vs. authoritarianism in service to incompetence. We are headed down a bad road.

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