Monday, October 10, 2005

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Don't worry so much about my little finger

It will come as no surprise to readers that I think Adam Smith was a very, very smart man when it came to human nature.

Reflecting on my own recent turn of events, in comparison to events in South Asia, reminds me of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, Chapter III:

[T]o the selfish and original passions of human nature, the loss or gain of a very small interest of our own, appears to be of vastly more importance, excites a much more passionate joy or sorrow, a much more ardent desire or aversion, than the greatest concern of another with whom we have no particular connexion. His interests, as long as they are surveyed from this station, can never be put into the balance with our own, can never restrain us from doing. whatever may tend to promote our own, how ruinous soever to him. Before we can make any proper comparison of those opposite interests, we must change our position. We must view them, neither from our own place nor yet from his, neither with our own eyes nor yet with his, but from the place and with the eyes of a third person, who has no particular connexion with either, and who judges with impartiality between us. Here, too, habit and experience have taught us to do this so easily and so readily, that we are scarce sensible that we do it; and it requires, in this case too, some degree of reflection, and even of philosophy, to convince us, how little interest we should take in the greatest concerns of our neighbour, how little we should be affected by whatever relates to him, if the sense of propriety and justice did not correct the otherwise natural inequality of our sentiments.

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. (emphasis added)

I have been very touched by the empathetic responses to my recent bit of bad luck. But a sense of propriety and justice would be good in responding to the devastation in South Asia -- not to mention other recent natural disasters.

Click here for the Red Cross' response to the Kashmiri earthquake.

UPDATE: California Yankee has a useful list of charities for quake victims.

posted by Dan on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM


Wit, grace, *and* compassion. Maybe others are right: you're a bad fit in the academy.

posted by: Anonymous on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Well said, and well done.

And I rather enjoyed working Adam Smith into a quite decent comment as well.

posted by: The Lounsbury on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Your work is interesting.

Your family is important.

There is a huge difference from interesting to important.

Never forget that difference.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

I learned the same lesson from my barber years ago. After a funeral for a friend that drowned, he was anything but sympathetic: Life goes on he told me. As far as your lack of tenure, get over it, man. I doubt you care THAT much that you were not given tenure. What probably is bothering you is the fact that you were deemed unworthy of tenure. That hurts. Okay now forget it and get on with your life. Your right, I don't want to hear any more about it. I've got my own serious health problems and past disappointments to deal with. Life is too short to dwell on what might have been. And besides, my little finger hurts. Smith was right.

posted by: Trumpit on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Better luck next time, man.

Maybe patella protection might help, or some scholarly shrieking like Hayek or one of yr crypto-fascist predecessors.

posted by: Iago on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Good for you for putting it in perspective. How could you help it though, as compared to hurricanes, earthquakes and ongoing genocides it is really a non- issue.

posted by: cooper on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

trumpit, you are being an utter ass. Dan; my heartiest condolences over your non-tenuring. We here at the Holbo/Waring household look upon these developments with a keen sense of alarm about the top joint of our pinky fingers...I hope that some "the blog giveth. the blog taketh away" dynamic results in a top-notch job elsewhere.

posted by: belle waring on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Iago was being an utter ass, too.

What b.w. said.

posted by: foo on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

The blog world is too big to read everything by everybody, but no one who reads blogs is unaware of your name and reputation in this milieu. You have every reason to be prouder of your achievements here than whatever losses you may have had elsewhere. After this I guess I have to add your site to my already over-burdened aggregator.

Today's post is as much evidence of good character as anyone could demonstrate. The University of Chicago has suffered a greater loss than you, but institutions by definition lack at least one redeeming human quality: grace.

posted by: Hootsbuddy on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Dan: Like Hootsbuddy said, this decision is ultimately Chicago's loss--as usual one is left scratching one's head and wondering what they were thinking. I know this doesn't make it any easier for you, but I hope you don't give up the faith--you're needed.

posted by: Academic Elephant on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

This post reminds me of what Keynes said: 'In the long run, we are all dead,' something that oddly comforts me at times of extreme disappointment. I don't know why.

posted by: A.M. Mora y Leon on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

What a wonderful passage you've posted. Thanks for this reminder to keep the larger tragedies in mind.

Still, however, I think that it is a shame that you didn't get tenure.

posted by: academic coach on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Politics is ultimately ephemeral, but good writing lasts.

Excellent post.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

The reason why I've had this done is that you are destined to write an important piece of analysis in 2008 when the Islamist regime in Iran falls. If you stayed at the U of Chicago, you would have been mugged in Nov 2007.

posted by: g on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

If this is the worst thing that has happened to you, you have been very fortunate. Viktor Frankl (a man who knew a thing or two about hardship) said:
"The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved."

posted by: Larry on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Did anyone note what Dan's chair told the Sun:
"I can assure you it's not specifically about the blog."

He did not say: "I can assure you it's not about the blog."

posted by: A. on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Thanks for the perspective.

I wonder if we are losing this as a public concept, though I do feel people are as decent before.

It seems to me that a powerful conservative thing stresses self interest, though Smith did argue public interest, it's just that he and other Anglo/American enlightment figures sought to use economic and political mechanisms to direct the usually more powerful private interests.

But there did exist an ideal of public duty and citizenship. Now the right argues the tragedy of the commons without believing in the responsibility of the common or even bigger the opportunity of the commons. To be consistent conservatives should not use the Internet because it is a government program built and mantained by volunteers using Shareware, conservatives should have stuck to the private services offered by AOL or compuserve. But they didn't because a public sphere can be most effective as can rules. Thus we queue providing a "fair" system of first come first serve while in other places it's push as you can meaning the strong and ruthless get scarce goods.

Similarly liberals aregue for a public good, but frequently expect it to come from institutions not individuals. Thus secular liberals donate a half percent of their income to private organizations while religious conservatives donate three percent. Perhaps even more tragically the liberal approach encourages a dependance rather than a sense of being a citizen. I do not resent the resources provided for those in need, but do resent that the focus and affort is spent making them navigate difficult bureaucracies. If their same time was devoted to somehow being part of the process, of giving back then the situation would be more healthy.

I do think that the general development along these lines is being poneered by individuals who are vaguely leftists. For example ebay and craigslist are designed to open markets and other channels of cimmunicatons to everybody. The net was very much influenced by leftist conceptions of anarchial organization and freedom.

Then of course there is Grameen bank, widely successful in Bangladesh whose American branch may prove to be a good long term charity.

posted by: jill on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

I noticed that hedged 'specifically' too. Real 'assure'-ing.

They're up to no good.

posted by: A.M. Mora y Leon on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Re Lord Keynes and perspective, it's hard to beat Joseph Addison's 1711 essay, "Westminster Abbey," published in the blog-equivalent Spectator. You can find it at

posted by: Axel Kassel on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

I heard Jacob Levy was denied tenured too. Unbelieveable.

posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

I always thought UofC was a remarkable place. I haven been scratching my head since the tenure decision. But the death of Wayne Booth brings me back to thinking of Chicago as a remarkable place. Prof. Booth rate a lengthy obit in the NY Times. You can read it at:

A class with Booth was a remarkable experience. He is representative of what makes Chicago remarkable. In reading his obit, you may notice that after getting his Ph.D. from UofC, he left for twelve years before returning and becoming a Hyde Park institution. So maybe Chicago has not seen the last of Dan. He would not be the first to return to the Grey City.

posted by: Maroon on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Paraphrasing Richard III: "The academic world has grown so bad that wrens may prey where eagles dare not perch"

Remember that its better to be a real professor albeit untenured than a mere prattler without practice.

posted by: Borgia on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Adam Smith was a wise man, and you, Dan, are one as well. Your words have extended your teaching far beyond the confines of Hyde Park, making me a grateful debtor. Thank you.

posted by: Harris on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Michael Berube ( cites your nontenuring in an interesting post on public intellectuals today, with a great comment string.

I got to watch lots of nontenurings during my PhD days, and have only admiration for those who labored on up the tenure track toward this grim and ridiculous precipice.

Dan, being a public intellectual may produce an unstable income stream for a while, but its long-term prospects have to be excellent. We are approaching the point in the pendulum-swing where education and thought simply have to come back into vogue. And if your nontenuring helps to corrode the binary machinism of tenure, you'll have done us all a favor.

Life begins at moments like this.

posted by: Jarrett on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

I can't help but wonder, Dan, if this isn't a means of making sure only lockstep liberals make it to Tenured status.

Personally, I'm rather disgusted.

posted by: Bithead on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

I'm bothered by the talk that blogging wastes time that could be used for "real" scholarly activity.

Using that line of thought should we only tenure profs without families, because families certainly distract from scholarly time. And how about jogging?

Tenure is one of the most currupt system I've ever seen, in the sense that the written rules mean almost nothing compared with tenure politics.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

"Using that line of thought should we only tenure profs without families, because families certainly distract from scholarly time."

You think that's a joke? One professor told me when getting a Phd that being a happily married man is a liability as an assitant professor. Another said he waited till he was a full professor before buying a house. A friend who received his PhD from Chicago econ told me that when he had to leave a Friday get-together because his wife was waiting in the car, a well-known Nobel laureate said quite seriously, Do you really have the temperament for this place?

I assume that Drezner's case was handled appropriately (which is not the same as decided correctly), but there's no doubt that there are many perverse incentives in the current system.

posted by: anon on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Yes. And in the way we partner lawyers. And advance in corporations. and and and ..

did you somehow thing the upper reaches of academia (where chicago surely lies) is somehow immune from such career pressures?

posted by: anon on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

At one time I ran for D.A. I tried to tell people of the situation the way I saw it. I didn't promise to take every case to trial. I lost. Big. It hurt. The fact that I survived and prosper on my much smaller stage than the one you are on does not lessen my pain nor increase yours. Thanks for you blog. I will continue to read it and learn from it as long as you post it.

posted by: Stan on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

Congratulations on your healthy sense of perspective, and I hope you knock the tenure committee's socks off next time around.

posted by: The Sanity Inspector on 10.10.05 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

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