6 min read

A year-end collection of interesting and insightful passages.

(Part 1 is here.)



The “most revealing consequence” of groupthink is that “[t]o reinforce their ‘in-group’ conviction that they are right,” those engaging in it “need to treat the views of anyone who questions it as wholly unacceptable. They are incapable of engaging in any serious dialogue or debate with those who disagree with them. Those outside the bubble must be marginalized and ignored, although, if necessary, their views must be mercilessly caricatured to make them seem ridiculous. If this is not enough, they must be attacked in the most violently contemptuous terms, usually with the aid of some scornfully dismissive label, and somehow morally discredited. The thing which most characterizes any form of groupthink is that dissent cannot be tolerated.”

--       Christopher Booker, Groupthink: A Study in Self Delusion, reviewed in “Recognizing symptoms of groupthink in philanthropy,” May  28, 2020


A secular “clergy”

When the cultural role of the First Estate clergy diminished after Medieval times, “their part was gradually taken up by what Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed a ‘clergy’ of intellectuals. Religious clerics would remain part of this class, though on the whole it grew more secular over time. Today’s clerisy includes university professors, scientists, public intellectuals, and heads of charitable foundations. Such people have more or less replaced the clergy as what the great German sociologist Max Weber called ‘the new legitimizers.’”

--       Joel Kotkin, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, reviewed in “Contemporary philanthropy as part of a First Estate ‘clerisy,’” July 6, 2020


Civic benevolence

The March of Dimes’ “complex choreography of civic and business groups focused on” President Franklin D. Roosevelt “—always recovering, never a cripple—as a symbol of a nation still reeling from its own social and economic afflictions. At this time of crisis, voluntarism and the organization of civic benevolence proved to be powerful social technologies to mobilize collective action and generate a sense of solidarity.”

This kind of civic benevolence was “transformed by the unprecedented wealth that gave its name to the ‘Gilded Age’ of the late nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, the fortunes of figures like John D. Rockefeller Sr. and other titans of the new industrial economy profoundly challenged established understandings of the relationship between private giving and public purposes.

“These philanthropic efforts raised the specter of private wealth determining political outcomes” and drew Congressional attention. “Private philanthropy was clearly not a straight path to public approval. The trade-offs among liberty, national power, and great wealth surfaced in debates surrounding the propriety of the endowed foundation in a democratic polity.”

--       Elisabeth S. Clemens, Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State, reviewed in “Benevolence, philanthropy, and identity in Civic Gifts,” July 30, 2020



“The world is awash with bullshit, and we’re drowning in it.

“New-school bullshit uses the language of math and science and statistics to create the impression of rigor and accuracy. Dubious claims are given a veneer of legitimacy by glossing them with numbers, figures, statistics, and data graphics.”

--       Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. WestCalling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, reviewed in “‘Calling bullshit’ in philanthropy,” September 3, 2020


Country’s cultural divide, and what’s next for conservatism

“[T]he debate about Trump personally, important and consuming as it is, glides past two deeper questions: What is going on in America that made the rise of Trump possible—perhaps even inevitable? And where do conservatives and Republicans go from here?

“Important as economics might have been in opening the way for Trump, alienation and a deep cultural divide in the country appear to have been even bigger forces.”

--       Gerald F. Seib, We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump—A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution, reviewed in “What conservative philanthropy should have seen coming, and how it should look at what’s next,” September 30, 2020


Liberalism’s foregone inclusiveness

“Great Society liberalism had, for all its faults, an ideal of inclusiveness.” Evidenced by the anti-fracking movement in New York, much of which was financed by Ithaca’s Park Foundation, “[t]he environmental and anti-industrial liberalism is implicitly organized around exclusion. Environmentalism, with its powerful not-in-my-backyard and not-in-your-backyard currents in upstate New York, has become an ideological cover for the pursuit of self-interest. New York’s liberals are fighting to preserve the status quo, poverty and all.”

--       Fred Siegel, ““The Poverty of Environmentalism,” in The Crisis of Liberalism: Prelude to Trump collection of his essays, reviewed in “Fred Siegel’s The Crisis of Liberalism shows how its ‘clerisy’ has now come to fully trump evidence with ideology,” October 26, 2020


An anti-intellectual intellectual

Irving Kristol was always concerned about a “New Class associated with media, government, nonprofits, and universities” that “was gaining unprecedented influence in a post-industrial society where knowledge was becoming capital. From powerful positions in the state, the culture, and the information economy, these intellectuals could subject Americans to increased regulation and even ideological conversion. They could transform the nation’s politics and culture, ‘subverting’ its civilization.

“Confronting the New Class required resources: a ‘counter-establishment’ of think tanks, journals, and academic posts. Kristol was at the center of this effort. He fought the New Class on the intellectual plane and the solid ground of institution building.

“Characterizing the New Class as intellectuals, Kristol railed against them. Yet Kristol was himself an intellectual ….” He made others’ previous thought about a New Class or its equivalent “more polemical, wove it into cultural and political elements unfolding in the Nixon years, linked it with postwar American conservatism, and, finally, responded to it with a potent program of intellectual activism.”

--       Michael J. Brown, Hope & Scorn: Eggheads, Experts & Elites in American Politics, reviewed in “A good egghead, messily making omelettes,” October 28, 2020


An upswing in philanthropy

“Imperfect but comprehensive records of all nationwide personal giving … as a fraction of national income show a classic inverted U-curve, rising steadily and nearly doubling from 1929  to 1964 but then turning back downward from 1964 to 1996. For a decade between 1996 and 2005, total national philanthropy unexpectedly shot upward by nearly one third, only to fall back equally sharply in the following decade. This temporary spurt in generosity puzzled experts for some years, but further investigation showed that it was driven entirely by megagifts during the boom years from the mid-1990s to the Great Recession, while the rate of giving in the population as a whole continued to fall. Measures of the ‘average’ gift were pulled way up by a few high outliers. By contrast, giving to United Way, the largest single charity in America and one focused almost entirely on small gifts, fell uninterruptedly in the nearly six decades between 1961 and 2017, with no evidence whatsoever of an increase in the 1996-2005 boom years. In short, philanthropy among most Americans has fallen steadily since the mid-1960s, only partially and temporarily offset by megagifts from the newly mega-rich.

“This is exactly what happened in the previous Gilded Age, as Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and some of their peers, immensely rich as a by-product of the massive increase in inequality, doled out megagifts. It may seem hard to be critical of the generosity of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg, but their personal charity shouldn’t conceal the metastasizing self-centeredness among middle-class Americans since the peak of our generosity in the 1960s.

--       Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, reviewed in The Upswing describes, and laments, America’s move from ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back to ‘I,’” November 2, 2020


Essential knowledge and our identity

Teachers “have gradually abandoned teaching knowledge coherently in favor of teaching mush on the scientifically incorrect premise that they are imparting general reading skills and general critical-thinking skills. But by neglecting their citizen-making duties, they are in fact diminishing our national unity and basic competence.

“History, geography, science, civics and other essential knowledge that is the mark of an educated citizen has been dumbed down by vacuous learning ‘techniques’ and ‘values based’ curricula. The results have been devastating: It’s not simply a matter of ignorance …. The result is also the loss of a shared knowledge base across the nation that would otherwise enable us to work together, understand one another, and make coherent, informed decisions at the local and national level.

--       E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, reviewed in How to Educate a Citizen is timely, given America’s identity crisis,” November 5, 2020


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