Ultimately, it comes down to luck

Friday, May 24th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhile working as a summer research assistant at Stanford, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he discovered another pernicious luxury belief:

I asked a housemate who was working on a start-up how he’d gotten into Stanford and what steps he was taking to build his company.

He paused for a moment and then said, “Ultimately, it comes down to luck.”

As soon as he said that, it occurred to me that this mind-set is pervasive at Yale as well — far more common than among the people I grew up around or the women and men I served with in the military. Many of my peers at Yale and Stanford would work ceaselessly. But when I’d ask them about the plans they’d implemented to get into college, or start a company, or land their dream job, they’d often suggest they just got lucky rather than attribute their success to their efforts.


A 2019 study found that people with high income and social status are the most likely to attribute success to mere luck rather than hard work.

Both luck and hard work play a role in the direction of our lives, but stressing the former at the expense of the latter doesn’t help those at or near the bottom of society. If disadvantaged people come to believe that luck is the key factor that determines success, then they will be less likely to strive to improve their lives. One study tracked more than six thousand young adults in the US at the beginning of their careers over the course of two decades, and found that those who believed that life’s outcomes are due to their own efforts as opposed to external factors became more successful in their careers and went on to attain higher earnings.


“If your sister asked you how to get into Stanford or start a company, would you shrug and say ‘I just got lucky’ or would you explain whatever it was that you actually did — ‘You have to study, sacrifice, work on the weekends, or whatever’?”

He rolled his eyes before replying, “Yeah, I get it.”

Educate yourself

Friday, May 10th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonPrestigious universities encourage students to nurture their grievances, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), giving rise to a peculiar situation in which the most advantaged are the most well-equipped to tell other advantaged people how disadvantaged they are:

To become fully acculturated into the elite requires knowing the habits, customs, and manners of the upper class. To stay up to date, you need lots of leisure time or to have the kind of job that allows you to browse Twitter. A common rebuke to those who are not fully up to date on the latest intellectual fads is “educate yourself.” This is how the affluent block mobility for people who work multiple jobs, have children to care for, and don’t have the time or means to read the latest bestseller that outlines the proper way to think about social issues.


Thus, it seems the affluent secure their positions by ensuring that only those who attend the right colleges, listen to the right podcasts, and read the right books and articles can join their inner circle.

Occasionally, I raised these critiques to fellow students or graduates of elite colleges. Sometimes they would reply by asking, “Well, aren’t you part of this group now?” implying that my appraisals of the luxury belief class were hollow because I moved within the same institutions. But they wouldn’t have listened to me back when I was a lowly enlisted service member or back when I was washing dishes for minimum wage. If you ridicule the upper class as an outsider, they’ll either ignore you or tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you ridicule them as an insider, they call you a hypocrite. Plainly, the requirements for the upper class to take you seriously (e.g., credentials, wealth, power) are also the grounds to brand you a hypocrite for making any criticism of the upper class.

Once a piece of art becomes mainstream, elites must distance themselves from it

Friday, May 3rd, 2024

Troubled by Rob Henderson Before his first year of college, Rob Henderson had never even been to a musical, he explains (in Troubled):

No one I knew from Red Bluff had ever been to one. But it seemed like everyone on campus had seen Hamilton, the acclaimed musical about the American founding father Alexander Hamilton. I looked up tickets: $400.

This was way beyond my budget. So in 2020, I was pleased to see that five years after Hamilton’s debut, it was available to view on Disney+. But suddenly, the musical was being denigrated by many of the same people who formerly enjoyed it, because it didn’t reflect the failings of American society in the eighteenth century. The creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, even posted on Twitter that “All the criticisms are valid.” This reveals how social class works in America.


Once a piece of art becomes mainstream, elites must distance themselves from it and redirect their attention to something new, obscure, or difficult to obtain. The affluent relentlessly search for signals that distinguish them from the masses.

A former classmate recently told me that he didn’t enjoy Hamilton but never told anyone because everyone at Yale loved it. However, once the musical became unfashionable, he suddenly became open about his dislike of it.

Words like trauma meant something different for them.

Friday, April 19th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonRob Henderson arrived at Yale nervous about the possibility of being intellectually limited compared with his peers on campus, he explains (in Troubled), because of his impoverished background and poor grades in high school, but his concerns evaporated:

Words like trauma meant something different for them.

At a party, a young woman told me about her family and how they’d always expected her to get into a top college.

“My mom was super strict growing up,” she explained. “Classic Asian mom, I’m sure you know what I mean.”

“Well, my mom is Korean,” I said. “But my family life wasn’t really like that.”

“Ah!” she exclaimed. “So, you didn’t have a traumatic childhood.”


At Yale, more students come from families in the top 1 percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent, and here they were ensconced in one of the richest universities in the world, claiming that they were in danger. Broadcasting personal feelings of emotional precarity and supposed powerlessness was part of the campus culture. Conspicuously lamenting systemic disadvantage seemed to serve as both a signal and reinforcer of membership in this rarefied group of future elites.

Many students would routinely claim that systemic forces were working against them, yet they seemed pleased to demonstrate how special they were for rising above those impediments. This spawned a potent blend of victimhood and superiority.


I’d thought that by entering such a place, we were being given a privilege as well as a duty to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves. Instead, many students seemed to be exploiting whatever commonalities they had with historically mistreated groups in order to serve their own personal, social, and professional interests.


A twenty-year-old at an expensive college is viewed as not much more than a kid. A twenty-year-old in the military is trusted to carry a weapon, repair multimillion-dollar equipment, and make life-and-death decisions.


I remember speaking with a fellow first-gen student at Yale who told me he was against legacy admissions—the practice whereby elite universities give an advantage to applicants with parents or family members who are graduates.

Intrigued, I replied to this student, “You had a harder upbringing than most students here, but you just got into law school, and will probably be very successful in your career. If you have kids and they apply to Yale, should they be favored for admission?”

“Yes,” he replied. “But I worked really hard to give them that opportunity.”


I watched students claim that investment banks were emblematic of capitalist oppression, and then discovered that they’d attended recruitment sessions for Goldman Sachs. Gradually, I came to believe that many of these students were broadcasting the belief that such firms were evil in order to undercut their rivals.


But they didn’t see themselves this way. They viewed themselves as morally righteous and were surprisingly myopic about the virtuous image they held of themselves.


Another time, I was on a social media page where Ivy League students and graduates shared stories about their schools. Someone had posted a story about Yeonmi Park, a North Korean refugee who had graduated from Columbia University. Park described her alarm about how the monolithic culture at her Ivy League school reminded her of her home country. The top-rated comment, the one with the most “like” and “love” reactions: “She should have stayed in North Korea.” They couldn’t bear the criticism and posted endless mean-spirited comments mocking Park, with some saying she should “go back to Pyongyang.”

Ordinarily, the people who visited this webpage would have considered the statement that a refugee should have stayed where she came from to be reprehensible (and it is). But in this instance it was lauded because Park’s comments undermined these people’s view of themselves as morally righteous.


I was also mystified at how my peers kept up with the latest news headlines. More than once, someone would ask me what I thought about some trending event covered in the media. When I replied that I hadn’t heard of the event, people would look at me as if I were an alien. In the same way that you don’t notice how entrenched you are in your specific culture or nationality until you travel to another country, you also don’t notice your social class until you enter another one. I had never learned to keep up with the news.

Growing up, Mom and Shelly subscribed to our local paper, Red Bluff’s Daily News, but they never discussed political or social issues at the dinner table.


On campus, it wasn’t necessarily important to know about the concrete details of a newsworthy event. Rather, it was more critical to know what to think about the event by reading the opinions of others.


Interestingly, working-class Americans are more likely to read local news, while the wealthy and highly educated favor national and global news.

He read biographies of commanders who had fought there and had the courage to admit his ignorance when he didn’t know something

Sunday, April 14th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsThe Directory gave Napoleon the best wedding present he could ever have hoped for, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), command of the Army of Italy:

In the nine days between receiving the appointment and leaving for his headquarters in Nice on March 11, Napoleon asked for every book, map and atlas on Italy that the war ministry could provide. He read biographies of commanders who had fought there and had the courage to admit his ignorance when he didn’t know something. ‘I happened to be at the office of the General Staff in the rue Neuve des Capucines when General Bonaparte came in,’ recalled a fellow officer years later:

I can still see the little hat, surmounted by a pickup plume, his coat cut anyhow, and a sword which, in truth, did not seem the sort of weapon to make anyone’s fortune. Flinging his hat on a large table in the middle of the room, he went up to an old general named Krieg, a man with a wonderful knowledge of detail and the author of a very good soldiers’ manual. He made him take a seat beside him at the table, and began questioning him, pen in hand, about a host of facts connected with the service and discipline. Some of his questions showed such a complete ignorance of the most ordinary things that several of my comrades smiled. I was myself struck by the number of his questions, their order and their rapidity, no less than the way by which the answers were caught up, and often found to resolve into other questions which he deduced in consequence from them. But what struck me still more was the sight of a commander-in-chief perfectly indifferent about showing his subordinates how completely ignorant he was of various points of a business which the youngest of them was supposed to know perfectly, and this raised him a thousand cubits in my opinion.


When someone made the rather otiose point that he was very young, at twenty-six, to command an army, Napoleon replied: ‘I shall be old when I return.’

These places reject many smart (and rich) applicants every year

Friday, April 12th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonAt Yale, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he found that the vast majority of his peers were high performers:

One thing many people don’t understand is that it’s usually not enough to be smart (or rich) to get into a top college — these places reject many smart (and rich) applicants every year. You have to be diligent as well, and I respected their work ethic.

I came to understand that along with the fact that they were generally bright and hardworking, my peers on campus had experienced a totally different social reality than me and had grown up around people just like them.


On the midterm exam, my score placed me in the bottom quartile of the class.

I befriended some other students and picked up some tips. We held study sessions, and they showed me how to make flashcards, and how to review PowerPoint slides from the class. One simple approach I learned was to read a slide and then commit the information on it to memory and go through that exercise a few times with each slide. Spaced repetitions. Other students taught me that for the assigned readings, they read a page, and then wrote bullets at the bottom of the page summarizing the most important points. These strategies might sound simple, but for me they were a revelation.


My classmates taught me that I didn’t have to read every single item on course syllabi. At first, I thought if I wasn’t reading everything, then I was cheating myself out of my education. This, I discovered, is a common belief held by first-generation college students. I spoke with a variety of students about how they approached coursework and noticed a distinct difference. Students from well-to-do backgrounds, who had parents who were college graduates, seemed to have developed a good sense of how to manage their assignments and understood that reading everything wasn’t always necessary. Classmates showed me that we could split the heavy reading burdens by dividing it. We’d write up a summary of our share of the readings and notes.


The professor asked the class to anonymously respond to a question about family background. Out of twenty students, only one other student besides me was not raised by both birth parents. Put differently, 90 percent of my classmates were raised by an intact family. I felt a sense of vertigo upon learning this, because it was so at odds with how I’d grown up. Later, I read a study from another Ivy League school — Cornell — which reported that only 10 percent of their students were raised by divorced parents. This is a sharp juxtaposition with a national divorce rate of about 40 percent, which itself is quite low compared to the families I’d known in Red Bluff. When I explained to a classmate how disoriented I felt when I discovered these differences, she replied that this was how she felt when she learned that seven out of ten adults in the US don’t have a bachelor’s degree, because that was so out of line with her own experiences.

The medication rattled as she set it on her desk

Friday, April 5th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhen Rob Henderson got to Yale, he explains (in Troubled), he helped a female senior with some boxes:

We entered her room, and I set the boxes down. She opened the larger box and pulled out a large case of pills.

The medication rattled as she set it on her desk.

“Nice stash. Anything for sale?” I joked.

“Yeah, the Adderall is.” She didn’t appear to be joking.

I thought back to my first day in high school, and how my neighbor offered to sell me drugs. Now here I was at this fancy college, and this senior is offering to sell drugs, too. Later, I’d observe rampant drug and alcohol use on campus. This was at odds with the widespread belief, which I held at the time, that poverty was the primary reason for substance abuse.

It was a giant coercion machine

Friday, March 29th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhen Rob Henderson attended the two-week Warrior-Scholar program at Yale, he explains (in Troubled), he couldn’t help but apply some of the lessons he learned from eminent Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis’s seminar on Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative liberty to his own life:

For long stretches of my childhood, I had an abundance of negative liberty, and it simply allowed me to make a lot of bad decisions. The military stripped me of those freedoms; it was a giant coercion machine. It demanded I conform to certain beliefs and behaviors, which, at age seventeen, was beneficial.

Berlin believed people should not be tampered with or coerced. But he went on to say that giving children total freedom means they may “suffer the worst misfortunes from nature and from men.” Therefore, he believed, kids need a higher authority who knows better than they do in order to set boundaries. Restricting some freedom is essential for children to grow up, or, in the case of my enlistment, recover from the process of growing up.

It tested “extremely well” with certain audience segments

Friday, March 22nd, 2024

Troubled by Rob Henderson As he browsed various online forums trying to learn about college, Rob Henderson came across a book published in 1983 with an intriguing title: Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell:

The book claimed that the criteria we use to define the tiers of the social hierarchy are in fact indicative of our own social class. For people near the bottom, Fussell wrote, social class is defined by money — in this regard, I was right in line with my peers when I was growing up. We thought a lot about money. The middle class, though, believes class is not just about the size of one’s pocketbook; equally important is education. The upper class has some additional beliefs about class, which I would later come to learn.


Kyle arranged for me to stay with his law-school friend the night before the [two-week Warrior-Scholar] program [at Yale] began. When I arrived at Michael’s residence in New Haven, he introduced me to his cat.

“His name is Learned Claw,” Michael said. “We named him after the legal scholar and judge Learned Hand.”

I’d never heard of this judge before. My mind jumped to Paul Fussell’s book about social class. He wrote that upper-middle-class people often give their cats names like Clytemnestra or Spinoza to show off their classical education. I was glad I’d read that book. Even though I didn’t know who Learned Hand was, at least now I knew that he was someone a person with a classical education should know about. I kneeled down to pet the cat, making a mental note to look the judge up later.

Billings Learned Hand had, at least as of 2004, been quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge.

Henderson befriended one of the tutors, a recent Yale graduate:

One evening, I saw him watching something on his MacBook. He told me it was The West Wing and insisted that I watch it. I had never seen this show, nor did anyone I know watch it. But when another tutor overheard him recommend The West Wing to me, she nodded vigorously, saying I had to watch it. I made a mental note to check it out once I finished the program.


As I worked my way through the first season, I had an uncomfortable realization: The West Wing is not very good.


The show had the pacing of a ’90s TV drama, and the way the characters spoke seemed strange to me (I’ve since grown to enjoy “Sorkinese”; Molly’s Game was one of my favorite movies of 2017).


In fact, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin explained in an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks that the pilot episode generally wasn’t well received. But, according to Sorkin, it tested “extremely well” with certain audience segments: households that earned more than $75,000 a year, households where there was someone with a college degree, and households that subscribed to the New York Times.

It was an environment that would present maximal friction

Friday, March 15th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonThroughout his final year of high school, Rob Henderson thought a lot about his friends, he explains in Troubled, and where they were all going:

Cristian and John said they were going to turn it all around in community college — they both planned to get good grades and then transfer to a four-year college. When they told me this plan, I thought about how we were C-minus students at best, and now that we were nearly adults, we would soon have more freedom. The marginal adult oversight we currently had would soon be nonexistent. Which meant we would go from a little bit of friction to none at all when we felt the urge to ditch class and do something reckless. Gradually, I realized the path I was on had nothing but a tragic ending and came to believe that the military was my only lifeline. It was an environment that would present maximal friction if I felt the urge to do something stupid. And it didn’t hurt that enlisting would also provide a decent income. As I write this, I’m reminded of a quote from George Orwell: “The thought of not being poor made me very patriotic.”


As a kid, I was weighed down by instability and hopelessness. The military helped to unlock my potential, because it provided a structured environment, a sharp contrast to the drama and disorder of my youth. I was surrounded by supportive people who wanted me to succeed. In this new environment, I gradually came to realize that my childhood was anomalous, and I didn’t have to let it define the rest of my life. I’d been liberated from the mistakes of my past. I believed that the external comportment I had cultivated would allow me to control my internal demons and productively channel my restless energy.

I would probably have committed at least one felony had I not been locked in the military throughout these years. For behaviors and habits to be stable and predictable, one’s environment needs to be stable and predictable. I didn’t have discipline, mentorship, healthy camaraderie, and so on back home, but I had them now.


In a very real way, simply being confined to a schedule steered me away from misconduct. Military life consists of physical training (PT), room inspections, uniform inspections, and mandatory tasks outside of standard work hours. Every aspect of existence is tightly regulated, and this is especially true for new recruits. Your life isn’t really yours. No institution is more aware of the latent impulsivity and stupidity in young people, especially young men, than the military. It has evolved into an environment in which it is very hard to do something reckless, because the consequences of failing to meet standards are both clear and severe. Major infractions like not showing up for work or failing a random drug test result in literal jail time.

I learned that so much of success depends not on what people do, but what they don’t do. It’s about avoiding rash and reckless actions that will land us in trouble. The military presses the “fast forward” button on the worst, most aggressive, and impulsive years of a young man’s life—the time when a guy is most likely to do something catastrophically stupid. Studies have found that a man’s likelihood of committing a crime peaks at age nineteen, and then gradually declines throughout his twenties.2 This has led some psychologists to describe their larger appetite for violence, risk-taking, and competitiveness as “the young male syndrome.”


For many young people, the gap between impulsive and unwise decisions and the consequences of those decisions is large. In the military, there is almost no gap at all.

Even if a young man learns absolutely nothing during a military enlistment, that’s still four to six years he spent simply staying out of trouble and letting his brain develop; the same guy at twenty-four is rarely as reckless and impulsive as he was at eighteen. The reason my life didn’t go off the rails is because I was just self-aware enough to decide to have my choices stripped from me.


Before I joined, I’d heard that the military basically becomes your parent. I found this to be true. They teach you about finance and budgeting, and supervisors would lead new guys away from doing stupid things like blowing their savings on a brand-new sports car. Instead, they’d say to buy a sensible car. Some of the guys didn’t listen, though. New members made about thirteen hundred bucks a month. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I’d ever made before.


Many people say that to do something difficult and worthwhile, they need to be “motivated.” Or that the reason they are not sticking to their goals is because they “lack motivation.” But the military taught me that people don’t need motivation; they need self-discipline. Motivation is just a feeling. Self-discipline is: “I’m going to do this regardless of how I feel.” Seldom do people relish doing something hard. Often, what divides successful from unsuccessful people is doing what you don’t feel motivated to do. Back in basic training, our instructor announced that there are only two reasons new recruits don’t fulfill their duties: “Either you don’t know what’s expected of you, or you don’t care to do it. That’s it.”


The military asked that I put myself in the service of something higher than myself. I had a seriousness of purpose that I lacked before and experienced a new feeling about who I was and who I could be in life. But it didn’t fundamentally “transform” me. It just provided conditions that prevented me from acting out the way I had as a kid.

We give education more importance than we should

Friday, March 1st, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonRob Henderson opens Troubled with these words:

As someone who never really had one, maybe I am the least qualified person to defend the importance of family. But as someone with more education than I ever expected to receive, maybe I’m more qualified to say we give education more importance than we should.


I’ve come to understand that a warm and loving family is worth infinitely more than the money or accomplishments I hoped might compensate for them.


Unstable environments and unreliable caregivers aren’t bad for children because they reduce their future odds of getting into college or making a living; they are bad because the children enduring them experience pain — pain that etches itself into their brains and bodies and propels them to do things in the pursuit of relief that often inflict even more harm.


In one of my classes at Yale, I learned that eighteen out of the twenty students were raised by both of their birth parents. That stunned me, because none of the kids I knew growing up was raised by both of their parents.


Even though public assistance in Denmark is widely available and university education is free, disparities in test scores and educational mobility between children raised in wealthy versus low-income families are virtually identical to the US.


Even when you present opportunities to deprived kids, many of them will decline them on purpose because, after years of maltreatment, they often have little desire to improve their lives.


An important clue comes from a widely cited 2012 paper in the scientific journal Developmental Psychology. A team of psychologists found that compared to children raised in wealthier families, children raised in lower-income families are no more likely to engage in risky behaviors or commit crimes as adults. However, compared with children raised in stable environments, children raised in unstable environments are significantly more likely to engage in harmful or destructive behaviors later in life. Holding family income constant, the researchers found that the association between childhood instability and harmful behaviors in adulthood remained significant.


I scored well into the top 1 percent of the most unstable childhoods in the US.


Given the choice, I would swap my position in the top 1 percent of educational attainment to have never been in the top 1 percent of childhood instability.


I’ve come to believe that upward social mobility shouldn’t be our priority as a society. Rather, upward mobility should be the side effect of far more important things: family, stability, and emotional security for children. Even if upward mobility were the primary goal, a safe and secure family would help achieve it more than anything else.

AI is now remorselessly generating tragedy

Wednesday, February 28th, 2024

The amount of AI-generated content is beginning to overwhelm the internet, Erik Hoel argues:

Or maybe a better term is pollute. Pollute its searches, its pages, its feeds, everywhere you look. I’ve been predicting that generative AI would have pernicious effects on our culture since 2019, but now everyone can feel it. Back then I called it the coming “semantic apocalypse.”


Now that generative AI has dropped the cost of producing bullshit to near zero, we see clearly the future of the internet: a garbage dump. Google search? They often lead with fake AI-generated images amid the real things. Post on Twitter? Get replies from bots selling porn. But that’s just the obvious stuff. Look closely at the replies to any trending tweet and you’ll find dozens of AI-written summaries in response, cheery Wikipedia-style repeats of the original post, all just to farm engagement. AI models on Instagram accumulate hundreds of thousands of subscribers and people openly shill their services for creating them. AI musicians fill up YouTube and Spotify. Scientific papers are being AI-generated. AI images mix into historical research. This isn’t mentioning the personal impact too: from now on, every single woman who is a public figure will have to deal with the fact that deepfake porn of her is likely to be made. That’s insane.


YouTube for kids is quickly becoming a stream of synthetic content. Much of it now consists of wooden digital characters interacting in short nonsensical clips without continuity or purpose. Toddlers are forced to sit and watch this runoff because no one is paying attention. And the toddlers themselves can’t discern that characters come and go and that the plots don’t make sense and that it’s all just incoherent dream-slop. The titles don’t match the actual content, and titles that are all the parents likely check, because they grew up in a culture where if a YouTube video said BABY LEARNING VIDEOS and had a million views it was likely okay. Now, some of the nonsense AI-generated videos aimed at toddlers have tens of millions of views.


For the first time in history developing brains are being fed choppy low-grade and cheaply-produced synthetic data created en masse by generative AI, instead of being fed with real human culture. No one knows the effects, and no one appears to care.


That is, the OpenAI team didn’t stop to think that regular users just generating mounds of AI-generated content on the internet would have very similar negative effects to as if there were a lot of malicious use by intentional bad actors.


Since the internet economy runs on eyeballs and clicks the new ability of anyone, anywhere, to easily generate infinite low-quality content via AI is now remorselessly generating tragedy.

He had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism

Saturday, February 10th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsBy the time Napoleon had spent five years at Brienne and one at the École Militaire, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), he was thoroughly imbued with the military ethos:

His acceptance of the revolutionary principles of equality before the law, rational government, meritocracy, efficiency and aggressive nationalism fit in well with this ethos but he had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism, all of which, to his mind, did not. Napoleon’s upbringing imbued him with a reverence for social hierarchy, law and order, and a strong belief in reward for merit and courage, but also a dislike of politicians, lawyers, journalists and Britain.

As Claude-François de Méneval, the private secretary who succeeded Bourrienne in 1802, was later to write, Napoleon left school with ‘pride, and a sentiment of dignity, a warlike instinct, a genius for form, a love of order and of discipline’. These were all part of the officer’s code, and made him into a profound social conservative. As an army officer, Napoleon believed in centralized control within a recognized hierarchical chain of command and the importance of maintaining high morale. Order in matters of administration and education was vital. He had a deep, instinctive distaste for anything which looked like a mutinous canaille (mob). None of these feelings was to change much during the French Revolution, or, indeed, for the rest of his life.

The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows

Friday, February 9th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonKay S. Hymowitz reviews Rob Henderson’s Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class:

In Rob Henderson’s first recounted memory in his new memoir, Troubled, he is three years old, screaming in terror and clinging to his mother as two policemen wrestle handcuffs onto her wrists. He had no idea why this was happening, of course; the scuffle likely had something to do with his mother’s incorrigible drug addiction. A Korean-born college dropout, she relied on prostitution to support her habit. When she and Rob weren’t living in a car, she would tie him to a chair in the apartment to attend to her customers. Her other two boys, Rob’s brothers, had different fathers; Rob would never know them or learn what became of them.


His life took a turn for the better when, lacking alternatives, he enlisted in the Air Force. Conventional wisdom has it that boys like Rob learn self-discipline and responsibility from military life, but Henderson has a different take. The military didn’t “transform” him, he argued — it merely stopped him from becoming a self-destructive basket case. Most kids with his background are not so lucky.


Later, he was accepted at Yale University. For all elite universities’ problems — Henderson spotted them quickly — Yale was rocket fuel for his under-exercised brain. Henderson sounded like the kind of student that professors pray for but rarely see: mature, mindful, and hungry for knowledge. He didn’t just “do the reading;” he tested the ideas he encountered against own experiences and observations.

Class by Paul Fussell

Henderson’s restless mind had been particularly stimulated by a 1983 book called Class: A Guide Through America’s Status System by the iconoclastic historian-critic Paul Fussell. Class opens Henderson’s eyes to the distance between forlorn places like Red Bluff and the towns of his Yale classmates’ upper middle-class upbringings. He noticed more than the obvious markers of privilege, like the students in $900 Canadian Goose jackets who strode around campus; he discovered the more subtle ways people like him were kept from moving up. Voguish words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender,” for instance, signaled that the speaker was a member of the educated class. Fussell had remarked that upper-class people often name their pets after literary or historical figures to flaunt their education. Sure enough, one of the first Yalies Henderson met had a pet cat named “Learned Claw,” a play on the name of jurist Learned Hand.

Henderson became fascinated by “class divides and social hierarchies,” adding Pierre Bourdeau, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen to his reading list. His primary source, however, was Yale itself. In Red Bluff, hardly anyone went to college or even aspired to go; at Yale, he watched The Sopranos and was struck by Carmella’s dedication to getting daughter Meadow into Columbia. College, he realized, was the most powerful class signifier of all.

Troubled’s penultimate chapter, which might be subtitled “What I Learned at Yale,” is a tour de force that in a more rational world would be required reading for all incoming college students at elite schools. In it, Henderson developed his now widely cited concept of “luxury beliefs.” Yale students, appearing aware of their own advantages and compassionate to the downtrodden, would proudly repeat ideas that the boy from Red Bluff knew would harm the marginalized. Many of the parents of his childhood friends were drug addicts, yet his college peers cheered on drug liberalization, for example. And why not? It seemed enlightened and cost people like them nothing.

For Henderson, the most painful luxury beliefs were those that undermined families and the childhood stability he had so desperately craved. “Monogamy is kind of outdated,” a Yale graduate announced. She admitted that she had grown up with both parents and hoped someday to marry — monogamously, of course. In such people’s minds, to acknowledge the benefits of two-parent families and the stability that they are more likely to confer is to be insensitive to less fortunate families with different family structures. This attitude gets things backward, Henderson writes: “It’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision—like young children.” Luxury believers pay no price for ignoring the harms they endorse. In fact, it’s the opposite — they gain social currency at places like Yale. “The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows,” Henderson said.

Maybe fire forces growth, and stabbing them only stuns them

Monday, February 5th, 2024

Back in August, 1979, issue #29 of Dragon magazine included a game called The Awful Green Things From Outer Space. I never played it, so I didn’t realize it included this interesting game mechanic:

Scattered around the ship are various weapons. However, alien physiology is weird. Maybe fire forces growth, and stabbing them only stuns them.

At the start of each game, the Weapons Display is empty, but the first time a weapon is used, a token is drawn to determine its effect on the aliens for the remainder of the game.

This is a silly sci-fi game, but a similar concept was used by the Naval War College in the years before World War 2, so officers could learn how to learn to fight the expected war against the Japanese:

Naval War College students certainly wanted to win their big “capstone” wargame at the end of their school year. As students have always done, they asked those who graduated before them for advice, or in the vernacular of the US military, “gouge.” Graduates were happy to provide advice: “Try to engage the Japanese at night, they are blind; watch out for their torpedoes though, they are killers; fortunately, though, their ships sink like rocks after the lightest of battering.” However, when they talked to someone who graduated in a different year, they learned “Avoid night engagements, the Japs are incredible; and their ships are so rugged they can really close in and slug it out; at least you don’t have to worry about their tinker toy torpedoes.” Slowly it dawned on the students — the faculty was giving the Japanese different strengths and weaknesses in each wargame!