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Sunday, April 12, 2020


I took Soc Sci 2 with Sam Beer my freshman year, and he was dynamite, with his shock of red hair and dramatic red mustache.  In the succeeding ten years, I never actually met Beer, but I did wax his floors once.  I got the job through the Harvard Student Employment Office, and while I worked [wax on, wax off, as Mr. Miaga would say], Mrs. Beer told me a wonderful story that opened my young eyes to the behind the scenes life of the Harvard faculty.  It seems that shortly after Beer joined the faculty, she gave a tea for the wives of the senior members of the department.  She brought out the good china and silver, and thought all was well, although after a while she sensed some tension in the assembled ladies.  Afterwards, one of the older wives took her aside and explained that she had seated the wife of an Associate Professor nearer the head of the table than the wife of a Full Professor.

Soc Sci 2 met in New Lecture Hall, which was then, and perhaps still is, one of Harvard's largest venues.  It was packed, with scarcely an empty seat.


Al Bedo said...

What a fox paw! Who else enjoys a profound sense of entitlement commensurate with their importance? I achieved this with a mail order degree.

Jerry Fresia said...

That little tea story reveals, if not explains,
so much!

Anonymous said...

Sam Beer used to show up at the Club Casblanca once in a while.

Anonymous said...

Your story got me thinking...

This is precisely the reason why I stay anonymous.
In my ideal world (which sadly exists mainly between my own two ears), our world is a place where we are all treated fairly and given respect and don't play the social games of one-upmanship and certainly don't get all crazed over status & hierarchy.
My crazed idealism is also a reason why I take the legacy and teachings of anarchism seriously.
The idea of pecking order and dominance are a disease.
It is tragic that so many people play along with it.
Sadly, in the "real world", if you don't bow and scrape, then you are ignored, pushed aside, or bullied by those who "hold court" and centre stage and demand all the sunshine while pushing aside those less willing to fight the brutal tooth-and-nail social climbing game.
And what I find interesting is that even among the commenters of this blog, the game of "showmanship" and put downs and claims of "pre-eminence" are played and played and played...

The world is a strange place. People have it in their power to be accepting and generous and thoughtful, sharing ideas, being open to others. But in reality those show climb to the top are far too often sociopaths greedy for the limelight and brutal in their need for status and far too willing to humiliate others. How do I know this? Why I just look at who the American people have elected as their leader, the one they clearly admire, yes, that self-declared "stable genius" who does all of his "consulting" within his own head. Who needs advisers? Who needs to listen? When you claw your way to the top, the job of "listening" is over. Now it is time to get others to slither on their bellies seeking "favour".

I enjoyed your anecdotes. I find it interesting how lessons can be learned via story-telling. We are social creatures. An apt tale carries meaning on many levels. I delight in how it prods me into thinking many thoughts.

I very much enjoy your blog. I'm glad that you have the audience you need in your "retirement" (which you are so obviously struggling against by volunteering to teach here and there and everywhere... I especially enjoy the videos! Keep it up!)

s. wallerstein said...


The competitive games played by commenters in this blog seem of a different order than those of the wives at tea. At that instance there was an order set by the ranks of their husbands, a fixed status order that had nothing to do with the women having tea, while in this blog people compete intellectually to be sure, but there is no pre-established status hierarchy here, only an open competition of ideas, often with a political goal besides the personal goal of winning.

Jerry Brown said...

Wallerstein are you saying that all this time I should have been trying to compete intellectually? Damn- I'm at a serious disadvantage then. Well I will just have to double down as far as trying to say something intelligent. That might not work in any case.

Any chance I can be excused from the competition and just allowed to comment? I could be like one of the thousands of runners in the NY marathon that really have no official chance to win. Hopefully NY will be able to do it in November this year. Not that I could run a marathon. Or even 2 miles without something really big scary and hopefully very slow chasing me :)

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Brown,

I'm not sure to what extent you're being ironic, but I recognize that I tend to be intellectually competitive and maybe you're not. And in others areas I'm not competitive at all. I used to run with a friend and he insisted on making our morning runs into a competition, while I just wanted to exercise and to feel good. He saw running as a competitive sport, while I didn't at all. Now if a third party had observed our runs without being able to listen to our conversations, he or she might have seen us both as very competitive or on the other hand, he or she might have seen us both as two guys just trying to keep fit.

Jerry Brown said...

I was just trying to be humorous and failing in that apparently. That was the extent of it. Sorry.

Jerry Brown said...

I was just making fun of my own limitations not anyone else's. So maybe you could keep that in mind.

s. wallerstein said...

No need for an apology and in any case, answering you allowed me to see how I had projected my own need to compete intellectually onto other commenters.

L. Morgan Stanislaw, III said...

The comments section of a blog is the optimal venue in which to establish intellectal dominance. This goes without saying. For example, the comments on Yahoo News articles have outstripped publication in prestigious journals and have become the coin of academic merit and advancement.

L. Morgan Stanislaw III said...

"Intellectual" too--not only "intellectal."

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure, S. Wallerstein, about your characterisation of "open competition of ideas", although I think you were right about the "political goals".

It's not entirely clear to me what the other anonymous had in mind, but as a casual reader of this blog, I have noticed that commentators often exhibit their credentials, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so-subtly.

Let me put an example. During a discussion, people may go like "Ah, you believe that, but I teach or taught this", the implication being that they do have deeper, expert knowledge about a subject and that should settle the argument. Usually such claims are not backed by any evidence.

Or, someone may refer to some book, whose thesis purportedly contradicts something someone else believes. "This great work, which I've read but you haven't, explains why you are wrong". Which may well be true but, given that usually no summary of the book's content is advanced, is not satisfactory.

That second example in particular reminds me of one of my late Dad's attempts at humour.

Germans are so by-the-book people, he once told me, that stand up comedians in Germany don't need to tell the joke, only its number and the page where it is written in the Jokes Manual.

And the thing is, the public laugh without the need to even open the Manual...

From that you can see that dad's jokes aren't a new thing.

- The AnonyMouse

s. wallerstein said...

An open competition of ideas is an ideal, almost never a reality, since in any really-existing debate there are other factors involved including people exhibiting their academic credentials, as you mention, body language and tone of voice (not involved in internet, but in real life settings they play a role, for example, scaring a timid debater into submission), animal dominance (the so-called alpha males imposing their will), etc.

However, I was contrasting what happens in this blog with the situation which Professor Wolff describes above of a tea party where there is a pre-established order of status based on the academic rank of the women's husbands (not even on their own achievements or attributes): compared to that, what occurs in this blog is fairly close to an open debate of ideas.

Jerry Brown said...

I think it is tough to make jokes in a stressful time like now. And I was never particularly good in the best of times. But humor is important in difficult times. Or maybe not to dedicated intellectuals? Either way, keep in mind I'm not trying to prove I'm the smartest kid on the block- I already know I am :)

Well not really. Anyways, I really love reading P Wolff's blog and trying to interact with the rest of you here. It isn't an easy time for any of us I imagine.

Staniscoleslaw said...

The sneering Anonymous has commandeered the comments section of the previous post. If we can stay one post ahead of him our place in the history of ideas is solidified.