01 August 2010

It's that late summer smell of an impending fall semester.

I'm moving back to American literature. The jaunt into French and Australian work was fun, but it's August, and it's time to get serious.

First thing I'm reading, or actually first two things I'm reading, are Dolen Perkins-Valdez's Wench and William Kennedy's Ironweed. The first one I'm already reading, but since it's a nice first edition hardcover and I want it to stay nice, I don't feel like soiling it with sunscreen and dragging it around to the beach. It's strictly for apartment reading. The Kennedy book is a used copy that I picked up a few weeks ago because I expect to teach it either this fall or this spring. I've read Legs, but other than that, I haven't read any William Kennedy, which is a travesty.

I'd pack more, but I always buy a book or two at the beach, so there's no sense in weighing down my luggage any more.

30 July 2010

Friday thought.

Just a quick one for a Friday before I head to the beautiful Maryland shore for vacation:

Is there a dumber pundit that smart people take seriously than David Brooks?


29 July 2010

Thanks for the hindsight, Prez.

So on that most hardhitting of "news shows," "The View," President Obama has declared that the Sherrod Snafu was nothing more than a "bogus controversy." He's right to an extent, but it was his administration's blind kowtowing to right wing race-baiting media, of which Fox News is the most prominent example, that raised its level from a minor incident to a monstrous ethical and PR blunder.

By this time the Obama Administration, and in fact any Democratic administration, should recognize Fox News as the public relations branch of the most reactionary elements of the Republican Party and the further right.

The Obama Administration appears to forget that it received the most votes in the last election and has substantial support, even if that support doesn't have a massive media organization that panders to it (the few talking heads on MSNBC don't make up in either their own numbers or in national ratings any sort of credible resistance to the Fox machine, which is running constantly during both news and "talk" programs). However, since taking office, Obama has backpedaled on or simply shelved his more daring initiatives, a strategy that Democrats seem to think leads to success.

Democrats would be wise to remember that they were elected not on the basis of their similarities to what used to be the now non-existent moderate wing of the Republican Party, but on a promise that they were returning to the bold initiatives that saw them offer true alternatives to the bankrupt laissez-faire, "winner take all," "kick 'em to the curb" mentality of the Republicans.

Unfortunately, the Sherrod scandal indicates that Democrats have learned little to nothing about the current state of politics and the media. Instead of sniffing out a brilliant opportunity to demonstrate Fox News' shoddy fact-checking and ideologically driven huff-n-puff, they scrambled as fast as they could to accede to the hate-mongers' demands.

It shouldn't be this way.

26 July 2010

No stone unturned.

During the Vietnam War, it became increasingly evident that television had changed the war. Not only did television speed up the home front's access to information about the war, but it also brought it vividly into everyone's evening news. Unlike the newsreels of World War II that were highlight clips available in movie theaters, the news reports from Vietnam showed reporters in the midst of firefights; the chaos of the war entered the living room.

Compared to nightly news reports, newsreel footage is quaint, sterile, distant, and downright naive:

In the decade and a half between the fall of Saigon and the opening of Gulf War I, the government and the televised news media learned some important lessons. For the government's part, they learned they had to control the message, so they released footage of "smart bombs" and held press conferences explaining exactly what was happening (or at least what they said was happening), and that information was dutifully lapped up and disseminated by the various news organizations.

News organizations, in particular CNN, had learned that war was not an event to be reported but a bankable commodity to be exploited. War coverage could be branded and developed: panels of experts could convene, pre-packaged pros and cons could be aired as if they were open debate, and occasionally an overview of the war, complete with military supplied footage and analysis, could occur. CNN saw the war as an incredible visibility boost, and of course marketed their coverage and references to their coverage to convince viewers that they were a reliable source for information:

More importantly, though, they branded the war. It became a show, complete with recognizable graphics and theme music:

But you don't have to take my word for it; you can read Baudrillard's excellent The Gulf War Did Not Take Place for a more lucid analysis of the media victory in the Gulf War I. While some illiterate morons believed Baudrillard was arguing that the Gulf War was a hoax (much like conspiracy theorists argue about the moon landing), Baudrillard's points consisted of a critique of the mediated nature of the event and whether the action actually satisfied the definition of war as opposed to massacre.

The advance of the First Gulf War was live 24 hour coverage and the development of stations devoted to nothing but news (which of course meant nothing but infotainment, since hard analysis doesn't sell and there's not enough news to fill 24 hours unless you repeat it, extend it, manipulate it, and turn it into an event). The advance of the Second Gulf War and the Afghanistan War (perhaps we could label both neatly as "Bush's Boondoggle" or "Middle East Adventurism") is the advent of the internet.

Digital recording has made (to use CNN's term) "iReporters" out of nearly everyone. Cheap cell phone images have fueled the cable channels' speculation shows, while higher quality hand held recording devices and widespread internet connectivity have allowed nearly anyone to produce and disseminate footage (and the accompanying phenomenon of "viral video" simply drives home the point that the production, dissemination, and consumption of images cannot be contained or controlled by the traditional media infrastructure).

Digitized material spreads beyond the control of its producer or its original broadcaster. Derrida argued that all text is "always already" beyond the control of its creator and especially so if it becomes public discourse (and you have to have a sense that Emily Dickinson understood that as well when she wrote that "publication is the auction of the mind"), and in the internet age the avenues of dissemination are simply multiplied and accelerated. They approach "real time," the "real" being more of a tease, a promise of revelation that often doesn't materialize or disappoints. Much like the CNN reporters of the 1990's (and present) who often stand around desperately trying to fill time in order to fulfill the promise of presence, the internet as entity promises everything -- unmediated access to information without respect to broadcast schedules, as well as an unfillable archive of everything that has ever happened.

Into this medium springs wikileaks, a site whose visibility depends upon its access to formerly secretive information; like most news sites, it's raw material is information, but unlike other news sites, it doesn't do anything with the raw material: it simply dumps it on the internet, making it freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Wikileaks represents the next watershed in the public relations of warfare, which is to say in warfare. Prior to the Vietnam War, the military and government could rely on a distance between the war zone and the home front; prior to the First Gulf War, the military and government could rely upon the dominant model of infotainment to spin their messages (and the embedded reporters of Gulf War II simply represented a tremendous advance, both in terms of control and in terms of PR victory, in the military's response to that model); however, the internet age represents a challenge that Lyotard first identified back in 1979 in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge: control of information will be the dominant field of warfare or interstate rivalry:
Knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major --perhaps the major --stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control over access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor.
In other words, knowledge as commodity has always served traditional interests. Wikileaks represents a denial of knowledge as commodity, or at least in the traditional sense. However, the news outlets who have always made information their stock in trade will find no real challenge from wikileaks -- they have simply been given immense raw material with which to work; the real challenge is to the government and the military, who are now finding that just as battlefield television cameras brought their combat actions under intense scrutiny, wikileaks (and the internet in general) will now bring their internal discourse on war into the light and under the same intense scrutiny.


17 July 2010

I didn't think this guy was even alive, politically speaking.

Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, apparently has Presidential aspirations.

Who knew?

Since they guy couldn't get elected in his own state, I'm guessing he's not really looking to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania, but would like to toss his shoe close enough to the stake to come up on cabinet shortlists, which is a scary enough thought.

For those who don't remember him from his first turn in the spotlight, Santorum was a mean-spirited, pretentious, hate-filled prig, whose foolishness got Pennsylvania voters to toss him out of office after two terms by a 59% to 41% margin. And Pennsylvania, whose most famous senator right now is Arlen Spector, doesn't have a reputation for tossing senators out -- Santorum narrowly defeated Harris Wofford, who was only in office because he won a special election in 1991 to replace John Heinz, a man who'd probably still be a senator if he weren't dead.

I'm all for Santorum getting a little closer to the spotlight, because it can't help but scare the living daylights out of rational people, and I still maintain the belief that the majority of Americans are, in the main, rational people.

It should be interesting to watch the primary season unfold, because I'm not sure how the Republicans are going to finesse the inevitable schism between the anti-government, pro-business rationalists and the anti-government, pro-business fantasists like Palin, Huckabee, and Santorum, who not only think the last word on science, morality, and the law comes from the Bible, but also think everyone else should have to accept that, too.

15 July 2010

Obvious Department: Tea Party is racist.

Why does it take the NAACP to tell everyone that the Tea Party is a bastion of racists?

Well, actually it doesn't, but I applaud the NAACP for taking off the kid gloves and calling out the baggers for what, as a movement, they are. Sure there are probably a few teabaggers who actually aren't racists, but as they say, even a clock that doesn't run is right twice a day.

Predictably, politicians whose national ambitions rely on racism, have cried foul. Showing her astute grasp of history, Sarah Palin argues on facebook (and no I'm not supplying a link to her idiotic meanderings) that racism is "in the past" and that anyone who doesn't believe so is actually part of the problem. It's perfectly logical, in the same way that arguing that someone noticing that it's raining outside is actually conjuring up the rain themselves.

However, middle of the road columnists like the Post's E.J. Dionne are trying to ameliorate the hard truth that the Tea Partiers are racists in really thin disguises. Here's Dionne explaining his position:
So let's dispense with the obvious: Most of the opposition to President Obama comes from people who are against his policies, not his race. The Tea Party is motivated primarily by right-wing ideology, not by racism.
I think Dionne meant "most of the opposition to Pres. Obama within the Tea Party..." and if he didn't, then he's putting two sentences together that shouldn't be together. Taking a look only at his second sentence, Dionne has done semantically in one sentence what the right-wing hasn't been able to do practically since...um, forever. He's separated "right-wing ideology" from "racism."

The Tea Party Movement is a great reminder that those two items are so closely linked that they are, to borrow an analogy from chemistry, like reactants and catalysts. Racism has been used to bolster all sorts of reactionary movements, from union-busting to the Republican's "Southern Strategy."

Like a box of cracker jacks, not everything inside is a nut, but it's the nuts that give it the distinctive flavor...

10 July 2010


Why would the Post give this proto-fascist column space?

I blame the publication of the Unabomber's manifesto for such lapses in journalistic integrity as to print the rantings of unhinged antisocial assholes.

Yet, at least the Unabomber had claim to intelligence, even if put to evil use, sort of like a Lex Luthor but without the minions, money, and working plumbing.

However, Rick Barber doesn't have that claim, and his ignorant, insensitive, and downright insulting "slavery" ad should be proof enough of that. Agreeing to release such a tawdry and misguided ad demonstrates both a lack of judgment and a proud disdain for facts, neither of which qualities should be terribly attractive in a candidate, but we are talking about Alabama.

If I'm exceedingly kind to the Post, I can believe that they printed Barber's response to the criticism he's taking over his stupid ad as a way of handing him a shovel the better to dig a deeper hole, and he's certainly risen to that task, proclaiming:
Over the past 18 months, the federal government has sought to seize or has seized control of the health-care industry, the financial industry, the mortgage industry, the automobile industry, student loans, broadband Internet and the energy sector through cap-and-trade legislation. With never a crisis going to waste, each new seizure is rationalized by some new emergency.
Sure, the federal government has done all of those things...if you're either too damn stupid to understand what any of that legislation actually did or your definition of "sought to seize or has seized" is so uselessly broad as to include nearly any government regulation or oversight.

Of course, that's where Barber is coming from: the realm of cloud-cuckoo land, where things work magically by themselves and humans involved in business are naturally honest and honorable, seeking nothing but the best for their customers, yet this innate goodness in human nature doesn't extend too far beyond the world of the beleaguered businessman, given that Barber and his ilk seem to fear and distrust nearly all humanity.

Barber, for his part, embraces this fear, arguing that
Those on my side of the aisle seek to move the argument through fear of deficits, inflation, terrorism, socialism and the loss of individual liberty; those on the left through fears of global warming, poverty, racism, depression.
Whose side of the aisle? He's running as a Republican, yet he claims to be afraid of deficits. I suppose he missed the years 2000-2008, where the Bush regime not only dismantled the Clinton era surpluses, but also ballooned the deficit through its illegal war in Iraq and its nebulous and Orwellian call to an undefined and never ending "war on terror." Inflation hasn't been an issue since, well, since the 1980's, so I'm starting to guess that Barber's side of the aisle is the outside, as in outside of reality.

We could get deeper into Barber's rhetoric, but really, what's the point? Barber's arguments, if you can call them such, wouldn't rate a passing grade on a freshman essay in American government, economics, or comparative political systems. In fact, if a student of mine turned in this claptrap, I'd ask for a rewrite, noting that assertions are nothing without support.

Barber fears we're "well on our way" down a "road to serfdom," but he can't actually explain why. Apparently it has something to do with government preventing the good-hearted insurance companies from dropping sick clients for "pre-existing conditions" or minor and irrelevant paperwork errors.

Rather stereotypically, he repeats the time-worn canard that "liberals ... despise freedom of speech when the speech is conservative." I suppose he means liberals like the ACLU, who has consistently fought for the Constitutional rights of obnoxious groups like the KKK. Like most conservatives, Barber confuses two things about free speech: the right to free speech does not mean you can demand to be published in respected circles, and free speech does not mean you don't have to face criticism for your idiocy.

In other words, free speech means a newspaper can print what it wants (although libel law does put some reins on that horse), but it has never meant that a paper has to print the rantings of a lunatic like Barber -- yet they do. By the same token, criticizing your position, pointing out the fundamental inaccuracy of your arguments, and arguing that your speech reveals you to be a complete moron is not the same thing as "despising" freedom of speech.

It's the height of arrogance and blindness for Barber to be complaining about a violation of his freedom of speech rights in a column published not only in a national newspaper, but also in one of conservatism's favorite examples of the "liberal media."

08 July 2010


I'm changing my mind about A Fraction of the Whole. It's starting to become, as the Wall Street Journal review on the front cover would have it, "riotously funny." One of two things is happening. Either the book is actually getting much better or I'm paying better mind to it and being a more consistent attentive reader. Either way, it's been very enjoyable lately. Here's an excerpt:
Let's not mince words: the interior of the Sydney casino looks as if Vegas had an illegitimate child with Liberace's underpants, and that child fell down a staircase and hit its head on the edge of a spade. At blackjack tables and sitting in front of poker machines were tense and desperate men and women looking like droids, who didn't seem to be gambling for pleasure. As I watched them, I remembered the casino was famous for having its patrons lock their children in their cars while they gambled. I had read a news story about it, and I hoped all those sad, desperate people rolled the windows down a little while they put their rent money in the pockets of the state government, which rakes in huge profits and then puts half a percent of it back into the community for counseling services for gamblers.
There are numerous gems like the first sentence of this excerpt, one liners that are truly hilarious and odd juxtapositions of images.

Let's see how it goes.

07 July 2010

Dragging one out of the waiting room.

I was wondering where to go with my summer reading, and out of sheer laziness and a lack of decent book stores in my undisclosed current location, I decided to take up a book I'd abandoned last year (which I'd abandoned once before as well). The book is called A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, and it was shortlisted for the Booker way back in 2008 I believe. That's when I bought it and originally started it.

I abandoned it the first time because the semester got in the way.

I abandoned it the second time because another semester got in the way.

On both occasions, I wasn't exactly displeased that I had to abandon the book. It's not that it's bad (otherwise I would have abandoned it completely); it's just that the story doesn't grip me. It is funny, I'll give it that. I don't know if it's "riotously funny," the way the front cover blurb, purportedly from the Wall Street Journal, claims it is, but it is funny. I also think that on page 329, I'm finally into the thick of things and the rewards are starting to fall my way. The novel itself is 561 pages, so I'm over halfway through, and I damn well better finish it this time.

However, the story doesn't hang on me the way that other books do, where you find yourself thinking about the characters or the plot in the middle of doing something else. These characters and the plot, such as it is, remain between the covers of the book. Jasper Dean is humorous enough, but not very lively at this point, and his father, Martin...well, for all his wackiness he really comes across as dull.

Well, here goes nothing...

06 July 2010

Coming in from the cold.

Everyone's acting like this Russian spy story is outdated, so 1970's. Like spying began and ended with the Cold War.

Of course, in today's news cycle, everyone's already forgotten about the Russian spy story. In fact, the news has so skewed towards entertainment, that the predominant reactions to the story has been to focus on the "beauty queen" spy, Anna Chapman, as if it's the first time an attractive individual has been a spy.

Great concern has been voiced over the possible boost this story will give to Angelina Jolie's latest vehicle, Salt.

Other than that, no one seems to care.

Now, it's true that these spies were pretty poor. I'm not even sure you can call them spies, really, at least in the classical sense. This point is being made by the Guardian's Alexander Chancellor:
One reason for this must be the complete futility of the alleged Russian operation. The FBI had not only been watching the suspects closely for up to a decade, but it had found no evidence that any of them had furnished Moscow with even a scrap of useful information during that time.
Perhaps, though, the mission was to discover the allure of suburbia, with its backyard barbecues, its well-manicured lawns, and its quiet desperation behind a privacy fence in a subdivision cul-de-sac.

But the time for the story has come and gone. Sure, it will crop up later, probably in two weeks when Angelina Jolie's movie opens, but it will sink below the surface rather quickly. Anna Chapman may find herself in a few years -- or as soon as her anticipated sentence will allow -- hitting the talk show couch circuit, flogging her story for a book or a movie, because one of the great secrets of American life is that we don't know how to handle anything as a culture anymore except through the tropes provided by the media.

Andy Warhol's laconic statement has proven not only to be true, but also to be descriptive of our attention spans and indicative of the triumph of the culture industry.

02 July 2010

Didn't feel like putting much effort into it today, so I go for low hanging fruit: Charles Krauthammer

You have to love Charles Krauthammer for writing bitter diatribes that are great for rousing the rabble, but particularly useless for understanding issues. Krauthammer's latest sally from moronville takes issue with the Obama Administration's reticence to use the term "Islamic fundamentalist" in describing the terrorists involved in recent actions here and abroad. The bitter windbag writes:
Indeed, Islamist fundamentalism is not only a risk factor. It is the risk factor, the common denominator linking all the great terror attacks of this century -- from 9/11 to Mumbai, from Fort Hood to Times Square, from London to Madrid to Bali.

Of course, on a literal level, he's right. These attackers did share a belief that they were waging a holy war, a crusade even, against the infidels, the Great Satan, what have you. Western civilization.

And, as usual, here's where Krauthammer's hard rhetoric reveals the simplistic, hateful mind that crafts the words. In Krauthammer's world, it's always going to be us v. them, an unending conflict of cultures between the civilized West and the barbaric Orient; the only thing different between now and the late 19th century is that it's no longer the "yellow peril" we need worry about (although without Islam, Krauthammer would most likely be focused on the "rising tide of color" led by China), but rather this amorphous blob called the Islamic World. But don't take my word for it. Krauthammer actually deploys these terms in his column:
It trivializes the war between jihadi barbarism and Western decency, and diminishes the memory of those (including thousands of brave Muslims -- Iraqi, Pakistani, Afghan and Western) who have died fighting it.
Ah, note how clever the great deceiver is...he includes the "brave Muslims" fighting the "jihadi barbarism" that elsewhere he simply wants to call "Islamic fundamentalism." And that's where he fails and is perhaps too blind to see his own argument unraveling in front of him.

Let's play a little language game. Let's switch "Islamic" for "Christian." Forget about linking any Christian fundamentalists to terrorist acts like assassinating doctors or planning to take out police officers, but just consider the amount of people covered by the term "Christian fundamentalist." Now, let's imagine further that certain sects that identified themselves as Christian armed themselves, preached death to the government, carried out assassinations and other crimes, and the government started to talk about the scourge of "Christian fundamentalism."

How would that fly?

Now imagine you had to deal with countries, and in fact included some among your allies, that called or considered themselves Islamic. It might put you in a bit of a delicate situation to explain to them why you were impugning a rather broad segment of their population with such sloppy rhetoric.

I really can't overemphasize that enough. Krauthammer suggests sloppy rhetoric as a positive. It's not a positive and would only serve to impede cooperation between governments in Muslim dominated nations. And it's not as if there isn't precedent for this sort of linguistic sensitivity. It may seem decades ago (because it largely is), but the U.S. never referred to the Irish Republican Army as "Catholic terrorists" or consider it motivated by "Catholic fundamentalism." Oh, certainly some more radical members of the Unionist movement made that connection and used that language, but those are the same groups, along with the Republican splinter groups, who assuage their being shut out in the cold with occasional outbreaks of violence (thankfully usually only rhetorical).

Now with this analogy, I accept that there's no perfect correspondence, but as they say, all analogies limp. However, the point is that language is much more complex than Krauthammer gives it credit for. Even his closing argument is a pathetic bait and switch, infinitely worse than my analogy, because he manages to bring the Nazis into the equation:
Churchill famously mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. But his greatness lay not in mere eloquence. It was his appeal to the moral core of a decent people to rise against an ideology the nature of which Churchill never hesitated to define and describe -- and to pronounce ("Nahhhhzzzzi") in an accent dripping with loathing and contempt.
Yes, the Nazis. An actual defined organized group in charge of a country. What Krauthammer forgets is that we do have an equivalent today, and it's called "Al Qaeda." Sure, they don't have their own country that we can invade and occupy, but they are a real group with a fairly clear mission statement. Krauthammer's example should also give us another reason to understand the counterproductive nature of his demands: especially in the post-war years, it was crucial to de-link the larger signifier of "Germans" from specific crimes of the Nazi regime. Therefore, one doesn't really talk of "German fascism" or "German war crimes": one talks of "Nazi war crimes."

01 July 2010

Out of the ordinary.

Today I did something that's unfortunately becoming rarer and rarer: I spent an hour lying on my back next to a pool feeling the sun go in and out through the clouds that were so big and fluffy my daughter was sure they'd burst.

She's in camp and my wife's a counselor there, but this afternoon she had to be elsewhere. Schedules being what they were and with the camp making a field trip to the nearby state park, I decided I'd go early, hang out a bit, and take her home from the park.

She swam for about twenty minutes, but it was a little cold and she's only five years old and she decided it was time to get out and wrap a towel around herself. In order to accomplish that last task, she lay the towel carefully out on the ground, making sure to get each corner stretched straight. then she lay down in the middle of the towel and pulled the sides around her.

And I put my hat down over my face, lay my head on my backpack, and just let the clouds drift.

30 June 2010

The rare pursuit of something called leisure reading.

Among the things I try to accomplish over the summer is to read some books that aren't in my area, as in books that I can't directly connect to any sort of "work reading." Since my area is American literature, I see anything written by an American as potential "work reading" -- and of course sometimes pleasure reading does double duty, such as the time I decided I wanted to read some Russell Banks.

However, more often than not, I try to go outside the United States. I'm currently reading Balzac's The Chouans. For me, at least, reading Balzac raises so many questions: I find myself taking breaks to look up information on the time (in this case, 1799) and place (Brittany), which of course leads on to biography of other figures and the French Revolution in general.

I've got several other books waiting for me, which is good, because I'm nearly done with this one. I haven't read any Jeanette Winterson in a long time (since The Powerbook, but I've read absolutely everything up to that point), so I might pick up her latest (not latest children's book -- and she's a very good children's novelist: I've read Tanglewreck), The Stone Gods, although the prospect of it possibly being science fiction doesn't excite me.

Making lists.

One of the things I do in my spare time (read: instead of doing what I should be doing) is compile book lists for American literature courses.

It's not an idle process. I sometimes use them in actual American literature courses. For instance, I recently taught a course that included Walt Whitman, Henry James, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Saul Bellow, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Frank Chin. The theme was American identity, or what makes one an American.

Here's another one, themed around the road, or travel:
Kerouac, On the Road
Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Silko, Ceremony
McCarthy, The Road
I could probably throw Claude McKay's Home to Harlem in there as well. Actually, there are tons of novels that would fit the bill for a theme like the road. I'm thinking very much for this fall of putting together a course based upon the city. The list would look a bit like this:
Petry, The Street
Jones, Lost in the City
Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
Hammett, The Glass Key

I may go, however, with a course on immigration/migrant workers/borders:
Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain
Banks, Continental Drift
Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus
Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle
Cather, My Antonia
Kingston, China Men
I could use a good book about Italian, Irish, or Polish immigration as well, preferably from the early 20th century. Any suggestions?

29 June 2010

This Byrd has flown.

I imagine several people have devoted space in their blogs to the passing of an icon in the Senate, Robert Byrd. The main highlights of Byrd's career, and of most obituaries (although not all...), include Byrd's early membership in (and longer sympathy with) the Ku Klux Klan, his opposition to Civil Rights legislation in the 1960's, his conversion to less racist ways in the 1980's, his support for higher education, his earmarks for West Virginia, and finally his status as Constitutional expert and longest serving member of the U.S. Senate.

It's quite a career, and Eugene Robinson's piece in the Washington Post argues that it's a story of redemption. As far as race goes, it is.

Byrd's early career is covered in the slime of racism, as he joined with fellow racist Strom Thurmond and other "Dixiecrats" in an effort to deny human rights and legal protection to African Americans. Thurmond, who died in 2003, switched parties in 1964 in recognition that the opposition to human rights would be based in the Republican Party, but Byrd for some reason remained a Democrat. It could be that West Virginia's Democratic vote was more influenced by union solidarity than by racist solidarity (not that the two didn't and don't overlap), whereas the deep South had more or less kept the working class in their place by enforcing statutes cynically called "right to work."

Byrd remained sympathetic to racist scum and aligned himself with them throughout the 1960's (although he did vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1968). The parallels with Strom Thurmond go beyond their early camaraderie in opposition to federal Civil Rights legislation, and I'm certain that comparing and contrasting the two will be an exercise for columnists and school kids alike (if they even teach civics or government in schools anymore...we are really a nation that doesn't like to understand our government). Both Thurmond and Byrd voted for the federal holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., but only Byrd renounced his earlier racist views (a renunciation that seemed heartfelt and at the same time a struggle, much like a recovering alcoholic struggles daily with the disease), while Thurmond hid behind the smoke screen of "states rights," a bullshit argument in the arena of equal protection under the law if ever there was one.

Byrd memorably opposed the abdication of Congressional power in the buildup to the Iraq War, when the rest of Congress (with few exceptions) voted to hand over a blank check to then-President Bush in prosecution of his pet war. Byrd correctly labeled it a "war of choice," but that didn't keep the majority of scared-shitless Senate Democrats and all but one Republican from eschewing their obligations to the nation to rein in an overzealous executive branch.

However, Byrd should also be remembered for his social conservatism; yes, he changed his mind on race relations and repeatedly apologized in public for his earlier racist actions. However, he continued to oppose civil rights for other groups, including his backing of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (which would be more properly called the Limitation of Marriage Act):

''The drive for same-sex marriage,'' said Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, ''is, in effect, an effort to make a sneak attack on society by encoding this aberrant behavior in legal form before society itself has decided it should be legal.

''Let us defend the oldest institution, the institution of marriage between male and female as set forth in the Holy Bible.''

So much for the separation of church and state, when the acknowledged Constitutional expert relies on a religious text and not the U.S. Constitution for legislative advice.

So let's applaud Byrd for his willingness to abandon one arena of ignorance, but let's not lionize him as a friend of equal rights for all.

28 June 2010

Empty Terms Department: "Activist Judges"

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is undergoing grilling on Capitol Hill today. As always, the nomination is contentious and sure to provide lots of thunder with no real enlightenment, the overuse of craptacularly meaningless words and phrases, and in the end, an approval of the nomination. To get us started with some meaningless rhetoric, we have Senator Jeff Sessions, a very experienced bullshitter:
But in an opening statement, the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) sought to portray Kagan as a liberal with little judicial experience who has "associated herself with well-known activist judges." Sessions said Kagan has "many good qualities" but cautioned that "there are serious concerns about this nomination" among Senate Republicans.
Generalities, platitudes, keywords...in a word: "yawn."

What exactly is an "Activist Judge" anyway? It's a term conservatives are fond of throwing around, and as close as I can tell it means anyone who believes that the U.S. Constitution covers, well, everyone in the U.S. and not just a few subsets.

Even Wikipedia contains information on the problems associated with using this descriptor:
From the very beginning, the phrase was controversial. An article by Craig Green, An Intellectual History of Judicial Activism, is highly critical of Schlesinger's use of the term. "Schlesinger’s original introduction of judicial activism was doubly blurred: not only did he fail to explain what counts as activism, he also declined to say whether activism is good or bad."
So the term dates from 1947 and was proposed by the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a historian that the Right Wing has little time for.

However useless it may be as an actual descriptor for a judge, it is an effective cudgel with which to bludgeon nominees and send shivers down Glenn Beck viewers' spines about the possibility of a rogue judge sealing the nation's doom by ruling that gays, Blacks, and women are people, too.

A brief google search for "activist judges" turned up what I thought it would: a host of right-wing sites that didn't have a useful definition of what an activist judge was, but had a whole host of reasons why judicial activism was bad, and many included decisions they disagreed with (with of course absolutely no context as to how those decisions were reached). For instance, the "Law Enforcement Alliance of America," a group that seems to advocate for a police state in which judges essentially rubber stamp D.A. prosecutions, provides this gem of a definition:
A restrained judge believes that the meaning of these words [e.g. "unreasonable" in "unreasonable search and seizure, but also other words in laws, statutes, etc.] already exists, that the meaning came from the legislatures or the people who enacted those words into law in the first place, and the judge’s job is to find it. Activist judges, in contrast, pursue their own agendas and believe they can give those words any meaning they choose.
Not very helpful. First, there's the obvious straw man: I doubt you would get any legal expert to argue seriously that any judge believes he or she can "give those words any meaning they choose." That demonstrably false claim leads to the reason that the entire definition and contrast between restrained and activist judges is invalid: in both cases the judges are interpreting the intention -- or unintended consequences (because laws contain both) -- behind the words. Sites such as this one I've quoted above seem to believe in a pure intelligibility of language -- that meanings are crystallized, permanent, transparent, and shared by everyone.

Oh, if it were only that simple.

Unfortunately, language is anything but transparent. You don't have to descend into Clintonian silliness with a "that depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" argument (although to be fair to the former President, his wrangling over words is part and parcel of the practice of all sorts of specialized fields in law) to understand that "unreasonable" can mean different things to different people.

I imagine that if the Supreme Court had allowed the 2000 election recount in Florida to continue the Right would have thundered on about judicial activism. It's a real interesting issue, because one of the charges conservatives level at the so-called "activist judiciary" is that they take decisions out of the hands of the people, and you'd think stopping a recount of people's votes would be seen as a fairly direct example of that infringement.

As it is, you could pretty much determine that any decision of the Supreme Court's is "activist"; that's how useless the definition is.

First - chill - then stupor - then the letting go.

Well, I'm almost over the letdown suffered when the US failed to capitalize on ample opportunities and ended up crashing against Ghana 2-1 in the round of 16.

I have consistently felt Altidore was out of his league in this World Cup, and his missed chip shots in this game weren't the first of the tournament for him. That being said, he's also the player I think will be most important for the US in 2014. He's got tremendous talent and vision...it's the execution that's not there yet.

Our defense has to get better. Too much shakiness early on, too many goals conceded early in the games, and too little agility on that back line.

The good news from World Cup 2010 is that the US didn't fall flat on their faces in any of the games and survived some horrendous (but by no means the only) bad calls that took away goals. Bad calls happen, and the US can't blame bad calls for their loss to Ghana.

25 June 2010

Is everyone comfortable?

It's orientation day at the tiny university at which I'm currently employed. This year must be some sort of nautical theme -- as orientations are increasingly nothing more than marketing events shaped to draw the "customers" in, like all the agricultural detritus found on the walls of a Cracker Barrel -- because all the students working the orientation were wearing sailor caps.

No pirates were in sight, nor did I spot a cop, construction worker, Indian, cowboy, or leather man.

The campus bookstore, of course, was open, selling its collection of branded swag to prospective students and parents alike. Like many campus bookstores, this one sells very few books, with even the course textbook area being relegated to the back corner of the store. That section probably occupies about 1/6th the area of the store, with the other 5/6ths containing a large selection of clothing, coffee mugs, keychains, candy, and -- like the inedible sandwiches on the tables in Harry Hope's bar in The Iceman Cometh -- a few popular novels and magazines.

Other than the free lunch being provided to parents and incoming students alike, I didn't see any other actual activities of orientation, but I assume they involved a tour of the nicer buildings on campus: one dorm recently received new furniture and was probably showcased, the athletics center dates from the 1990's and is very nice for a school our size, the library is even more recent and again is a gem for a school our size, and a new classroom/office building sits in the center of campus.

They'll most likely avoid the building I work in, which is the original campus building and shows the haphazard upgrades that correspond to a university that for much of its life struggled to make the most of its space with less than abundant resources: mismatched carpet, cracked tile floors, classrooms with chairs packed so tightly the instructor finds him or herself pushed into a corner near exposed plumbing, etc. In other words, a building that doesn't look good in a college catalog but will in fact be the building that most of their classes are in.

Well, I wish them all success and hopefully we'll have a good enrollment and maybe they'll hire a new line in English (not holding my breath).

24 June 2010

It's all part of my rock and roll fantasy...

I wonder what sort of people show up for these fantasy camps. Fantasy camps in general are interesting phenomena, and to an extent I can understand the draw of being on the same baseball field with your childhood heroes, but this rock and roll fantasy camp is hardly my idea of a fantasy.

The big draw in 2006, apparently, was that you got to "open" for Def Leppard and Journey...as if that were some kind of fantasy. Actually, if that is your fantasy, then I probably don't know you. Nor do I wear jean shorts, drive a camaro, or drink wine coolers.
The camp has seen such rock luminaries as Roger Daltrey, Jon Anderson, Dickey Betts, Mickey Hart, George Thorogood, and Neil Schon make our campers rock dreams come true, as they learn from and jam with the world’s greatest celebrity rock musicians.
Wow. As much as I respect Daltrey, you have to admit that outside The Who, he's made some pretty poor artistic choices. Mickey Hart, I'm guessing, was searching for himself in the years after Jerry Garcia's death. Other than that, you're really looking at the County Fair circuit. But it gets better:
Audition alongside celebrity rock star counselors Simon Kirke (Bad Company/Free), Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (Doobie Brothers), Artimus Pyle (Lynyrd Skynyrd), Teddy Andreadis (Guns & Roses), Gunnar Nelson (Nelson), Spencer Davis (Spencer Davis Group), Fred Coury (Cinderella), Kelly Keagy (Night Ranger), Michael Lardie (Great White), and many others.
Nothing against these guys, because everyone has to eat, but the equivalent in a baseball fantasy camp would be to list a few platooning outfielders or middle relief pitchers with a few years of MLB experience each and baseball cards worth about 3 cents. Half of these guys I'd rather see in the County Fair dunk tank than anywhere else.

Still not convinced to shell out your $2000 for the camp? Well, here was the kicker back in 2006:

Will I actually get to open for Def Leppard/Journey?

An all day rehearsal and instruction from celebrity rock star counselors, use of top line studio quality equipment, such as: Gibson guitars, DW drums, Marshall amps, and Korg keyboards, playing in front of thousands as the opening act in the Battle of the Bands, a meet and greet with Def Leppard and Journey, two meals, merchandise, and prime pavilion seats for you and a guest for the show, all for only $2000!

So to answer the question, not really. You will open the Battle of the Bands, which takes place two hours before the Def Leppard/Journey concert...or should I say, 2 hours before the time marked on the tickets, which of course is never when the band comes on. So the likelihood of "playing in front of thousands" as an act coming on at 5:30 p.m. when most people are going to be getting to the concert at 7:30 p.m. is, well, optimistic.

Oh, and you get to play (it seems from the website) 2 songs. So you're probably offstage by 5:40 p.m.

But if you are a huge Def Leppard or Journey fan, and some of those people are out there, it might be worth $2K to play some music, meet the groups, get your t-shirt/bumper stickers etc. that are involved in "merchandise," eat your two meals, and watch the gig from your pavillion seats.

More recently, the camp has been scaled back considerably, although the price remains $2K. Now instead of playing in a battle of the bands at a concert headlined by some creaky middle-brow 80's bands, you will get to play "in a band" with a counselor and Dickey Betts will be there. While you aren't promised that you'll be on stage with Dickey Betts, you are promised that you will get to "Jam with Rock Legend Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers."

All of this fun takes place at the Trocadero in Philly in October. Start saving.

23 June 2010

Predictions, or lack thereof.

The big questions ahead of today's Group C matchups:
  1. Can England score?
  2. Can the US beat Algeria?
I know the answer to the second better than the first. The US should be able to score more than Algeria -- in fact, I'll go out on a limb and say they should keep a clean sheet today. However, England's inability to score is baffling. They've got some great tools, but they don't seem to play as a team.

The good news, if you're an American soccer fan that is, is that the US is clearly in a better position than England to go through. A US win puts them through no matter what, and even a draw is likely to put them through, given England's impotent offense. A loss, of course, sinks them.

In the first half against Slovenia, I thought the US looked disjointed -- they had some good chances but were always a foot or two away from connecting. In the second half they looked great, finally putting starts and finishes together. If I were betting on the match, I'd say USA 3 - 0 Algeria. Or I might hedge to 3-1.

In the England v Slovenia match up, I really don't know what to say. More than that, should England concede an early goal, I think it may break them.

But at least they'll always have the 2010 French team to save them from being the biggest dogs of the tournament.

22 June 2010


In looking back over my sources, I realize I'm relying far too heavily on cnn.com for my links. Now I should perhaps explain myself.

First, I don't watch cable news, or any television news for that matter. However, I am fully aware of the phenomenon of cable news: you can't escape it in doctor's offices, restaurants and bars, airports, and even some places that call themselves coffee shops. So I'm well aware of how these outlets, as money making ventures, are more about bread and circuses than they are about information, and that -- in perfect Baudrillardian fashion -- their effect is to smother an occurrence in discourse, to turn it into an event, and to take us as far away as possible from understanding it.

Second, cnn.com provides in both its content and delivery a perfect illustration of the poverty of most news organizations. Its content tends to be a mix of celebrity gossip, political chatter, human tragedy and triumph (e.g. baby falls down well, disabled man competes in marathon, young girl murdered, etc.), and general catastrophe (forest fires, oil spills, etc.). Its delivery is in breezy stories that rarely go beyond five paragraphs and quite often, especially in the case of political chatter, are three paragraphs or less.

So, let it be said that I do not link to cnn.com because I think it is a solid news source. However, as infotainment goes, it's a great example, and I won't link to foxnews.com because I don't link to right wing websites, especially ones that pander to racist elements.

Third, I actually get most of my news from NPR, The Guardian, Washington Post, and New York Times.

One of the things that tires me out, whether it's on the Washington Post, CNN, or Chronicle of Higher Education sites, is the pathetic level of commentary to be found on the "comments" section of articles. Reading the comments section, as I've noted elsewhere, can convince a person that the majority of readers are half-literate racists or simply -- and there's no other way to put it -- absolute morons. I rarely read them anymore, but sometimes I make that mistake and it often leads me to such depression that I have to step away from the computer. The stupid seem to have more time on their hands to flood comment boards.

Maybe it's time to get away from current events and popular culture, although it's the absurdity of both that often makes me write.

The age demanded...

So we live in the age of twitter, which may in fact be perfect both as a communications means and a symbol of a pathetically shallow and simplistic culture. In an age where Obama's recent speech, written at a nearly tenth grade level, apparently is too difficult for most Americans to understand, Sarah Palin comes to the rescue with her twits, as reported by cnn.com:
"RahmEmanuel= as shallow/narrowminded/political/irresponsible as they come,to falsely claim Barton's BP comment is "GOP philosophy," Palin also tweeted in reply to Emanuel's comments.
Deep. Really deep. Her argument is ironclad, her support unimpeachable. Sure, you could go on and on detailing how Barton's comments, while completely at odds with the PR desires of the Republican Party, actually reflect the laissez-faire attitude of the party and its belief that corporations trump government, but I'm already beyond 140 characters and therefore way beyond the attention span of Palin's supporters.

Until I can pare that down to a series of grunts and hand signals, I'm afraid I will not be able to communicate with the right wing.

21 June 2010


After four goals, you'd think they'd pull back, but then you realize that this team contains Christiano Ronaldo, asshole par excellence. That attitude is apparently catching.

So we're winding down to ten minutes to go, you are shutting out the hapless North Koreans, and it would be 7 or 8 to zero if not for a few near misses, so you pull back, maybe kick it around midfield to kill time, right? No. You continue to pour it on, displaying your classlessness like a college football team from the state of Florida.

In fact, during stoppage time, with a 7-0 lead, Ronaldo was getting pissed off because his teammates were taking their time getting the ball upfield.

As the rout continued, I found myself feeling sorry for the North Korean team, since their nation's unstable leader may very well decide to take his embarrassment out on those players. Might be time to defect.

Clean up time.

Pretty much every day you can find another story that contributes to the thesis that Florida should simply be allowed to secede. Today, it's the unhappiness of Okaloosa County, who want the federal government to stay out of the county when it comes to cleaning up the BP oil mess. I'm all for it. Aside from the dangerous precedent of allowing county supervisors to legislate above the federal government, I'm all for the plan. Cut off federal funding for the county's clean-up efforts, stipulate that no federal funds provided to the state be diverted to Okaloosa County, and give the supervisors their dear wish.

But apparently, their desire for independence only goes so far...sure they want the feds to stay out of their way, until they either screw up or run out of money (it's kind of unclear):

So far, the area on Florida's panhandle has seen only weathered oil in the form of tar balls and tar mousse, but Okaloosa County, along with the city of Destin, have agreed to move forward with a unified plan to protect their beaches and waterways. They say they'll be spending about $5 million per month to protect their land, and they have one message to the feds.

"Have our backs. Let us go out and do our jobs," Villani said.

"We've got to protect the public," he said.

Does "have our backs" mean "keep funneling your federal dollars our way and shut up," or does it mean, "after we've exhausted our resources and have had about as much success as you've had, come in and take the blame"?

It's true that the federal government often falls short of perfection. After all, it's a relatively impossible task of on the one hand permitting private corporations to endanger the life and welfare of an entire region and on the other cleaning up after their messes. Especially when the people who live in the region really really want the private corporations to keep endangering their lives, so long as they pay them for it.

To use an analogy, there are very few junkies who want the cops to bust their dealer.

So anyway, I am 100% behind the Okaloosa commissioners and look forward to visiting the county once their logic has reached its inevitable conclusion and they've become a sovereign nation, and I can stay in their third world country for something like ten bucks a day. It'll be much closer than Costa Rica.

17 June 2010

We are clearly sinking.

I love America, but I'm not so sure I like Americans. Or let me put it another way: I am not very comfortable identifying as American the vindictive, fearful, xenophobic, half-literate, and ignorant comments that seem to proliferate on this supposed messianic medium called teh internets.

I am very close to agreeing with the Right on the proposition that the United States education system has failed. Here's a headline from cnn.com:
Language guru: Obama speech too 'professorial' for his target audience
Apparently, the issue is that Obama's speech was written at a -- gasp -- 9.8 grade level. So speaking at a high school sophomore level (let's round up to 10th grade) is too "professorial." Great. Let's just chuck it all right now and go back to the tough decisions, like paper or plastic. Here's another brilliant quote from the article:
"A little less professorial, less academic and more ordinary," Payack recommended. "That's the type of phraseology that makes you (appear) aloof and out of touch."
So Obama should follow his predecessor's example and speak in a series of grunts and monosyllabic meaningless feel-good phrases.

Look, we all know the United States is an anti-intellectual nation. However, this minute analysis of exactly how stupid we are as a nation goes a long way to explaining the continued existence of an audience for the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. In fact, it explains the continued existence of both the Republican and Democratic Parties in their current forms, and it sure as hell explains completely the Tea Party movement.

So America can't handle being talked to at a high school graduate level? I wasn't aware we were a nation of dropouts, but if that's the bar that we as a society have agreed to accept, then lots of luck to us in the future bagging lunches and making beds for whichever nation or culture actually takes education and progress seriously and decides to buy us up.

19 May 2010

Short Term Memory Loss

Much stupidity has been shuffled around following this Tuesday's primaries. First, there was that idiot Sargent who writes for the Post opining that Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln were facing challenges "from the left."


It's perhaps true that those two incumbents are facing challenges from the left of their own positions, but that hardly qualifies as "the left" -- or what little we have of it -- in the United States.

Then, post-election, the media are tripping over themselves to create a story of "anti-incumbent anger." I'm trying to remember where exactly I read the howler headline about the "end of the era of the incumbent advantage," but it was at that point that I realized someone had been sniffing far too much glue as he or she tried to make deadline. Let's take a closer look at a few of the races, starting in Pennsylvania.

Arlen Specter is best remembered as a Republican. He was running in the Democratic primary this year because he switched parties in the face of a strong challenge from the right wing of the Republican Party. Registered Democrats tend to be a bit more party-loyalty oriented than the general populace, so it's hardly an anti-incumbent sentiment to reject a politician who for all but the last two years of his political career was in the opposition.

Parsing Rand Paul's victory in Kentucky should take about ten seconds for anyone who doesn't have papers to sell or air time to fill. You could start with the fact that Paul wasn't running against an incumbent. That should actually end the conversation. If it doesn't, and you feel like continuing a conversation with someone who has a fragile grip on consciousness, then you may need to go to tactic b: many Republican Party activists are right wing kooks. They are electing a fringe candidate who appeals to those divorced from reality, but that's no surprise -- Rand's father, Ron Paul, has been serving, off and on, in the very organization he despises for something like thirty years. But hey, I understand, sometimes you need to try to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, but Paul has been relatively unsuccessful at doing so much as removing a loose floorboard. Yet, voters continue to send him back to his government paycheck so he can continue not to do much about it.

Sure, libertarians are easy targets, since they're the biggest freeloaders in the history of mankind, stumbling through life with blinders on, pretending they're little atomistic islands rather than part of complex interconnected systems that actually do affect one another. However, it might be useful to see how much the Tea Party can do come November. Winning your closed primary is one thing, but winning a general election full of other parties and independents is quite another. Will crazy sell to more than a niche market?

I know it's difficult in this day and age to present the news without developing a storyline -- especially a real dire one -- but these primaries have not shown that incumbents are in danger in November. What they've shown is that in a few cases -- all of which are out of the ordinary -- incumbents have had to fight to win their primaries, and some have failed to do so.

06 May 2010

Soundbites are media terrorism.

John Boehner is pretty much a moron. I suppose that's easily understood, but for some reason he gets elected to represent a great many people. I suppose the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. At any rate, in response to the successful foiling of a few plots -- in large part because they have been perpetrated by bumblers -- Boehner plans on attacking the Obama administration:
"We have been lucky, but luck is not an effective strategy for fighting terrorism," Boehner is expected to say at his weekly press briefing, according to aides, and he will denounce the administration's "bland reassurances."
Boehner is correct that luck is not a strategy, and it shows his ability to string nonsequiturs together into a nifty soundbite. He might as well be a Monday morning quarterback opining, "We have been lucky, but luck is not an effective strategy for winning ballgames." Well, no shit. The strategy wasn't luck, you fool. In sports or real life -- and there is a difference -- the outcomes may shift depending on luck, but in neither case is that the strategy.

So let's replace "bland reassurances" with "bland pandering," which is exactly what Boehner is doing.

28 April 2010

Bread and Circuses.

I may not speak for many people, but I'm sure I speak for a few when I say I really don't need updates on Bret Michaels' condition on the front page of cnn.com. First, I remember this guy from an 80's glam metal band. They sucked. Second, I understand vaguely that he participates in every b or c list stars favorite nostalgia vehicle, the celebrity reality show. I have no idea what his particular show is about except that it has put him back in the news.

In the age of infotainment, a field in which CNN can take credit as being pioneers, I suppose this tripe is what passes for news. Forget any deep analysis of actual problems in the world, like Greece's financial collapse or Arizona's draconian unconstitutional immigration law -- too complicated and not nearly sexy enough to spend time on.

In a literate society, CNN and Fox and every other cable news channel should essentially be the equivalent of supermarket tabloids, ridiculed for their emphasis on celebrity scandal and death and not seen as trusted news sources. As for anyone who points out that the Nat'l Enquirer first broke the story of John Edwards' affair...well, who gives a shit? They first broke Gary Hart's affair etc....they excel in scandal. That's what they do. That's all they do. It'd be like lauding Rolling Stone or Pitchfork for being the first to report on a band's latest release.

Christ, the waning days of empire are tough.

22 April 2010

On the Interpretation of Literature

I'm not sure yet if Jonathan Gottschall is a brilliant thinker or a charlatan. Of course, charlatans are often brilliant, or at least clever, so it could be that he's both. I suppose I have to read more of his work. Thus far, I think his critique of current literary study can be summed up succinctly as a misunderstanding (deliberate or not) of what he blithely dismisses as "defunct constructivist theory." When he announces, as he does in 11 minutes and 50 seconds into this video, that "for decades people in my field have mistaken the fact that it's difficult to be objective for a license to give up trying utterly," he may be speaking of the poor practices of some in the field, but that is hardly a knock against the various poststructuralist and structuralist theories he simply tosses aside.

To put it another way, the fact that your doctor can't properly detect your lung infection using his or he stethoscope doesn't call into question the very utility of the stethoscope.

Derrida is quite clear on this point (and in several places, but this particular quote is from Of Grammatology) as he discusses "a signifying structure that critical reading should produce" [158]:
To recognize and respect all its classical exigencies is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism. Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading [158].
This excerpt comes as part of Derrida's larger argument that "there is nothing outside the text," which poor readers take to mean that anything goes (this interpretation is by far the most popular among critics who are either too stupid or too lazy to read poststructuralist theory in general and Derrida in particular with any sort of coherence), although Derrida is actually talking about the critical duty to respect the integrity of the text. You can also get to this idea, although in a different way, through the essay "Violence and Metaphysics" contained in the collection Writing and Difference. Both explorations are deeply concerned with the impossible yet necessary approach to what Gottschall calls "objectivity."

Whether Gottschall is correct or not in dismissing without addressing poststructuralist theories, it is clear he has a marketable interpretation of literature (but I suppose to talk about the literary marketplace would mean employing one of the interpretive frames he trashes without explanation, Marxism), because it is attracting funding. The New York Times reported recently on Gottschall et al's ideas as "The Next Big Thing" in literary studies. Another like-minded critic, Lisa Zunshine, is part of a research team that will be conducting literary research via MRI -- a very cool but also very expensive idea:

Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.

“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading — or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet” — an M.R.I. machine — “and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Mr. Holquist explained.

Interesting, yes, but I find it very intriguing that the object of the project is to "improve college level reading skills." It's noble goal and I can see how they're research will work in that capacity, although I will admit to being fuzzy on the details about how knowing what part or how much of the brain is stimulated by increasing levels of complexity will translate to teaching students how to interpret better.

It very well could be "The Next Big Thing" (although to read the Times' comment section for the article is every bit as depressing as reading any other online media outlet's comments, as I've recently discussed), but it certainly can't replace other approaches to literature (and I'm not accusing Zunshine or Holquist of this aim, either). Gottschall implicitly makes this claim by arguing that literary studies has not produced knowledge that can outlast the next generation of criticism (a claim he immediately has to qualify by excepting biographical and historical criticism -- archival research in other words).

My major critique is two-fold. First, on a rather specific level he doesn't even understand the implications of "The Death of the Author" (Barthes) or "What Is an Author?" (Foucault). He takes it to mean that "authors don't matter," which is completely not what the critiques argue. Second, and more troubling, is his complete straw-man argument about social constructivist theories and how to interpret data (he more or less argues that patriarchy exists only in the Western world and that the similarity of world folktales undermines feminist arguments about patriarchy -- see about 18:00 - 20:00 of this video). Unbelievable.

Look, the jury is still out as far as I'm concerned, but I have a fairly well-developed skepticism that tends to question master narratives. Perhaps Dr. Gottschall should keep in mind Derrida's comment at the end of the "Exergue" section in Of Grammatology:
The idea of science and the idea of writing -- therefore also of the science of writing -- is meaningful for us only in terms of an origin and within a world to which a certain concept of the sign (later I shall call it the concept of sign) and a certain concept of the relationships between speech and writing, have already been assigned [4].

21 April 2010

Stupid Pills in Action

There are several social entities that should not be "run like businesses." First, they aren't businesses. They don't produce actual goods to be sold, except in the disgusting business-speak of the shills that think the only model to apply to anything is the morally bankrupt business model.

Schools are perhaps the greatest example of an institution that should not be responding to economic data as if they were producing sausage casings. Here's today's Washington Post, in an article headlined, "Recession Could Result in Deep School Staff Layoffs, Larger Class Sizes":

From coast to coast, public schools face the threat of tens of thousands of layoffs this year in a fiscal crunch likely to result in larger class sizes and fewer programs to help students in need.

Reports of deep staffing and service cuts are emerging in several states, including California, Illinois and New Jersey, as school officials say that finances have been stretched to the breaking point. The Washington area is not immune.

That's great. Except the problem is that when companies are faced with recession -- which generally means lower demand for their product -- they simply cut production (and I don't say simply lightly, because that cut in production of course means cuts in employment, etc.). Schools don't have that option. They aren't businesses. They can't cut production. Apparently, people continue to have children, and children continue to go to school.

Therefore, acting as though a school can be run like a business ignores the fundamental fact that schools aren't businesses. Yes, they should be run efficiently; yes, waste and fraud and mismanagement should be recognized and removed (or at least minimized). However, schools cannot reduce the amount of children they care for and develop simply because of a recession.

Funding those schools to deal with the children they have in reality, rather than pretending that the balance sheet is more important than children's lives -- that is, using the impersonal veil of accounting to dehumanize students, should be our priority.

20 April 2010

Read any good books lately?

In my line of work, I read a few books. Often they're the same ones over again, and very few are very new, but I do read. I recently read James Baldwin's Another Country. It's a pretty daunting text if only for the fact that the bulk of the text is marked by the absence of the initial main character -- a bit like Waiting for Godot except Rufus has already come and gone and isn't coming back.

I'm going to revisit Baldwin this summer, especially after I get my copy of The Price of the Ticket. I kept seeing references to this text throughout Baldwin scholarship and in tangential pieces on Baldwin or people Baldwin commented on, so I figured I'd go pick it up. After all, it's Baldwin's collected essays and Baldwin was as well known an essayist as he was a novelist, so it's got to be an easy score, right?


The book is out of print. It came out in 1985, just two years before Baldwin died, and it covers the years 1948-1985. How does something like that go out of print? So yeah it's out of print, but not difficult to find, as long as you're not looking for the signed or numbered or first printing first edition copies.

So I'm waiting on that.

I'm also waiting on a used reading copy of Willa Cather's Not Under Forty. Here's another text I can't believe is out of print. It's Cather's reflections on culture and the state of literature as she looks back late in her career.

And both of these texts, by the way, are also unavailable at my current university's library, which is why abebooks.com is one thing I definitely thank the interwebz for...I've made up for many a lack in library resources and the absence of local used bookstores (or quite frankly of any sort of local bookstores outside of BigBoxBookWarehouse up near the highway) with a few searches on abebooks.com.

19 April 2010

The not so great era of online media.

I've taken to almost completely ignoring comments left on newspaper articles, youtube videos, etc. They're beyond useless. The concept is great: open up the articles for immediate and unlimited commentary. Unlike the traditional letters to the editor (which still exist of course), these comments can appear seconds after the article has been posted (and by seconds, I mean, quite literally, that many comments appear to be made without any sort of knowledge of the originating article), and you don't have to worry about column space. Additionally, in keeping with the fine internet age, we can all comment without attaching any of our real names (yes, I know, my entire blog is based on that premise...but at least I put some thought into my posts).

Essentially, these comment spaces have become nothing more than arenas for confrontation between two blandly predictable opposing camps. Very little thought is required to anticipate the content of the comments section -- far from liberating, they are in fact constricting. No one takes any sort of time to read an argument, so very few people take time to write one. Instead it's invective, sound bites garnered from talk radio, and rehashed political party talking points. Additionally, for all the complaining the right wing does about the Washington Post, and the threats that "they'll never read that rag again" or "no one reads the Post anymore" or some such bullshit, the right wing loons are clearly reading the Post.

It's my belief that right wing loons (for instance, the Freepers -- and I follow long-standing policy of not providing links to racist or fascist organizations) actually see it as their mission to patrol message boards of prominent media outlets and swamp the comment pages with their own irrational arguments and position statements. It could very well be that the left does the same, but I haven't seen it (unless the conversation has been pushed so far right that you have to define "left" with the idea that the government has the right to exist).

However, the Post isn't the best place to see this insanity at work, because it's too mainstream (not used in the bogeyman sense that critics on right and left seem to deploy it, but rather in the "general audience" sense). The best place to look for this phenomenon is on the comment pages of specialty media outlets, like The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle (which can be nefariously abbreviated to "CHE," showing off, I'm sure, its true socialist leanings) is a leader in its field, but its field is very small. You don't see back issues sitting around the dentist's office, like you might see Car and Driver or Sports Illustrated or Ladies Home Journal. The Chronicle is aimed at highly educated people (and administrators) who work at or with institutions of higher education, and its content therefore concerns such earthshaking issues as graduation rates at community colleges, bad writing and bad thinking, and a police raid on a student newspaper. Now these are important issues and they do touch at times on larger cultural hot buttons, but so also does the latest research in physics deal with important issues that have ramifications for our larger culture -- yet the pages of the Journal of Applied Physics do not overflow with fools arguing that Obama/Hitler/Stalin has threatened to eat all the children of white gun-toting patriots (OK, first I exaggerate, and second, the Journal of Applied Physics, like most scholarly journals, doesn't have a comments section).

Getting back to my point, I'm convinced that Freepers or some organization much like the Freepers trolls the CHE boards spouting off nonsense. I'm not suggesting that there's a policy decision anywhere saying, "let's assign five people to watch over Board X"; I simply think that a few members probably see it as their mission in life to bring their level of ignorance to the higher education community.

As an example, I cite "adamreed," on a comment left on Mark Bauerlein's "Brainstorm" column (for those who don't know Mark Bauerlein, he's a right-leaning professor at Emory with whom I don't agree much if at all, but who at least employs rational argumentation):

24. adamreed - April 16, 2010 at 02:57 pm

Oh delicious irony: A man who directs the re-distribution of property taken from its creators as taxes, by the most uncivil of means, extortion at gunpoint, lectures his victims about "civility." Who needs The Onion when we have propaganda?

"adamreed" is commenting on the current NEH "civility tour" that Bauerlein objects to. To sum up Bauerlein's argument, the lead objection (which we should also read, if we were Freudians, as the "manifest content") is that the civility tour oversteps NEH's jurisdiction and mission, while the real objection is that NEH Chair Leach is "politicizing" the NEH in ways Bauerlein doesn't like (interesting conclusion, given the Lynne Cheney years of hyper-politicization). But back to "adamreed," who apparently objects to taxation and believes he's being extorted at gunpoint to pay his taxes. He obviously has either not read Thoreau or simply didn't understand him.

Whether you agree with Bauerlein or not about Leach's civility tour (and it seems Bauerlein most likely objects more to the content of Leach's speeches and not the tour itself, despite his initial argument), it's clearly not something "adamreed" even knows how to engage with. So instead of offering a useful commentary either in keeping with the column itself or the 23 comments that precede his, he offers his soundbite libertarian objection to taxes and the canard that Obama is a socialist (again exposing his ignorance of either Obama's policies or the definition of socialism...I'm not sure which).

There are other gems in the comment section for this particular Bauerlein column, but this post is already too long as it is. The bottom line (and believe it or not the "adamreed" comment was downright coherent as opposed to others I've read on that site) is that tools like "adamreed" certainly aren't reading the Chronicle because they are involved in higher education; they're actually pretty much incapable of maintaining a straight line of reasoning or supporting their sound bite arguments. So what the hell is "adamreed" doing reading this somewhat esoteric weekly, and more importantly, what motivates someone to insert themselves into arguments that they have no ability to follow? It'd be just as silly for me to jump on the JAMA website and opine on the latest medical research.

18 April 2010

Morons Muster Monday

It's nice to see that the utter fanatic fringe will be convening across the Potomac in beautiful Virginia to commemorate their hero, Timothy McVeigh. I've never actually understood gun nuts. The 2nd Amendment, I understand. Gun nuts, the ones who think that the 2nd Amendment allows them to carry guns unconditionally, I don't. The 2nd Amendment allows for some pretty broad rights, but I think it's kind of ridiculous to assume that something applicable to 18th century technology isn't in need of some tweaking.

Free speech doesn't really change over time, although the media to deliver that speech has, and those changes have been the subject of vigorous debate. Free speech is also restricted by our libel and slander laws, as well as the more tricky public safety concerns (e.g. yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater). Apparently the 1st Amendment still stands.

However, you propose one slight little change in gun laws, like let's say requiring guns to be licensed, and you have the gun nuts literally up in arms, threatening revolution, pretending to be patriots (a most ill-used word in most cases). In the case of tomorrow's protest, conveniently scheduled on the same day as fellow gun nut and mass murderer Timothy McVeigh parked his truck packed with explosives in front of the Oklahoma City Federal Building -- including daycare center --, the protesters are apparently convening to protest the recent broadening of gun laws, which now inexplicably allow people to carry weapons in national parks.

Given that gun rights are apparently not in any immediate danger, and are in fact expanding, the gun nuts have to strut their stuff, in the words of the chief organizer, to warn the government about the passage of the health care bill and other sundry items that he feels (apparently because he doesn't know the definition of either word) equals "totalitarian socialism." Of course, the government will feel duly chastised when the few score nutcases show up with their handguns, rifles, and other small arms.

After all, the prospect that nationwide a few thousand or so veterans of the paramilitary equivalent of fantasy baseball camps, sprinkled with a few actual military veterans, have access to such intimidating weaponry and a will to use it on active duty police, military, and federal officials must send shivers down the spines of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

29 March 2010

How did it come to this?

How did our nation end up in the mess it's in?

We are the world's wealthiest nation. Our education system, for all the criticism it takes, is fairly extensive and in many cases exceptional. Our institutes of higher education are magnets for international students, demonstrating global esteem and at least the perception of quality. A great many of us have instant access to information through the internet, and since nearly every American household has cable/satellite, we are subject to a barrage of news and information...oh.

Wait a minute. Maybe we have too much information, as that old band The Police once sang. Not too much information as in let's stifle it and censor things and close avenues of communication, but too much information as in we're not processing it properly and if we don't have the tools to process it properly, we're simply awash in information with little way to get our bearings as to which is good information and which is bad information.

Just as the advent of the newspaper allowed information -- and let's not forget, gossip -- to spread at exponential rates (see Balzac's Lost Illusions for an excellent commentary on the at-that-time state of the art lightning fast communication), and television did the same thing in the 1960's (bringing among other things the Vietnam War direct to the American public), so too has the internet and the spread of cable infotainment channels like CNN and Fox revolutionized information access and transmission.

You Tube allows the semi-intelligent to become celebrities for a short time by doing stupid things to their bodies (and for the stuff You Tube won't show, there's 4chan) or by filming their children in states of dental-sanctioned inebriation. Andy Warhol's prediction becomes absolutely prophetic.

Unfortunately, our ability to process the information seems not to have kept pace with the access to it. It's become even worse since Fredric Jameson talked about "total flow" back in the early 1990's in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

The success of poststructuralist attacks on the notion of objective presentations of truth were necessary interventions that dislodged the monolithic power of either myths of the state (see the Schoolhouse Rock videos of American history) or of media as a fundamentally objective pursuit. Unfortunately, the right-wing had by and large failed to understand these arguments and incorporated only the first part into their analysis both of poststructuralism and the media. Interestingly and paradoxically, the right wing is quite comfortable arguing that poststructuralism is morally bankrupt because it denies objective truth ("eternal, universal, and natural God-given truths"), while at the same time adopting poststructuralism's critique of that sort of truth as they condemn the "liberal media."

What's missing, of course, is the second part of the poststructuralist critique, one that Derrida for instance was at pains to return to again and again (see "Violence and Metaphysics," Of Grammatology, Spectres of Marx, or nearly any of his late works -- the quickest gloss may be "Violence and Metaphysics" contained in Writing and Difference -- see esp. pp. 128-29): that the absence of an unmediated access to universal truth does not mean that we can therefore throw out standards of judgement. It's quite simple, but easily forgotten in the easy soundbite of "moral relativism" that right wingers like to throw around.

I'll skip a bit here, but suffice to say that eventually we get around to the idea that it isn't so much knowledge that's power -- at least culturally -- but transmission of information, good or bad. Conspiracy theories, which used to be confined to small groups of isolated crackpots, are now given the power and reach afforded by globally linked communities. The speed of information and the format of information does not lend itself to extended critique or immersion in the object: instead we are immersed in an unending stream of information that doesn't separate the latest Disney-channel star's scandal from market news or political maneuvers -- other than the fact that the scandals are given higher billing and more air time.

So we have the advent of the Tea Party movement -- a gathering of malcontents (which isn't a bad thing in itself) whose numbers wouldn't qualify them for any sort of attention in the days when the supposedly evil mainstream media (and look, I have plenty of critiques of traditional media outlets, but I'm really tired of the idea that they can all be collapsed into some monolith -- the great media conspiracy theory) actually evaluated the newsworthiness of events and movements. However, in these latter days of news as entertainment, we have Fox in particular actively promoting the Teabaggers -- surely and odd position to be in if one is interested in notions of "objective journalism" (of course, I'm all for reportage, but there's a fundamental difference between activist-journalists filing reports for explicitly aligned outlets and a major news corporation pursuing a "news story" as though it's part of their new fall line-up).

Stupidity parades itself around on the basis that the "mainstream media" has silenced the "real story." Truth claims can't be evaluated because "liberals" (who are all at once progressives, communists, socialists, and fascists) won't let the truth be told. Conversely, mainstream television pundits, whose truth claims are eviscerated on a daily basis by, of all things, a comedian, are the heroes of the teabaggers, who apparently have no critical faculties for evaluating truth claims. Evidently having been served miserably in their varied educational histories, they are unable to distinguish between liberals, communists, and fascists. All are wrong, and all are one.

Stupidity is on tour, coming to a city near you, in the form of the Tea Bag Express.