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.