Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Time-out

Apparently, Memphis is about halfway between Texas and Philaedelphia. Also, apparently, I am the hostess with the mostest. This week my apartment runneth over with friends on their way from one of those places to the other.

So, please forgive my absence on this blog for the next couple of days. I'll be back on Friday, assuming that none of the rest of you is planning a surprise trip.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Oy vey!

In one of the more shameless displays of media exploitation I've seen in a while, Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv last Friday published the prayer note that Barack Obama left at the Western Wall (also known as the Kotel or the Wailing Wall) on his recent trip to Jerusalem. Reportedly, the prayer note was stolen by a yeshiva student who was at the Wall at the same time as Obama. The Kotel rabbi, Schmuel Rabinovitz, condemned the theft and the publication of the note.

It's only a matter of time, I suppose, before neocon pundits seize upon the contents of Obama's prayer (in which he wisely-- and preemptively-- asked his God for "guard against pride and despair"), but let's hope and pray that we have not yet devolved into that kind of dystopia.

Hope and pray that... but don't write it down!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Smartocracy?

There's an opinion peice in the recent issue of conservative magazine The National Review by John Derbyshire entitled "Talking to the Plumber: The IQ Gap," in which Derbyshire argues that Americans are uneasy with the "inequality of smarts" in this country... and even more uneasy with the way that inequality in intelligence corresponds with other inequalities, like wealth, opportunity, and privilege. Derbyshire takes the title of his peice from a personal anecdote recounted by William Deresiewicz, in which Ivy-educated Deresiewicz bemoaned his inability to have a "regular conversation" with his plumber, despite the fact that he could easily carry on conversations "with people from other coutries, in other languages." (An aside: I wrote about Deresiewicz's excellent treatment of eros in the classroom a while ago on this blog.) Deresiewicz chalked up his can't-talk-to-the-plumber-predicament to "Ivy retardation" and counted it among "the disadvantages of an elite education." Derbyshire, on the other hand, sees this anecdote as evidence of a mostly meritorious American "smartocracy," and he doesn't seem to understand why the plumbers among us want to begrudge Smartocrats their due.

I'm really surprised that some editor didn't catch this essay before it made its way out of the chute, because it is littered with dubious (and unverifiable) generalizations and proceeds by way of some pretty specious logic. Derbyshire believes wholeheartedly in the efficacy of what he calls America's "very nearly pure meritocracy"-- one in which "smarts" is the primus inter pares "merit"-- and he views the social and economic inequalities that exist in our (very nearly pure) meritocracy as best explained through reference to inequalities in innate intellectual ability. Now, that may not sound like a completely objectionable argument, but for Derbyshire it basically breaks down like this: Economic inequality corresponds, justifiably, to intellectual inequality. In other words, poor people are poor, largely, because they're also dumb. He writes:

Seek out the rich man in his castle: It is far more likely the case in the U.S.A. than anywhere else, and far more likely the case in the U.S.A. of today than at any past time, that he is from modest origins, and won his wealth fairly in the fields of business, finance, or the high professions. Seek out the poor man at his gate: It is likewise probable, if you track back through his life, that it will be one of lackluster ability and effort, compounded perhaps perhaps with some serious personality defect. I have two kids in school, eighth grade and tenth. I know several of their classmates. There are some fuzzy cases, but for the most part it is easy to see who is destined for the castle, who for the gate.

Of the deciding factors, by far the largest is intelligence. There are of course smart people who squander their lives, and dumb people who get lucky. If you pluck a hundred rich men from their castles and put them in a room together, though, you will notice a high level of general intelligence. Contrariwise, a hundred poor men taken from their gates will, if put all in one place, convey a general impression of slow dullness. That’s the meritocracy.

On Derbyshire's argument, the wealthiest among us are also the smartest, and we ought not begrudge them the spoils of their merit. But, putting aside his prescriptive claim, is this description really true? As happy as it may make me to (finally!) see conservatives railing against the anti-intellectualism that reigns supreme among them, I'm disheartened to see that it comes in a package like this. Far be it from me to question the scientific rigor of Derbyshire's assessment of his kids' eigth- and tenth-grade classmates... but I'm guessing that there are better places to look if one is questioning the corresponsence between wealth and intelligence.

Let's try another sampling. According to Forbes' list of "The 400 Richest Americans," 5 out of the top 10 richest Americans' wealth comes to them by way of the mega-retail-chain-store Wal-Mart. Now, I imagine that it did take some "smarts" to think up the idea of Wal-Mart, and perhaps a good deal more to develop it into the capital behemoth that it is today. But none of those 5 on Forbes' list is Sam Walton, the founder of Wal Mart! So, it seems safe to assume that of the very richest rich folks in our (very nearly pure) meritocracy, we can say that their chief "merit" is to be found in their surname, and not between their ears.

I've done my fair share of laps around the Academy's block, and I still fail understand how Derbyshire can justifiably conflate "wealth" and "intelligence." I also wonder, for the record, whether or not Derbyshire is capable of breaking down the etymology of his neologism "smartocracy," which would imply that the "smart" actually rule (from the ancient Greek "krátos" or κράτος). I suppose that Derbyshire would say that the "generally dull" plebians who continue to resent their lords-- and to resent the gross economic and social disparity that exists in thier fiefdom-- do so because they don't have the innate intelligence to comprehend the merits of our smartocracy. Alas, would that it were so simple and dull...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Quotable South, Part 9: What You Can Kiss

Last year, I had a running series on this blog that I called The Quotable South. It was about one-part PSA (below-the-Mason/Dixon information campaign) and two-parts personal therapy (as I had just returned down South after 6 years in the Northeast). Anyway, a good friend of mine and semi-regular contributor to this blog, Dr. Trott (a.k.a., bernadette), is about to make the long trip hot-as-hell-ward to her new home and her new job in the South. I'll be rolling out the Welcome Wagon and putting on my very finest Southern Hospitality Gear-- where did I put that parasol?-- for her early next week when she stops by Memphis, which is only about halfway to her destination. If Dr. Trott were going any further South, she'd need a passport... and fluency in Spanish.

Like most of the rest of the country, I suspect, there have been noticable shifts in the general ethos around these parts because it's an election year. For some people, that means that the South's long and proud history of fighting for justice in the name of the poor and disenfranchised has been reinvigorated. For others, it means that our semi-closeted skeletons of racism, sexism, and cultural isolationism have come out to dance again. This is a complicated place. But this is a fairly uncomplicated quote:


"'Cause I'm a front-porch sittin', guitar pickin', moonshine sippin',
biker juice spittin', country boy from the woods.
And I love fried chicken, blue-gill fishin' and outlaw women,
and I wouldn't change if I could.
I ain't trying to start no fights,
but I'll finish one everytime.
You just mind your own damn business
and stay the hell out of mine.
If you got a problem with that...
well, you can kiss my country ***."

That's from a country song by Rhett Akins, which is a hit on the radio right now. Since I know you're dying to hear the whole thing, here it is:



Fair warning, Dr. Trott, you'll hear a lot of that Rebel Flag Sentiment down here-- and although it makes for a pleasantly raunchy honky-tonk tune, it no doubt will weigh on your patience from time to time. Let me just tell you that, although it may be the position of some of the loudest people you meet (who only get LOUDER when they are imparting to you the details of what you can kiss), it's not the only pickle in the jar around here.

Dr. Trott, since you're my friend and I don't want to see you fall into the Transplanted Yankee Trap (in which Northerners move down South and think that everyone is either a backward, ignorant yokel or else something directly imported from Gone With the Wind), I'm going to let you in on a little secret... embrace the power of the "What You Can Kiss" Argument! Don't concede the battle to the Dark Side of The Force, even if you happen to be on their porch, or in their office, or at their dive bar. Think of "kiss my country a**" as the Southern equivalent of "Q.E.D."-- it could mean "I'm not arguing with you anymore because I've already made my point with abundant clarity and incontrovertible supporting evidence" OR it could just mean "I'm not arguing with you anymore because I'm about three sheets to the wind and I'm country and I feel justified in now asserting things by fiat." It's an art, really, but a fine art and one you should learn.

Wait, on second thought, it occurs to me now that I've actually heard this argumemt before somewhere... where was it?... oh yeah, in just about every Philly bar I've ever been in! As only my very best Philly friends would know, it's also an argument that I have used, several times, after copious amounts of Southern Comfort... but I digress...

Never mind, Dr. Trott, you're golden.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who Speaks for the People?

I'm going to say it: The Dark Knight did not impress. Yes, of course, I thought Heath Ledger's turn as the fledgling Joker was an impressive performance. (And, yes, of course it's a tragedy that Heath Ledger is no longer with us.) I know I'm going to sound a bit like a broken record here, since I already made this same complaint about the film There Will Be Blood a few weeks ago, but I still maintain that a single compelling performance, even by a first-rate actor, is not enough to carry a film if there isn't an equally compelling narrative context in which to situate said performance. The Dark Knight was sloppily edited, disjointed, overly ambitious, and weighted down with some of the worst dialogue ever penned by Hollywood. (And that's saying something!) The darkness-that-could-have-been-brilliance in it was merely dark. Admittedly, I have to give The Dark Knight a little more leeway in my criticism than I allowed There Will Be Blood, since at least one of the themes of the film involved the fundamentally disruptive power of "chaos" (so I suppose some kind of "performativity" argument could be made here), but the chaotic filming and the chaotic storytelling actually lessened the effect of what chaos means, in my view, instead of staging a real confrontation between sense and nonsense.

But this is not going to be a film review...

As you no doubt know already, The Dark Knight has received almost unanimous critical acclaim. Almost. Accompanying me in the despised minority who didn't like the recent Batman installment is film critic for New York Magazine (as well as NPR's Fresh Air and CBS's Sunday Morning), David Edelstein. Edelstein offered his (rather tame) criticism of The Dark Knight in an article for New York Magazine a couple of weeks ago... after which, the gates of holy hell were unleashed on him by Batmaniacs near and far. Receiving so much hate mail from raging fans of the film, Edelstein was forced to write a second essay in response. And this is where things get interesting. In his second essay, Edelstein writes:

Why — apart from narcissistic injury — do I respond to the abuse? Because there has been a lot of chatter in the last few years that criticism is a dying profession, having been supplanted by the democratic voices of the Web. Not to get all Lee Siegel on you, but the Internet has a mob mentality that can overwhelm serious criticism. There is superb film writing in blogs and discussion groups — as good as anything I do. But there are also thousands of semi-literate tirades that actually reinforce the Hollywood status quo, that say: “If you do not like The Dark Knight (or The Phantom Menace), you should be fired because you do not speak for the people.”

Well, the people don’t need to be spoken for. And a critic’s job is not only to steer you to movies you might not have heard of or that died at the box office. It’s also to bring a different, much-needed perspectives on blockbusters like The Dark Knight.

Now, I don't want to over-inflate the significance of this rather mundane exchange between a film critic and his readers-- especially not an exchange over a film as mundane as The Dark Knight-- but I think that Edelstein has really put his finger on something significant about the role of public intellectuals. Critics are not politicians. Critics are not "representatives." To paraphrase Edelstein, if "the people" are looking to be "spoken for," they should call up their politicians and representatives and tell them to do their jobs, because speaking for the people is not the job of a critic. The job of a critic is, ironically, much closer to what Batman does-- trying to effect justice before-and-beyond the laws of mass consensus. The job of a critic is, often, to compel the people to critically reflect on who they are trusting to speak for them.

There's a quote, attributed to Lord Chancellor Baron Brougham, that says: "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave." I say, replace "education" with "crticism" in that passage, and you can see the beginnings of the critical intellectual's responsibility to his or her people.

Criticism may very well be, as Edelstein fears, a "dying profession." But I, for one, am encouraged to see a gasping, dying protest like his.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bookstore Surveillance

Last Christmas, on this blog, I posted a list of books that one should NOT give as gifts because, I speculated, the recipient is likely to misinterpret the meaning behind the gift. You were all very helpful in filling out that list, providing your own examples of the oft-embarrassing dissonance between the intended meaning of a gifted book and the received meaning of that gift. Of course, such miscommunication is a possibility with all gifts, I suppose, but books seem especially prone to this danger. Why? Because we do judge books by their covers, or their titles, or their reputations... or a host of things other than what exists between the preface and the postscript.

I am reminded of that now, as I am in the process of finalizing my textbook orders for the fall semester. Because of the sorts of courses that I teach, I regularly fret over the books that I assign for my courses, many of which have provocative titles and/or cover art (not to mention actual ideas!). I have a recurring nightmare in which one of my students' mom or dad is visiting during Parents Weekend, strolling through the college bookstore and, upon seeing what books I have assigned, decides to speed-dial David Horowitz on the cell-phone to report me in violation of the Academic Bill of Rights.

[Insert frightened shiver here.]

So, as another public service-- because what's a blog for, after all, if not to help the people?-- here are some of the books that I have considered adopting (or actually dared to adopt) that may be more trouble than they're worth. (But probably not.) I'll do this the same way we did before, that is, I'll give you the "intended meaning" behind the adoption of the text first, followed by the possible thoughts of the Putative Defenders of Academic Freedom.

We'll start with the obvious:

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault

WHAT I INTENDED: Foucault is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th C., and this is an eminently accessible introduction to his work. Students who have no theoretical basis for thinking about "power" or "discourse" can get their feet wet here, as well as learn a thing or two about the history of our socially-constructed categories of sexuality. Also, as an added bonus, The History of Sexuality serves as a kind of primer for psychoanalysis, gender studies, queer theory, and feminism-- some of the major "alternative" movements in contemporary philosophy.

WHAT THEY THINK: Everyone knows that teaching sex in schools leads to promiscuity among students. What's next? Is she going to hand out condoms on the first day instead of a syllabus?! (And, Mother, did she just use both "queer" AND "theory" in the same sentence?)

The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche

WHAT I INTENDED: Although this is not one of my favorite texts by Nietzsche, I think it is an important one to look at in order to have some point of comparison between Nietzsche's more rigorously philosophical works (like Genealogy of Morals) and the largely polemical texts like this one. Despite his polemics, however, there are several points in The Anti-Christ where we can see Nietzsche's abiding and complicated, even if reluctant, respect for the figure of Jesus and some of the values of Christianity.

WHAT THEY THINK: Clearly our child is headed directly to hell.


Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Ranciere

WHAT I INTENDED: We've heard a lot recently about how our enemies "hate" democracy, even as we commit ourselves ever more forcefully to imposing that form of government on them. Ranciere's short text gives an interesting twist on the phenomenon of "hatred for democracy" by showing us that it is not the purported enemies of democracy that really hate "government by all, " but rather the ruling class within democracies. There are few things in this day and age that are more important to think about, philosophically, than the meaning of democracy.

WHAT THEY THINK: Who hates democracy? Oh, the guy is French. Shoulda known. What do the French know from democracy, anyway?

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

WHAT I INTENDED: This is the first book that everyone should have read after 9/11. Mamdani offers the clearest and most convincing counter-discourse to the (Samuel) Huntington-esque "clash of civilizations" story that has unfortunately appealed to so many people in power. By carefully tracing the U.S. Cold War and post-Cold-War policy of engaging in "proxy wars," Mamdani shows not only how terrorism came to be what it is now, but also how we are all implicated in that development.

WHAT THEY THINK: Who ever heard of a "good" muslim?

The Assault on Reason by Al Gore

WHAT I INTENDED: After reading Gore's text, I now believe that he really missed his calling. This is a sober, informed, well-argued and intelligent treatment of the dangers to any political body that gives up on the power of a "well-informed citizenry." It's hard to imagine that there are many people alive today who have had more of an inside and up-front perspective on the changes in our country (and our world) over the last three decades than Al Gore. For cynics, this text will inspire hope again. For dreamers, this text is a healthy dose of realism. But for everyone, Gore's text will serve as a reminder that rational deliberation is one of the first virtues of civic responsibility.

WHAT THEY THINK: Jeez. He's still around? If the profs here are determined to assign a book by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, they should pick somebody good... like de Klerk.

The Al Qaeda Reader by Raymond Ibrahim (Ed.)

WHAT I INTENDED: If Al Qaeda is really our "enemy," then engaged intellectuals should acknowledge that the enemy you know is better than the enemy you don't know. Most of us know very little about Al Qaeda outside of the things we hear on television, so reading this book will be an exercise in becoming (what Gore called) a "well-informed citizenry." Students will be surprised when they read some of the actual texts of Islamic "extremism," which are not totally irrational (as we are often told) and many of which are grounded (however shakily) in sources of traditional Islamic theology. Most importantly, these texts give us a glimpse into the power of persuasive political rhetoric, the cornerstone of mass movements throughout history.

WHAT THEY THINK: It's time to heighten the DEFCON status! Alert the extraordinary rendition brigade! Get Horowitz on the phone! NOW!
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As before, I welcome your contributions to this list. And as before, please provide your own renderings of the "what I intended" and "what they think" categories.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Kids Say the Damndest Things (Part 2)

Here's another installment in the story of my two nieces-- "Monkey" and "Templeton" (not their real names, of course)-- who continue to say the damndest things. (You can read the first installment here.)

The Family J recently returned from a beach vacation in Florida. I wasn't able to go (proof again that academics don't really have "summers off") because I was working, but I met up with my folks for lunch the other day to hear the stories of their trip. As it turns out, one of the more exciting events during their little foray down South-er was the decision by my sister, my sister-and-law and my older niece Monkey to take a dive off of one of those giant bungee-swing things that you find in amusement parks. Now, the fact that Monkey, who is only 8 years old, had the gumption to ride one of those things would be a story in itself... but, of course, that's not the story.

This particular bungee-swing was one that held 3 people at a time, so they all got to ride together. Apparently, on the loooong way up, my sister-in-law began to rethink the wisdom of her decision and is reported to have said to Monkey: "This is going to be really scary when they pull the rope, so I might say something that I shouldn't say on the way down. Honey, I want to apologize in advance if your mom says something wrong. She doesn't mean it." They were pulled to the top of the tower and then free-falled some ridiculously frightening length, screaming all the way. But, thankfully, nobody said anything she shouldn't have said in front of children.

Later that night, when the kids were getting ready for bed, exhausted and exhilirated, Monkey was saying her prayers. She's a fairly elaborate and thorough pray-er, in my humble opinion, but her prayers are always sweet (even if a bit long and detailed). So, Monkey thanked God for the sun, and the sand, and all the fun she was having, and for her family who she loves very much. And then, for good measure, she added:

"And, God, thanks especially for helping mommy not to take your name in vain today on the scary ride."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The (Ever-Elusive) Grandeur of the Forest

Many years ago, when I was in the full throes of my pomo-lit phase, I read John Barth's 1955 novel The Floating Opera, which was one of those books that serendipitously landed in my lap at just the right time. John Barth is a little bit of a Philip-Roth-Lite, I think. He's funny and smart and reluctantly nihilistic, just like Roth, and they both have an ear for uniquely American dialogue that is as keen as their sensitivity to uniquely American psychopathologies. (As you may remember, poor Philip Roth did not fare well in our books-you-should-NOT-give-as-gifts discussion a while ago... but for the Barth and Roth fans still out there, we also discussed DeLillo a bit on this blog, with no consensus resulting of that conversation, per usual.) The "floating opera," from which Barth's title is taken, serves as a bit of a ham-handed (but effective) meta-metaphor in the novel. It is, quite literally, a floating opera-- a riverboat that floats up and down the river conducting an opera performance that the spectators sit on the riverbanks to watch. Of course, because the opera is floating, the spectators never get a coherent, complete, or linear narrative-- sometimes they don't even get the action performed in their general direction-- which just serves to illustrate Barth's larger point about the manner in which we all attempt, provisionally and precariously, to both author and interpret meaning in our lives.

Anyway, there is a great quote from that novel, spoken by the protagonist Todd Andrews, in which he claims that he wants to be judged by "the finished product" of his life, and "not by the steps of construction." He adds:
"There would be a grandeur in the forest, so to speak, transcending and redeeming any puny deficiencies in the trees. "
Ahhh, would that it were so! I imagine that we all, from time to time, have indulged just this sort of pining sentiment-- a belief that each indiviual's life will add up to more than the sum of its parts. And, yet, but... here we stand amidst the puny, deficient trees. I was reminded of Barth's passage from The Floating Opera by a recent post on Booga Face's blog about the dangers of believing too-simply in the "promise" of the Symbolic Obama. (Well, to be honest, Booga's post just gave me a reason to write about Barth's quote, since I pretty much run those words over and over in my head, like a mantra.) Like Booga, I worry that many Obama supporters are investing all of their energy and faith in the still-yet-to-come "grandeur of the forest" at the expense of paying real attention to some of the puny deficiencies in the trees.

Let me state outright that, at this point in the game, I am a full supporter of Obama for President of the United States... but that doesn't mean that I'm gulping down whatever Kool-Aid is being handed out. The "change that I can believe in" must be real change, a real departure from politics-as-usual, and that means that I am interested in making sure that whatever puny deficiencies are ultimately transcended by the grandeur of the forest are actually "puny." One of the things that I really admired about John Edwards was that that richer-than-all-get-out guy never stopped harping about the plight of the poor and disenfranchised in this country, which is the only perspective from which a "change I can believe in" will be enacted. (Okay, so I did and still do drink the Edwards "Two Americas" Kool-Aid!) My hope is that Obama supporters (myself included) stay on his back about that message. Pro-business Democrats, as far as I am concerned, might as well be Republicans.

So, I'm all for the grandeur of the forest, and I am well aware of the fact that achieving that grandeur sometimes means taking tiny, incremental steps that might even necessitate downplaying some of the "puny deficiencies in the trees." But I'm afraid that, in these dire times, we need to be pretty rigorous about what counts as genuinely "puny" deficiencies.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

For Shame!

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the power, and lack thereof, of shame. As regular readers of this blog already know, I'm currently working on a manuscript in defense of human rights via a reconstituted humanism (what I'm calling a "weak humanism"). Yesterday, I was flipping through a book I read several years ago by the former Executive Director of Amnesty International, William F. Schulz, called In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All, in which Schulz argues for a "pragmatic" defense of human rights. Schulz thinks that there is a limit to the effectiveness of moral/ethical appeals to human rights, and hence aims to persuade his readers of the importance of human rights by showing the real political, economic, environmental, and public health consequences that are manifest "in our own backyards" when we allow human rights violations to go unchecked. It's an eminently informed (and possibly even noble) argument, I think, but one that has clearly already conceded the priority of self-interest to its putative detractors. To paraphrase Schulz, if we can't shame people into defending human rights, and if we can't effectively prosecute them for failing to do so, then we can at least point out to them the myriad ways in which their blindness to the effects of these violations undermines their own interest. Think of it, in a way, like the Hobbesian argument for the social contract (as opposed to the Rousseauian one), which gives us such a horrifyingly frightening picture of the state of nature that no rationally self-interested person could object.

In principle, I am sympathetic with Schulz's argument, as I am generally hesitant to assume any universally applicable moral or ethical ground upon which one might base a claim for political action (like defending human rights). But what interested me this time around in re-reading Schulz's book was the ease with which he rejected what the Founding Director of Human Rights Watch, Aryeh Neier, famously called (in his 2003 text Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights) "the mobilization of shame." Pace Albert Camus, who once claimed that "there is no evil that cannot be surmounted by scorn," Schulz suspects that scorn is quite often the least effective manner of mobilizing action. The problem, of course, is this: if your interlocutor does not already share some sense of decency, fair play, and moral approbation with you, then it is of no use for you to appeal to his or her violation of that sense. In other words, "shame"-- effective as it might be in the right circumstances-- only works when you are already preaching to the choir.

Even still, I find myself torn about this evaluation. My research on various truth commissions (especially the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Argentinian Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas) led me to believe quite strongly in the power of public shame as an effective alternative, and sometimes supplement, to traditionally punitive or retributive justice. One of the reasons that I was initially drawn to the study of truth commissions is that they seem to exemplify the implicit connection between truth and justice, especially when the "truth" is as horrifying as that of human rights violations. When Nunca Más, the final report of the Argentine truth commission, was published, it became an immediate best-seller, and the fact that it consisted mostly of first-hand accounts of victims made all the truths of Argentina's Guerra Sucia ("Dirty War") a matter of both public shame and public outrage. To bring the matter a bit closer to home, one only needs to be reminded of the public shame that followed in the wake of our government's monumental failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina. So, although I would stop short of Camus' optimism with regard to all of the evils that can be surmounted by scorn, I feel fairly convinced that many can be effectively combatted with shame.

I've always found Jean Paul Sartre's analysis of the power of shame in Being and Nothingness to be quite compelling. There, Sartre suggests that it is only the (implied or real) presence of "the third" that compels us to act rightly. (He does this, brilliantly, through a vignette of a peeping tom who, upon hearing a bump in the hallway, suddenly becomes aware that he--the "watcher"--may also be "watched.") And yet, even I realize the effective limit of this kind of "survellience" morality. My father was a preacher, and I remember him telling me many years ago that "you can't shame anybody into anything." What he meant, I think, was something along the lines of Schulz's intuition-- that is, you can't "shame" someone into making changes in his or her life of which s/he is not already ashamed. But what of those "hidden" shames? What of those "bad faith" shames of which one has not yet become reflectively aware?

My suspicion is, when it comes to human rights violations, that our problem is not that the power of shame would not be activated in people who could be doing more to prevent the violations, but that the truth of the violations remains (consciously or not) hidden from the putative actors. So, unlike Schulz, I am not willing to so easily give up on the mobilization of shame, though I am willing to concede that it is not a power that can be mobilized sans context... like all powers.

The Trouble with Banks

I know embarrassingly little about banking, but even my ignorant ears perked up a bit yesterday afternoon during President Bush's press conference when he said (in response to a question about whether or not he thought banks were in trouble) that "Americans should remember that up to $100,000 of their money in the bank is secured by the federal government." Now, I don't have $100 grand, nor do I ever expect to have that much money in any bank, but when I heard the President make that remark... well, the only thing I could think of was the "run-on-the-bank" scenes from Mary Poppins and It's a Wonderful Life. Then, as if to confirm my impending anxiety, the President smiled, nodded, and quipped: "Look, I'm not an economist. I'm an optimist."

I'm not an economist, either, but whenever Mr.-You're-Doing-A-Heckuva-Job-Brownie (a.k.a., Mr.-Mission-Accomplished) says that he's "optimistic" about something, alarm bells go off in my head.

Then, I read this article about the government's seizure of the bank IndyMac, which predicts that other financial institutions are soon to follow in its wake. (One interesting thing that I learned in that article is that when the government seizes control of a bank ,they call it "conservatorship"-- which, as far as I can tell, sounds a lot like what happens in academia when departments go into "receivership.") Just to pile on a little more to the dread, only this time in a much more close-to-home way, Brian Leiter has recently posted two separate stories about the effects of the economic downturn on the profession of philosophy ("The Brewing Economic Meltdown in the Philosophy Profession" and "Do Senior Faculty Have an Obligation to Retire at Some Point?").

Things do not look good.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What if you were Gerald McGrew?

So, I saw this on anotherpanacea first, and therefore can't take credit for what a great idea it is...

You may remember the story by Dr. Seuss (né, Theodore Seuss Geisel) from 1950 entitled If I Ran the Zoo, in which the pint-sized protagonist, Gerald McGrew, speculates upon the amazing creation he could bring about if he were allowed to run the zoo. If I Ran the Zoo is not only a great story about the never-before-seen exotic animals that would populate "the new zoo, McGrew Zoo," but it also just so happens to contain the first ever documented use of the word "nerd." (All you nerds should be sure to rush out and buy the book immediately, and then show it off to your nerd friends right after wowing them with that little factoid in from the "Nerd History" file.) McGrew's first words in the story are: "It's a pretty good zoo, and the fellow who runs it seems proud of it, too." But "pretty good" can always be better, and McGrew thinks he's just the one to bring "better" about.

Anyway, the National Association of Scholars has asked its readers to indulge in their own little McGrew-ish imaginings of what could be. They want to know what you would do if you ran our particular zoo, that is, American higher education. In the words of NAS: "we have asked contributors to forebear dwelling on what is wrong with the current zoo and instead to tell us in positive terms what they would do to improve it." In the spirit of Dr. Seuss, the NAS places no restrictions on your Academy Zoo proposals-- which should make us all pause to consider that the unrestricted nature of imaginative thought might very well be what is most missing from higher education policy.

I'm putting the same question to readers of this blog who, as far as I can tell, have never wanted for imagination. The Academy is a pretty good zoo-- and the fellows who run it seem proud of it, too--but I think we all know it could be better. What would you do?

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NOTE TO READERS: Since some of the comments to this post are formulated in "Seussian," you should click on the title of this post and then scroll down, in order to read them in their proper format.
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Sunday, July 06, 2008

eSymposium on "The Obama Phenomenon"

I feel very fortunate to have been invited to serve as a respondent for an eSymposium on "The Meaning and Implications of the Obama Phenomenon" over at The Zeleza Post. The Zeleza Post is the web-home for "informed news and commentary on the Pan-African world," and the regular contributors there are among some of the very best African, African-American, and Africana scholars. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is the Head of the African-American Studies Department at the Univeristy of Illinois-Chicago, where he is also a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences. (He also, by the way, was on my dissertation committee at Penn State!)

I hope you take the time to read through the very interesting essays in the eSymposium, including my reponse to the essays by Pius Adesanmi, Wandia Njoya and Corey D.B. Walker.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

How To Be Real-er

I'm a pretty big fan of reality television. Or "reality" television. I like to claim that my primary interest in it is as a cultural phenomenon, but I know that's not completely true. The truth is that I just find it totally fascinating--partially in the same voyeuristic way that everyone else does, but also as a chronicle of all the petty, mean, and utterly banal human weaknesses that manifest themselves when uncomfortably nestled in a world where everything and everyone is surveilled. I realize, of course, that the onslaught of reality TV programming since its inception with MTV's The Real World in 1992 has bombarded us with everything that is imperfect about the human-all-too-human. but those of us who have fallen prey to the rubbernecking draw of reality TV have also seen, at moments, much of what is great and hopeful and promising about our little corner of the animal kingdom as well.

But, alas, reality TV ain't what it used to be. Journalist Kate Mulcrone recently went to "Reality TV School" in New York City, which apparently "teaches wannabe reality stars how to be better versions of themselves." (She chronicled that experience in an article entitled "What I Learned at Reality TV School".) The fact that such a "school" even exists is testimony to the dramatically modified sense of "reality" that such programming is now trying to capture and convey. We all know that programs like The Real World became formulaic after its first few years of success--and that formula (beautiful people + alcohol + semi-manufactured conflict = good drama) has been copied by almost every other reality show that depends on the confluence and conflicts of personalities to make its stories. (The best/worst example of this is probably VH1's family of shows that invlove former Public Enemy hype-man Flavor Flav. It all began with Flav's appearance on The Surreal Life 3, where he fell in love with Brigitte Neilsen, which spun off a new series chronicling their love-that-was-not-meant-to-be called Strange Love. The heartbroken Flavor Flav subsequently sought to find his "true" love on three separate seasons of a dating show called Flavor of Love, which itself spun-off into another 3-season dating show focusing on one of Flav's former paramour's called I Love New York.) Anyway, back to the reality TV school...

One of the things the "students" at reality TV school learn, according to the article, is that everyone must decide "whether or not you want to be the person who consoles the crier or the one who bags on her." As far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty important decision in real (not just "real") life, too. My best friend from college is the Executive Co-Producer of the reality show America's Next Top Model--and we also got our undergraduate degrees in philosophy together--so I've talked to her several times about the various ethical issues raised in and by reality television. For all the bagging the smarter and more cultured among us like to do on these kinds of shows, I think that reality television provides a lot "teachable moments" ripe for imparting moral and ethical instruction. And, unlike the "moral dilemmas" conventionally used in philosophy classrooms-- like standing at the switchboard of a railway and having to decide whether to send a train barelling toward 50 innocent children or your mother-- the dilemmas represented in reality television are ones with which students are more familiar and, many times, those dilemmas are closer to students' actual expreience. That is, these real-world dilemmas seem, well, real-er.

The fact that reality television is built on the premise that everyone and everything is surveilled makes explicit Sartre's intuition that all morality is dependent on the (real or imagined) presence of a "third." Obviously, since we're talking about real (and not imagined) surveillence here, this kind of programming gives us the added opportunity to say some things about the way our collectivities are organized and monitored, too... including our moral and ethical collectivities. I think a course on the ethics of reality TV could be a great course, though it would almost certainly make this infamous list.

[One last thing: a colleague of mine, English professor Marshall Boswell, gave the Convocation address last year, in which Boswell focused on an interesting (and quite funny) play on the similarities and differences between The Real World and the real world. You can watch a recording of that address here. Just scroll down to the middle of the page. It's a really, really good speech.]

Friday, July 04, 2008

Obituaries, Memphis style

From our alternative weekly, The Memphis Flyer:
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Bozo the clown, Jesse the racist
Larry Harmon, the man who popularized the show business character Bozo the Clown, has died of congestive heart failure at the age of 83. Harmon did not create the flame-haired character, but played him in numerous appearances over the years. He purchased the copyright in the 1950s and licensed the character to others, including TV stations across the U.S.

Also passing this week was former North Carolina senator, Jesse Helms, 87. Helms was noted for his opposition to integration, civil rights for African Americans, modern art, AIDS research and treatment, gay rights, foreign aid that included "family planning," and for wanting to make Senator Carol Moseley Braun cry by singing "Dixie" in the Senate elevator.

Trailing in a tough re-election fight in 1990 against a black opponent, Harvey Gantt, Helms produced a campaign ad in which a pair of hands belonging to a white job-seeker crumpled a rejection slip as an announcer explained that the job had been given to an unqualified minority candidate. Helms won the election.

Bozo will be missed.
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You know, I've just got nothing to add to this.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Graying of the Faculty

There's an interesting article in the New York Times today-- "The 60's Begin To Fade As Liberal Professors Retire"-- that touches on a number of issues surrounding what appears to be an impending "generational shift" in the American professorate. According to the author, over 54% of full-time faculty in the United States were over the age of 50 in 2005 (compared with only 22% in 1969), which means that well over half of our current faculty were at least adolescents in the 1960's. The article mostly focuses on this fact, and emphasizes an alleged generational difference between older and younger faculty members in terms of their "ideological" (by which the author seems to mean, primarily, "political") commitments. Older faculty are "ideologically committed" and younger faculty aren't, the story goes, because much of the older faculty spent their formative years embroiled in the social and political maelstrom that was the 60's. As that older "liberal" generation grays and eventually retires, the influence they exerted in shaping the face of the American professorate is transferred, mutatis mutandis, to the less ideologically committed and more moderate generation of junior faculty.

I'm not entirely convinced that it is accurate to describe the younger generation of faculty (according to the article, "younger" means "between 26-35") as lacking ideological "commitment," though I can appreciate the significant differences between the manner in which such commitments are manifest in the 60's generation and how they are manifest in people of my generation. But that's an argument for another day. What really interested me about this article was that, in the course of describing these generational differences between faculty, the author mentions--and then quickly passes over--several phenomena that would serve as legitimate explanations for it. Here are two in particular:

First, there has been a tremendous increase in female faculty-- almost 40% of the total in 2005, compared with a mere 17% in 1969. Of course, I don't cite this statistic as a way of suggesting that women are "less ideologically committed," but rather to point out that the "old" makeup of the professorate was overwhelmingly constituted by men who had the luxury of fully indulging their ideological commitments, at least in part, because their non-ideological commitments (like the care of a home and children) were being handled by someone else.

Second, shrinking economic support for higher education and the increasing shortage of tenure-track jobs have dramatically changed the professional part of what it means to be a member of the American professorate. The younger generation of faculty are described in the article as more conscientiously "careerist," as if those sorts of utilitarian commitments have replaced what would have been our legitimate "ideological" commitments because we were molded in the cushy, mostly peaceful and relatively prosperous days of the 90's. It seems to me to be a real mistake to assume that some sort of autonomous re-prioritization of values is the reason that junior faculty are more "careerist," rather than attributing that phenomenon to the very real economic and professional pressures under which junior faculty now labor.

To be fair, the article does acknowledge these two points. It just doesn't seem to give them the weight they merit, I think, especially since they are far more helpful in elucidating the real effects of an impending generational change than some romantic re-creation of "the 60's radical professor." All due respect to those illustrious radical profs, of course.

One last thing: I hope that the 60's generation of professors doesn't retire too quickly, because I think there is one very important thing that they know, and we will soon need to know, which will probably bind us together more than anyone has yet anticipated. That is, they know what it's like to have "veterans" as students. It is a fact that, in the coming years, more and more college students will be entering the classroom after exiting a war. They will be radically different people, with radically different experiences of the world, than we junior professors were or had when we were in college. (You can listen to three of them tell their stories in "Iraq veterans on campus.") I've only had three students "back from Iraq" so far in my teaching experience--2 at Penn State and 1 here at Rhodes--but I could already see an inkling of the tremendous disconnect not only between their lives and mine, but also between their lives and that of their classmates. I'm sure that, at this point, the endless analogies between Vietnam and Iraq can seem tiresome... but I think this is one for which we have not yet fully prepared.