Forget about red wheelbarrows
So much more depends upon being regular. Consider how history might have been different if Hitler had had more peaceable bowels:
Guests at the Berghof, Hitler's private chalet in the Bavarian Alps, must have endured some unpleasant odors in the otherwise healthful mountain air.
It may sound like a Woody Allen scenario, but medical historians are unanimous that Adolf was the victim of uncontrollable flatulence. Spasmodic stomach cramps, constipation and diarrhea, possibly the result of nervous tension, had been Hitler's curse since childhood and only grew more severe as he aged. As a stressed-out dictator, the agonizing digestive attacks would occur after most meals: Albert Speer recalled that the Fuhrer, ashen-faced, would leap up from the dinner table and disappear to his room.
This was an embarrassing problem for a ruthless leader of the Third Reich. With uncharacteristic concern for his fellow human beings, Hitler had first tried to cure himself when he was a rising politician in 1929 by poring over medical manuals, coming to the conclusion that a largely veg diet would calm his turbulent digestion as well as make his farts less offensive to the nose. A rabid hypochondriac, he would also examine his own feces on a regular basis and administer himself camomile enemas. Hitler decided to swear off meat completely in 1931, when his niece (and presumed romantic interest) Geli Raubel committed suicide: When presented with a plate of breakfast ham the next morning, he pushed it away muttering, "It's like eating a corpse." From that squeamish moment on, great piles of vegetables, raw or pulped into a baby mulch, were Hitler's daily staple. (All cooked foods, he decided, were carcinogenic). He showed a particular fondness, culinary historians assure us, for oatmeal with linseed oil, cauliflower, cottage cheese, boiled apples, artichoke hearts and asparagus tips in white sauce. Strangely, Hitler was unfazed by the fact that this high-fiber diet was having the opposite effect on his digestion than what he had intended: His private physician, Dr. Theo Morell, recorded in his diary that after Hitler downed a typical vegetable platter, "constipation and colossal flatulence occurred on a scale I have seldom encountered before."
Hitler's stomach problems may even have played their part in his losing the war, thanks to this shadowy figure of Dr. Morell, an incompetent quack who took over Hitler’s medical care in 1937. The pair had met at a Christmas gathering in the Berghof, the bucolic mountain retreat decorated with Bavarian knick-knacks and edelweiss, the year before. Morrell was an unpleasant figure even by Nazi standards--grossly obese, with frog-like features, sulfurous B.O. and venomous halitosis. But when he cured a painful case of eczema on Hitler's legs and provided temporary relief for his stomach cramps, the Fuhrer was won over. To the irritation of other Nazi doctors, Hitler then proceeded to swallow any of Morell's advice, no matter how hair-brained, for the next eight years.
For example, to combat recurrences of the volcanic stomach problems, Morell plied him with a remedy called "Dr. Koster's Anti-gas pills," which contained significant amounts of strychnine--and Hitler often took as many as 16 of the little black pills a day. The sallow skin, glaucous eyes and attention lapses noted by observers later in the war are consistent with strychnine poisoning; another ingredient in the pills, antropine, causes mood wings from euphoria to violent anger. Even more peculiar were the injections of amphetamines that Morell administered every morning before breakfast from 1941, which may have exacerbated the erratic behavior, inflexibility, paranoia and indecision that Hitler began to display increasingly as the war ground on. And there was a barrage of other supplements -- vitamins, testosterone, liver extracts, laxatives, sedatives, glucose and opiates, all intended to combat the dictator’s real or imagined ailments. After the war, U.S. intelligence officers discovered that Morell was pumping Hitler with 28 different drugs, including eye-drops that contained 10 percent cocaine (up to 10 treatment a day), a concoction made from human placenta and "potency pills" made from ground bull's testicles. But despite the barrage of medicines, Morell's diaries (which were recovered from Germany and are kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) make clear that the bouts of "agonizing flatulence" remained a regular occurrence.
A relatively healthy man when he met Morell, Hitler degenerated quickly towards the end of the war until he was a physical wreck. Hitler's arms were so riddled with hypodermic marks that even the normally passive Eva Braun complained to her mother about Morell as "the injection quack." When Hitler came down with jaundice in 1944, three Nazi doctors tried to have Morell fired. But the Fuhrer remained fiercely loyal--or just as likely, addicted to his chemical cocktails--and dismissed the trio of troublemakers instead. Morell stayed with Hitler in the Bunker almost until the bitter end, as his patient began to fall apart completely (and a tremor in his left hand became uncontrollable, a probable symptom of advancing Parkinson's disease). On April 20, 1945, days before the Russians took Berlin, Hitler suddenly refused Morell's hypodermic, ordered him to strip off his uniform and leave. Desperately ill himself, Morell was soon captured by the U.S. Army and kept in prison for two years of interrogations, but was never charged with war crimes. He was hospitalized immediately after his release and died in 1948.
If he had not been so cravenly devoted to Hitler, a hero-worship he expressed over and again to U.S. interrogators, one might have thought Morell a spy. It was a suspicion that had occurred to other Nazis, especially during the 1944 jaundice attack. Heinrich Himmler interrogated Morell's assistant Richard Weber in Berlin's Gestapo Headquarters about whether the doctor was deliberately poisoning the Fuhrer with his treatments. "Out of the question," Weber replied. "Morell's too big a coward for that."
This episode brings new meaning to the notion of being gutless.
Close your eyes and think of ...
It's long been clear that the English have lost their minds when it comes to multiculturalism in the schools. Here's just one example:
A school was yesterday accused of making teachers dress up as Asians for a day--to celebrate a Muslim festival.
Kids at the 257-pupil primary have also been told to don ethnic garb even though most are Christians.
The morning assembly will be open to all parents--but dads are barred from a women-only party in the afternoon because Muslim husbands object to wives mixing with other men.
Just two members of staff--a part-time teacher and a teaching assistant--are Muslim.
Yesterday a relative of one of the 39 others said: "Staff have got to go along with it--or let's face it, they would be branded racist.
"Who would put their job on the line? They have been told they have to embrace the day to show their diversity. But they are not all happy."
The day aims to belatedly mark Eid, the end of Ramadan.
Sally Bloomer, head of Rufford primary school in Lye, West Midlands, insisted: "I have not heard of any complaints.
"It's all part of a diversity project to promote multi-culturalism."
Sally Bloomer needs to consider the possibility that people know better than to bring complaints about indoctrination to the indoctrinator--especially when they aren't suckers for punishment.
FIRE wrote to Delaware's president--but it was the vice president of student life who responded. The letter is oddly disingenuous, suggesting that the residential life program actually promotes free expression rather than curtailing it; suggesting that FIRE, the students who objected to the program, and even some of the RAs who implemented it did not understand it; and making a painfully sad attempt to suggest that the real offender here is FIRE, which has shown woeful disrespect for Delaware's students by assuming that they could ever be indoctrinated by a program so ham-handed as ... the one Delaware currently has in place. Read it here, and also see the press release. Having already drawn a comparison between Delaware's program and Orwell's 1984, FIRE is not likely to have too much trouble dismantling Delaware's self-excusing doublespeak.
More on Delaware
FIRE's letter to Delaware's president, board of trustees, and others masterfully conveys what's wrong with the doctrinaire residential program, outlines the legal landmines therein, and offers additional insight into exactly what the residential life folks at UD are trying to force down students' throats. Worth a read:
October 29, 2007
Patrick T. Harker
University of Delaware
104 Hullihen Hall
Newark, Delaware 19716
Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (302-831-1297)
Dear President Harker:
As you can see from our Directors and Board of Advisors, FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, due process, the right of conscience, and academic freedom on America's college campuses. Our website, www.thefire.org, will give you a fuller sense of our identity and activities.
FIRE is gravely concerned about the threat to freedom of conscience posed by the University of Delaware's residence life education program. FIRE writes to dozens of schools each year in defense of students' individual rights, but we have never encountered a more systematic assault upon the individual liberty, dignity, privacy, and autonomy of university students than this program. The program--referred to in the university's internal materials as a "treatment" designed to alter student beliefs and behaviors--requires students to adopt highly specific university-approved views on issues ranging from politics to sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy, and even science. These views are reinforced through a comprehensive manipulation of the residence hall environment, from required meetings and one-on-one sessions all the way to door decorations. The program brazenly invades students' privacy and forces them to confess their "privilege" or their "oppression." Students' progress towards the desired outcome is recorded by Resident Assistants (RAs) and reported to their superiors. Such utter contempt for the autonomy and free agency of others is the hallmark of totalitarianism and has no place in any free society, let alone at a public university in the state of Delaware.
The following is FIRE's understanding of the program. Please inform us if you believe we are in error. The University of Delaware has adopted a "curricular approach to residence education" based on attaining the educational outcome of "citizenship," which the Office of Residence Life defines as "understanding how your thoughts, values, beliefs, and actions affect the people with whom you live and recogniz[ing] your responsibility to contribute to a sustainable society at a local, national, and global level." With this overall outcome in mind, the Office of Residence Life has articulated numerous "competencies" that all students "must develop in order to become fully functional and effective citizens towards a sustainable society after they leave the University of Delaware campus." (Emphasis added.) Each of the university's residence halls has a different "complex curriculum" that incorporates these competencies. These competencies include: "Students will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society," "Students will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression," and "Students will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality."
The approximately 7,000 students living in the university's eight housing complexes (in which most freshmen, those not living with family nearby, are required by the university to live) are required to attend training sessions, floor meetings, and one-on-one meetings with their RAs. At these training sessions, such as the mandatory diversity training session attended by students from the Rodney complex, students are introduced to the views the university believes they must hold on a wide range of issues such as internalized and institutionalized racism, diversity, environmentalism, and social justice. The diversity training provided to RAs--who then facilitate diversity training sessions for students--provides insight into some of the specific beliefs the university wishes to impose on its students. For example, RAs attended an August 2007 "diversity facilitation training" session at which they received a list of "definitions and descriptions of racism." Those definitions included: "A RACIST: A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality"; "REVERSE RACISM: A term created and used by white people to deny their white privilege"; and "A NON-RACIST: A non term. The term was created by whites to deny responsibility for systemic racism...." (Emphases added.)
At floor meetings, which are also often mandatory, students are required to participate in various intrusive activities designed to further inculcate them with the university's approved ideology. In one exercise, students are made to line up and are asked questions about their social identities. Based on their answers, they have to step forward or backward. In another exercise, students "walk in the shoes" of someone from another group, and they are later asked to reflect with their RAs on the stereotypes they hold.
At one-on-one meetings, students discuss these issues in greater depth with their RAs. At the Central complex, for instance, RAs follow a "pre-established lesson plan." RAs write up their "best" and "worst" one-on-one sessions and deliver these reports to their superiors. These write-ups make absolutely clear that students are expected to adopt the university's ideology; if they do not, students risk being identified by their RAs as the "worst" students in the residence life education program. One student identified by a Russell complex RA as having the "worst" one-on-one session was a young woman who stated that she was tired of having "diversity shoved down her throat" and who responded to the question "When did you discover your sexual identity?" by stating "That is none of your damn business." Another student identified as having an RA's "worst" one-on-one stated that she did not understand why the university "force[s] all this diversity stuff" on its students.
At various points in the program, students are also pressured or even required to take actions that outwardly indicate their agreement with the university’s ideology, regardless of their personal beliefs. In the Dickinson complex, for example, students are told to display on their room doors a door decoration representing the interlocking circles of the "triple bottom line" of sustainability, which the university defines as "the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality, and social equity." At one-on-one meetings with their RAs, Dickinson students are also asked to commit to reducing their ecological footprint by at least 20% before their next one-on-one meetings. In the Russell complex, students must participate in a "cultural plunge," which is defined as "an experience that forces the student to leave his/her comfort zone and surround him/herself with people of which [sic] s/he has never interacted on a personal level before." (Emphasis added). At various points throughout the year, Russell students are also required to advocate for a social group that is oppressed as well as for a "sustainable world."
In the Office of Residence Life's internal materials, these programs are described using the harrowing language of ideological reeducation. For example, the "assessment plan" for the Gilbert/Harrington complex curriculum states that "through the Gilbert/Harrington curriculum experience (a treatment) specific attitudinal or behavioral changes (learning) will occur." The Russell complex curriculum's assessment plan similarly asks: "What is [students'] attitude and/or values about those specific social identities after the treatment?" The fact that the university views its students as patients in need of "treatment" for their incorrect attitudes reveals the university's utter lack of respect both for its students and for the fundamental right to freedom of conscience. And the university's definition of learning not as a process of acquiring knowledge or technical skill, but rather as the attainment of specific attitudinal or behavioral changes, represents a distorted idea of "education" that one would more easily associate with a Soviet prison camp than with an American institution of higher education. As another example, after an investigation showed that males demonstrated "a higher degree of resistance to educational efforts," the Rodney complex chose to hire "strong male RAs." Each such RA "combats male residents' concepts of traditional male identity," in order to "ensure the delivery of the curriculum at the same level as in the female floors." This language is disturbingly reminiscent of a pivotal scene from George Orwell's 1984, in which the protagonist's captors tell him that "The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.
The curriculum is assessed in many ways to determine whether student beliefs, values, and attitudes have changed. In the Ray Street complex, students keep a portfolio that includes worksheets designed by the complex coordinator to measure student contributions to the community. Students there also develop a co-curricular transcript. Such individual files are kept on each student and then archived. Participation at activities is monitored, and freshmen who are not participating are asked to participate in focus groups to determine why. In the Russell complex, students are surveyed to determine whether they would be comfortable being close friends with or dating people of different races, sexes, and sexual preferences and are asked how comfortable they are with their own various "identities." Progress is apparently determined by examining whether there is an increasing proportion of "right" answers over time.
Somehow, the University of Delaware seems terrifyingly unaware that a state-sponsored institution of higher education in the United States does not have the legal right to engage in a program of systematic thought reform. The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of conscience--the right to keep our innermost thoughts free from governmental intrusion. It also protects the right to be free from compelled speech. As the Supreme Court declared in the landmark case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943): "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." The Court concluded that "the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution" was precisely to protect "from all official control" the domain that was "the sphere of intellect and spirit." The University of Delaware's residence life education program is an unconscionable and unconstitutional incursion into the private conscience of students whose greatest offense is simply choosing the University of Delaware and living in the dormitories.
The legal problems posed by the residence life education program are abundant and cut to the core of the most essential rights of a free people. Possible claims against the university for operating such a program include violations of the right to privacy as well as federal and state constitutional claims for having and enforcing an unconstitutional speech code, for compelling people to speak against their will (something that has been anathema to free societies since long before the Barnette case), and for violations of the right to freedom of conscience. Simply put, the residence life education program is a legal minefield.
To be clear, however, FIRE is not a litigation organization, and our objection to this program is far more than legalistic. What makes this program so offensive is its brazen disregard for autonomy, dignity, and individual conscience, and the sheer contempt it displays for all of the university's incoming students.
As aggressive as civil liberties organizations like FIRE may seem, at the heart of all concepts relating to freedom of the mind is a recognition of our own limitations--like us, those in power are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and therefore have no right to dictate to others what their deepest personal beliefs must be. Concerns for free speech and freedom of conscience are rooted in the wisdom of humility and restraint. The residence life education program, which presumes to show students the specific ideological assumptions they need in order to be better people, crosses the boundary from education into unconscionably arrogant, invasive, and immoral thought reform. We can conceive of no way in which the residence life education program can be maintained consistent with the ideals of a free society.
We ask for nothing less than the immediate and total dismantling of the residence life education program.
If the University of Delaware wishes to continue its sociological and psychological experiments, it should seek its test subjects elsewhere. Because of the severe and ongoing rights violations in this case, FIRE asks for your response by November 5, 2007. We look forward to hearing from you.
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy
Howard E. Cosgrove, Chairman, Board of Trustees of the University of Delaware
Robert A. Fischer, Jr., Vice Chairman, Board of Trustees of the University of Delaware
Robert W. Gore, Vice Chairman, Board of Trustees of the University of Delaware
Kathleen Kerr, Director of Residence Life, University of Delaware
Jim Tweedy, Associate Director for Residence Life, University of Delaware
Michele Kane, Assistant Director for Residence Education, University of Delaware
Catherine Skelley, Assistant Director for Community Standards, University of Delaware
Dena Kniess, Christiana Towers Complex Coordinator, University of Delaware
Samanta Lopez, Central Complex Coordinator, University of Delaware
Michael R. Diesner, Independence Complex Coordinator, University of Delaware
Sami Nassim, Russell Complex Coordinator, University of Delaware
Sendy Guerrier, Dickinson Complex Coordinator, University of Delaware
Jimmy Howard, Rodney Complex Coordinator, University of Delaware
Lulu Kaliher, Ray Street Complex Coordinator, University of Delaware
Jacqueline Winslow, Gilbert Harrington Complex Coordinator, University of Delaware
Kathryn Goldman, Director of Judicial Affairs, University of Delaware
John A. Brennan, Director of Public Relations, University of Delaware
Monica Marie Taylor, Vice President for University Development and Alumni Relations, University of Delaware
Wesley Case, Editor-in-Chief, The Review, University of Delaware
I think you'd have to be wired wrong not to see what Delaware is doing as prurient, obscene, even, on some level, pornographic.
Alumni and parents, take note. Delaware legislators, too.
October 30, 2007
FIRE is focussing on the University of Delaware, which subjects the students living in on-campus housing to what sounds like a relentless and intrusive campaign to compel them not only to expose their private beliefs and preferences, but also to conform them to institutional ideological norms.
University of Delaware Requires Students to Undergo Ideological Reeducation
NEWARK, Del., October 30, 2007--The University of Delaware subjects students in its residence halls to a shocking program of ideological reeducation that is referred to in the university's own materials as a "treatment" for students' incorrect attitudes and beliefs. The Orwellian program requires the approximately 7,000 students in Delaware's residence halls to adopt highly specific university-approved views on issues ranging from politics to race, sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy, and environmentalism. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling for the total dismantling of the program, which is a flagrant violation of students' rights to freedom of conscience and freedom from compelled speech.
"The University of Delaware's residence life education program is a grave intrusion into students' private beliefs," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "The university has decided that it is not enough to expose its students to the values it considers important; instead, it must coerce its students into accepting those values as their own. At a public university like Delaware, this is both unconscionable and unconstitutional."
The university's views are forced on students through a comprehensive manipulation of the residence hall environment, from mandatory training sessions to "sustainability" door decorations. Students living in the university's eight housing complexes are required to attend training sessions, floor meetings, and one-on-one meetings with their Resident Assistants (RAs). The RAs who facilitate these meetings have received their own intensive training from the university, including a "diversity facilitation training" session at which RAs were taught, among other things, that "[a] racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality."
The university suggests that at one-on-one sessions with students, RAs should ask intrusive personal questions such as "When did you discover your sexual identity?" Students who express discomfort with this type of questioning often meet with disapproval from their RAs, who write reports on these one-on-one sessions and deliver these reports to their superiors. One student identified in a write-up as an RA's "worst" one-on-one session was a young woman who stated that she was tired of having "diversity shoved down her throat."
According to the program's materials, the goal of the residence life education program is for students in the university's residence halls to achieve certain "competencies" that the university has decreed its students must develop in order to achieve the overall educational goal of "citizenship." These competencies include: "Students will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society," "Students will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression," and "Students will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality."
At various points in the program, students are also pressured or even required to take actions that outwardly indicate their agreement with the university’s ideology, regardless of their personal beliefs. Such actions include displaying specific door decorations, committing to reduce their ecological footprint by at least 20%, taking action by advocating for an "oppressed" social group, and taking action by advocating for a "sustainable world."
In the Office of Residence Life's internal materials, these programs are described using the harrowing language of ideological reeducation. In documents relating to the assessment of student learning, for example, the residence hall lesson plans are referred to as "treatments."
In a letter sent yesterday to University of Delaware President Patrick Harker, FIRE pointed out the stark contradiction between the residence life education program and the values of a free society. FIRE's letter to President Harker also underscored the University of Delaware’s legal obligation to abide by the First Amendment. FIRE reminded Harker of the Supreme Court's decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), a case decided during World War II that remains the law of the land. Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the Court, declared, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
"The fact that the university views its students as patients in need of treatment for some sort of moral sickness betrays a total lack of respect not only for students' basic rights, but for students themselves," Lukianoff said. "The University of Delaware has both a legal and a moral obligation to immediately dismantle this program, and FIRE will not rest until it has."
Note how the concept of "competence" is used to license attempts to press students into accepting the views, and the prying, of the school; note, too, how the school is using students (in the form of residential advisors) to push its agenda as well as to report on students who don't buy in. Note also how the environment has joined the list of categories about which the university wishes to regulate students' views (that one has been brewing for some time--I think of it as the stealth PC category).
So what should the good president of U Delaware do? He can't defend this. But his "competency" will be compromised if he claims he knew nothing about it. Should he find himself a nice scapegoat to fire? How can he make reparation (a word the folks at fault here will know well) to the students and families whose rights and trust he has allowed his school to violate?
Comments are welcome. Please type away after your waves of disgust diminish.
October 29, 2007
Not all hate counts
When the GWU campus was papered with anti-Muslim flyers purporting to be the work of the campus conservative group, GWU president Steven Knapp was up in arms: "We do not condone, and we will not tolerate, the dissemination of fliers or other documents that vilify any religious, ethnic, or racial group," he said in a release. The insinuation of forthcoming punishment was clear.
Knapp is tooting the same horn this week in response to swastikas that have appeared on the door of a Jewish student: "There is no place for such things at this or any other university," Knapp said in a press release. "We do not condone, and we will not tolerate, the posting of images or texts that vilify any religious, ethnic, or racial group."
My question is: How come some kinds of hateful speech won't be condoned at GWU, while others will? When it was found that the anti-Muslim flyers were not the work of the GW Young America's Foundation--which vociferously repudiated them--but were, rather transparently, the work of students wishing to smear that group, suddenly the flyers weren't hateful any more, and suddenly the vows to punish were dropped.
Message: it's just fine to frame campus conservatives as intolerant bigots; this is one group toward whom intolerance and bigotry are acceptable at GWU.
Yes, I know that YAF sponsored GWU's iteration of Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, and that this has enraged plenty of people. But there is a difference between legitimate, controversial speech--which by definition is often unwelcome--and the sort of fraudulent libel undertaken by those who posted the flyer under YAF's name. GWU is "investigating" the event, but there is no word yet about whether the students responsible will be sanctioned. Ironically, the grounds upon which punishment might be meted out is failure to get approval for posting the flyer. No free speech at GWU, and no viewpoint neutrality, any way you look at it.
UPDATE: A letter from the GWU YAF to Knapp notes that the GWU administration pressured YAF members to sign the equivalent of a loyalty oath to pre-emptively demonstrate their disapproval of anti-Muslim hate speech--and urges the University to stop behavior that issues from hostile assumptions about the motives and ethics of conservative students. Knapp's response ignores that part of the letter.
October 26, 2007
Quote for the day
Martin Amis, on being a writer:
Well, it is a sort of sedentary, carpet slippers, self-inspecting, nose-picking, arse-scratching kind of job, just you in your study and there is absolutely no way round that. So, anyone who is in it for worldly gains and razzmatazz I don't think will get very far at all.
That's a pretty good description of being an academic, too. All the teaching and the meetings are clearly marked within academic culture as distractions from and interruptions of the real work, which is done in writing, in private. That's a big reason why the politics are so virulent and nasty. You've got an awful lot of lonely, poorly socialized, self-important, insecure people locked away in offices, isolated and ambitious and bored and yearning for glory but afraid to come out and angry at those who do. I speak, of course, for the humanities.
Amis is himself the target of some of this nastiness at the moment, having dared to have views that don't coincide with his new colleague, Terry Eagleton. For that great crime, Eagleton has subjected Amis to so nasty a verbal lashing that UCL English professor John Sutherland thinks he may well have compromised Amis's ability to function in the classroom, which he has, for the first time, entered this fall.
Sutherland does not mince words, describing Eagleton's attack as the "Mother of All Academic Bombs" and characterizing the ensuing ruckus as a "shitstorm":
If the most authoritative political voice on campus labels a colleague (albeit on the rhetorical rebound) a bigot and a racist, is that colleague's position tenable? Can Amis, with Eagleton's taunts bouncing off the classroom wall, competently teach classes in which there will be Muslims, Jews, gays and women? What should his response be: dignified silence? Eloquent refutation? Beautiful indifference? Disgusted resignation? Protest to the Senate? Is Eagleton too big a beast on campus to be reprimanded for uncollegial conduct - if that is felt necessary by the university authorities? Or perhaps they agree with their professor of cultural theory.
The shit will keep on swirling yet awhile
Amis, for his part, plans to be both a responsible, gentle tutor and a dedicated student of campus culture--with an eye, perhaps, to writing a novel about it all. Perhaps Eagleton will make an appearance. Certainly he's already transcending any caricature that could possibly be made of him, and that's a requirement for the special sort of realism one finds in campus fiction.
We've heard a lot about how collegiality criteria offer faculties a means of firing colleagues who don't conform to political and social institutional norms. That's what nearly happened to KC Johnson, whose big crime was that he criticized the ideological one-sidedness of departmental decisionmaking and urged that merit, and not genetics, be the deciding factor in hiring.
And it's unfortunately what happened to Norman Finkelstein. Say what you will about his scholarship and his scholarly deportment, the fact remains that his case was scuppered the moment a dean decided to invoke collegiality as a reason to stall and eventually upset his case. There may be good arguments for why Finkelstein's scholarship is not sound--many have argued that his hostile manner of engaging his critics interferes with the quality of his work. But those arguments should have been made in their place, and should have formed part of the formal review of his work. Bringing in collegiality late in the game was a big mistake on DePaul's part, and set a terrible precedent.
Anyhow--that's by way of saying that there's another way departments justify getting rid of faculty members whose work may by all accounts be all that it ought to be and more, but who have nonetheless not managed to "fit in." And that, if I didn't just give it away, is to invoke "fit." "Fit" is a great way to get rid of faculty members one doesn't like, and it's an especially good way--broad, vague, by definition subjective and visceral and beyond quantification--to fire people who make one uncomfortable, whether for political reasons or for more procedural ones having to do with one's comfy, perhaps dysfunctional professional norms.
Consider the case of "Alison Wunderland," who pseudonymously explains why her hard work and measurable success as a teacher and scholar were not enough to secure her place at her first job:
By the time of my third-year review, I was feeling confident about my performance. My file was huge. In six semesters not only had I finished and defended my dissertation, I had prepared eight new courses from scratch with myriad tailored assignments and teaching aids, created a new concentration for the college curriculum, and spent hours mentoring students, including taking them to conferences and on field trips. But not to be over-balanced in the teaching area, I also had written nine articles and papers of various sorts, participated in over a half-dozen conferences and symposia around the country, served on college advisory boards, committees and panels, pulled strings from my graduate days to bring in important speakers, received five awards from top research libraries to work on my manuscript as well as interest from top presses, and got rave reviews from students and colleagues alike, inside and outside the college.
I wasn't nervous when Fuddydud told me she wanted to meet so she could convey to me the sense of the department about my performance. Again what she said astounded me. But now she had pinned the problem down a bit more. I was working "too hard," I didn’t know how to "prioritize," and what I was producing was "too good."
I couldn't fathom what she meant at first. I pressed her for explanations and examples, but got only vague and unsatisfying answers. Clearly there was an issue of "fit." I had heard about fit. When a department can't or won't be explicit about what they don't like about a candidate for tenure, it's about fit. So I didn't fit well with the department, but I didn't know why.
On paper at least, the fit looked great. I had all the requirements covered and then some. I got along well with my colleagues and had a growing following of devoted students. But as I pondered the few hints Fuddydud gave me and began to think seriously about the culture of the school and the department, the problem began to come into focus. It was exactly that I was exceeding expectations that was the trouble, especially in my teaching.
Then I took a good look around me and saw things clearly for the first time. I had colleagues who showed movies several times a week, some who routinely came to class 20 minutes late or not at all, and others who freely admitted that they prefer it when their students don’t show up. Students said that when Professor Slackjob assigned a 20-page paper, they usually wrote five pages and printed them four times. They got A's and B's.
Of course, it's hard to imagine not thinking about "fit" when hiring in any organization. But it's crucial also to think about how "fit" can be abused.
What Wunderland is describing--however smugly--is a believable, recognizable culture of academic mediocrity in which the entrenched have all agreed to dumb down their standards and feel both threatened and dissed by a young upstart who doesn't buy in and whose hard work thus makes them all look lazy and bad.
Her nascent snotty attitude--palpable, even in this short piece--becomes a working piece of the problem, too. Once she notices that those around her are not exactly responsible, and once she realizes that she would be better liked and more highly evaluated if she asked less of students and did less herself, she can't help but begin to feel some contempt for the folks she so tellingly names--Professors Queenbee, Fuddydud, and Slackjob are all recognizable, in a classically Fieldingesque sort of way (if only there had also been a Thwackum and a Square).
"Fit is important for new faculty. It can mean a happy career or no career. To 'fit' in academia means to conform to the culture of the institution," Wunderland writes. And right there she hits the problem on the head. Did you catch it? She's identifying "fit" with conformity. She's acknowledging that the tenure system is really just a glorified club, and that the bottom line for entry is not the quality of your work, but the thoroughness of your assimilation into the local culture.
Mark Bauerlein is our best chronicler of how this works, in all its dirty dimensions. Check out his seminal article, "Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual," if you haven't already. Bauerlein is explaining how political outlooks get established as academic professional norms, but his analysis can be applied more broadly to general issues of competence. All politics aside, Alison Wunderland offended her colleagues by not being like them and by harboring different beliefs; her ideas about professionalism and competence did not tally with theirs, and made theirs look like the shams they were. She clearly wasn't a good fit. But that doesn't mean that she was the problem.
October 25, 2007
Thoughts for the day
In the ongoing battle to shore up a bankrupt and intellectually dishonest reworking of academic freedom, several prominent academics have formed an Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University. They are collecting signatures for support, and are an example of righteous, politicized academic conformity at work. One wonders how many of the signatories really understand what the issues are, really grasp what the concept of academic freedom is, and really know anything other than that their honored leaders are up in arms and want them to be, too.
My thoughts on the whole thing are elaborated here.
October 23, 2007
Palpitating for credit
The Tunnel of Oppression has been making the campus rounds for a few years now, introducing vulnerable students everywhere to the manipulative sensitizing tactics of campus tolerance guerillas. Now, the University of Arizona has decided to offer credit for this dubious enterprise:
A new class is allowing students to shape the content of next month's Tunnel of Oppression event.
This is the first year EDL 281 - Event Planning and Leadership/The Tunnel of Oppression, a two-credit class, has been offered, said Kara Curcio, the course instructor and a Residence Life hall director. There are 15 students enrolled in the class.
Formerly organized by Residence Life's El Mundo Diversity Committee and volunteers, the Tunnel of Oppression will now take on a new perspective through the eyes of the students, Curcio said.
"I think it has been really interesting to hear what students have seen on campus, and we're definitely reaching out to a different population of students," she said.
The students get to research and choose which events they want to incorporate into the tunnel. Curcio said the two main areas of focus have been the ongoing genocide in Darfur and body-image issues.
The Tunnel of Oppression consists of a set of scenarios in which students act and role-play different situations centered around the "-isms" of discrimination, including racism and sexism, as well as homophobia, disorders and genocide, said Sharon Overstreet, Residence Life associate director for residential education.
"It's really interesting to watch the students, because it's mostly them teaching one another through the experiences they've had in life as well as on campus," she said.
After touring the tunnel, students process the experience with a facilitator and reflect on what they have learned, Overstreet said.
The first half of the semester, the students focused on the academic side of the class, she said. Now, they are broken into different groups that focus on the specifics of the event, such as marketing, acting and reservations.
Acting auditions were held last night and will be held again tonight in the conference center at El Portal, 501 N. Highland Ave., from 6-9 p.m., Overstreet said. Auditions will continue Friday from 1-5 p.m. and are open to anyone in the UA community.
"I've taken a lot of classes in diversity and now I can apply everything I've learned," said Natalie Boras, a psychology sophomore and a member of the budgeting and reservations groups.
"We're trying to spread awareness about oppression," Boras added. "It's kind of like community service in a class."
The class was proposed by both the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership and Amanda Kraus, Residence Life coordinator of graduate and international housing.
"(Kraus) thought it would be a good idea to recommend we have a class for this, and the education department ended up sponsoring the class," Overstreet said.
The class is also working with Greek Life for help with funding and promotion, the Residence Hall Association, which is providing volunteers, and the University Activities Board.
I don't care if students want to organize something like this on their own time. I think it's a waste of time, but I don't care whether they do it. I do think that Arizona is crossing a line when it decides to offer academic credit and financial sponsorship for a patently ideological undertaking that, by the participants' own admission, bears more relationship to community service and consciousness raising than to scholarly endeavor.
October 22, 2007
It's good to see Stanley Fish taking a stand on the AAUP's warped "Freedom in the Classroom" statement. He takes the thing apart--and in the process, casts a quiet raised eyebrow at those who have endorsed the statement as reasonable and fair.
... the report takes a wrong turn when the contextual criterion of "professional standards" is replaced by the abstract criterion of "connectedness" (the left's version of "balance"). In response to the Students for Academic Freedom's insistence that professors "should not be making statements ... about George Bush if the class is not on contemporary American presidents," the subcommittee offers this grand, and empty, pronouncement: "[A]ll knowledge can be connected to all other knowledge." But if the test for bringing a piece of "knowledge" into the classroom is the possibility of connecting it to the course's ostensible subject, nothing will ever fail it, and the only limitation on the topics that can be introduced will be the instructor's ingenuity.
My point is made for me by the subcommittee when it proposes a hypothetical as a counterexample to the stricture laid down by the Students for Academic Freedom: "Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up 'Moby Dick,' a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville's novel?"
But with what motive would the teacher initiate such a discussion? If you look at commentaries on "Moby Dick," you will find Ahab characterized as inflexible, monomaniacal, demonic, rigid, obsessed and dictatorial. What you don't find are words like generous, kind, caring, cosmopolitan, tolerant, far-seeing and wise. Thus the invitation to consider parallels between Ahab and Bush is really an invitation to introduce into the classroom (and by the back door) the negative views of George Bush held by many academics.
If the intention were, as claimed, to produce insight into Melville's character, there are plenty of candidates in literature for possible parallels--Milton's Satan, Marlowe's Faust, Byron's Cain, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Shakespeare's Iago, Jack London's Wolf Larsen, to name a few. Nor would it have been any better if an instructor had invited students to find parallels between George Bush and Aeneas, or Henry the Fifth, or Atticus Finch, for then the effect would have been to politicize teaching from the other (pro-Bush) direction.
By offering this example, the report's authors validate the very accusation they are trying to fend off, the accusation that the academy's leftward tilt spills over into the classroom. No longer writing for the American Association of University Professors, the subcommittee is instead writing for the American Association of University Professors Who Hate George Bush (admittedly a large group). Why do its members not see that? Because once again they reason from an abstract theoretical formulation to a conclusion about what instructors can properly do.
And also, I think, because they aren't necessarily reasoning well at all. If you can't see the problem with the Bush-Ahab example instantly, then you're blinded to the problem in a way no convoluted reasoning process is likely to fix (you're also not much of a teacher--but that's for another post another time). Fish does a good job in his column of showing that the AAUP has basically lost its mind--and with it, its moral compass. And in so doing, his response to the statement poses a moral challenge to those who have already endorsed it, and who have dismissed analogous critiques of it as themselves doctrinaire.
October 21, 2007
Don't go ask Alice
It's not every day that you see a critic get as patently angry at the work he is reviewing as Lee Siegel gets at Alice Sebold's new novel. After a comparatively temperate wind-up, during which you just wonder a lot whether Siegel is making fun of Sebold, or whether he is making fun of readers who like Sebold, he lets her have it:
If you welcome the unreal disjunction between killing your mother and reflecting afterward how lucky you are compared with the children of the dead, "uncared for" mothers in Rwanda and Afghanistan, then this book will make you clap your hands with joy. If you find the idea that mothers shape their children's "whole" lives original rather than simultaneously banal and puerilely overstated, then Barnes & Noble, here you come! This novel is so morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent that it's bound to become a best seller.
Sebold is mining a popular and lucrative vein in contemporary fiction: peg your book to some heartrending tragedy or act of violence and you’re almost sure to be greeted with moral seriousness, soft reviews and brisk sales. Whether it's because the American novel is becoming Hollywoodized, or because the disjunctive tone and disassociated content of the news have numbed us to disjunctive and disassociated fiction, or because we're losing the capacity to imagine other people's pain, writing callously and sunnily and profitably about tragedy is now an established American genre.
Sebold sashays blithely from ludicrous descriptions of sex (I bit my lip. I writhed ... and hoped that no one's God was watching") to ridiculous shifts in tone ("Her voice hit the still house with its usual force factor") to "we're sorry but we cannot offer you any M.F.A. funding for next year"-type sentences ("I felt the tears in my eyes and knew they would fall"). There's no plot in this novel. It's all free disassociation.
"The Almost Moon" is really like one very long MySpace page. Sebold isn't imagining people and events; she's just making stuff up as she goes along. After Helen murders her mother, she asks her ex-husband, a sexy artist, to come all the way from Southern California to suburban Philadelphia to help her. ("He had aged in a good way. The way wiry men who seem unconcerned with their appearance but who have deep habitual hygiene and exercise habits age.") She tells him what happened, and they have the following exchange: "'What did you think putting her in the freezer would achieve?' 'I don't know,' I said. I could feel the shelf I kept the laundry supplies on gouging into my back. 'I don’t know.'"
You find yourself struggling simultaneously with the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer, the icy cynicism of such a conceit and the utter unreality of the conversation. It's like having the Marx brothers chase Margaret Dumont around your cerebellum.
There's no light at the end of Sebold’s bouncy tunnel vision. After the freezer moment with her former hubby, Jake, the two share a comic moment over Helen's memory of her psychotherapist and why he had been so bad: "'His shelves were full of I. B. Singer, and the statues on his tables were that lost-wax Holocaust style. Lots of dismembered trunks of tortured people wrapped in barbed wire and mounted on poles. I would be talking about my mother, only to look up and see a legless, armless torso reaching out for me.' Jake laughed."
Even the schlockiest popular novels of yore -- "By Love Possessed," "Marjorie Morningstar," "The Chosen" -- had accurate, if mundane, social and psychological perceptions. Danielle Steel has that. You and I have that! It's beyond comprehension that Sebold can publish a novel pretending to reflect reality that's so severed from reality.
The source of her vacuum-packed perceptions is perhaps an impenetrable moral narcissism--not for nothing does Helen the art-school model compare herself to Virginia Woolf and Maria Tsvetaeva, two legendary literary suicides. So it will come as no surprise that Helen's murder of her mother turns out to be more mercy killing than outright homicide. But Helen also extinguishes her mother's life because she can't bear the burden of caring for her any longer: "I was determined now to explain what I could to my children and to carry the shame of my mistakes." For heaven's sake.
Well, don't worry, Helen. To paraphrase the old joke, "Oedipus, shmedipus, as long as they love their mother." The real shame is that "Reading Alice Sebold" isn't listed in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." After you've finished this insult to the lumber industry, your health care provider won't cover your search for a cure
I think it's safe to say the review makes for better reading than the novel. And it sounds, too, as though, if Sebold had been able to muster some critical distance on her character--and so to establish a moral narrative coherence that the narrator herself lacks--this would have been quite a different book indeed. That's a tough thing to do when you are in the first person, but it's what separates first person fiction from--Siegel's image is indelible--a MySpace page.
I have not read Sebold's new book, but I did read The Lovely Bones, and it did strike me as a type of moral porn (murdered girl's ambient spirit is the narrator; plot consists of her watching her family cope after she's died). But, as Siegel notes, this sort of thing is bound for bestseller lists these days. And to the extent that it's readers who make Sebold into the minor industry that she is, that forked tone early on in the review--in which it's unclear whether Seigel is having problems with Sebold or with Sebold's prospective readers--resolves itself. As angry as Seigel is with Sebold's book, he's fully aware that the book is a symptom of a much broader problem -- and that, as the author of a review so hilariously appalled that it is bound to drive readers to the book, he's a part of that problem, too.
October 20, 2007
Somehow this does not surprise:
Harry Potter author JK Rowling has revealed that one of her characters, Hogwarts school headmaster Albus Dumbledore, is gay.
She made her revelation to a packed house in New York's Carnegie Hall on Friday, as part of her US book tour.
She took audience questions and was asked if Dumbledore found "true love".
"Dumbledore is gay," she said, adding he was smitten with rival Gellert Grindelwald, who he beat in a battle between good and bad wizards long ago.
The audience gasped, then applauded. "I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy," she said.
"Falling in love can blind us to an extent," she added, saying Dumbledore was "horribly, terribly let down" and his love for Grindelwald was his "great tragedy".
"Oh, my god," Rowling, 42, concluded with a laugh, "the fan fiction".
Rowling said her books are a "prolonged argument for tolerance"
Fan sites have long speculated on Dumbledore's sexuality as he was known for having a mysterious, troubled past.
Rowling told the audience that while working on the planned sixth Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, she saw the script carried a reference to a girl who was once of interest to Dumbledore.
She said she ensured director David Yates was made aware of the truth about her character.
But it does delight.
Rowling is now predictably the subject of ambivalent criticism from activists who are at once pleased that she built such a powerful gay character into her fiction and disappointed that she didn't use Dumbledore to make a more overt political statement:
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell welcomed the news about Dumbledore and said: "It's good that children's literature includes the reality of gay people, since we exist in every society.
"But I am disappointed that she did not make Dumbledore's sexuality explicit in the Harry Potter book. Making it obvious would have sent a much more powerful message of understanding and acceptance."
And a spokesman for gay rights group Stonewall added: "It's great that JK has said this. It shows that there's no limit to what gay and lesbian people can do, even being a wizard headmaster."
I think Rowling did exactly the right thing. As an artist, she developed her characters so fully in her mind that their complete histories could not be included in the books; she knows things about her characters that she didn't write down, but at the same time, those things informed every aspect of their characterization. That's good realism, and that's as it should be. Fiction loses enormously when it becomes the occasion for ideological comment, and it loses most when characters are co-opted into messages. People who want to see the world become more tolerant of alternative lifestyles and diverse backgrounds should celebrate writers who can treat "marked categories"--in this case, Dumbledore's homosexuality--as simply one aspect of a character's humanity.
October 19, 2007
I love moments when novels actually contribute to the historical record. This can work lots of ways, and is especially fun with medicine. Dickens, for example, so perfectly chronicled a symptom cluster in the Pickwick Papers's Fat Boy (obesity, severe sleep apnea, chronic resulting somnolence) that when doctors later described that cluster in 1956, they called it Pickwickian Syndrome.
Now here's another:
Last year, the writer Matthew Pearl published a novel called The Poe Shadow, in which a young lawyer sets out to solve one of the great enduring mysteries of American literary history: What killed Edgar Allan Poe? Like his protagonist, Mr. Pearl was fascinated by the question, which has vexed scholars ever since the great man died in 1849 at the age of 40, in a Baltimore hospital after being discovered, distraught and incoherent, in a local tavern.
Mr. Pearl had wanted to write a novel exploring the mystery. But he never expected to uncover actual evidence that could help solve it.
There are numerous competing theories about Mr. Poe's death--the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, even has an exhibit dedicated to all of them. Some Poe experts believe it was the result of drink. Others think he had rabies. A few argue he was poisoned by corrupt political operatives. But Mr. Pearl--a 32--year-old graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, whose 2003 debut, the international best seller The Dante Club, prompted Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown to declare him, "the new star of literary fiction"--told The Observer recently that he has unearthed new information that suggests a less sensational answer: Mr. Poe, it seems, may have died of a brain tumor.
But one night during the summer of 2006, while sitting in a Midwestern hotel room--he says he can't remember whether it was in Milwaukee or Iowa City--Mr. Pearl had a revelation. At the time, he was on the road doing readings to promote The Poe Shadow, and fans kept asking him why Mr. Poe's body could not simply be exhumed from its Baltimore grave and examined so as to settle the matter of his death for good. Each time, Mr. Pearl patiently explained that an exhumation would be impossible, because it would require destroying the large marble monument atop Mr. Poe's grave, which is one of Baltimore's most popular tourist sites.
But that night in his hotel room, Mr. Pearl remembered some old newspaper articles that he’d come across, in the archives of the University of Virginia and Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, while conducting research for the book. When he went back and looked at them, the articles confirmed that Mr. Poe's body had been exhumed, 26 years after his death, so that his coffin could be moved to a more prominent place at the front of the cemetery.
More to the point, a few of the articles suggested that the great man's brain had been visible to onlookers during the procedure.
The first of these was an undated letter to the editor of The Baltimore Gazette, which claimed that "a medical gentleman" had seen "that the brain of the poet Poe, on the opening of his grave ... was in an almost perfect state of preservation," and that "the cerebral mass, as seen through the base of the skull, evidenced no signs of disintegration or decay, though, of course, it is somewhat diminished in size."
The second was an 1878 article in the St. Louis Republican, noting that "the sexton who attended to the removal of the poet's body" had lifted the head during the exhumation and reported seeing the brain "[rattling] around inside just like a lump of mud." The sexton reportedly thought that "the brain had dried and hardened in the skull."
"What I realized was, if that was the case, it would be the only physical evidence we have of what Poe's condition was at his time of death," Mr. Pearl said.
Intrigued, Mr. Pearl asked a coroner for an expert opinion. "I read her the description," Mr. Pearl said, "and she said, 'Well, that person is just wrong. Unless you embalm the body, the brain is the first thing to liquefy. There’s no way it would still be there 25 years later.'"
But a tumor, the coroner said, can calcify while the rest of the body decomposes. Perhaps that's what the witnesses were describing, she suggested. Sure enough, when Mr. Pearl looked up photographs of brain tumors, he saw that some of them really did look like shrunken brains.
Next, Mr. Pearl ran his theory by some experts. One was Hal Poe, a descendant of the writer who serves on the board of the Poe Museum, and who told Pearl that he had "stumbled onto something quite important." Mr. Pearl then went to Poe scholar James Hutchisson, who had advanced the tumor theory a year earlier in a Poe biography, based on other evidence, including the fact that Dr. Moran initially reported the cause of death as "congestion of the brain."
Despite the enthusiasm with which experts like Mr. Hutchisson have greeted his findings, Mr. Pearl isn't claiming to have solved the mystery once and for all. But he's excited to have found a concrete lead amid the tangle of unsubstantiated theories: "At least [the tumor theory] has some evidence and some trails that you can follow that ... It's not just throwing the word 'rabies' out there and thinking, 'That sounds good!" ... I'd hope in this case someone picks up the scent and finds more on this."
October 17, 2007
Down with this sort of thing
The British television classic Father Ted has a very limited following in the States. But that's to the disadvantage of Americans. It's a hysterically funny and uncannily wise series about three Irish priests who have been banished to the remote professional backwater of "Craggy Island" for various indiscretions (drunkenness, stupidity, graft) but who still find themselves held accountable by a Church that works hard to extend its reach even into those areas it has itself designated as beyond the pale.
The clip below is from an episode in which two of the priests are commanded to picket the Craggy Island premiere of The Passion of St. Tibulus (a fictional stand-in for The Last Temptation of Christ), and it captures with great economy both how standardized political protest has become and how likely it is to backfire, given people's innate distrust of censorious efforts and, more basically, their incurable prurience.
I'm reminded of Father Ted this morning partly because that just happens a lot, but mainly because of this astute op-ed from Christina Hoff Sommers:
As if losing the presidency of Harvard for hinting that there might be a biological explanation for the preponderance of men in academic science wasn't enough, Lawrence Summers now appears to be persona non grata elsewhere too.
A few weeks ago the University of California, Davis rescinded an invitation for him to speak. More than 150 faculty members signed a petition protesting his appearance, saying Mr. Summers "has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia." Davis ecology Professor Maureen Stanton was "appalled and stunned that someone like Summers would be invited to speak."
Ms. Stanton and her allies want pariah status for anyone who dares to suggest a biological basis for difference. Yet the scientific literature on why men and women enter different fields is legitimate, robust, complex and fascinating. What is appalling is that leading academic institutions would try to shut down the discussion and get away with it. Almost.
Last week, the American Enterprise Institute brought together top researchers on sex differences, ranging from the strongly feminist Brandeis women's studies scholar Rosalind Barnett to AEI scholar and co-author of "The Bell Curve," Charles Murray. The discussions were heated, but civil. No one got mad, fled the room weeping, or nearly fainted.
The audience was captivated as experts played with the politically incorrect notion that male and female brains may be markedly different.
Unfortunately, the deniers of differences between the sexes are on the march with powerful allies. In the fall of 2006, the National Academy of Sciences released a recklessly one-sided study, now widely referred to as authoritative, titled "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering." According to the report, differences in cognition between the sexes have no bearing on the dearth of women in academic math, physics and engineering. It is all due to bias. Case closed. The report calls on Congress to hold hearings on gender bias in the sciences and on federal agencies to "move immediately" (emphasis in original) to apply anti-discrimination laws such as Title IX to academic science (but not English) departments. "The time for action is now."
No it is not. Now is the time for scholars in our universities and in the National Academy of Sciences to defend and support principles of free and objective inquiry.
Father Ted's placard, which reads "Down With This Sort of Thing," finds its academic parallel this morning in Sommers' concluding exhortation: "The chronically appalled must not have the last word." She's funny -- and she's right.
October 16, 2007
I'm referring to Elizabeth Bowen's To the North, which is strikingly modern (published in 1932, the main characters drive everywhere, sometimes fly, and there are some wonderful meditations on traffic, driving, and roads) and which is also the beneficiary of some excellent postmodern frisson: The novel is set in London's St. John's Wood, just off Abbey Road. Bowen could not have known what the Beatles would do to the tone of her setting; one wonders whether any of the Beatles were alert to artists who had situated themselves on that street before they did.
Bowen was one of those last, languishing Anglo-Irish writers, who sometimes wrote about the decline of the great Irish estates (The Last September) and who had some extraordinarily smart things to say about her literary predecessors (she was, I believe, the first to observe the manner in which Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic Uncle Silas refers obliquely to the Tithe War of the Irish 1830s, despite its resolutely English setting). Her style is a sharp melding of James and Woolf, and while it threatens to become precious, it never really does because she always means something important with her baroque phrases, and because she subordinates her prose to the things she's trying to describe, which, more often that not, are the remote, unarticulated corners of human perception, emotion, and interaction. She makes us see how much more we register than we think, as well as how inadequate our habits of limning our own lives ultimately are.
Here's a passage early on, that captures her precision, her sensitivity, and her humor. It's small talk between the heroine Emmeline, who is a Bloomsbury travel agent (see, I said it was modern), and Julian, the more-or-less boyfriend of her widowed sister-in-law Cecilia, whom she has just met at a party:
"Where do you want to go in Central Europe?"
"I--I hadn't quite thought."
"Then," she said--and for a moment lifted from his white tie the eyes of an ecstatic--"you could really go anywhere?"
"More or less," agreed Julian, elated in spite of himself.
"Come round soon," said Emmeline, "and we'll talk this over. If you're busy all day, come round after hours, we sometimes stay open till half-past six and have sherry for clients. They come in when they're back and give us their impressions: we get thyem tabulated. It keeps us in wider touch. My partner can't move, he gets sea-sick and air-sick and quite often train-sick, and I haven't got time to go everywhere. So we are glad to work with clients."
"You don't deal only with Bloomsbury?"
"No," said Emmeline. A shade of distinct displeasure passed over her face; evidently that kind of thing had been said before. "All round Woburn Place," she said fluently, "there are temperance hotels full of people from Wales and the North, so intoxicated at having left home at all that they are ready to go on anywhere. When they walk round the squares after breakfast they see our posters."
"Do they walk round the squares after breakfast?" said Julian doubtfully.
"Yes," said Emmeline, finishing up her tea.
A couple, having passed up and down several times looking fiercely into the alcove at Julian and Emmeline, sat down at last on the stairs just below the settee. The girl had a backless dress and a mole on one shoulder-blade. She leant up close to her partner in speechless affection, dropped her glass downstairs, giggled resignedly and had a drink out of his. The atmosphere grew less temperate.
"Like one currant in icing," said Julian.
"That spot on her back."
"Oh dear, I can't see it!" said Emmeline in despair. He glanced at the white roses pinned to her shoulder, the soft curtain of hair falling over her cheek as she leant forward beside him, trying to focus the other girl's back. He remembered what a cool note her name struck in Cecilia's talk. Her thin arms, blue-veined inside the elbow, were crossed on her knee; the fingers curled idly up. He tried to say something to bring back her eyes to his own, to command her mild interest and lovely attentive face.
"I'm so glad," said Juian, "we met at this party."
"So am I," Emmeline said, giving up the mole in despair. "I always like parties; for one thing I often meet clients or people who may be. But I really like dancing."
"Shall we dance," said Julian, discouraged.
"No, I think the floor is too full."
A young man, coming downstairs, said: "Emmeline, you have cut me five times." He showed some disposition to linger.
"I'm so sorry," said Emmeline.
"Perhaps," Julian said quickly, "you ought to be talking to somebody else?"
"No; do you want to? Anyhow, I must be going. I never stay late."
"I think I must have heard your voice on the telephone--"
Emmeline looked so thoughtfully through the young man that he moved away. "You may have," she said. "I say: Hullo? ... all right: hold on!" Her voice trailed off: too considerate to enquire, she wondered how late it might be. She gazed at Julian, wishing he were a clock.
Only read Bowen if you have time and inclination not to skim. And then be careful and thoughtful as you go, and you will see a great deal.
Guest blog on genocide, politics, and academic quibbling
A reader who wishes to remain anonymous writes with some provocative thoughts on the manner in which academic argument can be used to paralyze necessary recognitions -- about everything from genocide to professionalism:
I just read an Inside Higher Ed article about historians, the U.S. government, and the Turkish government squabbling over whether the Armenian genocide really happened. It makes interesting reading, not only for its historical insights, but also for the window it offers into how academic values can become complicit with official governmental prevarication. Having always denied that a "genocide" ever happened, the Turkish government is now eagerly backing American academics whose calls for ever more nuance, ever more debate, and thus ever more irresolution in making a final determination prevent Turkey from having to admit any fault. However, Armenian scholars are duly frustrated by what they see as an effort to deny historical truth:
To those scholars of the period who accept the widely held view that a genocide did take place, it's a matter of some frustration that top government officials suggest that these matters are open for debate and that this effort is wrapped around a value espoused by most historians: free and open debate.
'Ultimately this is politics, not scholarship,' said Simon Payaslian, who holds an endowed chair in Armenian history and literature at Boston University. Turkey's strategy, which for the first 60-70 years after the mass slaughter was to pretend that it didn't take place, 'has become far more sophisticated than before' and is explicitly appealing to academic values, he said.
'They have focused on the idea of objectivity, the idea of "on the one hand and the other hand,"' he said. "That's very attractive on campuses to say that you should hear both sides of the story.' While Payaslian is quick to add that he doesn't favor censoring anyone or firing anyone for their views, he believes that it is irresponsible to pretend that the history of the period is uncertain. And he thinks it is important to expose 'the collaboration between the Turkish Embassy and scholars cooperating to promote this denialist argument.'
Perhaps this is a far-fetched comparison, but I see a connection between this endless irresolution on issues of history and academics' unwillingness to admit that university teaching, research, hiring/tenuring, and administrative policy are all heavily inflected by leftist agendas. As long as academics can keep generating new studies that question old studies, and keep calling for ever more refined "nuance," they can indefinitely defer any definitive conclusion. This is Derridean differance as postmodern praxis....
I think he's on to something. In fact, I know he is.
Comments are welcome!
October 15, 2007
Criticism vs McCarthyism
When individuals or groups issue strong criticism of academe's politicization, they are almost reflexively labelled "McCarthist." This labelling is so ubiquitous that it's tough to cite examples -- but just a couple come to mind for those who don't immediately recognize the justness of the observation. The first is Beshari Doumani's edited collection, Academic Freedom after September 11; the other is Henry Giroux's new recycling of his perennial arguments, The University in Chains.
Anyway. The occasion for this post is the Chronicle of Higher Education's summary of an article--not available online, alas--about how academics have been overstating the threat to their academic freedom that is posed by legitimate criticism:
Scholarly criticism, particularly from the political right, is too often mischaracterized as a threat to academic freedom, says Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. "The problem is much less acute in some disciplines than in others," he writes, "but the resulting effects truncate the kind of critical engagement, or the sifting and winnowing of serious ideas, that best reflects the ideals of the university."
In Middle East studies, for example, denunciations of America's foreign policy from scholars on the left are common, says Mr. Lieber. Not surprisingly, he says, a good deal of professorial writing and speaking on those topics has been subject to criticism. In turn, many Middle East scholars "have complained about what they consider to be intimidation and threats to academic freedom."
Mr. Lieber says such "expressions of concern exhibit a great deal of hyperbole." As he writes, "Criticism of such judgments is fair game -- Indeed, such criticism can even be unfair, but cases in which moderate, conservative, or right-wing criticism has led to genuine infringement on academic freedom--through censorship, punitive action, or dismissal--are very hard to find."
Yup. But the rhetoric of McCarthyism works hard to conceal that fact.
"The scholars who experience real threats to academic freedom," the summary continues, "are the ones 'who do not share the dominant sympathies, ideologies, and beliefs' that characterize their discipline. Such scholars become 'marginalized, often excluded, and thus isolated and even stigmatized. ... What is insidious about this marginalization ... is that the ideas and writing of these scholars are less subject to critical engagement.'"
It's good to see these ideas finally getting a hearing in a scholarly journal (International Studies Perspectives). But it's sad to see them behind both the journal's own electronic barrier and CHE's subscription wall.
UPDATE: The article is now online.
I would be amazed at how much energy defenders of the academic status quo pour into arguing that academe is not highly politicized, if I weren't so exhausted by them. They do not have a case, and those who temporize by saying the equivalent of, "Well, maybe there are some issues with politicization, but those aren't the main issues, and the main issues are issues of professionalism, and we should really focus on those so that we can have a properly nuanced account of it all that allows us to sidestep the more immediate issue of doctrinaire scholarship and teaching and defer dealing with the problems in perpetuity because I am not about to do more than poke holes in others' arguments and I am not interested myself in proposing a solution," well, those people drive me nuts. So do the people who dismiss the issue by saying that critics of academe "overstate" the case. You'd think intellectuals could tell when their own bad faith is on display. And maybe they can. But they certainly don't think others can, which is a snobbery that, I suppose, is to be expected of people who think of themselves as intellectuals.
Here's a little piece from Inside Higher Ed today, about how Americanists are getting together to figure out how to push their politics harder in the policy arena. Note the automatic assumptions about what those politics are:
Nicholas Bromell started off his presentation at the American Studies Association meeting on Friday by asking a packed room of participants if they knew the names of any conservative think tanks that are powerful in Washington. Groups like the Heritage Foundation were quickly named by the professors. Bromell, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then asked if they could name any liberal groups, and the audience was stumped.
Of course there are such organizations, but the audience reaction (and this was not an audience of Heritage fans) illustrated his point. "Conservatives have been very effective at bringing professors and scholars together to talk to their policy people," he said. Liberals less so.
Amy Kaplan, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the session was designed to encourage more professors on the left to reach out to Washington and to think about the policy implications of their work. It’s not just getting the attention of policy makers, she said, but a question of "how we can listen" so as to shape ideas that can be executed.
Did I mention how exhausting it's getting to watch academics deny to the public and to their critics what they freely admit among themselves? They really should take a moment to think about how reporters hollow out their game.
Mark Moyar has a piece in today's NRO that gets at one of the more hidden parts of this particular shell game: the academic hiring process:
It's not the score of a Hawkeye football game. It's the number of Democrats versus the number of Republicans in the University of Iowa history department, and it has Iowans in an uproar. So, too, do charges published by Mark Bauerlein that left-wing bias has influenced the department's hiring process. In response to the revelations, department chair Colin Gordon announced that the department had committed no wrongdoing, and neither he nor the university has expressed any concern about the total absence of intellectual diversity. Rarely have the hypocrisy and mendacity of academia been so thoroughly exposed as in the history department's damage-control campaign.
Professor Gordon contended that the history department cannot discriminate against Republican or conservative job applicants because it does not know the political ideology of applicants. But the University's own hiring manual states that search committees must "assess ways the applicants will bring rich experiences, diverse backgrounds, and ideology to the university community." So they are obligated to understand applicants' ideology, and to make sure not to overlook people with differing ideologies.
Determining a historian's ideological inclinations is actually very easy in most cases. When I applied to the University of Iowa history department for a professorship in the United States and world affairs, my resume listed membership in the National Organization of Scholars, which is an organization that everyone in academia knows to be ideologically to the right of the average academic organization. A quick search on Google or Amazon, moreover, reveals that my two books on the Vietnam War have widely been characterized as conservative.
Contrary to his recent protestations, Professor Gordon understands very well the ideological associations of my research on Vietnam. In the leftist publication New Internationalist, he wrote that interpretations of Vietnam similar to mine were part of a "shallow, cynical, and selective" effort by American conservatives who wish to justify global military domination in the spirit of "the aggressive imperialist Teddy Roosevelt." Similarly well-informed is Professor Stephen Vlastos, the chair of the search committee, who wrote an entire book chapter denouncing historians who interpret Vietnam as I do.
There's more. What's amazing is not that Moyar's application didn't get out of the starting blocks, but that someone at Iowa thought it was a good idea to state up front that job candidates' ideologies should be assessed. It's probably someone's ham-fisted idea of how one would build intellectual diversity into the litany of qualities this Equal Opportunity employer considers worthy of cultivation, but "ideology" and "intellectual diversity" are not the same thing and shouldn't be confused with one another.
UPDATE: Peter Wood has similar thoughts on the American Studies meeting.
October 13, 2007
I'm still reeling about Al Gore's Nobel Prize, which many commentators have noted is for a prospective contribution based on highly dubious science, rather than for a proven contribution that has stood the test of time.
But I'm delighted about Doris Lessing -- and as a private sort myself, I identify completely with her reaction to learning about the prize:
You become a public property when you win something like that. And while the honor might be nice, the obligations and exposure and compulsory interactions with angling people about pointless things that come with it would seem to warrant Lessing's anticipatory curse.
UPDATE: More along the lines of Gore's science from Melanie Phillips.
October 10, 2007
Kurt Anderson has good things to say about the American impulse to suppress unpopular speech or tarnish unpopular speakers--and he says it in a way calculated to touch the nerves of people who might think they agree with him, but who have viscerally wired themselves to think like censors. First we hear about the male genitalia, in a description of a chat I really wish he had been able to have with Sean Penn:
...the opening moment of this scaredy-cat season came during a radio interview I was recording with Sean Penn. While we were discussing Into the Wild, his new movie celebrating balls-out American freedom, I asked about his recent visit to Venezuela. Penn's endorsement of Hugo Chavez's socialism is fine with me, I said, but how did he square his embrace of Chavez with the regime's depredations against liberty in Venezuela? Penn tensed up, but he seemed game to thrash it out, to explain why I was a tool of the Republican Big Lie Machine--until his personal publicist, eavesdropping from the next room, popped in to insist that we stop speaking freely about restrictions on free speech in Venezuela.
I've wondered the same things about Penn, who so disturbingly conducted his "journalistic" tour of Venezuela last summer as the special guest of Chavez. And I waste a small amount of time--small--reconciling my love of his acting, which dates back to his timeless turn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with my distaste for his politics. I have to do that with a lot of Hollywood sorts, so I'm used to it and I get on (since Neil Young set the standard for politicized artistic debasement with lyrics such as "Let's impeach the president for lying," it's gotten easier). I won't miss Into the Wild, in any case, as I've waited a long time for a film I think only Penn could make, about a book only Krakauer could have written, about a young man who was determined to live out a little piece of the American romanticism of Thoreau and Jack London, and who died--of botanical error, no less--trying. But that's another post for another day. Back to Anderson.
I think he's trying to get folks' backs up--or get folks to not get their backs up--about the "exclusive" image of freedom here, which is so masculine in its evocation of manly parts. He returns to the game later in the essay, balancing out the image of the ballsy American who loves freedom against the "pussy" who doesn't. Picking up on a Columbia University hockey recruitment poster that offended many last year--"Don't be a pussy" it commanded prospective Lions--Anderson commands Americans in general to accept the challenge of free speech. "When it comes to free speech, we need to let a hundred flowers bloom. We need to chill. We need to stop being pussies."
I think he's funny, and I think he's right. And I kind of like the way he's challenging a readership he knows isn't all that friendly to language that reasserts Gender Stereotypes to get over it, and enjoy the liberating pleasure of simply being able to use langauge in a zillion creative ways. We can quote Mao and the Columbia hockey team in the same breath, and make them mean the same thing. Or we can at least try--and that's worth more than we might realize.
October 9, 2007
How it is
There is a lot of denial and subterfuge surrounding the role race and sex play in academic hiring--but when you get right down to it, there are whole fields that come with assumptions about what the genetics should be of the person who gets hired. A frustrated English professor reflects on this at Inside Higher Ed this morning, with frankness--and with an anonymity that speaks volumes about how unspeakable is the truth he is telling.
Once more, the English department at my Southern liberal arts college will send a team to the Modern Language Association meeting to search for an African American. Oops, did I say that? I mean, an African-Americanist — someone who specializes in research and teaching African-American literature. This search, three years running, has become the most vexing aspect of departmental life, at least in part because of the department’s well-meaning but misguided goal of hiring a black candidate. When the applications come in, there is a more or less unspoken attempt to read the color of the candidate based on the colleges they attended, their names, or their committee work.
The MLA interview can occasionally feel like the dating game, as a series of previously promising candidates enter the room all too whitely. (Even more perplexing are non-white candidates of another race or ethnicity researching in African-American literature, but that’s another subject) However, a lot can happen in a 40-minute interview. After engaging with serious scholarship on African-American literature and culture, it is hard for the interview team to sustain emphasis on the candidate’s body over the candidate’s body of work. So, at the end of two days of intense discussions with ABD’s and newly-minted Ph.D.’s, the interview team comes up with a short list of four very bright, energetic, productive candidates with tremendous research and teaching potential. Odds are that the majority of them, like a majority of the pool, will not be black, and so the real work of the search begins: trying to convince the rest of the department to take these folks seriously.
The author goes on to note his department's political pride in its record of racial hiring--"fighting for the position as a means to diversify was a bold political move on a largely white campus, anchoring the English department's reputation for progressive politics." He also points out how racist this type of tokenism, in which "well-meaning liberals fight for the body of the African American," ultimately is: "At best, it is a naive strategy that still presumes the employers' market of the 70's and 80's; at worst, it's racist, prioritizing color while neglecting the significance of the position itself." It's also illegal at any school that claims not to discriminate on the basis of race; i.e., the vast majority of them. The first step toward a healthier campus climate--one that respects diversity of thought as well as background, and that does not lapse into racism in the name of progressivism--is columns like this that admit to the problem. If only the author had signed his real name.
Hate, satire, hateful satire, telling the difference
GWU is up in arms about some flyers that were posted yesterday all over campus. They are nasty as can be, and purport to be the work of the campus chapter of Young America's Foundation. Community meetings have been held, feelings have been shared, the posters have been torn down, and the administration is vowing to punish whoever is responsible for the hate speech. But looking harder at the details, it's hard to believe that this is just a straightforward case of one campus group hating on another. It looks more like one campus group being framed as haters by way of an absurdly over the top flyer that should be legible as mockery but does not seem to be. My hunch on this front is owing in part to YAF's claim to have had nothing to do with the poster, and to disavow its message; it's also owing to the text of the flyer itself, which looks like someone's caricature of how a conservative group would caricature Muslims.
Check out the poster and the surrounding story here, and see what you think.
UPDATE: What do you know. I was right.
October 5, 2007
Rethinking the left
A remarkable review of Todd Gitlin's latest, from the Claremont Institute:
This short, loosely organized collection of occasional essays makes for a surprisingly interesting and valuable book, well worth reading and pondering. Sociologist and radical activist Todd Gitlin, who has been a figure in the American Left since his Vietnam-era days in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), has made a serious effort to reflect on the failures of the American Left since the 1960s. The criticisms he puts forward here, which are inevitably self-criticisms in part, are unsparing and penetrating, made all the more memorable by his unacademic, direct, and often epigrammatic style.
Gitlin's criticism is relentless, and will win him few new friends on the Left, though it will likely energize the many enemies he already has there. He sees a story rich with irony, in which it has been precisely the Left's most triumphant expressions in contemporary American life that led it into the spiritual wasteland in which it now finds itself. And for this lost condition, he believes, the Left has only itself to blame. It embraced the smug disassociation from existing society epitomized in the sweeping call by émigré philosopher and '60s hero Herbert Marcuse for a "Great Refusal" of the confining ideals and crass manipulations of the modern capitalist political economy. But the embrace of Marcuse's influential but ill-defined slogan has amounted in practice to a "great withdrawal," a narcissistic retreat into self-proclaimed "marginality," an obsession with ever more minute forms of identity politics and the infinite "problematizing" of "truth," a reflexive opposition to America and the West, and an immurement in "theories" whose radicalism is so pure that they never quite touch down to earth--follies all underwritten and protected by the perquisites and comforts of academia.
Gitlin argues that the results may have benefited individual leftists, who have feathered their own nests quite nicely by fusing radicalism and academic careerism, but they have been unambiguously disastrous for the Left as a political force outside the academy. "If we had a manual," Gitlin remarks, "it would be called, What is Not to Be Done." The Great Refusal turns out to have been little more than "a shout from an ivory tower," an advertisement of futility that was unable to conceal the despair, paralysis, and general contempt, including self-contempt, that lay behind it.
Often those opening paragraphs are the best parts of linkable essays, and often the full essays don't justify the time it takes to click on the link, load the page, and read. But this essay does. It's sensitive and sympathetic even as it is written from a vantage point very far from Gitlin's; it is able to explain what Gitlin is trying to do and see the value in the effort, and it is also able to see where Gitlin's closeness to his subject, and visceral embeddedness in the problem he describes, prevents him from doing the intellectual work he sets out to do. As such it's an example of the sort of thoughtful give and take we really ought to be trying harder to have these days, both within the academy and beyond it, in broader public discourse.