About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
July 29, 2009 [feather]
Morning jolt

My morning tours through the news are frequently numbing, distracted affairs. The prose I find on my tour of articles and newspapers and blogs is so flat, and there is so much of it. The life has gone out of the language, which is only fitting because, in many cases, the life has gone out of the subject matter, too. Now and again, though, something fresh and lively and inspiringly readable just shimmers forth, as it did this morning.


John Cheever was most unhappy to be picked up for vagrancy by the cops. "My name is John Cheever!" he bellowed. "Are you out of your mind?" Found sharing some hooch with the down-and-outs in downtown Boston, he was promptly admitted to Smithers Alcoholism Treatment Centre on Manhattan's East 93rd Street, where he shared a room with a failed male ballet dancer, a delicatessen owner and a smelly ex-sailor. "The ballerina is up to his neck in bubble bath reading a biography of Edith Piaf," he noted in his journal. He spent most of his time in group therapy correcting his counsellor's grammar. "Displaying much grandiosity and pride," they wrote in their notes. "Very impressed with self." Eventually he fell silent. Four weeks later he emerged, shaky, fragile and subdued. "Listen, Truman," he told Truman Capote. "It's the most terrible, glum place you can conceivably imagine. It's really really, really grim. But I did come out of there sober."

He was the first American author of his rank to do so. Much ink has been spilled on the question of why so many writers are alcoholics. Of America's seven Nobel laureates, five were lushes--to whom we can add an equally drunk-and-disorderly line of Brits: Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, Brendan Behan, Patrick Hamilton, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, all doing the conga to (in most cases) an early grave. According to Donald Goodwin in his book "Alcohol and the Writer":

Writing involves fantasy; alcohol promotes fantasy. Writing requires self-confidence; alcohol bolsters confidence. Writing is lonely work; alcohol assuages loneliness. Writing demands intense concentration; alcohol relaxes.

There is good reason to be suspicious of this: one could as easily come up with a similar list for firefighters, or nannies, the only real difference being that writers are more vocal about it--their denial more pithily expressed. As Philip Amis said of his father’s bottle-of-whisky-a-day habit: "He was Kingsley Amis and he could drink whenever he wanted because he bought it with his money, because he was Kingsley Amis and he was so famous."

In America William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald were the Paris and Britney of their day, caught in the funhouse mirror of fame, their careers a vivid tabloid mash-up of hospitalisations and electroshock therapies. "When I read Faulkner I can tell when he gets tired and does it on corn just as I used to be able to tell when Scott would hit it beginning with 'Tender is the Night'," said Hemingway, playing the Amy Winehouse role of denier-in-chief. He kept gloating track of his friends' decline, all the while nervously checking out books on liver damage from the library; by the end, said George Plimpton, Hemingway's liver protruded from his belly "like a long fat leech".

Gloriously, there's more. And whether you care or not about writers, or drinking, or drunk writers, no matter. The prose here is so alive that it could be about anything and it would be good.

Erin O'Connor, 8:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

July 27, 2009 [feather]
My tax dollars at work

So, if you read this blog regularly, you will know that I've been Civically Engaged regarding this ruinous health care bill that our president wants us to pass right now, no matter what, even if it's awful. I've written my congressman and my senators, and I've also written to a number of other key congressmen (itself a memorable learning experience, as many of the folks that are currently working on making laws that affect me and you will only allow you to send them email if you are in their district; I think that would make sense if the laws they make only apply to the people in their district -- but as it is, I think it's just another example of what a charade our ideal of representative government has become).

So anyway--if you read this blog regularly, you'll also recall the letter I sent to Senator Merkley when "he" responded to my initial letter with a form letter that did not begin to address the issues I had raised. Today, at last, I received a response. And do you know what? It's the exact same form letter I got the first time around.

Now there's glory for you.

Erin O'Connor, 7:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

July 24, 2009 [feather]
There's glory for you

I've written a lot about how the term "academic freedom" functions within the American academy--far adrift from its definitional roots in the AAUP's early twentieth-century founding documents, it is now one of those terms that can mean whatever you want it to mean. Surprisingly few actually know the origins of the term, or know how the AAUP has defined it in core documents. Still fewer can talk about how the AAUP's definition has shifted over time in ways that don't serve the organization--or the profession it represents--particularly well: where once "academic freedom" described a set of professional standards that accorded faculty a certain limited autonomy in exchange for scrupulous self-policing and continual recognition of the serious duties that are correlative with the special privileges of independence, today the AAUP downplays the duties while playing up the idea that academic freedom is more or less a right to insist that "anything goes."

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Idaho provost Gary Olson makes a similar point about a related term: "The phrase shared governance is so hackneyed that it is becoming what some linguists call an 'empty' or 'floating' signifier, a term so devoid of determinate meaning that it takes on whatever significance a particular speaker gives it at the moment. Once a term arrives at that point, it is essentially useless."

Olson spends most of his article explaining what shared governance actually is--and distinguishing that from what many faculty and administrators think it is or want it to mean. It's a noble endeavor--but one is left with the impression that it's quite likely get caught up in ever more nonsense--kind of like this:

'... there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents -- '

`Certainly,' said Alice.

`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs, they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

`Would you tell me, please,' said Alice `what that means?`

`Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

`That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.'

`Oh!' said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

I once attended a small conference at which a university president delivered a talk about faculty members' obligation to be involved in governance. A professor from his institution raised her hand when he was finished and inquired, when called upon, "But what if I don't want to be involved in governance?" Now there's glory for you.

Erin O'Connor, 5:51 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

July 23, 2009 [feather]
Don't forget to flush

Are your trustees potty-trained? ACTA president Anne Neal explains why academia needs to rethink its assumption that governing boards are like children--to be seen and not heard, to be spoken for, to be spoon-fed only digestible information, to be protected from reality, and to be denied independent authority:

You would think that a survey of "American higher education governing boards" conducted by an organization called the Association of Governing Boards would survey the actual trustees that make up these boards.

Well, think again.

The AGB's latest report, presented as a "Survey of Higher Education Governance," does not in fact feature a single trustee. Of the 693 respondents, more than half are presidents or chief executives, with the remainder comprised of presidential/executive assistants, board professionals and senior administrators. As it turns out, the report says little about what's on the mind of trustees and nothing about how they understand their role, but it does unwittingly reveal a philosophy, espoused by the AGB and shared by many at our colleges and universities, that underscores why there is a governance problem in higher education.

According to this view, higher ed administrations are the governance structure. Trustees for the most part should keep to their place and do as they are told by administrators. One might call it the potty-trained trustee, the board member who shows up at football games, cuts a few big checks, and doesn't meddle in university affairs.

Consider, for example, the seemingly innocuous question put to presidents and other administrators in the survey: How difficult is it to recruit board members? The question presupposes that administrators should be selecting the board members who will then be charged with overseeing their work. But sound governance has trustees serving the interests of students, parents and alumni--not to mention taxpayers, in the case of state colleges and universities--not those of presidents. Sound governance is not about administrators finding "the new board members they want."

If the Enron debacle taught us one thing, it is that boards must be independent of management. While the corporate sector is turning handsprings to ensure independent trustees and independent nominating committees, apparently we are to believe that our colleges and universities should operate according to a different set of rules. That should be no surprise, of course, since trustees selected by CEOs are more likely to agree with the administration and less likely to ask tough questions.

The report also rehashes the self-serving refrain that higher education institutions are governed by their "own business model." As the author of the report explained to Inside Higher Ed: "Higher education finance is different from the kind of financial experience or information many board members come to their trustee service with."

If that is indeed true, isn’t that part of the problem? As tuition and fees spiral out of control, having increased at more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice that of medical care in the past 25 years, isn’t it time for trustees to apply the solid financial acumen many have developed in the real world--and not buy into the unsustainable economics of higher education?

Given the reigning governance model, we should perhaps not be surprised by the report’s findings that many boards are out to lunch when it comes to overseeing the academic and financial health of their institutions. We learn, for example, that "boards are typically tentative about taking steps" in the area of academic quality since "[h]igher education itself has not yet defined suitable ways to define, monitor, and talk about academic quality." The fact that administrators have not yet done so is surely no reason why trustees should be hands off when it comes to working with them and faculty to rein in rampant grade inflation or implement a curriculum that will produce informed citizens, productive workers, and lifelong learners.

We are also told that boards currently spend over half their time "listening" to staff and committee reports and that they rely almost exclusively on information supplied by the institution when monitoring academic quality.

We are led to believe that boards properly engage in strategic planning, but then are told that all boards are "significantly more likely to receive reports about the planning process and to discuss emerging priorities than to have board representatives on the planning committee."

We are told that nearly 70 percent of boards have adopted a statement of board member responsibilities that "can provide some assurance that board members understand and are committed to their responsibilities." Yet when it comes to real responsibilities, we learn that only 64 percent of private institutions actually inform the full board of the president's total compensation, and that 30 percent of boards do not document the process used to determine the president's compensation.

Forces are building that make the go along-get along culture represented here ripe for substantive reforms. During the past decade, limited resources, rising costs, and mounting concerns about graduates' lack of basic skills have prompted a demand for accountability. Taxpayers, students, and parents are being asked to foot increasingly higher bills, with no guarantee that their dollars are being well spent.

Meanwhile, scandals continue to mount. Bad press about corrupt student loan practices, presidential malfeasance, administrative cover-ups, rigged admissions, and excess compensation have drawn increasing attention to the need for trustees who do their job--neither meddling where they do not belong, as University of Illinois trustees appointed by two corrupt governors seem to have done, nor being asleep at the switch. Each new scandal underscores how urgently college and university boards need to get their houses in order.

The rising cost and declining quality that we see today in higher ed result, too often, from the belief that administrators are the real governance structure and that trustees exist to serve the institution first and the public interest second. It is time for trustees to wake up to this mindset and reassert their central governing role.

They aren't babies, after all.

Erin O'Connor, 6:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

July 22, 2009 [feather]
The art of metaphor

You can tell when people feel strongly about things--they go to the trouble of making metaphors to express themselves. Here are two I noticed this morning, just in passing:

"[Obama] has a broad, broad agenda that he's in a rush to enact, and if he's not careful he will be viewed as a steamroller who tries to get things fast and not necessarily right."

"This isn't how a democracy works. This process is how professional wrestling works."

I'm also noting lots of language describing Obama as trying to "ram" or "strong-arm" the health care bill through (see, for example, the New York Times article linked above); these are metaphorical images, too, and not flattering ones.

The thing about images like these is that once they are made, they stick. As the Times article notes, Obama "is at a pivotal moment. ... How he handles the issue over the next several weeks could shape the rest of his presidency." So much of Obama's popularity--and power--has to do with his image. That's why he continues to poll pretty well even as his policies are tanking in the polls. But is the image changing, too? I think it might be.

UPDATE 7/24: Still more:

--"They say they feel they are being asked to buy on spec from a government they do not trust."

"Ms. Pelosi said she was not worried about losing steam if votes were postponed to the fall."

That steam would be from the steamroller cited above.

Erin O'Connor, 6:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

July 19, 2009 [feather]
Quote of the day

Thomas Friedman, writing from Pushghar, Afghanistan:

I confess, I find it hard to come to Afghanistan and not ask: Why are we here? Who cares about the Taliban? Al Qaeda is gone. And if its leaders come back, well, that's why God created cruise missiles.

But every time I start writing that column, something stills my hand. This week it was something very powerful. I watched Greg Mortenson, the famed author of "Three Cups of Tea," open one of his schools for girls in this remote Afghan village in the Hindu Kush mountains. I must say, after witnessing the delight in the faces of those little Afghan girls crowded three to a desk waiting to learn, I found it very hard to write, "Let's just get out of here."

Indeed, Mortenson's efforts remind us what the essence of the "war on terrorism" is about. It's about the war of ideas within Islam--a war between religious zealots who glorify martyrdom and want to keep Islam untouched by modernity and isolated from other faiths, with its women disempowered, and those who want to embrace modernity, open Islam to new ideas and empower Muslim women as much as men. America's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were, in part, an effort to create the space for the Muslim progressives to fight and win so that the real engine of change, something that takes nine months and 21 years to produce--a new generation--can be educated and raised differently.

Since 2007, the Taliban has shut down (or bombed) around a thousand schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eighty percent were schools for girls.

Erin O'Connor, 6:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

July 17, 2009 [feather]
My senator blew me off

He's sticking to the party line, and not interested in acknowledging or addressing the problems with the bill. His form letter amasses one-sided, factually challenged platitudes. But he thanks me for being in touch! I'm sure he's a nice man, and I know he's busy. But form letter responses to heartfelt communications from constitutents are a pain in the ass. Plus he's wrong.

So I responded, on the off chance that someone somewhere might actually read what I wrote:

Dear Senator Merkley,

Thank you for responding to my letter. I appreciate your wish to reform US health care -- I agree that the status quo is far from optimal, and that we do need to reform the system so that doctors can deliver care, patients can receive it, and middlemen aren't able to distort the entire process by jacking up costs on both ends and controlling what care is given and who can get it. But don't you see -- the government will be an *even worse* middleman than the insurance companies are!! We need private solutions, not government intervention.

Please look closely at the health care systems in Britain and Canada--don't let some lobbyist or special interest tell you what's true, or some staffer who is going to tell you what he or she thinks you want to hear. Do your own homework--and find out what it's really like for people in those countries. Years of waiting to see primary care docs. Dangerous conditions left untreated for months because of rationing. Politicized decisions about who gets care and who doesn't. Devaluation of the lives of the elderly and the disabled. Good doctors running as hard as they can to get out--leaving only mediocrity behind. Did you read Peter Singer's appalling and intellectually dishonest rationale for why government can and should be in the business of placing comparative values on human life, published this week in the New York Times? How can you sign on to that?

As for the myth that more than 40 million Americans can't get health care coverage, please take a moment to watch this.

I urge you to watch the short film linked above, as well as the others linked on that page. They tell the truth about Canadian health care, and pose a cautionary tale for us. Please open your eyes before it's too late.

Setting aside the specific issue of health care, you and your fellow senators and representatives need to stop accumulating terrifying, unnecessary debt. Apart from being a terrible bill that will not address the problems we have, the health care bill will cost far more than we can pay. DO NOT DO THIS TO US. I do not carry personal debt and never have. I live within my means, and sacrifice accordingly. I do not get everything I want -- but I don't expect anyone to bail me out, either. Our government should also operate by those principles. You compromise our freedom in unconscionable ways when you do not.

We elect you to protect and sustain our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Right now, Congress doesn't seem to care about any of these things. You are treating the American people like stupid sheep who can't think or act for themselves. With the stimulus bills, cap and trade, and the health care bill, you are ramming badly written legislation down our throats as fast as you can, as if you have forgotten your duty to serve and represent--and are instead racing to push through a massive rewriting of the very concept of America before anyone can act to stop you. Forgive my bluntness, but it's as if you and your fellow elected leaders think you can pick our pockets at will, whether we want what you are doing with our money or not.

PLEASE STOP. Take a step back. Consult reality--and not the rarified air of Washington. Be a real champion for the people of Oregon and the people of the United States--not just a passenger on a bandwagon bound for disaster.

In other news, people across the country protested Obamacare today. In Missouri, a peaceful protest outside Senator Claire McCaskill's office was shut down by police. Hurrah for free speech!

Erin O'Connor, 3:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

On the justice of activist judges

Heather MacDonald on the Sotomayor hearings--and what they say about the academic culture of law schools:

Sonia Sotomayor's shameless repudiation in the Senate of her past statements on gender, race, and judging is not just hypocritical, it is a lost opportunity. The airing of her many speeches on identity politics and the law had produced another Ward Churchill moment: An idea that is outright mundane within the academy escapes its hothouse environment and shakes the public temporarily out of its stupor regarding university culture. Now, unfortunately, Sotomayor's bland denials that she ever meant what she said will allow the curtain to fall once more over the mad world of academic legal theory.

The claims that run through Sotomayor's speeches on identity and the law--that the ideal of colorblindness is "confused" and in conflict with the proper celebration of "diversity"; that the white, male world of law suppresses the distinct "voices" of minorities and women; that those "voices" are "rich[er]" and "better" than those of white males-- are utterly unremarkable within the legal academy. They form the core of feminist legal theory and "critical race studies," the latter of which Sotomayor's alma mater, Yale Law School, celebrated just this April. These twin theories reject the ideal of neutral legal analysis in favor of an uninhibited embrace of self-engrossed identity cultivation. Their practitioners produce law-review articles exploring how their experiences with their own hair and other markers of racial or ethnic identity shaped their understanding of the law. They specialize in the manufacture and exploitation of pseudo-incidents of sexism and racism.

Sotomayor graduated from law school before feminist and race theory reached their zenith, but she appears closely familiar with that body of ideas. Her "Wise Latina" speech approvingly cites leading feminist theorists, such as Harvard's Martha Minow ("there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives") and Yale's Judith Resnik ("to judge is an exercise of power"). The New Deal–era theory of Legal Realism, about which she was asked on Tuesday, is a far less relevant source of her pronouncements than are feminist and race studies.

For all their self-indulgent wallowing in narcissism, however, critical race studies and feminist jurisprudence do rest clumsily on some truths that conservative boilerplate about the law ignores. There is inevitably a great deal of ambiguity in the law. "Original intent" is a much more problematic concept than its acolytes admit. Language rarely produces single meanings. And yes, judges sometimes cannot avoid making "policy" when they are called upon to extend statutes or precedents to unforeseen situations. The discourse about the law that conservatives routinely serve up in confirmation hearings is facile. But it is equally facile--and far more dangerous--to replace a recognition of the complexity of judicial decision-making with the equation of gender and race with particular perspectives, not to mention with virtue and insight. Sotomayor's parroting of the academy's identity theorists presents a real risk that she consciously or unconsciously sees her role as bringing her allegedly unique Latina "voice" to the highest court of the land, despite her present protestations to the contrary.

Sotomayor will be allowed to wriggle out of her past statements with excuses that are even worse. To dismiss her embrace of feminist and race jurisprudence on the ground that she was merely speaking to students betrays a disregard for the maintenance of our legal culture. As Sotomayor undoubtedly understood at the time but now pretends to ignore, there is in fact no more important an audience than students; they are the guardians of our traditions and ideals.

But while Sotomayor will march on to the Supreme Court, law schools should not be allowed to duck their responsibility for the ideas that Sotomayor's nomination has brought belatedly into public consciousness. Anyone who found himself surprised by the ideology of Sotomayor's "Wise Latina" speech has not been paying attention. That ideology is available to anyone who cares to look and forms part of the understanding of the law with which law schools imbue their students. As usual, parents and alumni donors have been bankrolling an education about whose radical excesses they are clueless. It is time that they and the rest of us wake up.

It's interesting to wonder whether Churchill's saga would have been different if his public demeanor had been more steady, calm, conformist, and unflappable--like Sotomayor's. What if he had just disavowed the roosting chickens essay as something he wrote in the heat of the moment? What if he presented himself in the blandest possible way, respectful of authority, apologetic for any accidental mistakes or lapses in his scholarship, etc., etc. Would things have gone so badly for him? He might at least have gotten his job back--since the logic for denying his wish to return to Colorado hinged on his nasty and aggressive behavior toward the university, including public threats to sue again at the least provocation.

It's also interesting to reflect on MacDonald's suggestion that there is a comparison to be made between Churchill and Sotomayor. Is there? I confess I find it a reach--but at the same time, I do think the Ricci decision was suggestive of some truly unconscionable styles of thought. Does Sotomayor identify as a radical in the way Churchill does? I doubt it. But that doesn't mean there isn't a problem.

When she downplays and disowns the problematic racial statements she's made in the past, what is she really saying? Is she saying, "I didn't believe those statements--and just made them to play to my audience"? If so, that's low and worrisome. Is she saying, "You people don't get to know my true feelings on this subject--I'm just going to get through this interrogation as blandly as I can, and reveal as little of myself and my real beliefs as possible, and then do as I damn well please on the bench"? If so, also worrisome. Is she saying, "I'll say whatever I need to say, in whatever context I am in, to succeed; when I was talking to students, I said what would be popular with them, and now that I am up for a position on the Supreme Court, I'll say what will be popular here"? If so, worrisome. If she is saying the latter, is she a cynic (she doesn't believe in anything except her own advancement) or is she a chameleon (her beliefs are sincere, but they change with the wind)?

Erin O'Connor, 8:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

July 16, 2009 [feather]
Our tax dollars at work

Tell your congressman to co-sponsor Ron Paul's Audit the Fed bill. They've been soaking us long enough.

And if you still aren't convinced, watch the the Federal Reserve's inspector general demonstrate that she has no idea where the bank bailout money has gone:

Erin O'Connor, 2:51 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Vote no

Have you written your representatives to urge them to vote no on this outrageous health care bill yet? If not, there's an easy way to do so here.

Erin O'Connor, 11:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Big government and the language of sacrifice

Last January, I wrote a review of Drew Gilpin Faust's excellent This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War; it's now out in the current issue of Knowledge@Wharton. In it, I drew some connections to our present moment that seem even more relevant now:

When Barack Obama delivered his victory speech on a mild Chicago night last November, he reminded his supporters that the election was not the endpoint. "This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were," he said. "It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice." It was not the first time Obama had evoked the concept of sacrifice -- nor was it to be the last. The language of sacrifice and service was central to his campaign, and it has been a key aspect of the tone he has set ever since.

As the financial crisis deepens, other leaders have begun echoing Obama. When New York governor David Paterson recently proposed cutting state employee benefits, he argued that trying times require adjusted expectations: "We've made too many promises and asked for too few sacrifices. We're going to have to change our culture as we know it." Iowa governor Chet Culver has likewise observed, "We are all facing this challenge together. And together, we must accept the reality and share in the sacrifice."

Obama casts the spirit of sacrifice as new -- so new, in fact, that it doesn't exist yet. In his formulation, as in those of Paterson and Culver, it exists in the future as a psychology we need to invent if the U.S. is to survive as a nation. But when it comes to American history, sacrifice has long been a unifying ideal in times of crisis -- and it has also long been a concept that government has used to enlarge its scope. Indeed, the story of how the once-lean federal government has grown -- and grown and grown -- is closely connected to the story of how sacrifice was anointed as the ultimate form of national service.

That story is the subject of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, the stunning and thought-provoking National Book Award finalist from Drew Gilpin Faust. Currently president of Harvard University, Faust is a historian of the American nineteenth century, specializing in the antebellum South and the Civil War. Ten years in the writing, This Republic of Suffering represents the culmination of a career spent studying a pivotal moment in the nation's past. A finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a prominent title on last year's lists of best books, Faust's study possesses that signal virtue of the finest works of history: This Republic of Suffering not only illuminates the past, but it also sheds light on the present.

During the Civil War, Faust argues, "sacrifice and the state became inextricably intertwined." The 620,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War form the subject of her book, which explains not only how officers and troops faced death, but how families -- and eventually government -- responded to the increasingly unfathomable carnage brought about by a war defined by modern weaponry, epidemic disease and unanticipated length.

The rest is here.

Erin O'Connor, 6:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

July 15, 2009 [feather]
Stop it

This is not the way to do business--or to champion noble causes. Haven't we had enough of poorly thought out spending sprees conducted on our dime--and our kids' dime, and on their kids' dime? Fiscal insanity is a nonpartisan issue. Act now to let your elected reps know that the endless, reckless spending is not sustainable, not viable, not ethical, and not okay.

Erin O'Connor, 2:35 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Stop throwing money at it

Reason.tv explains why we shouldn't be trying to fund (i.e., indebt ourselves further) ever more college access. The video notes that nationally, four-year colleges and universities only graduate 53% of freshman after six years (here's a CNN piece with a lot more detail on that), parses the cost of new Pell grant entitlements, strongly suggests that sending still more people to college is going to water down the degree* still further (especially if we want to improve the graduation rate), and asks us to rethink the whole thing.

I agree. And another thing: before we start fetishizing sending people to college, maybe we should focus on making sure they graduate from high school--and that the diploma actually means something. Nationwide, we only graduate about 70 percent of high school students. For minority kids, the figures are under 60 percent. In cities, it's 53 percent; in suburbs, 71 percent. And in some places, it's far worse: in Cleveland, only 38 percent of urban kids graduate in four years. In New York, 54 percent of urban kids graduate in four years (83 percent of suburban kids do). Indianapolis, where I grew up, and where David Letterman also grew up, has the worst numbers of all: only 30 percent of urban freshmen graduate on time. The line dividing the urban school district from the township ran through our house. We went to the township schools.

*On watering down the degree:

Nearly half of college freshmen who drink alcohol spend more time drinking each week than they do studying, suggests a survey involving more than 30,000 first-year students on 76 campuses who took an online alcohol education course last fall.

Students who said they had at least one drink in the past 14 days spent an average 10.2 hours a week drinking, and averaged about 8.4 hours a week studying, according to findings being presented today at a conference in Seattle for campus student affairs officials. Nearly 70% of respondents (20,801 students) said they drank. Of those, 49.4% spent more time drinking than studying.

The study showed that freshmen average less than 9 hours per week studying. When I was in college, I averaged nine hours a day studying. I was kind of a maniac. And I loved, loved, loved college. And I did not drink.

Erin O'Connor, 7:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

July 13, 2009 [feather]

Just finished Richard Flanagan's latest, Wanting. It's a wonderfully imaginative and haunting piece of historical fiction, twining together the stories of Dickens' decision to leave his wife for the young actress Ellen Ternan, the failed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage, and Sir John Franklin's previous stint as lieutenant governor of Van Diemen's Land. At the heart of the book is the Franklins' adoption of a young Tasmanian aborgine named Mathinna; tying the two seemingly disconnected strands together is the play, The Frozen Deep--which Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote in response to the Franklin disaster, and which brought Ternan into his life.

I don't have immense patience for the sort of biographical creativity that is involved in works of this sort. It can be done so very badly--the "historical" characters often read like costumed puppets delivering very contemporary ideas and thinking in very contemporary ways, and often, too, the tone of the writing is funny, either treating the past as a kind of quaint cartoon that exists for our amusement, or as some variant of church, to be handled only in hushed, reverent tones. But when it's done well, it's just marvelous. And Flanagan does it well. (No surprise, if you know his excellent Gould's Book of Fish, set in an Australian penal colony during the early nineteenth century.)

Find out more about Wanting here--and notice especially the section on how Flanagan drew on what is known about real historical figures to craft his book. Wanting will be published in September -- but if you don't want to wait, you can do what I did and score a used review copy at Amazon.

Erin O'Connor, 7:25 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

July 10, 2009 [feather]
About time

From the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights' new report, "National Teachers' Unions and the Struggle Over School Reform":

Over the last decade, the national leaders
of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have made their unions implacable foes of laws and policies designed to improve public education for disadvantaged children.

The unions have battled against the principle that schools and education agencies should be held accountable for the academic progress of their students. They have sought to water down the standards adopted by states to reflect what students should know and be able to do. They have attacked assessments designed to measure the progress of schools, seeking to localize decisions about test content so that the performance of students in one school or community cannot be compared with others. They have resisted innovative ways--such as growth models--to assess student performance.

In their attack on education reform, the national unions have often been unconstrained by considerations of propriety and fairness. They have sought to inject weakening amendments in appropriations bills, hoping that they would prevail if no hearings were held and the public was unaware of their efforts. They have used the courts to launch an attack on education reform, employing arguments that could imperil many federal assistance programs going back to the New Deal. They have failed to inform their own members of the content of federal reform laws.

Worse yet, the NEA has on more than one occasion counseled disobedience to the law.

This history is not consistent with the long record of the two unions to advance equality of educational opportunity and with the leadership of former AFT President Albert Shanker in seeking to make teaching into a profession which would be responsible for the academic progress of students.

The Commission does not believe that the recent records of the NEA and the AFT are etched in concrete. Both unions have new leaders who could take their argumentations on a more constructive path. Groups espousing reform have recognized that there are weaknesses in the current law that necessitate change, including improvements in assessment, increasing incentives for teaching, and eliminating rigidities in the law. These groups would undoubtedly be willing to enter dialogue with the unions on changes as long as they preserved the basic principles of reform.

We urge that the NEA and the AFT reconsider their positions on the critical elements of reform--accountability, standards, and assessment. We urge also that they review the progress schools and students have made under The Improving America's School Act and No Child Left Behind law and make constructive recommendations for improving the laws without weakening their basic principles.

We urge that the national unions provide a forum for the reform initiatives put forward by local union leaders and that they undertake a dialogue with teacher education institutions about how they can better prepare their students to serve students with special needs.

We firmly believe that this is the course unions must take if they wish to preserve public education as a vital institution in American society.

I don't see the unions changing. Institutional behemoths exist to perpetuate their own self-interest--and in this instance, the interests of teachers have been placed firmly above and beyond those of children, education, and by extension, our national future. Exposure of the unions for what they are, though, can do a great deal to marginalize them, limit their power, and improve educational options--through charter schools and vouchers--for all kids.

Erin O'Connor, 11:59 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Heart of hearts

David Miller in the Telegraph:

Like some deeply bruised cloud hovering thunderously above a summer picnic, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness threatens us still, more than a century since its publication.
Few works have entertained, excited and troubled minds as much. It has inspired music--including a forthcoming opera by Tarik O'Regan--and spawned numerous radio, theatre, film and television adaptations, the most famous being Apocalypse Now. TS Eliot's The Hollow Men did more for the work's projection towards a readership, quoting the phrase: "Mistah Kurtz, he dead." It infused Ronan Bennett's The Catastrophist and haunts both John le Carre's The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song. VS Naipaul and Graham Greene were swept up by it, as were Nick Davies in writing Dark Heart along with Sven Lindquist's Exterminate All the Brutes, Michaela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, and Tim Butcher's Blood River.

What a great course this would make: Begin by reading Heart of Darkness, then come chronologically down through the twentieth century, reading the re-writings of Conrad's novella, alongside key secondary texts, beginning with explorers such as Stanley and Mary Kingsley (underrated, forgotten, but SO funny; she went right up the Congo wearing her pillbox hat, her kid boots, and her long skirt, guided by natives and fending off the alligators with her umbrella, right at the moment that Conrad was memorializing the Congo in very different ways). Then, at the end, the class would read Heart of Darkness again, for closure, reflection, bookending. The possibilities are endless--the list above isn't even complete. Other reworkings of Heart of Darkness include Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible and Norman Rush's marvelous Mating.

(I don't miss academe -- but I do miss getting to make up new courses.)

Erin O'Connor, 8:52 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

And more Churchill

If you can manage to wade through a snarky, disappointingly illogical post by Marc Bousquet, you'll get to good comments. The best of them explains why Churchill himself rendered it nonviable for the court to order Colorado to reinstate him:

Because equitable remedies may not be claimed in law as of right, the court is also obliged to consider the harmful effect, if any, that may be caused to third parties.

The judge found that Mr Churchill did not, and could not, satisfy the 'clean hands' requirement. Quite apart from the question of whether he should retain his job, a duly-qualified panel of his peers, properly applying the faculty handbook's procedures, found that he had engaged in research misconduct.

The judge was particularly concerned by the plaintiff's expressed intention immediately to file suit against the university 'if they look at him cross-eyed' at any time in the future. This would, the judge observed, make the courts rather than the university's governance structure the venue for deciding whether Mr Churchill's job performance was satisfactory, something they have no business doing.

Reinstatement not being appropriate--not least because of the all-too-predictable harm trying to force Mr Churchill and the University to get along with each other would cause innocent faculty members, staff and students--the only remaining question to be determined is whether the plaintiff should receive 'front pay' in lieu. Here too the judge found that Mr Churchill had not met the minimal burden imposed upon him by the law. This was, essentially, that he should take whatever action was in his power to minimise the financial losses caused him by his dismissal. The judge found that to the contrary Mr Churchill had taken no action whatever in this regard.

Much as I'd like to agree that this decision is alarming (freedom of expression is being seriously challenged even here in the CHE blogs!), I cannot do so. Legally it was sound even if morally, spiritually, and Liberally outrageous to those who want to treat every decision as a threat to the sacred ox: tenure.

"The real lesson in this," as another commenter notes, "is not that a scholar was silenced because of his controversial views; it is that if you're going to be controversial then your scholarship should be airtight."

Erin O'Connor, 7:58 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

July 9, 2009 [feather]
Even more on Churchill

Here's former FIRE president and current Alliance Defense Fund attorney, David French:

Ward Churchill's judicial roller coaster continues. After the dizzying high of a jury verdict in his favor, he's plunging back down again with news that the judge has vacated the verdict and ruled for the university. And what a strange ruling it is.

The first part of the opinion is nothing more than a straightforward analysis of judicial immunity. Essentially, the judge finds that the regents acted as judicial officers when they considered the charges against Churchill and were consequently immune from all but a declaratory judgment action or action for abuse of discretion under Colorado law. Since Churchill didn't state a declaratory judgment claim or seek relief under relevant Colorado law, Churchill couldn't prevail.

That part of the opinion breaks no new ground. Judicial (more precisely, quasi-judicial) immunity is frequently an issue in academic-misconduct cases, and the judge at least appeared to track 10th Circuit case law quite closely in rendering his opinion. The second part of the opinion, however, is puzzling, to say the least.

Even after vacating the jury's verdict, the judge engages in what seems to be a superfluous discussion of Churchill's request for reinstatement (after all, if the jury liability finding is vacated, there is no real basis for equitable relief). In this discussion, he misunderstands the role of nominal damages in constitutional cases, conflates damage awards with liability determinations, grants a staggering amount of discretion to university officials who terminate troublesome employees, and essentially uses Churchill's protected speech as a pretext for justifying the university's adverse actions. The message the judge sends to faculty is clear: Get along with your colleagues--or else.

Fortunately for faculty everywhere, however, the second half of the judge's opinion should have no lasting impact. It's dicta, pure and simple, and dicta from a state trial court at that. Federal courts (where most constitutional battles are fought) tend to follow federal precedent.

Ward Churchill will no doubt appeal, so the story of this case is far from over. And I predict that the appeal will stand or fall on the immunity issue, not on the trial court's curious extraneous commentary.

Fascinating to see how responses to the ruling scramble the debate about Churchill. The polarized "right" and "left" sides that have dominated discussion of his case just don't adhere at this point.

In other news, the University of Colorado is now seeking to compel Churchill to pay $10,000 toward its legal costs.

Erin O'Connor, 7:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

July 8, 2009 [feather]
Still more on Churchill

From NAS president Peter Wood:

Opinion in higher education is divided. Was he treated fairly by the court? I think so, but The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, disagrees, as does Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE. On the other hand, Ada Meloy, general counsel of ACE finds the decision "a great development for decisions made within higher education institutions."

On a matter of such controversy, it may take a while for the dust to settle. Here is why I think Judge Naves decided the case correctly.

From the standpoint of higher education, the central issue in this controversy is the scope of academic freedom. I suspect that the AAUP, FIRE, ACE, and NAS agree on that. Academic freedom, however, is not a Constitutional matter and is only secondarily a legal doctrine. It is mainly a customary usage in higher education, oftentimes backed up by official statements of colleges and universities. Its exact meaning depends on what colleges and universities say about it and how they commit themselves to it in their relationships with faculty members, students, and the institution as a whole.

The notion of "academic freedom" looms large in discussions of how universities should conduct their affairs, but it is not a very precise idea, and in light of that courts have historically chosen to stand at a distance and let universities sort it out for themselves. Courts, of course, tend to act much more forcefully on First Amendment issues. When an abridgement of the right of free speech is at issue, as it often is, for example, in cases involving speech codes, the judiciary pretty clearly sides with the rights of Americans to express their views freely.

Academic freedom arguments and First Amendment arguments can overlap and, in light of that, there is some tendency to conflate the two. Ward Churchill undoubtedly has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants about "little Eichmanns" in the World Trade Center and the like. Whether his statements come under the rubric of his exercising academic freedom is something else. But as it happened, the University of Colorado attempted to steer clear of that question. It instead focused on allegations that Churchill had made false statements about his academic record and engaged in other forms of academic misconduct.

His defenders have pointed out, plausibly, that Churchill's academic misconduct probably wouldn't have attracted the University's attention or eventuated in his dismissal if it were not for his flamboyant anti-American statements. In that sense, the University's decision to dismiss him is connected to acts that were clearly protected by the First Amendment and possibly by the doctrine of academic freedom. This left the jury and ultimately Judge Naves with the problem of dissecting the relative contributions of multiple factors.

Churchill's academic misconduct all by itself amply justified his firing, but the University had turned a blind eye to that misconduct for a long time. Suddenly he was the object of national attention, and only then did the University get around to examining what sort of charlatan it had appointed, promoted, tenured, and entrusted to teach its students. It is not hard to see how the jury, after a month-long trial, reached the verdict that Churchill's public statements were indeed a factor in his dismissal.

Cary Nelson's response to this is to praise the jury for finding "that the university president's decision to fire Churchill was fruit of the poisoned tree--the public outrage over Churchill's extramural speech." The fruit of the poisoned tree is a Biblical metaphor (Matthew 7: 17-20) and a longstanding concept in American law for excluding evidence from a tainted source. But I think it's the wrong metaphor.

A man who is living a lie, as Churchill was at the University of Colorado, needs to be careful about drawing attention to himself. Perhaps the saying that most applies to Churchill’s situation is that those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. No matter how provocative Churchill's statements were, he would have continued to enjoy his tenured position at the University of Colorado Boulder if he had not also been engaged in academic fraud. The poisoned tree, if there is one, is not shady procedure on the part of the University but Churchill's shady life.

He got caught. Should the doctrine of academic freedom retroactively award him immunity from a life of fraud? That argument looks all wrong to me.

Academic freedom is a doctrine meant to encourage scholars' pursuit of truth by scholarly and scientific means. It is not a license meant to protect con men, thieves, liars, and other miscreants from the just consequences of their acts. Although the idea of academic freedom goes back much further than the beginning of the 20th century, it came into focus for American academics in a series of cases where universities dismissed competent and honest faculty members for speaking publicly on issues within their expertise but which rubbed university trustees the wrong way. The seminal statement on academic freedom was the AAUP 1915 "Declaration of Principles." It was and is unmistakably a ringing defense of intellectual freedom, but it was also a statement infused with moral clarity. Academic freedom was not a doctrine meant to provide cover to scoundrels, or even to insouciant blatherers:

In their extramural utterances, it is obvious that academic teachers are under a peculiar obligation to avoid hasty or unverified or exaggerated statements, and to refrain from intemperate or sensational modes of expression.

What does the AAUP today say about this language? Basically it proclaims that "Times change, and we need a broader, more flexible understanding of academic freedom." Do we?

Good question.

Erin O'Connor, 1:14 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

More on the Churchill ruling

From ACTA president Anne Neal:

Much has changed with regard to Ward Churchill in the last 24 hours, as this morning's New York Times or Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you. But the real lesson of his case remains the same: Boards of trustees must ensure that their institutions have in place sound rules governing faculty tenure and promotion, and that those rules are followed. In the case of Churchill, those rules were not properly applied until quite late in the game, as complaints about his scholarship went uninvestigated. That failure gave birth to the interminable and costly saga that continues to play out.

The judge's decision? It gets some things right, but is also problematic. Yes, peer review is critical to shared governance, academic autonomy, and professional standards. Yes, to reinstate Churchill would send an awful message to students -- that academic standards don't matter. But is the authority of trustees in fact comparable to that of judges here, as the opinion says? I am not so sure.

The case has, regrettably, offered a venue for unending bombast (and falsehoods) by Churchill and his lawyer. So it's surely no surprise that both lay people and lawyers are mighty confused as to the legal matters under review and the import of the various findings by judge and jury. With this in mind, we will wait and watch for further developments.

That said, for trustees, there is no time to wait. Boards everywhere ought to respond to this sorry tale with immediate and appropriate preventative action. They should -- as we outlined in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors -- ensure their institutions have rigorous post-tenure review policies that combine "carrots" and "sticks," conduct regular assessments of whether the process is working, make any necessary improvements, and publish both their policies and their assessments.

As the old saw goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Watching this spectacle, that should be very clear to all trustees.

The moral here is pretty straightforward, and is rather the same as that in Off Track Profs, which Maurice Black and I reviewed here: governing boards and administrators need to be proactive rather than reactive. That shouldn't be hard ... but apparently it is.

Erin O'Connor, 9:54 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

July 7, 2009 [feather]
Ward Churchill will not get his job back

From the Boulder Daily Camera:

BOULDER, Colo.--In a resounding defeat for ousted University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, a judge decided Tuesday to neither give the controversial professor his job back at CU nor award him any financial compensation for his dismissal from the school nearly two years ago.

The ruling from Chief Denver District Judge Larry Naves, which was released this afternoon, appears to comes in stunning contrast to a jury's verdict from a civil trial Churchill brought against the school earlier this year, in which six jurors determined that CU had unlawfully stripped Churchill of his job for expressing his political beliefs in a controversial essay he wrote about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

In his ruling, however, Naves stated that it was because of the jury's verdict -- specifically its decision to award Churchill a nominal $1 in damages -- that he denied Churchill's request to regain his job.

"If I am required to enter an order that is 'consistent with the jury's findings,' I cannot order a remedy that 'disregard the jury's implicit finding' that Professor Churchill has suffered no actual damages that an award of reinstatement would prospectively remedy," Naves wrote.

The judge said putting Churchill back on campus is not appropriate because the relationship between the plaintiff and the school is "irreparably damaged" and his presence there will make it harder for CU to impose its standards of scholarly excellence in the future.

Naves also ruled that CU's regents enjoy absolute immunity from lawsuits in their roles as "administrative officials performing functions analogous to those of judges and prosecutors," as long as several conditions are met.

The judge ruled that the regents acted in that protected capacity when they decided to dismiss Churchill.


Naves wrote that he decided against awarding Churchill any "front pay" because the former professor had not "seriously pursued" any efforts to gain comparable employment since his dismissal and had even declined to pursue a couple of job offers.

It might not look like it to Churchill's supporters, but this is actually a victory for academic freedom, tenure, and self-governance. If you want to keep those things around, you have to be able to self-police--and that means removing faculty who don't live up to academic standards of professional integrity.

Colorado botched things when it ignored complaints about Churchill's academic honesty until the scandal about his 9/11 essay made headlines. It was only then that the university decided to look into the problem, and, as the court found, the timing of the investigation was transparently pegged to the uproar about Churchill's opinions. The lesson for university administrators: be prompt and responsible when it comes to investigating complaints about academic dishonesty. Don't blow them off and then try to revive them whenever it might be convenient, from a public relations standpoint, to do so. Lesson for outspoken academics: Controversy is not a cover for professional malfeasance. Had the judge found for Churchill, the lesson would have been quite the opposite.

Erin O'Connor, 12:59 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

July 6, 2009 [feather]
Palin in comparison

I was wondering yesterday morning, while drinking coffee and watching Andy Roddick snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, whether John McCain had given any thought to his role in creating the godawful neverending national witch hunt that culminated Friday in Sarah Palin's resignation. Certainly McCain could not have known what journalists, bloggers, and partisan attack dogs would do to Palin; had he known, odds are good that he would have asked someone else to be on his ticket, since the anti-Palin frenzy damaged his campaign irreparably. Still, it was McCain who set things in motion when he invited Palin to be his running mate.

Ross Douthat makes a similar point in this morning's New York Times, noting that Palin's experience is a cautionary tale about the hideous and unspeakable costs of contemporary American politics. "Had she refused John McCain, Palin would still be a popular female governor in a Republican Party starved for future stars," he observes. Instead, "her 10 months on the national stage have been a dispiriting period for American democracy."

If Palin were exactly what her critics believe she is--the distillation of every right-wing pathology, from anti-intellectualism to apocalyptic Christianity--then she wouldn't be a terribly interesting figure. But this caricature has always missed the point of the Alaska governor's appeal--one that extends well outside the Republican Party's shrinking base.

In a recent Pew poll, 44 percent of Americans regarded Palin unfavorably. But slightly more had a favorable impression of her. That number included 46 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Americans without a college education.

That last statistic is a crucial one. Palin's popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal--that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal--that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It's been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she's botched an essential democratic role--the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But it's also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.

Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You'll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You'll endure gibes about your "slutty" looks and your "white trash concupiscence," while a prominent female academic declares that your "greatest hypocrisy" is the "pretense" that you’'re a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.

All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin’s gender and her social class.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.

But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don't even think about it.

You don't have to agree with Sarah Palin's politics to see the fundamental truth here, or to grasp the object lesson we have before us. We've taken our greatest national strengths--our commitment to the democratic process; our belief in "government of the people, by the people, for the people"; our freedom to debate ideas and issues openly and searchingly--and we've turned them into gross, cynical caricatures of our founding ideals. In the figure of Sarah Palin, we can take stock of how sickly our public culture has become--or, perhaps, of how deeply a truly toxic streak of intolerance has always run through it.

The Fourth of July is usually the occasion for remembering and celebrating the wonderful ideals that frame our nation's founding. But this year, Palin's resignation offered the opportunity to recall less pleasant aspects of our long national history. As Arthur Miller so memorably noted in The Crucible, witch hunts have been a stock feature of American culture since at least 1692. Cotton Mather's Salem was, for Miller, a metaphor for an underacknowledged American way that reared its ugly head during the McCarthy years; Miller's play made it possible for us to see how regularly, and almost ritualistically, we hunt witches in the name of preserving order.

Historians note that witches are rarely completely innocent figures--if they are hardly ever actual witches, they are almost always lightning rods, nonconformists or annoyances whose difference is felt to be such an intense, antagonistic threat that they must be destroyed. For the better part of the past year, Sarah Palin has been our national witch. She's been hounded and hunted and slandered and abused and accused and reviled--and so has her family. She has inspired hatred of irrational intensity, and she has done so most dramatically among those who profess to be thoughtful, rational sorts (journalists, reporters, prominent bloggers, pundits, academics, politicians). She and her family and her office and the taxpayers of Alaska have suffered immensely for the sick pleasures afforded by "commentary" of the sort that has surrounded her from the moment last summer when she joined the Republican ticket.

The thing about witch hunts is that the witch is really a decoy, a point of projection and transference. The witch is, by definition, the focus of punitive, collective animosity--but there is, also by definition, no there there when you look hard at the witch and try to perceive what makes her so evil. She's not evil--she's just the catalyst for an "evil effect" created by those who fear her, can't admit that they fear her, and so hate her and hunt her.

Where does that hate come from? What fear is it rooted in? Some very provocative thoughts about how Palin became a "designated hate receptacle" are available at Reclusive Leftist. It's a long thread, but well worth reading, as are the extensive comments. Also worth revisiting: Camille Paglia's sharp-eyed October 2008 commentary on Palin and the "Palin effect."

Erin O'Connor, 7:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)