Wednesday, July 30, 2008
So, please forgive my absence on this blog for the next couple of days. I'll be back on Friday, assuming that none of the rest of you is planning a surprise trip.
Monday, July 28, 2008
It's only a matter of time, I suppose, before neocon pundits seize upon the contents of Obama's prayer (in which he wisely-- and preemptively-- asked his God for "guard against pride and despair"), but let's hope and pray that we have not yet devolved into that kind of dystopia.
Hope and pray that... but don't write it down!
Saturday, July 26, 2008
I'm really surprised that some editor didn't catch this essay before it made its way out of the chute, because it is littered with dubious (and unverifiable) generalizations and proceeds by way of some pretty specious logic. Derbyshire believes wholeheartedly in the efficacy of what he calls America's "very nearly pure meritocracy"-- one in which "smarts" is the primus inter pares "merit"-- and he views the social and economic inequalities that exist in our (very nearly pure) meritocracy as best explained through reference to inequalities in innate intellectual ability. Now, that may not sound like a completely objectionable argument, but for Derbyshire it basically breaks down like this: Economic inequality corresponds, justifiably, to intellectual inequality. In other words, poor people are poor, largely, because they're also dumb. He writes:
Seek out the rich man in his castle: It is far more likely the case in the U.S.A. than anywhere else, and far more likely the case in the U.S.A. of today than at any past time, that he is from modest origins, and won his wealth fairly in the fields of business, finance, or the high professions. Seek out the poor man at his gate: It is likewise probable, if you track back through his life, that it will be one of lackluster ability and effort, compounded perhaps perhaps with some serious personality defect. I have two kids in school, eighth grade and tenth. I know several of their classmates. There are some fuzzy cases, but for the most part it is easy to see who is destined for the castle, who for the gate.
Of the deciding factors, by far the largest is intelligence. There are of course smart people who squander their lives, and dumb people who get lucky. If you pluck a hundred rich men from their castles and put them in a room together, though, you will notice a high level of general intelligence. Contrariwise, a hundred poor men taken from their gates will, if put all in one place, convey a general impression of slow dullness. That’s the meritocracy.
On Derbyshire's argument, the wealthiest among us are also the smartest, and we ought not begrudge them the spoils of their merit. But, putting aside his prescriptive claim, is this description really true? As happy as it may make me to (finally!) see conservatives railing against the anti-intellectualism that reigns supreme among them, I'm disheartened to see that it comes in a package like this. Far be it from me to question the scientific rigor of Derbyshire's assessment of his kids' eigth- and tenth-grade classmates... but I'm guessing that there are better places to look if one is questioning the corresponsence between wealth and intelligence.
Let's try another sampling. According to Forbes' list of "The 400 Richest Americans," 5 out of the top 10 richest Americans' wealth comes to them by way of the mega-retail-chain-store Wal-Mart. Now, I imagine that it did take some "smarts" to think up the idea of Wal-Mart, and perhaps a good deal more to develop it into the capital behemoth that it is today. But none of those 5 on Forbes' list is Sam Walton, the founder of Wal Mart! So, it seems safe to assume that of the very richest rich folks in our (very nearly pure) meritocracy, we can say that their chief "merit" is to be found in their surname, and not between their ears.
I've done my fair share of laps around the Academy's block, and I still fail understand how Derbyshire can justifiably conflate "wealth" and "intelligence." I also wonder, for the record, whether or not Derbyshire is capable of breaking down the etymology of his neologism "smartocracy," which would imply that the "smart" actually rule (from the ancient Greek "krátos" or κράτος). I suppose that Derbyshire would say that the "generally dull" plebians who continue to resent their lords-- and to resent the gross economic and social disparity that exists in thier fiefdom-- do so because they don't have the innate intelligence to comprehend the merits of our smartocracy. Alas, would that it were so simple and dull...
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Like most of the rest of the country, I suspect, there have been noticable shifts in the general ethos around these parts because it's an election year. For some people, that means that the South's long and proud history of fighting for justice in the name of the poor and disenfranchised has been reinvigorated. For others, it means that our semi-closeted skeletons of racism, sexism, and cultural isolationism have come out to dance again. This is a complicated place. But this is a fairly uncomplicated quote:
That's from a country song by Rhett Akins, which is a hit on the radio right now. Since I know you're dying to hear the whole thing, here it is:
Fair warning, Dr. Trott, you'll hear a lot of that Rebel Flag Sentiment down here-- and although it makes for a pleasantly raunchy honky-tonk tune, it no doubt will weigh on your patience from time to time. Let me just tell you that, although it may be the position of some of the loudest people you meet (who only get LOUDER when they are imparting to you the details of what you can kiss), it's not the only pickle in the jar around here.
Dr. Trott, since you're my friend and I don't want to see you fall into the Transplanted Yankee Trap (in which Northerners move down South and think that everyone is either a backward, ignorant yokel or else something directly imported from Gone With the Wind), I'm going to let you in on a little secret... embrace the power of the "What You Can Kiss" Argument! Don't concede the battle to the Dark Side of The Force, even if you happen to be on their porch, or in their office, or at their dive bar. Think of "kiss my country a**" as the Southern equivalent of "Q.E.D."-- it could mean "I'm not arguing with you anymore because I've already made my point with abundant clarity and incontrovertible supporting evidence" OR it could just mean "I'm not arguing with you anymore because I'm about three sheets to the wind and I'm country and I feel justified in now asserting things by fiat." It's an art, really, but a fine art and one you should learn.
Wait, on second thought, it occurs to me now that I've actually heard this argumemt before somewhere... where was it?... oh yeah, in just about every Philly bar I've ever been in! As only my very best Philly friends would know, it's also an argument that I have used, several times, after copious amounts of Southern Comfort... but I digress...
Never mind, Dr. Trott, you're golden.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
But this is not going to be a film review...
As you no doubt know already, The Dark Knight has received almost unanimous critical acclaim. Almost. Accompanying me in the despised minority who didn't like the recent Batman installment is film critic for New York Magazine (as well as NPR's Fresh Air and CBS's Sunday Morning), David Edelstein. Edelstein offered his (rather tame) criticism of The Dark Knight in an article for New York Magazine a couple of weeks ago... after which, the gates of holy hell were unleashed on him by Batmaniacs near and far. Receiving so much hate mail from raging fans of the film, Edelstein was forced to write a second essay in response. And this is where things get interesting. In his second essay, Edelstein writes:
Why — apart from narcissistic injury — do I respond to the abuse? Because there has been a lot of chatter in the last few years that criticism is a dying profession, having been supplanted by the democratic voices of the Web. Not to get all Lee Siegel on you, but the Internet has a mob mentality that can overwhelm serious criticism. There is superb film writing in blogs and discussion groups — as good as anything I do. But there are also thousands of semi-literate tirades that actually reinforce the Hollywood status quo, that say: “If you do not like The Dark Knight (or The Phantom Menace), you should be fired because you do not speak for the people.”
Well, the people don’t need to be spoken for. And a critic’s job is not only to steer you to movies you might not have heard of or that died at the box office. It’s also to bring a different, much-needed perspectives on blockbusters like The Dark Knight.
Now, I don't want to over-inflate the significance of this rather mundane exchange between a film critic and his readers-- especially not an exchange over a film as mundane as The Dark Knight-- but I think that Edelstein has really put his finger on something significant about the role of public intellectuals. Critics are not politicians. Critics are not "representatives." To paraphrase Edelstein, if "the people" are looking to be "spoken for," they should call up their politicians and representatives and tell them to do their jobs, because speaking for the people is not the job of a critic. The job of a critic is, ironically, much closer to what Batman does-- trying to effect justice before-and-beyond the laws of mass consensus. The job of a critic is, often, to compel the people to critically reflect on who they are trusting to speak for them.
There's a quote, attributed to Lord Chancellor Baron Brougham, that says: "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave." I say, replace "education" with "crticism" in that passage, and you can see the beginnings of the critical intellectual's responsibility to his or her people.
Criticism may very well be, as Edelstein fears, a "dying profession." But I, for one, am encouraged to see a gasping, dying protest like his.
Monday, July 21, 2008
I am reminded of that now, as I am in the process of finalizing my textbook orders for the fall semester. Because of the sorts of courses that I teach, I regularly fret over the books that I assign for my courses, many of which have provocative titles and/or cover art (not to mention actual ideas!). I have a recurring nightmare in which one of my students' mom or dad is visiting during Parents Weekend, strolling through the college bookstore and, upon seeing what books I have assigned, decides to speed-dial David Horowitz on the cell-phone to report me in violation of the Academic Bill of Rights.
[Insert frightened shiver here.]
So, as another public service-- because what's a blog for, after all, if not to help the people?-- here are some of the books that I have considered adopting (or actually dared to adopt) that may be more trouble than they're worth. (But probably not.) I'll do this the same way we did before, that is, I'll give you the "intended meaning" behind the adoption of the text first, followed by the possible thoughts of the Putative Defenders of Academic Freedom.
We'll start with the obvious:
The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault
WHAT I INTENDED: Foucault is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th C., and this is an eminently accessible introduction to his work. Students who have no theoretical basis for thinking about "power" or "discourse" can get their feet wet here, as well as learn a thing or two about the history of our socially-constructed categories of sexuality. Also, as an added bonus, The History of Sexuality serves as a kind of primer for psychoanalysis, gender studies, queer theory, and feminism-- some of the major "alternative" movements in contemporary philosophy.
WHAT THEY THINK: Everyone knows that teaching sex in schools leads to promiscuity among students. What's next? Is she going to hand out condoms on the first day instead of a syllabus?! (And, Mother, did she just use both "queer" AND "theory" in the same sentence?)
The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche
WHAT I INTENDED: Although this is not one of my favorite texts by Nietzsche, I think it is an important one to look at in order to have some point of comparison between Nietzsche's more rigorously philosophical works (like Genealogy of Morals) and the largely polemical texts like this one. Despite his polemics, however, there are several points in The Anti-Christ where we can see Nietzsche's abiding and complicated, even if reluctant, respect for the figure of Jesus and some of the values of Christianity.
WHAT THEY THINK: Clearly our child is headed directly to hell.
WHAT THEY THINK: Who hates democracy? Oh, the guy is French. Shoulda known. What do the French know from democracy, anyway?
Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani
WHAT I INTENDED: This is the first book that everyone should have read after 9/11. Mamdani offers the clearest and most convincing counter-discourse to the (Samuel) Huntington-esque "clash of civilizations" story that has unfortunately appealed to so many people in power. By carefully tracing the U.S. Cold War and post-Cold-War policy of engaging in "proxy wars," Mamdani shows not only how terrorism came to be what it is now, but also how we are all implicated in that development.
WHAT THEY THINK: Who ever heard of a "good" muslim?
The Assault on Reason by Al Gore
WHAT I INTENDED: After reading Gore's text, I now believe that he really missed his calling. This is a sober, informed, well-argued and intelligent treatment of the dangers to any political body that gives up on the power of a "well-informed citizenry." It's hard to imagine that there are many people alive today who have had more of an inside and up-front perspective on the changes in our country (and our world) over the last three decades than Al Gore. For cynics, this text will inspire hope again. For dreamers, this text is a healthy dose of realism. But for everyone, Gore's text will serve as a reminder that rational deliberation is one of the first virtues of civic responsibility.
WHAT THEY THINK: Jeez. He's still around? If the profs here are determined to assign a book by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, they should pick somebody good... like de Klerk.
The Al Qaeda Reader by Raymond Ibrahim (Ed.)
WHAT I INTENDED: If Al Qaeda is really our "enemy," then engaged intellectuals should acknowledge that the enemy you know is better than the enemy you don't know. Most of us know very little about Al Qaeda outside of the things we hear on television, so reading this book will be an exercise in becoming (what Gore called) a "well-informed citizenry." Students will be surprised when they read some of the actual texts of Islamic "extremism," which are not totally irrational (as we are often told) and many of which are grounded (however shakily) in sources of traditional Islamic theology. Most importantly, these texts give us a glimpse into the power of persuasive political rhetoric, the cornerstone of mass movements throughout history.
WHAT THEY THINK: It's time to heighten the DEFCON status! Alert the extraordinary rendition brigade! Get Horowitz on the phone! NOW!
As before, I welcome your contributions to this list. And as before, please provide your own renderings of the "what I intended" and "what they think" categories.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
In principle, I am sympathetic with Schulz's argument, as I am generally hesitant to assume any universally applicable moral or ethical ground upon which one might base a claim for political action (like defending human rights). But what interested me this time around in re-reading Schulz's book was the ease with which he rejected what the Founding Director of Human Rights Watch, Aryeh Neier, famously called (in his 2003 text Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights) "the mobilization of shame." Pace Albert Camus, who once claimed that "there is no evil that cannot be surmounted by scorn," Schulz suspects that scorn is quite often the least effective manner of mobilizing action. The problem, of course, is this: if your interlocutor does not already share some sense of decency, fair play, and moral approbation with you, then it is of no use for you to appeal to his or her violation of that sense. In other words, "shame"-- effective as it might be in the right circumstances-- only works when you are already preaching to the choir.
Even still, I find myself torn about this evaluation. My research on various truth commissions (especially the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Argentinian Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas) led me to believe quite strongly in the power of public shame as an effective alternative, and sometimes supplement, to traditionally punitive or retributive justice. One of the reasons that I was initially drawn to the study of truth commissions is that they seem to exemplify the implicit connection between truth and justice, especially when the "truth" is as horrifying as that of human rights violations. When Nunca Más, the final report of the Argentine truth commission, was published, it became an immediate best-seller, and the fact that it consisted mostly of first-hand accounts of victims made all the truths of Argentina's Guerra Sucia ("Dirty War") a matter of both public shame and public outrage. To bring the matter a bit closer to home, one only needs to be reminded of the public shame that followed in the wake of our government's monumental failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina. So, although I would stop short of Camus' optimism with regard to all of the evils that can be surmounted by scorn, I feel fairly convinced that many can be effectively combatted with shame.
I've always found Jean Paul Sartre's analysis of the power of shame in Being and Nothingness to be quite compelling. There, Sartre suggests that it is only the (implied or real) presence of "the third" that compels us to act rightly. (He does this, brilliantly, through a vignette of a peeping tom who, upon hearing a bump in the hallway, suddenly becomes aware that he--the "watcher"--may also be "watched.") And yet, even I realize the effective limit of this kind of "survellience" morality. My father was a preacher, and I remember him telling me many years ago that "you can't shame anybody into anything." What he meant, I think, was something along the lines of Schulz's intuition-- that is, you can't "shame" someone into making changes in his or her life of which s/he is not already ashamed. But what of those "hidden" shames? What of those "bad faith" shames of which one has not yet become reflectively aware?
My suspicion is, when it comes to human rights violations, that our problem is not that the power of shame would not be activated in people who could be doing more to prevent the violations, but that the truth of the violations remains (consciously or not) hidden from the putative actors. So, unlike Schulz, I am not willing to so easily give up on the mobilization of shame, though I am willing to concede that it is not a power that can be mobilized sans context... like all powers.
I'm not an economist, either, but whenever Mr.-You're-Doing-A-Heckuva-Job-Brownie (a.k.a., Mr.-Mission-Accomplished) says that he's "optimistic" about something, alarm bells go off in my head.
Then, I read this article about the government's seizure of the bank IndyMac, which predicts that other financial institutions are soon to follow in its wake. (One interesting thing that I learned in that article is that when the government seizes control of a bank ,they call it "conservatorship"-- which, as far as I can tell, sounds a lot like what happens in academia when departments go into "receivership.") Just to pile on a little more to the dread, only this time in a much more close-to-home way, Brian Leiter has recently posted two separate stories about the effects of the economic downturn on the profession of philosophy ("The Brewing Economic Meltdown in the Philosophy Profession" and "Do Senior Faculty Have an Obligation to Retire at Some Point?").
Things do not look good.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
You may remember the story by Dr. Seuss (né, Theodore Seuss Geisel) from 1950 entitled If I Ran the Zoo, in which the pint-sized protagonist, Gerald McGrew, speculates upon the amazing creation he could bring about if he were allowed to run the zoo. If I Ran the Zoo is not only a great story about the never-before-seen exotic animals that would populate "the new zoo, McGrew Zoo," but it also just so happens to contain the first ever documented use of the word "nerd." (All you nerds should be sure to rush out and buy the book immediately, and then show it off to your nerd friends right after wowing them with that little factoid in from the "Nerd History" file.) McGrew's first words in the story are: "It's a pretty good zoo, and the fellow who runs it seems proud of it, too." But "pretty good" can always be better, and McGrew thinks he's just the one to bring "better" about.
Anyway, the National Association of Scholars has asked its readers to indulge in their own little McGrew-ish imaginings of what could be. They want to know what you would do if you ran our particular zoo, that is, American higher education. In the words of NAS: "we have asked contributors to forebear dwelling on what is wrong with the current zoo and instead to tell us in positive terms what they would do to improve it." In the spirit of Dr. Seuss, the NAS places no restrictions on your Academy Zoo proposals-- which should make us all pause to consider that the unrestricted nature of imaginative thought might very well be what is most missing from higher education policy.
Sunday, July 06, 2008
I hope you take the time to read through the very interesting essays in the eSymposium, including my reponse to the essays by Pius Adesanmi, Wandia Njoya and Corey D.B. Walker.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
But, alas, reality TV ain't what it used to be. Journalist Kate Mulcrone recently went to "Reality TV School" in New York City, which apparently "teaches wannabe reality stars how to be better versions of themselves." (She chronicled that experience in an article entitled "What I Learned at Reality TV School".) The fact that such a "school" even exists is testimony to the dramatically modified sense of "reality" that such programming is now trying to capture and convey. We all know that programs like The Real World became formulaic after its first few years of success--and that formula (beautiful people + alcohol + semi-manufactured conflict = good drama) has been copied by almost every other reality show that depends on the confluence and conflicts of personalities to make its stories. (The best/worst example of this is probably VH1's family of shows that invlove former Public Enemy hype-man Flavor Flav. It all began with Flav's appearance on The Surreal Life 3, where he fell in love with Brigitte Neilsen, which spun off a new series chronicling their love-that-was-not-meant-to-be called Strange Love. The heartbroken Flavor Flav subsequently sought to find his "true" love on three separate seasons of a dating show called Flavor of Love, which itself spun-off into another 3-season dating show focusing on one of Flav's former paramour's called I Love New York.) Anyway, back to the reality TV school...
One of the things the "students" at reality TV school learn, according to the article, is that everyone must decide "whether or not you want to be the person who consoles the crier or the one who bags on her." As far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty important decision in real (not just "real") life, too. My best friend from college is the Executive Co-Producer of the reality show America's Next Top Model--and we also got our undergraduate degrees in philosophy together--so I've talked to her several times about the various ethical issues raised in and by reality television. For all the bagging the smarter and more cultured among us like to do on these kinds of shows, I think that reality television provides a lot "teachable moments" ripe for imparting moral and ethical instruction. And, unlike the "moral dilemmas" conventionally used in philosophy classrooms-- like standing at the switchboard of a railway and having to decide whether to send a train barelling toward 50 innocent children or your mother-- the dilemmas represented in reality television are ones with which students are more familiar and, many times, those dilemmas are closer to students' actual expreience. That is, these real-world dilemmas seem, well, real-er.
The fact that reality television is built on the premise that everyone and everything is surveilled makes explicit Sartre's intuition that all morality is dependent on the (real or imagined) presence of a "third." Obviously, since we're talking about real (and not imagined) surveillence here, this kind of programming gives us the added opportunity to say some things about the way our collectivities are organized and monitored, too... including our moral and ethical collectivities. I think a course on the ethics of reality TV could be a great course, though it would almost certainly make this infamous list.
[One last thing: a colleague of mine, English professor Marshall Boswell, gave the Convocation address last year, in which Boswell focused on an interesting (and quite funny) play on the similarities and differences between The Real World and the real world. You can watch a recording of that address here. Just scroll down to the middle of the page. It's a really, really good speech.]
Friday, July 04, 2008
Bozo the clown, Jesse the racist
Larry Harmon, the man who popularized the show business character Bozo the Clown, has died of congestive heart failure at the age of 83. Harmon did not create the flame-haired character, but played him in numerous appearances over the years. He purchased the copyright in the 1950s and licensed the character to others, including TV stations across the U.S.
Also passing this week was former North Carolina senator, Jesse Helms, 87. Helms was noted for his opposition to integration, civil rights for African Americans, modern art, AIDS research and treatment, gay rights, foreign aid that included "family planning," and for wanting to make Senator Carol Moseley Braun cry by singing "Dixie" in the Senate elevator.
Trailing in a tough re-election fight in 1990 against a black opponent, Harvey Gantt, Helms produced a campaign ad in which a pair of hands belonging to a white job-seeker crumpled a rejection slip as an announcer explained that the job had been given to an unqualified minority candidate. Helms won the election.
Bozo will be missed.
You know, I've just got nothing to add to this.
Thursday, July 03, 2008
I'm not entirely convinced that it is accurate to describe the younger generation of faculty (according to the article, "younger" means "between 26-35") as lacking ideological "commitment," though I can appreciate the significant differences between the manner in which such commitments are manifest in the 60's generation and how they are manifest in people of my generation. But that's an argument for another day. What really interested me about this article was that, in the course of describing these generational differences between faculty, the author mentions--and then quickly passes over--several phenomena that would serve as legitimate explanations for it. Here are two in particular:
First, there has been a tremendous increase in female faculty-- almost 40% of the total in 2005, compared with a mere 17% in 1969. Of course, I don't cite this statistic as a way of suggesting that women are "less ideologically committed," but rather to point out that the "old" makeup of the professorate was overwhelmingly constituted by men who had the luxury of fully indulging their ideological commitments, at least in part, because their non-ideological commitments (like the care of a home and children) were being handled by someone else.
Second, shrinking economic support for higher education and the increasing shortage of tenure-track jobs have dramatically changed the professional part of what it means to be a member of the American professorate. The younger generation of faculty are described in the article as more conscientiously "careerist," as if those sorts of utilitarian commitments have replaced what would have been our legitimate "ideological" commitments because we were molded in the cushy, mostly peaceful and relatively prosperous days of the 90's. It seems to me to be a real mistake to assume that some sort of autonomous re-prioritization of values is the reason that junior faculty are more "careerist," rather than attributing that phenomenon to the very real economic and professional pressures under which junior faculty now labor.
To be fair, the article does acknowledge these two points. It just doesn't seem to give them the weight they merit, I think, especially since they are far more helpful in elucidating the real effects of an impending generational change than some romantic re-creation of "the 60's radical professor." All due respect to those illustrious radical profs, of course.
One last thing: I hope that the 60's generation of professors doesn't retire too quickly, because I think there is one very important thing that they know, and we will soon need to know, which will probably bind us together more than anyone has yet anticipated. That is, they know what it's like to have "veterans" as students. It is a fact that, in the coming years, more and more college students will be entering the classroom after exiting a war. They will be radically different people, with radically different experiences of the world, than we junior professors were or had when we were in college. (You can listen to three of them tell their stories in "Iraq veterans on campus.") I've only had three students "back from Iraq" so far in my teaching experience--2 at Penn State and 1 here at Rhodes--but I could already see an inkling of the tremendous disconnect not only between their lives and mine, but also between their lives and that of their classmates. I'm sure that, at this point, the endless analogies between Vietnam and Iraq can seem tiresome... but I think this is one for which we have not yet fully prepared.