02 June 2009

Centers of Wisdom vs. Centers of Knowledge

Old people have always been considered centers of wisdom; whether or not we respect them for it, most people recognize that old folks have a helluva lot of life experience on the rest of us.

But I was listening to Guy Clark's "Texas, 1947" just now and I realized that in the last 100 years or so it's much more common to view younger people as centers of knowledge. The song was written about the first time he ever saw a Streamline train out in west Texas:
Trains are big and black and smokin', louder'n July four,
but everybody's actin' like this might be somethin' more

than just pickin' up the mail, or the soldiers from the war.
This is somethin' that even old man Wileman never seen before.
Not anymore, kids. Anyone under 20 has seen hundreds of things that their grandparents haven't seen--or even dreamed of.

I wonder what that does to our sense of wonderment about the world around us...

31 May 2009

The Sweet, Sweet Case Against Torture

Over at The Raw Story, there's this little tidbit about FBI interrogation:

Ali Soufan, a former FBI interrogator, revealed in an article being released in June that Osama Bin Laden's bodyguard opened up about the 9/11 terror attacks only after being offered -- sugar free cookies.

Bin Laden lieutenant Abu Jandal is a diabetic, Soufan said, and wouldn't eat sugar cookies he'd been offered.

I'm scared. If the FBI ever interrogates me, it won't take much to break me--but they'll have to spring for the Pepperidge Farm Milanos to get anything out of me. They put some crappy Hydrox cookies in front of me and they'd better break out the thumbscrews. I don't talk for just any crappy cookie.

But, of course, the most striking thing about this anecdote is that the soft sell works, too. I'm not arguing that 100% of the time torture gives false or useless information; I don't think that's true. Maybe these acts of torture did save thousands of American lives, but I have two problems with this argument.

1) What does it profit a nation to gain its safety and yet lose its soul? That's a revision of Matthew 8.36, and it fits us to a tee. Once you start giving up the things that make us (or that we pretend make us) who we are, there's nothing left. We are, so say the cultural conservatives, a nation with not a religion, not a race, not an individual, not a shared history, but a group of ideas at our center (that's Allan Bloom, Geoffrey Hart, and the National Review talking, not me). If we want immigrants to integrate into our nation, if we want strict Constitutionalists on the bench (Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity), then we better damn well be willing to stick to those core values when the going gets tough. Oddly enough, those two blowhards are the very ones still trying to defend activities that were--and again are--deemed torture. So they're essentially saying that our core values are only important when they're not being tested. Nice.

2) Furthermore, it does not follow that because torture (did produce/probably produced/maybe produced) actionable intelligence other techniques that aren't against the Geneva Convention might have produced the same information. It's a freshman composition-level fallacy to think that the success of torture means that it was the only solution. That's a lot of faith to place in something that has such a possible downside. Non-abusive interrogation might have helped produce a Muslim world more receptive to American overtures and ideas than the large-scale entrenchment and increased radicalization that we seem to have spawned with our treatment of prisoners.

I'm not disparaging the men and women who found themselves in the position of interrogators. It is easier to inflict pain and abuse on someone you loathe. I certainly would not want to be in the position of these interrogators (many of whom were not trained as interrogators and were just thrust into the position) since they were working with prisoners that they had every right to believe were responsible for the death of thousands of Americans.

It's not surprising that vengeance rather than intelligence became the goal (how else could you hang people in a room by their wrists, place a spolight or strobe shining in their faces, and blast the Red Hot Chili Peppers at them?). Rather than working them over and making them help you, the more inviting way is to punish. It's understandable--maybe not excusable, but understandable. What is not understandable or excusable is that top-level governmental officials not only let this happen, but went out of their way to make it happen. The FBI apparently repeatedly asked for top-level permission to do some of these "enhanced interrogation techniques" before it would even allow them to take place. John Yoo and many others in the DoJ went out of their way to create a legal footing for these actions.

I think we--as with our economy, infrastructure, intelligence, election reform, ethics reform, etc.--took the easy way out. And just like all those other instances, it's going to cost us in the long run.

17 May 2009

To Rage Against the Machine or to Fight for Some Time at the Wheel?

Jane Miriam Epperson Brinley has written an interesting piece for the Washington Post on the College Board's decision to reduce the Latin AP exam to just Virgil. No more Catullus. No more Cicero. No more Horace. No more Ovid. As far as the College Board is concerned, Virgil is Latin literature.

She's frustrated, and rightly so. Her career and passion just got kicked in the teeth, was just labeled "unnecessary." As a medievalist, I feel her pain. But her response, her analysis of why this happened is way off. She comments:
In the gap created by our national reluctance to centralize education policy, the College Board, an unelected body, has ended up as the de facto Education Ministry, and when it makes decisions we have no recourse....The College Board's curriculum-setting role goes beyond the AP course itself. Latin courses for elementary schools (a growth area), middle schools and high schools will now change, and textbooks will change along with them....So long as AP exams continue to influence high school curricula and so long as financial, and not educational, imperatives seem to drive College Board decisions, we should be asking who we really want in charge of all our disciplines.
She's lamenting the lack of a centralized "Education Ministry"; leaving my objections to the Euro-centric nomenclature of "Ministry" aside, I'd respond that such an entity is problematic in its own right and isn't the magic bullet she seems to think it is. No Child Left Behind mandates a state-wide standard that all students should meet. This creates at least two unfavorable outcomes: 1) a child in Portland, Oregon will be held to a different standard than a child 10 miles away in Vancouver, Washington. 2) Children in Orange County, Compton, and Berkeley, California all must meet the same standard--even though their resources, skill levels, environments, and perhaps even goals for education will be quite different.

NCLB is a top-down approach that demands teachers "teach to the test" because that is how the so-called progress of each school will be judged. It essentially creates a centralized "Education Ministry" in the form of state bureaucracies that pretend they know what children need to learn. I cannot understand how someone living in Indianapolis, Indiana knows what a child in Tell City needs to learn--but even worse is the presumption of knowing how she needs to learn it.

Alongside the NCLB at the elementary and secondary level we also have magazines like US News & World Report shaping our universities. In 2001, Baylor University adopted what became known as the 2012 Vision which has as its goal "moving Baylor into the upper echelons of higher education." These 12 imperatives follow closely the criteria by which US News & World Report judges the so-called "Best Colleges." In fact, they look like Baylor just imported the criteria wholesale and added "with a Christian identity" to a few of them. So really, Baylor is spending a decade to get a national magazine to like it.

And Baylor hasn't even tried to hide this:
  • Larry Lyon, the head of the Graduate School was using the magazine as his benchmark when he said "The universities that are listed as top tier undergraduate universities by US News & World Report have, on average, 40 percent of their students enrolled in graduate education. We average about 12 percent."
  • In its pitch for the Bush Presidential Library the PR folks apparently thought the magazine's judgment of the university was a selling point, writing: "Over the years Baylor's academic programs have received national and international recognition through solid rankings in U.S.News and World Report and other respected publications." Baylor didn't get the Bush Presidential Library--even though it probably should have.
  • And then there is the May 2007 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that flatly states: "Baylor is clear about how it will calibrate its success...its overarching goal is to enter the top tier of institutions, as determined by U.S. News & World Report's college rankings."
So a magazine is the entity controlling the long-term direction of a major university (and I'm sure Baylor isn't the only one--which just makes it worse). What is wrong with that picture? I mean, I'd take the College Board over the US News & World Report any day of the week and twice on Sunday. What's more, neither NCLB nor US News & World Report have anything close to the sort of system of appeals that Brinley wants. And I doubt that any larger "Education Ministry" would, either.

Even if it did, it doesn't sound like Brinley could make a compelling case for keeping a more thorough Latin program. Here is her big rationale for the importance of Latin:
Latin, revered by Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders -- John Adams declaimed the speeches of Cicero, once even in a toga -- has been placed in the hands of a bunch of administrative functionaries.
I hate to be catty toward someone who's trying to work through some of the things that medievalists are facing at the university level, but this argument is not going to cut it. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams loved Latin? OK...great. What have you done for me lately?

That rationale doesn't even make me want to save Latin, and I love Latin (without strong Latin programs, medieval programs get weaker, too). I say scrap the complaints about the system itself and the financial motivations of the puppet-masters of education (the College Board may be financially driven but it's actually just following the lead of almost every university in the nation). Start telling everyone why you matter, why Latin programs shouldn't be anything past "Latin for Pre-Med" or "Latin for Pre-Law"--what one Latin professor I had at the University of Texas called "Words for Turds."

If you start thinking about that, you'll find that defending reading Ovid's Metamorphoses or Catullus' poems to Lesbia puts you in the same boat as the medievalist who's defending his work on footnotes in Duns Scotus or the cultural anthropologist who's defending her work on Nicaraguan Lesbian Poetry. It seems that if we could just all row in the same direction, we'd have something going.

But we can't seem to. Hell, we can't even seem to agree if we're in the same boat. I guess the real disagreement I have with Brinley is that which animates lots of discussions about what to do. From Marxism (Social Democrats and Communists) to medievalists (Bonnie Wheeler and Eileen Joy at Kalamazoo), it seems to run along the same lines: reformists changing things from within, revolutionaries making radical breaks from without. I don't mean to pick on Brinley, and I don't have a problem with radical breaks (sometimes they're the only option). But issuing a weak-voiced call for resistance to a well-funded, fully-entrenched institution like the College Board in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post doesn't seem like the kind of call to revolution we need. It just seems to me emblematic of a lot of the response from the academic community. We keep appealing to the better angels of the lawmakers' and citizenry's natures, but we're talking to people who largely don't get that allusion. Or what an allusion even is.

Maybe we need to stop complaining and waiting for someone to step in. Maybe we need to stop looking up at our so-called betters and begging Oliver Twist-like for some more. Maybe we should either damn the torpedoes and continue, Roark-style, with our chosen work--perhaps tell everyone else what they need instead of asking if they'd like to hear us now. Or even better we could collectively shrug and unseat the world. Personally, if we're going to do something, I'd prefer the latter. If we did it and the world went on without us, at least we would know where we stand and stop kidding ourselves about our importance. If we did it and it all started sliding downhill, at least for awhile we'd get the respect we deserved.


16 May 2009

BABEL CFP: Monstrous Binaries: Monster Theories in/at Play

Monstrous Binaries: Monster Theories in/at Play

“It is conventional to call ‘monster’ any blending of dissonant elements. I call ‘monster’ every original inexhaustible beauty.”—Alfred Jarry, “Les Monstres”

Whether or not it is beautiful, the monster is certainly inexhaustible. The BABEL Working Group invites submissions that explore the inexhaustibility of literary monsters as they both demand and defy binary characterizations. How might binary models explain, occlude, or displace other monstrous possibilities? The invitation is purposefully open and might include approaches that range from postcolonial theory to Russian Formalism, from queer theory to ecocriticism (and all points in between/beyond).

The panel will be a part of the 2009 SEMA conference, and its goal is to bring together disparate readings of monsters, letting them commingle, coexist, and (perhaps) coalesce for a few minutes. Abstracts should be for papers fifteen minutes in length. They may offer focused examinations of primary texts or more abstract, theoretical discussions, but all submissions should make explicit their theoretical genealogy.

A *partial* list of approaches might include: Kristeva, Foucault, Girard, Plumwood, Derrida, Bakhtin, Lacan, Cohen, Levi-Strauss, Deleuze and Guattari, Propp, Zizek, Canguilhem, Butler, and/or Freud.

Deadline for Submission: 11 June 2009

Send Abstracts (150-250 words) to:

Timothy Asay (tasay@uoregon.edu) or

Marcus Hensel (mhensel1@uoregon.edu)

BABEL Working Group: http://www.siue.edu/babel/Babel-Home.htm

SEMA 2009 Conference: http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/site/gShQhq/sema2009

28 April 2009

Undeniable Proof of my Naivete

Arlen Specter is still Purple, and it's a good thing, too.

The story all over DC is about Arlen Specter switching parties from the Republicans to the Democrats. Big deal. He was never really a Republican, if you define Republican as someone who does know what he thinks about something until Karl Rove tells him (substitute Nancy Pelosi for Democrats).

The article at Raw Story notes:
“Because of the shrinking Republican vote in the state, Specter was seen as a dead man walking politically in the primary with polling showing him trailing Toomey by ten or more points. The bar for Specter to run as an independent was also extremely high due to the rules governing such a third party candidacy. That left a Democratic candidacy as Specter’s best option if he wanted to remain in the Senate beyond 2010.”
And there's my problem with reductive, binary political parties. I don't mean to sound like a deconstructionist here, but we need to break the two-party system apart. Any systems that forces someone like Joe Lieberman out of the Democratic party largely because of his views on the Iraq War and forces Specter out of the Republican party largely because of his progressive views on social issues is broken. No dissent within the ranks is tolerated--and it's not because either party somehow wants to retain a purity of thought. It's because the two-party system creates binaries: Dems think the stimulus package is good, so GOPers think it's bad; GOPers think deregulation is good, so Dems think it's bad. If you have a significant member of your party (like Lieberman and Specter) who break ranks on major issues, the opposing party will use that against you ("Even some high-ranking members of Party X think Issue Y is a bad idea.")

I've talked about them before, but groups like the Log Cabin Republicans are long-suffering for no real reason. It's a label that has marginalized them; on almost every other issue, they are conservative, but their sexuality has marginalized them in their own party. If Obama goes through with his promise to cut wasteful or underperforming governmental programs, some social programs are going to get the axe. That is a very un-Democrat thing to do, and it will piss some people off. Again, ideology is getting in the way of pragmatism. The perfect, to borrow from Obama, has become the enemy of the good.

I'm not sure I wanted Specter to change parties. It's not fair to him, and it's not really fair to his constituents. Why couldn't there be room in each party for some overlap?

23 April 2009

...at least I think so right now.

That is how all studies--medieval or otherwise--should end. I've been reading Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins, and in advocating an always-tentative, always-becoming notion of the past, he states: "the layers of the past cannot readily be reduced to a single plot without loss" (107). (By "plot" he's referring to the causal, linear view of history that dominates Anglo-Saxon studies in particular and medieval studies in general.)

It seems to me that loss is one thing that seems to be animating a lot of really interesting work on the Middle Ages right now. I can remember Jorie Woods, the person most responsible for me being a medievalist, bringing in lesbian love letters and Hrotsvit of Gandersheim and Poetria Nova--and really blowing my mind by making me realize there was more to medieval literature than Arthuriana and Beowulf. Liz Scala wrote a great book on absent narratives. Carolyn Dinshaw wrote a book that almost compels one to think about aspects of the Middle Ages that we've been ignoring for centuries. Of course, Jeffrey Cohen did more to direct real thinking about medieval monsters than Tolkien could have dreamed of. And he's been joined by Eileen Joy, Karl Steel, and Mary Kate Hurley who are pursuing different margins--until-now-lost themes, characters, motifs, and texts--over at the ITM. But it strikes me that this is all about anxiety of loss: a loss of the past, a lost of MSS, a loss of knowledge, a loss of identity that is based not just on what we've inherited but also the sort of thinking and methodology we've inherited. (EDIT: WSJ just published something about missing texts.)

Sometimes the paths have been blazed so well and made so inviting by people like Tolkien and Benson that we don't even realized there might be another way. Maybe the road home is the most convenient and efficient way to get there, but sometimes you just have to be like Cheever's Neddy and decide to swim home via your neighbors' swimming pools. At first it's ridiculous (aren't firsts almost always ridiculous, though?), and then people will resent it, but that's because it's outside the norm.

If we could get away from a plotted, linear view of medieval studies, we might be able to (re)develop or (re)construct some of those other paths that have been abandoned. We all know from experience that early work we do in a field or on a topic is often embarrassingly wrong. So why do we pretend when we're writing it that it's anything more than a giant, researched, well-thought-out conditional statement? Doesn't refusing to acknowledge the contingency in all of our work really push out other ways of seeing Anglo-Saxon England? It's not necessarily slippery-slope relativism to admit what we say could change tomorrow, next month, next decade (let's take a tip from Barthes or, if you like, Thomas Merton, who said "My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center. And I am always seeing that center from somewhere else. Hence I will always be accused of inconsistency. But I will no longer be there to hear the accusation.") Why shouldn't everyone admit it? Why shouldn't every paper, every thesis, every dissertation end with "...at least I think so right now"?

[NB: The picture at the top of this blog entry is Eva Hesse's "Contingent," a series of hanging panels made of cheesecloth-type fabric and plastic. The piece itself, if it is even possible to see it and has not degraded to a catastrophic extent, is always contingent--on time, on environment, on gravity. All of these things will change it from year to year (the cheesecloth will stretch and change the length of the pieces). Hesse said:

Piece is in many parts.
Each in itself is a complete statement,
together am not certain how it will be....
textures coarse, rough, changing.
see through, non see through, consistent, inconsistent.
enclosed tightly by glass like encasement just hanging there.
then more, others, will they hang there in the same way?
try a continuous flowing one.
try some random closely spaced.
try some distant far spaced.
they are tight and formal but very ethereal, sensitive, fragile.
see through mostly
not painting, not sculpture, it's there though.
I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive,
non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing,
everything, but of another kind, vision, sort.
from a total other reference point, is it possible?

15 April 2009

James Dobson Defends ELF and ALF (Sort of)

On Sean Hannity's show yesterday, James Dobson, head of the conservative Focus on the Family, was speaking with Hannity regarding the new Dept. of Homeland Security report on "right-wing extremists." Both took exception to the notion that returning veterans could become quite dangerous if they join a right-wing, militant group--especially since the report mentioned Tim McVeigh as an example of what could happen.

Dobson commented: "there are no Timothy McVeighs out there right now. They're making a big deal out of something that hasn't happened and may not happen." I hope so, but this brings up the worries that many have had about so-called eco-terrorism, which shows up in the DHS report on left-wing extremist threats.

In testimony to the House Resources Committee on 12 February 2002, James Jarboe (Domestic Terrorism Section Chief) said that "despite the destructive aspects of ALF's operations, its operational philosophy discourages acts that harm 'any animal, human and nonhuman.' Animal rights groups in the United States, including the ALF, have generally adhered to this mandate."

Yet, Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon said on 12 September 2001 that ELF and ALF are capable of acts "no less heinous than what we saw occur yesterday here in Washington and in New York." And Republican Sen. James "I-have-a-lot-of-weathermen-and-economists-who-don't-believe-in-climate-change-and-I-call-them-scientists" Inhofe said: "FBI counter-terror experts have warned time and again that ecoterror is the most dangerous domestic terror threat our nation faces, and I applaud our Federal agents’ ongoing efforts in cracking down on groups like ALF, ELF and SHAC in the name of protecting property and saving lives." Property first, lives second. (Except ALF and ELF never hurt or killed anyone.)

Which brings me back around to Dobson. It seems to me that all this "Operation Backfire" and hand-wringing over the danger to human lives from eco-terrorism is "making a big deal out of something that hasn't happened and may not happen."

09 April 2009

Thanks, Capitalism

Over at Wired, they've updated us on the catastrophe that wasn't. The conficker worm. I have to admit that I am disappointed. I was expecting so much, but the thing is "dedicated to spam," apparently.


Capitalism has completely destroyed the profession of maniacal supervillian. Where's the panache? The insanity? The ambition? The wardrobe? Alan Moore foresaw this disaster back in 1987--having Hollis Mason lament the change in his book-within-a-book. Why didn't anyone listen to him? He knew what he was talking about! Moloch is the sign of our times!!

Spam?!? I mean, spam?!? This is what you used your powers for evil to create? It's like The Green Goblin using his little flying scooter to deliver menus for Chinese restaurants. Just disgraceful.

And it could be forgiven if you threatened to shut down servers with an avalanche of spam unless the UN declares you Eternal Emperor of Estonia or something. But no. You did it just to make bank.

Now all I have left is the dream that conficker is a diversionary scheme to keep the tech community from noticing you collecting the raw materials for your needlessly large weather-changing-machine. We can only hope.

07 April 2009

Blindness is a Foucauldian Nightmare

Unfortunately, I heard about this book via the movie. I haven't seen it, but that is how I became aware of its presence. I figured that I liked Borges and Marquez, so why not stereotype and see if I'd like Saramago, too. I know that Borges and Marquez are very different writers--as far as content and style--but there is a strong magic realism element in both. Though Borges' work is more Anglo-Saxon in its prose, the fantastic stories are told with such a matter-of-fact tone and mixed so seamlessly into "reality" that it does remind me of magic realism (I'm thinking specifically of his short stories like "The Gospel According to St. Mark," "The Library of Babel," and "The Circular Ruins").

At any rate, Blindness sort of fits into the preconceived notion I created. It is certainly a good story and an even better idea. The plague that--one would think--would equalize the population actually stratifies it, fragments it, and animalizes it. In fact, the society (predictably) crumbles in fairly predictable ways.

The story seems to overlap with Michel Foucault's ideas of power--those he outlines in Discipline and Punish--especially in "Panopticism." The strength of Saramago's work over Foucault's is that it gives a human dimension to Foucault's ideas; it puts flesh (in both beautiful and disgusting ways) on Foucault's skeleton, so to speak. At the beginning, when the plague first breaks out and those suffering from it are quarrantined in an abandoned asylum (the symbolism there should be noted and could be another sly nod to Foucault's Birth of the Clinic); at first, there is order, announcements, a plan, and regular(ish) deliveries of food. This is like the early versions of power structures that Foucault describes in the Middle Ages and Renaissance when The Plague would break out. The towns would be compartmentalized, policed, and put under the strong, heirarchal control of non-infected outsiders. The infected were forced to stay in their homes on pain of death--which is analagous to the blind being forced to stay in the asylum under pain of death.

But as the plague spreads and the government obviously cannot contain it or control the growing anarchy, the social order breaks down and the idea of Panopticism begins to take hold. The thugs extort all the valuables from the other blind internees, but, of course, they couldn't search thoroughly--so it was really up to all the other fellow internees to make sure everyone gave everything they had (everyone's food depended on it). So, too, with the prostitution; the thugs don't seem to care how many women the different wards send. They say that if there are 7 women and they only send 6, those 6 will just have to work harder, thus putting the pressure on the other woman to go along with the plan.

All in all, it's an interesting meditation on what happens when the idea of "greater good of society" or even the idea of "society" is rendered obsolete.

The Long View is Sometimes a Heartless One

The recent earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy destroyed not only quite a few lives but also an extensive amount of medieval architecture that had survived a 18th-century quake. Certainly the loss of medieval material history is unfortunate, but certainly not as bad as the loss of life. The thing is, taking a really "long view"of time and the Earth means not really lamenting it at all. In a lithic view of time, these churches, towers, walls are houses of cards--erected for a moment and built so tenuously that they fall down after a mere shudder.

Perhaps this view is completely off; perhaps it's a we-all-return-from-whence-we-came sort of view whose big selling point is that it's comforting and totally unprovable. I don't know. I do know that in general, removed terms, I actually mourn the loss of those historical artifacts more than the loss of human life. But only in general, removed terms. Give me the choice between torching a Gutenberg Bible and saving the life of one of my students and I'll flick my Bic. Not that I'd feel good about it or that it wouldn't haunt me for years afterward, but I'd do it without hesitation. But when it's faceless Italians who are represented by just an unfathomable number (not many of us can really envision 200+ corpses or 1000 people who've been injured; that takes experience in wartime or Katrina to understand, I think), it's easier to mourn for the loss of history. I think in some ways--especially for classicists and medievalists--the loss of history hurts more because our minds soar. What did we lose when the Great Library in Alexandria burned? What did we lose in the Ashburnham fire of 1731. But sometimes the loss is greater when a person dies. What did we lose when Hemingway put a gun in his mouth? What did we lose when Tolkien, Borges, or Barthes died? Was there more they had to say? For that matter, what do we lose every time some kid in Africa dies because he can't get enough to eat or drink? Do we lose a voice like Achebe? What do we lose every time some sorry bastard dominates and silences (in one way or another) the voice of his wife because she's a woman? Do we lose a Gilman?

At any rate, this event makes me think about what people will say in 100 years. I imagine it will be something along the lines of what we say now. We complain about Early Moderns tearing up medieval MSS to make end pages for their books or reinforce spines. We complain about what the medieval inhabitants did to the Roman baths in Bath. We complain about what contemporary acid rain has done to Cleopatra's Needle and what the shipwreck did to the Elgin Marbles. I bet one day, they'll complain about the crude and damaging methods used to rescue the victims in L'Aquila. What they will forget--and what we forget now--are the pressing concerns, the (sometimes fierce) urgency of Now that dictates our actions.

I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes the Earth throws off our intricate structures and screws up our history. And sometimes we do.

06 April 2009

This Land is Your Land, This Land is my Land...

Just kidding, sorry Woody! It's not your land, because if we let you see the nation in which you live, the terrorists win. And we don't want Osama bin Laden Googling your address to find out where you live. So get your hobo ass on a train and go somewhere the terrorists don't care about, like Montana.

Under the guise of protecting us from terrorists, California Assemblyman Joel Anderson introduced legislation to ban images from Google Earth. Awesome.

According to the Sacramento Bee:
Anderson is pushing to ban online mapping services from publishing clear photos of key buildings used by the public--but fuzzy images would be fine.

"All I'm asking is that they reduce the level of detail," he said. "They can either smear it or back (the camera) off..."

The Alpine Republican points to news reports that terrorists who attacked various locations in Mumbai, India, last year used digital maps and other high-technology equipment.

"We should not be helping bad people map their next target," Anderson said....

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, an Irvine Republican and former military intelligence officer, said the bill could open a Pandora's box."My concern is, what's next?" DeVore said. "Do politicians then demand that we blur out images of the homes of law enforcement personnel--or elected officials?"...

"I don't want to wait until a Californian dies," Anderson said of AB 255. "I want to act now to protect them."

Republican Assemblywoman Connie Conway said that Tulare County teenagers have used online maps to identify foreclosed homes with swimming pools so that they can trespass and skateboard in them.

Even if AB 255 would not stop terrorism, it could send a valuable message, she said."Why should we make it easier?" Conway said of attacks against the United States....

Anderson said he is willing to compromise, including carving out exceptions for emergency response and allowing detailed views of key buildings if requested by their owners.But Anderson has no plans to drop AB 255."

For us to ignore (a threat) would be unconscionable," he said.
By the way, here's a pic of Joel Anderson's office in El Cajon (500 Fesler Street, Suite 201, El Cajon, CA 92020)--just in case his bill goes through.

05 April 2009

Mr President, Stop Arguing with Paul Krugman

You can't win an argument with a garden gnome, and I can't imagine why you keep trying. Don't screw with the little folk. They know things, things like how to get a motherf*@&ing Nobel prize as a mother f*@&ing garden gnome. Expect your milk to go bad before the expiration date, sir.

04 April 2009

Churchill Wins, Now $1 Richer

A jury has found in favor of Ward Churchill in his lawsuit for wrongful termination against the University of Colorado. Some observations:

1) It turns out that Churchill is a surprisingly snappy dresser--especially since all I'd ever seen him wear before is t-shirts.

2) I think the jury found in favor of Churchill even though they didn't want to because they only rewarded him $1. Churchill is an abrasive jerk, but if he were wrongfully terminated he deserves more of a financial reward than that--and CU deserves more of a punitive damage responsibility than that. CU's spokesperson stated that the awarding of damages showed that "Churchill was not necessarily a figure to be revered." Congratulations, Capt. Obvious. I don't think someone who tells hard truths in such a brusque and contentious way is looking for reverence; Churchill's looking for change in the way American treats its neighbors and its citizens. People revere Churchill in spite of his best efforts: his writings, demeanor, borderline verbal abuse are directed--as far as I can tell--equally to those with whom he agrees and those with whom he disagrees/disregards. I mean, the man called people who'd recently died "little Eichmanns"; he's not looking for friends. He's looking to be a lightning rod, the avant garde of a radical, progressive movement (and it works...I mean, how many other Native American activists have you heard discussed on the news in the last five years?).

3) None of this changes the fact that Churchill violated some central tenets of academic ethics. He admitted wrong-doing in a statement about small-pox-infected blankets being used as biological warfare, and I respect that. It's a understandable mistake. But the thing he did that really, really, really bothers me, the thing that is unforgivable in my mind and that shows he is committing these errors with forethought and malice is the ghost-writing sham. It seems that he ghost-wrote two essays that appeared in the same 1992 volume edited by his then-wife (pdf): Robbins' "Self-Determination and Subordination: The Past, Present and Future of American Indian Governance" and Jaimes' "Federal Indian Identification Policy: A Usurpation of Indigenous Sovereignty in North America." He then later cited these as third-party independent corroboration for one of his own theories, making it seem as if there were a preponderance of evidence for it (turns out, the only other source he cites is a primary resource which does not support the claim he makes at all). That is dishonest and corrosive to any sort of standard of academic integrity and is something that I cannot cotton to. I'll defend a lot of what the guy does and says, but not this.

4) That being said, I'm not at all certain that it's enough of a result of a large-scale , politically-motivated witch-hunt to fire a guy. It wouldn't have even been noticed if it weren't for an investigation started in late-2004 and early-2005 when he was going to speak at Hamilton College. Here's the general timeline:
  • 1987-1994: Churchill wins the President's Service Award (1987), the Robert L. Stearns Award (1988), the Thomas Jefferson Award for Outstanding Service and Achievement (1990), the Excellence in Social Science Writing Award from the UC College of Arts and Sciences (1992), and the CU Faculty Assembly's Teaching Excellence Award (1994). (All of which you can find on his bloated cv.)
  • 12 September 2001: Churchill writes "'Some People Push Back': On the Justice of Roosting Chickens"
  • 2002: Churchill becomes the Chair of the CU Department of Ethnic Studies
  • 18 September 2003: The essay is expanded into a book called On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality
  • 2005: Churchill wins the Herd Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching in 2005, chosen by the UC student body
  • 26 January 2005: The Syracuse Post-Dispatch runs a story about Churchill coming to campus and the resistance he was getting. The AP picked it up.
  • 27 January 2005: Bob Beauprez, then a Republican Representative from Colorado, speaks out against Churchill, saying: "Unfortunately Mr. Churchill is a tenured professor who is apparently immune from any kind of sanctions from his employer...If he had any respect for the University of Colorado, he would immediately tender his resignation and offer an apology for his outrageous comments."
  • 28 January 2005: After Wall Street Journal articles like this one, his Eichmann comment hit the Internets with a vengeance.
  • 1 February 2005: Hamilton College cancels Churchill's speaking engagement that was planned for two day later, citing security concerns; the LA Times reports that Beauprez "has contacted university officials demanding Churchill's ouster."
  • 3 February 2005: Phil DiStefano repudiates Churchill's statements, defends his right to say it, and initiates an investigation to see if he "overstepped his bounds as a faculty member," that is if his conduct would "provide any grounds for dismissal for cause" and if "this conduct or speech protected by the First Amendment against University action."
  • 24 March 2005: DiStefano announces that they'd found the First Amendment protected Churchill's essay but decides "allegations of research misconduct, related to plagiarism, misuse of other’s work and fabrication, have sufficient merit to warrant further inquiry."
  • 29 March 2005: Colorado Governor Bill Owens went on The O'Reilly Factor and said this about the investigation on Churchill's academic integrity: "I do have some budget authority over the budget. I have some bully pulpit authority. And that's why I said he should be fired from day one. Now they're involved in the process that I think will ultimately lead to him being fired, but in a way that's going to be able to stand up in court....Under the rules of tenure...in order to fire Ward Churchill, they have to go through a procedure. And the procedure is what they've now started. I disagree that they can't put as part of that--part of the issue--what he actually said."
It's pretty obvious from the timeline that the investigation was politically motivated (literally). Immediately after the to-do about the essay in early 2005, things began to happen. There is not only a drastic change between the honors he received at CU before and during the furor and the first investigation that began on 3 February 2005, but there is also a tacit admission by DiStefano that the investigation was in response to Churchill's "repugnant" words, which was already being discussed on conservative radio and by Republican politicians who controlled the purse-strings for CU. If there's doubt, notice that on 3 February, CU says it will investigate if Churchill "overstepped his bounds as a faculty member." Specifically they wanted to see if his conduct would "provide any grounds for dismissal for cause" and if "this conduct or speech protected by the First Amendment against University action." (Churchill contends the answer was obvious (DiStefano "discovered, apparently to his surprise, that all of Prof. Churchill’s writings and speeches are protected by the First Amendment"), but I think CU had the right to investigate because it wasn't that cut-and-dried.)

The 3 February investigation found nothing, but when they announced that they'd found nothing, they subtly changed the wording of what they said they would look for. On 24 March, DiStefano announced that they'd been looking at two things:
"First, did certain statements by Professor Churchill exceed the boundaries of protected speech?"
"Second, is there evidence that Professor Churchill engaged in other conduct that warrants further action by the University--such as research misconduct, teaching misconduct, or fraudulent misrepresentation in performing his duties?" (emphasis mine)
That second point is subtly but importantly different from the one DiStefano made on 3 February. Back then, CU was going to look to see if Churchill's essay would "provide any grounds for dismissal for cause" and if this "conduct or speech [was] protected by the First Amendment against University action." There is no discussion of teaching or research "misconduct" or "fraudulent misrepresentation"--neither of which would be covered by the First Amendment anyway. (You'd think that David Getches, the dean of the frickin' CU Law School and one of the three on the investigative committee might have realized that). Luckily for Limbaugh, Owen, Hannity, Beauprez, and O'Reilly (and, technically, DiStefano since he was in a damn tight spot), the new emphasis (in which Churchill contends they actively sought allegations against him, though there's no substantiation of that claim) turns up "allegations of research misconduct, related to plagiarism, misuse of other’s work and fabrication, have sufficient merit to warrant further inquiry." The truth is, if you look closely enough at an author with an enormous oeuvre (like Harold Bloom, Savloj Žižek, or David Horowitz), I bet you'll find some irregularities. Hell, even Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have had some problems with these issues. It's obvious that CU found some troubling facts, but it's also as (if not more) troubling that the whole thing was politically motivated. They should have definitely removed him as Chair (but he stepped down from it voluntarily). This whole brouhaha--if not for the speech issue that CU tries to pretend wasn't a part of the investigation--would not have demanded any more action.

5) The attorney for CU said this in his closing arguments:
"There's the real university world, and there’s Ward Churchill's world...Ward Churchill's world is a place where there are no standards and no accountability."
I think Churchill would agree with this statement. As a Native American and a Vietnam vet he's probably seen the standards and accountability that white, polite society has extended. We promised Native Americans things and then reneged. Vietnam veterans often suffered from the stigma of being a part of an unpopular war--even if they were drafted--and endured poor and neglectful medical treatment at the hands of the VA when implicit in being s soldier is the promise that you will be respected and taken care of. Patrick O’Rourke, CU's lawyer further said that Churchill "was using the Constitution as a smokescreen. 'You can’t take the First Amendment and use it to justify fraud.'" Unfortunately, the Constitution has been about as tangible and real as a smokescreen to a lot of Americans (Black slaves, women, Native Americans, Chinese in 19th-century American West, etc.), but mostly it has been used to justify fraud--not just the First Amendment but the entire Constitution and Bill of Rights. (It's been a great moral, ethical, and functional center for most of us [here, oddly enough, I agree with Allan Bloom's thesis in The Closing of the American Mind], but what troubles me is not that we should be demanding American citizens conform to its standards and dictates but instead that its standards and dictates have been inconsistently applied--especially to those who "count." It postulates an implicit ideal citizen, but that citizen is (or at least was) White and male. The saving grace of the Constitution is its constant state of flux; as soon as it was created, it was changed, and it has been changed periodically ever since.) But for people who haven't received the full protections that the Constitution was supposed to afford them, I can see how malleable and inconstant it might seem: if it can be bent and twisted for what he sees as purposes against him, why can't it be bent and twisted for his own purposes?

03 April 2009

Brothers of the World, Unite!

The University of Ulster released a study on families today that concluded "Sisters appear to encourage more open communication and cohesion in families. However, brothers seemed to have the alternative effect."

I imagine my sister helped fund this study; I must remember to punch her and try to turn the rest of the family against her.

But until then, I imagine Lizzy Borden's mother and father (both of whom were no longer cohesive after Lizzy got through with them...yuk yuk yuk) would beg to differ with this study's findings.

23 March 2009


A half-baked musing on that old chestnut, the linguistic sign.

In preparation for my Orals Exam, I'm going back and reading a small portion of de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (for the part about meaning being created by difference/negation). Funnily enough, there are still notes in my theory reader from four years ago when I was reading it on lunch breaks while (not)working at Brown McCarroll (NB: I do not recommend reading Jaobson's "Two Aspects of Language" and then returning to the world of asbestos litigation...talk about aphasia...). Looking back on those notes (and diagrams), I didn't get Saussure's ideas. At all.

Sure, I understood that the signifier and signified have an arbitrary relationship, but I guess I had read too much Lacan by that point to see that the whole play of signifiers idea flows naturally out of Saussure's ideas.
"On the one hand the concept [aka, the signified] seems to be the counterpart of the sound-image [aka, the signifier], and on the other hand the sign itself is in turn the counterpart of the other signs of language."
Saussure here seems to be doing the legwork for what Lacan thinks he discovered--disconnecting the function of the linguistic sign from the ontology of it.* It seems to me that a Saussurian linguistic sign is like the Wizard of Oz. There is the concept/signified (the actual Kansan huckster, Professor Marvel) and then there is the sound-image/signifier (the All-Powerful Oz). One is a disappointment once the curtain has been pulled away; the other is a lot of hype, hot air, and tricks. The one hides and is (mis)represented by the sound-image/signifier, which interacts with others and (re)creates the concept/signified as it does so. Remember, there'd be nothing sad or disappointing about Professor Marvel if it hadn't been for the representation of The Wizard of Oz, but it's also true that The Wizard began to function independently of its concept/signifier the longer it interacted with those in the land of Oz.

*Yeah, I know Lacan references Saussure often enough, but I haven't seen anything that gives him the sort of finder's-fee credit he probably deserves. It could be out there, but I just haven't seen it.

19 March 2009

Your Bonus? I'll Take That (Back).

From Raw Story today, David Edwards and Rachel Oswald bring us news that Ron Paul has called HR 1598, the bill that proposes a 90% tax on the AIG bonuses "an 'outrage' and unconstitutional."

I understand his point, which is that this is all posturing on the part of the Congress--sort of polishing the brass on the Titanic. No doubt what the Congress is doing is the politically safe move, and in the sort of hyper-campaigning climate that we see, I don't begrudge them the safe move.

While I don't agree with Paul's reasons, I do agree with his overall claim that this is a bad idea. To my mind, it sets a dangerous precedent for the government to create a tax to recoup money that--unwisely or not--it gave away.

I don't want those jerks to keep their money, either, but I feel even less comfortable with a government that can take what it wants in some backdoor manner like inventing new taxes. I say let the execs have their money, but since we own a goodly portion of AIG, we should just can them and make sure they never work for us again.

06 March 2009

Exercise in Frustrated Self Expression, Vol 2 (Formative Albums)

This is another meme from Facebook, and I promised not to do this on Fb anymore, but I am a sucker for music things so I'm doing it here. The idea behind this one was to list 25 albums (I'm at about 60, I think) that changed your life or the way you looked at music and the world. I'm not proud of all of these, but they are the formative albums of my youth and adulthood. "How can So-and-so's Album X not be listed?" you may ask (and please do in the comments); my answer is that it was obviously formative for you, but not me.

I've provided album dates, but the albums are ordered chronologically in my experience with them, divided into the large chapters of my life (mostly based on school...surprise, surprise). Even within those divisions, I've tried to order them in the chronology of their impact on me.


Purple Rain, Prince and the Revolution (1984)
Metal Health, Quiet Riot (1983)
"The Show/La Di Da Di" Single, Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew (1985)
Raising Hell, Run-DMC (1986)
Licensed to Ill, Beastie Boys (1986)
The Real Thing
, Faith No More (1989)
Appetite for Destruction, Guns n' Roses (1987)

1989-1994 (HS):
Garth Brooks, Garth Brooks (1989)
Nevermind, Nirvana (1991)
Alice's Restaurant, Arlo Guthrie (1967)
Metallica, Metallica (1991)
The Hank Williams Story, Hank Williams, Sr. (1965)
Concert in Central Park, Simon and Garfunkel (1982)

1994-1998 (Undergrad):
Smash, Offspring (1994)
Freebird: The Very Best, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1994)
Jesus Freak, dc Talk (1995)
Skeletons from the Closet, The Grateful Dead (1974)
Throwing Copper, Live (1994)
Monster, R.E.M. (1994)
Happy Nowhere, Dog's Eye View (1995)
(What's the Story) Morning Glory?, Oasis (1995)
American Standard, Seven Mary 3 (1995)
Doolittle, Pixies (1989)
LA Woman, The Doors (1971)
The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground (1967)
Between the 1 and the 9, Patti Rothberg (1996)
File Under: Easy Listening, Sugar (1994)
Alien Lanes, Guided By Voices (1995)
Greatest Hits, James Taylor (1976)
Desire, Bob Dylan (1976)

1998-2000 (Intercollegia #1):
Greatest Hits, Donovan (1999)
Here We Go, Pat Green (1998)
No. 2 Live Dinner, Robert Earl Keen (1996)
The Man That I've Been, Cory Morrow (1998)
Ballads, The John Coltrane Quartet (1962)
Mermaid Avenue, Billy Bragg and Wilco (1998)
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (1969)

2000-2003 (Masters):
Keep it Like a Secret, Built to Spill (1999)
PleaseObservetheComma, Quiet, Lovely (2001)
We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, Death Cab for Cutie (2000)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack, Various Artists (2000)
Songs for a Blue Guitar
, Red House Painters (1996)
The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine (2002)
( ), Sigur Rós (2002)

2003-2005 (Intercollegia #2):
At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash (1968)
You Can Play These Songs with Chords, Death Cab for Cutie (2002)
Danse Macabre, The Faint (2001)
Getz/Gilberto, Stan Getz and João Gilberto (1963)
The Sea & The Rhythm EP, Iron & Wine (2003)
Ghosts of the Great Highway, Sun Kil Moon (2003)
General Store, Owen Temple (2002)
The Next Voice You Hear, Jackson Browne (1997)
20 Greatest Hits, Don Williams (1987)

2005-2009 (Doctorate):
Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division (1979)
Reflection Eternal, Talib Kweli & Hi Tek (2000)
Mingus Ah Um
, Charles Mingus (1959)
Marquee Moon, Television (1977)
Sun Giant EP, Fleet Foxes (2008)
Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans Trio (1961)
It's Not Big It's Large, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band (2007)
Alone Together, Jim Hall and the Ron Carto Duo (1972)