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