15 January 2011

A Short Defense of Sarah Palin (Or, Satan, Break out Those Snow Boots)

There's been a lot of (understandable) wringing of hands and (less understandable but predictable) pointing of fingers after the shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded thirteen--including Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D) who was apparently the target.  There's been lots of worry over the rhetorical climate of US politics these days.  Rightfully so.  And the debate almost immediately began as to whether the vitriol (nurture) or Loughner's own psychoses (nature) caused him to act as he did.  Of course, little attention was given to the notion that it was a combination of the two because that's not sexy enough for news.  The debate was framed along the nurture versus nature divide because that is an unanswerable question, and unanswerable questions allow networks to keep asking them, keep bringing "experts" on shows, and keep making hay out of the same thing over and over again.  

Despite what I think about the way the debate's been framed, some of the evidence for shooting-as-a-result-of-nurture is painfully weak and a little offensive to thinking people everywhere.  The image at the top of this post, which is still on SarahPAC's Facebook page, targets twenty congressional districts at play in the November 2010 elections.  The problem, so the conventional wisdom spun out in a mere four days goes, is that images like this are what prompted Loughner to go on his rampage.  Using gun imagery (a scope's crosshairs in this case) is an implicit incitement to violence.

Or so the argument runs.  But there are some things that just don't wash.  Was Jared Lougner, the alleged shooter, affected by the vitriol on the airwaves and television and internet?  Undoubtedly.  But does it follow that someone with whom we disagree and whom we believe to be a moron is somehow at fault?  Certainly not.  The Momma Grizzly herself (Wait, don't they hunt bears in Alaska?  Ah, yes.  They do.) is not to blame for Loughner's actions.  Steve Almond has written a very sharp, very thoughtful piece on the Kabuki theater that is our response to these acts of violence; he also makes a very good point about the archetype of the Lone Gunman (or its cousin in this case, the Lone Nut).  

As an aside: I want to be clear that I think Loughner's mental problems are the major motivator for his actions, but I also want to be clear that I think the political climate was probably what made Loughner choose the victims he did.  This was an angry man, and he was eventually going to lash out at someone--maybe the instructors at the community college, the recruiters at the Army, his local postman, who knows.  He was going to hurt someone, but it's become a media wet dream because he killed a judge and severely wounded a US Representative.  

But back to the Lone Nut and blame.  Almond's point that our culture has now militarized and moralized political conversation to the point that being wrong is not an option is a valid one.  He quotes Sarah Palin's now infamous words to talk show host Dr. Laura Schelssinger:
That is much more indicative of the self-righteousness that we're seeing in US politics and daily life these days.  I still don't see it as inciting violence the way Gifford's Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, did during the campaign.
At least in the two instances I've cited of Sarah Palin's rhetoric, she's dipping into the vernacular of her base.  The people who follow her and love her are, by and large, members of a gun culture.  And most people who hunt, in my experience, have a healthy respect for the potential danger of firearms.  (Also, most of the people I know who own a gun are mostly sane.)  I do not think we can or should fault her for speaking to her base (these people buy her books and pay her exorbitant sums of money to speak, after all.)

All that to say that the vitriol probably focused Loughner's anger onto public officials, so Almond's point that 
Men are paid millions of dollars to appear on radio and television and play act how one might murder a member of congress, or burn a person alive. They joke about hanging elected officials in effigy, or driving stakes through the heart of the President. A presidential candidate jokes about rape. Another declares that members of congress should be tarred and feathered.
is a valid one.  We have all gone too far.  And while it may be unpalatable to jump on the Lone Nut bandwagon to explain away this ugly episode in US politics, it's just as unpalatable to blame Palin's indirect allusions to firearms for this man's actions.  If Loughner can look at the targets on that map and make the leap to shooting an elected member of Congress for voting for a healthcare bill, then no political rhetoric that mentions resistance or conflict is safe.  If we lower the bar so far as to condemn Palin's rhetoric, we've condemned almost all political rhetoric.

Now can the media return to some sanity so I can stop defending Palin and go back to loathing her?  Please?

05 January 2011

Entitlement is Such an Ugly Word (But an Uglier Attitude)

So.  This proem, "because: a manifesto," has gotten a lot of attention in the last week or so.  I can sympathize with the sentiment because I went through the same process--but I went through it as a first-year Master's student.  I came out of the Master's program at Baylor with my eyes wide open, and I went into the PhD program at UO the same way.  Not everyone gets a trophy, and some people may spend years and years getting that PhD, writing that dissertation, and taking those classes only to find out that there's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.    1) There are no pots of gold at the ends of rainbows.  The other areas of work the author talks about?  They can be just as ugly, mean, and unfair.  2) Do not forget that you got to follow a rainbow--and not many people can say that.  If I never get a job in academia (and times being what they are...), I will not complain about "wasting" my time getting my PhD.  I had fun taking classes, talking about Beowulf, going to conferences, writing papers.  If getting a PhD and writing a dissertation is a grind that one feels he must endure before getting a job in academia, he will make a very poor academic--since that, it seems to me, is mostly what academic jobs are about.

No doubt things are tough, and no doubt many grad students are negative on job opportunities for the PhD.  Some are coming up with Plans B-D for non-academic work.  Some even souring on academia in general.  But I still cannot understand the surprise and sense of betrayal I hear from people like the author of this poem (and in the comments in the reprint on IHE).  What did these people think they were getting into?

Things have changed in degree since 2004, 2005 when most of the "oldest" PhD students came into programs, but they have certainly not changed in kind.  We are still (in our estimation) undervalued.  The market for humanities PhDs was not flourishing even then.

Where is the personal responsibility to do research for a major life decision like getting a PhD?

Did these complaining recent-graduates not know that it would be a long, hard slog after the dissertation was over?  (It is not law school, and universities do not troll graduating classes at job fairs for possible hires.)

And if not, why not?  Did any of them talk to faculty members under the age of thirty-five before getting a PhD?  While getting a PhD?  (Older, tenured faculty may not understand how hard it is to get a job, but the younger ones certainly do.)

Did these complainers think that a PhD alone qualified them for a tenure-track job?  (A related question: how many were indeed told how tough the market was but ignored the information because they thought that it surely did not apply to them since they were special snowflakes whose talents would surely be appreciated?)

Did they think that the university was somehow obligated to make sure their life choices were financially viable after graduation?  (If so, then why do we teach critical reasoning in composition departments?  The university can run our lives for us.)

Did these complainers give any thought to the practical aspects of their career before they embarked on it?  (Just because we want to read and write about texts does not mean it is automatically valued; talk to the actor who waits tables during the day or the musician who has to play weddings and bar mitzvahs to make ends meet and you will receive very little sympathy.)

I don't wish to downplay the power of this poem as a dirge, as a way of mourning the loss of a dream and as a way of saying goodbye to academia.  It is the blame that bothers me.  It is not the economy's fault, the system's fault, the university's fault, the department's fault,* the students' fault, your fault, my fault.  It just is.

Samuel Johnson was destitute into his thirties; Virginia Woolf was educated mostly at home; John Keats was trained as a doctor, not a poet; Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist by day.  For the love of God, Kurt Vonnegut once managed a Saab dealership.  I cannot imagine any of these people complaining because their contemporary society did not allow them to write what they wanted when they wanted (well, maybe Keats).  One does not have to retain a shabby little office on a university campus to read and write about the things one loves.

*Perhaps in one area, it is the departments' fault.  I know that our job-preparation sequence here at UO is (and was in the past) taught by some cracker-jack young academics.  What they have forgotten, however, is that while they earned their PhDs from the Texas, Stanford, or Duke, we are graduating from UO.  Is Oregon a bad school?  Not at all.  I have enjoyed my time here.  But it is not Duke or Stanford or Texas, which means most of us will not be competing for the jobs at major universities.  Unfortunately, that is exactly what they prepare us for (because it is all they know).  As far as I know, only one or two UO PhDs in the last few years have gotten on at major universities.  Most have landed at directional schools and community colleges.  So why not prepare us for that?   Let us prepare ourselves for the next step to interviewing for major universities if we want to after we have settled in at Northwestern Iowa State College or wherever.  Prepare us for what we will face instead of pretending that we will all interview at Brown, Ohio State, or Smith.