Friday, April 17, 2015

Stepping out of line
I asked a few days ago here "Is It Immoral to Serve?" I found this through my FB feed only yesterday: "Why a Top U.S Marine Became a Conscientious Objector" in Aeon. Lyle Rubin, a fellow Marine vet, interviews 1st Lt. Jacob Bridge. Curious about this transformation, and as my previous entry considered how many (or rather how few to date) vets I taught would in hindsight discourage others from enlisting, I excerpt highlights.

He signed up in high school, from a traditional upbringing. He went to a leftist bastion, the U. of Colorado, and his time in Boulder in ROTC made him more conservative. During training, he could not handle the disconnect between the pride of "The Fleet" and the immorality and cynicism of those actually in command and as his peers. A skilled leader who got to know his troops, he bristled at the disparity, and he sought therapy from a Unitarian chaplain, with whom he began to reveal his moral doubts as he grew more confident. He had an epiphany about his mortality and his hatred of what he was becoming in a culture of death.

"People change, especially in their early to mid-20s. When they say: ‘You signed the oath in the contract,’ I say: ‘Well, when I signed the contract I was borderline alcoholic, pretty homophobic, and a bunch of other things that I’m not now. I’m not the same person who signed that contract.’" You can see in the comments appended on the website how some refuse to cut Bridge any slack here.

Viktor Frankl's Man and the Search for Meaning helped guide his ethical progress. I like that Bridge does not identify with any particular faith, although he admits some elements from Buddhism as guiding him. Likewise, when Rubin asks Bridge if he has been influenced by previous conscientious objectors, he responds: "I’m very wary of including myself in another honoured lineage because here I am trying to break out of one." In his current posting in Hawai'i, he finds support from another C.O., Jeff Paterson, who leads a team representing Chelsea Manning, as well as Ann Wright, who resigned her Gulf War diplomatic post for the Quaker community. He concludes encouragingly: "The peace/nonviolence/antiwar community in Hawaii is about as robust as they come, and they found me in the nick of time." I wish him and fellow dissidents well, as they question what too few seem to do.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"The vision of blind sleepers such as I"

As readers of this blog know, William T. Vollmann, as a hunt with that search term here will verify, remains one of my favorite authors. Although I find his fiction and essays sometimes too sprawling, and as his fierce determination to remain free of editorial control or publication fends off brevity, Vollmann reveals a restless mind, a vast range, and confident erudition seasoned with moral humility and wise insight.

He begins an essay in the New York Times about the Gnostic scriptures in his typically direct voice: "Have you ever wondered whether this world is wrong for you? A death, a lover’s unabashed indifference, the sufferings of innocents and the absence of definitive answers — don’t these imply some hollowness or deficiency? For my part, the wrongness struck when I was 4 years old. I was at my grandmother’s house, and I saw a cat torture a baby bird." He also, in other accounts, has narrated his failure as he sees it to take care of his younger sister when he was a boy, and how she then drowned. As with me, death haunts him always.

As one who has roamed into Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban, who has investigated the plight of the poor in Asia and in Latin America, who has roamed the rails of America, and retraced the steps of the natives into the Arctic, the Maritimes, the Virginia estuaries, and the Western plains, Vollmann counters the cant or easy pieties of many of his writing contemporaries with observation.

Similarly, although many of his many books find him not taking on belief directly, he acknowledges here its hold on him. "Hoping to understand the purpose of our situation, I visit possessors of maxims and scriptures. Most of them are kind to me. I love the ritualistic gorgeousness of Catholic cathedrals, the matter-of-fact sincerity with which strangers pray together at roadsides throughout the Muslim world, the studied bravery and compassion in the texts of medieval Jewish responsa, the jovial humility of the Buddhist precept that enlightenment is no reward and lack of enlightenment no loss, the nobility of atheists who do whatever good they do without expectation of celestial candy — not to mention pantheists’ glorifications of everything from elephants to oceans. All these other ways that I have glimpsed from my own lonely road allure me; I come to each as a guest, then continue on to I know not where." His writings strive for compassion, cultivating one's patience for poverty and pain.

I understand his search. "Somewhere beyond us is the true God, or Goddess, who calls us to come home. She is calling me now. As I walk my own many-curving way toward death, I can’t help wondering how awake I am. Hence certain Gnostic lines haunt me. Someone beyond this world has named herself or himself the vision of blind sleepers such as I. This voice calls itself the real voice and insists that it is crying out in all of us. I wish I could hear its cry." He, like me, continues to wonder and wander and study scriptures and listen to accounts, even as he feels distant from many.

He is mature enough to acknowledge the weakness of those before us who have insisted that they channel the divine through themselves. "As a corpus, the scriptures are nearly incoherent, like a crowd of sages, mystics and madmen all speaking at once. But always they call upon us to know ourselves." And, Vollmann is perceptive enough to recognize their appeal, no matter our rationality.

(Image: Fra Angelico, Predella of San Marco Altarpiece, The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, Museo di San Marco, Florence. I first saw this illustration in this fine book.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ag cheannaigh "Pinnochio" i nGaeilge

Cheannaigh mé an cóip seo le Pinnochio le Carlo Collodi an mí seo caite. Bhí dith orm a fháil an leabhar seo ann. Tá mé ag tósu ag léamh san Iódáilis, tar éis an tsaoil.

Mar sin, cén fath ar mhaith liom an leabhar sin i nGaeilge fós? Bheul, measaim go mbeadh suimíuil seo a fháil ina dhá teanga. Is maith liom iad araon, go nádurtha.

Ina theannta sin, tá seo ag foillsiu le Coiste Litríochta Mhúsgrai ina Gaeltacht i gCorcaigh fós. Duirt sé: "Chuir Pádraig Ó Buachalla i nGaelainn an scéal san sa mbliain a 1933 agus d'fhoíllsigh fén dteideal Eachtra Phinocchio." Bhi Ó Buachalla i gcónaí i Naomh Proinsias, mar inimirceach, freisin.

Tharraing Roberto Innocenti na léaráidí an-álainn. Bhí sé leisaithe ag Dáithí Ó Cróinín agus Séan ua Súilleabhain. Is féidir leat é a cheannach ó An Síopa Leabhar na Kennys i nGaillimh mar i rinne me.

Chríochnaigh mé leagan dátheangach (Béarla-Iodáilis) ar líne aréir. Anois, mbeidh mé ag foghlaim faoi an leabhar níos mó ann. Is maith liom an scéal seo tsíog agus molaim é an thabhairt duitsa.

Buying Pinnochio in Irish.

I bought this copy of Pinnochio by Carlo Collodi last month. I wanted to get this book. I am starting to read in Italian, after all.

Therefore, why do I want that book in Irish, too? Well, I reckoned that it'd be interesting to get this in two languages. I like them both, naturally.

Furthermore it is published by the Literary Committee in the Musgrai Gaeltacht in Co. Cork too. They say: "Pádraig Ó Buachalla put the story into Irish in the year 1933 and it was published under the title Adventures of Phinocchio." Ó Buachalla lived as an immigrant in San Francisco, also.

Roberto Innocenti drew the very lovely illustrations. Dáithí Ó Cróinín and Séan ua Súilleabhain revised this version.  You can purchase it from Kennys in Galway as I did. 

I finished an Italian-English bilingual version online last night. Now, I may learn about the book more. I like this fairy story and I recommend it to you.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Is it immoral to serve?

We commonly heard it said "thank you for your service" in post-9/11 America. So, I ask my veteran or current on-duty students if they'd recommend their choice to others contemplating enlisting. They've returned to get degrees on the G.I. Bill; there is a V.A. hospital nearby campus that attracts many. At least a few after their combat come back disabled mentally, others physically. Many others are happy if a bit weary after their tours of duty, including a spirited woman tallying 37 years in the Army at present. Most say they'd encourage others. A "party girl" from Miami turned her life around by choosing to join the Coast Guard. A stalwart Texas student came back with a prosthetic leg and a year of therapy learning to walk on it, but also a determination to stay motivated; he landed a great job and convinced his cousin, also a veteran, to take classes from me a few years later; as different as the quiet, affable one, a young father and quite modest, and his boisterous, tattooed and orange-work suited and greasy pipe fitter booted relative were, they both succeeded, articulately and admirably.

As an aside, after I wrote this original post, in a threaded discussion this week with many high-achieving students in a class made up mostly of veterans, one wrote when we chatted online about the impact of globalization, competition among lower-waged workers with immigrants, the role our effort plays vs. the privilege or discrimination many claim for themselves, and the hardship of getting more than entry-level jobs (despite our government's and economy's much-touted "recovery"):
It annoys me to no end when people look for hand outs because they are X or they did Y. It reminds me of when my battalion was coming back from deployment and our Sergeant Major spoke with us before getting on the planes to bring us back. He told us with no question, but rather 100% certainty "No one cares." The speech is much longer and many other choice words are used but the main message is that no one cares. Not that people don't support the military, or that they won't be appreciative of what we did, but they can not begin to know what we went through. No one cares because they can only sympathize. No one cares because they didn't choose to do what we did. So to expect anything special is ignorant.

That full on hit me in the most when I applied at King's Fish House here in Huntington Beach. They had walk-in interviews and I started out as a server, and then a bus boy because I wasn't qualified to be a server, which I have no background as a server so I didn't blame them. But then got a call back asking me if I wouldn't mind washing dishes because I wasn't qualified to bus tables. Each time the next person would thank me for my service and tell me how much they appreciated what I did. I was very annoyed with them, and have never stepped in that restaurant since. And even though I could tell they sympathized and supported the military, they did not care and they were not going to make a business decision that would not benefit them.

A few disagree with enlisting in hindsight, but very few to date. I stumbled across this today when searching for a different topic entirely, and so I share it. Glen T. Martin argues with Three Reasons Why it is Immoral to Serve in the Military of Any Country. I'm reminded of Max Aue's words near the start of the immense epic by Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones. In my review of this novel a few years ago, I singled out key passages, as these have often been overlooked by critics of this story  told by a gay man, blackmailed, who then joins the SS. He narrates his unsettling version of events.

"If the State one must serve is made up of ordinary folks, some will find themselves on the wrong side of history, then as now, not by a chosen career path or personal preference, but by the pressures of bureaucracy and the exigencies of the moment that pressure people into acting. Not all victims are good and not all executioners are evil, Aue reasons.

The State, both sides agree as do we, must exist, must call its male citizens to take lives in its name and its female ones to serve its demands. Free will vanishes if a soldier is assigned to a concentration camp or mobile killing battalion: "chance alone makes him a killer rather than a hero, or a dead man." (592) We give up the right not to kill and our own right to life, if male, he warns, to do our wartime duty to our masters.

"The real danger for mankind is me, is you. And if you're not convinced of this, don't bother to read any further. You'll understand nothing and you'll get angry, with little profit for you or for me." (21)

The counter-arguments are legion. Google "pacifism" into an image search for angry memes. Despite them, a Quaker image I liked via my review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, more controversy.
P.S. Thanks to Carrie McIntyre for noting "The Lives of Others" and "Barbara" as congenial with Aue, and to Matt Cavanaugh for urging me to "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," and Four Minutes.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Professor or instructor?

Praising her college education, inspired by a professor whom she never knew was an adjunct, Carmen Maria Machado in a recent New Yorker essay tells how little those enrolled in many courses know about the status or the pay (averaging $2800) of what a non-tenure track professor--or is it, I ask, an instructor-- earns. Of course, as we all agree who do this, "it’s true that there are profound pleasures in teaching: seeing your students figuring things out, and flourishing, is like nothing else I’ve experienced." But doubt may creep in.

Machado narrates how she wrote "Prof." in front of name the first day of class, then erased it, leaving a smudge. Students call her by her first name, anyway. She explains a familiar feeling to me, as I tend to refer to myself as someone who "teaches college humanities" as my institution relies on this model of employment for all, full-time "professors" or part-time "visiting faculty" as "at-will"; this to me goes against the assumptions Machado and I agree are part of the way we regard tenure and faculty.

She admits: "I’m not a professor. If I disappeared at the end of the semester, the school would replace me without much trouble, having invested nothing at all in my career. This sensation—a great responsibility, precariously held—is also like nothing else I’ve experienced." Do we merit the title?

I can connect to Machado's unease as a graduate of a "public Ivy" with a top-ten Ph.D. program in my field. Due to the job market where hundreds of us compete for any secure position, we languish while wishing we had security. Meanwhile, we all perpetuate and worsen the situation of contingent labor.

"I don’t want to give away my expertise for so little. But I don’t want to stop teaching, and I don’t want my students to be afraid to reach out to me after we part, either—I don’t want them to do what I would have done. I thrive on their news: they’re heading to graduate school, or they’re submitting work to be published, or are publishing, or have a new project. I don’t only want to teach; I want teaching to be a career, something that I can afford to keep doing." My students do not go into schools, or higher education very often unless an MBA, but as an executive boasted recently at my employer, a BS grad landed a job. It paid more than I make after nearly twenty years full-time there.

Yes, we never go into this for the money.  Machado concludes: "The irony of this setup has not escaped me: the adjuncts who teach well despite the low pay and the lack of professional support may inspire in their students a similar passion—prompting them to be financially taken advantage of in turn. It strikes me as a grim perversion of the power of teaching. A key lesson in higher education is that few things matter more than good questions—and, if we don’t speak up, students will never know what to ask."  They think faculty everywhere get year-long sabbaticals often, have lots of non-teaching time, low enrollments, light course loads, and perks galore. Machado claims 40% of faculty now are non-tenured, but counting grad students, adjuncts, and full-time non-tenured (the last category often overlooked), it's between 70% and 75% of those teaching U.S. higher education now.

Today my older son presents himself as graduate material, to his classmates and the faculty at the experimental, community-based, liberal-arts college he has had the privilege to attend. My wife's alma mater, and one with which I am proud to have been affiliated if only as a fellow-traveler at two alumni seminars the past two summers, it represents, true, a place with some adjuncts too, and its own financial worries, but it continues to support the intimate ideal of highly qualified, tenured faculty who live and learn among their students daily, a method I wish many more of us could share.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Do as the Romans Did?

I share this via my friend Deaghlán Ó Donghaile in Liverpool. He posted this on FB c/o Bruce Fenton. As I blogged about this collision between conventional Christian values debased and the core of countercultural radicalism embedded at least in a few Catholic resisters, so Fenton concurs:

When Jesus was nailed to the cross by Roman soldiers, citizens of the day most likely cheered with the equivalent of "I support our troops."

This is what governments want people to do: cheer for symbols and uniforms rather than ideas. That way it is easy to do what the politicians wish, whether it's killing Jesus Christ because he was a threat to state power or bombing people who are a threat to crony profits.

Those who support symbols such as flags or troops rather than the ideas they represent always think they are doing the right thing, just as nationalist Romans trusted the government and cheered for the soldiers who crucified Jesus. They also likely had a negative reaction to anyone who questioned this. In some cases they are doing the right many cases they are simply being manipulated by politicians.

If this thought and comparison massively offends you think hard about why: is it based on logic or the feelings that politicians want you to feel? While the Roman citizens and soldiers seem so distant, make no mistake that the nationalistic spirit that supports state abuse exists today in every country, including our own. There are those politicians who do and would do evil and those citizens who would and do stand by and cheer in the face of it because they've been taught this by government.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Elijah's Chair

 On April First, after Alex Gibney's HBO documentary on my hometown's most famous "tax-exempt religion" founded by a pulp novelist aired, noted atheist Neil DeGrasse Tyson dismissed scare claims. “But why aren’t they a religion?” he asked. “If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen… It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult.” I have some hesitation with Tyson's glib argument, as critiqued since by Steve Neumann. However, as I listened last summer to an audiobook, Janet Reitman's similarly thorough expose that confirms much of what Lawrence Wright's study has uncovered, I wondered about Mormons, and Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses in the same way. Or this documentary on one of my hometown's more recent, odd, spiritual set of seekers, The Source Family. If a cult survives a decade it's on way  to being a sect, and after a century, a religion. As the founders fade and memories get mythologized, in the past, invention replaces oral history with either more of the same or, as in Buddhism, belated compilation and codifications. (Yes, we keep two traditions defying logic: kosher and Elijah's Chair.)

The trouble with the Exodus, like those tablets Joseph Smith claimed to have translated before they vanished, or the historicity of Jesus, the veracity of Mohammed, or what the Buddha really said, all fall into the abyss, lacking first-hand testimony. As I wrote last year, the Exodus may not have happened, at least as we celebrate it with 600,000 fleeing Pharoah's hardened heart and actions. There might have been a small slave revolt, and few hanger-ons, the borderers called "ivrit" could have well hung out with the fugitive rabble.

Two nights ago, we held our seder. My wife narrated her version, complete with a prank she and my older son engineered well on me. But, tired of the triumphal "they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat" storyline, we decided to host our older son, his college friends, and two older, secular Jews with a different take. We've evolved over a quarter-century of this, and so we shared this activity, I post it as it may inspire others out there, who approach with not a fixed identity but an evolving imagination how we tell this story commanded to repeat each year for thousands of them, relevantly:

"The Seder is the annual Jewish celebration commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, which freed the Jewish people from slavery. The story is that God subjected the Egyptian people to plagues which grew more brutal, culminating in the death of the first born son. The tears of thousand mothers finally softened the Pharaoh’s heart. 

We look forward each year to taking a breath, dining together and reveling in the freedom we enjoy.  Jews are commanded to tell the tale, not once, but twice. We have done so dutifully for a quarter of a century. We clean the house and get rid of bread and noodles and cookies in order to simulate the Jews hurried Exodus from Egypt. We do this though because we've always done it. We are proud that at this time Jews all over the world are reflecting on their freedom but the story we're commanded to tell might as well be Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel. The fairy tale trivializes our wonder at our own blessings and brushes the struggle of those less fortunate than we are under the rug. We long for something more real and meaningful and we come to you." (So my wife wrote, and proposed for us to fill out in Comic Sans below. I did so as an example, trying to keep my guest list limited, hint-hint.)

My Seder

My name is:

I would have my Seder at: under the redwoods where my friends Bob + Chris live

The living or not living people I would invite are: 7 Living: Bob, Chris, my wife and sons and girlfriends as applicable; 7 Not-living: Hypatia of Alexandria, "La Malinche," Emma Goldman, Hans + Sophie Scholl, Michael Dillon, Thomas Merton

We would eat: a vegetarian meal but a delicious one, cooked by my wife (with help!)

We would celebrate our freedom by: playing music we could all agree on in the background, while discussing ways to advance justice, equality, tolerance, and other genteel values while taking into account our own earnestness and blinkered minds

We would acknowledge those who are not free by: gathering our funds and actions to support the righteous cause of our choice, but neither for profit nor for a politician.

Instead of matzoh for affikomen we would hide: a dog's chew toy as one will be nearby.

Whoever finds the affikomen will get: to donate the amount to a favorite charity

Friday, April 3, 2015

Holy Anger

I opened FB today to find a headline from Mother Jones: "Bernie Sanders goes biblical on income inequality." The elderly Jewish socialist senator from Vermont hangs with the Democrats mostly, sure. But he critiques Obama, Hillary, and his usual allies as too soft on bankers, and too craven to the rich who control more and more of our present fealty and who limit many of our future prospects.

He tells Josh Harkinson, when asked why we should care: "I think this goes back to the Bible. There is something immoral when so few have so much and so many have so little. I don't come to San Francisco very often, but we've driven around the city and seen people sleeping out on the streets. In my state, you've got people working 40, 50 hours a week and going to emergency food shelves because they don't earn enough money to feed their families adequately. You have millions of young people graduating college deeply in debt. They can't get their lives started, can't get married. So I think the issue of income and wealth inequality is in fact a moral issue." He adds that with the losses since my childhood in unions, cheap college tuition, wage equality, and stable employment, that "It's not a question of have we lost the will; it's that the billionaire class is much more aggressive now than it used to be." So, as I have watched during my adult life and my own career, "in the last 35 or 40 years, there has been an increasingly aggressive effort on the part of the top 1 percent to take it all."

I blogged regarding another resister, Franciscan friar Fr. Louis Vitale, six years ago about Passover, peacemaking and identity. I even wrote the priest, sending him a printout of my thoughts, but I never received a reply. My wife remarked: "Maybe he's in jail." For all the careful diplomacy the new Pope Francis has shown, at least he spent a Holy Thursday washing the feet of inmates in a Roman prison.

How social protest gets allied with or against the religious majority, or is it now a minority, rouses us. There's a lot of contention about the First Amendment, as what in the North of Ireland in a similar situation called the "gay cake debate" gets repeated here in Indiana. I remain mystified why the boycotts accelerated against the Hoosiers when 19 states preceded theirs in protecting businesses to not serve those who the proprietors claimed violated their freedom of belief. Regardless, against this,  progressives fought back and denigrated, trolled, and have shut down already offending enterprises.

Jay Michaelson, a Jewish Buddhist gay rights lawyer-activist weighs in: "On the LGBT side, it’s time to stop calling religious people bigots and homophobes. I oppose the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, with every fiber of my ideological being. But there is still an enormous gulf between socially conservative believers and homophobic thugs. We need to take these beliefs seriously.

On the conservative side, it’s time to recognize that the vast majority of Americans — three- quarters, according to polls — believe it is wrong to discriminate against gay people. The people have spoken, the courts have (mostly) spoken, and this is the law of the land." As often, he offers a sensible view.

I'm not here to rant on. I've written about my own beliefs and how they shift often. It's easy to take potshots at organizations promising us pie in the sky and fewer worries here, as long as we sign on. I supported last year some entities from within the Catholic Church who do good works, and who need more sponsorship than the Jesuits, Franciscans, or government grants can support. Maybe some see me as hypocritical for that, but firsthand I have witnessed and benefited from their outreach in my own coming of age, so why not pay back a bit to those who gave their lives to help youths like me?

I realize the difficulty as the few friars become a global order, or the reforming clerics turn the pope's  trusted operatives. Yet, today many strive to take in whomever needs a boost, among the poor, and they ask for no surrender of one's mind or identity. However, the bad press generated by others duping the needy in terms of enlightenment and salvation rouses me to what my dad said, in the context of Jesus driving out the moneychangers, as "holy anger." But the continued tension between institutions bent on profit, as the Alex Gibney documentary based on Lawrence Wright's study of my hometown's biggest success story making a concocted "religion" tax-exempt shows, will perpetuate itself no matter if it's the LDS 180 years ago, or the past 60 years creating a relentlessly celebrity-craven and prison-camp supported "church." Lynne Stuart Parramore at Salon concludes: "even if we got rid of" that offender, "somewhere, out there in America, is another young hustler searching for meaning and money. Someone with charisma, stratospheric ambition and a few screws loose. As surely as the sun rises, her religion is just now slouching toward Hollywood waiting to be born."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The war on the humanities

 The Chinese educational system has been criticised for its focus on science and failure to produce fully rounded individuals.
The war on the humanities, as I have had cause to observe during my career in the trenches or tranches as a student with a Ph.D. in English and thirty-plus years teaching at every level from basic ESL to upper-level college, continues. Alex Preston, in the Guardian, documents the situation in Britain. Margaret Thatcher's regime implemented a relentless march towards imposition of practical rather than philosophical (in the root sense of the term) programs. These push STEM rather than liberal arts coursework, and force the remaining majors outside the vocational strata into a systematically applied set of standards demanding accountability and measurable results. In the U.S, as I can testify from my campus experience, it's not "downsizing" when administrators get the word out to the masses during a "downturn," but timely "right-sizing" given market demands for careerism.
"Currently fixed in the crosshairs are the disciplines of the humanities – arts, languages and social sciences – which have suffered swingeing funding cuts and been ignored by a government bent on promoting the modish, revenue-generating Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects. The liberal education which seeks to provide students with more than mere professional qualifications appears to be dying a slow and painful death, overseen by a whole cadre of what cultural anthropologist David Graeber calls 'bullshit jobs': bureaucrats hired to manage the transformation of universities from centres of learning to profit centres. As one academic put it to me: 'Every dean needs his vice-dean and sub-dean and each of them needs a management team, secretaries, admin staff; all of them only there to make it harder for us to teach, to research, to carry out the most basic functions of our jobs.' The humanities, whose products are necessarily less tangible and effable than their science and engineering peers (and less readily yoked to the needs of the corporate world) have been an easy target for this sprawling new management class."
Marina Warner is cited by Preston, from her time at the U. of Essex, which when I contemplated (alas I could not afford this, as it was the height of Thatcherism, a year before the miner's strike) attending graduate school there. I also was told by a British professor about East Anglia, and Birmingham. All three were a bastion of freethinking, interdisciplinary education. Now, administrators crack down, and demand profit. Austerity rules and restricts. Dame Warner laments. For me, it's as if time travel back for me thirty-plus years happened: "the management structures being imposed on universities are nothing like one would see in a real business in the current economic environment, but one from 30 years ago. 'It’s so 80s. It’s Reaganomics.”'

As Graeber elaborates in "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs": "A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well." His work strives to advance anarchism that challenges the corporate stranglehold.

If as we in the West are told, we need to be more like China, what avails us?  Preston warns: "Only 10% of Chinese college graduates are deemed employable by multinational businesses, according to research cited by Yong in his book. The main complaint? They are too regimented, predictable and lack the creative spark."

At East Anglia, Sarah Churchwell weighs in as Preston quotes her at length: 'What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,' said Churchwell. And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”

Where I teach, a different model rules vs. that where my sons attend. They revel in small classes led by professors, many of Ivy League training and at one institution, some of the leading writers and thinkers that the proximity of New York City to the Hudson Valley can entice under a nationally-known president and an innovative approach. And the other model is student-driven, community-based, and radically collaborative. While they like their parents will graduate into the kind of employment prospects that may in Graeber's estimation make our world more than a "lesser place," I hope they sustain the legacy in which I have been prepared and which I try to transmit to STEM and accounting students, a glimpse at least of "centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration" which I believe all students, no matter their major or career, can learn from.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Baile na gCorcaigh '57

Chuaigh Lena agus mise ag dul Naomh Monica Dé Domhnaigh seo caite. Chonaic muid an drama nua de réir na hAirm Phoblachtach Ëireannach agus Saor Uladh. Tá sé Baile na gCorcaigh '57.

Measaim go raibh ag tharla i mBaile Átha Cliath, go nádurtha. Ach, duirt Lena liom go bhfuil ina Philadelphia in áit. Bhí seo an gceantar na an chathair sin ar an lar leis lucht na Éireannaigh is mó.

Scriobh an h-údar leis as a chuid cuimhní linn a h-óige. Mheas muid go raibh an drama réasúnta mór.
Mar sin féin, shíl muid go raibh sé mall, agus leis ro-iomarch ceapacha laistigh lú na dhá uair an chloig.

Níos déanaí, thiomaint muid ag dul an teach tabhairne na Fionn Mac Cumaill. D'ith mé iasc agus scéallogaí leis leann ó Lagunitas. D'ól Léna leann piorraí leis ceapaire.

Ansin, shiúl muid ar cheile ar an bpríomhshráid in aice leis an dúiche na Venice. Bhreatnaigh amach an farraige fada an Aigéin Chiúin. Mhothaigh muid an leoithne fionnuar in aice le luí na gréine.

Corktown '57.

Layne and myself went to Santa Monica last Sunday. We saw a new play on the matter of the IRA and Saor Uladh. It's Corktown '57.

I thought that it happened in Dublin, naturally. But Layne told me that it was in Philadelphia instead. This was a district of that city center with very many from Ireland.

The author wrote this from his memories in his youth. We reckoned it was a reasonably good drama. Nevertheless, we thought that it was slow, and with too many plots for less than two hours.

Later, we drove, going to Finn McCool's pub. I ate fish and chips with an ale from Lagunitas. Layne drank pear cider with a sandwich.

Then, we walked together on the main street near the district of Venice. We looked out at the long shore of the Pacific Ocean. We felt the cool breeze near the sunset.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Free Speech Can Be Scary


It's difficult for those of us saturated in social and print and online media to keep up with anti-free speech demands. British laws, as conservative critic Charles C.W. Cooke tells the New York Times, apply capriciously: "A Briton was arrested for telling a police officer his horse was gay. A singer in a seaside bar was arrested for singing 'Kung Fu Fighting' in the presence of a couple of Chinese people." Although I have since writing this been informed that Cooke fails (at least in the edited version of an admittedly short space) to clarify that the “hate speech” legislation since the “horse” episode has been amended eight years ago, and that said offender was not prosecuted, this explanation itself further proves the lengths to which such legal interference and incompetence have extended.

I cite the end of her article, worth reading in full, for its applicability to the situation Maryam Namazie has chronicled the past week on her blog, and which The Pensive Quill excerpted. Namazie planned to speak at Trinity College Dublin. But, security asked for a moderator, to shield her talk from any threat of "antagonising" its "Muslim students." TCD seems to have clumsily tried to tip a "balance" away from "one-sided" views, but winds up censoring one who knows Islamist tactics well. "It is crucial that I be able to speak against Islamist fascism and honour our dissenters deemed apostates, blasphemers, heretics…whether ex-Muslims, Muslims or non-Muslims," she insists. 

Shulevitz, after documenting the increasing levels of administration on college campuses to protect supposedly vulnerable young adults from harsh opinions or dissenting ideas, raises the overlooked "possibility that insulating students could also make them, well, insular. A few weeks ago, Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo, spoke at the University of Chicago, protected by the security guards she has traveled with since supporters of the Islamic State issued death threats against her. During the question-and-answer period, a Muslim student stood up to object to the newspaper’s apparent disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase 'I am Charlie.'”

Judith Shulevitz goes on to narrate the situation, and I quote her at length. “Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, 'Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,' and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.

A few days later, a guest editorialist in the student newspaper took Ms. El Rhazoui to task. She had failed to ensure 'that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions.' Ms. El Rhazoui’s 'relative position of power,'  the writer continued, had granted her a 'free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.' In a letter to the editor, the president and the vice president of the University of Chicago French Club, which had sponsored the talk, shot back, saying, 'El Rhazoui is an immigrant, a woman, Arab, a human-rights activist who has known exile, and a journalist living in very real fear of death. She was invited to speak precisely because her right to do so is, quite literally, under threat.'

You’d be hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that the student and her defender had burrowed so deep inside their cocoons, were so overcome by their own fragility, that they couldn’t see that it was Ms. El Rhazoui who was in need of a safer space." So concludes Shulevitz, in wise words to ponder.

Megan Murphy, a Vancouver feminist, has since added her view on the dubious protection afforded "safe spaces" in the Globe and Mail. She tells how she has been added to a list of "dissidents" on the Black Box, "an online incarnation of safe space." She joins a list of prominent freethinkers who have lately found themselves the targets of opprobrium for daring to speak out and not to give in to cant.

She reminds us of the cost that capitulation carries. "Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments. It certainly doesn’t support critical thinking."

She continues: "It also creates a culture wherein people are afraid to express dissenting opinions or question the party line. This is ironic, because many of those under threat of being silenced are people who are speaking out against abuse, harassment and violence. While some may hold 'controversial' opinions about how best to do it, they are just that – controversial. Throughout history, our heroes and radicals have held controversial opinions. How often do tepid opinions and fearfulness change the world for the better?"

Those at The Pensive Quill and as we see above, certain journalists and activists in the media, continue to fight for the right to freely express opinions and to promote facts that challenge pieties.
The reaction to Shulevitz' article in the following week of the New York Times, as these letters prove, was mixed. Professors and students tended to insist on safe spaces, at least from the correspondents selected, more than I would have predicted, but this appears to illustrate how deeply the principles of right-thinking by purportedly left-leaning individuals have permeated many in higher education.

(P.S. My blog piece has been updated for TPQ. I cannot find the original source of this image credit)