Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ag siúl leis Opie i tSliabh Washington

Chuaigh mé agus Léna suas Sliabh Washington faoi deireanach. D'fhéadfhai tú a fheiceáil an radharc difriúil ag barr an iarnróid sean i 1909-22. Is grád gear ansin, gan amhras, go deo.

Thóg muid ár madra dubh, Opie, le linn. Is maith leí ag dul amach go minic. Is bréa liom ag fágáil ár tí, chomh maith. 

Bhuail muid an lucht cláir scátalá ag fhilleadh ar ais suas an Slaibh. Bhí siad chuid d'fhoireann "Scuad Círéib" na saor an aisce ann. Comhrá againn leis fear óg agus cairdiúl faoi a trí madraí agus cat amháin le chéile.

Anois, níl fanaí folamh ag imeall an cruinniú mullach. Mar sin féin, tú ábalta sult an bhaint as Tra Fáda, na Sliebh Naomh Gabriel, an shíniú na Coillte Cuilleach, agus ar lar na Cathair na hÁingeal in aiteannaí éagsúlaí ar feadh an shiúloid fáda. B'fhéidir, is féidir leat a fheiceáil le léargas ar an Aigéin Ciúin ar bhfad ar shiúl in aice leis le luí na gréine. 

Tá siúlfeadh fáda, gan amhras, ansuid. Tá sé beagnach cúig mhíle ann. Ach, tá sé go leor radharcannaí--chomh maith le iomarca títhe nua agus gránnaí, ar ndóigh, a bheith L.A. seo! 

Walking with Opie in Mount Washington

Layne and I walked up Mount Washington recently. You could have seen a different view from the top of the old railway in 1909-22. It's a steep grade there, for sure, always. 

We took our black dog, Opie, with us. She likes going out often. She loves leaving our house, as well.

We met a group of skateboarders returning up the Mount. They were part of a "Riot Squad" team of freeboarders. We spoke with a friendly young man about his three dogs and his one cat together. 

Now, there are no empty slopes around the summit. Nevertheless, you are able to see Long Beach, the San Gabriel Mountains, the Hollywood sign, and the center of Los Angeles at various locations during the long walk. Perhaps, you will see a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean far off near sunset. 

It's a long hike, without a doubt, up there. It is nearly five miles. But, there's lots of vistas--as well as too many new and ugly houses, of course, this being L.A.!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Debt and taxes

Since I posted last time about Jeremy Hammond, the hacker now serving a ten-year Federal sentence for exposing collusion between the government and Statfor, as to how anti-terrorism laws are being used or misused by the FBI, I noticed this in my FB feed. As Hammond (see that piece) defines himself as an anarcho-communist, I wondered how such a philosophy, if made our politics, might look. Gary "Z." McGee asserts "5 Reasons Why Anarchy Would Be an Improvement in Human Governance." But whereas the likes of Hammond argue that grassroots, anti-capitalist, decentralized systems of cooperation would supplant the top-down coercion which is business as usual, McGee alludes, while not quite defining, a "cosmic law" and the possibility that choices could be not only moral but amoral--yet never immoral, in such a model of how people might get along and thrive. 

He gives #1 as checks and balances. McGee claims 95% of human history (or prehistory) has been Fierce Egalitarian Hierarchy. Food, shelter, protection had to be shared, as the clan had to survive. He wants us know to place first freedom, then health, then a recognition of the interconnection of all. This reminds me of Gary Snyder's Buddhist Anarchism, articulated by him back in the 1960s.  McGee agrees, but the quirk of "amoral" I find noteworthy, as I don't recall this term being used earlier. "The monumental problem with our Statist society is that we are not taught to be as moral or as amoral as we need to be in order to maintain a healthy cosmic, ecological, and social order. In fact, statism purposefully forces whatever the state decrees to be healthy, as healthy, whether or not it is actually healthy according to cosmic law." Maybe that "cosmic" law aligns with Snyder's interbeing?

As I wrote about earlier this week, the "industry of death" decried by Pope Francis and Jimmy Carter recently ties into the #2 point of McGee. He asks: "How does anarchy flip the tables on the authorization and glorification of plunder? It prevents plunder from ever becoming possible because anarchy-based modes of governance are engineered in such a way that groups never get to the point of concentrated centers of power. The monopolization of power never gets to the point to where it becomes corrupt, because of controlled leveling mechanisms such as reverse dominance and wealth expiation. Like Jim Dodge said, 'Anarchy doesn’t mean out of control; it means out of their control.' Whoever 'they' may be: monopolizing corporations, overreaching governments, tyrants." We all wonder, at least those of us less enamored with capitalism and intrusion by entities above us, how the power switch might happen. As David Graeber devoted his big book on debt to revealing, the power of banks to print money, charge interest on it, and keep the masses indebted underlies this injustice.

A bit awkward in McGee's expression, but as the weather reports remind us daily by now, the ecological perspective ties in to #3. "In a system of human governance that is systematically transforming livingry into weaponry, it is the supreme duty of all healthy, moral, compassionate, eco-conscious, indeed anarchist, people to question authority to the nth degree." Similarly, #4 seeks reciprocity as an ethical basis for "expiation of wealth" by an ecologically sustainable distribution.

Finally, he conjures up Thoreau's non-conformity as a reminder of the power of leaders who can rally change. McGee cites Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The hope of a secure livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood. The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and spiritual freedom have always been nonconformists. In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist.” Hammond to Chris Hedges spoke the same way, and I happen to be reading John Lydon's "Anger is an Energy" where he tells us that his own enemies have never been human beings, but institutions, in his own struggle.

Very few look to Assange, Manning, Snowden, Hammond, Lydon, or McGee as role-models. We are forcibly taxed for the war machines, the prison complexes, the collusion of lenders and universities, and Obamacare as the safety net for the "benefits" corporations refuse to grant exploited workers. Not to mention the rise of automation, reliance on "contingent" labor, and the reduction of secure jobs. The militarization of the police, the trillions wasted on the security state at home and abroad, the damage to the earth, the uncontrolled levels of population increase and immigration, the refusal to address global warming. All the while, we gush over the latest "outrage" by pro athletes or reality show celebrities. My students keep leashed to their phones, and I wonder if literacy will survive long.

While many claim to inherit the mantle of King, few consider the complexity of pacifism and non-violence as opposed to what Hammond argues, the decision to fight back. Looking at Tibet over my lifetime, as it was taken over not long before my birth, I acknowledge the Dalai Lama's decision not to worsen his homeland by calling for an uprising, but I sympathize with the younger generations who have given over to despair, and self-immolation in the extreme cases, as the Chinese supplant the Tibetans with the Han, with the foreign language, with the prohibition of the native language and customs, and I cannot see how these can survive within the heartland much longer unless as staged folk pageants or monastic museums for tourists who now take the train to Lhasa. All this reminds me of the Nazi plan to establish a Yiddish heritage display when the Reich triumphed, and I remain torn between the ideal of non-violent resistance and the frustration as again, a nation and a tradition face extinction. We might add to this our own global predicament at the hands of multinationals and superpowers. Will we rise up against the one percent, or will we, hoping to become our masters, still bow and cringe? The John Adams quote above shows how our war and our debt together enslave us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Jeremy Hammond's radical morality as a hacker

Edward Snowden and Chelsea/ Bradley Manning are names we recognize. Excoriated as traitors, celebrated as patriots, these two whistleblowers from within the belly of the beast can at least be credited for the NSA's decision this week to cut back some of its phone surveillance. If not for WikiLeaks and related revelations, the Obama administration would have gone on pretending that hope and change created a less draconian governmental presence, and that all was well post-2008 with us, if not exactly post-9/11 threat.

A third name, to me, was new. Chris Hedges in a chapter from the well-titled Wages of Rebellion: the Moral Imperative of Revolt asks: "Why should we be so impoverished that so that the profits of big banks, corporations, and hedge funds can swell?" Not exactly pithy words to fit on a rebel flag or even a bumper sticker, but this issue cannot be reduced to soundbites or slogans. It is vast; it impels.

In 2013, Hedges narrates, he watched in court as Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to the full ten years his charges could earn. "Hammond, then age twenty-six, released to WikiLeaks, Rolling Stone, and other publications some 5 million emails in 2011 from the Texas-based company Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor." Like Manning, Snowden, and the MSM-reviled Julian Assange, Hammond sought to expose what the State wants to hide, in the name of supposed national security.

"The 5 million email exchanges, once made public, exposed the private security firm’s infiltration, monitoring, and surveillance of protesters and dissidents on behalf of corporations and the national security state. And perhaps most importantly, the information provided chilling evidence that antiterrorism laws are being routinely used by the state to criminalize nonviolent, democratic dissent and falsely link dissidents to international terrorist organizations. Hammond sought no financial gain. He got none." Hedges explains that for hacking, this long U.S. sentence was one of the toughest ever.

"It was wildly disproportionate to the crime—an act of nonviolent civil disobedience that championed the public good by exposing abuses of power by the government and a security firm. But the excessive sentence was the point." The judge herself has ties to firms that were exposed, and her ruling seems to be compromised by her vendetta, as she appears to have used her power to abuse him.

Hedges asks, aloud, what many wonder: "Why should we respect a court system, or a governmental system, that does not respect us? Why should we abide by laws that protect only criminals like Wall Street thieves while leaving the rest of us exposed to abuse? Why should we continue to have faith in structures of power that deny us our most basic rights and civil liberties? Why should we be impoverished so that the profits of big banks, corporations, and hedge funds can swell?"

Hedges portrays Hammond as a working-class radical, with a punk-rock father who in a Western Chicago suburb had to raise twins alone after their mother abandoned them at three. Hammond picked up a talent for computers early on, and a passion for subversive, non-party politics. A different heartland machine than that which maneuvered Hillary or Obama into the White House, surely.

"Hammond, six feet tall and wiry, defined himself when we met in jail as 'an anarchist communist.' He said he had dedicated his life to destroying capitalism and the centralized power of the corporate state and that he embraced the classic tools of revolt, including mass protests, general strikes, and boycotts. And he saw hacking and leaking as critical tools of this resistance, to be used not only to reveal the truths about systems of corporate power but to “disrupt/destroy these systems entirely.”

Once the FBI's #1 most wanted cybercriminal, Hammond explained his motivation to Hedges from his imprisonment at the FCI Greenville, Illinois, facility. 'I saw what Chelsea Manning did,' he said when we spoke, seated at a metal table in a tiny room reserved for attorney-client visits. 'Through her hacking, she became a contender, a world changer. She took tremendous risks to show the ugly truth about war. I asked myself, If she could make that risk, shouldn’t I make that risk? Wasn’t it wrong to sit comfortably by, working on the websites of Food Not Bombs, while I had the skills to do something similar? I too could make a difference. It was her courage that prompted me to act.'”

Hammond told Hedges how he strove to attain “'leaderless collectives based on free association, consensus, mutual aid, self-sufficiency and harmony with the environment.' It is essential, he said, that all of us work to cut our personal ties with capitalism and engage in resistance that includes 'mass organizing of protests, strikes, and boycotts,' as well as hacking and leaking, which are 'effective tools to reveal ugly truths of the system or to disrupt/destroy these systems entirely.'" But what if the system fights back, as it always does? Hammond knows Chicago history, as at Haymarket in 1887.

Hedges famously criticized some who wanted confrontation at Occupy Wall Street. I found it noteworthy that he allowed at length here Hammond to have his say to the contrary. "Hammond said he was not interested in a movement that 'only wanted a ‘nicer’ form of capitalism and favored legal reforms, not revolution.” He said he did not support what he called a 'dogmatic nonviolence doctrine' held by many in the Occupy movement, describing it as 'needlessly limited and divisive.' He rejected the idea of protesters carrying out acts of civil disobedience that they know will lead to arrest. 'The point,' he said, 'is to carry out acts of resistance and not get caught.' He condemned the 'peace patrols'— units formed within the Occupy movement that sought to prohibit acts of vandalism and violence by other protesters, most often members of the Black Bloc—as 'a secondary police force.'”

"Furthermore, Hammond dismissed the call by many in Occupy not to antagonize the police, whom he characterized as 'the boot boys of the one percent, paid to protect the rich and powerful.' He said such a tactic of nonconfrontation with the police ignored the long history of repression by the police in attacking popular movements, as well as the 'profiling and imprisonment of our comrades.' He went on: 'Because we were unprepared, or perhaps unwilling, to defend our occupations, police and mayors launched coordinated attacks driving us out of our own parks.'" I posted on this blog the photos of the LAPD in hazmat gear, giant trucks destroying the Occupy LA site and I am not sure, given that department's record in dealing with urban protest, if armed defense would be true defense.

Hedges had critiqued Black Bloc, while Hammond champions it. “'I fully support and have participated in Black Bloc and other forms of militant direct action,' he said. 'I do not believe that the ruling powers listen to the people’s peaceful protests. Black Bloc is an effective, fluid, and dynamic form of protest. It causes disruption outside of predictable/controllable mass demonstrations through unarrests, holding streets, barricades, and property destruction. Smashing corporate windows is not violence, especially when compared to the everyday economic violence of sweatshops and "free trade." Black Bloc seeks to hit them where it hurts, through economic damage. But more than smashing windows, they seek to break the spell of "law and order" and the artificial limitations we impose on ourselves.” This smacks to me of rhetoric, but underneath, there lurks a call to real liberty. I sympathize with this perspective, but part of me, however cowed, seems to admit its futility. There always seems, as the Irish situation reveals, a spy in the revolutionary ranks, an agent provocateur.

Facing his sentence, Hammond spoke: “The acts of civil disobedience that I am being sentenced for today are in line with the principles of community and equality that have guided my life. I hacked into dozens of high-profile corporations and government institutions, understanding very clearly that what I was doing was against the law, and that my actions could land me back in federal prison. But I felt that I had an obligation to use my skills to expose and confront injustice—and to bring the truth to light." And here, a bit freed of phrases he repeated earlier, I sense an honest, truly "direct action."

The FBI used a hacker to trap Hammond, keeping back doors open so the agency could track Hammond and watch him progress in his exposure. Hammond pled guilty, but he wonders why the corporations and entities responsible for the crimes of the State and of Capital get off free. He claims after his prison stint that nobody should be incarcerated. I think of some madmen and unhinged women behind bars, but perhaps in his anarchist vision, alternative treatment of facilities might be envisioned. For now, he encourages non-cooperation, non-capitalism, and sustained resistance.

I tried to excerpt more here from Hedges’ article. But after I pasted the penultimate paragraph above, my net went haywire. Google’s blog platform froze and then the characters went backwards. The Salon site blared a commercial embedded for State Farm Insurance. Microsoft, where I tried to copy this post so I could edit it, at first refused to allow me to transfer any more of the Hedges column.

I close this, then, prematurely, while wondering at the connivance of the system Hammond fights to fight back, somehow occluded, against even those like me who attempt to disseminate his struggle. I urge you to visit the original interview with Hammond, and to spread the good word and good fight.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Industry of death

When I was in college, I showed my dad an op-ed column in the L.A. Times. Our cardinal, Timothy Manning, whom I had shaken hands with and exchanged cordialities at my high school graduation, was a soft-spoken emigrant from County Cork. But his editorial castigated, in Reagan's first term, the "industry of death" (or terms like that) which profited off of a Cold or hot war, and which employed hundreds of thousands in the "defense industry" that in that time still dominated much of the regional economy in aerospace and in manufacturing.

My blue-collar, Reagan Democrat dad responded evenly but with a touch of bitterness: those priests never had to support a family with a job. He reminded me, the know-it-all at the Jesuit university that, although full of working-class undergrads (and many middle-class, true), we were removed from the realities of the economy. My dad had worked at many tool-and-die machine shops, many factories, for decades in this industry.

So, when I share such citations from a clergy with whom I otherwise often disagree, what's the point? I have been convinced that war is not the answer since my teens. Somehow, exposure to St. Francis, to Thomas Merton, to a hint of the Catholic Worker movement, drew me away from my childhood fascination with conflict, one so strong it unsettled a second-grade teacher. At the height of the Vietnam War, I kept changing every creative writing opportunity into a little guy's fiery combat tale.

I was the first year to have to register for the Selective Service imposed by Jimmy Carter late in his term. Those males turning 18 had to sign up at the Post Office on a small card, I recall. The Persian Gulf Doctrine mandated a ready force of young men on call. Protecting oil, as we have seen for decades since, became in the wake of OPEC and the embargoes of the Seventies today's key priority.

So, I also sent a letter to Pax Christi in Boston. I went on record as a conscientious objector to such war. Back then, at least then I could admit some use in serving to help people even in the military in a non-combat capacity, but my preference, not that the government cared, was to not support the service, but to do whatever duty I had to do if required in a domestic role, not furthering conflict.

Now I am not sure about that. Finding out in '07 about my murdered Fenian great-grandfather threw me for a loop, given my seemingly inherited bent against the Butcher's Apron and the Crown. It made me wonder if I, the boy with the crayons drawing tanks and fire and soldiers, revealed a violent gene. Or maybe I carry an idealistic one, romantic and impractical, that ordinary people deserve control.

The War of Independence left Ireland a partitioned nation and sparked civil war, and long decades of hatred and political rancor. The guerrillas in the Six Counties did not wrench that province away from Britain. Thousands died, many more wounded in the soul or in the body. Still, as with some revolutions, I can't tell if a peaceful Irish movement against the Empire might have succeeded.

If asked now by my nation, with the anarchist leanings I have discovered I had formulated without knowing earlier in my life those definitions, I'd opt out from aiding war. I have written about J.F. Powers, who was sent to prison for refusing to buy war bonds in WWII, and I have learned recently about those who turned away from even the "good war"; my father mused one day to me--perhaps after reflecting on the Gold Star flag hung in my mother's house for the death of her only sibling, my namesake Uncle Jack, on the shores of Saipan--that nobody really ever won a war. I turn away more than ever from slogans, jingoism, and ribbons. So, I post this with another Jesuit's chastisement, on another Memorial Day. My students from Iraq and Afghanistan still return, still wounded, if hidden.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Reality Check

After the historic Irish vote, the first where a nation (or 3/4 of one) and not a legislature approved same-sex marriage, Diarmuid Martin, Dublin's archbishop, called for a reality check amid this "social revolution." According to today's Irish Examiner:
“We have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities. We won’t begin again with a sense of renewal with a sense of denial,” he said.
“I ask myself, most of these young people who voted yes are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I’m saying there’s a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the Church.”
As a product of more than that time spent in the school system one nation removed from Ireland, and who started in kindergarten with Mexican Poor Clare nuns a year after the conclusion of Vatican II, I watched as IHM sisters gave up their habits, in more ways than one, and then left, as priests suddenly disappeared, as women took off mantillas, as altars turned around. My mom wept when the new design, stripped of decoration, appeared. "It looks like a Protestant church." Not long after, despite Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel replacing hymns in my denuded parish sanctuary, many of my classmates and friends drifted off from Church. We are the last to recall, outside of traditionalist enclaves, an American practice, derived often from Ireland, of indulgences, spiritual bouquets, novenas, rosaries, Mary Day, benediction, going to confession behind a screen in the dark, and lighting real candles. Many of my teachers were Irish, direct or a generation or so distant, and the ties were strong and lasting to this ancient way of life, where we identified ourselves by what parish we were from, and Mass going was as automatic on Sundays as was crossing ourselves, or praying to so many saints, or a Marian litany.

Sure, sometimes I miss that, but do I miss the fear I still wrestle with in the dark, middle-aged, about sin, about my mortality, about death? That was all instilled in me at a formative age, and even if I was born as Vatican II commenced, I am old enough to carry the pre-conciliar, Tridentine legacy of doom. I carry a lot of guilt, inhibition, and difficulty with speaking up on my own behalf. Was this instilled? I inherited the cultural patterns of the Irish, one generation removed. I share many of these attitudes. The Irish, as with many of us across the world, seem now starting to break out, to think and act freely.

So, I wish my Irish friends well. It's a sign of how in my own lifespan, the leap from a blinkered to a bright acceptance of gays and lesbians in partnership and equality has happened in a country that still in the Nineties was bound, far more stronger, to the Church. I do wonder, however, if the lurch to secularization and massive consumerism, as the boom years showed to Ireland's weakness, reveal that whatever has replaced the Faith of Our Fathers leaves many with their own search, amid the gap opened by the loss of trust in the clerical establishment and its dogma, for meaning that can reward us without pointing to supernatural intervention, clerical suppression of thought, and a cowed laity. Blessed with more liberty and abundance than our forebears, how do we conduct ourselves wisely?

That, to me, is the struggle that we confront. The Pew survey, as I blogged this week, shows an 8% drop between 2007 and 2014 in Christian identification in the U.S. That is massive. As in much of the developed world, the decline in faith is balanced, all the same, by the upsurge in poorer regions. So, we will face a richer North, and a poorer but more pious South, it seems, in the century ahead. And, I suspect that many of us, and our children from whatever arrangement biology and the law allow from now on, will ask the same Big Questions as me and my ancestors. But at least now, we have choices.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book buying, post-Net

Marc Andreesen is a decade younger, a whole lot bigger, and immensely more wealthy than me, but I share one thing in common. Growing up, neither he nor I had a bookstore nearby. My distance from one was shorter, but it still took a long bike ride, or tagging along with my parents when they went to the one mall for many miles around, to a B.Dalton chain store. If lucky, maybe Vromans in Pasadena.

My experience was about the same as Andreesen. In a New Yorker profile, he tells Tad Friend of his penurious childhood in rural Wisconsin. "He had to drive an hour to find a Waldenbooks, in La Crosse; it was all cookbooks and cat calendars. So he later saw Amazon as a heroic disseminator of knowledge and progress. 'Screw the independent bookstores,' he told me. 'There weren’t any near where I grew up. There were only ones in college towns. The rest of us could go pound sand."

I agree. Vromans has been around since the end of the nineteenth century. While the longest-lasting indie bookstore within a vast region where I grew up, it too has become more of a baked goods-coffee shop-hangout than the "serious" bookstore of my childhood. It used to have one or two branches in malls. One of those malls has long since changed into a mini-Manila shopping center. The other vanished long ago, as did B. Dalton, which in turn took over the local chain, Pickwick, started with its flagship store on Hollywood Boulevard. My mom drove me there when in college I needed a copy of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams; the only copy in the Southland, it turned out, was there, a twenty-dollar illustrated version. I loved it, but I felt bad she had to take me a considerable distance to procure it. Some calls were made, and as with another book I tried a few years later to wrangle around 1990, Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches, on Holland's boom time, even a big publisher and a big title, at least in academia and the book review sections, did not get distributed. I must have rung up two dozen stores before I found one stocking it around L.A.

That was the reality, unless you were near a big college. This week, I wanted a copy of a title from Harvard U.P. The public library did have it, but that was the single copy, and I felt it worth investing in. I rarely buy books compared to my heyday, for reasons of price, lack of space, and budget priorities. But the Net, for all its deprivations, enables either used books to 1) soar in cost to crazy algorithmic figures such as $219.86 or 2) plummet, sometimes at least, to $7.83. I logged on the search aggregator and found David Slavitt's controversial abridged and casually ottava rima version of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso for $11.50. Then I noticed the same description was repeated for other book sites for a copy; I compared them and figured the same title went for $9.50 and $8.80 elsewhere. So, I checked the seller, for it said in one place it was hardcover and another softcover.

The seller could not verify, but I gambled on the 30-day return policy and the preponderance of evidence that it was hard and not soft. I placed the order, and it went down to $8.08. Then, when I processed it, the verification said $7.83. So, the magic happened. The charity in Texas got my weekend order, sent it on Monday, and by Wednesday, there it was, $4.33 plus $3.50 shipping.

How much did it sell for locally? One seller listed was in Pasadena. $12. I could have driven there and paid the list $8 plus tax, about a dollar more. But I'd have had to park and pay; gas is not cheap. It turned out I chose rationally. In the old days, I would have gone there, and likely found four more titles to buy at the same store. But my house and garage fill up with such previous purchases after decades of haunting those indie stores, off and then on the Net. And I need limits. So, unless a local public library carries it, a copy is usually borrowed. But, being a bookworm, an independent scholar, and a plain compulsive reader, you will understand my moments of weakness, or self-justification.

Image: for this venerable quote from Erasmus, I figured you'd prefer this photo to one of me reading bedside.Even if I buy food and not "cloths"--that does sound early-sixteenth century, all the same.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fewer believers, more consumers?

The recent Pew survey on American religion shows a rapid decline, from around 78% to 70% in Christian identification since 2007. Catholics are dropping, as are evangelicals. While 10% of all Americans were ex-Catholic then, now it's 13%. Tim Rutten wonders how much evangelical and right-wing politics may be to blame for this decline. Unaffiliated respondents have increased by 6.7% the past period, to nearly 30% After all, independent-leaning, alienated, skeptical voters (like me) are often repulsed by pious rhetoric and cant. "Well over one-third of all Americans under 49 now are unaffiliated and a substantial number of them profess a complete disinterest in religion or its values."

This surge transcends the usual ethnic, class, regional, or traditional boundaries. If not for relentless immigration and concomitant population growth, the Catholic and probably some Pentecostal and fundamentalist churches would show deeper drops. The tilt of the Church in my region tips now about 70% Latino, for instance, with large Filipino and Vietnamese contingents. Sure, the South does still boast more believers, and cities more their cohort of "spiritual but not religious," a phenomenon now spreading beyond the privileged pockets on the East and West Coasts and I suppose college towns. The report sums up: "People who self-identify as atheists or agnostics (about 7% of all U.S. adults), as well as those who say their religion is 'nothing in particular,' now account for a combined 22.8% of U.S. adults – up from 16.1% in 2007. The growth of the 'nones' has been powered in part by religious switching. Nearly one-in-five U.S. adults (18%) were raised as Christians or members of some other religion, but now say they have no religious affiliation." This cheers me, if oddly for me.

For I study religion, I value its contributions, I suspect its assertions, and I analyze its functions. I teach a course in its comparative aspects, open to students online nationwide whom I will never likely meet. I ask them to discuss their own orientation. Most do so happily, revealing usually about one or two articulate but disenfranchised voices, maybe half who are more or less observant of some form, and the rest divided between those who have been raised Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist but who have a wavering or flexible attitude towards the tenets with which they were inculcated. Sometimes I get a pagan or two, a Jewish or Muslim student, too. A Buddhist, too, but so far all who blend a vague sort of aspiration with New Age, from a Christian background. So, they match Pew data above.

But some often bristle, being mainly mainline Christians still, when I challenge them about the growth of "nones," or when I confront them to move out of a comfort zone and critically respond to those who address the drawbacks of, well, every religious system we study over the eight weeks. I offer the positive and the negative aspects of the major faiths--even if the textbook and lectures on the online shell try to be very neutral, I cannot be so as a teacher who wants students to stretch their limits. Therefore, the new data I will have to offer my next class will continue to push their boundaries. As we turn a less religious nation, however, as Rutten concludes, we must all question another transformation: autonomic absorption of so many Americans into the consumer society, as we face a consumerist, capitalist force "that so often seems more powerful than any religion."

Rutten asks: "If you live in a world that begs you to choose from among 600 types of potato chips and 400 brands of hummus, why not faith? Whether a society that idolizes that kind of choice really is a better place than the one we’re struggling with now, will be something we’ll all discover." Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

tSeirbhís chuimhneacháin ina dTailte Dearg

Thiomáint muid go dTailte Dearg go minic. Ach, níl muid imithe go dti ansin a freastail ócáid difriúil ná mar gheall ár mhac síne, Leon. Mar sin féin, chuaigh muid go dti inniu.

Fhreastail muid an tseirbhís chuimhneacháin do Kathryn Green. Scríobh mé faoi di le déanaí ar an bhlog seo. Fuair bás sí amach ar saol seo is tobann.

Chuaigh muid ciorcal ar an Ollscoil na Tailte Dearg an tráthnóna seo. Bhí chuimhne Léna agus chairde go leor eile faoi Kathryn le grá. Labhair daoine faoi a ranníaocaíochtaí agus cairdeas go fliúrseach.

Bhí mé sásta a fheiceáil cairde ó dhá sheiminear leis Liam MacDomhnall agus Caoimhin Ó Néill fós. Bhailigh muid leis mic léinn atá caite agus faoi láthair ar chéile ag an poll dóiteáin faoi na gréine. Bhí sé ina lá cothrom chun freastail ar ansin, gan amhras.

Faoi deireanach, d'ith muid ag an bialann Eureka leis Leon agus Chaiside. Bhuail mé an fear bocht óg le coiléan nua. An bhialann a íocadh a béile lena fiancess, duirt sé orm. Duirt sé liom go mbeadh sé íoc ar ais an tseachtain seo chugainn nuair a bhí íochta aige féin.

D'ólann muid leann blásta. Bhí maith liom giotán le leann Strawberry Sour (Almanac) agus La Folie Sour Brown Belgian (New Belgium) agus Ritual Red, ach is brea liom Patsy's Coconut Rye Stout (Barley Works, Costa Mesa) agus le déanaí Heart of Dankness le Ritual, an IPA áitiúl an chuid is fearr. Tósta muid di Kathryn.

A memorial service.

We have driven to Redlands often. But we have not gone out there to attend a different occasion than for our older son, Leo. All the same, we went there today.

We attended a memorial service for Kathryn Green. I wrote about her lately on this blog. Death took her out of this life very suddenly.

We joined a circle at the University of Redlands this afternoon. Layne and many other friends remembered Kathryn with love. People spoke about her contributions and friendship in abundance.

I was happy to see friends from two seminars with Bill McDonald and Kevin O'Neill too. We gathered with students who were past and present together at the fire pit under the sun. It was a lovely day to gather there, without a doubt.

After, we at at the Eureka restaurant with Leo and Cassidy. I met a poor young man and his new puppy. The restaurant was paying for his meal, he told me. He told me he would pay them back in a week when he was paid himself.

We drank tasty ale. I liked a bit of the Strawberry Sour (Almanac) and La Folie Sour Brown Belgian (New Belgium) and Ritual Red, but I loved Patsy's Coconut Rye Stout (Barley Works, Costa Mesa) and finally Heart of Dankness from Ritual, a local IPA the best of all. We gave a toast to Kathryn.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Hades and Proserpina
Six weeks ago, I commented in "Free Speech Can Be Scary" about "safe spaces" and the growing inability of certain college students to handle challenges to their worldview, identity, and psyche. Today, I found in my FB feed from an Irish colleague this. She shares my caution that particular elements may well set off sensitive responses, but that education for adults demands they take risks. Apparently, some at Columbia fear, again, the invasion of a student's mindset, based on tolerance and sensitivity.

An op-ed in the student paper summed up a young woman's reaction to scenes of rape in her assigned reading. These upset her, as "a survivor of sexual assault." The article explained how "Ovid’s 'Metamorphoses' is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background." Hades' rape of Proserpina, like many episodes in Ovid, is violent, but surely, many passages of beauty also linger.

I share the image of Bernini. If the mythological context is known by the viewer, violence may arise. If not, this might be taken as erotic bliss, foreplay and seduction captured in unforgettable marble. This tension, for me, might better enliven and enrich a classroom discussion or writing prompt, than a fearful rush to eliminate any depiction of nudity or sexuality from my syllabus or a student's view. As Scott Timberg sums this up in Salon: "Why start protecting students from Ovid in a TMZ world?"

To me, "like so many texts in the Western canon" is its own touchy trigger. How much of the humanities and social sciences can be taught and examined if we fear the content? Do we bowdlerize the readings, so as to censor offending passages? Twice when I showed one of many, I recall, "R-rated" features in my Literature and Film course, some Christian students asked to be excused. I was told by my supervisors that I had to grant them this, and I had to come up with an alternate assignment to meet their needs. Further, as another professor I knew had to do, disruptive content itself might be removed, unless the material had no substitute, or there was a way the course guidelines could be met without the specific example. Say, Huck Finn was assigned, but one might, say, replace it with a slave narrative, or an historical account that lacked the n-word trigger event.

Once I taught that novel to a predominantly black enrollment, at another college. As the Net was barely up, and as shortcuts were lacking for hard work, to their credit, they read it but lacked much enthusiasm. One woman loved the Grangerford episode, but for the sappy eulogies that Twain parodied. My gentle efforts to convince her that these were satire failed utterly. I am not sure if it was me, the content in American Literature (which I made very multicultural while also integrating the canon), or the fact they attended one course after another in a group, after work at Bell. Maybe they were tired of each other after so long. Perhaps I seemed elitist, even if I'm from a low-enough "income background" to have received Pell Grants. Among those "of color" of any tinge, the humanities, whittled from a Norton Anthology, must daunt many business and management majors.

That connects with my other posts about a decline of liberal arts. In a Twitter age, we lack attention for stamina. I was told by a dean that the average attention span of a student is 7 minutes, and that at least every 15-20 minutes, we need in the classroom to shuffle it and them about. Like kindergarten?
(Image: Hades and Proserpina, Bernini.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What's a Professor to Do?

A former doctoral classmate, a few years ahead of me at our alma mater, now teaches at Emory. He was one of the stars of the English Ph.D. program then, and it's no wonder he has continued as a commentator as well as critic of the system that has shifted, as younger generations seek cash back rather than wisdom accrued. His essay in Sunday's New York Times ranks #1 for "most e-mailed." He looks back to when students emulated professors, and they held them in awe. He was one of them, as was I. He reflects: "I saw the same thing in my time at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 1980s, when you couldn’t walk down the row of faculty offices without stepping over the outstretched legs of English majors lining up for consultations. First-year classes could be as large as 400, but by junior year you settled into a field and got to know a few professors well enough to chat with them regularly, and at length. We knew, and they knew, that these moments were the heart of liberal education."

His op-ed piece asks: "What's the Point of Being a Professor?" As face-time shrinks, the utilitarian function of professors grows. That's all we're good for, and in an era where not 18% as in 1960 but 43% of students earn an "A," why complain? Only 8% of students frequently hear “negative feedback about their academic work;" 61% report in a national survey he cites that their profs treat them as colleagues or as peers. I think of my older son's new alma mater, where all are on first-name basis.

I find it odd that the writer does not mention the related shift away from the four courses, two in Shakespeare, one Milton, one Chaucer, that distinguished English majors there until recently. In the Wall Street Journal, Heather Mac Donald asked if UCLA's humanities had forgotten their humanity. My former classmate at my M.A. program in Claremont told me that only four out of 52 colleges surveyed now require Shakespeare, which at my undergrad program was required for all in English. What replaced them at UCLA are courses in gender, race, and theory. I have no objection to these. But they fail to ground undergrads in literary tradition, which they can then challenge all they like.

He continues: "I returned to U.C.L.A. on a mild afternoon in February and found the hallways quiet and dim. Dozens of 20-year-olds strolled and chattered on the quad outside, but in the English department, only one in eight doors was open, and barely a half dozen of the department’s 1,400 majors waited for a chance to speak." When I was in Rolfe Hall, I don't recall the hordes my colleague did, but I did wait slumped on the linoleum outside an office, waiting my turn, in a time when we all carried enormous backpacks full of texts and notebooks, and kept slumped, reading on. I never developed a close relationship with any of my professors, keeping them at a distance in college and since, but I did get to house-sit a week for one of my diss. advisers when he went on vacation. I never addressed him or others on my committee as other than "Professor"-X, out of respect and habit.

I assume at my both my sons' colleges, that has changed. Perhaps as when children call parents of their friends by their first names, a lurch into informality that missed me, as discipline gave way to permissiveness outside my own circle. Now, in a career-driven mindset, the liberal arts, for the few still taking it. UCLA continues to have a very large English department compared to many of its sister institutions, as a proud "public Ivy." My fellow graduate avers: "When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples." I assume he's closer to 60 than 50 by now, but the truth holds here.

With a bit of an emendation. I don't lord my august presence over my charges. Unlike those at elite institutions such as UCLA and Emory, my students are often vets, single moms, middle-aged folks downsized or out of a job, immigrants and first-generation strivers not attending college on the largess of well-off relatives or families abroad. I work with them, and I struggle--teaching a snippet of Greek culture or Impressionist art in one course, the Industrial Revolution and Neolithic progress in another. They sit, at night, tired out from days that may begin before dawn. I try my best, again. 

Often in this blog I remark if in somewhat occluded fashion about my own career. I've taught, thanks to adjunct and grad school work, far more than 80 courses. My full-time gig of nearly twenty years went from three 15-week terms of five courses each to eight-week terms averaging three courses, so I quail at doing the math. All I know is I've had some courses dozens and dozens of times by now. But I tinker with them, they get updated, and I update. One on technological culture from a humanities perspective has warped and woofed myriad ways since I started it in '97, while I teach Shakespeare somehow in less dramatic changes as I sneak a bit of the Bard into two weeks of an intro to lit class. 

My students are different from those my near-peer teaches. They can enter with a GED. They enroll for practical reasons rather than philosophical ones. A new marketing campaign addresses those who aren't trying to "find" themselves, but who already know what they want and how to get it is a degree. Still, last term, on a printout for submission online of a student's teaching evaluation, by whose scores we are rated in turn by deans, I did see "Best Proffesor Ever!" in ballpoint on a verification form.

Monday, May 11, 2015

"Anything to Say?"

Italian sculptor Davide Dormino unveiled three of his statues in Berlin's Alexanderplatz.They depict Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning, all vilified in the U.S. by many of my fellow citizens and nearly all of those who claim to represent me as leaders in our government and military. “They have lost their freedom for the truth, so they remind us how important it is to know the truth,” Dormino succinctly states. The piece, titled, "Anything to Say?" invites our participation and perpetuation.

At the Free Thought Project, Jay Syrmopolous notes: "The artwork is not only an ode to the courage of these three whistleblowers, but also serves as a call to citizens to take a stand, as the three are standing on chairs with a fourth empty chair next to them." As this article mentions, it reminds me that a month before, New York City police removed within an hour a statue of Snowden. I think a hologram projection of him was, however, beamed onto the vacant pedestal, an eerie representation.

I'm not much for statues or pedestals. I've always had an iconoclastic streak. But I do, as a teacher of the humanities, appreciate the busts and monuments and public places that do dignify people, past and present, who bring more dignity and less hatred to our world--and promote that among ourselves.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Librarians Strike Back vs. the Evil NSA Empire

Well, The Nation's headline isn't as dramatic, but it does summon up the nature of the battle. Defying time, the May 25th issue is already out, and Zoe Carpenter reports on ""Librarians vs. NSA". My friend and anti-censorship activist Carrie McIntyre posted this on FB, so I was pleased to see it as the cover story. The admissions of Edward Snowden, so well if teasingly documented in Citizenfour, continue to embarrass and confront our government. Whether Bush's GOP or Obama's Dems, the post-9/11 security state is rotten. I champion those brave enough to expose its suppression and to unveil its surveillance. After Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the ability of sympathizers to uncover abuse will surely have been curtailed, but at least we have these insiders who alerted us to the evil, imposed in the name of safety.

I've wondered in my public library if patrons are safe online or in what they check out. Carpenter reports: "Under the Patriot Act, the government can demand library records via a secret court order and without probable cause that the information is related to a suspected terrorist plot. It can also block the librarian from revealing that request to anyone. Nor does the term 'records' cover only the books you check out; it also includes search histories and hard drives from library computers." I know working for an educational institution that our privacy code does not cover any federal investigation. Our government has total power over what it can demand from any of us.

So, what hope do we have for privacy, against unlawful searches and seizures, and for the 1st Amendment? After 9/11, allegations that plotters used public libraries to plan led to a crackdown. The Patriot Act followed suit. "Section 215 allows the FBI to request “any tangible thing” relevant to a terrorism investigation, without having to show probable cause that the 'thing' is actually connected to a terrorism suspect. The provision applied to library circulation records, patron lists, Internet records, and hard drives, and it prohibited any library worker who received such a request from discussing it with anyone." Carpenter reports on what mirrors what I've been told in my institution.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


How many were burned for witchcraft? Feminists in the 1970s asserted in "The Burning Times" that nine million women met this fate. Anne Barstow's Witchcraze estimated 100,000. However, recent historians lower this to 40,000-50,000. Also, about a fifth were men, further complicating figures on this controversy.

My FB feed today generated a Halloween 2013 essay  "What Witches Have to Do With Women's Health." In Salon, Soraya Chemaly links to Barstow as "the latest scholarship."
As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explain in the 2010 revision to their classic book “Witches, Midwives & Nurses,” between the 14th and the 17th centuries, tens of thousands of people were killed as witches. Estimates range, but the latest scholarship puts the number at roughly 100,000 people, 80-85 percent of them women. By the mid-16th century there were villages where all but one woman had been killed for practicing witchcraft.
Looking this up, I figured nearly twenty years ago may not be the most recent research. In the preview of the Ehrenreich-English book online, on pg, 14, they explain in the 1973 original (only the introduction is updated) that they relied on figures of between 50,000-100,000, and that others have claimed as many as a million murdered. They cite the leading American historian of the witch hunts, John Demos, in a necessary aside, that those killed were but a fraction of those accused or suspected.

I did find in my reviews medievalist Jeffrey Burton Russell's 2007 revision of Brook Alexander's A History of Witchcraft. This expert on witchcraft reckons 60,000 victims hanged or burned for heresy. Russell and Alexander remind us of the difficulty of defining victims. "Sorcerers, heretics, and pagans" comprise a triple definition of a "witch". If 4:5 are women, this may align with the estimate  accepted by reputable scholars today. Relying on accusers, as on hearsay, may lead to devilish errors.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fat Cats + Thin Mice


With the "clown car" of GOP candidates scrambling against the foregone nominee Hillary Clinton, I received the news that, after all, Bernie Sanders would be running as a pragmatic Democrat rather than as his (technically, since this democratic socialist votes with that caucus anyway) independent affiliation with guarded hope. I've turned so disenchanted, perhaps since seeing Watergate unfold in junior high, with the Beltway and party politics that dominates the headlines and corporate life with which it has become inextricably tangled, that the reluctant left-libertarian in me surfaces more desperately as I age. Idealistically, I keep wishing grassroots, non-coerced, decentralized decision making could be our option--at work and in conducting our lives. But I distrust, as Founding Fathers did, the mob-rule of the demos and I mistrust the way that powerful demagogues can sway a populace by nepotism, favors, back-room deals, and cronyism.

Robert Reich, who perhaps repents of some of his sins under Mr. Clinton's administration, remains an advocate for the kind of message Sanders might favor. Reich warns that it's up to politics and not the economy to force the change that Hillary panders to (in her 180 consultants hired, I suppose, to advise her to eat at a Chipotle in Iowa she has been driven to in a van) in posting as an ordinary citizen. She, finger to the wind, figures the banker pals in '08 won't convince us, post-downturn. But maybe we will forget Obama's bailouts and TARP if we see her forcing a laugh, and accept her faux-folksy quality, as we do her male opponents who wear flannel, visit diners, and stand in tanks.

Opposing this grandstanding (I wonder if he will when Hillary does so?), Reich wrote in Salon about our nightmare economy: "Workers worried about keeping their jobs have been compelled to accept this transformation without fully understanding its political roots. For example, some of their economic insecurity has been the direct consequence of trade agreements that have encouraged American companies to outsource jobs abroad. Since all nations’ markets reflect political decisions about how they are organized, so-called “free trade” agreements entail complex negotiations about how different market systems are to be integrated. The most important aspects of such negotiations concern intellectual property, financial assets, and labor. The first two of these interests have gained stronger protection in such agreements, at the insistence of big U.S. corporations and Wall Street. The latter—the interests of average working Americans in protecting the value of their labor—have gained less protection, because the voices of working people have been muted." Insecurity deepens.

While many assume more degrees are the answer, he and I remain skeptical. If wealth keeps flowing up to the fat cats and not down to the many, diplomas (and debt) will not free many "thin mice" up into this system to realize greater gains and higher wages. My friend told me now that college debt and retirement are being consolidated by financial planners. If a fifth of workers lack stable full-time employment, and as firms figure out how to outsource, offshore, contract out, and cut back steady hires, those left behind will further be slowed as automation, globalization, and cost-cutting expand.

Reich concludes: "Ultimately, the trend toward widening inequality in America, as elsewhere, can be reversed only if the vast majority, whose incomes have stagnated and whose wealth has failed to increase, join together to demand fundamental change. The most important political competition over the next decades will not be between the right and left, or between Republicans and Democrats. It will be between a majority of Americans who have been losing ground, and an economic elite that refuses to recognize or respond to its growing distress." I wonder how we will fare, if either Hillary with her $2.5 billion to spend or her deep-pocketed, lobbyist-courted GOP contender triumphs in '16.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fast-food education

My good friend Bob, at an adult educators' conference in Universal City ( the Sheraton's full of Buddha and Schwarzenegger icons, a magnificently tacky monstrosity that sums up L.A.'s facade, he avers) stopped by for dinner last night. As he mentioned unionization and the SEIU last night, I was intrigued to find in my FB feed today this compatible article. Paul Rosenberg at Salon--a publication I often dismiss as either full of sex-teasing fluff or outrage over "privilege"-- does post educational coverage.

It's often the same message I repeat. "They Turned College into McDonalds" addresses what bugged me about this month's cover story in the Atlantic. Amanda Ripley reports at prolific length on Starbucks' underwriting of its workforce to earn online degrees from Arizona State University, but "The Upwardly Mobile Barista" never asks the following. 1) How does ASU handle 13,000 new students? 2) Who teaches them, and how are such instructors paid?  3)  Are these professors given cookie-cutter course platforms to "facilitate"? 4) What is the quality, if as acclaimed, one of the baristas can do most of her coursework via her iPhone? 5) Is this the kind of graduate we want?

Rakesh Kurana, dean of Harvard, contrasted a transformative from a transactional education to incoming freshmen last fall. How can the type of education marketed now to those far from the elite aim at the more traditional, idealistic, soul-giving accomplishment? I know my students seek a get-it-done, get-it-quick practical training with as few liberal arts courses as minimally required. However, in the inevitable caveat or qualifier, I do strive for fairer conditions for my students, who pay tuition not that different than for Ivy League schools, but who receive a degree by "blended" or online modes that relies on non-tenured faculty, many earning very little money to teach them.

Rosenberg does the math. He cites a lecturer at my undergrad alma mater in deep debt from grad school, who then was let go from his "contingent" position as "visiting faculty" two years on so he could not claim rights to sue for tenure-track. Many of us teach full-time without tenure, and most covering the rise to 3/4 of all professors as off-tenure seem to think it's merely part-timers effected.

Consider the profit earned here. The author quotes an instructor who "works for an online for-profit university," who then "provided more detail on the mismatch between student costs and teacher pay:
Considering that students pay $565 per course, and that there are approximately 20 students per class, adjuncts are paid approximately 4% of what the university takes in even though we execute the core requirements of the university. As an open enrollment university with 86% Title IV students, dedicated adjuncts must provide extensive, time-consuming feedback frequently up to 20 hours per week, which averages a wage of less than $10 per hour."
A colleague of mine did similar calculations. Ads and recruitment at a for-profit total far more (sometimes twice) the budget for instructional pay. I reckon it takes very few students to "pay off" the salary of the instructor (full-time or part-time), and the disparity works greatly in the institution's favor. Especially if online courses enroll three-dozen students, and charge the same fees as onsite. Having only twenty students, I and my colleagues would agree, would be a welcome change for us.

Some of you reading this may scoff. You may dismiss this as whining by the privileged. But many of us with Ph.D.'s have earned them slowly, working as we progressed, for in the U.S. humanities model rather than overseas, grants are few, and coursework supported by T.A.-ships stops around the same time that the dissertation stage arrives, so it is common to take a decade to complete one's doctorate.

During that time, rents must be paid, fees kept up for the advisory process, and you've got to eat and commute too. Debts accumulate and now, with the cuts in governmental aid for non-STEM degrees, the situation is dire. I know we knew what we were getting into, and this is one slight annoyance I have with some interviewed who act as if colleges owed them the cushy appointments once secured.

Still, this points to a dire downturn. If rates can always go up for students, and down for teachers, that portends a cruel reckoning for many in once-coveted positions. Many of us sought to leave humble backgrounds behind and achieve a grasp on the ladder to pull us up into the academic world. Now, we hold on to a lower rung. We find ourselves stuck, on a "contingent" perch due to our aspiration and our debt, unable to climb up. Those tenure-bound step on us, determined to never back down.

This may be a straitened predicament more find themselves locked into. Rosenberg again: "Covering the strike for Salon, Josh Eidelson made a number of key points. First, that far from being peripheral, fast food jobs represent a de facto employment paradigm for today’s America:
Fast food is becoming an ever-larger and more representative sector of the U.S. economy. “We should think of these jobs as the norm,” said Columbia University political scientist Dorian Warren, “because even when you look at the high-skilled, high-paying jobs, they’re even adopting the low-wage model” of management. That means erratic schedules, paltry benefits, and – so far – almost no unions. “These are the quintessential example of the kinds of jobs that we have now,” said Warren, “and of the kind of job that we can expect in the future for the next few decades.”
I wonder as we endure another presidential campaign who will champion workers against bosses? Robert Reich warns, in this economic nightmare we endure: "Under these circumstances, education is no panacea. Reversing the scourge of widening inequality requires reversing the upward distributions within the rules of the market, and giving workers the bargaining leverage they need to get a larger share of the gains from growth." Keep in mind as millionaires ask for your vote. May Day has passed, Haymarket is barely remembered, as labor shifts into cubicles and contingency. Those who dominate more of our nation's workforce may toil long beyond 9-5. Teachers as well as students might be tapping away at Starbucks, while their "associates" or "colleagues" sign on for their degrees.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Clan Committment: Armenia + Ireland, 100 years on

This photo, "Remnants of an Armenian Family," reminds me of photos taken from An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, known popularly if not exactly correctly, according to many, as the Irish Famine. Change the costumes or headgear, and these five could be an evicted family from a stone cottage far northwest.

Nothing to Celebrate in ANZAC in Solidarity Net criticizes those who from colonies and dominions were encouraged to fight in useless battles for capitalism, imperialism, warlords, and false ideals. It questions the tributes to troops at Gallipoli. About 88,000 for the Ottoman and 44,000 for the British Empire died there. This slaughter and that in Armenia echo, as death returns in a region today. Small nations hunted and hated by armed fanatics, hunted for their allegiance, their clan, their religion.

James Connolly, when asked "What Should Irish People Do During the War?", after denouncing cooperation with the Crown to defend its Empire and admitting if Germany could free Ireland from Britain, that would not be rejected, finally rallied against Kaiser or King. "Should the working class of Europe rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world."

Reflecting this May Day on an Irish history full of invective against its nearest and oldest enemy, I wonder about the psychic cost of raising generations a century later on what riled and inspired our families' desperation: to rage against rulers, to take up arms, to revenge eras culminating in ravaged decades filled with famine, rape, emigration, rack-rent, landlords, conscription, death fast or slow. 

While for years much of my reading and writing focused on The Cause, I find the past few years, and after all nearing two decades since truces were called and arms decommissioned and dumped in Ireland, I'm a bit weary of a sustained diet of study of these events. How, I mulled over as I studied Judaism, can people craft careers in analyzing the records of the Shoah, or literature of the Armenian genocide? It reminds me off hand somehow of the professor of Hitler Studies in White Noise, but no parody is intended by me. Primo Levi's books are being retranslated this autumn and reissued, and the publisher has to remind the press and audience he's not only a survivor-testifier from the deathcamps. 

Watching the shows that John Walsh produces as his son was killed years ago and led him to produce America's Most Wanted as the first of many successful get-tough programs on t.v., my wife and I muse over what that career must do to one's spirit. How far do you capitalize, however well-intended, on death or harm caused to you or your family? Does that market or brand you always? Levi wrote fables like his fellow storyteller Italo Calvino; he dramatized the life of workers, he crafted stories, and he told some of his best tales set before the war, in The Periodic Table, as when he hiked with his little dog. Those moments tend to get subsumed into the great drama. Some veterans never get over the most vivid and harrowing moments of their service, and I suppose for prisoners, hostages, those freed from slavery or torment, kidnapping or disaster, the life after can never create the same energy. 

Meline Toumani, an Armenian-American writer originally from Iran, warns in the New York Times: "Armenians Shouldn't Let Genocide Define Us." She speaks of how Jews are accused of self-hatred if they take issue with the prevailing notion that one must conform to the narrative of what I borrow from the saga of the Irish as "Most Oppressed People Ever." (MOPE: I don't agree with much of that last link's writer, but it's for ease of cyber-reference for this acronym.) Historian Alvin Jackson, a more reliable source, cites colleague Paul Bew who reminds us of the dubious claim "that the most oppressed people in Europe in the 1940s were to be found in Ireland." (671; Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History.) It's almost, but not quite given the fatal lack some carry now, superfluous to say that this was a decade which few countrymen and fellow sufferers who were interned with Primo Levi survived. So, that takes us back to Toumani. Noting Kim Kardashian's support of the centennial, Toumani submits her thesis: "Watching the dubious intersection of celebrity worship and genocide commemoration, I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the less obvious things Armenians have lost since 1915: not just people and property, but a kind of existential confidence. The genocide recognition campaign itself, in the name of restoring Armenia’s losses, has been so all-consuming as to stand in the way of other kinds of development--in Armenia and in the diaspora." It should not be all Armenians, admittedly a long time away from this event, should focus on for their identity.

She argues that it's too limiting to expect members of small ethnicities and their diasporas should or must conform to a narrow range of banal exhortations to carry on or insistent dehumanization of the enemy nation or empire which committed the violence. She went to Turkey to try to learn from the other side's intransigence and denial. Therefore, in her estimation, she has been accused of "self-hatred." She defines this: "The idea is that you are embarrassed by your true nature — your ethnic nature — and so you mock it or speak out against it. The label is used not to engage in meaningful criticism, but to dismiss such criticism by chalking it up to shame. And yet the behavior labeled self-hating often reflects the opposite of shame; it reflects confidence." Comparing the plight of Armenians to that of the Jews, she continues: "The common phrase, 'Is it good for the Jews?' is implicitly present, too, for Armenians: but what does it mean to be 'good' for the Armenians, if survival means blocking out uncomfortable ideas and clinging to simplistic symbols?"

No, neither she nor I are denying horrors perpetuated. Turkey's refusal to take responsibility, Britain's collusion to worsen the potato blight's devastating impacts by pushing millions off the land and on the emigration boats if not the sides of the road to starve, or the black whirlwind of the Shoah all stand as blots on the record of what we do to each other. But how long do we stand in as "survivors"? 

Back to Ireland, similar questions can be raised. I am no great fan of the revisionists who try, as one wag put it, to tidy it all over, as if the English had a small misunderstanding with their subjects. Yet,  as the commemoration of the Easter Rising's centennial looms and politicians and pundits bicker over whether to invite the British, this drawn-out fracas, to some apart from the scrum, appears very petty.

Toumani concludes, for her small ancestral nation (one that like Ireland has clung long to an ideal of an embattled faith, a bastion of learning amid idiocy, an outpost of beauty and tradition and language apart from its brutish neighbors far greater in power, greed, and cunning): "But the question of what healing looks like beyond the use of a single word; of how children can be taught about their histories in a way that does not leave them hating the descendants of their ancestors’ killers. Of how a country can grow in meaningful ways so that there won’t be a Kardashian-size gap in its national confidence. Taking positions that don’t track with your ethnic group’s orthodoxies, or indeed living your life in a way that is not defined by clan commitment, are not signs of self-hatred but rather an indication of learning to value oneself. And this is at the heart of what it means to be not erased but fully alive."

My friends in Ireland are learning slowly how to learn a more inclusive history, as that nation itself becomes more diverse than any other time, rapidly, ever before. Some like me one generation apart from the homeland grapple with that old language, not easy to learn at home, but far more difficult pverseas, at least from my struggle. Many at home and abroad begin to drift from from clerical orthodoxies, and those who do not feel emboldened to speak out against ecclesiastical abuse. Those of us in the diaspora, passing on our heritage to our children, grapple with how much to pass on about past wrongs, and whether so much of our identity consists of commemorating ancestral pain. Clan commitment remains. But our pride does not overshadow an awareness of nuance or honesty.