Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ag cheannaigh leann úll aríst

Is breá Léna leann úll. Mar sin, cheannaigh mé buidéil éagsulaí le déanaí. Bhí chomoráidh éagsulaí an tseachtain seo caite againn.

Chuaigh mé go an siopa in aice leis mo láthair oibre. Díolann é fíon go leor. Ach, tá beoir freisin ann.

A bliain ó shin, fuair mé ceirtlis difriúil ansin. Bhí maith linn "Quercus" le Bonny Doon. Anois, iarraidh mé a aimsiú bhrandaí eile aríst.

Roghnaigh mé Apple Pie agus Razzmatazz le Julian ag imeall Naomh Diego, agus Slice of Life le B. Nektar i Michigan. Fuair mé Pitchfork ó piorra le Sonoma agus An Naomh le Crispin, an beirt i gCalifoirnia Thuas. Ar deireadh, bailíodh mé Petritegi ina Tír na mBascach leis lipéad galánta fós.

Rinne mé an bailíuchan ar mo gluaisteán. Bhí an-te i Fada Trá an lá sin. Tá súil agam go mbeadh an deochannaí níos fionnuar nuair iad taithneamh a bhaint as le céile go luath.

Buying cider again. 

Layne loves cider. Therefore, I bought various bottles recently. We had celebrations this past week. 

I went to a shop near my place of work. It sells lots of wine. But, there is beer there too. 

A year ago, I got different ciders then. We liked "Quercus" by Bonny Doon. Now, I wanted to aim for other brands again. 

I chose Apple Pie and Razzmatazz by Julian near San Diego, and Slice of Life by B. Nektar in Michigan. I got Pitchfork from pears in Sonoma and The Saint by Crispin, the pair in Northern Califoirnia. Finally, I got Petritegi from the Basque Country with an elegant label too.

I gathered the collection for my car. It was very hot in Long Beach that day. I hope the drinks will be cooler when we enjoy them together soon. 

Grianghraf/Photo: Teach leann úll/Cider House ó/of Petritegi from/de 1527 i/in Astigarraga, Euskadi.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Buddhist Economics"

When I was in high school, getting exposed to Catholic teachings on the environment and the economy that challenged the blue-collar upbringing I had and the more closed-off Catholicism with which I was raised, in the decade after Vatican II as the Church divided within itself, I was mildly surprised to see an economics book my dad bought. A devoted listener while he worked or drove to talk radio--which in the late '70s was not the conservative-wacko strain that survives here and there--he had heard on the eclectic KABC-AM station a discussion about Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. He purchased a copy. Not sure if he read it, but the cover (seen here) and the title stuck with me as later I became interested in the Greens as they in turn sought to transfer their movement here. 

The site Brain Pickings reminded me of this when I saw posted on FB an article about Buddhist Economics and E.F. Schumacher. This 1973 text on what BP (not the petrol firm) calls the "intelligent counterculture" had a chapter on what he coined in 1968 as "Buddhist economics." BP excerpts much of the brief section. It is a bit dated, sure, but readable for that "dismal science." As I've scoured the Web to find a simple explanation of surplus value and labor as to Marx's Capital's critique of alienation, I will also revisit this section of Schumacher, to see how his Buddhist perspective may or may not dovetail with a materialist Marxist. (More on this in an upcoming entry. "Surplus Labor and Me.")

Chris Brown, who teaches a course in Buddhist economics, clarifies its connection to the ideas Buddhists discuss of grasping and clinging. I talk to those who are from Ireland and they comment how other cultures work less, and even if they are taxed more, they say they enjoy a better quality of life. I contrast this lifestyle with the ever-increasing medical, educational, and housing costs many of us pay in urban and suburban America, even as residents insist on their refusal to pay higher taxes. We keep more of our income than my relatives in Ireland do, but my relatives ask if we Americans wear ourselves out earlier and endure a harder existence? Here is part of a timely interview to share.

~~Holland: Americans earn more, on average, than people in most European countries, but we also work about 30 percent more hours per year than they do. And we deal with more stress. What would Buddhist economists say about the balance between work and the rest of life?

Brown: One of the reasons I got interested in Buddhist economics and wanted to teach this course — and I also wrote a book, called American Standards of Living — is that I was just appalled by the materialism in our culture, and how, with economic growth and people getting better and better off, we didn’t cut back on work, as people had predicted. We didn’t make life more balanced, we didn’t take time to be creative and spend time with our friends and build our communities. Instead, we just kept working harder and harder. And today, the materialistic culture, which is reinforced by the mainstream economic model, says, “Hey, you want to feel better?

Make more money and go shopping”— it’s like you can never be satiated with this model. And it seems like that reflects American life. We want more and more, we consume more and more, and the other things in life that should be important to us—our families, our communities—are suffering from that. And of course, I think we’re suffering too from all the stress.

So Buddhist economics would definitely say, “Hey, let’s step back, let’s focus on our wellbeing, and how we care for the environment and each other.~~This is the conclusion to the entire interview found via Bill Moyers' website at "How Would Buddha Organize Our Cutthroat Modern Economy?" 

I cite Schumacher, as I am grappling with this in an increasingly top-down work environment, whereas I value autonomy.  "From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave. How to tell the one from the other?" (See also the Wikipedia entry on the concept)

Friday, June 26, 2015

"An immense pile of filth"

This phrase resounds from Laudato Si: "The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish." A colleague attended a conference in San Diego last week, full of Bakersfield and Texas oilmen. Climate change was derided, guns praised, profits lauded, and off-color comments or dissent, reflecting this morality, were looked at askance by true believers. God was credited as the provider of resources for us to exploit. Pope Francis, who some look to more than petroleum producers for guidance, is pithy: "We are not God. The Earth was here before us and was given to us." CNN reports a series of quotes, and this comes to mind, about such a news source as itself: "When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload."

Columnist and Catholic Tim Rutten reminds us how the encyclical subtitled "caring for our common home" has title that "is no accident, but a phrase from the archaic Umbrian dialect in which St. Francis of Assisi composed his 13th Century 'Canticle of the Creatures' that preached reverence for the natural world with love of humanity." My high school classmate Ramón J. Posada, chair of the Los Angeles Archdiocese's creation and sustainability committee, talked to the Sierra Club about what he rightfully names "climate disruption" in light of the papal declaration. Rutten argues that a surge in emphasis is crucial to gaining the upper hand, taking it away from Koch Bros and oilmen.

Rutten continues: "Francis is particularly harsh on those who, he says, deny global warming to preserve the privileges of 'finance and consumerism.' The pope argues, 'We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that the problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.' This, Francis contends, is the 'same kind of thinking' that leads to the 'exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests.' He goes so far as to compare laissez faire economists to mobsters, drug lords. All promote a 'throwaway culture' that treats human beings as just another commodity to exploit.

"The pontiff shifts the discussion from one based solely on science and technology to one in which morality and justice become coequal components with those other two. That’s a fundamental change and likely to be far-reaching since Francis is, like the Dalai Lama, one of those popular spiritual rock stars influential even among those who haven’t a clue about what their creeds actually teach." As I happen to have reviewed a book credited to the DL before logging in to write this, and after seeing Rutten and Posada's pieces appear today, I figured I'd add my own contribution to papal promotion.

George Monbiot wonders if atheists are missing something in their own eco-critiques. Could the Pope's "religion be a version of a much deeper and older love? Could a belief in God be a way of explaining and channelling the joy, the burst of love that nature sometimes inspires in us? Conversely, could the hyperconsumption that both religious and secular environmentalists lament be a response to ecological boredom: the void that a loss of contact with the natural world leaves in our psyches."

Image: The portion of Francis' Canticle of Creation as quoted in this drawing is, roughly: "Be praised my Master for Brother Wind and Air and for clouds and storms and all weather"

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Passing Craze

As many cheer on Caitlyn Jenner's transition and welcome any "coming out," is the furor over Rachel Dolezal's allegiance as a black woman justified? According to a statement issued by the organization's head office: "One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership." If we acclaim gender transition and cheer "coming out," why not trans-racial self-identification? After all, the left tells us race is a social construct, created in our clannish minds.

After I wrote that paragraph, I read Frederik de Boer, an academic: "In the end, perhaps Dolezal simply believed the convictions of her academic culture a little too much. After all, we on the left have insisted for years that the various demographic categories we are placed into are merely social constructs, the creation of human assumption and human prejudice. That race is a social construct is a stance that brooks no disagreement in left-wing spaces." Hiring urges that the under-represented gain parity. Those marginalized are urged to gain equality. We institutionalize these incentives; we got her re-invention as a member of "her race".

Marcia Dawkins finds that technology accelerated such re-inventions, same as it does for Jenner. And she thinks the media dismissal of Dolezal as "crazy" blocks us from asking tougher questions. "Why is identity considered an editable 'profile' anyway? Do you have to be a person of color to care and advocate for people of color? Does passing make you a coward, a minstrel or a winner? Are there benefits to being perceived as black? Is anyone’s identity, racial or otherwise, 100 percent authentic 100 percent of the time? And the real doozy: Why do we try to get beyond race by clinging to the idea that race is real?" This contradiction sticks. Ideologues and bureaucrats act as if they are trying to advance people based on their diversity, but this does not dismiss race but affirms it as a label.

Unfortunately since I wrote this original entry, the sinister side of racial identity again surfaces. The deaths in Charleston at a Baptist church recall those of the Civil Rights struggle, which is not a period we have closed our books on after all. Such outbreaks occur more frequently, mass ones every 64 days as opposed to every 200 days a few decades ago. Ironically, blacks and whites are "represented equally" in such attacks. Hatred against the Other, technology enabling murder, increases mayhem.

Nell Irvin Painter adds how an "essential problem here is the inadequacy of white identity. Everyone loves to talk about blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between 'bland nothingness' and 'racist hatred.'”

Meanwhile, voices of harmony and liberation seek to counter the domination of such pain in the headlines. Some deny race as a social construct but as with our sexual preferences, others stereotype each of us by it. We try to escape categories even as both the left and the right seek to keep us all marked or slotted. I wonder if this unease we face will harden or loosen "racial" categories in the U.S.

Alysson Hobbs notes: "As a historian who has spent the last 12 years studying 'passing,' I am disheartened that there is so little sympathy for Ms. Dolezal or understanding of her life circumstances. The harsh criticism of her sounds frighteningly similar to the way African-Americans were treated when it was discovered that they had passed as white. They were vilified, accused of deception and condemned for trying to gain membership to a group to which they did not and could never belong." I had thought of this immediately when I heard the story emerge, and I like Hobbs wondered why so much vitriol and ridicule was heaped Dolezal's way, mocking her for "blackface."

In the late 70s, the multiracial singer of X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene, took the mike. She did not look like any other front person, even as a punk icon. One of their best songs has her wailing: "When you look in the mirror/Do you see yourself" and then asks: "When you see yourself/Does it make you scream"? The singer's image, her stage name, her own redefinition came to mind the past two weeks.

Image: Ebony magazine, April 1952. At Polygrafi. "The Delicacy of Racial Appearance."

Monday, June 22, 2015

'When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.'"

This past spring, I posted an iconic photo of Catalan communist journalist Marina Ginestà. In Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, she donned a uniform and hoisted a rifle once. That made her famous, on a hotel roof, in 1936. 

Anthony Beevor's history of that war cites Juliàn Marías, who "never forgot the expression of a tram-driver at a stop as he watched a beautiful and well-dressed young woman step down into the pavement. 'We've really had it,' Marías said to himself. 'When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.'" I thought of this when reading about the Kurdish guerrilla fighters now.

Joseph Anthony Lawrence joined them as a photographer. The power of images, as the SCW with Robert Capa and Pablo Picasso taught us, endures to document and admittedly heroicize war as well as lament its destruction. Lawrence, according to an article in the Huffington Post,  was curious whether the fighters, 40% women, were "fearless warrior women" as the "foreign press" treated them, or terrorists, as the Turkish government depicts them in their fight against Assad in Syria and ISIS.

Joey L., as he calls himself, reports on his admittedly handsome subjects how their pride and martial ardor are evident in his photography of the YPJ, the female counterparts of the YPG. This army rescued many Yazidis from ISIS retaliation in Rojava. "Some carry the signs of a hard-fought war: chemical burns, chapped hands and scars. All the women are treated as equals to their male counterparts, but it is the men who will readily admit that a woman can fight better because she is a natural creator of the world, so she therefore has more to lose -- and therefore more to fight for."

My wife always chides that if women ran the world, there'd be an end to war. As this movement takes its guidance from the PKK, with its roots in Marxist-Leninism, I wonder. Their English-language website features a depiction of Abdullah Ocalan, in Borat-like celebration as the mustached and olive-fatigue uniformed leader at the center of emanating yellow and red rays, in typically People's Republic fashion. Admittedly, a glance at this reminds me of Qadafi's Green Revolution, or the later days of the paper Ginesta translated for, Pravda. Or maybe Granma, Castro's regime's mouthpiece. Our American media, with its corporate-sponsored slogans about "heroes coming home," echoes this.

The HuffPo snippets on the Kurdish fighters don't explain the background. Go to an earlier piece this year, by Gareth Watkins on the site CvltNation. "The Revolution Nobody's Talking About" draws parallels to Spanish anarchists and the Catalan dominance of women in leadership and in combat. Ocalan calls this "democratic confederalism." I am unclear as to the YPJ/G ties to Ocalan, as not the PKK but the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC) are credited by Watkins in Rojava, where left-libertarianism is said to thrive along with eco-feminist structures.

Learn more at the Libcom reading guide on Rojava. The comments debating, typically, David Graeber's affirmative visit to Kurdistan are telling as anarchist-communists argue over the situation.  Graeber enters the thread and despairs that the radicals cannot give credence, when their theory obscures the truth, to any left-libertarian progress, but opponents caution any praising Ocalan's "cult."

At the PKK site, "Killing the dominant male: Instituting the Third Major Sexual Rupture against the dominant male" features Ocalan. "The male has become a state and turned this into the dominant culture. Class and sexual oppression develop together; masculinity has generated ruling gender, ruling class, and ruling state. When man is analysed in this context, it is clear that masculinity must be killed." Reading this essay, I can imagine many peace-loving Westerners nodding in agreement.

Concerning the predictable debates at Libcom and the media attention towards the female fighters, I confess mixed reactions. Aren't we expected to cheer on the revolution from suppressive categories and restrictive belief-systems? Is Lawrence's photo-journalism the necessary exposure of a step towards freedom for Middle Eastern women? Is violence the necessary and only practical reaction as self-defense rallies men and women to protect the Yazidi and the Kurds from Islamic State and Syrian Army-led decimation? Perhaps so; I doubt if any pacifists among Jews, Muslims, or Eastern Christians survived the Crusader's invasions. Yet, part of me shrinks back wary of the celebration of armed men and women as the ideal we should strive towards. And then part of me retaliates, as my sympathies remind me of revolutionaries who rose up to free our ancestors from slavery if not debt.

With my own direct ancestor implicated in such rebellion in Ireland, who am I to discount its perpetuation? Yet he was murdered mysteriously for the Cause. I used to be self-righteously bent on a refusal to listen to any opponent of Irish independence. Now, despite my atavistic intransigence, after three decades and more leading classroom discussions, at least I hear out all sides in any debate. In the conflict with the Islamic State and Assad's regime, are there any sensible voices on the other side? Addressing war, we must ask this, unlikely as it seems to us. And, who am I not to reiterate the most lasting path to equality and harmony, and to come closer to anarchic dreams, is to lay down that RPG.
(Photo by Joey L. Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) Guerrillas Patrol Makhmour Countryside, Iraq

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Tír na mBascach

Tá súil buaine agam faoi An Bhascais agus an Tír na mBascach. Foghlaim faoi na Bascaise fadó, ar ndóigh. Léigh mé an leabhar le Mark Kurlansky, "An Stair Bascais ar an domhan" agus an úrscéal le Bernardo Aztaga, freisin, ina dhiaidh sin.

Go fírinne, is nasc láidir idir na Bascaise agus an muintir na hÉireann anois. D'fhás sé seo leis na trioblóidí. Féachaint ar múrmhaisiú seo in hIarthar Bhéal Feirste, mar shampla.

Is "askatasuna" an bhrí na saoirse as Bascaise. Tá siad daoine an-ársa ansin. Tá muid gaolmhara sa Bhreatain Bheag agus i Éirinn go na Bascachaí ansiud an chuid is mo gar, fós, de réir gíneolaíocht.

Tá inimircigh Bascachaí ina hIdaho, Nevada, agus Califoirnea ó dheas ag imeall Bakersfield agus in Chino, gaire dom. Tá béilí mór acu ar chéile. Go minic, bhí aoirí anseo sa lá aois san Iarthar.

Bá mhaith liom ag dul go an Tír na mBascach go luath. Tá mé ábalta labhair i Spáinnis beágan agus tá mé ábalta léamh roinnt Fraincise, mar sin féin. Gan amhras, tá an teanga an Bhascais ro-deacair do achan duine ann lasmuigh den talamh ársa.

The Basque Country.

I've had an enduring interest in Basque and the Basque Country. I learned about the Basques long ago, of course. I later read Mark Kurlansky's book "The Basque History of the World" and a novel by Bernardo Atxaga too.

Truly, there is a strong link between the Basques and the people of Ireland now. This grew during the Troubles. Look at this mural in the West of Belfast, for instance.

"Askatasuna" is the meaning of freedom in Basque. The people are very ancient there. We are relatives in Wales and in Ireland to the Basques over there as our share is closest, still, in terms of genetics.

There are Basque immigrants in Idaho, Nevada, and Southern California around Bakersfield and in Chino, nearer to me. They have great meals together. Often, they were shepherds here in the old days of the West.

I would like to go to the Basque Country soon. I am able to speak in Spanish somewhat and I am able to read a share of French, all the same. Without a doubt, the language of the Basques is very difficult for everyone outside this ancient land.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Follow what leader?

As I've been covering discontents with our current social, political, educational, and economic systems, I range across the spectrum when finding material to comment upon and share here. What I was thinking as I scanned hundreds of entries at LibCom last night for some reading material was how often stolid prose and stodgy statements stood in for entertaining as well as instructive texts. On a forum about recommendations for working-class literature, one comrade's dictum stood out. "the novel is anti-working-class." Perfect. At least I learned about Arundhati Roy's novel, too. Some remembered such gems as James Plunkett's depiction of the great Dublin lockout and strikes, Strumpet City, as well as the usual (not to be diminished by that) Orwellian allegories, Marge Piercy's feminist futures, Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy on Martian terraforming, Jack London (whom at least lefties still read), John Dos Passos, and even the depressing Studs Lonigan. Like JDP and James T. Farrell, Victor Serge was cited (much more) but with a proviso as to the unsanctioned ideological drift (to a right-wing or Jeffersonian populism in the American duo or an insufficiently early denial of Stalinism in the Russian instance. Every committed cadre condemns everyone else as "sheeple."

I wound up only downloading the George Woodcock pamphlet from the depths of WWII, "The Tyranny of the Clock." It is exactly what you'd expect. Like a lot of protest prose, it charts the predicament we are in, challenges the status quo, and then leaves you mulling over... what's next?

So, I opened my FB feed to find the reliable Liam O'Rourke in his Irish Republican Education Forum adding a bit of levity. "The Marxist-Leninist Theory of Humor" is credited to McLaughlin, Tom. "The Marxist-Leninist Theory of Humor," Catalyst, no. 9, 1977, pp. 99-102. I cite two paragraphs to wit:

          Socialist Seriousness.
Under Socialism there will be no classes and consequently no class conflict. Humor will cease to reflect any objective reality and will wither away. Consequently, those who engage in humor after being admonished by Party members will be clearly identifiable as saboteurs. It will be necessary to root out these weeds from the collective farm of Socialism. However, such saboteurs may prove skillful in hiding themselves. It will thus prove necessary for skilled Party members to ferret them out by engaging in humorous dialogue. If, for instance, a suspected saboteur is found to be cognizant of the answers to riddles, or if he replies to the Party member's encouragement by telling jokes, then such a person must be subject to Revolutionary Justice. It is suggested that the death sentence would be appropriate. This should be administered while the criminal is heavily dosed with helium (laughing gas), so that his "laughing death" may prove a suitable object of horror and negative reinforcement to the broad masses of workers and peasants.
Humor will of course continue to be necessary in relations between socialist and imperialist countries as the class struggle continues on the international stage.
This article spoofs the dead hand of Marxian promulgation in similar terms. It made me smile. I presume despite his familiarity with Freirean anti-authoritarian schooling in New Mexico, the director and star of Billy Jack did not write this. I like that he shares the same name, all the same.

So did a post under it directing me to "Flakes Alive!" in The Baffler. DSA member Amber Frost (a name worth a chuckle at least to me) reports on the Left Forum, which evolved from a Socialist Scholars Conference that twice, in the '60s and '80s, flamed up and flared out. Similar combustibility erupted at this NYC gathering. Apparently anyone can pay their fee and get their slot on a panel (and I thought 15-20 minute conference papers were enough). So, 400 events and 1300 speakers result. 

Frost laments the "tankers" (the pro-Man of Steel gang), the truthers (9/11 is apparently a racist hoax against Muslims--whose racial component eludes me, as any reader of Malcolm X's epiphany on his flight to Mecca might agree), and the perpetually aggrieved "marginalistas." She confesses: "there is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing." Hearing Middlemarch on endless audiobook, I heard the phrase "self-cherishing anxiety"--this sums up the eternal grievances of a conspiratorial mind.

Studying Peter Marshall's massive Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism last year, I was struck by how prescient parts (and not other parts that were pro-feudal and quietist) of the Tao were as to those of us who can't buckle under, and how despite perhaps placid surfaces, betray restlessness at injustice, top-down imposition of inequity, and relentless push for profits, not peace.

There's a lot of reinvention of anti-statist and anti-corporate strategies. But it reminds me of start-ups competing for the venture capitalist's nod in and on Silicon Valley. Lots of young folks burning out while the older, seasoned pros sit back, often tenured and satisfied rather than D.I.Y. and hungry. New generations arrive ready for action, and as cannon fodder for the alliances and collectives, they give freely of their energy until the struggle becomes too much to continue when children arrive and insurance must be paid. This is "impossiblism" as some radicals phrase it: the idea that prefigurative ways of living cannot be sustained now, and the mentality that capitalism forces dissenters to give in.

As I have stated last week, even the Bernie Sanders campaign, I fear, will only deliver a protest vote to Hillary after he has (temporarily and cynically for her) tapped her to lean a bit left of center to swing a few states. Where else will voters for a semi-, if co-opted, democratic socialist turn anyhow? Where can those of us nagging ourselves and you for a more just, equal, society turn, if not to leaders? That is the question and answer of anarchism. In a world where fending for ourselves with reliance on the kindness of supporters rather than strangers wrangles out small niches for survival, this possibility beckons. Weighed down by bills, taxes, responsibilities, how many can embrace it?

Syriza encounters immense difficulties as academics try to run Greece; the Greens regularly march on to little notice at the back of the progressive parade, and the bipartisan fat-cat network bloats and boasts. If Occupy was crushed by Democratic Party indifference, GOP mockery, and the security state collusion which both parties insist upon, what traction does an alternative challenge sustain? Over and over, it's lessons that repeat. Their repetition must speak to our idealism, and our naivete.

"Like a fifteen-year-old who’s recently discovered punk rock, the nouveau “Social Justice Warrior” crowd frequently presumes an undue sense of ownership over incredibly basic, nearly ancient ideas." Frost here may sympathize with me. Many act as if they invented some concept, and like academics or concertgoers at "festival seating" or us on airplanes, they fight over very small expanses of space.

Her whole essay is worth the time. Certainly as my recent train of thought continues, I concur with Terry Eagleton's weariness. In a 2012 interview with the Oxonian Review after Occupy and as Greece revolted against austerity, he noted the advantage of a downturn. "Not deserting politics but trying to add a depth to it, and also, in doing so, breaking with the holy trinity of class, race, and gender. Vital topics though they are, they’ve become such tram-lines on which the cultural left has been moving."

Frost also calls for momentum. She concludes by reminding us, however, that forums may not be it, or more fringe squabbles and academic blather. "It’s quite possible the left is at a pivotal moment in political history: these days, Americans actually like the sound of socialism, and the potential for building a new base is incredibly encouraging. But as much as we should be looking to expand, so, too, must we refine our project. The marginalistas distract, disrupt and deter future comrades. So it’s high time we get a little exclusive: tankies, truthers and tofu may supply a steady stream of battle-tested conference anecdotage, but they’re not going to move us any closer to building a better world."

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Flag Day

My mom would mark her birthday on June 14th. This is Flag Day in the U.S. But few ever flew the Stars and Stripes, I noticed. But she was tickled that her natal day coincided with what in her youth, I reckoned, must have been a far more celebrated commemoration of patriotism. It also must have been so back then, as she was born a few years after the end of WWI and was married the year America entered WWII, in which her only sibling, her beloved brother Jack and my namesake two decades later, died at Saipan.

I found recently a scarifying quote by the Indian anti-globalism activist-writer Arundhati Roy. “Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”

I thought of this watching last week this video by Neil Halloran, "The Fallen of World War II." George Dvorsky comments on how the impact of Stalin on his own civilians, whom he let die so as to make his soldiers fight harder, and the immense amount of casualties the Soviet Union endured, remains eerily evident in these data. Halloran masterfully combines narration and charts, with simple sound effects, minimal pictures, and a clear argument, to show how since 1945, the richer nations have not warred with each other. Civil war declines as nationalism grows, and now, far fewer die. Roy blames death on nationalism; India and Pakistan's birth pangs attest to this slaughter, admittedly.

Halloran would admit that such barbarism in the past few years when it happens may loom as more disproportionate. While news fills our feeds with conflict, very low numbers of deaths register. This is not to minimize loss, but Halloran reminds us that there is a growing tendency from the hard  numbers to demonstrate a definite move away from armed conflict and terror as inflicted worldwide.

At the bottom of every mortal, bloody bar chart he shows, a small flag can be seen. For these, and for of course the ideologies each nation represented (or in some cases, was forced to uphold after invasion or capitulation), I was reminded of my ambivalence towards ritual rallies. In my cubicle, a souvenir (je me souviens) magnet of Québec aside, all I have hanging are mini- Tibetan prayer flags.

This may or may not uphold my principles. In kindergarten, I cherished a booklet of the world's flags; in stamps from colonies and countries, I loved learning geography. Kashmir's partition, Bhutan's frailty, the takeover of Sikkim by India, Maoist victory in Nepal, and the predicament of Tibet all speak to another rebel flag: "Don't Tread on Me." But as the Buddhist appeal in its lofty heartland tries to remind us if unsuccessfully given its own decimation under a red banner, that the ultimate reminder of our shared humanity points to pieces of cloth we hoist with not hate but humility.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"James Joyce in Context": Book Review

During most of the last century, critics presented James Joyce as above the cares of the world, devoted to his difficult craft, before and after his self-imposed exile from Ireland. Scholars promoted a view of Joyce as a troubled genius increasingly removed from daily life by his obsessive linguistic experiments. He lived in Trieste, Paris and Zurich many years, but he never escaped the streets and sounds of his native Dublin.

So goes received wisdom. Challenging this notion of a disengaged artist indifferent to his later surroundings, John McCourt edits essays from thirty-two like-minded academics who study James Joyce in Context. McCourt admits that Joyce "seems to us today a little less original and God-like, a little more accidental in his actions and choices, a more human author, happy to lift and to cut-and-paste carefully sifted material from a huge variety of sources before making it indelibly his own, a writer who was very much part of his world."

Starting with contributions on the composition history of his major works, on his biographers and his letters, this compendium places Joyce within our critical reception of his fiction and his facts. The dominance, Finn Fordham argues, of Richard Ellmann's 1959 biography endures fifty-odd years later. Fordham fears that tome limits Joyce studies to a specialist and "even isolationist" environment. He compares the few biographies extant to a "cityscape conglomeration" where Ellmann's structure looms tallest, even if it is not altogether still inhabitable. That slowly decaying monolith rises over a half-vibrant, half-moribund scene "so ripe for redevelopment but hindered from it indefinitely."

This essay must have been submitted before Gordon Bowker's 2011 biography appeared. Still, Fordham's remarks remain true. Joseph Brooker in his entry on "Post-War Joyce" concurs. Ellmann's monumental effort made that biographer "a tribal elder, a unique point of reference" resisting change.

In the second section of this anthology, various schools of theory and critical reception examine how we can interpret Joyce's works with more flexibility than his major biographer may have done years ago. Marian Eide targets Molly Ivers in "The Dead" to peer into how Joyce treated gender and sexuality. Eide's focus highlights her well-chosen case study. Eide avoids taking on too much in too little space. Each of these contributors has only a few out of these four-hundred-plus pages to devote to a particular theme, after all. In similarly brisk fashion, Jolanda Wawrzyca reports on Joyce's many varieties of translation exercises during his career. A lively look at Joyce's place within world literature enhances Eric Bloom's chapter. Other essays, as found in too many an academic volume, slow appreciation. Jargon and cant thicken. Critics dominate, not Joyce. Theory nudges aside insight.

Sean Latham repeats Fordham's frustration over another obstacle that impedes practical progress by Joyceans. The Joyce estate imposes strict standards on which post-1922 major works can be quoted. Deeper investigation of Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, correspondence and archived material is stymied. However, as Latham and Cheryl Herr demonstrate, media culture now and material culture in Joyce's era complement each other as methods to investigate the everyday milieu joining author with readers.

Herr's deftly chronicled observations of "engagement and disengagement" within Joyce and his characters open the third part of McCourt's collection. Background and historical topics comprise more than half of the book's chapters. Not only Dublin, Paris and Trieste, but British literary, Greek and Roman culture gain attention. Medicine and music receive scrutiny, along with modernisms and languages. Newspapers join philosophy, theology and politics as subjects relevant for Joyce's texts.

The variety of frameworks through which these contributors pore over Joyce and his works enable a reader familiar with this author's texts to delve deeper into current scholarship. By allowing Joyce to be more securely placed within his own life and times, James Joyce in Context shows how the writer emerged from his influences. It reminds us how he influenced the literary and cultural realms of modernism. While some entries may discourage the casual inquirer, others, all from experts, entice.

Science and the cinema wrap this up. This volume concludes with sex. How one chapter connects to the other within this final section eludes me. Yet, the appeal of Joyce, far beyond the few who are lucky enough to make a living pursuing the mysteries of his verbal labyrinths, endures. Christine Froula reminds us that Ulysses is being read today in Tehran. She footnotes a sly explanation. The ban on this novel was lifted in 1999 by the Islamic regime. Its "more objectionable passages" can be printed in neither English nor Farsi. As a fluent Italian speaker who taught his native language to Berlitz students in Italy, Joyce would have relished the irony of this Persian proviso. It permits those passages, which have incited censorship so often over the past century, to be printed,if only in Italian.
(Spectrum Culture 6/8/15; Amazon US 6/13/15)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Who do I side with?

Every few years, elections loom. I grumble but I vote. The ISideWith site helps confirm my bias...

American results demonstrate how I lean Green. Originally I hit 92% but as my results vanished, I retook the quiz and got 91%, tying with Democrats. I still go more Green, with the environment as well as domestic and foreign policy. Dems and me agree most on education and education. Then, it's the GOP on immigration (always the wild card for me), Socialists for logically social issues, and somehow the Libertarians for healthcare. My numbers align with 87% Socialist (and no accident the at least former and somewhat democratic-small-d socialist) Bernie Sanders. Then it's 64% Constitution Party, which I never heard of, and 55% Libertarian. Unlike many of my friends who seem to report scores like 99% Dem and 5% GOP, my grumpiness earned me 39% with the grinches.

As this image reiterates, my real preference is neither "default" party at all. Part of me wishes no parties were necessary, or a bare minimum of oversight, for I value grassroots consensus. Yet I realize how hard that is to obtain in a complicated society, an easily misled populace, and a globalized world. Recent acceleration towards widening income inequality, lack of opportunity to decent education at affordable (or free) rates, unstable jobs, media distractions, and both undereducated and very educated people who dismiss fair distribution of resources depress me. I hate lobbyists and cronies. I distrust party politics. Today I despair at how intractable our capitalist system is, despite opposition. Many give in and accept a for-profit economy, which absorbs discontent and forces our compliance.

My ideal locales to live among congenial neighbors at the ballot box? From Monterey County up the Pacific Coast to the Oregon border, except for Silicon Valley. Then, all of Sanders' adopted state, VT. "Your political beliefs would be considered moderately Left-Wing on an ideological scale, meaning you tend to support policies that promote social and economic equality." But I do refuse to toe the line on a few hot-button issues, so I will never be a reliably swayed voter even if I lean to the left. I swing away on immigration and to me, this logically squares with my environmental priorities and the need for population reduction and more control over development vs. sustainability. Apparently very few of my fellow citizens agree with me in either nation, as this goes against MSM groupthink.

British results reveal my 87% tilt for the Liberal Democrats. They might have needed my vote given their dire results in the last election, which decimated them in Parliament. Fermanagh and South Tyrone somehow wound up as my constituency, despite the fact it polls Tory. "Your political beliefs would be considered moderately Left-Wing Authoritarian on an ideological scale, meaning you tend to stand up and protect those who are oppressed or taken advantage of and believe the government should do the same." This is a bit south on the chart compared my U.S. version, where I balance as usual between authoritarian and libertarian. I think my tougher stance overseas comes from a discontent with the drift of both governments not to crack down on tax evasion, immigration abuses, and capitalist collusion. I would have predicted myself to be slightly more libertarian, but the recent and growing disparity between the 1% and the rest of us, as it worsens, troubles me increasingly.

The British results plot me oddly. "You agree with most UK voters on Social issues but disagree with most UK voters on Healthcare issues. You agree with most Northern Ireland voters on Social issues but disagree with most Northern Ireland voters on Healthcare issues. You agree with most Fermanagh and South Tyrone voters on Immigration issues but disagree with most Fermanagh and South Tyrone voters on Healthcare issues." I side, therefore, with Conservatives on immigration and transportation; LibDems for social, economic, and healthcare; and (don't pillory me) UKIP on domestic policy! Also, Plaid Cymru and Scottish Nationals resemble my environmental beliefs; SNP for education and for foreign policy. It's fun to play a voter from another nation. On many questions I opened up the informative explanation to educate myself about the issues, as of course I needed more direction here.

Overall, nearly every party may like me. Along with the LibDem preference, I get 82% SNP; 81% Labour and Green; 73% Plaid; 63% Sinn Fein; 53% BNP; 52% Conservative. But, despite or due to my supposed Ulster provenance, some things for me are inherited and unalterable. I got 8% DUP.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Is Marx right on the left?

Terry Eagleton's "Why Marx Was Right" and his monograph for Routledge, "Marx" have promoted the democratic-socialist rather than authoritarian-communist view of this thinker, more as a philosopher offering inspiration to the working classes than as an economist planning their uprising. By contrast, Jonathan Sperber's massive re-examination in "Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life"
presents a man looking back to 1789 for 1848, rather than forward, and Sperber's archival arguments contrast a thinker whose ideas were sometimes trapped in his time's mindset, or revamped by Engels.

Yesterday, I perused Chris Hedges' "Karl Marx Was Right". I suppose I am either the ideal or the worst reader for Marxian takes. I lack the economic or theoretical background or the wide exposure to him. But as my three reviews hyperlinked in the first paragraph attest, I am intrigued by Eagleton's idealism, and chastened by Sperber's realism, as to the impact of Marx today. Hedges reminds us of how prescient his thinking is. It's like taking on Jesus and trying to ignore Christianity, I find, when examining Marx's appealing message apart from those who in the founder's name have erred greatly.

At a forum about Marx's relevance a week ago, Hedges sets the context for Marx's call to arms:  "He saw that there would come a day when capitalism would exhaust its potential and collapse. He did not know when that day would come. Marx, as Meghnad Desai wrote, was 'an astronomer of history, not an astrologer.' Marx was keenly aware of capitalism’s ability to innovate and adapt. But he also knew that capitalist expansion was not eternally sustainable. And as we witness the denouement of capitalism and the disintegration of globalism, Karl Marx is vindicated as capitalism’s most prescient and important critic." Hedges neatly cites Marx and aligns his critique of late capitalism with our current corporate stranglehold, government "rescue" of banks and firms, the imploding (and now again inexorably rising--I do warn my fellow residents of L.A. to be careful what they wish for as 44% of recent sales have been to largely Asian, Russian, or overseas buyers in cash) housing prices.

He reminds us that it does not matter who we elect in '16. Comments on his Truthdig site under the KMWR article point out too the danger I foresee, as Bernie Sanders will likely use the few voters he can rally soon to bait and switch them to support Hillary; his attacks are much more against the GOP.

Hedges can be strident, but as I showed in his interview and treatment of Jeremy Hammond last week, he devotes attention to issues few care about. No matter his own stance on the Black Bloc during Occupy, at least he gives Hammond his own platform and voice from behind bars to speak up. The message Hammond and some who support him and those who suspect even Sanders as too cozy with party politics vs. a radicalized anarcho-communism (not the misnomer it may seem if you check out LibCom's intro, but see Wayne Price's preference for socialist-anarchist or libertarian socialist).

Hedges concludes: 
The corporations that own the media have worked overtime to sell to a bewildered public the fiction that we are enjoying a recovery. Employment figures, through a variety of gimmicks, including erasing those who are unemployed for over a year from unemployment rolls, are a lie, as is nearly every other financial indicator pumped out for public consumption. We live, rather, in the twilight stages of global capitalism, which may be surprisingly more resilient than we expect, but which is ultimately terminal. Marx knew that once the market mechanism became the sole determining factor for the fate of the nation-state, as well as the natural world, both would be demolished. No one knows when this will happen. But that it will happen, perhaps within our lifetime, seems certain.

“The old is dying, the new struggles to be born, and in the interregnum there are many morbid symptoms,” Antonio Gramsci wrote.

What comes next is up to us.
I return to this in my next post; it's a Salon interview with Hedges about the Gramscian "interregnum" before the impending "revolutionary moment" that he senses within the restive masses. 

P.S. My friend Matt Cavanaugh opined Hedges places too much faith in the masses and should put down Das Kapital and take up Brave New World for a timelier prediction. Sperber might agree. (Image credit, if from a site that strives to champion the opposite view. I know what I think...)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Down by law

Continuing my coverage of Chris Hedges' analysis of radical (or reactionary) rebellion on the simmer, Elias Isquith's interview with him in Salon expands his critique from his Wages of Rebellion: the Moral Imperative of Revolt. "We Are in A Revolutionary Moment"--Hedges opens by observing: "It’s with us already, but with this caveat: it is what Gramsci calls interregnum, this period where the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place." He avers that either radicals or reactionaries could fill this new place.

As public trust in the police, the law, and politicians ebbs, the power government and corporations conspire to hold still seems intact, but despite the coup-d'etat taken by their alliance, their facade is weakening, in Hedges' estimation. "The normal mechanisms by which we carry out incremental and piecemeal reform through liberal institutions no longer function. They have been seized by corporate power — including the press. That sets the stage for inevitable blowback, because these corporations have no internal constraints, and now they have no external constraints. So they will exploit, because, as Marx understood, that’s their nature, until exhaustion or collapse."

As an Occupy participant, Hedges recognizes the scattered nature of opposition from the left. "We who care about populist movements [on the left] are very weak, because in the name of anti-communism these movements have been destroyed; we are almost trying to rebuild them from scratch. We don’t even have the language to describe the class warfare that is being unleashed upon us by this tiny, rapacious, oligarchic elite. But we on the left are very disorganized, unfocused, and without resources." Informants, within Muslim and leftist organizations, have weakened many critics.

"Diligent Bureaucrat" at Daily Kos (image borrowed from this April 22, 2015 piece; see hyperlink at end of this blog entry), warns: "Whether its [sic] an environmentalist, anti-war activist, animal rights advocate, or occupy protester, the bureau appears to have a strict policy that any individuals or movements who criticize the government, corporations, or the nexus between the two, must be monitored, infiltrated, and if possible sent to prison." Activism and terrorism to the FBI are conflated, as informants proliferate to create actions that can be criminalized if none exist beforehand.

I wonder what this will do to confront the $2.5 billion the Clintons have supposedly amassed, or the PACs both the Dems and the GOP manipulate to sway voters in our faltering nation to keep the corporate puppets in place. As I wrote last time, I fear Bernie Sanders' entry will merely serve to rally a few on the populist left to assauge Dems who want HRC to shift their way a bit, only to have the former Socialist capitulate in a few months to deliver his supporters to Clinton, as if they had anywhere else to go. As in '12, Dr. Jill Stein will front the Greens, but as then, they will go nowhere--despite my tree-hugging wishes that they'd gain traction, by promoting birth control, population reduction, lower immigration rates, as well as their predictable NPR-soothing eco-friendly nostrums.

Discussing Hedges' article on FB with like-minded folks, they bristled at the "self-immolation" he urged; one judging him a gift to our security state. Given Hedges' penchant for end-times scenarios, this may be correct. But as in his opposition to BlackBloc at OWS, he may have stepped back from the abyss. His writing can be uneven and repetitive, but I hear in him along with Matt Taibbi and George Packer critics who analyze the populist, progressive challenges to the mainstream that cheers on Hillary and the DRC as the default setting for banker-funded "hope and change," version 2.0.

Hedges reminds those around me who shrug and whisper "Supreme Court" as they cheer on Hillary: "If we are not brutal about diagnosing what we are up against, then all of our resistance is futile. If we think that voting for Hillary Clinton … is really going to make a difference, then I would argue we don’t understand corporate power and how it works. If you read the writings of anthropologists, there are studies about how civilizations break down; and we are certainly following that pattern. Unfortunately, there’s nothing within human nature to argue that we won’t go down the ways other civilizations have gone down. The difference is now, of course, that when we go down, the whole planet is going to go with us." Marx here was correct. His own followers tarnished his idealism as they trashed their side of the earth as badly as did the capitalists everywhere else. But now that there is nowhere else, how long do we have in this century of rising heat, freakish storms, population increases of mainly many more poor, ever higher pressure to accept immigrants, less national will to uphold any environmental rulings in the name of job creation, a war machine, ideological and religious tension, tax breaks, while we laud developers and investors as titans and philanthropists?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Emotional rescue

My last post covered a Connecticut high school teacher's forced resignation after a student complaint over an explicit Allen Ginsberg poem chosen by a classmate for in-class discussion. Is the situation any different when college courses come under the same scrutiny? When I raised this on Facebook, some asserted that those in their late teens were in AP English, still under the choices the teacher made for them, and despite the aegis of UConn over that material for credit, they were a captive audience. So, consider Edward Schlosser's cri de coeur after nine years at a "midsized state school."

In Vox, he titles his essay "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me." (Thanks to an Lisa Flowers for this notice). He starts by noting a shift since 2009. Back then, someone objected to what was perceived as the professor's liberal bias. His supervisor heard him out, and the matter was filed away, and no repercussions reverberated. But now, identity politics reigns. "The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that's simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher's formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best."

Schlosser tells us that recently, "I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We've seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on." If Edward Said or Mark Twain or Upton Sinclair offend the reader or hearer, they are expunged, lest complaints result in the firing or non-rehiring of what, after all, has grown to 3/4 of American faculty, those lacking protection of or promotion to tenure.

The climate has changed. Racism or ideological factors, rightness and wrongness of ideas in the curricula, dominated earlier complaints. Now, the sensitivity of the student's emotional state matters.

The author locates this transition not so much in the manufactured "outrage" (as I put it) dominating press coverage of incidents as to hyper-sensitive, paranoid students and campus "conduct codes."
He credits the conflation of cultural studies and popular media writers in the media. They desire to "democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom." They peddle a facile "adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice. The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed's current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience."

After citing some experts, he notes how exaggerated attention to passing trifles becomes. (Consider how much the purported gender roles of the latest Avengers flick are dissected, or I'd add if he does not, today's breathless headlines of Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner's "courage" or a Duggar's disgrace vs., say, the challenges ahead re: global warming given recent, depressing data, or the enduring collusion between bankers and politicians.) "Personal experience and feelings aren't just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics. In such an environment, it's no wonder that students are so prone to elevate minor slights to protestable offenses." As attacks on philosophy or physics by those claiming concepts invented by tired old men express only Eurocentric shortcomings, we cower.  "All the old, enlightened means of discussion and analysis —from due process to scientific method — are dismissed as being blind to emotional concerns and therefore unfairly skewed toward the interest of straight white males. All that matters is that people are allowed to speak, that their narratives are accepted without question, and that the bad feelings go away."

See the article for evidence of this, albeit via Twitter, that Schlosser shares (or he did until the woman complained of threats--that proof has since been removed, although it helped his thesis). This reductive regression reminds me a bit of Alan Sokol's send-up two decades ago in his po-mo hoax to Social Theory. Schlosser reveals his bonafides: "We can't overcome prejudice by pretending it doesn't exist. Focusing on identity allows us to interrogate the process through which white males have their opinions taken at face value, while women, people of color, and non-normatively gendered people struggle to have their voices heard." Yet he admits, logically, how "we also destroy ourselves when identity becomes our sole focus." Conservative Catholic critic Anthony Esolen agrees when he states that we cannot equate the ethnic or racial makeup of a person with who he or she is, beyond labels.

I doubt if Schlosser and Esolen would find a lot in common, but if Schlosser as he claims does try to balance liberal with conservative voices in his assignments, I'd hope they could find common ground.
"If we are to know that human being, we should not begin with race or class or “gender,” that category invented by social critics who avert their eyes, prim and prying at once, from the frank and plain reality of sex. We certainly cannot end there. If I say, 'Who is John?' you cannot answer me correctly by saying that he is six feet tall, 150 pounds, with Italian and Irish ancestry on his mother’s side and African American and Latino ancestry on his father’s side, with a family income of such and such a year, voting in such a pattern, living on Maple Street and selling insurance. These are all things about John, but they are not John, the man. It does violence to the man to reduce him to such categories. It is an act of contempt for his humanity. It reduces him, not so that we may get to know him, but so that we can manipulate facts about him while not getting to know him at all. It is a study in subhumanity." So Esolen challenges, in his riposte to the race, gender, class theory overtaking all.

Schlosser tacks firmly to the left. But he accepts that attacking the right, or those who have preceded us and who live among us as the establishment, still have their own place at the discussion. Why push them away, to distance them further, in the spurious pursuit of illogical presumption? In conclusion, he admits: "Debate and discussion would ideally temper this identity-based discourse, make it more usable and less scary to outsiders. Teachers and academics are the best candidates to foster this discussion, but most of us are too scared and economically disempowered to say anything." I have written about this issue before and continue to because it weighs more heavily against those of us committed to the liberal arts, those who pass on the humanities in a career-driven, bottom-line world.

We are threatened from above by STEM-propelled reforms that seek often, if unintentionally, to shunt aside the "soft" subjects. We are weakened around us by theory-obsessed pedagogues who replace book-learning and critical thinking from close readings and informed discussions with cant and slant. We are faced by those enrolling with us who often have trouble decrypting the clouded messages of what canonical as well as radical texts and sources convey from thousands of years of human thought. Against this, and growing semi-literacy when it comes to print and visual media, we strive to focus on big questions and tough issues, evading easy solutions or prescribed "PC-correct" content.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

"Reading Allen Ginsberg, Talking Civil Rights"

Award-Winning Teacher Fired for Reading an Allen Ginsberg Poem: so writes David Freedlander in the Daily Beast. As I have taught Ginsberg to a diverse cohort  in college and met with varying reactions of disgust, resignation, and acceptance, I wanted to share this article about this memorable lesson. "The poem the student discovered and brought in was 'Please Master,' an extremely graphic account of a homosexual encounter published by Allen Ginsberg in 1968 that begins: 'Please master can I touch your cheek / please master can I kneel at your feet / please master can I loosen your blue pants.'"As Freedlander places this in context of Game of Thrones and Fifty Shades of Grey, he also wonders if part of the crackdown is due to discomfort with the gay message, rather than the act itself.

The district ruled that David Olio, a nineteen-year veteran of the South Windsor CT system, showed “egregiously poor professional judgment,” by reading the poem aloud in the AP English class. Many of the students were 17 and 18 years old, some taking this course in conjunction with UConn for college credit. While this, as friends on FB have countered, does not excuse the fact that students had no choice but to listen to the poem, I wondered if the AP context mattered--I got the reply that it did not, and that this showed unwise judgment on Olio's behalf. What would you have done? Hurriedly suggest another poem might be discussed instead? Asked the class for feedback? Refused to talk about it? Those reactions in turn, given our tremulous times, ironically might have singled out Olio as intolerant. Well, one student had complained that he or she could not focus on a test in a another class the day after this poem had been discussed in the AP course. Three weeks later, Olio had to resign.

Freedlander avers: "to call Olio’s reading of the poem a mistake—a poem a student brought to class and asked to be read—is to say the reading of a work by one of the towering figures of 20th-century American poetry is out of bounds. 'Please Master' was written in 1968, just before the Democratic convention in Chicago would erupt in riots. Ginsberg had already been put on trial for obscenity in 1957 for his poem 'Howl,' which with its casual depiction of gay sex and drug use, and lines like 'The asshole is holy,' was considered far outside the bounds of what was considered good taste. A judge, however, ruled that the poem had 'redeeming social importance' and was unlikely to 'deprave or corrupt readers by exciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desire.' I doubt, having taught "Howl," having shown the innovative (if widely panned) film adaptation, that Allen seduces anyone--at least on the page. His portrayal by James Franco may, but many of my students cringed.

Helen Vendler, one of the nation's leading poetry critics, wrote on Olio's behalf: “Given what students are already exposed to via TV and film, Ginsberg’s poem, which concerns a well-known form of abjection (whether heterosexual or homosexual) reveals nothing new.” Courtney King, a former student and now a planning commissioner, puts it more bluntly. "I mean, if there are parents in town who think their teenagers don’t know what a blow job is, they are sorely mistaken.” She sums it up: “In defense of this whole imbroglio, at least it got people in this town reading Ginsberg.”

My blog title comes from a lyrical fragment I heard back in high school. It was sung by a musician who had an early song banned by the BBC in the late 60's for the f-verb. Al Stewart's "Post WWII Blues" in appropriately Dylanesque homage, from his 1974 song-cycle Past, Present and Future, first exposed me to Christine Keeler, Nostradamus, Lord Grey's phrase about the lights going out in Europe as WWI rose, Warren Harding's middle name, and the Soviet tank battles on the steppes. It's much better than his hits that dominated easy-listening AOR in that decade, be assured. The image caption, expanded, cites Ginsberg: "To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province, your own consciousness." But not too provincial, Connecticut.