Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Saddest Conference Panel Ever

I've never liked academic conferences all that much.  I am not a schmoozer, I detest talking myself up, and I tend to be wary around strangers.  They often remind me of high school: I'm back to being a wallflower on the sidelines while the popular kids have all of the fun.  Over the years, however, I learned to enjoy small, regional conferences.  The mood tends to be relaxed and the intellectual dick-waving I used to hate at the AHA or the German Studies Association conference is usually absent.  The university in Michigan where I taught as a VAP for two years sponsors one of these conferences, and after I'd moved on to my tenure-track job in Texas, I used attending the conference as an excuse to see old friends and show one of my Texas friends and colleagues (who attended as well) around my former stomping grounds.

He was presenting a paper.  I, on the other hand, volunteered to be a commentator, partly to help the conference organizers, who were always in need of people to do such yeoman's work, but mostly because I got a kick out of it.  After years spent being judged and evaluated as a graduate student, it felt liberating to turn the tables and get to stand in judgement over others.  (This is also why I like writing book reviews.  It's petty, I know.)  Furthermore, if I ever had an academic super-power, it was the ability to be a commentator on "catch-all" panels where the papers had almost no tangible connection between them, either thematic, geographical, or chronological.  This, of course, is what happens when you are a commentator, but not a "name" person, but I still relished the challenge.

At this particular conference I was given a true mixed bag, both in terms of the papers, as well as their authors.  Their topics were: late Ottoman Empire, WB Yeats and Irish nationalism, and Thucydides.  The first was written by an assistant prof with a high-caliber PhD institution, the second by an eldery full prof at a Catholic college, and the last by a master's student attending an online university I had never heard of.  Not only was the lineup of papers daunting, but the paper on Yeats did not reach me until right before the conference, and it was missing citations.  The paper concerning the Ottoman Empire never came at all, which meant I was going to have to offer my comments on the fly, if the person even bothered to show up.

My panel came at the end of the day on Saturday, the last day of the conference.  The last slot is always the worst for panels, since so many people are in the mood to either party or go home, not to sit through yet another round of academics reading off of their papers in a monotone.  There were only a couple of people in the audience, which comprised my colleague and the Thucydides presenter's spouse.  Basically, there was nobody there who didn't need to be there, and nobody to engage in the exchange of ideas that these conferences supposedly foster.  I made some small talk with the presenters beforehand, including the Ottoman historian, who apologized profusely, and had the embarrassed, harried air of a desperate salesman about him.  I was soon to find out why.

The master's student brimmed with enthusiasm.  I soon found out that he was an Iraq War vet, and he showed off to me the same copy of Thucydides that he said had been a welcome distraction during his deployment.  I had never heard of his online university, because it was one of many that cater to military personnel (with dubious intentions).  Once I realized all this, I felt terrible.  The paper made many grandiose claims that it failed to adequately prove, and I had a hard time coming up with positive things to say about it.  In fact, my written comments were pretty harsh.  The presenter was a good guy, had tremendous passion for his subject, and didn't seem to know the rules of the academic game.  It was going to hurt to have to give my criticisms of his work, which was grounded in true enthusiasm for the topic, not the pedantic, calculating result of academia's tendency to crush whatever personal enthusiasm a scholar may have for a subject.  I was also a little worried that the elderly full prof would pull rank on me.

The vet spoke in the clipped, direct tones I'd heard from military men before, but it was a welcome departure from the usual dry monotone.  The full prof offered a clinic on how to do the dry academic monotone with gusto, but his paper had some fascinating points.  Last, the Ottoman historian got up and put a map of the Ottoman Empire on the screen.  I soon understood the wildly nervous look in his eyes when I met him.  He talked off the top of his head about the empire's policy towards its fringe provinces, occasionally pointing at the map.  It soon became quite obvious that this scholar with such an august pedigree had never bothered to actually write a paper at all.  I was amazed at the chutzpah of this man, who by the rules of the Great Academic Chain of Being, outranked all of us.

My comments were not the best I'd ever given.  I tried to be gentle with the veteran, but my words seemed to puncture his very spirit, and his face soon resembled that of an abused puppy.  He'd probably formulated his interpretation of Thucydides while sitting in some godforsaken forward operating base, waiting to get hit by mortar shells, and here he was having his ideas shot down by some tweed-jacketed dweeb.  I did the best I could with the elderly full prof without knowing anything about where his research came from.  I offered some brief feedback to the Ottoman historian after making some angrily passive-aggressive remarks about not having had a copy of his paper beforehand.  My colleague in the audience was fast asleep.

I just wanted to get out of there, but I tried really hard to have a pleasant conversation with the vet and say some nice things to him.  It was the least I could do after giving him a spiritual punch to the gut.  The full prof was glad to query him on his experience, so once they got talking, I turned tail and ran, only after giving the Ottoman guy a mean look.  I hoped that the academic gods would strike him down for his negligence and mendacity.

That sad, pathetic panel (my thrown-together commentary included) made me wonder more than anything else whether the "life of the mind" was a load of bullshit.  That night my friend and I left the orbit of the conference, even though some folks there wanted to schmooze with him.  I needed to get the taste of what I had experienced out of my mouth.  We went to a microbrewery for some pints, moved on to bowl a few frames, and ended up around midnight at a coney dog joint I used to frequent.  I killed my liver and stomach that night, but they were in better shape than my soul.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Why Memorial Day Has Lost Its Meaning

This Memorial Day I have noticed the culmination of a recent trend whereby the holiday has ceased to be a day for memorialization.  No, I am not scolding folks who have barbecues and ride their jet skis today, but rather the transformation of a holiday intended to mourn to the dead into a day to fetishize the American military.  For example, I am currently watching the Cubs-White Sox game, where both teams are wearing uniforms that incorporate military camouflage.  If they were truly into the spirit of the day, they would be wearing black armbands.  On Facebook and Twitter, all kinds of people are praising the veterans in their families and the armed forces in general, not those felled by bullets, lost at sea, or blown to bits by artillery shells.

That's all well and good for Veteran's Day, but is not consistent with the true meaning of Memorial Day.  It is a holiday with its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War, a war that killed over 600,000 people, about two percent of the American population at the time.  Such a war today would leave six million dead, a number that seems beyond comprehension.  Memorial Day is a day for the dead, not for the living, yet that meaning seems utterly lost.

The reasons are awfully clear.  Death is the ultimate cost of war, and in our nation's seemingly never-ending War on Terror, the powers that be would rather not have the public contemplate the human consequences of maintaing the American empire.  Instead, they would have us issue forth empty gestures of praise for the men and women in uniform, all while they continue to die and be maimed on distance battlefields for little evident purpose.  Case in point, plenty of people will fill their Facebook feeds with pious words for veterans, but don't seem to know or care about the appalling negligence returning soldiers have endured from the VA.  Those folks will keep putting the yellow ribbon magnets on their cars and put the reality of war and its consequences out of their mind.  Our politicians will outdo themselves with flattery for soldiers, then keep sending them to die for a mistake.

Next year, I hope we can embrace the true meaning of Memorial Day, and think long and hard about whether the ultimate sacrifices that we offer so much lip service to were really and truly worth it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Track of the Week: Buffalo Springfield, "Mr. Soul"

Buffalo Springfield is perhaps rock's first ex post facto supergroup.  Stephen Stills went on to join Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Richie Furay partnered with Jim Messina in Poco before Messina teamed up with Kenny Loggins, and Neil Young went on to be, well, Neil Young.  They only put out two studio albums in their together, and neither achieved classic status.  They are usually thought of today, if at all,  as the genesis point for Young and Stills, not one of the most interesting American bands of their day, which they were.

When asked to name a Buffalo Springfield song, most folks who could come up with one would say "For What It's Worth."  This eerie tune has come to represent something of the essence of the tumultuousness of the late 1960s, and I've heard it used in countless films and sampled by Public Enemy.  As great as that song is, I think Buffalo Springfield reached their apex with "Mr. Soul."

It is founded on a clever bit of thievery, as its driving riff bears more than a passing resemblance to the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."  Here the riff does not sound audacious or rebellious, but anxious and neurotic, like Neil Young's voice.  The lyrics are typical for Young: concrete enough to relate to, but vague enough to make the listener fill in the blanks.  There seems to be a questioning of the effect that rock stardom is having on him, as Young discusses getting a letter from an upset fan who says "you're strange, but don't change."  While he's "raised" by her words, he caustically notes "any girl in the world could easily have known me better."  In the third verse he sings "In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster?  Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster," and it sounds absolutely sinister.  He sounds like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown; there's little doubt that the sick clown is him.

The best part of the song happens to be the interplay between Young and Stills' guitars, which thrillingly duel with each other on the break with feedback-laden, high-pitched sounds that personify the mental anguish of the lyrics.  It's enough to make you almost wish that Buffalo Springfield had stayed together, and Young and Stills had developed their musical relationship, rather than growing to dislike each other.  Of course, they both went on to bigger and better things, but this one song shows the potential of What Could Have Been.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why the NYC Mayor's Race Matters

Although I live in Newark, I take a great interest in New York City politics, partly because I work there, and partly because it's such a multifaceted and interesting topic.  Throughout the city's history, there has always been a fundamental tension between its chaotic nature and the need to govern it.  For a long time, New York oscillated between machine and reform mayors, from the drenched in corruption Jimmy "Beau James" Walker to the exuberant progressivism of Fiorello LaGuardia.  The machine mayors promised patronage and protection, the reformers called for efficiency and good government.

In recent years, however, this cycle has been broken, and the New York mayoralty has been the province of authoritarian technocrats.  That's only fitting, since New York City has become the global capital of globalized capitalism, a city emblematic of our current political economy where elites and their monied allies make all the decisions with little to no input from the people affected by those decisions.  Both Giuliani and Bloomberg -who have collectively occupied Gracie Mansion since 1994- have ruled with a strong hand, usually in the interests of the financial and real estate industries.

While crime has dropped under their tenure (something that began, it must be said, during the Dinkins administration), New York City is increasingly becoming a city of haves and have-nots.  The only new housing being built is either subsidized or luxury, and cage-like micro-apartments now have Bloomberg's approval.  The middle is being squeezed out of existence, with the city doing practically nothing to stop it.  Bloomberg has been very skilled at keeping this particular subject at bay by burnishing his social liberal credentials at every turn.

By hitting on side issues that liberals love, Bloomberg avoids criticism for policies openly hostile to the city's less advantaged.  He has been a vocal advocate for gun control, healthy eating, anti-smoking, and education "reform."  In all of these cases, be it through ending smoking in parks, banning big gulps, or closing schools left and right, he has preferred authoritarian, top down solutions.  It's the same authoritarian tendency behind the use of the stop and frisk policy, a policy that many white liberals are willing to overlook.  After all, they're not the ones being subjected to police harassment.  While I appreciate his work on gun control, the school closings and stop and frisk far outweigh his moral stand on that issue.

Right now the mayor's office has a completely dysfunctional relationship with the people of New York.  For decades now, mayors have ruled an authoritarian fashion.  The have worked almost exclusively for the interests of affluent Manhattanites, practically ignoring the will of the middle and working classes in the outer boroughs.  (Apart from the brief tenure of David Dinkins, that's pretty much been the case since Ed Koch took office in 1977.)  While the machine mayors of the past could be corrupt, they often handed out goodies to their working class constituency.  Reform mayors, LaGuardia in particular, could also have a populist streak in them.  I am amazed that such a big and diverse city is currently being operated for the benefit of so few.  It doesn't have to be that way, as any examination of New York's rough and tumble political history shows.

This year's election is actually a referendum on the authoritarian technocracy that has dominated NYC's politics.  Some candidates, Joe Lhota especially, still carry that torch high.  Others, especially Christine Quinn, look more progressive at first, but deep down they are pseudo-liberals anxious to be part of the city's elite power structure.  They are playing to the political winds, which are increasingly blowing for change, but from where I stand, they don't seem to want to change much.  Unfortunately, I fear that the more liberal Democrats will cancel each other out, and the final race will be between Quinn and Lhota. I hope that's not the case, because if the forces of authoritarian technocracy are defeated in New York, it might embolden others around the country to reject phony ed "reform" and to demand better conditions for the middle and working classes.  That, in a nutshell, is why the New York City mayor's race is so important.

Friday, May 24, 2013

My Stupid, Sentimental Decision to Become a Mets Fan

One issue I've had with settling down here in New Jersey so late in my life is that I come here with well-established sports allegiances from my Midwestern homeland.  Knowing that I am going to be here for a long time makes it difficult to not be a fan of one of the local teams.  While I have adopted the New Jersey Devils, hockey does not hold nearly as important a place in my heart as baseball.  The White Sox are still my one true baseball loyalty, but this season I have decided to officially take on the Mets as my second, National League team.

From a sports fan point of view, this is not the smartest decision.  My other option would be the New York Yankees, the most successful sports franchise in American history, winner of 27 World Series titles.  I've seen Yankees caps all over the world, testament to their prestige and winning ways.  For a brief moment I flirted with the prospect of Yankees fandom, but managed to avoid the temptations of the baseball devil.  Like all die-hard non-Yankees fans, I knew that they stood for everything bad and wrong, and that I should not let my desire for the easy path lead me down the road to the dark side.

That, of course, left me with the Mets.  Where the Yankees are mighty, the Mets are lowly.  Their current lineup couldn't hit water if it fell out of a boat.  The ownership of the Mets took a bath on Bernie Madoff's pyramid scheme, which means they don't have the necessary cash to replace the current rogue's gallery of banjo hitters with some true sluggers.  The Mets' new stadium is soulless, mostly empty, and its lobby is embarrassingly full of Dodgers iconography, as if the Mets' history was too pathetic to be praised.  It's located in the no-man's land of Flushing Meadows, Queens, with no bars or restaurants nearby.  The vast majority of Mets fans are born into it, or make the fateful decision when they are still too young to realize the consequences of their actions.  My voluntarily taking on a sad-sack team when I could be rooting for a winning juggernaut seems like a pretty crazy thing to do.

Perhaps it is, but I have my reasons, even beyond Yankee hatred.  In the first place, I can't abide bandwagon jumpers, a constituency well-represented among the Yankee faithful.  I also have a tendency, perhaps reinforced by my youth as an unpopular kid at school, to want to be contrarian in my tastes.  Instead of slavishly trying to win acceptance by joining up with the in crowd, I prefer to stick with the unloved and underappreciated.  (This also helps explain my love for the White Sox, 19th century German history, and New Jersey.)

More sentimentally, I have some positive childhood associations with the Mets.  The 1986 baseball season was the first that I followed as a true student of the game, rather than as a kid who liked to play baseball in the back yard.  I paid attention to the players and the stats, and watched the Mets' thrilling World Series against Red Sox.  I liked the Mets' brashness, exemplified by the likes of Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, and Darryl Strawberry.  When we played baseball on the schoolyard during recess or gym class, I would take on the persona of one of their players based on where I was on the field.  In fact, I can still reel off the entire Mets starting line-up and pitching staff.  This is partly due to the fact that 1987 was the first year I collected baseball cards, and I spent countless hours studying the statistics on the back of them from the prior season.  The Mets were a powerhouse team in those days, the Yankees a declining former power going to seed.

In a lot of ways, by rooting for the Mets I'm just jumping on the bandwagon 27 years too late, which makes me a great fit for this star-crossed bunch.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thoughts on Two Years Post-Academia

This week, an odd fact suddenly struck me: it's two years to the month that I decided to leave my job as a tenure-track assistant professor in rural East Texas and start a new career as a teacher at an independent high school in New York City.  It was something I had once considered unthinkable, but I took the leap gladly and whole-heartedly, and have never looked back.  Today I love my job, and have put any thoughts of returning to academia or feeling its absence completely out of my mind.

I've been looking at the stuff I wrote on my old blog back then, and this little snippet still rings true with me today:

"Over the last two months or so, that resistance and reluctance [to give up my academic career] has turned into a hardened resolve to get out at all costs. Strangely enough, now that my impulse has become reality, I don't really feel like I am losing anything. I have three articles published in top journals and a book contract, I have constructed and taught thirteen(!) different courses over the last five years and have received rave reviews on my teaching from students and peers alike. These qualifications could not even get me an AHA or phone interview with a university during this job cycle. And yet at my home institution these accomplishments have been met not with praise, but with fear and loathing. Why bother sacrificing my life and, quite frankly, my will to live itself to a profession that refuses to give any reward?"

That last sentence is especially important.  I had worked so hard and done so well by standards of my profession, but it got me nowhere.  The disjuncture between my accomplishments and my treatment was making me insane. Despite my many bona fides, prospective employers would not talk to me, yet many of my then colleagues mobbed and bullied me for how my efforts drew attention to their relative mediocrity and laziness.

I began to wonder if I was indeed a worthless loser, that the judgements of my peers were deserved.  (When I say that I was losing my will to live, that's not an exaggeration.)  The lowest moment probably came in April of 2011, when I visited my family over Easter.  My father had just been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, my wife (living 1500 miles away) was dealing with struggles at her job, and my family's cat of twenty years was on his death bed.  I had just gotten the last of my rejections from yet another failed run at the academic job market, and began to think I was caught in a trap that I couldn't escape.

In that darkest of moments, I realized that I had to go for broke and radically change my life if I wanted my soul to survive.  When I applied for teaching jobs, I wrote the most florid, emotional job letters of my life.  For the first time in a job search, I decided to put my heart on my sleeve and let it all hang out.  Fortunately, one school liked my style, and plucked me out of the academic refuse heap.  I have given the school all of my heart and soul, and they have repaid me in kind.  For the first time in my professional life, I actually feel appreciated and loved.

Yes, there are times when I wonder if I will ever get my research back on track.  I know that being an "independent scholar" means wearing a giant scarlet letter "I" on my tweed blazer at academic conferences when others check out my badge.  Nowadays I do my research and writing in stolen moments.  It's not an ideal situation, but in return for library privileges and my academic credentials, I have my life back.  In the words of The Who, I call that a bargain, the best I've ever had.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Track of the Week: The Rolling Stones, "Child of the Moon (rmk)"

What separates the good bands from the great?  I would argue that non-album B-sides are the key.  These are the ultimate throwaways, songs not worthy of inclusion on an album, and slapped on the back of a 45 so that there's at least something there.  A band that has so many good songs that the stuff it releases as its disposable refuse is better than the hits of other artists certainly qualifies as great.  Judging by that standard, it is "Child of the Moon (rmk)", not its justly famous A-side ("Jumpin' Jack Flash") that establishes the Rolling Stones' superiority.

"Jumpin' Jack Flash" may very well be the best song in the Stones' catalog, kicking off an amazing run from 1968 to 1972 that has yet to be matched by anyone else.  With its killer, no-nonsense riff and funky blues feel, the Stones were also signaling an end to their psychedelic period and all of the phased drums, day-glo outfits, twee lyrics, and harpsichords that came with it.  Traditionally, Stones fans and critics have lauded this moment, considering the Stones' foray into psychedelia to be a dire mistake that "Jumpin' Jack Flash" exorcised in a most spectacular way.

While the A-side was a major statement of purpose, the B-side was a wistful look back.  The hippy-dippy lyrics,  shimmering guitar, and trippy vocals of "Child of the Moon"embody the very psychedelia repudiated on the A-side.  It's almost as if the band thought, "let's try this out one last time, and do it right."  I have to say, the result is much more interesting and catchy than most of the stuff on their infamous psychedelic record, Their Satanic Majesties Request.  Perhaps this forgotten yet brilliant B-side was just a small way to save face, to make the change from flower power to bluesy riff rocking from a position of strength.  All I know for sure is that many of the legions of bands that imitate the Stones have been unable to match a song that is essentially a tossed-off relic from a much-maligned musical detour.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Putting the Current "Scandals" in Proper Perspective

By all accounts, this last week has been a bad one for the Obama administration, mostly because the GOP has finally found the "scandals" they have been looking for to discredit and obstruct the president.  (Never mind that they are collaborating with the biggest real scandal, our nation's use of drones to carry out targeted assassinations.)  I will leave the parsing of the AP email seizures, Benghazi memos, and IRS to others.  I would prefer to take a step back from all of the accusations and minutae, and place all of this in broader historical and political context.

To paraphrase one of Marx's most well-known adages, history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce.  The tactic of ginning up "scandals" of dubious importance was used time and again in the Clinton administration, when Republicans flogged the Whitewater kerfuffle to death and tried to impeach the president over a blow job.  Not only are the tactics today the same, so is the motivation.  Today's conservatives view themselves as the only real and true Americans, and liberals as an enemy within.  Any progressive president, even ones as moderate as Obama and Clinton, are imposters and usurpers who must be destroyed.  The racial and cultural dynamics at play with Barack Obama have only intensified this derangement.

However, I see another cause at play, one that has been less discussed but is no more potent: conservatives can't win through legitimate means.  This may sound counterintuitive, but take a look at the six presidential elections since 1992.  In only one of those elections has the Republican candidate received the most votes; Bush's win in 2000 was tainted at best.  Furthermore, the one election where the Republican did get the most votes, 2004, he had major advantages due to incumbency and being in the midst of a war.  Furthermore, Republican power in Congress is derived through manipulating the system, rather than via the voice of the ballot box.  As has been well-documented, Republicans have maintained a majority in House mostly through gerrymandering, which they have been aggressively pushing since 2000.  In the Senate they use filibusters and and other means of obstruction to prevent the majority from moving legislation forward.

While committed conservatives are a minority in this country, they are fully mobilized.  A vast Right-wing noise machine serves up conspiracies and outrage on a platter, and their mobs of listeners eat it right up.  Polls show that most Americans have faint interest in the current raft of "scandals," but that doesn't matter when a committed faction and their allies in Congress light their hair on fire and scream out for impeachment.

Essentially, last week's events are only a small battle in a much larger political war, one that has been waged for at least twenty years now by conservatives.  Anyone remember Pat Buchanan's infamous "Culture War" speech at the 1992 RNC?  Although Buchanan's star has fallen, and the social conservative message of that speech is much less emphasized by the GOP today, it expressed the conservative vision of the nation as it still stands.  Conservatives believe they are paladins, protectors of a "real America" under threat by liberals and growing numbers of "takers" who are undermining American values.  When they lose an election, as in 2012, they blame the supposed government-dependency and high melanin count of voters who don't count as "real Americans."  The results don't count, because "real America" did not give the usurper Obama a majority.  Hence any means necessary may be used to stop him from destroying "real America" so that conservatives can "take our country back."

As long as one major political party in this country is held in thrall by such divisive extremism, our politics will continue to be dysfunctional, and all kinds of "scandals" will be brought before the country.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Classic Albums: U2, October

I would like to use this installment of the classic albums series to rehabilitate a fine record that is forgotten at best, and maligned at worst: U2's October.  It is easily the least popular album in their catalog, and the most overlooked of their 1980s heyday.  When U2 put out a compilation of their 1980s work, they did not include a single song from October, the only album so dishonored.  This despite the fact that the lead off track, the soaring, transcendent "Gloria," was much more worthy of inclusion than anything on Rattle and Hum.

Some of the problems may lie with October's subject matter, which reflects the band's immersion in a the teachings of a Christian sect at the time.  Many of the song titles, like "Rejoice," "Jerusalem," and "Gloria" betray the religious influence.  I would argue that in many respects, October is the greatest Christian rock record of all time, even if its creators don't fit into the traditional definition of the genre.  As much as I dislike most Christian rock, the religious rapture in between October's grooves really adds something.  Like Bach's Mattheus Passion or Mozart's Requiem, the religious underpinnings give the music an uplifting, exhilarating feeling, even if you don't happen to be a believer.

What really makes this record shine, though, is Edge's absolutely luminescent guitar work, some of his best ever.  The figures he peals off at the end of "Gloria," the descending riffs that close out "Rejoice," and most of all, the killer, Jimi Hendrix by way of Joy Division sounds he lays down on "I Threw a Brick Through a Window" are unforgettable.  On the latter track, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen lock into one of their best inverted, post-punk grooves.

In addition to some real guitar rock barn burners, there are a couple of eerie ballads, "October" and "Tomorrow."  "October" is a spare song with just Bono's voice and a backing piano, and it perfectly evokes the feelings of the month of October, when summer has faded and all is turning gray, cold, and dead.  "Tomorrow" is about death itself, and features a great use of the haunting, overworldly sound of Irish horns.

In addition to all the songs I've already mentioned, October still serves up gems like "Stranger in a Strange Land."  It may not have as many hits as the Joshua Tree or be consistently thrilling as Achtung Baby (there's some filler), but it's a record that is full of moments of true beauty and transcendence.  The people who've overlooked it don't know what they're missing.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow

A couple of nights ago I gave my sister a call on the phone.  She lives in a rural Nebraska town very similar to the one where we grew up, and in the middle of our conversation, I heard a ghostly sound through the receiver that raised the hair on the back of my neck.  It was the long, lonesome call of a freight train's horn echoing through the primeval dark of a prairie night.

It's a sound that always brings me back to my childhood growing up in a railroad town, and nights lying awake in bed, hearing the trains' eerie moans.  Those Nebraska nights were so dark and still that the freight train horns had a kind of piercing, almost threatening quality to them.  It was strange as a child to think that in the middle of such otherworldly blackness people were driving massive locomotives on and on through the night.  Nevertheless, I always find a strange comfort in their noise when I visit home, or when I am lucky enough to hear it through the telephone.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

University Toy Town Syndrome

Of all the things I've read about higher ed in the last week, nothing has stuck with me more than an article on Purdue University's new campus rec center, which makes it sound fit for the Roman emperors to get a message in.  The author, a grad student, notes the incongruity of humanities buildings on campus crumbling while shiny new palaces of leisure with no educational purpose rise up like cathedrals on campus.

I witnessed the magical building of expensive new edifices during times of want and austerity for faculty first hand at my last job.  The moment of real truth came during the last all-university meeting I attended, when our Oz-like president came down from the mountaintop and made his pronouncements.  This particular meeting left me bewildered, since the president began by touting all of the building done on campus, including an addition onto his own house (ostensibly so it could hold larger fund raisers.)  One would think that our university was flush with cash, considering that all of the new dormitories and such had been constructed in the wake of a state of the art student center and a massive rec center complete with rock climbing wall and lazy river.  However, right after he got done telling us about a new beacon on the tallest dorm that would shine a stream of the school's colors after each athletic victory, he immediately launched into a discussion of state cutbacks, and implied that "low performing" programs and departments might be cut, and that we could not expect raises any time soon.

In effect, what he just told us was "I care more about funding buildings and athletics than I do about academics and education." He was apparently infected by an administrative disease that others have discussed before, but I think I am the first to give it this name: Toy Town Syndrome. Many administrators approach their universities like their own little dioramas to be expanded and tinkered with. New sports facilities, student recreation centers, and modernized dorms have become the preferred additions to the toy town.  In these administrators' minds,  the students will want to come to the gleaming toy town, not to learn from the betweeded underlings teaching them.  They can just subsist on a steady diet of gruel, and be threatened with replacement by the reserve army of unemployed if they make any complaints.

I honestly think that many upper level administrators judge their success on the number of buildings they finance in their careers. The Toy Town Syndrome certainly explains the universities in Louisiana that have cut philosophy programs, yet still maintain football teams. At least all of those rock-climbing walls and sky box-filled football stadiums, like the Roman baths and coliseums, will make for exquisite ruins when public higher education collapses in a couple of decades.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Track of the Week: Beck, "F#*@in With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)"

Nineteen years ago this week I graduated from high school.  I've now lived more of my life away from my home town than in it, which seemed an impossibly far-off milestone back in May of 1994.  It's been so long that sometimes I need to listen to certain evocative songs to remember just exactly what my life was like back then.  After leaving home, I have lived in two different countries, four different states, and seven different towns.  There have been so many transitions and changes that the place where I spent half my life feels increasingly alien in my memory.

Since I had a tape (yes a cassette tape, they once existed) of Beck's Mellow Gold in the tape deck of my Mazda Protege on a nearly constant basis around the time of my graduation, I was inspired two nights ago to stream this album over Spotify.  Times have definitely changed, but Mellow Gold really brought me back to my emotions in that transitional period in my life.

I was restless and lonely back then, going crazy with the anticipation of leaving home and starting a new life.  I was never all that well accepted by my peers, and while they bawled their little eyes out at graduation over leaving their friends behind, I was more elated than I perhaps had ever been in my life. That restlessness manifested itself in a lot of aimless driving around town in my car, listening to music on the tape deck with the windows open.  While the place I grew up is not all that culturally interesting, it is full of beautiful parks and pleasant, tree-lined avenues.  Nebraska never looks better than in May, when the trees and flowers explode in color, before the onset of the pitiless scorching summer heat, which usually arrives some time around Memorial Day.  I spent that summer working in rubber parts factory tending machines with metal plates heated to 400 degrees, which made being outside on 100 degree days in late July feel like a respite from where I spent my working hours.

The precious weeks in May I had between graduation and work were spent in slackerdom, mostly driving around town and listening to music.  My one close friend had already skipped town, anxious to get away from his contentious relationship with his father.  I reveled a bit in my laconic, wannabe bohemian lifestyle.  Perhaps that's why I was drawn to "Fuckin' With My Head," since it tells the story of a man who lives in an old tool shed and drinks his "coffee from a hub cap."  It's also got a drunkenly loping folk-rock with distortion riff that was perfect for cruising the dusty streets of my hometown.  Music really was my escape in those days, and without any internet or anything interesting on TV, aimlessly driving and thinking was my primary way to pass the time.  While I'm glad to have moved on with my life to places that are more exciting, I do wonder if I would be able to be alone with myself that much today is such an isolated place without going crazy.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Modest Proposal for Putting the Excess of PhDs to Good Use

Although some still try to deny it, you know as well as I that dire economic conditions and the corporatization of the university have led to a large number of PhDs going without employment.  You also know that universities are under pressure from the highest levels to cut costs and increase efficiency. Yet we should not fret, we can turn this situation to our advantage, and even use it to solve other problems bedeviling our profession at this time.

In order to give these poor overeducated souls some security and a job, I propose that we establish a system of indentured servitude for those PhDs unworthy of the lofty tenured heights that we occupy. Many might protest that this is a barbaric and unequal institution. Fair enough, but the current system has only lead to job insecurity and a dangerous potential for revolutionary agitation, wouldn't it be better to accept reality and deploy an unequal system that will result in bountiful new opportunities?  In any case, if we are to reduce costs as political leaders demand, we dare not take funds from the many hard-working administrators whose salaries reflect their worth on the open market, or the building projects we need to advance our enrollments.  How shall we ever do so without big time athletics, luxury dorms, and rock climbing walls ensconced in new student recreation centers?  Temporary faculty come a dime a dozen, yet we still offer them as much as three thousand dollars a class, which is hardly a bargain when they could work for nothing.

Make no mistake, the indentured PhD solution would certainly be mutually beneficial. As you well know, each year in departments around the country we scramble for warm bodies to fill out the course schedule, which often means press ganging graduate students or the burdensome and expensive process of hiring adjunct and "visiting" professors. Often we don't even know who will be teaching certain courses semester to semester. With my new proposal our indentured associates (I think "associates" sounds more attractive than "servants," don't you?) would always be at the ready to teach whatever course we ask them to. For example the biggest survey courses are in the field of history are American History and Western Civilization, and since most of the jobless are in the fields of US and European History, it should be easy to plug them in. Furthermore, we on the tenured side would no longer have to deal with the maddening business of educating freshman students and can thus focus our energies on pursuits more important than the shaping of young minds, such as writing monographs for a specialist audience.

Moreover, a system of indentured associates would help allay the fears of our pesky critics in the political arena. Politicians complain about the rising cost of tuition, but this system will save plenty of money in the long run and save us from having to spend any of our precious endowment money on such piddling trifles like undergraduate education.  This will free up even more cash for much needed rock climbing walls and flat screen televisions in the lobbies of the library and rec center.  Without these amenities, how can we be expected to draw in the next cohort of students?

Furthermore, amazingly innovative and wonderful resource of MOOCs will provide our associates with plenty of opportunities to grade online quizzes while our students learn from the best professors on their computer screens.  We all know that the key to great education is to deliver over computers, since we know the little bastards can't seem to take their eyes off of their smart phones.  Of course, we will still need peons to do the basic physical work that the machines cannot do for themselves (yet).  Indentured associates can easily be trained in the basics of the software, and plugged in and pulled out whenever necessary.

This system will also ensure a great level of flexibility, something our friends in the corporate world usually benefit from but we, with our arcane rules dating from the Middle Ages, do not. For instance, many of our colleagues without graduate students lack people they can browbeat or pressure into housesitting or providing child care for them at below market rates? Others actually have to stoop to the indignity of taking their own books back to the library and proctoring and writing their own exams! Contracts of indenture could include clauses that would make this kind of labor part of the overall servitude agreement (although the rather ugly word "servitude" is to be avoided.) We all know how hard it is to get good help these days.

What if the indentured associates revolt or refuse to participate, you say?  We will just remind them that being a scholar is what they love, and they dare not cheat themselves out of following their bliss.  Our potential recruits would be horrified at the prospect of punching the clock at a 9 to 5 like the rest of the schmucks out there. This tactic of reminding adjuncts of their good fortune to work for a university seems to have worked in getting a veritable army of adjunct cannon fodder to teach classes for under $2,000, which might as well be nothing.

Lastly, this system would reduce a lot of the social awkwardness in many departments stemming from a desire by non-tenured labor to be treated as social equals. The ambiguity of their current positions often confuses them into thinking that most of their tenured colleagues actually care about them as human beings, rather than seeing them as space fillers on the course schedule. Believe it or not, some of them even have the cheek to presume they could get hired on permanently! To make things easier on them, the position of "indentured associate" will clarify their position in the hierarchy and certainly reduce hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

Editor's Note:  I wrote a version of this in a different form back in early 2008, and find it to be even more relevant today in light of the worsening market, the treatment I've seen of adjuncts, and the political attacks on university faculty.  Of course, this post's proposal is entirely Swiftian in nature.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Is Texas Headed for a Fall?

As regular readers know, I lived in Texas for three years.  I loved the food and scenery there, and made some great friends, but was nevertheless determined that my children would not be brought up there.  In terms of its political, economic, and social models, I found Texas to be an intolerable place to live.  Strangely enough, governor Rick Perry has been going around trying to persuade businesses to come to Texas (and devastate their current communities) on the basis of those models. In his mind, Texas is a paradise of freedom, if by "freedom" you mean low regulations and taxes, not the right to vote, or marry who you wish.

While on the surface Texas looks to be successful in its pitch, I can see a potential big fall on the horizon, and one directly attributable to its insanely reactionary politics.  Perry is trying to draw in businesses from the West Coast and Northeast, and while businessmen there might share his views on taxation and regulation, they are likely to be horrified by other aspects of Texas society.

You can just look at last week's news for evidence.  In the face of growing support for same sex marriage rights and gay rights more broadly, Perry compared the Boy Scouts' stand against admitting gays to the opposition to slavery.  Evidently his hatred of gays makes him the moral equivalent of Abraham Lincoln in his mind.  The state's attorney general has recently ruled that domestic partnerships are unconstitutional under state law.  This could potentially prevent employers who have been giving domestic partner benefits from doing so.  I get the feeling that a lot of companies would be wary of relocating to a place where many of their employees would be defined as second class citizens.

Also this week, the Texas legislature has responded to post-Sandy Hook calls for more gun control by declaring "gun day" and voting for twelve measures to increase access to guns and their use, including in college classrooms.  In the midst of the growing wave of gun violence and concern about public safety, moves like this hardly make Texas look like a place you would want to uproot your life to move to.

The news coming out of West, Texas, has shown the consequences of the state's light regulatory environment.  The fertilizer plant hadn't been inspected since 1986, and the lack of zoning laws meant that schools and homes were located next to a potential powder keg.  We have business regulations to protect the safety of the public, something that the explosion in West has demonstrated as much as the Triangle Fire did back in 1911.  Are people from outside of Texas going to be anxious to flock to a place with such dangers lurking, including fearsomely high rates of pollution?

Texas' anti-tax ways have also had real consequences.  The social safety net is threadbare, meaning that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country.  This effectively creates a burden for employers, who must provide benefits and support that the state will not.  Texas has also slashed education funding, and I seriously doubt that companies would want to relocate to a place with such a poorly trained workforce.

Rick Perry and other purveyors of the Texas Way are really just trying to entice business to their state with the lure of cheap labor and low taxes.  In our changing economy, however, more cutting edge businesses will require a lot more than that.  They will certainly want to draw in young, educated employees, just the type who will be turned off by Texas' reactionary nature.  The Texas Way is fast making the Lone Star State look like an embarrassing relic, rather than a future-oriented place.  I get the feeling that fewer and fewer people are going to find its pull alluring.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Track of the Week: George Jones, "The Race is On"

With the recent passing of George Jones, I've been listening to a lot of his music, and pondering the contradictions of country music.  More than any other genre of American music, country wraps itself in the flag, and is most obsessed with tradition.  George Jones' passing is, in many respects, the passing of the soul of traditional country music, which gets paid much lip service in Nashville.  There was a big funeral for him at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, in the very city that had largely rejected him and old school country music for the past three decades.  A personage as respectable as former first lady Laura Bush eulogized a man infamous for his craven drunkness, reckless behavior, and rank unprofessionalism.  (Then again, perhaps Laura saw something of her husband in him.)  Jones was the type of guy who failed to appear at so many concerts that he earned the name "No Show," and who got so desperate for a drink after his wife hid the car keys that he absconded with a riding lawn mower to get his hands on some liquor.

That contrast between Jones' dirty life and glossy funeral had me thinking about my own crooked road to loving country music.  I grew up surrounded by country music in rural Nebraska, but I couldn't stand the warmed-over, glossy crap purveyed by the likes of Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.  Rejecting the music, like my rejections of Catholicism, and political conservatism, was empowering form of rebellion against a place that had always made me an outsider.  At the end of my high school years, however, I started listening to Johnny Cash, and slowly developed a love of the keepers of the honky tonk flame: Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones.  I loved the fact that many of these figures, for all the aura of tradition around them, were hell-bent, self-destructive rebels.  Merle Haggard spent time in prison, Cash kicked out the lights at the Opry (among many, many indiscretions), and Hank Williams died in the back of a car at age 29.

Unlike the rockers responsible for similar exploits, Jones and his country music ilk sang about the pain and guilt associated with such actions.  It wasn't just reckless, devil-may-care fun, there were consequences, just as in life.  Like Otis Redding, George Jones had a special kind of voice, one capable of getting that pain and regret across to his listeners.  It had a kind of lilting, Appalachian twang to it, despite his origins in East Texas, where the local accent is much less euphonious.  As much as he tried to destroy himself, Jones never managed to lose the power of his vocal instrument.

Even though he may well be the master of the tear in your beer honky tonk ballad, my favorite Jones tune is "The Race is On."  It is a deceptively up-tempo number, complete with a fantastically reverb-laden country-fried guitar solo in the middle.  He might sound peppy, but the song uses horse racing as a metaphor for heartbreak.  It's almost as if he's singing such a catchy tune to get his mind off of the wounds on his soul.  RIP, Possum, you'll be missed.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Great Academic Chain of Being

Thomas Herndon is one of my new heroes.  In case you don't know who he is, Herndon is the UMass grad student who exposed key errors in the study by Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff that has been used to justify austerity regimes around the world.  I find his efforts doubly sweet.  In the first place, he has exposed to the world that the emperor of austerity has no clothes.  Second, he has highlighted the ridiculousness of a frame of thought I like to call The Great Academic Chain of Being.

Just as ancient and medieval thinkers theorized a divinely-ordered, hierarchical universe with almighty God at the top and lowly plants and grasses at the bottom, many academics view the profession in a similar fashion.  Ivy League full professors sit at the top, community college adjuncts at the bottom, and everyone else in between is in their appointed rank and place based purely on their merit and ability.  Whenever anyone dares to complain about the unfairness and cruelty of the academic system, the true believers wield the Academic Chain of Being as a cudgel, and dismiss critics by saying they deserved no better than to be on the bottom rungs of the hierarchy.  Their legitimate complaints about an unjust system are then depicted as the sour grapes of losers.

As a mere grad student at a state university,Thomas Herndon does not rank anywhere near Reinhart and Rogoff, but his exposure of their sloppy methods trumps the academic table of ranks.  The Great Academic Chain of Being is not only completely false, it is used to justify a multitude of sins.  Worst of all, it encourages contingent laborers and others taken advantage of by the system to internalize their oppression.  They are without permanent jobs and adjunct for years, and just end up blaming themselves for their situation when they fail to get the coveted slot on the tenure track.  This state of affairs is wonderful for the powers that be, who get to profit from a grossly inequitable system while preventing a peasant revolt by those worst abused by that very system.  Those in the better positions rarely if ever lift a finger to help their contingent colleagues.  After all, if they were truly deserving, they wouldn't be adjuncting!

That pernicious attitude, and the conceptual framework of the Great Academic Chain of Being that upholds it ought to be eradicated as a first step on the road to equity in the profession.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Civil War Deniers

That hair-raising poll showing 44% of Republicans supporting some sort of potential armed rebellion has me thinking.  Just 150 years ago, this nation was embroiled in a bloody civil war instigated by fire-breathing radicals who claimed the right to secede rather than see the institution of slavery limited.  They gave many pious speeches full of words like "liberty" and "tyranny," the latter a force they claimed to be fighting.  This is the very same thing that today's supporters of armed rebellion claim to fear.

Americans have a dysfunctional relationship with their history.  Because so many, especially in the conservative ranks, wish to see America as an exceptional nation, and one which stands as a "city on a hill" providing an example of freedom to the nations of the world, they refuse to see the ugly side of America's history.

Much like the anti-Semitic cranks who minimize the death toll of Holocaust, America's deniers defend heinous acts like Japanese internment (Michelle Malkin) and McCarthyism (Anne Coulter), and downplay or ignore the horrors of slavery (Michelle Bachmann).  There is perhaps no form of denialism worse than that denying that the Civil War was about slavery, or that the Confederacy was morally in the wrong.  It is a commonly expressed view in much of the white South, and it is  this view of history that makes the current talk of armed insurrection more palatable.  Civil War deniers claim that it was a war over "states rights," or even go so far as to consider it a war to defend the South from Northern tyranny and aggression.  (The new president of the NRA holds this opinion.)

The North was by no means perfect in motive or deed in the Civil War, but neither were the Allies in World War II, who firebombed their fair share of civilian neighborhoods.  In both wars, there should be no doubt about which side holds the moral high ground.  As Stephanie McCurry shows in her recent book Confederate Reckoning, the Confederacy had a specifically and intentionally white supremacist and patriarchal basis, and intended to protect the institution of slavery to the death.  For some reason white Confederate nostalgics get a pass on romanticizing these reckless hooligans, whose actions led to the deaths of over 600,000 people in a brazen act of rebellion against the government.  I don't care if their ancestors wore Confederate gray; "heritage" does not overcome moral wrong.  My ancestors were German Catholics, but I do not defend the behavior of Wallenstein's army in the 30 Years War, or seek to shrug off the horrors of the sack of Magdeburg.

 To deny or minimize the Holocaust makes someone persona non grata today, and with good reason.  Holocaust denial is something obviously rooted in hatred towards Jews, which we as a society hold to be repugnant. That same standard that we apply to Holocaust deniers should also be held in regards to Civil War deniers.  Those who lie about slavery's role, or who try to make the two sides moral equivalents ought to be publicly excoriated and ridiculed.  Their views reflect an animus and resentment towards black people similar to the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust deniers.  To tolerate Civil War denial is to tolerate racism, and costs of denialism have been too high already.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The One Poll That Explains Our Political Dysfunction

A new poll from Farleigh Dickinson University tells us that 44% of Republicans think that armed revolution in opposition to the government may need to happen in the near future.  That's right, folks, almost half of the members of one of our two political parties is openly supporting the necessity of violent rebellion.  I have a feeling that if this question was asked in the Bush administration, the number would be much, much lower.

Obama has had it harder than Bill Clinton when it comes to conservative scorched-earth politics, but both men had to face the fact that a very large part of their opposition simply never recognized their legitimacy as president of the United States.  A democracy, much less a functioning government, can't run on this basis.  Conservatives have lost at the polls, but they never lose on Capitol Hill, because they refuse to allow the machinery of government to operate, even after they lose an election rather decisively.  They do not see any of this as politics, but rather a life or death struggle to be fought by any means necessary.  So far their progressive opposition does not view politics in this way, but if it is pushed to do so, bloodshed won't be too far behind.  American politics will look much more like those in Iraq.  It can't happen here?  Just you wait.