Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
I find myself asking that a lot lately.
Now Vice President Cheney opines that the New York Times should be prosecuted for running stories on this administration's broad-ranging efforts to evade constitutional protections and spy on phone calls and banking transactions without benefit of search warrants.
As it happens, in the months after 9/11 President Bush himself in a series of public statements alerted terrorists and people holding annuities alike that the United States government was monitoring bank transactions. So the New York Times stories could come as no real surprise to our enemies abroad.
But look, this is the same Dick Cheney who sent his underlings to leak information, information that had till that very moment been classified, to a reporter at the very same New York Times, anonymously sourced, in the effort to bolster public support for the coming invasion of Iraq. We now know that Cheney let other sections of the same classified documents that would challenge his view remain secret, while he, in an act that was itself secret, revealed supposedly high-level secret information to the NY Times for purely political purposes.
And yes, this is the same Dick Cheney who we now know directed others to reveal to reporters at the NY Times and elsewhere the identity of a covert CIA operative, again for purely political ends.
Cheney's defense appears to be that if he releases information, it is by definition no longer classified. Of course, none of us knew he was authorized to declassify information until he made that announcement out of the blue to Britt Hume. Clearly this is a defense arranged after the offense.
Cheney has been leaker-in-chief throughout this administration. Even as he moves behind the scenes to keep Scooter Libby out of jail, he wants to prosecute the NT Times. Only days after Karl Rove ducks an indictment, Cheney wants the full force of government prosecution to fall upon the very press to whom Cheney, Rove et al have been merrily leaking all along.
I think the real reason Cheney always holds his head at that odd angle is that he's fixing his face to tell yet another outrageous lie.
Nikki Giovanni used to ask, "ain't they got no shame?"
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Walker is a retired professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska and a frequent author on policing and civil liberties. The occasion of Walker's essay is his discovery that Antonin Scalia had cited his book TAMING THE SYSTEM: THE CONTROL OF DISCRETION IN AMERICAN CRIMINAL JUSTICE in writing his opinion in Hudson vs. Michigan, the case I wrote about last week that seriously erodes the power of the exclusionary rule to restrain police violations of the reasonable search and seizure protection.
What Walker found, much to his horror, upon reading Scalia's opinion was that Justice Scalia had selectively quoted from Walker's text and deployed his words to make an arument that was exactly the opposite of the conclusions reached in Walker's book.
"The misuse of evidence is a serious offense--in academia as well as in the courts. When it's your work being manipulated, it is a violation of your intellectual integrity." -- So writes Samuel Walker, and quite rightly. This is the sort of misuse of quotation that would be cause for me to return a student's paper as woefully substandard and unacceptable. The problem is that we have no one to return Scalia's paper with a well-deserved F in red at the bottom of the page.
But this is not only a violation of Walker's integrity, it reflects upon Scalia's as well, and it is all too common a feature of the writings and speeches of many on the Right who loudly proclaim themselves to be champions of original intent and strict construction, opposing themselves to those wild-eyed crazies in the academy who presumably teach that any writing can be taken to mean any thing.
Still, any proper thinking poststructuralist will point out the simple truth (that word we professors supposedly reject) that the fact that a statement may have an infinite number of interpretations does not mean that it can mean ANYTHING at all. Why is it, one asks rhetorically, that Derrida, to take one instance, can be a more trustworthy close reader of the words that actually appear on a page than can be those who profess to be guided by the original intent of the framers of the writing?
The classic instance of this came from Senator Orin Hatch, a self-proclaimed strict constructionist and original intent guy -- one fond of opposing himself to radical relativists -- in the course of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. In one jaw-dropping exchange, Hatch declared that Anita Hill could not have possibly meant what she said under oath that she had meant by one of her statements.
Scalia is long-practiced in the dark arts of misappropriation, and Walker's is just the most recent example. Walker writes that he feels obliged to set the record straight about what he actually wrote in his book. But Walker can only appeal to the reading public at large. There is no appeal of Justice Scalia's abuse of Walker's text, or Saclia's abuse of the text of the Constitution, to any higher court. Scalia knows his is the last word in law.
We look no father than the same day's issue of the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW for another stunning example of the syndrome. In a piece titled NEOCON OR NOT?, Robert Alter reviews an important new volume from the University of Chicago Press by Steven B. Smith.
If, like me, you've often wondered how many of the current crop of neocons who make routine references to the work of Leo Strauss have actually read Strauss's works in any comprehnsive way, Smith's book will go a long way toward answering your question.
As Alter summarizes in his review, "it has become received wisdom that a direct line issues from Strauss's seminars on political philosophy at the University of Chicago to the hawkish approach to foreign policy by figures like Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Bush administration."
David Horowitz, just a few months ago at Penn State university, had to ignore the hands that went up in the audience when he asked if anybody had read Strauss or Hayek so that he could continue blithely asserting that those philsophers simply don't get taught in the academy today. A better question might well be whether he has ever read Strauss. Smith writes in READING LEO STRAUSS that "the idea that political or military action can be used to eradicate evil from the human landscape is closer to the utopian and idealistic visions of Marxism and the radical Enlightenment than anything found in the writings of Strauss." And that goes a long way toward explaining the extraordinary rendition of Strauss's writing that we get from the likes of the former Marxist David Horowitz. It turns out that readers are far more likely to get a nuanced reading of Strauss from those radical questioners of Enlightenment philosophy whose presence in America's philosophy departments so exercises the Right.
At the conclusion of his review, Alter, having outlined Strauss's dialectic vision of reality, concludes: "why some of his most prominent students missed this essential feature of his thought, and why they turned to the right, remains one of the mysteries of his intellectual legacy."
But it's not that much of a mystery. Whether we're reading Allan Bloom or Ann Coulter, the demonstrable fact remains that we are dealing with people who, in the name of strict construction, feel no compunctions about engaging in the most tortured alterations of texts to make them read as they would have them, whether the text is the philosophy of Leo Strauss, the legal writings of Samuel Walker, or the Constitution of the United States of America.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
246 W. 36 St.
Dear Mr. Williams--
Thanks for your Tip.
And the return of manuscript.
No, I am no longer in N Mexico.
Yes, Mr. Creeley may indeed be a great poet.
Perhaps, however, Mr. Tedlock--who by
Academic Standard had adjudged your Efficiency
in the small matter as much as a year ago, sadly--
will not self-righteously be contained unto himself
and "road" cohorts to your preclusion.
Sorry your legend is of the past.
Yes, I would like to make school my
Continual Answering--it's all in the way of it
No, there is no 'Too'--just one.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Monday, June 19, 2006
It was, I think, unseemly at the least for the Right to continue railing against "activist judges" after an activist Supreme Court for the first time in American history ordered a state not to recount ballots in a presidential election, thus installing the first-term Bush administration, despite the subsequently confirmed fact that Bush had lost the Florida vote. It has been a far more than unseemly spectacle to see the Right universally condemning an activist judiciary as part of the campaign to save our marriages from gay couples while they were at the same time seeking activist judicial intervention on behalf of their own long-held goals.
Which brings us to "no knock."
Conservative political figures have long had our constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure on their target list. Much of the talk of radical and activist judges dates to the
era of the Miranda decision. One of the favorite measures conservative politicians came up with to counter the Supreme Court's protection of our Bill of Rights was the "No Knock" law.
The idea was as simple as its name. Congress would pass a crime bill that would provide for the issuance of "no knock" warrants, allowing police to dispense with the traditionally required "knock and announce" procedure when executing a search warrant. Presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Bush, of course, have been known to dispense with warrants all together, authorizing "black bag" jobs against those who have opposed their policies.
Nixon, who frequently sought to use the Distirct of Columbia as a testng ground for laws that couldn't be applied elsewhere without serious political consequences, sought several times to get Congress to pass a "no knock" provision for D.C. as part of various Omnibus Crime Bills. The residents of D.C., having no voting representation in Congress, are especially vulnerable to this sort of poltical gaming, but Nixon failed. He didn't enoy the Republican control of all branches of government that Bush has been able to take advantage of.
But the Right has now achieved its long-standing goal by non-legislative means. The Supreme Court, in what can only be viewed as a most serious attack on the exclusionary rule, has held that evidence obtained illegally by officers who do not "knock and announce" may still be admissable in court. It will not be long before such illegally obtained evidence is used against someone who is not, as in the case before the Supreme Court, a drug dealer. It will not be long before the "failure to knock and announce" will become unspoken policy.
The court majority reasoned that the usual operations of the exclusionary rule could be suspended because victims of no knock searches have other recourse, such as civil suits against the police. That may be true if you're a congressman whose office is violated; it is considerably less viable an option for the more poltically and economically vulnerable members of our society.
"Knock and announce" requirements serve an important function; they work toward the "reasonableness" of search and seizure. The exclusionary rule was really the only thing that stood to enforce even that fragile protection, and now the Supreme Court majority has shredded it.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Just to reiterate a bit, the book I've been reading by Geoffrey Jacques is something you will want to give a careful look. (and that art work I've just turned into a triptych, by the way, is by Ed Clark)
Jacques is one of those poets who has been working away quietly for years, evolving a poetry of stunning lyric intensity pretty much outside the apparatus of the Po-Biz world. This generous sampling of his poetry has just been published by Wayne State University Press.
My first enocunter with Geoffrey Jacques came more than a decade ago when I was in Los Angeles participating in an NEH summer seminar directed by Samuel Weber at UCLA. Anna and I had been in the habit of attending the Thursday afternoon jazz concerts sponsored at the Museum of Contemporary Art in those days, and made a point of introducing friends to the series. One week, we got amibitious and invited Weber and his wife, friends from the seminar, and Harryette Mullen, then new to L.A., to join us for jazz and dinner. Harryette called up to say that a poet friend was visiting and so we added him to our party.
And this turned out to be Geoffrey Jacques. As is customary when driving across Los Angeles, something that affords a great deal of time for in-the-car conversations, we were all talking about our various interests and current projects. When I learned that Geoffrey had spent a good part of his life in Detroit I began quizing him about associates of C.L.R. James he might have met there. Turned out that Geoffrey not only knew quite a few of them, but he had been a long-time reader and admirer of James. A bit farther along highway 10, I mentioned a project I was working onat the time, investigating the poetry and career of Cleveland avant garde poet Russell Atkins. I then heard Geopffrey Jacques utter a sentence I had never heard spoken by anyone in my life. "Russell Atkins is my hero," said Geoffrey.
Not only had I never before met anybody who knew the names of both James and Atkins, but here was somebody who had made careful study of both writers. This was somebody I had to keep up with.
So, over the intervening years, I've been reading whatever work of Geoffrey's I came across, both critical work and his own increasingly striking poetry. We see each other at the occasional conference, but it's in writing that I have come to know and value Geoffrey Jacques.
And now we have this book of poems that for the first time will give a larger audience the chance to see what he has been up to all these years. Earlier publications, including HUNGER AND OTHER POEMS and SUSPENDED KNOWLEDGE, have long been treasured by avid followers of the small press world, but here we have a substantial selection of his poetry from a university press that should get around much more than the earlier volumes.
The book comes with words of praise from Ammiel Alcalay, enough reason on its own to give the book a try. There's also a foreword from Nathaniel Mackey, who, like me, hopes that this will prove to be the breakthrough book for Jacques.
Here's just one selection -- I like this poem for the way it brings jazz, Garcia Lorca and Frank O'Hara back together again in a wholly original lyric mode:
WELL YOU NEEDN'T
you could find the shimmy
in sound & garlic, in green curtains
in mediocre speeches in faded magazines
waiting for the 8:30
the hazy Statue of Liberty streaks above cracked windows
up over the withered-winged yellow lights
in an old stick striking gold--
or try this one for an instance of sharp political lyric:
SATURDAY NIGHT FISH FRY
lynchings have occurred because Negroes painted their homes
aware of the scheme, some aides are told
--work out efficient behavior control techniques
this personal quality is ambivalent
there's no sign saying what they're made of--
black balls tilt under the red cap
years later the beatings continue
on a streetcorner way too far from Haiti
the drilling goes on into the night
lending the scene an elegant aura
the sweeping views will substantially change the skyline.
for information on how to order a copy of JUST FOR A THRILL, click on the link to Wayne State Press above.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Among the featured readers on the panel for EVERY GOODBYE AIN'T GONE in San Francisco was Ishmael Reed, here seen autographing a book for Steve Dickison of the Poetry Center. Click below to hear Reed's recitation of two poems. In future entries I will be posting additional sound files of poets, particularly readings in conjunction with the anthology project.
Monday, June 12, 2006
I'm just back from Los Angeles, where I was part of a dissertation defense for Jasper Cross, of the Cardiff University.
Jasper was completing the work for a doctorate that combines critical and creative writing. The procedure here was a bit different from what I'm used to with American Universities. We convened in a teleconference room on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles at breakfast time so that we could connect with a faculty member in Wales who was to observe the proceedings. Yunte Huang (above left, University of California at Santa Barbara) joined me in examining Jasper, whose dissertation director, Lauri Ramey (above right), also joined us.
As you might have guessed from the smile and the above depicted champagne, Jasper Cross passed his examination with the highest marks.
But the real reason I'm bringing this to your attention is that the thesis submitted by Jasper Cross is a truly inventive novel titled THE MAN OF INSTRUCTIONS. The book is an intricate experiment in point of view and characterization, one that will reward many rereadings.
Dr. Cross already has attracted some publishers' interest and I look forward to seeing this book in print in the future. You should watch for it too --
And in the meantime, watch for Dr. Cross and his remarkable writing.
afterwards we repaired across town to a pub, where the World Cup was on view -- The USA had already lost their match -- oh well --
Saturday, June 10, 2006
Friday night, Anna and I did something we've never done together before. We went to the drive-in movies. Our first date in D.C. had been a movie night, at the old Biograph Theater in Georgetwon, now, like so many of my hometown's great theaters, converted to a drug store. But we'd never been to a drive-in. They'd all closed up before we'd ever met each other.
They've closed up everywhere, taking with them decades' worth of memories and romance. Many of them have come to have an odd sort of second life, hosting weekend swapmeets. That's what we found when we moved to Santa Barbara some years ago. As you drive up the highway to the campus of the University of California in Santa Barbara, you'll see two old screens off to your right, still standing, but slowly fading in the California sun. We've often looked over to them and thought how it would be fun to see a movie there. The place had screened its last outdoor film more than two decades ago.
But the students at UCSB are an enterprising lot, and some of them have come up with a wonderful project. Adam Grossberg and Ari Phillips hatched a plan to spend their first post-graduation months touring the abandoned drive-ins of America's driven past, making a feature-length documentary in the process. If you visit their website (Irrelephant Productions), you can read about their plans. Over the coming months you'll be able to follow them on their itinerary and read their blog as they meet the ghosts of movies past and talk with owners, staff people and the folks who made the drive-in their destination for so many years.
To kick things off, they did one of the most satisfying things I've seen anybody come up with in quite a while. They reopened Santa Barbara's drive-in for a night, and the commuity turned out, as you can see from this cluster of cars around the old concession stand.
Part of the challenge facing these young folk was the difficulty of replicating the drive-in experience so many years after all the equipment had been removed. Those metral poles we all remember that had the little metal speakers on them are still rooted in the ground, but the speakers were long gone and the wiring was shot. Even that became part of the fun Friday. At the top of the blog you can see Joe Palladino, a long-time staff member of UCSB's Film and Media Studies Department, purchasing one of the old speakers. Anna joked that some students might think it was an early prototype for the iPod --
Which leads us to the clever solution the graduating students came up with after days of field testing. They set up a laptop, planted a good quality data projector on the roof of their car, and used a small FM transmitter to broadcast the soundtrack to the radios in all our cars.
Just like in the old days, they played music in the minutes we were all waiting for the sun to go down. Since there was a nearly full moon, it took a while to get dark enough, and the mingling crowds used the time to reminsce about their own drive-in pasts, and to talk with their children about what these places had meant to us all.
Somehow the organizers had rounded up a selection of old shorts and ads that they screened prior to the main feature. I even found myself laughing out loud when the concession ads came up. You remember those? Dancing bags of popcorn, acrobatic candies, singing sodas, all interspersed with a countdown telling you how many miutes you had to make it back to your car before the movie started.
We even took turns hooting at the late arrivals, whose headlights interfered with our view.
In retrospect, I'm sorry we didn't think to sneak a friend in the trunk of our car, except that our car doesn't have a trunk, and the movie was free anyway -- Still, it was great fun to get back into this spirit again -- a night of film under the stars. Many communities, including Boulder, Colorado, have started a tradition of screening outdoor films in the summer, usually against the side of a building. I remember a showing of METROPOLIS in downtown Boulder one summer. But the drive-in was something else entirely, and for one night, thanks to these industriuous students, Santa Barbara enjoyed a pleasure it hadn't had for twenty years.
It was a great night for all of us, and I'm really looking forward to the documentary these young filmmakers will produce. Keep an eye out for it. Organize a drive-in night in your neighborhood.
Driving away from the drive-in, the Pacific ocean off to our right, I couldn't help thinking that somehow the sky unfolding in front of Anna and me had become a ghostlier demarcation, with keener sounds.
In an intriguing editorial that appeared earlier in the week in the Los Angeles Times, NYU professor of history and education Jonathan Zimmerman examines the Florida Education Omnibus Bill, recently signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush.
Part of that bill requires that 'The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth." Further, the bill mandates that "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed."
As Zimmerman points out in his editorial, "the Florida law is itself a revisionist history," as it relies upon a theoretically constructed, and highly arguable, view of the history of the teaching of history. That construction would not long survive even the most cursory contact with the "facts" of history teaching in the United States. In fact, the "revisionist" history they seem most exercised about was primarily a matter of introducing facts into the curriculum that had been ignored in earlier histories.
But look at the strange language at work here. In the Florida legislature, "fact" is opposed to "construction," which to my mind is rather like opposing telling a lie to building a car. Florida's political leadership has here mandated logical incoherence, and one shudders to think of the mischief that could be brought under this law. On the other hand, it will be entertaining to see political figures who routinely denounce activist judges and appeal to original intent trying to explain in court cases just what form of "revision" they meant to banish from the schools. For that matter, it may be interesting to see what truths will be held not to be self-evident under this law. Imagine, if you can, a court case in which the judge attempts to discern what constitutes "genuine history" under the provisions of this law.
One thing rings clearly from the text of this bill. Neither the legislators who enacted the law nor the governor who signed it into law have any idea what they are talking about. Not only do they seem to believe that facts can't be constructed, but they believe that postmodernism means a belief in something called "relative truth."
Now, I wouldn't necessarily expect the Florida legislature to engage in a philosophical examination of what it means for something to be true, which is what the "truth" debate within studies of postmodernity has been about, but I would hope they'd at least bother to find out what has been true about the revisions in the history of teaching history prior to banning something they seem incapable of defining.
Near the end of the Clinton impeachment hearings, a congressman from Florida took the mic to declare that the real issue (I know, you thought it had something to do with sex and a blue dress, you revisionist) was a cultural war between people who believe in the truth and people who think that everything is relative.
It seems to me that the truth has more to fear from Florida's legislators than it does from Florida's history teachers.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Yesterday poet Brenda Marie Osbey, Poet Laureate of Louisiana, visited Santa Barbara for a reading sponsored by the Center for Black Studies and several academic departments and programs. I made sure to get myself over to campus for the reading, as I had last seen Brenda in D.C. when Anna and I ran into her outside the hotel where the American Studies Association was meeting. In D.C. we learned, to our great relief, that Brenda's home had been spared by Hurricane Katrina and that she was already back in the city.
So it was good to see her here on the West Coast, winding up a reading tour, and to get news of New Orleans and other poet friends from the region. The good folk at UCSB have been working on several Katrina-related projects, and a number of students had gone to New Orleans earlier in the year to lend a hand.
In addition to reporting on those efforts, the UCSB faculty were presenting awards to student writers at the beginning of this event. Brenda, generous and gracious as always, took time to speak with the student poets and to give them contacts they might consider for publishing their works in the future.
The reading was everything we've come to expect from Osbey over the years. I was particularly interested in a poem she wrote in tribute to the late Tom Dent. Dent was a life-long arts activist, and central member of the UMBRA Society of Poets. He had begun to attract wider attention late in his life because of his non-fiction works on the South and the Civil Rights Movement. Osbey's poem was a fitting tribute to a fellow writer and appeared to be especially effective with this young audience, most of whom had never heard of Dent before.
Brenda Marie Osbey is bringing the news of New Orleans to the rest of the country along with her poems. Just what we needed this week; good news that stays good.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Did anybody else notice this? Just days after our Senate declared English to be our national and common language, the National Spelling Bee confronted the final two contestants with two German words.
How unheimlich is that?
Hope the Minutemen aren't too vexed that one of those German-spelling finalists was from across the Canadian border.
Monday, June 05, 2006
[William Melvin Kelley sent this letter to Melvin B. Tolson after the two met at the legendary Fisk Writers' Conference.]
Kelley, 842 East 224th Street, New York, New York 10466
Dear Mr. Tolson:
I am sending to you, in another package, a copy of my 2nd novel A DROP OF PATIENCE. I especially want you to have it. I have only known you a short time, but already I feel as if we have known each other for 300 years now, all our years in bondage. You are a part of my proud past---the past that my white man's education kept from me. You are a great man. And that word MAN is a very heavy word. Somehow in the James Baldwins and the Leroi Joneses I have never been able to find that MAN, and I didn't expect to find one at Fisk either, and I am moved that I did. Keep going; you're doing great.
I think that PATIENCE is a better, truer book than DRUMMER, though I am in a minority about that. DRUMMER was very easily accesible for more people, I see now, because I was still brain-washed when I wrote it. And since most of us are still brain-washed, I guess it works for them. I guess PATIENCE--like a good poem, I hope--is harder because it seems much simpler. Not at all to insult your intelligence, I'm going to tell you how to read it. I very much want you to understand it.
It is, I planned it as, an allegory of the history of the Negro in the US. Part One---the being abandoned and sold into slavery by our own people. Given into the hands of the white man. Part Two---out of that true slavery and into another kind, you might call it Uncle Tom Slavery. The illusion of freedom, but still slavery. Part Three---still another kind of slavery. The slavery of the small mind, of the brain-washed mind of limited goals, and finally breaking free of that. Part Four---the trip north and another iluusion of freedom. Still believeing in the American Dream and fame and money and all the rest. Part Five---Black people and the white man. If we treat him like a human being. He will treat us like human beings. The liberal of the north. And finally the betrayal of the liberal, who is too weak to keep his promises. Part Six---no more dreams now, no more illusions. The chance at the American Dream; the realization that it's a nightmare. If you take their money, if we integrate, the price may be too high. We have to look to ourselves now and maybe start all over again, loving ourselves.
Most people thought Ludlow was defeated, but he isn't. He's won, because now after all that time, all these years, he is master of himself, a free man.
Two more things: (1) You'll notice that Bethrah, Ludlow's little baby girl, is the same Bethrah who grows up and marries Tucker Calliban in A DIFFERENT DRUMMER. (2) The book has no visual imagery. Written through a blind man, the book is "blind" and is told completely through four senses, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Out of 80 reviews only 5 people saw that.
Well I hope I'll hear from you soon. And of course whenever you come to New York, please come and see me and my wife and baby.
William Melvin Kelley
Saturday, June 03, 2006
Inveterate readers of the complete works of the AMERICAN COUNCIL OF TRUSTEES AND ALUMNI have learned to go straight to the "scholarly" apparatus of each report. Using a tactic familiar to followers of the careers of Dinesh D'Souza and David Horowitz (others, like Shelby Steele, don't even bother with such cosmetic effects), the Council appends to their report the "research' that is supposed to support their conclusions. When the Council first attracted wide-spread media attention, it was by way of a similar "study" that "found" the American Academy guilty of removing Shakespeare from the curriculum. Were one to read the acompanying appendices, one would find that the only thing the Council looked for was the existence or non-existence of stand-alone Shakespeare courses. Thus, someone such as myself who was at that very moment teaching a great deal of Shakespeare, would not have been counted at all. Additionally, the schools surveyed were not randomly sampled, nor were they even selected with an eye to assembling a representative group of American colleges. The curriculum chosen for sampling were chosen with an eye towards producing the result the Council hoped to present to the media.
Much the same procedures were in operation in the wake of 9/11, when the Council produced a report supposedly detailing atrocities in the American classroom, documented instances of treasonous statements delivered by professors to their captive audience of students. Again, there was a scholarly apparatus. (and yes, I am finally dropping the scare quotes). Again, a reading of that apparatus revealed just how bogus the study was. Swelling the numbers of treasonous statements were things that had not been said by any professor at all. In at least one instance, the evidence consisted of a poster that was on the bulletin board in a class. The poster itself had clearly been placed on the wall prior to the events of 9/11 and had nothing to do with them whatsoever. It was a poster we all have seen countless times over the years, one that advances the seemingly unarguable thesis that war is dangerous to innocent civilians.
Now come the AMERICAN COUNCIL OF TRUSTEES AND ALUMNI to warn the body politic of the presence of the professorial fifth column in our midst: one, two, thousands of Ward Churchills on campuses all over America.
Again, a remarkably small number of campuses got surveyed, and it turns out they weren't really surveyed at all. Apparently somebody has simply visited the websites of suspect faculty and departments looking for signs of rampant disloyalty and indoctrination.
But even within that extraordinarily small selection, it turns out that the Council has not been able to find much that anybody in their right or even left mind would get much exercised about.
The Council announces:
"What we do mean to suggest is that the extremist rhetoric and tendentious opinion for
which Churchill is infamous can be found on campuses across America. In published course
descriptions and online course materials, professors are openly and unapologetically declaring
that they use their positions to push political agendas in the name of teaching students to think
What they finally produce in support of this conclusion is something else entirely, and this is where my own campus comes in to play.
I'm proud to say that Penn State does appear among the campuses documented in the Council report's appendix.
While I am disappointed to find only four courses out of the thousands taught at Penn State in the appendix (and only two of those are represented by their course descriptions -- the other two entries, both Sociology courses, are simply links to the faculty's syllabi), it is telling that half of the represented courses are in English. One is a freshman Composition course, which apparently is suspect because it is a course examining the rhetoric of discussions of our relationships to animals and ethics. It seems that the following language from the course description is intended by the Council to stand as evidence of political indoctrination:
"The arguments that have been constructed to articulate the rights of animals, critique their treatment in our communities, and espouse our moral obligations towards them are finely tuned examples of persuasive thought. By examining these rhetorical propositions as a class, we will learn to interpret, judge, and formulate persuasive arguments about ethics, social construction, and fairness. By recognizing that there is a direct correlation between the ways that we discuss our connection to animals and how we understand our relationships and obligations to each other, we will extend our analysis of the interactions between humans and animals to explorations of how human beings treat each other in modern communities as well."
That's right, gentle reader, at Penn State we harbor faculty who insist to our students that they can learn something from the way people argue about our relationships to animals that may help us comprehend the rhetoric of ethics in our culture. Not only that, but this instructor has the gall to insist that the students in a rhetoric course examine the workings of persuasive arguments. The sheer commie nerve of these people!
But it's the other course cited from our English Department of which I am most proud. While Penn State's English department has faced all the same budget problems that have afflicted the academy as a whole, we have none-the-less succeeded in hiring really exciting younger faculty in recent years, a success that has not gone unnoticed by the Council.
On the third page of their study, the council lay out their case that American universities have given themselves wholly to a "politicized liberal arts curriculum." Now I know some of you believe that there is no such thing as an unpoliticized curriculum, even in physics, but I wanted to see what the Council had in mind under this heading. It turns out that what they had in mind was the kind of thing going on in the classroom of one of my wonderful new colleagues, Professor Scott Herring. The council notes that "There are also plenty of English courses that use literature to theorize race, gender, and sexuality." One is hard pressed to understand why using literature to theorize issues that literature does in fact often theorize is something to worry about. Here's what they say about Penn State on this count:
"Penn State University offers 'American Masculinities,' which maps 'how vexed ideas about
maleness, manhood, and masculinity provided rough-riding presidents, High Modern novelists,
Provincetown playwrights, queer regionalists, star-struck inverts, surly bohemians, and others
with a means to negotiateÂand genderÂthe cultural and political turmoil that constituted
modern American life.'Â
Perhaps the Council is of the opinion that students shouldn't study "vexed ideas," but that raises the question of what they think their own study is supposed to accomplish.
In their appendix, the Council reproduce (without permission, I'm guessing) the entire description for the course. Following their example, I will again copy it here without permission (forgive me, Scott):
ENGL 403.001: LITERATURE AND CULTURE -- American Masculinities
Scott Herring -- TR 2:30p-3:45p -- 203 WILLARD -- 493645
What did it take to makeÂor unmakeÂa ÂmanÂ in modern U.S. literatures and cultures? ItÂs a
deceptively simple question that will guide our readings as we map competing representations of
ÂmasculinitiesÂ across the first third of the twentieth-century and beyond. Along the way, we will
chart how vexed ideas about maleness, manhood, and masculinity provided rough-riding
presidents, High Modern novelists, Provincetown playwrights, queer regionalists, star-struck
inverts, surly bohemians, and others with a means to negotiateÂand genderÂthe cultural and
political turmoil that constituted modern American life. In so doing, we too will use evolving
frameworks of ÂmasculinityÂ to revisit key controversies such as: Â·The rise of
hetero/homosexual identities Â·Masculinity and racialization Â·New Women vs. New Men
Â·Manliness, nativism, and primitivism Â·Sheiks, sweetbacks, and bohemian life Â·Interracial male
friendship Â·Female masculinities Â·Class instabilities Â·Postmodern carry-overs Along with a
course packet of critical readings, the class will read texts by Theodore Roosevelt, Harry
Houdini, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lothrop Stoddard, Edgar Lee Masters,
Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Ralph Werther ("Jennie June"), Mae West, Robert
McAlmon, Richard Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and Mike Gold.
Please note the remarkable range of readings in this course, including both Lothrop Stoddard AND Mike Gold.
Just what is it that the Council finds so dangerous in this? How like Ward Churchill is Scott Herring? Doesn't this course description sound like it's doing just what a good college course should do? and doesn't it make you want to sign up for the course?
I wish we did have hundreds of Scott Herrings on our campus -- I'm glad that he is here working with us. I fervently hope that many will read the appendix to the Coucil's report, will see Scott's course description, and will insist that American campuses do all in their power to continue hiring faculty who will offer course materials as challenging and useful as this.