Thursday, April 27, 2006

No hatching or dispatching, but a fair bit of matching this summer ...

O, I have pass'd a miserable night,
So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams,
That, as I am a Christian faithful man,
I would not spend another such a night,
Though 'twere to buy a world of happy days,
So full of dismal terror was the time!
(Richard III 1.4: 2-7)

The mopey-looking fellow in the foreground here is my dear friend Jeremy Worth, playing the doomed Duke of Clarence in the 2000 UWO Summer Shakespeare's production of Richard III. Some of you may remember him from various posts in the comments section of this blog, where he variously goes by Clarence or Jer ... and yes, he is (or his character here) is my cat's namesake. I got the little guy (the cat, not Jer) the summer I directed Richard, and in honour of that remarkable experience decided to name him after one of the characters from the play. I'd narrowed it down to Ratcliff, Catesby or Clarence ... but when I got him, he was a tiny whiny thing, and so Clarence it was.

Jer's responsible for the most oft-repeated phrase of the summer. At the beginning of his most famous speech, quoted above, the "Oh ..." at the start of the first sentence came out in this rolling, sonorous North London (England) timbre, which got affectionately picked up by the rest of the cast. At random intervals, backstage and during rehearsals and, well, any time cast members were together, you could pretty much guarantee hearing an "Aaaoooooooohhh ..." with a pronounced downward intonation pronounced by someone in the cast or crew. It's still sort of like a secret handshake for anyone who'd been in the show.

Anyway ... two big pieces of news down Jeremy-way! First, the little guy with the huge voice is getting married this summer. AND, he's been hired into a tenure-track position by the Department of French at the University of Windsor. So a great huge congratulations and shout-out from me & my blog.

ALSO ... on Canada Day, I just found out, yet another good friend of mine it tying the knot -- the tiny & perfect Emylene Aspilla, with whom I went through my undergrad at York with, is marrying her longtime boyfriend Roach (yes, Roach -- much tidier and better-looking than the name suggests). They've been living in SanFran these past few years, so it will be lovely to see them both before, on and after their big day.

Yet more evidence that we're all ostensibly growing up. Disturbing.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The migrant-worker model for university employment

Well, this is worrisome. Not for us in Canada, not yet -- it's a report issued by the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, addressing the issue of high university tuitions and asking why this is so. I found this on Michael Berube's blog, and his commentary on it is funnier and more incisive than whatever I'm about to write. Which doesn't mean I'm not going to write it, just that you should go read his first, and then come back.

To sum the report up: tuition has shot up by leaps and bounds because of (1) tenure, (2) inefficiency. Tenure actually falls under the larger inefficiency rubric, but it is emblematic of the universities' stubborn adherence to outmoded systems of adminitration, as is the practice of having faculty (“neither trained in nor committed to management”) in all the key administrative positions -- Deans, Presidents, Department Chairs, etc.

Tenure, so the report states, is particularly pernicious, not just because it creates a situation in which tenured professors are unassailable and unfireable, but because it is anathema to good business practice. How to correct this? Unsurprisingly, the report suggests relying increasingly upon limited-term contract hires and part-time instructors, which will be significantly less expensive for universities than full-time, tenure-track positions.

So let's think about this for a moment: what would a university without tenure look like?

This is what I tend to think of as the migrant-worker model. Imagine hundreds of PhDs and ABDs lining the roadside every morning while a truck with a university president in the flatbed with a megaphone cries out the daily needs and capriciously selects hungry part-time profs to fill teaching positions for the day.

OK, I exaggerate, but it is a model that slowly encroaches on all universities -- increasingly, courses are taught by part-time people who get paid by the course and contractual faculty with a one to three year contract.

Well, you ask: what is the problem with that? Shouldn't universities be subject to the same market forces as anyone else?

My answer -- which is only partially derived from the fact that I'm four or five years away from tenure myself -- is No! in thunder.

Yes, I have a stake in the game now myself and obviously want to maintain the benefits that accompany full-time tenured employment. But there is a misconception in the popular imagination that imagines professors cease working after that magic moment ... that they earn their salaries for teaching six to nine hours a week and doing nothing more, all the while reaping the benefits of sabbaticals and grants. (At least once a year, someone -- usually Margaret Wente -- writes an op-ed column on this very subject, invariably suggesting that professors be "forced" to work forty hours a week ... which inevitably leads professors to comment dryly that they would love to be forced to work forty hours a week -- it would cut their work-weeks by twenty hours or more).

To begin with: to use my own case as an example, I went through thirteen years of school before arriving at the point I now find myself. Five years on a BA, one on an MA, seven on a PhD. In the eight years since graduating the BA, I have seen countless friends and acquaintances get hired in solid and occasionally lucrative jobs; pay off their student loans; buy homes; etc etc. I don't begrudge them that by any stretch -- I made my choice, and lived as a student for eight years longer than was strictly necessary, all the while racking up more loans and wasting money on rent because at no point did I have the capital to buy a house. Again, not bitter about that. My point is, it's not as if I emerge from the other end of that to take on a six-figure salary. I have (almost) no complaints about my salary, but it is hardly lucrative. Even after tenure, I'm still going to be falling far short of friends and acquaintances' incomes who have been establishing themselves in their respective professions for the past eight years.

So: having been in school for thirteen years, with significant debt and no assets, it strikes me that the material trade-off is rather a disappointment. But I didn't get into this for the money -- and anyone who does is really too stupid to live. I got into this profession because I am deeply invested, philosophically and spiritually, in education, reading & writing, and the value of the intellectual in society. If I'd been interested in a high salary I'd have done law school right out of my BA.

Of course, here's the sticking-point: I'm not so altruistic to have gone through all that if there had been no prospect whatsoever of full-time employment. If the academic landscape were entirely populated with contractual jobs and part-time work, why would I put myself through all that?

Which brings me to argument #1 against the migrant-worker academy: within a generation, your ready supply of PhDs would dry up, for the precise reason I articulated above.

Argument #2? Even if there were people still keen to do PhDs, there would be no graduate programs left, for the simple reason that graduate programs by design and definition need tenured faculty to exist. How do you advise a grad student when you're on a two-year contract? How do you attract grad students to begin with without a solid and well-established roster of active and engaged professors?

Argument #3: even if we accept the demise of grad programs as they exist and radically ratchet back the standards for the hiring and accrediting of professors, undergraduate programs themselves would suffer. Why? Because of a lack of depth. We're all familiar with the stereotype of the socially inept, head-up-his-own-ass prof who is a brilliant researcher but a crappy teacher; and not a school year goes by where I don't hear someone lament the absence of some sort of set of standards in the classroom to be applied to professors (and I don't doubt that occasionally I am the object of such anger). A fair point, but in my experience that pedagocially inept professor is the exception to the rule ... more often than not, professors are quite engaged in the classroom, they want to share their ideas and research and passions with the students, and they have an investment in teaching. The point here is that I am at my best in the classroom teaching that which I know best -- I can offer my students a more nuanced, informative experience of the material when it somehow radiates from my own research and investigations. And that is something that will only get better.

Research, in other words, isn't simply about grants and excuses to travel or take sabbaticals -- it informs not just one's own teaching, but the character of a department. When teaching part-time, professors must take on a significantly higher teaching load to make ends meet; when on contract, they are similarly loaded down with an excess of courses to the extent that the job becomes a mechanical exercise in preparation and grading, with no time or energy left over for reflection and inquiry ... to say nothing of the fact that a significant number of the courses one teaches are, at best, tangential to one's own research areas (my first part-time teaching assignment? Shakespeare ... not that I don't love that topic, but as a twentieth-century Americanist, I'm not exactly the most qualified. Couple that with the fact that it was my first real teaching attempt, and I'm often tempted to send all the students in that class notes of apology).

The desire to apply business models to education, which is what essentially informs this report, is exceptionally dangerous and damaging -- just look at the education system in Ontario after ten years of Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution, which treated grade schools and high schools with this very sort of business model. "Efficiency" was the watchword there too, and Ontario schools won't recover for years. The point of education is that it is singularly inefficient. Why? Because it is something whose "product" is not goods and services, but people and minds. Indeed, the "product" of the modern univeristy as theorized by Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt was citizens -- or more specifically, an intelligent, educated, informed and engaged citizenry. Not, you will note, "taxpayers." Citizens. We don't hear that word much anymore, do we?

OK, I've ranted long enough. I just hope our dear prime minister doesn't read that report and start getting any ideas.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Revising sucks

Whenever I set myself to the task of revising a paper or article, I always think of that opening scene in Glengarry Glen Ross when Alec Baldwin comes into the real estate office and harrangues the staff with an expletive-strewn pep talk whose bottom line is "A-B-C! Always Be Closing!" And at one points shouts at Jack Lemmon, who's gone to get himself a cup of coffee: "Put the coffee down! Coffee is for closers!"

Yup. I don't get any coffee. Because it takes me forever to close. Because I hate revisions with the white-hot intensity of a thousand stars.

Of course, part of it is just the annoyance that only I seem to recognize my own brilliance and that what I write should be accepted unvarnished with fanfare and palm leaves strewn on the ground before.

I am SO misunderstood in my own time.

Grr. Argh. Back to the revisions.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

First Signal Hill hike of the season

Well, after two days of crappy-rainy-sleety weather, today was a gem. Not too warm -- only about +5 -- but the sun made it easy to forget that, unless you were in the teeth of the wind. Which I did in fact manage to be all the way around Signal Hill. How is it that, no matter where on the hill I was, I managed to have the wind blasting into my left ear?

No matter. It was worth it, and it was entirely refreshing to get out and soak up the vitamin D.

The fog, she do roll in quick, don't she?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

President Harper

Here's a lovely little opinion piece in The Star today by my favourite-ever professor Arthur Haberman from York University (thanks to my Dad for finding it and sending me the link). True to Arthur's classroom style, this succinct op-ed frames the issue at hand in a very lucid and persuasive manner ... and puts its finger on my general unease about Harper's performance so far and clarifies a host of concerns. President Harper indeed.

Two thoughts on our current goverment: first, I'm starting to think of this as a faux-minority, a minority numerically but not practically. Serendipitously, a few minutes after reading Arthur's piece I heard a report on CBC radio about the recent bit of daycare legislation. Harper's "bring it on" attitude, i.e. his determination to open this up to a non-confidence vote, makes it fairly obvious he is slavering to have this government brought down and a new election called. He's been very smart: keeping things low-key, lowering the media profile of the government, and basically staying as far away from hot-button topics as possible. In other words, he hasn't given the country any excuse to toss him out in a new election, and with the Liberals in a leadership vacuum, he could only consolidate his party's hold -- possibly getting a majority. And of course the Liberals are aware of this, and I'm sure the last thing they want between now and establishing their new leader is an election. So they'll likely have to eat the daycare legislation, and pretty much anything else Harper wants to put through in the short term. As long as he doesn't try anything that would mobilize people seriously against him, he can theoretically get an awful lot of legislation through this way.

The other thing is that we're seeing the Liberals' "hidden agenda" campaign strategy biting them in the ass. Harper has gained steadily in polls since the election, largely, I would argue, because he is in fact being low-key. That's the problem with demonizing someone to such an extent: when the time comes, if he doesn't actually show his fangs, he actually seems like a pretty good guy in comparison to what had been predicted. Arthur's argument that Harper is trying to carve our executive-style power for himself is, I think, spot-on and pretty disturbing; but in the absence of him actually beating Dickensian orphans with a cudgel on the lawn of 24 Sussex and throwing Molotov cocktails at gay bars, a significant amount of those in the political center are currently thinking, "Hey, he isn't so bad after all."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

And yet, being "phlegmatic" is suppose to be a good thing

I have uber-antibodies. I really do. I hardly ever get sick, and usually sail through cold and flu season with nary a sniffle. And when I do get sick, I usually kick it within a day or so. It makes a lot of people annoyed.

But then there's always one viral equivalent of Andre the Giant that gets me in a bearhug every year, usually at the most inconvenient time, and doesn't let go. That's where I've been for about the last week or so -- true to form, this one hit just in time for the final marking putsch. It started with a fever too, which was the first I'd had in a long time -- I had a really weird fever dream in which my body was an airport.

Well, I think I finally kicked it today, but it didn't leave wilingly. I woke up with a massive sinus headache, which I think was this cold's final assault. It honestly felt like someone had hooked an air compressor up to my nostrils and ears and cranked my psi up to danger levels.

And then suddenly -- it was all gone. And not in a very pleasant manner.

There's a scene in Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie where the massive-nosed main character Saleem Sinai, after years of blocked sinuses, finally managed to, um, void his passages (I just realized that my copy of the book is at home. Damn. I'd have quoted the passage.) Not a very pretty scene.

Anyway, that's sort of what it was like for me at around eleven o'clock this morning.

So HERE's the question I'm puzzling over today ... way back in the day, around 400 BC, this Greek doctor Hippocrates theorized that our health and personality was governed by four substances that existed in an equilibrium in our body: blood, choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile), and phlegm. Each corresponded to certain traits and qualities. Hence, someone with an overbalance of blood is courageous, ebulient, cheerful (sanguine); yellow bile, quick-tempered and irascible (choleric); black bile, depressive and despondent (melancholy); and phlegm, calm, stoic and undemonstrative (phlegmatic).

There were also various diseases and ailments associated with each of these humours ... and this was the height of medical science until they invented the iron lung, more or less.

So having had a rather phlegmmy morning, I have to wonder: what exactly was going through Hippocrates' mind when he had the flash of inspiration associating the quality of logical calm with a runny rose? Because believe me, when I was doing my Saleem Sinai impersonation this morning, I was anything bt calm and undemonstrative. I was a lot like the character of Deja Vu in Top Secret, who opines that "Each of us in his own way must learn to deal with adversity in a mature and adult fashion," and then sneezes massively into his hands, and, seeing the mucal mess he made, screams hysterically and jumps out a window.

It's a good thing I live on the first floor.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The life of a horticulturalist

For some reason, for the last little while, I've had a Dorothy Parker line running through my head. At a party playing word games, she was told to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence. And in true Dorothy Parker fashion, she said "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."

In my darker moments teaching, I tend to think of that as a useful summary of the more annoying aspects of my job.

Which is, admittedly, very uncharitable -- I should add a caveat that every time I get grumbly about my students, it really has more to do with my own dissatisfaction with my own performance as a teacher.

Still, "horticulture" is a fun word. I suppose there's a whole cheesy metaphor I could spin out about the cultivation of minds, but that isn't really my style. Unless we add something in there about fertilizer.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh ...

That, dear friends and neighbours, is the sound of me completing all my teaching duties for the year. Done. Done done done. Just submitted all my final grades a moment ago, and I will momentarily perform the deeply satisfying task of filing my course folders away in the filing cabinet, and moving the "Teaching 2005-06" folder off my computer desktop and into "My Documents." Small gestures, but very symbolic. Doubly so, seeing as how this marks the end of my first (teaching) year at MUN ... there is still the summer term to go, but -- and this is the cool part -- I don't have to teach this summer! First time in four years. So very very sweet.

And with that, I am off to go stock my larder. I was looking forward to a lazy brunch downtown tomorrow, but apparently this city shuts down tight on Good Friday -- NOTHING will be open. %$##@# Christians.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Sweatpants, like, galore ...

Well, it's that time of year again -- when undergraduate hygiene and fashion sense goes out the window, and one feels the palpable, frantic near-panic that pervades campus.

Yup, it's exam time -- a time whose inchoate anxiety is compounded by professors like myself who tend to set late deadlines for final essays, so the mad rush to finish writing increases exponentially the exam panic. Mwuh ha ha.

It's a time of ponytails and scrunchies, hair escaping in disheveled and frizzy clumps, sweatpants and hoodies, and even in some cases pyjama bottoms and slippers or flipflops. That, and the smell of fear.

There was however a revolution in exam-period fashion a few years ago -- one that, I became convinced, had its epicenter at UWO. All at once, it seemed, we went from shapeless sweats to form-fitting, hip-hugging and low-riding creations. So fashionable were these new avatars of comfort that they became de rigeur throughout the school year proper -- so one could only discern exam periods by the smell of fear.

I became convinced that this was a Western invention because it allowed typical exam-period dress to become fashionable, thus closing those troubling fashion-gaps that so irked the Gap-clad hordes at UWO. So, Western fashionistas, I salute you -- your innovation has ensconced itself out here on the Rock, thus spreading to the extremities of our nation.

Speaking of the end of the school year, it occurs to me that a lot of my former students back at the old school are entering what is, for a lot of them, their last-ever exam period as undergrads. Good luck, peoples.

Monday, April 10, 2006

"Exhuming McCarthy" -- not just a song by REM

All right, it's a slow day -- I'm here in my office so that students can hand in their papers to me, and beyond that I don't have much to do (well, actually, I have a lot to do, but I'm taking this time to take a deep breath before a rather insane 48 hours of essay grading). So I thought I'd write a blog entry.

Aaaaaannd it got a little away from me. So if you're about to start reading, be warned that it goes on for quite a while. So go get a coffee, maybe a snack. Do you like music when you read? Perhaps you should turn some on.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin ...


Well, on the heels of my last post ranting about the egregious idiocy of Bill O'Reilly seems as good a time as any to write a post on something that's been rattling around my head for a while now. I blogged a little while back in passing about right-wingnut David Horowitz and his book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. In and of itself, the book is yet more pap emerging from the conservative think tanks south of the border, and not really worth mentioning. I certainly couldn't do a better job of debunking the book than Michael Berube does on a regular basis on his blog (of course, as someone actually listed as one of the 101 most dangerous professors, Berube is in an ideal position to take on Horowitz, and does so with elan and ironic humour, something his shrill and thin-skinned opponent is notably lacking. For an example of what I mean, see here).

No, what's been sort of rattling around in my head lately has to do with some recent efforts on the far right in the States to recuperate Senator Joseph McCarthy's reputation. Granted, this does tend to come from the more hysterical of the pundits (Anne Coulter is perhaps the Senator from Wisconsin's greatest advocate these days, though there are some revisionist histories in the works as well), but the fact that it rather neatly parallels the entire Bush-wiretapping issue is somewhat disturbing.

It is still a fairly significant insult to be accused of "McCarthyite" tactics, and so the good Mr. Horowitz bristles rather quickly when anyone ventures to suggest that his book is all about "naming names," though he is quite glib when it comes to accusing his detractors of tactics similar to those of Tailgunner Joe.

With the frequency with which McCarthy's name gets tossed around by people on both the left and the right, it's only good and proper that we hear it with a grain of salt and see it for what it is most of the time: namely, a reified term that simply connotes a bad guy in a black hat, a cartoon villain whose identification as a bombastic crypto-fascist buffoon tends to go largely unexamined and unquestioned in the popular imagination -- much in the same way that a Stephen Spielberg film uses Nazis as the bad guys, because they come with a whole series of qualities and traits that require no thought to decipher.

The problem is that Horowitz's tactics are genuinely McCarthyite. The Professors, in and of itself, is a joke, a punchline, that is not only poorly researched and reads like a cut-and-paste from some uberconservative version of Wikipedia, but also evinces a laughable ignorance of the realities of university life. A pervasive conspiracy on the part of over 50,000 professors to "purge" the academy of conservatives?? Please. Anyone who's ever sat in on a faculty meeting and watched a group of professors try to agree on changing the wording for an entry in the course calendar would have a good chuckle over that one. "Herding cats" is the phrase that comes to mind -- any conspiracy by academics would be stillborn at the first meeting during the fight that would ensue over what to name the cabal.

Further, the basis for Horowitz's book is the idea that these professors are "dangerous" not so much for personal politics as for their indoctrination of their students into leftist and anti-American sentiments. So: that being said, one would think that a key component of the book would be testimonials from students who were browbeat into writing Marxist essays, failed for articulating conservative ideas, and generally forced into a leftist mold, right? Not so much -- just the aforementioned brief bios. There is in fact no evidence offered at all that any of the 101 professors use their classes as soapboxes. I imagine that some probably do -- it is hard in any classroom context, never mind the humanities, not to let one's personality show through. But to suggest that this process is something akin to brainwashing gives professors way to much credit and students not enough. I can attest -- based on both class experience itself and course evaluations -- that in any given classroom context, a portion of the students think that what you say is brilliant, a portion think you're full of shit, and a (probably the largest) portion copy down what you say rather indifferently, spit it back on essays and exams, and promptly forget the keynotes of the course in a post-exam binge.

Hm. Look at that -- I had not intended a sustained critique of The Professors, and yet couldn't help myself. Sorry about that. Anyway, as I was saying, Horowitz's tactics are in fact eminently McCarthyite. The Professors is merely symptomatic, and in and of itself not worth talking about (except insofar as it makes me mad and liable to rant). More troubling, and what gives rise to this post, is the website Better than me explaining it, go and check it out. I'll wait.

Back? Disturbed yet? My favourite page is the list of individuals, laid out helpfully along a grid. More on this in a moment.

DiscoverTheNetwork was launched in 2005, spearheaded by Horowitz and various cronies from ultraconservative think tanks and publications. The overall premise of this site is that there exists a "network" of people, groups and organizations left of center who (a) sympathize with terrorists, (b) are anti-American, and (c) constitute a "shadow-party" influencing the Democrats.

I wish this site had been around while I was writing my thesis: it is pretty much a paradigm of conspiratorial thinking. Like most conspiracy theories, or manifestations of which Richard Hofstadter famously termed "the paranoid style in American politics," it proceeds from flawed deductive reasoning. When we think about it, conspiracy in its actual, documented forms as a criminal charge (conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to defraud) is something that is investigated and uncovered using inductive reasoning -- that is, working from the particulars to a general rule (investigators uncover evidence, find connections, establish which connections are valid, and arrive at the shape of the conspiracy). Deductive reasoning, conversely, works from a general rule to particular instances (the famous example being All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, ergo Socrates is mortal). What happens in conspiratorial thinking is that the theorist ("paranoid spokesman," to again cite Hofstadter) assumes the conspiracy's existence from the outset and then formulates connections whose existence is predicated on -- what? Well, there is a conspiracy, therefore there must be connections. Something of a tautology, yes.

Senator Joseph McCarthy pretty much perfected this strategy. Starting with his infamous declarations in the Senate -- "There are [x number of] card-carrying communists in the state department!" -- he then proceeded in the HUAC hearings to defame individuals based on the flimsiest of conjectures and associations. The entire process was predicated on the acceptance of his basic premise: that the U.S. government and other high-profile organizations were riddled with communist agents actively working toward the demise of capitalism and apple pie. Or something.

Today, those intent on exhuming McCarthy invariably point to the fact that there were communists at large in America, and that some were exposed by the hearings ... Alger Hiss being the most notorious example.

This is true enough. Also undeniable however is the collateral damage done by HUAC to people whose only crime had been attending a meeting out of curiosity in the 1930s, or owning albumns by Paul Robeson, or having a next-door neighour who had confessed to marxist sympathies -- people whose jobs were lost, who found themselves faced with the impossible choice of naming names they knew to be innocent or getting blacklisted.

The point of the McCarthyite conspiracy theorizing however was manifestly not uncovering actual card-carrying communists so much as attacking the vestiages of 1930s-era, New Deal-style politics as manifested in the figure that so fired McCarthy's hatred: the east-coast, Ivy League liberal intellectual. Actual card-carrying communists were not all that hard to find: the American Communist Party never actually went underground, and remained in visible (if occasionally tenuous) existence throughout the most egregious years of McCarthy's inquisitions. The hapless individuals handing out pamphlets on streetcorners and harranguing factory workers were not his target.

Nor was actual ideology ever a point of questioning. Communism was not the object of inquiry, it was the weapon. The tireless "rooting out of traitors" proceeded along oblique and suggestive lines. The now-notorious "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" was followed by questions about books the witness owned, their associations with liberal groups, the magazines to which they subscribed; "Your next-door neighbour admitted to attending a communist meeting in 1937" is the kind of bludgeon those called before the committee could expect.

Communism was thus figured not as a series of political philosophies so much as personal proclivities. McCarthy's most striking characterization was the commie-as-queer: spitting vitriol about "Whiny egg-sucking phony liberals," he established a series of associations starting with the limp-wristed intellectual and cringing liberal, connecting these to New Deal politics, New Deal liberalism with socialism, and socialism with communism. Not only was “Communism” divorced from theory, philosophy and ideology, but the imputation of intellectualism itself became a sign of Communist tendencies. It followed essentially the same logic as that which once stipulated that good girls don't chew gum -- because a girl who chews gum will smoke, a girl who smokes will drink, and a girl who drinks! Well, everyone knows what a girl who drinks will do ...

Turning back to DiscoverTheNetwork, let's look again at the page labelled "Individuals." Here is Horowitz's defense of it: "The picture grid is not a list of anything, except a small fraction of the raw contents of the site. It is an enticement not a thesis. It does not suggest any connections between these individuals, except in the sense that they all belong in a database about the left."

To claim that this grid does not suggest any connections here is simply disingenuous. Of course Horowitz cannot claim that Barbara Streisand is in cahoots with Sami Al-Arian, someone actually brought up at one point on terrorism charges: I'm hazy on libel laws, but I'm pretty sure that would be close to the line. Articulating concrete charges is not what this site is about: it is about establishing suggestive links between the left's own wingnuts -- our equivalents of Anne Coulter and Pat Robertson -- and the liberal mainstream. The classifications at the top of the page, I would argue, are designed to be incidental. The real point of the grid is imagistic rather than prescriptive: it works by proximity, not argument. Hence, we have an array (the grid is itself suggestive of a non-arbitrary ordering principle, a gesture to Weberian rationality) of individuals with less to do with each other than apples and oranges. We have apples and sea otters. Yet, the continuum proceeds by increments, taking us from idiots like Professor Ward Churchill (who called the victims of 9/11 "little Eichmanns") or a dictator like Fidel Castro, through well-respected academics like Cornell West or populist filmmakers like Michael Moore, to such innocuous celebrities like Streisand, Bruce Springsteen and Martin Sheen (the picture of Sheen, incidentally, is cropped from a publicity still from The West Wing).

This particular page is, effectively, the entire site in microcosm. Horowitz's protestation that it is "not a list of anything, except a small fraction of the raw contents of the site," ignores the fact that the rest of the site is more or less organized according to the same principle. Significantly lacking is anything outlining the structure of the "network" -- we are invited instead to "discover the network" for ourselves (interesting, in this respect, that Horowitz calls the Individuals page an "enticement"). Hence, we are invited to collapse the gulfs that lie between Sheik Omar Abdel and Howard Dean, Fidel Castro and George Clooney, Louis Farrakhan and Garrison Keillor (because, as we all know, the author of Lake Wobegone Days constitutes a serious threat to American national security); between the ACLU and the IRA; between the Black Panthers and the Rainforest Alliance.

The temptation to laugh at the sheer absurdity this site represents is immense; as blogger Rox Populi quips, "I haven’t had this much fun since I was handed a Lyndon LaRouche tract that tied the Hapsburgs to the Challenger explosion." I could add dozens of comparable examples that I encountered while researching my thesis, all just as absurd and laughable. It is the logic however informing this web site that makes me uneasy ... coupled with the knowledge that, in hindsight, Senator McCarthy was just as laughable. The student of a colleague, upon seeing Good Night, and Good Luck apparently liked the film, but thought the guy playing McCarthy was "overacting" (the film used actual footage of the Senator, not an actor) ... but McCarthy was believable back in the day, and the fact that certain elements are now trying to exhume his bones gives me pause.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The giant head strikes again

I make a concerted effort not to let the idiocy of the Fox News pundits get to me ... otherwise, I would spend my life in an infuriated fog of disbelief at the stuff that comes out of the collective mouth of Hannity, Coulter, et al. Life's too short. But then every so often one of them will say something that so far surpasses the bounds of decency, so defies belief, or exhibits such a flagrant disregard for truth, history and actuality that I simply cannot pass it by without comment.

Well, this time it's Bill O'Reilly, or as Keith Olbermann calls him, "the big giant head." In response to a caller's assertion that the deep racial rifts between black and white in the U.S. and the problems that plague the African-American community are rooted in decades of enslavement, O'Reilly denied that this was the case. His evidence? Well, the Irish were oppressed by the British, but emigrated to America overcame that injustice. Ergo, the African-American community has no recourse to blaming slavery -- since the Irish prevailed, then the same opportunity has been afforded blacks in America:

"My people came from County Cavan in Ireland. All right? And the British Crown marched in there with their henchman, Oliver Cromwell, and they seized all of my ancestors' lands, everything. And they threw them into slavery, pretty much indentured servitude on the land. And then the land collapsed, all right? And everybody was starving in Ireland. They had to leave the country, just as Africans had to leave -- African-Americans had to leave Africa and come over on a boat and try to make in the New World with nothing. Nothing."

I'm not certain if I'm more aghast at O'Reilly's apparent attempt to claim some sort of twisted solidarity with black America (echoes of The Commitments -- "The Irish are the blacks of Europe!"), or with this bizarre rewriting of history in which the Irish diaspora is placed on par with the violent kidnapping and enslavement of thousands of Africans. In O'Reilly's revisionist account, it sounds like the "emigration" of the Africans had some element of choice involved.

Africans did not cross the Atlantic to start a new life with nothing. They were forcibly relocated from the lives they were living. And they didn't have nothing -- they had less than nothing. At least the Irish owned themselves.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

On the healing power of a sunny day

I don't think I quite appreciated my vitamin D deficiency until stepping out into today's brilliant sunshine. It was so glorious, I began to suspect a divine April Fool's Day joke.

Walking from my place down to Water Street for my typical Saturday lunch at Nellie's over the G&M (and the new Harper's, which was the icing on the cake) was itself remarkably restorative. Most picturesque of all were the many rivulets of water from the runoff of melting snow, trickling in wide swathes down the hills toward the harbour -- all warmed by the sunshine on the black roads, and in contact with the brisk cool breeze emitting shallow gusts of mist so that the streets themselves looked like steaming new asphalt. It all contributed to a long-overdue euphoric sense of well-being. Life is good ... the semester winds down, and my two and a half month sojourn in Southern Ontario feels for the first time like it's in striking distance.