Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Fighting Big Tobacco

[Update: A longer article of mine on the Manville Trust case is now available at the ePluribus Media Journal.]

At the beginning of this week, Federal Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn handed down a ruling stating that a class-action suit can go forward against the tobacco companies based on their making people think that "light" cigarettes are safer than others.

It is a needed ruling.  And I really should know--I spent two months in Judge Weinstein's courtroom as a juror on another tobacco case almost six years ago.

Anthony Sebok at FindLaw has a good piece on the current ruling.  If you are interested in the case I was on, where the Manville Trust sued the tobacco companies to try to get them to help pay for lung cancer caused by a synergy of tobacco and asbestos, look here for a reprint of a Reuters story on the outcome.

We never came to a verdict.  In a bizarre end, a mistrial was declared.  Two jurors refused to see that, if we followed the RICO law the suit was brought under, we could not find against the tobacco companies.  They may be awful, but they had not done what they were charged with.

They wanted to punish the tobacco companies so badly that they brushed aside the evidence (and it was substantial) that there had been no "conspiracy" among the tobacco companies to commit fraud.  We heard lots of testimony: Jeffrey Wigand, about whom the film The Insider was made, a Nobel laureate, a former Surgeon General.  And the papers we were given?  More than anyone ought to have to read or look through.  I ended up knowing more about the ins and outs of the tobacco business (going back to about 1953) than I would have thought possible.

It was clear: the tobacco companies were dishonest, venal, greedy... oh, pick whatever words you want, and they will fit--except "illegal."  They stayed within the law--at least, on every point we were allowed to consider.

The difference between "light" cigarettes and others was never part of the lawsuit.  No one questioned the fact that both are deadly, and equally so.  It simply wasn't a relevant fact to the outcome of the case.

Yet it did come up.  The plaintiff lawyers did try to use it to show the pattern of dishonesty the tobacco companies exhibit--and that might be one of the reasons the two jurors refused to vote in favor of the tobacco companies.  They knew the companies are evil, and wanted to punish them, no matter what (what they were attempting is sometimes called "jury nullification").  The rest of us felt that we were charged with judging the tobacco companies under the specific points of law presented to us by Judge Weinstein--no more, no less.

However, all of us would have loved to be able to go after the tobacco companies for their patent dishonesty regarding "light" cigarettes.  We had seen the proof, had heard the testimony from tobacco executives: "light" cigarettes are every bit as dangerous as any other.  Yet the companies continued to promote them as though they were somehow healthier.  I'm sure millions of people kept smoking in the false belief that they were less likely to get lung cancer because they smoked "light" cigarettes.  I'm sure hundreds of thousands (if not millions) died as a result.

In my smoking days, I would justify continued smoking by buying "low tar" brands--and I know I was not alone.  I did not know, then, that there was no difference.  Probably, I would have stopped sooner, had I not assumed that they must be safer--or the government (which I assumed was watching the tobacco industry like a hawk) would stop the deception.

As we saw during the trial, there was no conspiracy among the tobacco companies to hide the dangers of tobacco.  They couldn't--the data were already public.  They had no further data that they squirreled away (and it wouldn't have mattered if they had--the dangers had been clearly laid out by others).  Everyone knew, buy the mid-1960s (from the early 1950s, really), just how dangerous tobacco is.  What the tobacco industry did was simply to refuse to admit that there were problems with their products, and to drag their heels in funding and conducting research (which really wasn't needed anyway--the facts were out there).  They didn't know anything about the dangers of tobacco any earlier than anyone else, and certainly never engaged in a conspiracy to keep that knowledge from the public.

They did, however, conspire (tacitly, at least) to keep people from discovering that there is no difference, health-wise, between "light" cigarettes and others.  That much was very, very clear.

So, I hope the class-action RICO case based on this fact goes forward--and smashes the tobacco companies as completely as possible.  They may not have broken the laws they were accused of breaking in the case I sat as juror on, but they are an evil bunch, and did conspire to keep us smoking as long as possible in the face of the mounting evidence that smoking was killing us.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Should We Laugh? Or Be Afraid?

Yesterday, on his blog, David Horowitz put up a "letter" he claims is from someone in the "Intelligence Community."

If this is a sample of the people working in American intelligence today, we really have need to be afraid--though the letter is idiotic, laughably so.

There are things in the letter that make me think that it is not written by anyone connected with intelligence--of any sort. Given Horowitz's penchant for playing fast and loose with the truth, I wouldn't be surprised to find he had written it himself.

Why? Because some of the statements come right out of his stock of memes. For example, the letter says:
Were I D/CIA General Hayden, I`d take a page from the Left`s book and conduct a rather exhaustive purge.
That's Horowitz all the way, connecting the left today with Stalin, a hoary untruth that he hits as often as he can.

Here's another bit that could come straight from Horowitz's mouth:
One thing does perturb me (and a friend who is in the process of deserting the Left)...
This makes left and right seem like teams or armies--something Horowitz tries to make them into--rather than generalizing labels for complex sets of beliefs. Few people view left and right as simplistically as that--except those, like Horowitz, who want to reduce everything to "us" versus "them."

I don't know if Horowitz actually wrote the letter himself--I certainly wouldn't put it past him (and he has used faked sources before)--but I do not believe that it is by anyone in the intelligence community.


Because of this (which is the scary part, if this peson really is involved):
I am afraid that if we wish to prevail, we may have to return to the firebombing, area bombing attacks we employed against the Axis powers during WWII. I fear that only if we threaten the Islamic world with its very survival can we induce Muslims to control their Jihadist impulses. And if they cannot, we may have to at the very least consider some form of "Cordon Sanitaire" or a more dire solution that I hope remains unmentionable.
This was written by a person with no understanding of World War II or the impact of Allied bombing campaigns (showing just the sort of surface misreading that Horowitz is often associated with). It shows no understanding of human nature, especially where religion is involved (you are not going to bomb anyone to the point of inducing them "to control their Jihadist impulses"). And the "unmentionable," the threat of nuclear first-strike, is no more a solution than is hitting one's thumb with a hammer to relieve the pain of a hangnail.

I refuse to believe that anyone could work thirty years in intelligence (as the "letter writer" claims) and have learned so little, have remained so stupid.

So I have to see this simply as pathetic, laughably so.

The only alternative is to see it as insane, dangerously so.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bill Clinton Puts His Head Out of the Window and Shouts

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!"

Meltdown? No.

Sometimes the only rational response is to get angry, to show the other side that it can no longer take advantage of one's willingness to try and see both sides.

Howard Beale, from Network, is becoming the prophet of our times--for liberals, at least, for the people who have tried to respond rationally to questions framed in such a way that no answer is possible, except one that puts the responder in the worst possible light. And Clinton is becoming his acolyte.

Many of us have been saying, louder and louder, that discussion is impossible with people who abuse the very groundwork that allows debate--as the right has been doing, now, for decades. We on the left have found ourselves looking bad simply because we've tried to seriously answer questions that were not seriously asked.

Chris Wallace's question to Clinton yesterday on Fox, the one that triggered such an angry reaction, was dishonest. He tried to insert unwarranted assumptions into the question, one being that people wanted to know--when it was Fox News that wanted people to "want" to know. Another was that the debacle in Somalia had a direct connection to Osama bin Laden, and that Clinton was responsible alone for the disaster there (that Clinton pulling our troops out was the problem--and insinuating that Republicans had opposed that pull-out--they had not).

There's more: somehow Clinton, by not succeeding in killing bin Laden, is responsible for 9/11... and he somehow should have done something about the Cole. Matthews was laying on Clinton all the failures of the Bush administration, one of the favorite moves of the right today.

Clinton could not answer Wallace's question without accepting those assumptions.

Is it any wonder he reacted in anger? Especially since he had recently been slandered along the same lines in ABC's The Road to 9/11?

No. Clinton's anger is justified.

I was proud of him as I watched. Though I voted for him twice, I have never been a big fan of his. Yesteray, finally, he did me proud.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Flat-World Fairy Tale

Three of my favorite writers, V.S. Naipaul, John LeCarre, and Alan Furst, keep me thinking about Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. Friedman sees globalization as the great leveler–or, perhaps, the great empowerer, allowing almost anyone from anywhere to rise to the top. Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick in his incarnation as a lass from Mumbai or lad from Guangzhou. It’s an optimistic, peculiarly American belief, is Friedman’s, one that could only arise in a country formed out multiple cultures on what was, in cultural respects, an almost blank field. Formed, also, out of insistence that “class” is an illusion. It shows absolutely no understanding of the role of class and of ethnic roots in human psyche.

Right now, I’m in the middle of both LeCarre’s new book The Mission Song and Alan Furst’s recent The Foreign Correspondent. Next on my list is Naipaul’s Magic Seeds, two years old and sequel to Half a Life. All three of these writers are dealing, these days, with the situations of people who have lost their old homes and cultures (if they had them, in fact) and are thrown into worlds with little place for them.

There is no “gold mountain” (as the Chinese have sometimes called the United States) waiting for any of their characters, no “happy ever after.” The type of success Friedman imagines as open to everyone proves empty, even when achieved.

The flattening of the world that Friedman extols can only really happen if one stays at home (particularly now, when the United States, that one refuge, is becoming more and more anti-immigrant). Without the infrastructure of family and culture, success in an alien culture turns to little success at all–unless one comes from one of the global cultures (English Commonwealth white plus American, Chinese, Russian, Indian, and a few others) that have outposts (at least) in most of the world. Yet others, in this increasingly global world, are forced to leave their homes, sometimes even feeling forced to jettison any sign of country of origin--for fear of being sent back. The world is churning, and millions of people are finding themselves removed from their homes. They are lost, and are the subjects of all three story-tellers.

Though people are starting to dress more and more alike, and even are listening to the same music and watching the same television, cultural differences mark clear boundaries–almost as clear as those of class. Only if we manage to develop a truly global culture, spatially, economically, and educationally, will the world ever flatten in the way Friedman imagines.

Until then, the types of tragedies the three writers of fiction present will continue to be part of life on Earth. The reality will remain in their stories, the fairy tales in Friedman’s columns and books.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Responding to the Right

Wednesday, I wrote a diary that I also posted on dKos titled "They've Pushed Us Too Far."  In it, I mentioned an exchange with a wingnut who said that condemning torture and wanting to be nice to terrorists are one and the same thing.

That person, or a buddy, tried to post a comment in response.

The comment, which I refused (as I had refused others from this group), reads

Love the way you censor post....

Wow I wonder if we did it to you, how hard you would complain.

This is ironic, a Liberal Collage professor censoring other people. I bet you teach a class on free speech.

Taking my own advice to no longer let the right paint liberals into corners by framing the "debate" their way, I responded with an email:

First, you don't seem to know what either censorship or free speech are.  They have to do with government, not with me or my blog.

Second, I have no responsibility for providing a forum for people who know nothing.  You can get your own blog.

Third, I don't hide behind a pseudonym.  Unlike conservatives, I'm no chicken.

Immediately on sending it, I saw that I had managled the language a bit, so took the opportunity for a follow-up:

Of course, I was laughing too hard at you to even check my own language.  I should have written, of course, that "you don't seem to know what either censorship or free speech is," but I was wiping the tears from laughter from my eyes and didn't pay attention.  If the grammar police write me a ticket, I'll pay the fine.

It would be worth it.  The idea that I would be upset if I couldn't post comments on your site!  And the inanity of anyone actually equating not being allowed to post a comment with censorship or free speech!  What a hoot!

They aren't willing to "play fair," so there's no reason why we should.

Until the conservatives show themselves willing to engage in honest debate in discussion, I see no reason why we should respond to them with anything but derision.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

They've Pushed Us Too Far

Over the past forty years, the right has worked hard at developing strategies that would allow them to control public discussion in America. Long before Democrats figured out what was happening, the right had learned to frame the debate by controlling the terminology. They were slick, so slick that millions of Americans, in election after election, have voted against their own best interests—almost completely because of the skills of the rightwing strategists.

Today, those strategies are failing—and for a number of reasons. First, the right can no longer claim outsider status, attacking the powers-that-be. Today, they have to defend an administration whose policies have failed and continue to fail, and whose minions are showing up as corrupt on an almost weekly basis. Forced to take responsibility, they cannot frame the debate so adroitly as they once did, for their hands are tied by the ‘facts on the ground.’ Second, people on the left have learned by example, and are now framing the national debates as skillfully as the right once did (just look at Jeffrey Feldman and his Frameshop if you need an example). And, third, the right, by 2004, had pushed the left too far—and we’ve started to effectively push back.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal recently—we all have, for what the right has been doing to us is one of the sparks behind the success of dKos (a base for pushing back if there ever was one)—particularly about the second and third points, thinking about them in response to Michael Bérubé’s book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? which I reviewed the other day for ePluribus Media. Bérubé has made me think about how we managed to let the very word “liberal” turn into an insult—and about how the right has abused the very sort of debate liberals crave and of the unwillingness of liberals to enforce the limits and rules that must surround effective discussion.

In the 1970s, the right saw a divide within the left that it could use for a number of purposes, a divide that was the result of a hideous war promulgated by a “liberal” administration. The left developed a scathing attitude toward traditional liberals, with Hubert Humphrey taking the brunt of that disdain in 1968. The liberals were seen as do-gooders who would not put themselves on the line, who were, ultimately, more concerned with comfort that morality.

Phil Ochs wrote a song about them, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”:
I vote for the democtratic party:
They want the U.N. to be strong.
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts;
He sure gets me singing those songs.
I'll send all the money you ask for,
But don't ask me to come on along.
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.

The low stature of liberals by the end of the Vietnam War provided a perfect opening for the right—they started hitting when the liberals were down, and have kept on hitting ever since.

Liberals, in dealing with both the far left and the new right, never responded in kind. That doesn’t fit into liberal philosophy. Liberals believe in debate and in respect for opponents, so have tried to respond to rightwing attacks in the same way they did (unsuccessfully) to those from the left—they tried to engage their attackers in discussion.

Thing is, there are rules for discussion that liberals, much more than people on either extreme, have tried to adhere to. One of those is keeping one’s mind open enough to consider the possibility of changing it. Unfortunately, in discussion, this is only valuable if the opponent has the same attitude. A ‘true believer’—on the right or on the left—doesn’t. All they care about is scoring points and making their opponents look bad to whomever might be watching.

Let me give an example, one from the last few days. Someone did a search on the word “liberal” just when I put up a teaser for the Bérubé review on my own blog—a rightwinger who wanted to “engage” liberals on his own blog.

As a good liberal, I decided to take a look. I didn’t have to look far before seeing a typical rightwing strawman, an attempt to denigrate liberals and frame the debate in such a way as only the right can win. The blogger wrote something like ‘liberals want us to be nice to terrorists’ (I don’t really want to go back to the blog to get the exact words—but these are close). In a comment, I challenged the blogger to find any example of a liberal who had ever said that.

When I rejected all examples—they were all of liberals saying we shouldn’t torture, something else completely—the blogger said (and this is a quote from an email from him) “Calling to an end of the 'torture' is the same as demanding us to be nice to terrorists.” Well, it is not. That’s about as sensible as saying that calling for an end to the death penalty is the same as letting murderers off. These are stupid statements used not to move discussion forward but to put the opponents (the liberals) on the defensive and, eventually, to paint them into a corner through continued untruths of this sort. It’s not even worth responding to—the person who made the statement knows that it is untrue but doesn’t care. It’s only use is for making liberals look bad.

Thing about us liberals is that we tend to want to keep on talking, hoping that the other side will eventually listen to reason—when the purpose of the other side isn’t even to convince us—but to destroy us as effective political actors.

The right has long been secure in their belief that it can keep pushing on us in this way. It has been a long time since liberals have said (seriously, and meaning it), as Special Counsel for the Army Joseph N. Welch said to Joe McCarthy:
Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

Yes, it does take a lot to make a liberal angry—it took an attack on Pearl Harbor for the liberal Roosevelt administration to go to war—but we can only be pushed so far.

No longer am I willing to be set up by people in ways like that blogger was trying—and I will no longer participate in the charade debates and discussions the right tries to entice us into. I’m going to say, “No, you’ve got that wrong—and if you can’t figure out why, I’m not going to bother to tell you”—and walk away.

We lose by debating people who have no interest in coming to agreement or understanding. We lose by trying to work our ways out of the stupid traps they set for us (calling themselves, for example, ‘pro-life’ so leaving us with… ‘pro-death’ or ‘pro-choice,’ one devastating in its inaccuracy and the other needing too much explanation). We have no need of continuing this—other than our good liberal desire to respect the view of others and to try to understand them.

For too long, the right (and the extreme left) has been using our respect for our own liberal tradition against us. Our willingness to continue to discuss only makes us look weak, when the other side lacks that willingness.

If the right wants to debate us, then, it has to be on our terms:
• No more “liberals believe.” Try to define us, and we walk away. Let us define ourselves. Defend your own rightwing beliefs. We won’t debate if you continue to mischaracterize us.
• No more “it’s been proven.” If you want to make an argument, make it. Don’t expect us to do it for you in attempting to rebut.
• No more appealing to history. We liberals understand that situations are always complex and that none is really comparable. Simplistic comparisons are only an attempt to draw us down into complexities that you won’t bother with—that you only want to mire us in. Stick to what is going on now or we won’t talk to you.
• No more unwillingness to change. Unless you are honestly seeking to learn through the discussion, there is no sense in continuing, for either of us.
We are not going to apologize any more for what we are. We liberals are part of the greatest tradition this world has ever seen, the one that made this modern world, especially what is best of it. The United States is the result of liberal philosophies, its successes those of liberal ideals.

The strategy of constantly pushing at liberals began to backfire in 2004, during the election. We have been pushed too far and are finally starting to push back. As I said, it started a couple of years ago, but only now are we really starting to verbalize this as a group.

We’re proud of who we are. If you don’t like that, you’d better stay away from us. We created the greatest country this world has ever seen and fought—and defeated—the greatest evils brought upon it. You on the right are starting to seriously damage what we created—and we will stand for it no longer.

(Oddly enough, as I write this, David Bender is interviewing former Senator Gary Hart—and they are talking about this very thing, the theft of the word “liberal”—and they are making my point that we are starting to push back. Go Gary! Go David!)

Harnessing Communication

Looking around my classrooms this fall before the official hour, I’m struck by how many more students than ever before are peering down at their desks, reading—screens, to be sure, but reading, and reading diligently. Some are staring Sidekicks, using their thumbs to respond to what they are reading, typing even more quickly than the stereotyped two-finger-typing reporter in a 1940s movie. Some have laptops—one holds an even smaller computer running the Linux she has fallen in love with.

In my Advanced Technical Writing class in a computer lab, the students—the very first day—slid before their screens and started communicating (and no, they weren’t playing games). Many of them had set up their blogs (the first assignment) and posted on them by the end of that first class. Even in my Developmental Writing class, computers show up unbidden. One student does the in-class writings on his and emails them to me during class (I keep a laptop with me, too).

“Something is happening here,” as Dylan long ago wrote, “and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Students are writing. And on their own.

And many of us supposed teachers of writing aren’t even paying attention. We’re stuck in the 1980s and early 1990s and with the assignments and methodologies of that time. Just as Dylan’s Mr. Jones was facing a world he could not negotiate, we are failing to negotiate a universe of the written word that is fast shifting away from the one we were raised in.

Some of us even justify our inaction in the face of a changing technological world of writing by pointing to a “digital divide,” saying that only the lucky students, the ones with money and from good high schools, are able to take advantage of the new possibilities. They ought to visit my campus, no elite university, where even the kids from the worst inner-city neighborhoods are comfortable with technology in a way their older siblings cannot grasp (let alone the teacher whose cell phone is simply that—a phone). Text messaging, instant messaging, and email are facts of life to almost every college student entering this fall, no matter their backgrounds.

This resurgence of writing on the users’ own terms (certainly not on those of writing teachers) is not an example of ‘technodeterminism,’ however, with the technology responsible for a cultural change by itself. No. What we are seeing is a result of the human desire to communicate, and to do so through any avenue that is both available and effective.

And in that lies a rebuke to all of us who teach writing.

Students would have been writing with enthusiasm all along, if they had seen it as a real means of engaging with the people they want to ‘talk’ to. They always chatted—the teenager on the phone has been a cliché since the 1950s, at least. Now they are finding they can chat as easily through the written word, something we writing teachers never managed to show them.

Too many writing teachers dismiss the writings their students compose through the new technologies, holding firmly to their old ideas of what writing should be, refusing to explore means of using what the students are doing in order to turn them into enthusiastic writers in the classroom as well as on the Sidekick. They use the shorthand of the net as an excuse rather than as an opening.

Worried that the students will write “u go grl” in a paper? Don’t dismiss it. Turn it into a discussion of code switching, making sure they understand the reasons for shifting from one mode into another (something they can and will do).

The possibilities for enhancing college writing through use of what the students are now doing on their own are myriad. It only takes a little imagination on the part of the teacher to begin bringing them to reality. IM and email exchanges can morph into competent college papers, give a little encouragement.

If students can be led to see the connection between the types of writing they use to communicate with each other and the types of writing they have to do in college classes, they may learn to stop dreading the college assignments so. Many of us have been teaching students to write to sheets of paper for decades, boring our students half to death (for they are managing only half a conversation—pieces of paper don’t write back). It’s time more of us starting teaching our students to write to communicate.

No, that’s not right: they are already writing to communicate on their own. They don’t need us for that. It’s time more of us started harnessing our students’ abilities in communication to the carts of college success.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Why We Fight"

A Review of What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education by Michael Bérubé

See the full review at the ePluribus Media Journal.

Today, the liberal tradition is in peril; the very attitudes providing its underpinning are in danger of disappearing.  Much of its past success can be linked to a certain cultural acceptance of the idea that concepts such as "good" and "bad" are rooted in human beings and do not arise from a necessary external foundation--or from any certain epistemology.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident" says the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson originally wrote "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable," a phrase with a different meaning altogether, for it posits an external source of the "truths" in a way the final version does not.  Americans, for more than two hundred years, understood the distinction between "self-evident" and "sacred," which moves the basis of the "truths" beyond human construction.  For the last few decades, that recognition has been fading.

Today, the idea that truth (self-evident or not) lies within us is a dangerous concept, for it opens the door to consideration that truth is transient or relative, undercutting (in their view) all morality.  Yet, if nothing else, a constant questioning of the truths we see can keep us from repeating the more abominable acts of human beings.  But that's the "liberal" position.

Increasingly, such an attitude is rejected in the United States.  Ours is a time of belief in "truth," an emotion so strong that it leads many to seek to destroy (figuratively, for the most part) those who see "truth" as anything but an absolute.  

Not for liberals, though.  As liberalism is as concerned with method as with results, it invites discussion and compromise--and even invites results that may not jibe with expectations or desires.  As Michael Berube writes in What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?:

The university is one of the last remaining areas in American life dominated by liberals--and dominated by a most curious kind of liberal, namely, liberal intellectuals who are committed both to substantive and procedural liberalism, for a form of pluralism and reasoned debate that does not always culminate in liberal conclusions.  (24)
 Aside from the sheer frustration that the right has over this one area that remains unconquered, one of the many things the right doesn't get about liberalism in our universities is that liberalism is quite simply and primarily a methodology, not merely an ideology.  So, when they attack liberalism (or so they think) through what they see as its ideological stances and conclusions, they are often frustrated when told that they don't get it--and that the points they think they've scored don't impress anyone but themselves.

The heart of Bérubé's book is his two chapters describing his teaching, one on an American Literature survey, the other on an advanced course on postmodernism.  It is here where Bérubé attempts his end-run around attackers of academia like Horowitz, writing to the general public about what he does, exactly, in the classroom so that readers can judge without having to negotiate a rightwing filter.

There are signs other than Bérubé's book, of course, that liberalism is now on the rebound.  Progressive radio has started to make inroads into what was once an almost purely conservative medium--talk radio.  And liberal blogs are, today, far and away more popular than their conservative counterparts.  Perhaps this book will add to that movement, proving to be part of the renewal of pride in a tradition as central to the success of the United States and American culture as any that our country has seen.  Bérubé, certainly, never attempts to excuse liberalism; instead, he champions it.

Other ePluribus Media contributors to preparing this review include: Greyhawk, Tanya, and Vivian.

If you like what ePMedia's been doing with research, reviews and interviews, please consider donating to help with our efforts.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

More Bogus Research

David Horowitz has begun a new series of articles he is calling “Indoctrination U.” with a “look” at the University of Colorado. As usual, he demonstrates that he hasn’t a clue what real primary (not to mention secondary) research really is and shows, paradoxically, just how much better American universities are than his own meager vision of education.

Whatever the complaints about American universities—and there are many legitimate ones—the fact remains (as Michael Bérubé points out in his new book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts) that the very rightwing critics of American higher education scramble to send their children to Harvard or Oberlin instead of Bob Jones University or Patrick Henry College, institutions with curricula that most of them would pretend to commend over that of, say, Yale. Why? Because the education is… better at Harvard, Oberlin, or Yale.

If Horowitz himself had experienced real academic training (he did receive a Masters degree in English at Berkeley in the sixties after attending undergraduate school at Columbia—but his coursework, clearly, included no grounding in research design or methodology), he might be able to conduct a useful study of American universities, pointing out weaknesses and possible improvements. As it is, Horowitz simply shows that he even has no understanding of the role of a course description or a syllabus—let alone of the complexities of a college course as a whole.

He also shows that he has absolutely no understanding of his subject in general, even though he begins this piece with a statement that seems to show Horowitz as a man with real experience with universities:
Three years ago, I began a national campaign for academic freedom designed to promote the restoration of academic standards, including intellectual diversity, in institutions of higher learning. I did so having visited more than three hundred campuses in the previous fifteen years and having interviewed several thousand students during these visits. In the course of these visits, I came to be familiar with the massive corruption of the academic enterprise that had occurred since I was an undergraduate in the 1950s….
As usual with Horowitz, this is a bit disingenuous. When Horowitz visits college campuses, he does so as a paid speaker. Today (thanks to a pie in the face last year) he travels with his own security. His visits are confined to lecture halls and their green rooms. A visit of this sort does very little to increase one’s knowledge of the institutions—and Horowitz gives no indication that any of his visits included exploration of the institutions beyond hobnobbing with greeters and executives.

Like minor-league rightwing demagogue Dan Flynn, Horowitz, in the passage above, uses “interview” as though what he does has any sort of research design. The way he and Flynn use the word might lead one to believe that they engaged in a rigorous and directed sequence of interviews. Nothing could be further from the truth. Neither keeps records of the interviews that can be sorted in any sort of scholarly fashion and then examined. Neither uses a standardized interview design that makes any one interview comparable to another. Neither conducts interviews with subjects chosen as demonstrably reflecting a larger group. In other words, they just talk to people—and then imply that this constitutes scholarship.

To me, what’s most egregious about Horowitz’ attempt to justify himself as an observer of academia is what he leaves out. Though he has often had the chance (and has an open invitation from me—which he has turned down), Horowitz visits no classrooms when he comes to campus. He told me he has visited one—but that a movie was being shown that day.

As the classroom is the center of higher education, no study of academic institutions can have any validity if the researcher does not begin with primary observation of classroom activity. No syllabi, no descriptions, no handouts can take the place of the basic interactions between students and teachers that go on each day.

Until he starts visiting classrooms—and lots of them—nothing that Horowitz says about what American professors do can be taken seriously. Until then, we can continue to state with assurance that Horowitz doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Friday, September 15, 2006

"The Art of the Slur"

My article “The Art of the Slur: From Joe McCarthy to David Horowitz” has come out in the Fall 2006 edition of The Public Eye. It is also available online.

In a callous attempt to pique interest, I’ve quoted a few passages below:

In his latest book, Dangerous Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, and related writing, Horowitz drips out "misleading information" in an attempt to discredit liberals in academia -- claiming, for instance, that a New York University professor teaches a subversive book (are books to be banned from the classroom?) and that a respected Princeton professor is a member of a left-wing legal organization

A key to understanding Horowitz is recognizing that he needs enemies, no matter which side he is on. His attacks are so relentless that it is easy to be left wondering what Horowitz himself stands for.

The question of McCarthy becomes even more important in light of the successes of Horowitz, Coulter, O'Reilly, Limbaugh and the others inspired by or echoing McCarthy's methodology. They seem to have studied him, learning tactical lessons from both his successes and failures.

Horowitz may not be, in fact, the nefarious man-behind-the-curtain that Max Blumenthal imagines him to be, but he remains an exemplar of the strategies of the right.

Monday, September 11, 2006

In Memoriam

I sent this as an email on 9/11. It seems worth sharing again today.

As I walked from teaching in Brooklyn Heights this morning, someone said that one of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. We had heard the sirens in class; a couple of students discovered through their cell phones that planes had hit the towers, so I knew that a tragedy was in progress. But I refused to believe that either of the towers could collapse.

I walked to the promenade over the East River where it joins the Hudson, where one normally sees a magnificent panorama centering on lower Manhattan. I wanted to prove to myself that both towers still stood.

Others were doing the same. All silent. No one walking fast.

As I walked down Remsen Street, I could see the water but, half a mile over it, the view was obliterated by smoke. Smoke filled with sparkles, like house lights through a fog.

From the promenade, I found all of lower Manhattan obscured. Nothing could be seen but the smoke--and its little sparkles.

The smoke, the sparkles, were heading our way, slowly spreading over the water. Unable to see anything, finally aware of the immensity of the tragedy, I turned to walk to Shakespeare's Sister.

The smoke caught me, swept around me, leaving bits of particulate in my nose and throat.

I thought, then, about the sparkles I had seen over the water. Maybe they were bits of asbestos, as one person suggested. Maybe bits of metal from the explosions reflecting the sunlight. Or the bits of paper that soon showered down on us. I don't know.

To me, they were also something more. They were the spirits of the lives snuffed out, sparkling one last goodbye.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I Shoulda Known!

One of the nice things about the blog world is that people remind you when one of your bêtes noir pops up again. When the name “David Horowitz” arose in relation to “The Path to 9/11,” a couple of the people who keep ePluribus Media running emailed me a link to a Max Blumenthal post at Huffington.

The bad blood between Max and David (if I may) is well documented. So, when I saw on Horowitz’s blog, under the heading “Young Blumenthal’s Foul Mouth,” this: “Question: Was Max Blumenthal born a liar, or did his daddy just bring him up that way.”—I shouldn’ta been surprised to find that Blumenthal wouldn’t let that rest without response.

The core of Blumenthal’s attack is this:
The Path to 9/11" is produced and promoted by a well-honed propaganda operation consisting of a network of little-known right-wingers working from within Hollywood to counter its supposedly liberal bias. This is the network within the ABC network. Its godfather is far right activist David Horowitz, who has worked for more than a decade to establish a right-wing presence in Hollywood and to discredit mainstream film and TV production. On this project, he is working with a secretive evangelical religious right group founded by The Path to 9/11's director David Cunningham that proclaims its goal to "transform Hollywood" in line with its messianic vision.

Much of the post is a detailing of Cunningham’s rightwing Christo-whatever background.

He does get back to Horowitz, though:
Since the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1992, Horowitz has labored to create a network of politically active conservatives in Hollywood. His Hollywood nest centers around his Wednesday Morning Club, a
weekly meet-and-greet session for Left Coast conservatives that has been graced with speeches by
the likes of Newt Gingrich, Victor Davis Hanson and Christopher Hitchens. The group's headquarters are at the offices of Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture [now the David Horowitz Freedom Center—imagine that!].

Blumenthal connects this group to the Liberty Film Festival, which he claims is under Horowitz control and was instrumental in the creation of “The Path to 9/11.”

If Blumenthal is right, and I do not see him as the liar Horowitz tries to make him out to be (I think it’s the other way around—certainly, Horowitz has been caught being quite careless about the truth on numerous occasions), then Horowitz is a much more dangerous man than I have ever considered him. I’ve always seen him as something of a buffoon, a clown performing for the merriment of Scaifes and his other masters.

Either that, or… his incompetence is showing in the reaction to this piece of junk that he (perhaps) foisted off on ABC.

If we are lucky, this weekend could show changes in American culture in many ways—one of them being the complete destruction of the influence of David Horowitz.

Sunday, September 03, 2006


(with apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is George Bush, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Bushists: Nothing Is as Does Nothing

The other day, a Frameshop post by Jeffrey Feldman started me thinking about just how best to present the Bush administration in the months before the 2006 election. Feldman was writing specifically about comparisons to fascists, making the point that the Bushists are too stupid to be fascists.

True, but it was one of his examples—that the Bushists haven’t managed to build anything—that got me thinking along slightly different lines.

What, I started asking, has this administration accomplished in its five-plus years?

What has it done? What can it be remembered for?

The simple answer: Nothing.

Are there any great national projects that Bush is responsible for? He talked about going to Mars, but that disappeared (Kennedy started us to the moon). He’s done zilch for our infrastructure (Eisenhower gave us great highways). The Bushists have had two easy chances to build something all Americans could be proud of: Ground Zero and the areas destroyed by Katrina. Five years after the former, little has been done. A year after the latter, and there is no vision of a restored Gulf Coast. The problem is that the Bushists have no vision for a better America. There are many areas where bold leadership could have led us to projects that could improve the lives of every American—the most obvious being in the area of renewable energy. What has the Bush administration accomplished? Nothing.

Are there great reforms in our government that Bush can take credit for? Johnson had the Civil Rights Acts, Nixon created the EPA. What have the Bushists done? Have they addressed the health-care crisis that America faces? No. All they have given us is a Byzantine prescription drug plan that seems to do little but insure drug-company profits. Have they shored up Social Security? The president didn’t even really have a plan when he was tooling around talking about fixing that—and he never bothered to work with the Congress he controlled to develop something that would work and that the American people could support. What about the Department of Homeland Security? Well, it was something the Bushists didn’t even want in the first place. So, rather than using it to streamline the bureaucracies and make them more effective, they have used it as a means for breaking the Civil Service system and as a place to put cronies they want to reward. The result? A FEMA unable to react at all to national emergencies. So, what has the Bush administration accomplished? Nothing.

Has the US done anything in the world to make it a better and safer place? Are there any foreign policy initiatives that the US has participated in that can be considered breakthroughs—maybe not on the level of Nixon’s visit to China, but that have at least started momentum to solving any of the world’s festering problems? No. The Bushists dropped the ball concerning Israel and Palestine rather than providing the continuity with the Clinton administration that would have pushed Arafat that extra step into signing an agreement with Israel. Instead of working to come to terms with Castro in Cuba, the Bushists have retreated to a harsher stance—and have done the same with North Korea and Iran. In Iraq, of course, they faced Saddam Hussein through the uncreative solution of war rather than working towards a positive outcome for Iraq. Even the “success” in Afghanistan is qualified—and may be leading to a rise in heroin addiction in the US resulting from plentiful supply and low prices, thanks to high yields from a trade that neither the Karzai government nor the US forces there seem able to eradicate. The “war on terror” has also been a bust. Little has been done to protect America’s ports or skies, and the number of potential terrorists continues to grow. Unable to understand that terrorism cannot be fought through military action, the Bushists can only react—when they should be developing creative means of eradicating the roots of terrorism, of being proactive. So, what has the Bush administration accomplished? Nothing.

There is one thing the Bushists have managed to do, however. They’ve managed to help Bush’s “base”—the “haves” and “have mores.” According to recent reports from the government, writes E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post:
the census had some very good news for the well-to-do. The top fifth of American households received 50.4 percent of all income last year, the highest proportion since 1967 when the Census Bureau started following that trend. The biggest gains were concentrated in the top 5 percent.
The Bushists continue to insure that the rich get richer. Beyond that, what has the Bush administration accomplished? Nothing.

That’s what we’ve got to push this fall (it fits in perfectly with the Markos and Jerome meme that Democrats, these days, govern better). Even in local Congressional districts, the question directed at Republican candidates needs to be this: What has the administration you support, that you enable, actually done? Most everything they will come up with can be discounted, and should be—loudly and with vigor. Looking at the big picture, the Bushists have accomplished nothing.

And we should be repeating that, over and over.