Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"Viewpoint Discrimination"

What makes an organization substantive? Why, in other words, should we pay attention to any particular group that has set itself up as a not-for-profit corporation and established a website? Most of us know of many that are not, certainly, all that they seem. David Horowitz, for example, founded Students for Academic Freedom—yet he hasn’t been a student in over forty years.

The other day I ran across an organization called “Fire” (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). It produced a press release last week with the heading “FIRE Warns Department of Health and Human Services Against Supporting Political Litmus Tests on Campus.” That, of course, set of a number of alarm bells in my head. Warns? That sounds rather threatening for a group claiming to protect. Litmus Tests? That has become code for what the right sees as academic leftist protectionism—it is not a phrase used so much by the left. And the very name of the organization, “Foundation for Individual Rights in Education” bothered me. What individual rights? Where are they impinged upon? The clincher for me was the use of the phrase “viewpoint discrimination” within the article. I had never heard it before, but I immediately connected it to recent rightwing attempts to force itself upon academia.

So I went to the group’s website to see if I were not jumping to conclusions.

FIRE’s Mission Statement starts off with this:

The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America's increasingly repressive and partisan colleges and universities.
What a sweeping statement! As someone who has only returned to academia in a substantial way within the last five years (after what was pretty much a twenty-year layoff), I noticed nothing, on my return, to indicate any increase in repression and partisanship over what there had been before—and, frankly, that had been very little. So, I wondered, what is going on here?

I looked at the Board of Directors. There, I saw that one of the founders, Harvey Silverglate, has been active in the ACLU and has worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Not bad! The other founder, Alan Charles Kors, is nothing if not a distinguished academic. The Board itself seems a usual mix, though a little weak on representation from academia. And the Board of Advisors, which does include more academics, also features Nat Hentoff, known for his dedication to freedom of speech, along with Roy Innis and Candance de Russy.

Wait a minute: Candance de Russy and Nat Hentoff on the same board? What’s going on here? Frankly, I don’t know. But this organization was beginning to bother me more and more. Silverglate and Kors wrote a book together called The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. It came out in 1998—and it may be the source for the “shadow” meme that David Horowitz likes to use in his quests to unearth leftwing conspiracies. Yet, in its review (subscription required) of the book, The New York Times, in the person of Sam Tanenhaus, wrote:
To their credit, Kors and Silverglate are old-fashioned civil libertarians who support everyone's right to sound off. While most victims of speech codes these days seem to be on the right, the authors also deplore attempts by Emerson College to censor the rap music played on the campus radio station.
Yet, as Michael Bérubé pointed out to me, FIRE doesn’t seem quite so even handed today, having failed to come to the defense (for example) of the Columbia University Middle Eastern Studies Program a couple of years ago when its professors’ right to free speech on campus was explicitly questioned by the university’s president.

Now, the debate over speech codes that seems to have generated The Shadow University (which I have not yet read) is a legitimate one. The issue has concerned Hentoff for a long time—and I use his essay “’Speech Codes” on the Campus and Problems of Free Speech” in my Composition classes to bring my students into the debate.

What I wonder about FIRE is if that’s the real issue for the organization. Maybe it, as much as the “shadow university” it imagines, has its own “shadow agenda.”

It would be easy to decide that this is a group of kooks and leave it at that. Lyndon LaRouche (himself quite a kook) publishes something called Executive Intelligence Review that contains a recent piece by Anton Chaitkin called “Who’s Who in the Goebbels Zoo” that damns Kors for connections with Lynn Cheney and the Bush family (he holds the George Herbert Walker chair of Intellectual History at UPenn) and claims that:
FIRE works toward firing dissident teachers.

While I suspect that claim is unfounded (to say the least), I still am not comfortable with FIRE. In the Background section of its Mission Statement is this passage:
America's colleges and universities are, in theory, indispensable institutions in the development of critical minds and the furthering of individual rights, honest inquiry, and the core values of liberty, legal equality, and dignity. Instead, they often are the enemies of those qualities and pursuits, denying students and faculty their voices, their fundamental rights, and even their individual humanity. The university setting is where students are most subject to the assignment of group identity, to indoctrination of radical political orthodoxies, to legal inequality, to intrusion into private conscience, and to assaults upon the moral reality of individual rights and responsibilities.
While it is possible to find instances where particular institutions have gone too far (as in the Columbia one that FIRE ignored), for the most part FIRE has it completely wrong here. As so many on the right do, FIRE makes sweeping charges—but has only a few random anecdotes for backing them up.

Until FIRE can show me that it is commonly true that “students are most subject to the assignment of group identity, to indoctrination of radical political orthodoxies, to legal inequality, to intrusion into private conscience” I will continue to view the organization with suspicion.

After all, if such allegations were true, then we should be seeing millions of doctrinaire leftists stepping from our universities—and should have been, for decades now.

But we aren’t. For they aren’t. Which makes me believe that there really is a “shadow agenda” behind FIRE, something completely removed from questions of freedom of speech.

Nat Hentoff, I hate to bring this up, but I think you are possibly being duped.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Besting Our Addiction

If there is one story that’s favorite in America, it’s that of a person redeemed. Not in religious terms alone: the hero doesn’t need to turn to God, simply to have turned away from addiction or destructive behavior and towards a constructive existence. It can even be foolhardy: Yossarian rowing his rubber lifeboat away from the war in Catch-22.

Just look at our recent and popular movies—especially the bio-pics. At Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. At their stories are of falling into addiction and then struggling to overcome them. Both Ray and Walk the Line end with recovery. Both leave out the hard work that comes after that—a less compelling, less interesting, though even more inspiring, story. Both, however, do show that it takes the belief of others if one is going to conquer the addicting demons.

Why do such stories draw us? Why are we more interested in the story of the prodigal son than in his brother who stays home and simply works hard? Part of the answer to that, of course, lies in our love of drama and of the sublime—the walking on the edge. Another part is that many of us have been there. Hell, as a nation, we are there right now.

Me, I spent twenty years drunk. I know something about addiction in one’s personal life and so cheer as people begin to emerge from their struggles—be it in movies, books, or real life. And I’m certainly not the only one. We recognize addictive behavior when we see it and hate it from the memories of our own personal experiences. Sure, the addict herself or himself has to want to recover, but we know what we are seeing, and the feelings that well us as we stand by feeling helpless—they enrage us.

Each of us knows that, somewhere within, there’s an addictive personality waiting to take control. It may be gambling that wakes it, or drugs, or alcohol—or any of a number of things. Whatever. Each person has one thing, at least, that can take control of them.

As a nation, as America, we have two.

Yes (if you haven’t figured it out by now), we are a nation in the grip of addiction. The radical right that rules us right now is simply the addictive side of our national persona. Just watch how it acts, and you’ll see. Possessive, protective of its prerogatives, jealous, quick to anger. Any time conversation turns to its addictions, it changes the subject or excuses itself.

As a country, we are addicted to wealth and to power, and we have let our weaknesses for them overpower us and rule us, personified by the rightwing group now in power. We are acting as destructively as only an addict can. We have spent ourselves into near bankruptcy. We have concocted myths of persecution to justify our continued addiction. And we refuse to admit that we have a problem.

At least, a part of us does. The nation, like an individual, has a sober person within, trying to take control.

In ten days, we will see if we can take the first step towards regaining control of our national life, of casting out our demons. It’s going to be a long road, but if we can take that first step, electing a Democratic majority in at least one House of Congress, we may just be able to save ourselves from the destruction that is inevitable for the addict. No longer, at least, will we be able to partake of our addictive behavior without consequence. It will be as though someone has finally stepped in, someone with the power to say, “Stop and look in the mirror. See what you have become.”

The power of addiction should never be underestimated, even then. The addict who refuses to admit to a problem can force his or her way onward—little can stop her, or him. When Karl Rove and George Bush portray confidence about the upcoming election, they have reason. The political campaign (accent on fear and avarice) they are overseeing right now is little more than the passing of a full shot glass under a drunk’s nose. Even if the drunk really does want to get sober, the temptation right there, right in front of them, is almost impossible to overcome.

Once, we had a whole class of people who had taken on the job of making sure that the unscrupulous didn’t tempt us too successfully. Professional interveners, they prided themselves on their own sobriety. Now, however, they too have fallen, and have joined the enablers, erasing half a century of proud journalistic tradition in favor of tastes from the bottle in the hands of those who are stealing everything all the drunks once had.

Remember, when this crew came to power, how they would say that the adults were in charge once again? What they didn’t tell us is that the adults were addicts, people whose brains no longer function in any logical fashion, whose every action is skewed by the needs of their addictions. Personally, I would rather return to the children.

Our only way free is to take control, to place our sober selves at the head of our nation, repressing our demons or, for now, at least placing them in check.

We can do that, and then we can start on the long path to recovery that Ray Charles and Johnny Cash (and millions of others of us) have walked. But we can’t do that if we spend our time arguing about what exactly that road should look like, for that gives the demons just enough purchase to stay in control. We can’t allow that. If we are to survive, we have to worry about what we are doing just “one day at a time.”

And the time to start doing that is now.

By casting our votes for as many Democrats as possible. Though we may not like them all or agree with them all, at least they are sober.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

On Freedom... with Pie

Again with the conflation of “academic freedom” and “freedom of expression”! And from a philosophy professor, no less!

Marquette University’s James South, Chair of the Philosophy Department, told a graduate student to remove a quote from Dave Barry from his office door. In an email, according to an Associate Press story:
South said he supports academic freedom but hallways and office doors are not "free speech zones."

Did South forget the elementary logic he certainly once studied? “A implies B but C does not equal D” does not an argument make. He might as well be saying “I love cherry pie, but Washington did not cut down that cherry tree.” The sharing of “cherries” does not make cherry pie and cherry tree the same thing, nor does “free” makes “academic freedom” and “free speech” the same. Furthermore, there is no relationship between the statements—and wouldn’t be, even if pies and trees (or academia and speech) were, in fact, identical.

What is particularly galling about this to me is that it plays into the hands of those conservatives who are trying to paint American universities as bastions of liberal bias where deviation from the liberal line is tantamount to a criminal act. Because of the attitude expressed by South and Marquette administrators, someone named J.J. Jackson, writing for a blog called ”The Land of the Free,” is able to make hay out of this example of liberal stupidity, implying that it is just one more example of the leftist hegemony in academia.

The Barry quote?
As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful and relentless. I refer of course to the federal government.

Frankly, even as a liberal, I like that quote. But that’s neither here nor there. The right has co-opted the concept of small government over the past decades as their own—seeing any opposition to it as necessarily “liberal.”

In this case, I don’t see the opposition to the quote as “liberal” at all—just stupid, whatever James South's political persuasion might be.

Certainly, the flurry has nothing at all to do with “academic freedom”—except in this: by bringing the phrase into a discussion of the appropriateness of political expression on the campus of an academic institution, South further confuses popular understandings of “academic freedom,” playing into the hands of the right a second time, making it even easier to couch their own opposition to the perceived liberal bastion of academia in terms of a further misunderstood concept of “academic freedom.”

So fie on you, James South. Fie on you twice. First, for abridging freedom of expression (though you have the right, for Marquette is a private institution and the expression, therefore, took place on private property) and second for giving another little boost to the war on real “academic freedom” currently being waged by the right.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Why Battle the Universities?

David Horowitz is once again claiming to be a “supporter of academic freedom.” He is even going so far as to brag that his is an “academic freedom movement.”

This gets tiresome. It’s Orwellian, surely, but there’s only so much outrage one can expend on claims so inane and deceptive. Horowitz can make his boasts because he is sure that few people will even pay attention to the meaning of the term “academic freedom”—making it possible for him, like Humpty Dumpty, to make the words mean anything he likes.

Probably the most referenced definition of “academic freedom” is contained in the 1940 statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP):
(a) Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
(b) Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
(c) College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Certainly, over time, definitions of this sort change. But an individual, when he or she attempts to change a definition for his or her own purposes, needs to be called on the carpet for it—for that becomes a dishonest, rather than natural, change.

Horowitz, through one of the organizations he has created, Students for Academic freedom, claims that:
Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers and students in the pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. This means that no political, ideological or religious orthodoxy will be imposed on professors, researchers and students through the hiring or tenure or termination process, or through the grading system or through the control of the classroom or any other administrative means. Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy through their control of the university budget. (emphasis added)

What Horowitz is trying to do is to take a clearly delineated professional right and responsibility, apply it to an entirely new constituency (students) and (this, through his attempt to enshrine his “Academic Bill of Rights” in law) to bring in an entirely new enforcement authority—one with absolutely no responsibility to the institutions, our universities, that benefit most from academic freedom. And he is doing this from a position completely removed from academia.

Though I can’t speak to why Horowitz wants to do this, except to guess that he wants to see academic independence compromised because academia tends towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, I can try to throw light on his strategy. Why, for example, does he want to extend “academic freedom” to students? Students, after all, do not have (or need) the professional entitlements of their teachers.

What Horowitz is doing is conflating “freedom of speech” with “academic freedom.” The former is a right guaranteed to all Americans through the First Amendment. The latter, on the other hand, is not a generalized freedom, but a specific freedom based upon specific professional responsibilities.

By adding students into the mix, and confusing the issue with First Amendment rights, Horowitz is able to position himself as an advocate of what he describes as a group (students) subject to indoctrination through abrogation of their academic freedom. This immediately puts the real defenders of academic freedom on the defensive, and in a difficult position. They don’t dare do anything that could be even seen as an attack on students’ rights or they fall into Horowitz’s trap. Skirting whatever real argument they are putting forward, Horowitz can then attack them (generally with out merit—but it’s the perception that is important) as proto-totalitarians against freedom of thought.

That, in turn, allows him to take the issue into the political realm, where he can claim that laws need to be instituted for the protection of the poor, innocent students from these nefarious professors.

It doesn’t matter that students (up to the graduate level) don’t need the special academic freedom accorded to professional academics. Their rights and freedoms are perfectly well protected. In addition, it doesn’t matter to Horowitz that our universities are already structured in ways that keep individual professors from exerting undue influence over their students (chief among these being the fact that students cannot simply study with a single professor—as undergraduates, they take courses from as many as 40).

In other words, this is a manufactured campaign.

But why? Why does Horowitz want to do this?

I can’t really answer that, for I can’t get into Horowitz’s head. But it strikes me as bizarre when American universities continue to be rated the best in the world—and American academics gather in the greatest of honors at a prodigious rate. The only Nobel prizes not won by Americans this year were for Literature (an arts prize, really, not an academic one) and Peace (certainly not an academic prize). We have a system that works. Why try to harness it without need?

In the piece I reference above, Horowitz writes:
My purpose in seeking legislation has now been served. In three years, we have been able to put the issue of intellectual diversity on the national radar. On every campus in the country, intellectual diversity is now a matter for discussion and debate. A large part of the credit must go to our legislative resolutions – none of which has been actually enacted. It is these proposed actions by legislatures that have produced the lion’s share of the attention.

Aha! Through a clumsy attempt a sleight-of-hand, Horowitz here gives a clearer indication of his real purposes. Most interesting, though, is his admission of defeat by claiming that what he had been aiming for wasn’t, in fact, what he was after at all. And it wasn’t about “academic freedom” anyway, but “intellectual diversity”—a different topic altogether (though one that, as he does with the First Amendment, Horowitz tries to conflate with academic freedom). By slipping “intellectual diversity” in for “academic freedom,” Horowitz may be giving us a clue to his real purpose.

And that, not surprisingly, is that his attacks on the universities are simply a minor campaign in what Horowitz sees as a larger political war.

I use military terminology here because Horowitz himself does so often, even once penning an essay called “The Art of Political War.” There are no rules, no ethics in this “war.” Anything is fair game, as long as it harms the enemy.

In Horowitz’s analysis, the universities are one of the last bastions of liberal resistance, but ones he had no means of attacking. So, he constructed one, taking academic freedom, extending it to students, then claiming that the professors themselves were abridging it. He then could take this to the legislatures to put pressure on the universities… for what?

The easiest way to take “control” from the liberal enemies, in Horowitz’s eye, is by replacing them with people more akin to his own point of view. By taking this trumped up “academic freedom” case as far as he has, he has been able to create an opening that, he hopes, will lead to the hiring of more conservative academics, a bow to his specious call for “intellectual diversity.”

Furthermore, the very concept of an enforced “intellectual diversity” abridges academic freedom in just the ways Horowitz wants. Liberal professors will be less likely to pursue topics that might be at all controversial, fearing that they will be accused of failing to live up to this new “diversity.” Universities will become less daring and more conservative—exactly the end wanted.

Why then has Horowitz taken on this campaign? Not for academic freedom, certainly, or even for intellectual diversity. To him, this is nothing more than one more campaign in the war to gain complete control of our nation for “his” side, the right.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Maybe the Right Really Is Running on Empty

My favorite of the putative right-wing intellectuals, David Horowitz, is renowned for attributing to his “enemies” exactly the tactics that he uses. Case in point? His most recent blog posting, entitled “Take No Prisoners.”

Horowitz loves lists. The more lists he creates, the more detailed the categories, the more he flatters himself that he is involved in some sort of scholarly activity. And this blog entry is the announcement of a whole new set. He has constructed pages on his Front Page Magazine website for his:
• Replies to critics of his book on “dangerous” professors,
• Replies to critics of his Orwellian “academic freedom” campaign.
• Replies to critics of his lists of people he sees as some sort of clandestine leftist network.
• Replies to places like Media Matters, which he calls “smear sites” (without ever showing a smear).
• Replies to individuals (including me).
Horowitz claims he created these “archives” for “sheer self-preservation,” but I think that even he is now realizing that his campaigns are running out of gas—so is reverting to what he sees as his “greatest hits,” like some pop band with no creative juice left so it constantly recycles its one mid-level hit to justify its continued existence.

I mean, look at the headlines on Front Page Magazine today: “The Green-Big Tobacco Death Alliance,” “Russia’s Dying Democracy,” “Opeds Count More in War than Bullets,” “Latin America’s Leftist Menace,” “L.A. Teachers for Terror,” and “’Red Letter’ Leftists.” These articles are either loony (the first, fifth, and sixth) or retreads with no impact on current American situations (the other three). Three weeks from a critical election, one would think that a site like this would be in the midst of it, throwing up whatever it can against the Democrats. But no, there’s really nothing there at all, as there is nothing in Horowitz’s blog but a nostalgia for the “battles” he believes he has fought.

Of course, Horowitz does see himself as a warrior (don’t laugh). That’s where that headline “Take No Prisoners” comes from, as does the title of his essay “The Art of Political War.” In the blog, he brags of “relentless web-wide attacks” that he claims are meant to “to eliminate [him] from any debate all together.” Of course, nobody wants to eliminate Horowitz—we on the left like having him around, especially now that his campaigns are grinding to a halt. He’s useful, for his attempts to illuminate what he sees as the perfidy of the left end up only shedding more light on the right.

Horowitz claims that we who oppose him misrepresent him. But I challenge him to find anything that I have written about him that has not come directly from his own words. And I challenge him to show where I have twisted his words into positions that do not logically extend from them.

In his blog, he charges his critics as having produced “falsehoods” about him—without giving a single example. They can be found in the lists, he implies. He says we see him, along with people like Ann Coulter, as “morally indecent (racist, sexist, homophobic, dishonest).” Well, I don’t know about the rest, but I am but one who has pointed out instances where Horowitz has not been exactly honest. Just one mundane example: in his book on dangerous professors, Horowitz places Todd Gitlin at an event Gitlin did not attend—something that could have been checked, but that would have weakened Horowitz’s point. (Go to the Free Exchange on Campus Horowitz Fact Checker for more examples).

But I do thank Horowitz for compiling his lists. Now, anyone can quickly see the weaknesses of his arguments. Unfortunately, they do have to work back through his responses, including his response to me, where he twice uses the insightful argument “BLATHER” (capitals his). Still, if you skim his “responses” and work back, you will quickly see just why it is that he, like the rest of the right, is falling on hard times.

You will discover, in Gertrude Stein’s words, that there is “no there, there.”

Monday, October 16, 2006

Academic Freedom: Naïve and Circumscribed

John Friedl, who teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the departments of Political Science, Public Administration and Nonprofit Management, and Accounting and Finance, has written an article for David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine in which he argues for “teaching the subject matter using appropriate viewpoint-neutral techniques.” I don’t like calling belief in such a possibility naïve, but it is no more possible in actual practice than is the “objectivity” that many journalists aspire to.

Of course, our beliefs, religious, political, or of any other sort, influence everything we do. To pretend otherwise is either disingenuous or naïve, and I would hate to think that Friedl has some hidden agenda, so I am left to see him as something of a naïf. For a century, we have been grappling with the possibility of “objectivity,” and discussions have always proved inconclusive. The problem comes down to ontology, ultimately to belief, an unacceptable basis for “objectivity.” “Objectivity” requires “truth.” Otherwise, “relativity” reigns. Yet “truth” isn’t available to us as an absolute, only as an unprovable assumption. Therefore, “objectivity,” though it may be an admirable goal, is something that, even if it can be approached, can never be reached—for the truth behind it can never be proven absolute.

Be that as it may, there are other—and more practical—problems with Friedl’s article, and with his vision of “academic freedom.”

[A side note: oddly enough, though he opposes David Horowitz’s attempt to bring his “Academic Bill of Rights” into law, Friedl accepts Horowitz’s argument that
no legislation connected with his “Academic Bill of Rights” is binding (they are only resolutions about the importance of intellectual diversity), and that he does “not believe legislatures are suited to fixing the academic problems that need to be addressed. Only the university itself can do this.”
As he is a lawyer as well as an academic, one would think this contention would lead Friedl to ask why, then, Horowitz wants laws endorsing that “Academic Bill of Rights.” One does not advocate for laws that are advisory in nature.]

What concerns me most about Friedl’s article are assertions like this:
whatever one’s position might be on an issue, be it political, social, religious, or any other topic, a professor should not use the forum of a captive audience in a classroom as an opportunity to express his or her views with the intention of convincing students of the correctness of that position. Only in the rare instance when the subject of the course is clearly appropriate for the injection of personal beliefs, and the students are adequately informed in advance, may the professor be considered within the bounds of academic freedom to express his or her own viewpoints, but even then there should be appropriate opportunity and respect for contrary views of others in the class.
Friedl, here, elides the core problems of “academic freedom” through his “should not/may/should” structure.

His first statement, that a professor “should not” use the classroom to indoctrinate is a bit of a red herring, a false opposition to the “may” and “should” of the next sentence. Of course no professor should see his or her position as providing an opportunity for brainwashing. But that’s not the point, and is irrelevant to any discussion of “academic freedom” anyway.

I should be clear: Friedl is not writing of “academic freedom” in its older (yet still active) sense of the freedom to conduct research in unpopular areas or to publish unpopular views. He is restricting himself to “academic freedom” in the classroom. Here, the professor is given the freedom to reach the competencies that define the course in a manner consistent with that professor’s sense of the field of endeavor. The American university system provides a great deal of latitude here, but also has safeguards in place. Professors go through a long process of vetting, one that begins in graduate school, and do not get far along in the tenure process without gaining the confidence of their colleagues. Also, students are encouraged (in fact, they are forced) to take only a limited number of courses from any one professor. Most college students will take classes from more than thirty professors in their four years. It would be very hard for any one of them to successfully indoctrinate his or her students—especially if every other professor were attempting to do the same.

For sake of space, I’m leaving aside the argument that Horowitz makes, that the vast majority of professors believe in the same thing. His argument, based in part on the fact that there are far more liberals in our universities than conservatives (at least amongst Liberal Arts faculties), holds no water with anyone who has any understanding at all of the liberal mindset. As Friedl doesn’t address this issue, I won’t either.

Where Freidl’s argument in the passage above breaks down is in the use of “clearly appropriate.” Who is to make that determination? Any attempt to establish such a line will necessitate an abrogation of “academic freedom.” Friedl himself is laying down the law—a law that itself limits a freedom in a way that makes that freedom meaningless.

I teach writing. At the heart of my pedagogy is the concept that successful writing is predicated by an understanding that one is participating in a conversation. To converse, one must develop a clear understanding of the correspondent—and must have a topic of sufficient complexity and interest for sustained discussion. For this reason (the impossibility of a true “apolitical” stance notwithstanding), I need for my students to come to an understanding of me as a being with certain political (and even religious) leanings so that they can be addressing an audience and not a blank slate (blank slates can’t argue back, allowing students to develop their skills). Also, I need to be able to develop topics that engage my students. If I am limited to “non-controversial” topics, my students will be bored, and I will not be able to meet my goals of improving their writing—and thinking—skills. If someone from outside says that my methodology is inappropriate, that I must change my ways and develop a pedagogy that avoids political and religious controversies, my “academic freedom” is abridged.

Friedl’s “should” at the end precedes another of those truisms that are rarely challenged—but that should be. Friedl wants “appropriate opportunity and respect for contrary views of others in the class.” That can lead to chaos in the classroom, for it makes all views equal—and they just aren’t. It is not the views themselves that should be respected, anyway, but a willingness to study them and to learn to defend them. I am not going to accept hatred of gays in my classroom—I will ask anyone expressing such a view to consider it, study it, and defend it, but I will not accept it as legitimate. It is my responsibility as a teacher try to get my students to examine their beliefs—not to change them, but to understand them and to see them in relation to the beliefs—and beings—of others. Certainly, my students will not respect me and my beliefs if I uphold such a naïve (again) relativism as a principle of the classroom.

Towards the end of his article, Friedl does try a little naïve relativism in defense of his argument for limiting information as a part of “academic freedom”:
Regardless of our place on the liberal-conservative continuum, we should at least agree that there is very little that can pass as “truth” in the realm of politics or religion. The role of the instructor should be, in my view, to present ideas and concepts for students to debate, discuss, criticize and ultimately to form their own opinions. It should not be to present the “truth” for the students to absorb uncritically.
My father, a professor of psychology, had a demonstration that shows the vacuity of this one of Friedl’s “shoulds”: he would ask a student to go to the blackboard and ask her or him to draw a line a meter long. The puzzled student would draw a line. My father would look at it, shake his head, and tell them to practice some more—until they got it right. In face of their consternation, he would relent, telling them to make the line a little longer—no, not that much longer. There! That’s about it. His point was that one learns little even by practicing—without guidance. And a teacher, to be effective, can’t just toss a ball onto the court and then act as referee. For learning to take place, there has to be coaching, too.

It does not follow that, because there is no “truth,” we have to approach our classrooms without opinions or should hide the ones we do have. For one thing, such a thing is impossible. Our students are not stupid: they can see our beliefs, even when we hide them (sometimes they are wrong, as in an example Friedl gives, but that is just as bad).

Friedl ends his piece by writing:
The discussion over academic standards and academic freedom in the classroom should not be framed in terms of liberal, or even radical, indoctrination of students. Rather, it should be a question of teaching the subject matter using appropriate viewpoint-neutral techniques. Arguments over whether more liberal than conservative professors are “guilty” of injecting their personal views into their classroom instruction detract from the more important issue on which both liberals and conservatives can find common ground – the need to raise academic standards and improve the quality of education by challenging students to think critically and introspectively, to shop freely in the marketplace of ideas, and to develop their personal philosophy with guidance from those whom they respect and trust.
Friedl prefaces his point here with something that has never been a real question in American classrooms (though it is, in Horowitz’s imagination—but he is someone who hasn’t been inside a classroom in years), and that is “indoctrination.” No one in American education argues in favor of indoctrination; no serious student of academia sees the “framing” of issues in terms of indoctrination. The rest of the passage is composed of platitudes, none of which has any real relevance to teaching.

We cannot challenge “students to think critically and introspectively” without demonstrating that we do so ourselves. We cannot be guides our students “respect and trust” when we hide our own beliefs from them.

We can only teach our students well if we are honest and open with them, inviting them into the very real debates we participate in. Freezing them out, especially through a view of “academic freedom” that paradoxically restricts in the name of freedom, patronizes the students, setting up a barrier that makes it much more difficult than need be to develop a real and effective rapport with our students. Ultimately, what Friedl is asking is that we be dishonest in the name of academic freedom.

And I, for one, can’t countenance that.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Swiftboating of Another Professor

If you need a lesson in why it is so important that our universities continue to protect the concept of “academic freedom” from outside encroachment, in why tenure is so important, and in why we really must continue to fight to keep politicians out of our classrooms, well, the case of John Gerassi, professor of Political Science at Queens College of the City University of New York may provide it.

Of course, this isn’t the first case of this nature to arise over the last few years, nor will it be the last. David Horowitz himself has written smears of professors, as have many working with him. Furthermore, near slander of this sort it is typical of the type of twisting and almost lies (not to mention a few actual ones) that the right is using to try to intimidate intellectuals whose conclusions might not be the same as conservatives might want them to be.

The strategy is one that Horowitz outlines in his The Art of Political War, though it is older than that, going back at least to the time of Joe McCarthy (as I have written elsewhere). It is part and parcel of the “swiftboating” strategy that the right has used so effectively over the last few years, but that doesn’t make any particular instance less egregious.

Each time it arises, it needs to be met, forcefully and swiftly—with truth and outrage.

Though I teach in the same university system with John Gerassi, I had never heard of him before coming across an article on him at frontpagemag.com, the Horowitz propaganda site. The title of the piece is “CUNY’s Anti-Jewish Bigot. The bulk it is a rehash of something published in September in the Queen’s College paper, Knight News, but it contains its own personal “errors,” as I mention on my earlier blog on this case. I was writing about how the right likes to build a trail of slanderous links from one article to another, each new one adding to the lies of the last, building a network of slander based on the assumption that each previous post is true.

Though I didn’t know it would happen so quickly, I suspected that other articles on Gerassi would start showing up. After all, we already had one article built on another—neither based on anything but hearsay and repetition. A third would probably be quick in coming.

And it was. Today at frontpagemag.com is a reprint of a New York Post opinion column by Andrea Peyser entitled “Professor for Hezbollah”—another smear of Gerassi linking back to the Queens College paper. Probably, this piece is actually older than that one I first read by Eugene Girin, making Girin’s that third (but probably not the last) in the chain.

Gerassi is being smeared because, reflecting the views of much of the world outside of the United States and Israel, he supports a Palestinian state and recognizes that Israel can never defeat Hezbollah through military means. As a political scientist dealing with the Middle East, his view is really not very surprising.

The Knight News article that started all of this, by a student named Joshua David Rubin, purports to be an account of things Gerassi said to his students the first day of classes this fall. It is this, completely aside from the validity of any of the professor’s views, that brings “academic freedom” comes into this matter. But let me get to that later.

First, I want to talk about the Peyser article.

Now, until reading the reprint of this piece on the Horowitz site, I had never heard of Peyser. Apparently, she’s a regular columnist at the Post, but that’s a paper I don’t take seriously so rarely read. Her article is a jaw-dropping example of just why I don’t. Appropriately, her next-to-last line applies to herself much more than to Gerassi:
To do this drivel justice would be not to print it

Applied to her, I agree heartily.

After repeating Rubin’s recollections about that first day of class, she claims that she had spoken with Gerassi at his “Upper East Side home,” and that he told her:
"The U.S. does not want peace in the Middle East," he said. "Those bastards now in the White House - these guys said we have to dominate the Middle East.

"We have to dominate who gets the oil." About Sharon: "They killed him!" he shrieked. "How come nobody can see him? As anti-Arab as he was" he wanted a Palestinian state. So Israeli forces working for the United States "took him out." Rabin, too.

"I'm pro-Palestinian," said Gerassi, the son of a Sephardic Jew. "But I support Hezbollah." Gerassi, 75, has been spewing this hatred at Queens College since 1978. "The greatest terrorist nation is the United States," ranted Gerassi, who, incredibly, has quite a following on campus.
Before hanging up, he said, "I hope you do this issue justice."

I wonder, does Peyser have a tape of any of this? At best, she seems to be cobbling together quotes from a number of sources, most of them with no firm connection to anything Gerassi actually said.

Here is Gerassi’s recollection of his telephone exchange with Peyser:
She never interviewed me. I hung up on her three times. I do not live on the east side, and never did. I never said I wanted Hezbollah to win, or lose for that matter as I never talked to her except to say "I don’t talk to the fascist press" (first time) and "look you work for Murdoch who is Bush's Goebbels. I don’t talk to Bush, I don’t talk to Goebbels and I won’t talk to you." And hung up. Third time I just hung up. If she called again I did not pick up the phone.[…] I never said anything else to her….

Given the pattern of lies being woven around Gerassi by Peyser, Girin, and Rubin (not just about where he lives, but where he has been and how much he makes, among other things), I tend to believe Gerassi over them.

It’s a hateful thing Peyser is participating in. She’s trying to destroy a man because his views on Israel are different from hers. Fortunately, Gerassi has the institutionalization of “academic freedom” in our universities to protect him.

She’s trying to destroy a man because he is upfront with his students about his views, making sure they know where he stands before continuing in a course with him. According to Gerassi, there were 55 students in the class that first day—and only one (Rubin) walked out. The others, probably recognizing what he was trying to do, stayed to learn.

Because he is dealing with a controversial topic (something quite natural to a Political Science class), it is quite honorable of Gerassi that he makes his own personal views known right up front. Students can then make their decisions about the class based on full knowledge of what they are getting into. Also, Gerassi can head off conflicts that might sidetrack him from doing his job by putting everything on the line right at the start.

Professors need to be able to do this. For us to effectively teach students, we have to be in control of our classrooms. Yes, there can be debate, and students should be able to disagree with us—and they do. But there are goals in each course, and they have to be reached. Certain ground rules have to be established so that movement will be in the direction of education and not of continued squabbling. Political issues, even in a Political Science classroom, are only tools for the facilitation of learning. Gerassi uses them in this way, I am sure, as much as I do. However, it is sometimes possible for people to hijack the discussion for their own political purposes, making it almost impossible to reach the goals of the course. Gerassi, I suspect, was trying to circumvent this by laying out his own beliefs at the beginning of the semester, making sure that people who could not even consider them would not stay in the class.

We professors need to know that we can say what we need to without interference from outside forces with their own political agendas—and Peyser’s like Rubin’s, like Girin’s are quite obviously so pro-Israel that they want to intimidate anyone who disagrees with them from speaking at all. They aren’t willing to counter Gerassi’s stands. Instead they mischaracterize them, making them sound ludicrous by twisting them into shapes Gerassi never intended. They are stifling the very type of debate that Gerassi, by being honest and open, wants to encourage.

The university system of “academic freedom” and tenure was designed to protect professors from exactly this sort of attack. And it is because of this that David Horowitz has been attempting to undermine “academic freedom” through his Orwellian “Academic Bill of Rights.” He wants to bring politics into the classroom because he does not like the way politics is used as a classroom tool. What he wants is to force political control onto what a professor can say, forcing people like Gerassi (and me) out of the universities in favor of people who say only what is acceptable to the right. Horowitz does not understand that people like Gerassi use their own political stances as tools in teaching. The students aren’t being forced into Gerassi’s point of view but, through encountering it, are shown how to think, how to come to their own conclusions.

This is something the right (and David Horowitz in particular) doesn’t understand. Unlike them, we liberals (for all that nonsense about political correctness) don’t try to impose our views on people, but use our views as one of the tools for educating our students. They don’t need to come out believing as we do, but (if we are successful, and we often are) should have learned to be flexible enough to understand different points of view. We are not propagandists, forcing certain ways of looking at things down student throats. Anyone who spends time on our campuses knows this. We promote exploration and discussion—but we also need students to come to us with a willingness to learn from us. And this is what Gerassi was insisting upon that first day. “If your mind isn’t open enough,” he was saying, in effect, “to consider the views that I am putting forth, this class is probably not for you.”

The student, as a learner, has a responsibility to put aside preconceptions and even cherished beliefs for the duration of a semester, to see what the professor has to offer and to learn from her or him. In most of our colleges, students take classes from up to 40 professors in their four years, and they see a great number of perspectives (Horowitz’s claim that we are all lock-step liberals notwithstanding). If the student is unwilling to do that, it can be very difficult for the class to succeed. In other words, the student must be willing to work with the professor, whether they like the professor’s views or not.

When dealing with issues that touch on views a student may hold dear, a professor does the entire class a favor by stating clearing what his or her perspective is at the beginning. The student doesn’t have to agree, but does have to agree to consider, to listen and think. If the student comes to the class with ideas so solid that they can’t be changed, there’s little point in taking the class, anyway.

I remember a teacher I had years ago, in US history. He was extremely conservative—as I am not. Throughout the semester, we battled. But I listened to him, which allowed him to use our battles in order to reach his goals for the class. I remember perfectly well the final exam. The assignment was (this was in 1968): “Name and discuss four things the United States has done to stop the spread of communism since the end of World War II.” The very question made me livid, for it implied that the US had stopped the spread of communism. But, instead of ranting, I wrote about the failures to stop communism—in China, in Cuba, in Eastern Europe, and in Vietnam. I argued that the Cold War wasn’t stopping communism, but was dividing the world between the camps of superpowers, quite a different thing. I turned in my essay quite ready to accept whatever bad grade the teacher would give. As I had throughout the semester, I continued to give him the respect due his role as teacher, though I disagreed.

The exam came back with an A on it. See, I had been willing to consider the professors question and respond to it, though in my own way. I did not attack him. I did not call him names or slander him. I argued, yes, but I had let him control the class and move it in the directions he felt it needed. He hadn’t been trying to change my mind anyway, but to teach me. He could, because I was willing. The class ended up being a success for both of us.

I’ve seen many other students, over the years, completely refuse that sort of consideration and respect. They disrupt the classes, making progress impossible because of their intractable stands.

It is only the fact that our academic institutions still uphold the concept of “academic freedom” that keeps students—and outside political influences—from disrupting our classrooms completely. Students and faculty are not equal. Faculty members know much more about their fields and about their goals in particular courses than students at an undergraduate level are ever aware of. Our job is to lead students to knowledge—but we cannot do that when students refuse to work with us, accepting that, for fifteen weeks, we really do know what we are doing.

We cannot do our jobs when students are able to marshal outside forces against us, as Rubin seems to be trying against Gerassi. Not, that is, unless there is a structure in place that protects us. Yes, there need to be avenues for student complaints when we really do overstep our authority (and there are), but the protection afforded us is just as necessary.

Fortunately, right now, “academic freedom” is enshrined in our university system.

If David Horowitz has his way, a disgruntled student could go to a legislator (someone who probably has no experience in teaching at all) and have the career of the teacher threatened for purely political reasons. The legislator, a political being, would surely respond to that, ignoring pedagogy and intellectual pursuit to make her or his own political point. It may sound like I am overstating the case, but if this comes to pass, our whole system of higher education will collapse into mediocrity, at best.

This year, the US has done quite well in winning Nobel Prizes. Our educational system continues to dominate the academic world. It will not continue to, however, unless we make sure the protection of “academic freedom” as extended into the classroom for the professor continues unweakened.

Earlier, I quoted the next-to-last line in Peyser’s piece. I’d like to give the rest of that bit now:
To do this drivel justice would be not to print it - but then how would the parents of this city know what their kids are being taught?

Whatever Gerassi said that day, it was not drivel. This is an experienced full professor who knows what he is doing in the classroom, who (even now) is evaluated by his peers. The threat implied by Peyser—that parents, on “knowing” what Gerassi says in the classroom, can bring influence to bear on what goes on there—either through politics or through withdrawing their children—is extremely scary. It is not for Peyser or for parents to decide what goes on in a college classroom, and should not be. Again, if they ever take control, our great system of higher education is doomed, for one of the pillars it is built on, “academic freedom,” will have been destroyed.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Pilloried by Link

One of my favorites of the techniques for lying by the right is the Internet link that “proves” what one has just written. It doesn’t matter that the link itself may be based on bad information. It doesn’t even matter even if the link is to something the author has previously written (something David Horowitz likes to do). That it exists is sufficient.

Today, at Front Page Magazine (where you can also find an utterly bizarre attempt by Horowitz to link George Soros to the Mark Foley scandal), an article by Eugene Girin, a junior at Baruch College (another of the colleges in the system where I teach) rehashes and expands upon an earlier piece by Joshua David Rubin that had appeared three weeks ago in the Queens College (yet another school in the system) student paper, Knight News.

The subject of both articles is John Gerassi, a Political Science professor at Queens College.

If you read the Girin piece and link back to the Rubin one, you might shake your head about this crazy professor. “This Gerassi,” you could think to yourself, “how can he even be allowed in a classroom?” Even worse, or so you are led to believe, he’s a nut who makes a six-figure salary.

But (taking the last first) Girin, in a pattern of poor research, gives Gerassi a salary much higher than the reality, mistaking the money that a “distinguished professor” can make for that of the “full professor” Gerassi actually is.

Beyond that bit of sloppiness, what Girin doesn’t do is what I make every student of mine do: he never goes back to the source to verify the “information” he has amassed.

I did.

I emailed Gerassi—and received a quick response.

One of the claims that Rubin makes and that Girin parrots is that Gerassi, on the first day of class this fall, called “Palestinian suicide bombers” “freedom fighters.” As the old saw goes, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter—imagine how George Washington was seen by the British. As a teacher wanting to get students to be able to see issues from varying perspectives, I see nothing wrong with Gerassi saying using that fact to get students thinking. Still, I wondered if Gerassi had actually said it. He wrote back:
The only accurate statement [in the article] is that the whole world, and I, except the US, consider suicide bombers to be freedom fighters.

“Everything else,” he continues, “is a lie.”

Yet, from today on, Girin’s piece will be linked to by another rightwing writer, and then by another. Eventually, they will have convinced themselves that everything Rubin wrote in that first article—and much more—is true. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be “everywhere.”

Girin repeats Rubin’s claim that Gerassi said that Israel should be eliminated and that Jews control the media. Gerassi responds:
I never advocated the end of Israel but a two-state solution. I said and repeated various times that if the US wanted peace in the Middle East it could be done in one hour by telling Israel to go back to the pre-67 frontiers and internationalize Jerusalem, or else face total US sanctions.[…] And I never said the Jews control the media, but bigtime capitalists do.

That, of course, is a far cry from how his words were “reported.”

There are other problems with the Girin piece, including a claim that Gerassi spent time at Berkeley (he did not).

Like so many other attempts to smear people on the left, particularly those inside academia, this article is not only meant to deceive, but (as I say above) to compound the deception by acting as a link, as proof, that others can use.

One of the reasons I have become rather sharp in responding to rightwingers recently is that they are not willing to look beyond this sort of misinformation. They want it to be true, so they won’t question it.

Even were Gerassi lying to me about what he said in that class (and I am sure he is not—the position that he lays out in his email is consistent, but it is also one easily twisted into the statements attributed to him by Rubin and Girin), the other errors in Girin’s piece show a disregard for the truth in favor of political points and an inability to perform basic research.

When a professor like Gerassi, in trying to do his job, is turned into a target for rightwing propagandists, the freedoms of all of us are imperiled—and not just the “academic freedoms” of college professors. It doesn’t matter that this attack comes from inexperienced undergraduates. If this sort of misinformed "reporting" is tolerated, anyone speaking against the conventional view stands the chance of being pilloried through lies and distortions.

It is time it stops.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"General" Rumsfeld?

Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace, sees a general as merely following in front of the army. There’s a point to what he is saying, but Tolstoy doesn’t give the full picture of what makes a general great. There’s something more to it than being in the right place at the right time, of heading a movement that was going to happen with or without the leader.

Consider the case of Genghis Khan. Sure, his Golden Horde swept out of the steppes of Mongolia in part because they could and in part because they needed to—but they succeeded because of the organizational skills of their leader. Temüjin, as he was known in his youth, provided a whole new structure for his army, one that created new bonds at the lowest level and that rewarded the most skillful with promotion. Though his sons were given leadership duties, most of his generals were men who had risen through the ranks—and he generally paired his sons with one of them when they would face a possibly competent enemy. Success for the Mongolians would not have happened, no matter how great other pressures might have been, had it not been for the careful and farsighted work of the commanding general.

The same can be said of most other great generals. Even Napoleon, who Tolstoy so neatly mocks, created his success through the way he designed his army. The tightly pack troops marching to drums and with recurring shouts of “Viva l’Emperor!” were no accident—and defeated most every army they faced. They created an intimidating sight as they advanced—which alone was sometimes enough to insure victory.

Until, of course, they came across Wellington, who realized that the only way to defeat them was to redesign his own formations, creating long, thin lines that could pour more fire into the French than they, massed so tightly, could return. Lines that could even give at the center while the sides continued to fire and the French continued to advance.

Like Genghis Khan, both Napoleon and Wellington had a great deal of military experience before coming to reorganize their forces. Napoleon disparaged Wellington’s earlier successes in India, but they had taught that greatest of English generals much about the organization of forces.

Why was Robert E. Lee so successful, especially in the early parts of the Civil War? It wasn’t simply his leadership in battle, but that he also knew how to build an army out of those who demanded the war. U.S. Grant, who hadn’t had a stellar career as a subordinate, showed an absolute genius when given an army to coordinate. All of the pieces had been there for Union generals before him, but only Grant was able to put them together, creating a force that not even the equally brilliant Lee could counter, given his poorer resources.

In World War I, millions died because the generals, on both sides, lacked vision and understanding, working on the basis of concepts that were, in many cases, almost fifty years out of date.

Douglas MacArthur (who my father, a veteran of Leyte Island, cordially disliked) was as much an organizer as he was a leader of men (my father wasn’t the only one who hated him, oh no!)—the island-hopping campaign that took him from Australia back to the Philippines succeeded through organizations, through careful attention to logistics. When George Patton took over in North Africa, he turned things around not through the strength of his leadership (he was another quite disliked by many of his men—though they still admired him tremendously) but through his understanding of the possibilities and necessities of mechanized warfare. The greatest general of the war, Dwight Eisenhower, rarely came close to combat—but he created an army that, even though it outstripped its own supply lines and had a sorely disorganized replacement system that led to thousands of needless deaths, was able to push the Germans back with surprising success—and that was flexible enough to respond quickly to the German Ardennes push (the Battle of the Bulge).

Each of these Americans (just like Napoleon and Wellington, Genghis Khan, and, yes, even Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar) knew their armies through and through. Lee and Grant were veterans of the Mexican American War. MacArthur, Patton, and Eisenhower had all fought in World War I. Each of them had developed their ideas on warfare from within.

All of them had problems with civilians at one time or another—even Genghis Khan did, and Napoleon and Wellington. But they managed to keep them at bay. Eisenhower, with George Marshall (another experienced general) running interference for him, was able to keep both Roosevelt and Churchill out of the military planning (for the most part). He knew the danger of civilian assumptions about military capability. He knew that, when politicians get involved in planning wars, disaster invariably strikes. Gallipolis, in World War I, was a waste of thousands and thousands of lives because of politicians, not generals.

The lesson of history is clear: let the experienced generals build your army. Keep civilian hands to civilian problems. Only the generals have the experience and direct knowledge necessary to build an effective force, given the particulars of whatever the situation and the available technology. Sure, not all generals are competent to do this—but no one else (as far as I know) has ever succeeded at doing this at all.

Which brings us to “General” Donald Rumsfeld.

For twenty years, he and his fellow neo-cons planned and plotted, developing (among other things) what they thought would be an effective model for a contemporary military—and a strategy that they thought would work with a military built on that model. Completely cut off from the realities of battlefields and logistics, they had no one to tell them how naïve they were. So, they believed their own myths of their own infallibility.

They believed in this, in part because, in another area, they weren’t naïve at all, and were proving extraordinarily successful. They were (and remain) an expert group of political plotters. The wangled their way into power over the greatest nation on the planet, and into power over its military.

Over the centuries of the American experience, with its necessary tradition of civilian control of the military at the top, had come an understanding of just where that control should stop—where the civilians should let go and let the military take over. That line was quickly erased when Rumsfeld took over the Defense Department in 2001. His political successes had made him sure he could show the generals a thing or two. Suddenly, it was no longer military men who were making the decisions about military matters, but Rumsfeld and his neo-con civilians—often people with no background in the military whatsoever.

We’ve seen the result. A war fought with forces totally unprepared for the consequences of their victories. Generals fired because their advice on military matters did not match neo-con preconceptions. Generals retiring because they could no longer do their jobs without interference. Our great military, losing the very people who have kept it strong, now faces a decline brought on by the arrogance of outsiders, men with no experience in the arena they have been attempting to remold over the last five years and two wars.

No, we don’t want the military deciding who to go to war with, but when it comes to fighting and organizing the army for fighting, the generals need to be allowed to do their jobs without undue interference.

“Should Rumsfeld be fired?” People argue about this all the time. But that’s hardly even the right question. If Rumsfeld is fired and another civilian is brought in who doesn’t respect the generals and doesn’t know when to leave them alone to make their own decisions about purely military matters, things won’t change in the least. Rumsfeld should go, but his exit will only make a difference only if the neo-con attitude towards our military is replaced along with him.

As the attitudes that Rumsfeld exhibits are shared by his old companion Dick Cheney and by President Bush himself, there’s no percentage at all in calling for Rumsfeld to go. Only another just like him will be brought in.

If we want an American military that is strong, flexible, and able to respond quickly to unexpected situations then we have to start changing our government completely, starting with the election next month. We need to start replacing the arrogant fools who have been ruining not only our military but our international reputation with people with an understanding of history, contemporary affairs, and the relation of the military to the civilian government in a democracy. We can’t get rid of them all right now, but with a change in control of Congress, we can start putting the brakes on them.

And can start saving—and rebuilding—our military.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Journalists: Look to Your Future

Yeah, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page first appeared in 1928–and William Randolph Hearst’s father let him take over his San Francisco Examiner forty years before that. But that doesn’t make it any less aggravating today when roads and airspace have to be closed to keep an overly aggressive news media from intruding on the funerals of girl tragically slain.

Worse: they were Amish girls, part of a community that does what it can, anyway, to keep our technology driven world at bay.

Few incidents of recent years show quite so starkly just what is wrong with the American commercial news media. You’ve heard it before, and over and over: they respect but one thing, being first now–for that, they believe, brings in viewers, and viewer numbers are all that’s important.

The Amish aren’t scared of technology, nor are they unfamiliar with it. No outsider can really know them, but I spent a year in Lancaster (near where the killings happened) and live in a community in central Pennsylvania where the clop-clop of horses pulling Amish carriages is an hourly occurrence–so I have seen them, at least. What they want is the privilege of controlling their own lives. We entrust a lot of our future to distant events when we partake of the “grids” of modern life. Depressions and wars: these aren’t even the only things that impinge on our beings when we accept full partnership in the money economy and the national ethos. Just look what changes in gas prices do to us... altering our travel plans, making us lower the thermostat and buy different cars. Without debt and reliance on distant markets, the Amish are immune to such things as the devastation of economic depression: their crops will still grow, they can still build and sew.

They know what they give up, though–their decision is not made in ignorance of the technological world. So, they don’t need our protection, just our respect.

The government of Pennsylvania tried to force that on the news media for the funerals, closing airspace and roads for several miles around the funeral sites. But the government should not have had to do that.

Like addicts promising to reform tomorrow, the commercial news media just do not seem able to help themselves–if they can get in there, they will, Amish (or whoever it might be) be damned.

As I said above, it’s an old song, but the news media don’t ever seem to learn. They walk around bemoaning the fact that Americans respect them only a little more than the serial killers they cover–but they never change their behavior.

In the 1990s, when people like “Buzz” Merritt and Jay Rosen tried to develop another model for the news business, they were shot down by many of the people within, people who cried that “civic journalism” transgressed on the ethical integrity (among other things) of journalists.

Ethics? Integrity? In journalism? That’s like an alcoholic priding himself or herself on their self-control. There is none in the journalism business. Just look at poor Hildy Johnson trying to get out of it in His Girl Friday, one of many remakes of The Front Page.

Occasionally, there have been (and are) specific individuals in journalism who act with a high level of integrity. I think of Edward R. Murrow, I. F. Stone, and (today) Keith Olbermann–though there are many more, their impact is relatively small. The “industry” as a whole has no ethics, no integrity, and never has.

The very structure of journalism makes it (in a sense) sacrifice its future for satisfaction today. There’s an irony to this, for newspapers, TV and radio networks, and all of the other news media entities hope to be around for the long haul–though they act as though all that matters is today. The problem is that their business models are focused on numbers now, not on insuring strong numbers in the future. Only rarely have there been media owners who understood things differently. The Ochs/Sulzberger family at The New York Times, William Paley at CBS, and the Knight family once of Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) come immediately to mind. The problem is that the protection from the standard model rested with individuals–and individuals don’t last forever. These people had (and have–some are left) desire and ability to keep the news side separate from the business side. Even so, their task was no easy one. The difficulty they had (and have) was ably portrayed by Nancy Marchand as publisher Margaret Pynchon in the late 1970s TV show Lou Grant.

Merritt and Rosen are right when they say that journalism must find a new model–or one will be found for it and the older news media entities will go the way of the dinosaur. The problem is that few people inside journalism are willing to put in the work, the study, necessary to finding a way to redesign their profession. Money still comes in; the people at the top are paid handsomely. The flattery resulting from one’s voice on the radio, face on television is intense. The very fact of that money insulates the news media from the reality of their own future.

So, instead of trying to improve their profession, journalists continue to chase stories in a pack, each one hoping to break out in the lead. They continue to haunt press rooms, waiting for stories to come to them. They still preen and boast, while many in their audiences look on with a disgust that has been growing now for generations.

Correct though they may be, perhaps Merritt and Rosen are on a fools errand, trying to change people who refuse to be changed. They have tried the interventions, but the drunks have stalked off in huffs–back to the bars. They have dragged them to AA meetings, even gotten them to stand up and say, “Hi, my name is The Washington Post and I’m addicted to breaking news.” But it hasn’t helped. Given the structures of the industry, it may never.

Ultimately, it may take forces completely removed from the commercial news media to provide us with the coverage we need. Fortunately, with increasing technological innovation, that might not be as far-fetched as it seemed even a decade ago. Citizen journalism, fueled by people with computers and cellphone cameras, may one day put the professionals completely out to pasture.

Today, Rosen and others are trying to find a middle ground, a way to utilize both the citizen journalist and the professional to create a new model–hope springs eternal–and I wish them luck. But I am beginning to believe that there is little hope for the bloated beast that haunts our airwaves and our newsstands.

Friday, October 06, 2006

On the Teaching of Writing, No. 2

An email response to my post earlier this week on the teaching of writing got me thinking about the relation between the teaching of basic writing, in particular, and the Habermasian public sphere. No, that’s not quite true: it got me thinking more.

The book I recently completed, though not dealing directly with basic writing, has a great deal to do with both the public sphere and changes within it, especially as they relate to the written word. The book, right now, is called The Rise of the Blogosphere: Backgrounds in American Journalism and it should appear from Praeger in the early part of next year. In it, I try to detail the constriction of the public sphere through the commercialization and professionalization of journalism in the United States over the past century-and-a-half. This constriction led to the growth of both anger and a sense of powerlessness on the part of the American public in regards to the news media–and these, in turn, are part of what led to the tremendous blog explosion of the past few years.

People want to write to communicate their views. Yet many feel they cannot. For some, it’s a sense that the professionals have taken over, leaving no room for the average person. For others, they simply do not feel that they have the tools to communicate effectively. The first of these two groups have taken to the blogs. The second are often our students in basic writing classes.

Years ago, close to the time I left teaching (for what I thought was forever), I was working with a group of students who were preparing for first-year composition and completion of their GEDs. The students were fairly typical basic-writers–bright enough, but lacking in classroom confidence and mechanical skills. When I could get them to forget where they were, wonderful discussions–even arguments–ensued. But I was having difficulty getting them to transfer their thoughts to paper in anything but the most constricted form.

About halfway through the semester, I decided to take one writing from each student, edit it for mechanical problems, and place it within a newsletter I created. As a former printer and compositor–and as one who had designed various publications–I knew I could present the newsletter in a way that the students would see as “professional.” Because the students did not know they would appear, I kept their names out of it.

When I handed out the newsletter, I said nothing about it, simply sat back and let the students read. They started to recognize the stories fairly quickly (we did a lot of sharing in class). A buzz began to grow, as they associated work they were reading with the authors–and discovered their own contributions.

From that point on, that class was a breeze, and a joy to teach. The students had seen that they could enter into a “public” sphere and succeed–that they could write well and get others to respond.

“Get others to respond.” That, I’ve found (now that I’ve returned to teaching), is the key. Make them feel empowered, as they say, within whatever sphere they are writing for, and students will produce. If they feel someone is listening, taking seriously what they are saying (and not worrying so much about the “alots” and “definatelys”), their confidence begins to grow and they begin to write even more.

Time passes and technology changes, of course, and I no longer use newsletters in my classes (I never did use them for every class–each situation, of course, requiring a unique strategy). Instead, I use blogs to the same purpose. Oftentimes, I use a little bit of deceit, a minor version of tossing someone into the deep end and forcing them to swim: I tell the students to give the url of their blogs to their friends and family without reminding them that they are now writing in public, and will have to accept responsibility for everything they post. That, by the way, is one of the reasons (or so I believe, with the fact that they are graded on their blogs being another) that I find little chat shorthand in their blog entries.

With the professionalization of the media has come a feeling on the part of many, especially those lacking confidence in their writing skills, that they are not welcome to participate in the greater public debates–that all they can do is watch. That their only participation comes as an either/or in the voting booth. The trend toward this was chronicled as far back as the 1920s by Walter Lippmann, who felt that it should be so, that most people are not equipped to deal with the nuances of policy and that the educated elite should present choices only as simple dichotomies.

As for myself, as for most teachers of basic writing, there’s something inherently undemocratic about Lippmann’s attitude. We’re much more in line with John Dewey, who felt that life-long education and participation in the political discussions were cornerstones to the success of any democracy. Rather than telling people about issues, we want to involve them in the debate on those issues–and at a far more integral level than simply making a choice in a voting booth.

The “basic” in basic writing is more than simply an evaluation of student skills. It implies a certain assumed base level for participation in American society, a base everyone should have, one that allows them to participate fully in the public sphere.

The teaching of basic writing, then, has an inherent political aspect. It is anti-elitist, coming down heavily on the Dewey side of that Dewey/Lippmann debate. It is “liberal” on a fundamental leve, for its task is to expand the public sphere, to bring in those who have been excluded.

In this field in particular (to return to one of my favorite hobby-horses), the ratio of liberals to conservatives is probably much higher than the numbers that “scare” David Horowitz so in his campaign against academia. Horowitz focuses on such things as Women’s Studies departments for his ire, saying they shouldn’t be part of academia at all. I don’t think he would dare attack basic-writing programs, however, even though they are ultimately much more “subversive” (from his point of view) than the “radical feminists” ever will be. That would make his elitist goals all to apparent, and he doesn't want that (right now).

The goal of basic writing is much more overtly political than the goal of any other particular teaching endeavor, for the teacher of basic writing is attempting to alter the public sphere by changing its composition, by bringing more people into it and with greater ability to participate.

If Horowitz ever succeeds in his attempts to bring political control not only directly into classrooms but into wider academic decision-making, you can bet that basic-writing programs will start to disappear. The smokescreen of “individual responsibility” will be used, leaving only the occasional student from outside the middle and upper classes in our colleges. The philosophy of John Dewey will quickly become only a memory.

Separate politics from the classroom? In basic writing, certainly, it can’t be done.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"War Thoughts at Home"

During Iraq, we’ve been denied the war at home. We’re kept from the flag-draped caskets, given tax cuts, and told to go shopping. But war cannot be divorced from the fabric of life. Cannot be, never was, never will be. Still, they try, keeping the magic mask from The Fantastics.

Perhaps it is not just war we are separated from. We’ve hidden death for a long, long time now, have removed ourselves far from nature—blue jays, crows, spiders, and butterflies becoming alien to us.

It struck me, on reading the newly discovered Robert Frost poem “War Thoughts at Home,” just how cocooned we’ve become—not simply from destruction, but from life. The few among us who have experienced its horrors in full (and life can certainly be horrific) now wander through an oblivious society, walking wounded, unable to communicate their experiences to an audience that can no longer be deterred, as Coleridge’s wedding guest was, from the ceremony. The grasp of the Ancient Mariner fails; his “There was a ship” is lost in the optimism of the wedding vows. No “sadder and wiser man” rises the following morn.

We learn nothing; we are satisfied knowing nothing. Those who are different, those from whom we could learn, are turned away as surely as nature, death, and war. We want for nothing—or so we want to believe.

“War Thoughts at Home.” We’ve fetishized the one incident where war was brought to those of us American and alive today. I among them, with my memories of the clouds of sparkling smoke, and the dust-covered trudgers moving home in hours-long lines, shocked and silent.

To Frost, the war in Europe in 1918—where my own grandfathers were both fighting, one gassed and one losing a leg—had a direct connection at home, and not simply through these fights between jays and crows that open the newly found poem.

Frost changed with the war, though he did not participate in it. He had lived in England, however, on the eve of World War I, where and when both A Boy’s Will and North of Boston were first published, returning to the United States only after the conflict had commenced. So, he knew something of the impact of war—and was to see it again once the United States joined in.

Looking at the poems published in England, one sees a poet who yearns for a life apart from the chaos of the political world. Consider “Into My Own”:
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I though was true.

The somewhat older and more experienced Frost, though he still yearned, had learned that there is no separation, and had stopped dreaming of it. That poem of his from 1918, found this year, expresses this clearly in its last lines:
The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that long have lain
Dead on a side track.

The past stays with us, as does motion (and so, the future), in that line of sheds that sit unused, abandoned in favor of war. One takes from the poem as a whole the idea that while the war may be “over there,” it cannot be removed from home.

“War Thoughts at Home” isn’t an anomaly. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the last poem in which Frost draws parallels between the distant war and home—though, in “Range-Finding,” “home” is a spider’s web:
The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird's nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.
On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O'ernight 'twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.

Here, in the last two lines, we have another real story of war, though one beyond the agonies of the combatants. The spider, expecting something out of it, finds nothing.

And that is the reality of war: it brings nothing. It only costs.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On the Teaching of Writing, No. 1

Though most of my training is in literature, I’ve become more and more interested, over the years, in writing and writing pedagogy. This started back in grad school, when I worked for a bit in Lou Kelly’s writing lab at the University of Iowa—where I was introduced to the likes of Mina Shaughnessy, James Britten, Peter Elbow, and many of the others developing new ways of teaching writing in the 1970s. After my four years in Africa in the late 1980s, I taught part time for a bit at Long Island University, where Deborah Mutnick introduced me to the work of David Bartholomae. I quickly lost interest in teaching, though, and turned my attention to building and running a café and a gift store.

By the time I returned to teaching, about a decade later, I assumed that the methodologies that were being developed in decades past had come to be standards—that the teaching of writing had evolved, and that I would find myself entering a whole new world of writing pedagogy.

Of course, I was wrong. If anything, by the early years of this decade, much (not all, fortunately) of the teaching of writing had slid backwards into grammar-based pedagogy, had become dominated by a new breed of Comp/Rhet PhDs who are more interested in theory about classroom teaching than in actual classroom teaching, or was mired in strategies—like Ken Bruffee’s small groups—which had worked well with an earlier generation of students but were not meeting the needs of a new generation in their old configurations. Not only that, but there was a new emphasis on testing that was turning the teaching of writing into the teaching of puzzle solving, of how to put the right pieces in exactly the right places.

Now that I have been back in this dodge for a couple of years, I’m beginning to feel that I know my way around again. I’ve even come to terms with a few of the changes: no matter how little I like them, for example, I accept that standardized writing exams are here to stay. Some of them aren’t even all that bad. In fact, the City University of New York (where I teach) uses both one of the worst and one of the best. One entrance to the basic Composition class is through the CUNY-ACT test, an exam based on the five-paragraph theme with a grading rubric that emphasizes making a point, organizing an argument, elaborating on that argument, and mechanics. It’s a horrible test that focuses the student on the piece of paper and not on communication. On the other hand, the CUNY Proficiency Exam (CPE) that all students must pass to continue after their sophomore year, is actually a useful exam. For it, students are asked to respond to two pieces of writing, one they take home (a longer one) and one given to them in the second test session. For the first session, they are expected to write a summary of the essay they had earlier taken home. For that second session, they are expected to use the two articles together in an essay.

Standardized writing tests, then, though they are generally not very useful, aren’t necessarily bad things. Just most of them are. I’ve learned, though, that I can live with even the bad exams, as long as I remember to make sure that students don’t see the type of writing they are doing as addressing that piece of paper (or a machine) but an honest-to-God person.

With that in mind, I no longer talk about the five paragraph theme (in classes where I am preparing students for the CUNY-ACT exam) as consisting of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Wanting students to think in terms of their audience while they are writing, I have re-named the first two parts, calling them “contact” and “convince,” both words that carry within them a sense of audience, of other, that “introduction” and “body” lack. This also gives me a nice little mnemonic, three words all beginning in “con.”

In fact, emphasis on “contact,” on audience, has become the touchstone of much of my pedagogy. If we’re not writing for somebody—or to somebody—just what are we doing when putting fingers to keyboards? Some of us, once we have reached a certain level of ease, are able to write for the pleasure of it or simply for ourselves, but most people cannot do that—and have no reason to. I even see grammar in terms of “contact”: the only reason to use “good” grammar is to facilitate communication, to make it easier for the audience to understand the writer as precisely as possible.

My focus on audience has a long history, going back to my childhood as the son of a “radical behaviorist” follower of B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s basic stimulus/response model was something I was aware of even in junior high; in graduate school, I read his Verbal Behavior and started to understand writing itself as a dynamic represented by an S/R continuum.

It is from Skinner that I developed my concern that much of what we do is ask students to talk to a piece of paper rather than to another person. We focus on what is on that paper, sometimes to the detriment of the ultimate purpose of the writing—communication, providing a stimulus that elicits a response that either reinforces our writing (success at communication) or shows us that we need to try something different.

This concern has led me to begin to use blogs in my classroom. Through their blogs, students see much more clearly that they are involved in something more than designing a problem-free page. They start to take pride not only in their presentation but in the conversations they spark....

Enough. If I don't stop now, I will go on far too long for one post.

And, after all, this is my first blog entry on writing pedagogy. I’ve done what I wanted, have provided an overview of a few of my current concerns—along with a bit on what I am doing these days.

My plan, for this occasional series on the teaching of writing, is to focus on meeting the needs of developing writers and on how Verbal Behavior can be used to provide what may be a new and effective way of examining the writing process. If what I have written so far seems at all of interest, check back every week or so and see what I’m about.

We’ll then see how it goes.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Horowitz on Woodward

It’s Bad to Change Your Mind

Yesterday, David Horowitz responded to Michiko Kakutani’s review (subscription required) of Bob Woodward’s new book State of Denial. What is absolutely fascinating is that Horowitz tries to take Woodward to task for having changed his opinion—something Horowitz, though he switched from left to right—has never done. Kakutani’s headline is “A Portrait of Bush as a Victim of His Own Certitude,” a trait Bush shares with Horowitz and much of the right.

If there is one trait that defines the right (and the far left, where Horowitz used to reside) it is an absolute belief in its own correctness. Anyone showing doubt or a need to re-examine is considered suspect, showing a sign of “liberalness.” Following this pattern, Horowitz tries to use the fact that Woodward has changed his mind about the Bush administration to cast doubt on the new book.

Horowitz can’t attack the book on substance, so he tries to make a case that Woodward could not ask the hard questions because he had changed his mind. It is too bad for Horowitz that he posted his blog entry before the 60 Minutes segment on Woodward aired last night, a piece detailed by RenaRF on The Daily Kos.

To cast doubt on Woodward, Horowitz claims that someone who changes his or her mind can’t ask good questions, for the very asking would reveal the changed view. He adds:
In this situation, the judgement [sic] -- and fortitude -- of the writer in asking questions, in assessing answers, is absolutely crucial to establishing a reliable picture of what actually took place. That is why Woodward's dramatically inconsistent portrait of Bush is so disturbing.

What Horowitz did not know was that the White House was perfectly aware of Woodward’s change of heart—made so by Woodward himself. RenaRF quotes 60 Minutes:
WALLACE: You paint a picture, Bob, of the President as the 'Cheerleader in Chief', current reality be damned. He's convinced that he's got to succeed in Iraq, yes?
WOODWARD: Yes. That's correct. Now--
WALLACE: You believe that he believes.
WALLACE: How well do you know him?
WOODWARD: I interviewed him for the first two books for hours.
WALLACE: And you know what? There are people who are going to say "Look - Woodward is savaging President Bush because he wouldn't see him for this book."
WOODWARD: That's not true.
WALLACE: Well he didn't.
WOODWARD: He did not. I asked, and made it very clear to the White House what my question were, what my information was. What could he say? That secret chart is not right? That these things that happened in these meetings didn't occur? It's documented. I've talked to the people who were there.

Woodward wasn’t trying to hide anything, certainly not his opinion. He is not in the position Horowitz describes:
For example, suppose Colin Powell has made some harsh criticisms of Condoleeza Rice to Woodward. If Woodward takes these criticisms to Rice for her reaction, he may communicate to Rice that this could be a hostile book. If Rice communicates this to other members of the Bush Administration, sources will dry up. Hence the writer may decide not to pose the challenge to Rice, but to save the adverse comment for his text.

Woodward may have been stampeded into support for the administration from 9/11 through the early years of the Iraq war, but he remains an important journalist, important enough so that he cannot be ignored simply because he has changed his views. He didn’t need to interview Bush for this book, for he already had the facts, so “access,” so important to journalists of lesser stature, meant less to him. He didn’t need to hide his views, for the people he did interview recognize him as an insider who can say what he will and still get to almost any source.

Horowitz attacks Woodward on this flimsy basis because he has no other. All he can do is try to claim that Woodward, by the very act of changing his mind, is no longer part of the team. For, as Kakutani writes:
As depicted by Mr. Woodward, this is an administration in which virtually no one will speak truth to power, an administration in which the traditional policy-making process involving methodical analysis and debate is routinely subverted.

Woodward’s real crime, in Horowitz’s eyes, lies in willingness to speak against the prevailing rightwing assumptions. He is finally the kid willing to say that the emperor wears no clothes.

I am no fan of Woodward—haven’t been, ever since first hearing of him during Watergate (as a copyboy at the New York Times that summer, I knew that his role in uncovering the scandal was exaggerated). But that doesn’t mean he cannot do a good job at examination of this administration.

So I, for one, will get this book and read it—Horowitz’s objections notwithstanding.