Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"Balance" and the Melt Down

David Horowitz continues to melt down in the wake of his attempt (with outgoing representative Gib Armstrong) to hijack the Pennsylvania Select Committee on Academic Freedom report. A draft reflected his views but was altered by the committee to show the real state of academic-freedom affairs in Pennsylvania—and became a final report that was accepted unanimously.

Yet Horowitz, master of Newspeak, continues to claim victory.

On his blog, Horowitz quotes Cathy Young, who he seems to assume is a libertarian who “should” agree with him. She characterizes his “Academic Bill of Rights” as something that “would not only protect dissenting students from classroom retaliation but also guarantee the inclusion of balanced viewpoints in the curriculum.”

For some reason, this send Horowitz further into his liquid state. He writes:
I have never advocated any measure to "guarantee the inclusion of balanced viewpoints in the curriculum." I never use the word "balance" because I don't believe you can balance ideas. I have advocated making students aware of dissenting points of view on matters that are controversial. One would think a libertarian could support that position.
Well, if he had read carefully, he would have recognized that Young wasn’t disagreeing with his position—and that she wasn’t using “balance” as the center of some sort of academic fulcrum. She was using “balance” as meaning (in Horowitz’s own words) “making students aware of dissenting points of view.”

Strangely, while I am getting bored with the puddle that used to be David Horowitz, I am getting more and more interested in questions relating to academic freedom. It’s a fascinating topic, especially if you go back and examine the forces that led to the creation of the modern research university in the middle of the 19th Century. Also, I’ve been seeing how the meaning of “academic freedom” has been manipulated in the past fifteen years or so, making the phrase have more to do with First Amendment questions than it ever had in the past. This was done as part of the fight between supporters of Fourteenth Amendment rights on campus and Free Speech advocates. With campus speech codes, the Fourteenth Amendment people seemed to be winning—until “academic freedom” began to add weight to the First Amendment arguments.

That had one ramification relating to Horowitz: it opened the door for claims like his that students are somehow covered by “academic freedom,” claims that could be used, in turn, to try to bring the classroom under legislative supervision (for all of his denials, this was Horowitz’s goal).

Academic freedom, of course, is a profession right that carries with it professional responsibilities. The student rights that Horowitz twists to try to use against the faculty are covered under different concepts, primarily under the First Amendment.

But that argument is over. All Horowitz can do anymore is whine, like the Wicked Witch of the West, “I’m melting.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Insurgencies In Their Dreams

Last year, General George Casey asserted that:
The average insurgency -- the average counterinsurgency in the 20th century was about nine years
In his dreams.

Of course, it all depends on how you define “insurgency,” but “nine years” is an extremely optimistic number.

Stephen Metz and Raymond Millen, in “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceptionalizing Threat and Response,” write:
Examples include the insurgency in Rhodesia, the one against the white minority government in South Africa, the Palestinian insurgency, Vietnam after 1965, the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet occupation

Their survey goes on to mention the Chinese insurgency, among others, but breaks that up into three sections, the first being “national” followed by one against the Japanese (a little questionable), and then again a “national” insurgency. It’s debatable whether it constitutes three separate insurgencies but, together, they went on for more than 20 years. Rhodesia’s civil war was eight years long. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa lasted for 40 years. The Palestinian insurgency, one could argue, has been going on for 50 years. The Vietnamese insurgencies began against the Japanese during WWII, turned towards the French and then towards the Americans, lasting, in all, more than 30 years. The Soviets combated an Afgan insurgency for a decade. All but one of these lasted more than nine years.

Then there is the insurgency/civil war in Columbia has been going on for 40 years. In Nepal, the insurgency by Maoist rebels has lasted for more than a decade. ETA, the Basque nationalist movement in Spain, has been fighting for 40 years. And the IRA in Ireland fought the British for close to 30 years.

Why, then, are we so willing to accept statements like Casey’s? Who established this “nine year” number? Who created the myth?

One more point: insurgencies aren’t solved by military force—except when the insurgents win. In almost all of the other cases the cessations are negotiated. Makes one wonder about the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to negotiate with anyone they consider “bad,” doesn’t it?

Friday, November 17, 2006

No More "Writing Whores," Please!

A friend of mine, who teaches Journalism at a college some hours away from where I teach, recently invited a magazine writer to her class.

“I’m a writing whore,” the visitor declared, “I won’t write anything unless it’s for money.” She advised the students to do the same, to look for opportunities to earn twenty bucks writing restaurant reviews for Internet sites—to start from there, hoping to become high-priced whores themselves.

What a meager world that woman must live in!

To her, writing has become a thing, a product. Its meaning lies on the printed page or on the screen. The skill behind it becomes no more than the ability to put pieces together in the requisite manner—to please the “john” by meeting “his” expectations, but no more.

Writing should be much more than that—and good writing is. Writing is meant to be part of a dynamic, of a conversation. To work, it needs to do more than fulfill someone’s “requirements,” be that an employer or a pimp.

Perhaps that magazine writer had composition teachers who, like so many, teach writing as though it is no more than a thing on a page, who concentrate on form (“It must be in proper MLA format or points will come off.”) over content. Teachers who see a paragraph as a construct (“You must have a topic sentence and three supporting ones.”) rather than a part of a message chain meant to generate one of a specific range of responses.

Perhaps that magazine writer had any passion for communicating through the written word beaten out of her by instructors who sacrificed her need for conversation on the altar of precision in grammar. By teachers who would have marked Walt Whitman down for his “neither time or place” in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Yes, yes. Of course I know: understanding of grammar and form is essential to the success of any writer—even one who writes in dialect needs to have a full grasp of the grammar particular to it. But that needs to come after one has grasped just what the writing itself does—after one understands that a piece of writing doesn’t simply exist, that it does.

Many of us understand this from an early age, especially those of us raised in households where the written word performs as an important part of family conversation—where people read and respond to what they have read. Others, though, see writing as a mysterious jungle they are forced to hack through with little idea of direction or reason. The rules are arbitrary, the point obscure.

We might as well be teaching baseball to blindfolded, hobbled children, expecting them to gain expertise of the game through memorization of rules and measures of distance. Only when they have proven “competence” in these would we release their eyes and their feet—but we would also be expecting them to now play at an all-star level.

When they stumbled around as ineptly as even a child who had never learned the rules, we would chastise them and bemoan the state of baseball today.

Across the way, on another field, a coach is letting the children play. Having passed out bats, gloves, and a ball, she has let the kids fool around, watching and pointing things out, but not yet trying to impose structure. Later, she will take them to watch a game played by skilled teams, explaining what is going on as the innings progress.

When it comes to a game of their own, her team will perform much better than those who learned all the rules before setting foot on a diamond.

The same is true of writing, yet many teach it as though grammar is a base for writing instead of a means for refinement.

Adding insult to injury, such a methodology takes away love of the game and love of the writing dynamic. Even someone who finds they can develop the skills for either baseball or writing through study of rules before application will never develop the kind of love for what they are doing that another, who had jumped in for the joy of it, experiences.

Which brings us back to the “writing whore.” If she loved writing, she would write. If she loved writing, she would develop her topics on her own rather than waiting for an assignment. If she loved writing, she would stand a chance of becoming a master able to sell what she produced. If she loved writing, she would have a chance of becoming really good at it rather than simply adequate for fulfilling the tasks set by another.

Me, I write whether I am paid or not. If something I compose does bring me a little cash, I don’t complain—but neither do I mind the file cases full (or they would be, if I saved things) of work that never earned a penny—much of it unread by anyone but me. Maybe I never will manage to sell what I write regularly or easily (not many of us do). But I will continue to enjoy what I do rather than seeing it solely as a task. And maybe I will be able to imbue my students with an attitude towards their own writing that will allow them to use the medium of the written word to partake in their own great conversations.

Though I may end up poorer than the prostitute, I'll bet that I--and all my writing partners (students, colleagues, and others)--will enjoy the process in ways the whore, for all her skills, can't even imagine.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Politics Is War? Well… No

The recent furor over James Carville and his comment that Howard Dean should be replaced as head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) brings to mind the unfortunate analogy of politics and war that Carville, like David Horowitz, apparently lives by… it was Carville, after all, who said, "When your opponent is drowning, throw the son of a bitch an anvil."

It’s a stupid analogy and unfortunate attitude, no matter if it comes from the far right of Horowitz or the faux center of Carville. It’s also dishonest, for neither man lives by it. Horowitz, by all accounts, is quite nice to everyone in person—and Carville is married to his supposed political opponent Mary Matalin. A more accurate analogy might be sports where, after the game, opponents are expected to be civil, leaving competition to the playing field.

Even the sports analogy, however, isn’t sufficient to encapsulate what should go on in politics. Sports, even more than war, is based on a zero-sum outcome: someone wins, someone else loses. Politics isn’t so simple. Sure, someone wins each election, but no election is an end. In fact, it’s the beginning of another phase of politics, one quite different from the election itself.

In his news conference after the election, President Bush said that he understood the difference between politicking and governing. While that is questionable (he seems to be politicking all the time, often at the expense of good governance), it is an important distinction and one that sports doesn’t contain at all and that war can be only said to have if negotiation is considered analogous to governing.

When politics-as-war carries over from the campaign into the governing itself, as it will do once that attitude has been established, the entire nation suffers. The Republicans would not give up their war against Bill Clinton in the 1990s and so forced the nation to witness a farcical impeachment. Under this administration, the Republicans have refused to see Democrats as anything but the enemy, so have shut them out of the legislative processes on Capitol Hill.

This, in fact, is one of the reasons the Republicans lost control of Congress. Their belief in a “permanent majority” allowed them to continue to see Democrats as enemies instead of as partners whose viewpoints should be considered (at least) if not incorporated to some extent. Their belief undermined the American political system as it has operated for quite some time, now. Revulsion to the change and desire to bring us back to a system of negotiation and compromise (not some progressive agenda, alas) led directly to their defeat.

Americans don’t want politics to be war or to be thought of as war. Most of us have genuine respect for our system and are leery of anything that could lead to total defeat of one side or the other. Though I am a leftist, for example, the (second to) last thing I would want is a left-wing hegemony in the United States (the last thing would be a right-wing hegemony). I’ve seen what happens when any single party gains too much control. Invariable, the slide towards totalitarianism begins—as it did here, over the past six years.

We are fortunate. The basic American protectiveness of our system is deep and strong—and it made itself felt in this past election. There are many, however, like Carville and Horowitz, who don’t understand what happened. Carville chastises Dean for not having been successful enough—yet Dean and the Democrats accomplished something marvelous, wresting control of Congress from a group that had stacked the deck against them through gerrymandering, dirty tricks, and scare tactics. They tapped into the fears that we were going to lose our traditional system and have given that system a chance to right itself. That is extraordinary.

But it is not war.

Friday, November 10, 2006

America Triumphant

All those people out there, trying to fit the election into their view of the world so that they don’t have to change their opinions, so that they don’t have to admit they were wrong! How pathetic.

All of them--all of them--miss the point. This election was not the victory of a particular branch of the Democratic Party, moderate, conservative, or liberal. It wasn’t a vindication of a progressive agenda, either. Nor does it prove the power of the netroots or the brilliance of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy (powerful and brilliant though they be).

What we have here is a triumph of a system more than two-hundred years old. It showed its strength on Tuesday; it righted a ship of state about to turn turtle, nearly bested by the winds of fascism.

It’s quite simple: our system was tested by 9/11, just as Germany was by the burning of the Reichstag. Germany was found wanting, and a fascist state was the result. Before Tuesday, it looked as though America would be found wanting, too.

The astonishing importance of the election results isn’t contained in the slim margins of the victories of the Democrats. The group in power had engineered our electoral system in ways that gave it what many assumed was an insurmountable advantage. So, it is not the size of victory that is important, only the fact of it.

Many, many people believed that the group in power would never again be ousted. They boasted of it, wrote books proclaiming it. They cowed those who, though they might not agree with the agenda, felt that their own professional futures were tied up with the success that they had been browbeaten into believing.

Now that the success is shown as mere braggadocio, some of those who had followed along, feeling they had no choice, are beginning to break away. When the Titanic shows it is vulnerable, even the rats start swimming as fast as they can. Witness Rush Limbaugh, suddenly claiming he never agreed with the thuggish agenda anyway, saying, “If those in our party who are going to carry the day in the future -- both in Congress and the administration -- are going to choose a different path than what most of us believe, then that's [the victory of the Democrats] liberating.” The implication is that he “carried water” (his term) for the administration only because he thought it was going to continue to win, not because he agreed with it.

Whether Limbaugh is being honest or not (or is simply trying to save his position of influence), there are probably millions who went along simply because they saw the Bushists as victors—and wanted to be part of the victory. Just as millions of Germans went along with the Nazis when they seemed as unstoppable. Thing is, the Bushists were stopped, and by the people of the United States. The Nazis were only stopped when their ambition ran up against English and Russian tenacity and America’s industrial might.

Thing is, now that the regime is shown as something less than an unstoppable force, it is quickly becoming no force at all. How long did it take for Rumsfeld to go? How long, after being nominated again, was Bolton squashed? How long did Mehlman last after the election?

How long did it take for David Brooks, Rush Limbaugh, and all the other “water carriers” to break ranks?

A regime like this one can only continue as long as it seems undefeatable. Even on the eve of the election, pundits were saying that the Democrats could never match the Republican GOTV centralized and computerized effort, that the dirty tricks and control of election mechanisms would have their impact, and that there was no way the feeble Democrats could ever stop the Napoleonic march of the Bushists.

But they did stop it. The gleaming locomotive of last week has run out of steam and been shuttled to a dead-end side-track.

America, which had been quietly waiting for that engine to pass, is now beginning to build pressure in its own boilers once again, ready to start up once again, continuing on the track laid out for it by those visionaries who set it on its way more than two centuries ago.

So, no matter what else you might say about the election this week, it really only comes down to this: our system triumphed. America can now be America again.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Yes, Horowitz Is Defeated, Too... But Now What?

In today’s The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Horowitz concedes that his “Academic Bill of Rights” campaign has failed—by claiming victory. That’s to be expected from someone whose essay “The Art of Political War” is one of Karl Rove’s favorite pamphlets, but it does throw a new blanket of confusion over the debates on academic freedom that have increased in America since 9/11 and the inception of the Patriot Act.

With that in mind, I don’t want to talk much about Horowitz or his “movement,” for he and it are more of an annoyance, a side-show, these days. He glommed on to the idea of using a popular misunderstanding of “academic freedom” as a means of bringing political control into the classroom—but his attempts have failed. Though the “Academic Bill of Rights” is still before a number of state legislatures (and is even included as an advisory in a Federal education bill), its likelihood of passing anywhere was small even before the election last Tuesday. Now it is nil. His companion “Student Bill of Rights” has also failed to gain traction. The only university he can claim as adopting it is Temple, and even that is a bit of a stretch.

What I want to talk about is how we in academia can move forward post-Horowitz, making the case for “academic freedom” clear and moving our own understanding back towards its function within the public sphere.

Too many of us in academia, and for too long, have looked upon “academic freedom” as a right, forgetting that it carries with it specific responsibilities. This is unfortunate, to say the least, and needs changing.

When the concept of “academic freedom” was introduced through the American Association of University Professor’s 1915 “General Declaration of Principles,” it was presented within the context of purposes:
These are three in number.
A. To promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge.
B. To provide general instruction to the students.
C. To develop experts for various branches of the public service.

Each leads to a specific enunciation of academic-freedom rights and the reasons for them that stem from these purposes:
In all[…] domains of knowledge, the first condition of progress is complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results. Such freedom is the breath in the nostrils of all scientific activity.[…]
It is clear[… that] confidence [of students in their teachers] will be impaired if there is suspicion on the part of the student that the teacher is not expressing himself fully or frankly, or that college and university teachers in general are a repressed and intimidated class who dare not speak with that candor and courage which youth always demands in those whom it is to esteem.
It is obvious that[…] the scholar must be absolutely free not only to pursue his investigations but to declare the results of his researches, no matter where they may lead him or to what extent they may come into conflict with accepted opinion. To be of use to the legislator or the administrator, he must enjoy their complete confidence in the disinterestedness of his conclusions.

In three areas, and for clear reasons, scholars need the protection of the right of academic freedom.

But…

This also implies that we must be active in those areas if we are to be provided such protection. We cannot claim “academic freedom” protection, in other words, under the First Amendment assumption that almost any expression warrants protecting; we can only claim protection when we are providing something more than simply individual participation in the debates within the public sphere.

Not all of us in academia are involved directly in scholarly pursuits, so we can’t consistently claim protection via “academic freedom” in that first instance. Almost all of us, however, do teach. We continue to need “academic freedom” in our classrooms or we become nothing more than “facilitators,” the word used in some of the new for-profit online “universities” for the people who oversee the courses. In such cases, the entire structure and rationale of a “university” changes from one of a community of inquiry that carries into the classroom, becoming instead a purpose-driven institution where concentration is simply on mastery of pre-defined skill sets. Each of us, as a result of our research and through our teaching, performs an important role within the public sphere and, therefore, we operate in a role slightly different from that of the citizen. We carry a burden of responsibility to the peer structures that certify us, to the students who have relied on us, and to those in the public sphere who rely on the honesty of our contributions. In this sense, “academic freedom” is no special freedom, but a recognition of the purposes and responsibilities behind our efforts.

One of the greatest problems we in academia face right now in terms of academic freedom is that we have too long been looking inward, protecting our right rather than using it. There are few of us, these days, who can honestly wear the mantle of “public intellectual,” participating in the public sphere in a manner demonstrating to the average citizen just what it is we do when we participate in our research or even when we teach. As a result, we have been open to the type of caricature Horowitz presents, of professors making six-figure incomes and working nine hours a week.

We may be coming into a new age right now, an eclipsing of the reactionary agenda that has dominated the American public sphere for a quarter of a century, an agenda that, quite frankly, has cowed academia, sending too many of us scurrying for the protection of our ivory towers. It may be time for all of us, no matter our political persuasion, to recognize once again the importance of the academic within greater American society and to act on that—outside the walls of our schools. It is time we started taking John Dewey, and his concept of the integral contribution of education to a successful democracy seriously.

When we do, “academic freedom” will start to mean something to the population as a whole, and people will begin to see it as something worth protecting. Until we do, we will continue to have to fight off periodic attacks by people like David Horowitz.

And that, though he has been defeated this go-around, is getting old.