Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Blogging 2.0

In trying to define his “Web 2.0,” Tim O’Reilly lists Internet entities and aspects that he sees as part of “Web 1.0” and their 2.0 counterparts. The personal website, for example, is superseded by the blog in the Web 2.0 world. At the heart of the Web 2.0 concept is the idea that the web itself, and not the individual computers supporting it, becomes the platform for applications—in fact, for the complete ‘life’ of the web. Even our home computers are reduced to functioning as access points, no longer operating simply as independent platforms in their own right.

In some respects, the movement from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 is a motion away from the individual to the communal, something of a reversal of the earlier trend from the mainframe to the stand-alone PC. As O’Reilly admits, defining Web 2.0 is difficult; some of the concepts associated with it (even the idea of the web as a platform) were also part of some Web 1.0 applications. Yet there is a clear difference between Web 2.0 and the earlier Internet manifestation—a difference of power, possibility and flexibility.

A similar progression is taking place today in the world of the blogs. They may themselves, as O’Reilly claims, be a part of Web 2.0, an interactive, somewhat communal and expansive replacement for the personal website, but their evolution did not stop with their establishment. Today, even as it is being incorporated into mainstream journalism at its own 1.0 level, the blog is progressing to a 2.0 manifestation that will be as different from the technology allowing for the commentator in pajamas to compete in the news media world as (to use another from O’Reilly’s list of differences) a “content management system” is from a wiki.

Of course, blogging manifests itself in a number of ways, especially as one begins to differentiate between the “blogging 1.0” level and “blogging 2.0.” “Live blogging,” for example, where one person present at an event records it while others comment, is qualitatively different from the individual commentary from the privacy of home—and really should be categorized as a manifestation of “blogging 2.0,” for it goes well beyond individual blogging and individual response. It brings the event into the world of the blog in a real-time manner. A stand-alone “community blog,” however, remains in the 1.0 world, for the focus is still on the individual writer operating in isolation. Even a community blog that exists as a discrete part of a broader web presence belongs at the 1.0 level, for it lacks the cross-over that brings it into the 2.0 world.

Some community blogs, however, exist within a broader, 2.0 network. One of these is sponsored by a group, ePluribus Media, that I am involved with.

Just what, then, makes ePluribus Media a “blogging 2.0” entity and not merely a manifestation of “blogging 1.0” sensibility?

First of all, the organization sprang from a “blogging 2.0” event two years ago this week, sparked when the faux reporter, Jeff Gannon, asked President Bush:
Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet, in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock-solid and there's no crisis there. How are you going to work -- you said you're going to reach out to these people -- how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?
Many listening (including me) found this question outrageous in its dishonesty (neither Reid nor Clinton said anything like what was attributed to them) and completely beyond anything that could be considered good journalistic information gathering.

A call by blogger SusanG on Daily Kos sparked a number of people to start looking into Gannon, his employer Talon News, and the process of White House press credentialing. Others, writing up their results on other blogs, began doing the same thing (it was elsewhere—on Americablog—that the most salacious bit, Gannon’s past as a gay male escort, was uncovered).

At first, I was simply an observer but (about two weeks later), realizing that something was happening that I could use, if for nothing else, for my writing classes (where I was experimenting with blogs), I contacted SusanG and assigned my students to start following the unfolding story and to write about it. SusanG put me in touch with the group that had formed around her and a “propagannon” investigative website that was being used to sort and discuss privately the information being gathered.

This was my real introduction to the Web 2.0 world, not too long after the phrase was coined. It was also my introduction to “blogging 2.0,” the expansion of the blogs into networks of various types of websites, people, writing, and researching that led to such quick and stunning results in the Gannon case.

The group that SusanG introduced me to, of course, was the group that would soon form ePluribus Media. Though some, including SusanG herself, have moved on to other projects, ePMedia remains a “blogging 2.0” organization. The latest manifestation has been work relating to the firings of US attorneys general—research and writing that has utilized email, web searches, hidden websites (for vetting information and asking questions before “publication”), and other Internet possibilities.

It is here that groups like ePMedia are distinct from the “blogging 1.0” sites like The Daily Kos. dKos, no matter how much many of us may love it and use it, doesn’t by itself move beyond the world of the individual blogger. Though that's not completely true, for dKos has evolved into an online political vehicle that is becoming much more than a simple blog, its “platform” is still the individual. What we are seeing with ePMedia and other blogging operations with a broader connective scheme (Jay Rosen’s comes to mind), is much more than an addition to the blogs as they were first conceived a decade ago. No, just as Wikipedia moves far beyond Encyclopedia Britannica Online into a Web 2.0 universe (which is no knock on the Britannica—just recognition that it exists within a differently constructed universe), so some bloggers are moving beyond “blogging 1.0” into a blogging universe that contains much more than an individual “call and response.”

The whole idea of Web 2.0 has bothered a number of people, for it has no clear definition. It is based on a mindset that embraces the illusion that the web is a thing (a real “cyberspace,” twenty years after) and that it can actually house both applications and data (though, of course, it does use physical computers in an almost endless series of networks to do this). It relies on the synergies of online applications and users to create something greater than any single application, physical platform, or user could manage. Similarly, “blogging 2.0” steps beyond the “physical” blogs themselves, beyond the websites that house them and even beyond the discussions they engender, creating an ephemeral network of people and information with much more power than the sum of its parts.

ePMedia contributes to that. It is going to be extremely interesting to see the other manifestations of “blogging 2.0” that will surely be appearing over the next few years, joining ePMedia and the others that have already stepped beyond the 1.0 world of the blogs, making it into something that can become a significant part of a new American public sphere.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Warrior Culture

In his book A History of Warfare (New York: Knopf, 1993), John Keegan writes of the position of Carl von Clauswitz, whose On War remains a key work to many of the thinkers influencing the foreign and military policies of the United States government. But, as Keegan demonstrates, Clauswitz was:
even in his time an isloated spokesman for a warrior culture that the ancestors of the modern state were at pains to extirpate within their own borders. Naturally, they recognized its value for state purposes, but they allowed it to survive only by localising it within a collection of artificially preserve warrior bands; the regiments were wholly different in ethos from that of the civil society in which they were garrisoned. (page 49)

Keegan's comments may be particularly pertinent today, as rumblings of confrontation with Iran continue--and our society moves towards domination by its "warrior culture."

Keegan, no fan of Clauswitz, explains his fascination to strategists since World War II:

The academic strategists were conflating an observation with a hypothesis. The observation is that war is a universal phenomenon, practised at all times and all places since the retreat of the last Ice Age; the hypothesis is that there is a universally trye theory of the objects of war, and of how those objects may best be achieved. It is easy to see why they were seduced by Chauswitz: under threat of nicear attack, a state has no option but to align its foreign policy as closely as possible with strategic doctrine, and to extrude from the interstices all modifying qualifications. A nuclear state must appear to mean what it says, since deterrence depends upon convincing an adversary of one's fixity of purpose, and mental reservation is the enemy of conviction. (page 48)
The sabre-rattling going on today, with people saying 'all options must be on the table,' is an extension of this state of mind. Keegan goes on a little later:
There was a double weakness in this logic, however. First, it was entirely mechanistic; it depended upon the procedures of deterrence working faultlessly in all circumstances. Yet if there is one observable truth of politics, it is that mechanistic means have a poor record of controlling the behavior of governments. [emphasis added] Second, it requires the citizens of states with nuclear weapons to cultivate a schizophrenic outlook on the world: while sustaining their beliefs in the sanctity of human life, respect for the rights of the individual, tolerance of minority opinion, acceptance of the free vote, accountability of the executive to representative institutions and everything else that is meant by the rule of law, democracy and the Judaeo-Christian eithic -- nuclear weapons were deployed to protect these values -- they were at the same time expected to acquiesce in the code of the warror, of which physical courage, subordination to the heroic leader and 'might is right' are the ultimate values. (page 49)
Once, there may have been a balance in this schizophrenia. Recently, though, we have fallen to the side of the 'warrior culture.'

It may be our undoing. And this movement towards Iran--certainly a culture that is not going to respond to the 'logic' of the Clauswitzian 'warrior culture' dominating the US government today (no more than Iraq submitted to that 'logic').

Maybe changes in domestic politics will dampen the aggressive ardor towards Iran. I certainly hope so.

We're facing a grave mistake, if we go forward 'against' Iran on the assumption that it will react with the 'logic' of "our" own flawed thinking.

Monday, January 22, 2007


One of the facts of American education that David Horowitz dearly longs to change is that university policies aren’t laws. The title of a new piece, “Breaking the Law at Penn State,” that he co-authored with Jacob Laskin, refers to a reaffirmation of student rights that Horowitz wants to claim credit for, though it is not a law. In the title, Horowitz conflates policy and law—something Horowitz might like and lobby for, but something far from contemporary reality (thank goodness). A small point? Yes, but it is emblematic of Horowitz’s inability to keep things straight--an example of what “cps” of the Free Exchange on Campus blog calls “researchiness.”

At the beginning of the article, Horowitz and Laskin recap the Penn State policy on controversy in the classroom. Then, however, to “show” that the policy is being ignored, they switch to an examination, as a “note” heading the article says, of:
official class syllabi, departmental web pages, and course descriptions

This is a bait-and-switch, for the policy covers what happens in the classroom, not the material brought to it.

If Horowitz were really interested in studying what goes on in American universities, he would spend some time in classrooms. He does not. What he does, instead, is select whatever material he finds that confirms his opinions (ignoring everything else) and then build a case, using it to indict the whole when it was never more than a part. He is unwilling to recognize, for one thing, that what we professors bring to the classroom is significantly different from how we use it. Focusing on the first and ignoring the second leaves his readers with a picture that even Horowitz knows is dishonest. He writes:
The following analysis of course descriptions and syllabi in the Penn State catalogue shows that some professors feel free to teach the contentious issues of race, gender and justice in the social order through the frameworks of sectarian political ideologies, making no attempt to familiarize their students with the broad spectrum of scholarly views as required in Penn State’s academic freedom policies.

Again, there is no analysis of what actually goes on in the classroom in what Horowitz and Laskin present. Furthermore, the policy does not “require” one to “familiarize their students with the broad spectrum of scholarly views.” A teacher does not simply present a smorgasbord and let students pick and choose. Horowitz is twisting things here, as usual. Nothing in the policy, let me repeat, nothing, even asks teachers to, say, present Intelligent Design in a Biology classroom or Holocaust denial in a History course—or even to present both the New Critic’s “Intentional Fallacy” and New Historicism in an English class.

The problem of the narrow focus of any one teacher is taken care of in a different manner in our universities: students are allowed choices, in courses and majors. Each undergraduate, in most modern American universities and colleges, takes around 40 courses to graduate. There are requirements, but choice is available even there—of particular professors and usually of a range of courses that meet the requirement. That’s how a range of views is presented—not through forcing individual professors to put forward competing theories. It is this fact that leads Horowitz to try to build an image of faculty as monolithic in opinion--another myth.

It’s particularly noteworthy that this article appeared today, for a study by John Lee entitled The “Faculty Bias” Studies: Science or Propaganda? also came out today—it can be reached through Free Exchange on Campus. Lee busts the “studies” that are used to present faculty members as irredeemably leftist for their shoddy research. In the FEoC article on it, the word “researchiness” is offered as a way of describing what Horowitz and the like do. Lee’s report is excellent—careful and precise. It is worth a read.

Friday, January 19, 2007

On a Proposed CUNY Student Complaint Procedure

Next Monday, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York will consider a proposed new “Student Complaint Procedure.” I’ll be at the meeting, for I think this “innocent” little addition to CUNY rules is more subversive than at first it might seem.

Here’s the text of the proposal:

The City University of New York – Student Complaint Procedure:

RESOLVED, That the procedures for handling student complaints about faculty conduct in formal academic settings be adopted, effective December 1, 2006.

NOTE: See Appendix 1

EXPLANATION: Although the University and its Colleges have a variety of procedures for dealing with student-related issues, those procedures generally have not covered student complaints about faculty conduct in the classroom or other formal academic settings. The University respects the academic freedom of the faculty and does not intend to interfere with faculty members’ appropriate exercise of discretion concerning the content or style of their teaching. At the same time, however, the University recognizes its responsibility to establish procedures for addressing student complaints about faculty conduct that is not protected by academic freedom and not addressed in other procedures. The proposed procedures will accomplish this goal.



I. Introduction. The University and its Colleges have a variety of procedures for dealing with student-related issues, including grade appeals, academic integrity violations, student discipline, disclosure of student records, student elections, sexual harassment complaints, disability accommodations, and discrimination. One area not generally covered by other procedures concerns student complaints about faculty conduct in the classroom or other formal academic settings. The University respects the academic freedom of the faculty and will not interfere with the exercise of appropriate discretion concerning the content or style of teaching activities. Indeed, academic freedom is and should be of paramount importance. At the same time the University recognizes its responsibility to provide students with a procedure for addressing complaints about faculty treatment of students that are not protected by academic freedom and are not covered by other procedures.

II. Determination of Appropriate Procedure. If students have any question about the applicable procedure to follow for a particular complaint, they should consult with the chief student affairs officer. In particular, the chief student affairs officer should advise a student if some other procedure is applicable to the type of complaint the student has.

III. Informal Resolution. Students are encouraged to attempt to resolve complaints informally with the faculty member or to seek the assistance of the department chairperson or campus ombudsman to facilitate informal resolution.

IV. Formal Complaint. If the student does not pursue informal resolution, or if informal resolution is unsuccessful, the student may file a written complaint with the department chairperson or, if the chairperson is the subject of the complaint, with the academic dean or other person designated by the college president. (This person will be referred to below as the “Fact Finder.”)

A. The complaint shall be filed within 30 calendar days of the alleged conduct unless there is good cause shown for delay, including but not limited to delay caused by an attempt at informal resolution. The complaint shall be as specific as possible in describing the conduct complained of.

B. The Fact Finder shall promptly send a copy to the faculty member about whom the complaint is made, along with a letter stating that the filing of the complaint does not imply that any wrongdoing has occurred and that a faculty member must not retaliate in any way against a student for having made a complaint.

C. The Fact Finder shall meet with the complaining student and faculty member, either separately or together, to discuss the complaint and to try to resolve it. If resolution is not possible, and there are factual issues in dispute, an investigation shall be conducted. The Fact Finder shall separately interview the complaining student, the faculty member and other persons with relevant knowledge and information and shall also consult with the chief student affairs officer and, if appropriate, the college ombudsman. The Fact Finder shall not reveal the identity of the complaining student and the faculty member to others except to the extent necessary to conduct the investigation. If the Fact Finder believes it would be helpful, he or she may meet again with the student and faculty member after completing the investigation in an effort to resolve the matter. The complaining student and the faculty member shall have the right to have a representative (including a union representative, student government representative or attorney) present during the initial meeting, the interview and any post-investigation meeting.

D. At the end of the investigation, the Fact Finder shall issue a written report setting forth his or her findings and recommendations and send a copy to the complaining student, the faculty member, the chief academic officer and the chief student affairs officer. In ordinary cases, it is expected that the investigation and written report should be completed within 30 calendar days of the date the complaint was filed.

V. Appeals Procedure. If either the student or the faculty member is not satisfied with the report of the Fact Finder, the student or faculty member may file a written appeal to the chief academic officer within 10 calendar days of receiving the report. The chief academic officer shall convene and serve as the chairperson of a committee, which shall also include the chief student affairs officer, two faculty members elected annually by the faculty council or senate and one student elected annually by the student senate. The committee shall review the findings and recommendations of the report, with particular focus on whether the conduct in question is protected by academic freedom. The committee shall not conduct a new factual investigation or overturn any factual findings contained in the report unless they are clearly erroneous. The committee shall issue a written decision within 20 calendar days of receiving the appeal. A copy of the decision shall be sent to the student, the faculty member, the department chairperson and the president.

VI. Subsequent Action. Following the completion of these procedures, the appropriate college official shall decide the appropriate action, if any, to take. For example, the department chairperson may decide to place a report in the faculty member’s personnel file or the president may bring disciplinary charges against the faculty member. Disciplinary charges may also be brought in extremely serious cases even though the college has not completed the entire investigative process described above; in that case, the bringing of disciplinary charges shall automatically suspend that process. Any action taken by a college must comply with the bylaws of the University and the collective bargaining agreement between the University and the Professional Staff Congress.

VII. Campus Implementation. Each campus shall implement these procedures and shall distribute them widely to administrators, faculty members and students and post them on the college website.

VIII. Board Review. During the spring 2009 semester, the Chancellery will conduct a review of the experience of the colleges with these procedures and will report the results of that review to the Board of Trustees, along with any recommended changes.

According to an article at
Frederick Schaffer, general counsel for CUNY, said that the new policy will not permit any intrusions on academic freedom. He said that the policy was for cases — and he estimated that there may be one or two a year — in which students feel a faculty member has been “abusive” in class, generally in a dispute over political views. That doesn’t mean professors can’t express political views, he said, just that they can’t go beyond a certain point of professionalism in interacting with students.
“Professors are entitled to have a point of view, to express a point of view, and to teach as they see fit as a teacher,” Schaffer said. “On the other hand, occassionally, professors’ conduct could spill over into something that could be thought of as abusive or discriminatory,” and the policy was designed for such cases.

Let me see if I’ve got that straight. The proposed policy says:
Indeed, academic freedom is and should be of paramount importance. At the same time the University recognizes its responsibility to provide students with a procedure for addressing complaints about faculty treatment of students that are not protected by academic freedom and are not covered by other procedures.

OK, but what might those things “not protected by academic freedom” be? Oh, politics! According to Schaffer’s take on the proposal, that is.

He must have forgotten: political expression is protected under academic freedom principles. So much so that some now tie academic freedom closely to First Amendment rights of expression.

Schaffer let slip the real reason for this new procedure: to keep politics out of the classroom, emasculating the discussions that we professors foster to get our students to really learn to think for themselves. (Yes, my conservative friends, that's really what we do--certainly we don't try to indoctrinate. If that's what we were about, college students would not graduate slightly more conservative than they enter.)

“Oh, we can’t talk about that” does nothing but scare people and keep their minds within regulated channels.

Though this is a backdoor attempt, the procedure is a step towards constricting academic discussion, dumbing down our education, and insuring a population that accepts without challenge. Driving a wedge between academic freedom and politics in this slight way will set a precedent allowing future arguments that the two are not connected—and that academic freedom has nothing to do with rights of free speech.

Now, I do believe that we make a mistake when we tie academic freedom too closely to the First Amendment, for academic freedom is a compact between the institutions and their faculties—not something ensconced in law. Yes, academic freedom recognizes the importance of faculty utilizing their First Amendment rights as an aspect of academic responsibilities, but the concern is not a legal one.

At the heart of academic freedom is the idea that faculties, not administrations, police themselves—in terms of research, teaching, and participation in the public sphere. Faculty misbehavior (sexual harassment, etc.) not coming under these three is certainly not covered under academic freedom. Participation in politics, however, is—though there are many people who would like to change that.

In trying to cut politics out from the herd of academic freedoms, this procedure also attempts to strike at the core of faculty self-regulation by setting up a grievance procedure that steps beyond faculty oversight. Eventually, another procedure will be put in place, using this as a precedent, that further limits faculty self-governance. Eventually, faculty would be merely employees with little power. Academic freedom, one of the things that has made our universities the best in the world, would die.

The following is the testimony I will give Monday night:

Board of Trustees Hearing on Proposed Student Complaint Procedure

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

My name is Aaron Barlow. I am an Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology.

One always needs to be cautious when presented with a solution where no problem is evident. Questions immediately arise, for the “solution” must have a cause of some sort, a genesis. If there is no problem, what is the reason for the new procedure? Why does someone feel that this “solution” must be implemented? And who is that “someone,” anyhow?

Unless the motivations behind this additional procedure for student complaints are well understood by the institutional governing body, it should not be considered, let alone put into place. Otherwise, you who set it up are acting to someone else’s agenda, not to CUNY’s. In other words, you are probably being manipulated.

That said, there are other reasons for rejecting this proposal. Instituting a process like this through the Board of Trustees rather than through the faculties is contrary to the principles of academic freedom as first expressed by the AAUP in 1915 and reiterated any number of times since. A grievance procedure concerning most classroom activities should be established by the faculty alone and on its own initiative. That is, if the question is one of pedagogy or material covered (even pertaining to politics), its resolution should be overseen by the faculty and not by a “Fact Finder” appointed by the president of the institution. This proposed procedure ignores that distinction.

What we have here is potentially a step towards administrative control over the classroom—a step that has never been found desirable or shown to be necessary. One of the reasons our university system in America remains the best in the world is that our faculties have retained their independence for over a century. When we start eroding the system of academic freedom that protects that independence, we start eroding our very institutions, undercutting the framework of their success.

Though simple and innocuous on its face, this proposal is pernicious; it is a move towards taking control of education away from those who actually provide it, the faculty. It is a move away from proven success and toward the straitjacketed classrooms that we have bested for so long.

For the sake of the education that CUNY so ably provides, I ask you to reject this proposed procedure.

Thank you.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Self Censoring or Common Decency?

A bit more than thirty years ago, I spent a little time as a reporter for a small daily in Rhode Island. Most of what I did involved school committees and village councils in outlying communities, but sometimes I was allowed feature assignments. For me, the plum of these left me wandering around a county fair for a week, staff photographer in tow. We had a grand time exploring the fair, interviewing people and preparing friendly stories on potters and pigs.

On Saturday, the fair ended with a performance by an old-timey band (“Don’t call it ‘Bluegrass,’" the leader warned me) and a beauty pageant whose contestants were local high-school seniors. Though I really wanted to stick with my story on the musicians, I knew that I had better feature the young women, so I settled on the grass beyond the stage and the photographer (as usual) prowled around for his shots.

Only one of the contestants had real sparkle; not only was she quite attractive, but she was clearly both talented and smart. During one of his passes within earshot of my resting place, the photographer and I agreed that it was no contest, really.

At the end, the judges did that usual beauty-contest thing of announcing the rankings of the finalists from the bottom up. You know, “the fourth runner-up is… “ and then the third, and so on. Finally, there were only two left, and the envelope was opened, stating who the first runner-up (and, therefore, the winner) would be.

The sparkly one, of course, was still standing, as was another young woman whose progress had surprised me. She showed no talent, no particular interest, and did not speak well. Oh, and she was rather plain.

The photographer had edged up to the stage and, I saw, had his camera focused on Miss Sparkles, ready to snap the reaction to victory. The announcer looked at the sheet and read off the name of the first runner-up.

The photographer got a picture all right, but it wasn’t the one we had expected. He printed it, though there was no way it was ever going to get used. I think he just wanted to see it, as did I. For it showed a young woman in shock and disbelief.

The lesser candidate, of course, had won.

Ever the professional, the photographer had quickly gotten a shot that we could use—and I had soon managed to get a few clichéd words from the chief judge, a woman of some renown and power in the town, a woman who had contributed quite a lot to the community.

Unsatisfied, I started asking questions around, trying to find out a bit more about the winner—but not through anyone associated with the contest. I knew I would never be able to print anything I found that way, but I dearly wanted to know why the one young woman had won.

It didn’t take me long: a few questions determined who her parents were. A few more, and I knew the names of her aunts and uncles—a group that included that chief judge I’d interviewed who, I also discovered, was the prime organizer of the pageant.

Even had I wanted to, I could not have included that in the story. Though it might have been lots of fun to see that picture of the runner-up on the front page over an exposé of the pageant, I would never have done that. The damage to the runner-up would not have been undone (it probably would have been exacerbated) and the winner would have been humiliated. It wasn’t my place to write something like that, anyway—I was supposed to be making people feel positive about the fair. Oh, and the paper never would have printed such a story—if for no other reason than the aunt’s power in the town.

Was what the paper and I did good journalism? No. But, sometimes, humanity needs to triumph over professionalism. Yes, the pageant may have needed reforming, but the damage was small. The damage to the town from exposure could have been much greater, ending up with various camps hating each other and the aunt’s positive contributions neutralized (at best).

Now, I’m not saying what I did (or didn’t do, to put it more accurately) was right, simply that it was more appropriate, given the circumstances.

The decision I made not to pursue the story into print (and the decision the paper would surely have made not to publish it) fit well within the newspaper ethos of the time, the same ethos that had allowed reporters in Washington, DC more than a decade earlier to sleep well at nights—though they knew they were not reporting all the “news” (Jack Kennedy’s ‘assignations,’ for example) they collected.

Strangely, one of the downfalls of journalism, reaching its depths in the Clinton years, was a new belief that “professionalism” demanded the pursuit of any story and the printing of all of them, no matter how unseemly. “Professionalism” trumped both community and propriety—and led to what?

To little more than disdain for the “profession” and unfortunate distraction from the real issues of the day.

Is that a more worthy outcome?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Maugham's Veil

Though he does not break into the canon of twentieth-century literature as imagined by American academics, W. Somerset Maugham remains (more than forty years after his death) one of the most popular writers worldwide—and one whose works continue to be filmed with regularity. The Painted Veil, Theatre (as Being Julia), and the short Up at the Villa have all been released this decade. Maugham was also one of the most successful dramatists of the years before and into World War I with plays that continue to be revived (the most recent on Broadway having been The Constant Wife in 2005).

Readers and viewers like Maugham, even if academics don’t. Edmund Wilson probably sealed Maugham’s fate in American universities when he opened a 1946 New Yorker review of Then and Now by writing:
It has happened to me from time to time to run into some person of taste who tells me that I ought to take Somerset Maugham seriously, yet I have never been able to convince myself that he was anything but second-rate.
Snobs themselves (for the most part), both academics and popular critics have since rushed to ignore Maugham or, at best, to condescend towards him. Take Manohla Dargis, writing about the new film of The Painted Veil. She even starts the review with a swipe at Maugham:
It’s no surprise that one of the best scenes in the latest and third film iteration of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil doesn’t happen in the book.
At one time, it might have been argued that the modern antipathy to Maugham arose through the homophobia that still bedevils America—but that’s insufficient in a day when the fact of being gay can actually add to one’s intellectual attractiveness, in university settings, at least. No, the reason Maugham has been exiled from American reading lists is that he concentrated on the whole in his work and not on the parts. And on character--even when it's to the detriment of artistry.

Let me explain: Since the rise of the New Critics, we’ve paid increasing attention to detail in discussion of art—the brush-stroke, so to speak, receiving more attention than the impression of the whole. Our very ways of “helping” people view and read have exacerbated this. I remember an exhibit of Claude Monet’s Riviera landscapes at the Brooklyn Museum in 1997. As I walked through it, I felt slightly disoriented and restless. We were guided past the works, crowded by cordons that kept us moving rather than milling, forcing us down one side of each room, around the last, and then back down the other side. It was frustrating: I couldn’t see the landscapes—that is, I was too close to them to feel the impact that I knew was there. That is, until I happened to look across the room where the crowd was spilling in the opposite direction. Through them, I could finally look at the works as they were meant to be seen. The cordons, of course, had been keeping us too close.

And that has happened in literature, as well. There are cordons created through our own "learning" keeping us too close. They keep us from stepping back to see the work as a whole. While we can admire the perfectly formed phrase, we tend to be unable to see the intended effect of the whole.

And this, in reading someone like Maugham, is a problem. With a focus on character and plot, the words themselves were only tools to Maugham, not the artistry.

But what an artistry he commanded! Maugham had a way with character that few other writers—Dickens and Greene come to mind—approach. There’s a compassion, a desire to understand, that slips aside from the simplistic judgments we humans rely on so often. Far from adding to The Painted Veil, as Dargis suggests, the movie pares away from the novel, transforming it into a rather simple (though sweetly sad) love story. The original is something far more complex.

Maugham understood human perplexities and never stooped to stereotype. His characters can never be understood as just one thing, for they change. Sometimes they grow, but the growth is usually patchy. Mostly, even if they don’t exactly learn from experience, they do come away altered. In other words, they act as human beings, recognizable (if I may dare say so) to readers of any culture and any time.

The quest, in Maugham, is ever inward. Even in my favorite of his books, The Razor’s Edge, it’s the inward quest that leads to the outward—not the other way around. The quest, in Maugham, generally concerns ethical issues of a personal nature. It is this, perhaps, that has led to his dismissal from the canon (though Of Human Bondage is given grudging acceptance—not enough to be taught, but enough to be listed).

Personal ethical and moral questions do not fit well with a concentration on close readings and the well-turned phrase. Sloppy and contradictory, they cannot be rendered with precision the way Mother Modernist and her Children seem to demand. Furthermore, Maugham attempts to lift his portraits off the page and into the imagination of his readers. That’s anathema to a focus on “text,” where the ink on the page is the center of the writer’s art—a focus that, since World War II, has dominated American letters. This is probably why actors like Edward Norton and Bill Murray are drawn to Maugham. Character is at the center of their art just as it is of Maugham’s.

Dargis paired Maugham with Edna Ferber in her review of the movie, as though both writers could be conveniently forgotten—or had been. Maybe she should get out more—out of the United States, at least. In the rest of the world, Maugham continues to be one of the most read and most loved writers of English.

The Razor’s Edge and The Moon and Sixpence are two twentieth-century novels that I, at least, can return to frequently. Cakes and Ale is also worth a re-read every decade or so. And the rest of his books are certainly worth looking at. About how many books can one say even that? How many particular authors, in addition to Maugham, have produced three books worth reading a third or a fourth time? For me, of twentieth-century novelists, perhaps only Graham Greene and William Faulkner.

“Bunny” Wilson was wrong—at least in my eyes: W. Somerset Maugham is one of the few genuinely first-rate writers of his time. Over a century since his first novel, he continues to be read and, if I may hazard a prediction, he will be, another century on.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Barbarians In Our House

About the hanging of Saddam Hussein, David Horowitz writes:
Revenge is justice. Saddam should have been drawn and quartered. The best thing about his execution was the presence of Shi'ia muslims taunting him with the memory of one of his Shi'ia victims. The shameless left and shameless liberals who would have kept this monster in power and are now shedding tears over the fact that he was killed should have the decency to let the Iraqis have their moment of revenge, pitiful as it is compared to the crimes this monster committed.

Let’s see…

1. Malicious injury, harm or wrong done in return for injury, harm or wrong received; retaliation; vengeance.
Thesaurus: vengeance, reprisal, retaliation, retribution, requital, satisfaction.
2. Something that is done as a means of returning like injury, harm, etc.3. The desire to do such injury, harm, etc.4. A return match or game, seen as an opportunity for the person, team, etc that was defeated the first time to even the score. Also used as an adjective.
Example: a revenge match.

1. The quality of being just; just treatment; fairness.
Thesaurus: fairness, impartiality, equity, honesty, integrity, rightfulness, truth, appropriateness.
2. The quality of being reasonable.3. The law, or administration of or conformity to the law.
Example: a miscarriage of justice
Thesaurus: adjudication, arbitration, legal process, due process, litigation, prosecution, judgement, trial, regulation; validity, legitimacy, lawfulness, authority, constitutionality, legality.
4. The title of a judge.
Form: Justice
5. A justice of the peace.(N Amer, especially US)6. A judge.
Idiom: bring someone to justice
To arrest and try them.
Idiom: do justice to someone or something
To treat them fairly or properly.
Thesaurus: honour, pay tribute to, respect, esteem.
To show their full merit, etc.
colloqTo appreciate (a meal, etc) fully.
Idiom: do justice to oneself (do oneself justice)
To fulfil one's potential.
Idiom: in justice to someone or something
To be fair to them.

Nope. Revenge isn’t justice.

Where does one start in responding to Horowitz’s barbaric attitude? With the idea that, as a culture, we’ve made a decision that justice is a thing of law? That we collectively shudder at the idea of lynching—no matter how justified—for it is revenge trumping justice? With the fact that Horowitz is conflating Shiites with all Iraqis—including the Sunnis whose celebration of the holiday of Id el-Adha begins one day earlier, on exactly the day that Saddam was hanged—turning this into a sectarian insult?

Are we, rather than trying to bring the Iraqis “up” to our level (the putative right-wing goal) really just bringing ourselves “down”?

And who, exactly, kept Saddam in power? Donald Rumsfeld, for one. Even George the First felt it better to have Saddam in power than to take him out.

Liberals were never supporters or enablers of Saddam. The right cannot say the same. Horowitz knows this, but dishonorably twists opposition to the invasion of Iraq into support for him. Support, let me repeat, that was never there.

The shameful way that this execution was carried out should appall everyone. It doesn’t matter what Saddam did or what one thinks about it. What matters is how we think about ourselves.

Compare this whole sequence, from capture to death, with that surrounding the equally horrible Nazi criminals who were put to death through the Nuremburg trials. There, no one, not even opponents of the death penalty, could argue that the dignity of the accusers had been compromised.

The only thing I can think to say to Horowitz is to ask him the question attorney for the US Army Joseph Welch asked Joe McCarthy: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Though we know the answer as surely about Horowitz as we do about his role model.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Jane Smiley and the Scots-Irish

One of the tricks of my teaching trade has to do with stereotypes. I teach writing, for the most part, and I want my students to be aware of themselves, their own biases, and the biases in the greater culture as they position themselves to compose. So, at the beginning of the term, I generally make use of an exercise wherein I challenge them to tell me about their assumptions about me from looking at me. “Who am I?” I ask. “What do I do? What do I believe?” My students, generally of diverse backgrounds in terms of nationality, race, and religion, are invariably wrong. Which is my point: though we have to generalize, drawing conclusions from our generalizations is dangerous.

We never know who we might be insulting.

No, we can’t see everyone as individuals right off the bat. Remember those people who said, in the sixties, “I don’t see race, I see individuals”? They were talking nonsense. Race is a part of the individual, as are religion and other ethnic heritages. We start with the easily identifiable every time we meet a person. And it’s not just race, but accent, how one dresses—all sorts of things. However, keeping to the generalizations, to draw conclusions about the individual—or even about entire groups of people through generalizations (which generally arise from the more negative traits of individuals within the particular group)—is ill-advised. Though stereotypes may be a necessary starting point, we best move away from them quickly—when they are about groups just as when they are about people.

Why? Because such generalizations, even if they are convenient starting points, are usually wrong.

Drawing from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, Jane Smiley, writing at The Huffington Post, falls into the trap of drawing conclusions from generalizations. She uses Fischer’s extraordinarily questionable generalizations to write about today’s political climate. Fischer posits four main strands of American culture. Smiley sees one of them as most dominate today and characterizes it as “aggressive and resentful” and bent on attempting “to disenfranchise the other cultures.” She assumes that the culture is predominately evangelical and “busy reproducing.” She also sees it as a once inward-looking culture that “has been galvanized in the last generation by social changes that it has found dangerous or intolerable.”

She doesn’t seem to be aware that many of us from that culture would see her stereotyping as unfair. After all, as she makes clear, she is not talking to “us,” simply about “us.” And she doesn’t seem to understand at all that there are many of “us” who are not at all like her stereotype.

Smiley is writing about a contemporary group in American culture that she, following Fischer, claims grew out of the early Scots-Irish culture in America that early on dominated the region extending from the lower part of western New York State down into northern Georgia and Alabama and even into Mississippi, making up what we call “Appalachia,” for centuries one of the poorest regions of the United States. The greater region covers 410 counties, with 96 as the real core.

To be fair, Smiley says that choice of one’s culture is based on affinity today, and not heritage—but I don’t think she’s completely right. She would argue that I’m not part of this culture because I’m educated and teach in New York City. But this, I believe, is actually only a further slam on that culture. My culture. Telling me I am no longer a part of it is tantamount to telling an educated African-American that she or he is no longer black.

Real mountain culture (and not the caricature Smiley presents), though now disappearing into the mainstream of America, is still preserved by the efforts of places like Berea College in Kentucky, which focuses on Appalachia and defines its mission as:

To provide an educational opportunity primarily for students from Appalachia, black and white, who have great promise and limited economic resources.
To provide an education of high quality with a liberal arts foundation and outlook.
To stimulate understanding of the Christian faith and its many expressions and to emphasize the Christian ethic and the motive of service to others.
To provide for all students through the labor program experiences for learning and serving in community, and to demonstrate that labor, mental and manual, has dignity as well as utility.
To assert the kinship of all people and to provide interracial education with a particular emphasis on understanding and equality among blacks and whites.
To create a democratic community dedicated to education and equality for women and men.

The Appalachian culture that Berea is helping preserve is expansive and open, curious and forgiving. It is inclusive without forcing differences on people (accepting people as long as they don’t themselves impinge on others) and its religion is one of tolerance. Berea grew out of a nineteenth-century Scots-Irish attitude towards education and people that has helped form the best of contemporary America (the Scots-Irish were a driving force in the development of education in America in the nineteenth century).

Few people in those mountains were slave owners. They have long hated it when they have felt imposed upon, but their suspicion of strangers stems from no desire to impose their own ways on them. Their libertarianism is honest, in other words.

A series of books under the name Foxfire began introducing the broader American culture to Appalachia in the early 1970s, especially its crafts and usages of natural products. Appalachia is best known, of course, for its contributions to American music. Bluegrass, Country & Western, and Rock & Roll all have Appalachian roots.

Scots-Irish culture isn’t nearly as venal as Fischer, through Smiley, makes it out to be. Berea’s mission statement is not far removed from the attitudes one finds even in the remotest hollow of western North Carolina. Scots-Irish can be suspicious of outsiders, certainly, but generally get over it as soon as they find that the strange brings no threat.

My point, though, isn’t to extol Appalachian culture—even though it is, in many respects, my culture. Yes, I was born “down the mountain,” in the piedmont of North Carolina, but much of my family is Appalachian. My ancestors lived in Wilkes County (the birthplace of stock-car racing) from well before the Revolution. On the other side, they lived on the banks of the Ohio River from 1804 almost up to the Great Depression. Though I teach in New York City, my house and home address are in the Appalachian region of central Pennsylvania—where I feel I am really “home” in a way I never will in the city, for mine is an essentially rural culture.

Yet I do also have roots in the other three cultures Fischer identifies, the Puritan New England culture (ancestors of mine settled in Connecticut in 1630), the “Cavalier” culture of the Virginia region (another branch was among the early settlers of Baltimore), and the “Quaker” (my parents became Quakers when I was quite young—and I am still a member of the Society of Friends). These three, however, are have never faced the disparagement long experienced by those who Fischer calls the “Borderers” (after the border region of Scotland and England, from whence many of my ancestors began a journey that would take them first to Ireland and then to the colonies). And I have never identified with them culturally as strongly as I do with the “Borderers.”

“Poor white trash.” That’s how many see us, no matter what any of us have done. It began early. Charles Woodmason, a traveling preacher in the hills of South Carolina, wrote a journal that was later published as The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution in which he characterizes the people of the region in ways not so different from Fischer and Smiley. By the time of the movie of Deliverence in 1972, the stereotype of dirt-eating (perhaps coming from a symptom of hookworm), inbreeding, clannish people was so strongly engrained in our culture that few recognized that they held it.

Even today, attitudes towards Appalachians tend strongly towards the negative. Smiley makes use of that, extending “Borderer” culture to all of those who support George Bush. Because it is so acceptable to poke at the “Hillbillies,” Smiley doesn’t have to excuse herself, as she might, were she using another ethnic group. We’re an easy target—for one thing, we rarely complain.

In Smiley’s view, for “Borderers and their descendants, patriotism is about passionate loyalty to the group, alert self-defense, and domination in every sphere.” Again, she does temper her attack by saying that, today, affinity with one of the four groups doesn’t depend on genetics but on choice but, by using the Scots-Irish as the base for the group she opposes most strongly, she is still demeaning the vast majority of us “Borderers,” people who don’t fit her “definition” at all, but who still idenfity with that culture—the real one, not the one she imagines.

She finishes her attack on us by stating that the “Borderer” culture
is an uncompromising culture that has been reluctant to assimilate itself into the larger society for a thousand years, both in Britain and in America. It is a culture that is passionately intense about weapons, social hierarchy, and religion, three things that are in and of themselves threatening to the broader social compact.

This makes me extremely sad for it is not only wrong but extremely small-minded.

Yes, I know: Smiley is creating a metaphor for the Bushists of today out of the history of one ethnic group—and maybe some will want to excuse her for that. But can she really be so easily excused? What if the group she were using were African-American, or Italian? Is it OK to pick on the Scots-Irish in ways that one would never do to another ethnic group?

Rather than “reluctant to assimilate itself,” “Borderer” culture is the basis for much of what we think of as mainstream America. Just take religion: two of the most “white bread” Protestant denominations are the Presbyterian and the Methodist—big time “Borderer” churches.

If “Borderers” are concerned about social hierarchy, it’s because we were excluded for so long. How do you think we ended up in the mountains? We were escaping the stultifying hierarchies along the coast. As to weapons, well, I suspect that one would find them seen more as tools and not as objects of fetish in most “Borderer” communities. Far from being a threat to the social compact, we have more often been threatened by it. Even so, in America, we have become one of its bulwarks.

George Bush, who Smiley tacitly posits as ‘chief Borderer,’ is not part of “Borderer” culture any more than Queen Elizabeth is part of Cockney culture. He’s part of an elite who slums as an average joe. He has no real affinity for the “Borderer” culture, for it is one of real aversion to power (Smiley has it completely wrong about that). Furthermore, the fundamentalism that Bush follows did not arise among the “Borderers” but in the deep South, on the plains, and in California. It arose out of the rootlessness of people who no longer had a cultural affinity, who fight the loneliness of not belonging.

It’s not the “Borderers” who are a threat to the “Quaker” culture Smiley styles herself as part of. Super patriots? Not the “borderers. In fact, having been driven out so often, all the “Borderers” ever have wanted is to be left alone. Sure, they’ll do their bit for the commonweal, but don’t press them too hard or, you know what? They’ll move away.

Some threat.