Thursday, May 15, 2008

Too Sensitive to Smears?

My growing sensitivity over disparagements of my Appalachian (Scots-Irish) background may be making me a bit more sensitive to insults to other groups—to an extent I had not realized. And, perhaps, too much so. Perhaps it is due to my anger at the assumption that West Virginians (inbred hillbillies, doncha know) voted overwhelmingly for Clinton because of inherent racism—and not because they (like people in, say, New York or California) actually made thoughtful choices between candidates. Though I am an Obama supporter, I can see reasons for anyone, black or white (or blue and green stripes, for that matter), deciding that Clinton is the better choice. I’m not going to denigrate them by saying that they vote only by color. Certainly, I am not going to stupidly assert that any ethnic or regional group makes its choices simply by race. Not only is it untrue for the vast majority, it carries with it assumptions about the region or group based on gross and often denigrating stereotypes.

So I probably should not have been so surprised by my reaction to this person yesterday:

She’s bilingual, German and English. We were discussing grammar, she arguing for a prescriptive viewpoint while I countered that grammar arises as description and should be treated with that in mind. Somehow, we moved into the expanding vocabulary of English (much larger than that of any other language). I said I loved that aspect of the language; she said it leads to lack of understanding.

“Imagine you were standing on a street corner in Harlem—now, I have nothing against them, in fact, I love the way they use the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary… ”

I started to say something, but held my tongue. I did not want to call her on what I was hearing as a racist comment, but my dander was rising. Still, I was extremely uncomfortable being pulled into an ‘us/them’ dichotomy by her remarks.

“ …but imagine you say to a ten-year-old you find there, ‘All men are mortal.’ The kid would not know what you are talking about.”

I was starting to get ticked off, and really should have stopped her right there. However, I wanted to give her a chance to make her point.

“On the other hand, in Germany, if I said the same thing—in German, of course—any child would know exactly what I meant.”

“First of all,” I responded, “if you said ‘We all die’ in Harlem, the kid would understand you completely. What we have is simply more ways of saying things. All you are doing is using the fact of a large vocabulary to denigrate those who don’t have as great a grasp of the extent of it as you do. That’s not really fair, and is the type of thing people latch onto for arguments for the reality of class distinction.” I was trying to remain calm, but I could feel that I was close to losing my cool.

“That’s not true. I respect them completely.”

Suddenly, I lost it. She clearly did not respect them, and was trying to use language as a means of showing herself better.

“Stop!” I raised my hand, palm out like a traffic cop. “I can’t continue this conversation.”

“Why not? I love the way they use…”

“Stop! I’m hearing tinges of racism, here, and can’t go on.”

I turned and walked away, nearly shaking, suspecting I had overreacted, but sure I would have ended up yelling if I had stayed to talk longer.

Were I a better person, I would have explained that, first of all, I did not like being drawn into her “us” against some “them” out there, simply because she and I share a skin color. I would have asked her if she would have broached her example to an African-American. That might have opened her eyes to what she was, in fact, saying. Unfortunately, as Bob Dylan wrote in “If You See Her, Say Hello,” “Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m getting soft.”

Oh, well.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tales Told

[Crossposted from Free Exchange on Campus]

Sometimes, when I think I have misread something, I don’t bother to check but move on, hoping what I perceived was what was written, knowing full well it was not. Years ago, I read something by Cornelia Otis Skinner about this—she commented that she had once read a sign on a bus about kosher food whose preparation had been ‘overseen by rabbits.’ Related, of course, are the “mondegreens,” as Sylvia Wright named them, those mis-heard bits of songs, such as hearing John Fogarty’s words as “I see a bathroom on the right.”

Those don’t mean anything, really; I can move on.

Today, I was reading a David Horowitz piece on his Front Page Magazine site where he once again reproduces that cartoon with a stereotyped picture of a Jew labeled “Horowitz” (anti-Semitic? Yes. Worth reproducing? No more than those Danish cartoons). I flew through his bragging about how Muslim Student Association chapters hadn’t responded to his “Declaration Against Genocide” (a document purposely couched in terms that the MSA would have to reject) and, before I could pull myself to a stop, had passed this by:

This attack on a free press was abetted by leftwing faculty members such as Michael Berube at Penn State. In the Penn State ad we referred to the fact (checked by the editors) that the Penn State MSA had invited an imam to campus who blamed the United States for the attack on the World Trade Center and called for gays to be killed. Berube is a member of the national council of the American Association of University Professors, but instead of decrying the attempts to abridge freedom of the press on the campus, or the expressing dismay at the imam’s remarks, he attacked David Horowitz as a campus provocateur.

Huh? How did Berubé get into this? I had to back up and re-read, finding that Horowitz was mad at Berubé because he (Horowitz) had tried to place an ad in 17 college papers:

Of the 17 papers we contacted, 7 rejected it on the grounds ranging from the claim that it was “unnecessarily offensive” (Columbia) to “encourages discrimination” (Michigan State). Three papers didn’t respond. Of the 7 that published the ad, three – the Daily Nexus at UC Santa Barbara, the Daily Collegian at Penn State and the Post at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee were immediately attacked as “Islamophobic” and “racist” and having caused Muslims to fear for their safety.

Ah! Penn State! And that means Berubé, who was a major thorn in Horowitz’s side before turning his attention to other issues (including the rights of the disabled). What Berubé actually said, when asked by the Daily Collegian, was this:
Horowitz "doesn't turn off the light and go to sleep at night until he knows he's upset someone."…

"It's always about agitation," Berube said. "It's never about a serious exchange or serious dialogue. ... It's to produce turmoil."

Berubé’s point and, I suspect, what riled up Horowitz enough to mention him again (their real debate is now several years past) was that Horowitz doesn’t really have anything to say. That all Horowitz is doing is attempting to keep himself in the spotlight.

And Berubé is right: There was no ‘abridging of the freedom of the press on campus’ for him to bring his considerable talents to bear upon. Certainly not in this case.

No one is trying to stop Horowitz or his supporters from making their views known on campus. The papers that rejected the ad (and the people who objected to it elsewhere) are simply making use of their own rights. Freedom of speech does not ensure that every ad must be run, regardless of content. Nor does it say that speech cannot be objected to. In fact, the doctrine is very simple; the whole of the relevant First Amendment goes like this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Freedom of the press is a right in terms of government and oversight, not in terms of what a particular non-governmental institution (even one partially funded by government) or entity might choose to do. Horowitz knows this, but that’s no nevermind.

Though he remains dangerous, and does need to be countered, the truth about Horowitz is best summed up by these lines from MacBeth (slightly altered). As Berubé realized some time ago, Horowitz is:

but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: [his] is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I’ll be glad when he’s completely lost all influence, when the rest of us can join Berubé in other, more rewarding activities. Then, I’ll be able to read Horowitz as a joke; then I’ll be able to simply smile and move on.

Friday, May 09, 2008

From Frank Norris to Us

The farmer—he who raised the wheat—was ruined upon one hand; the working-man—he who consumed it—was ruined upon the other. But between the two, the great operators, who never saw the wheat they traded in, bought and sold the world's food, gambled in the nourishment of entire nations, practised their tricks, their chicanery and oblique shifty “deals,” were reconciled in their differences, and went on through their appointed way, jovial, contented, enthroned, and unassailable.

Those are the last lines of Frank Norris's story “A Deal in Wheat,” now over a century old but still as fresh in point as ever. “Unassailable”? It does seem so.

Our worship in the market, however, is as questionable as our faith in paper money: neither is anything but mechanism, means for assisting in the moving of items to meet needs. Yet, neither the things in themselves nor their utilization, offering nothing on their own, they remain (unstable though they may be) the foundation beneath real wealth.

And, as Norris shows so simply, they also were and remain the means for keeping both creators and consumers from wealth. They are the real “redistributors” of wealth.

Seeing this, some of us have changed our approaches to what we do... especially those of us involved in creation, be it of farm products or of anything else. It is no longer enough to be proud of skill, of craft. Less and less of our time is spent on craft, more on the intangibles that represent wealth.

We have discovered, over the past generation, that it is not sufficient to be a creator—one also has to trade in one's craft, if one is to participate in parlaying it into fortune. Norris's Sam Lewiston merely wants to sell his wheat—and so, loses his farm. These days, a musician makes a deal with a record company—and finds he or she no longer even “owns” their own “sound”—as happened to John Fogerty, who was sued by a music publisher for sounding too much like himself (the publisher owned rights to his early music). The smart musicians—Ray Charles, for example, who negotiated for ownership of his masters—now make sure they are part of the trade game, not simply creators.

In fact, we have reached the point where no one is a “real” artist unless one makes money out of art. What's odd about this is that it moves us towards a point where it is David Geffen who will be the artist, not Joni Mitchell, whose song about Geffen, “Free Man in Paris,” has him speaking of “Stokin' the star-maker machinery/Behind the popular song.” The machinery, not the artist, not the song, becomes the center. Ray Davies found this out long ago:

Everyone take a little bit here and a little bit there
Do they all deserve money from a song that they've never heard
They don't know the tune and they don't know the words
But they don't give a damn

Today, though we make all sorts of excuses for the rise in housing prices, in fuel, and in food, the real reason for the quick and steep increases is speculation. Speculation unchecked by regulation.

Prices go up? Someone gets rich.

The rest of us, even (for the most part—not counting the few creators who have learned how to play the game) just make do with less.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Race and New Media Conference

Our Race and New Media conference yesterday was a great success—putting it mildly. Thanks to all involved for making it work so well! The two of us who organized the event, my fellow NYCCT professor Annie Seaton and I, are extremely pleased to have seen and heard such great enthusiasm and discussion. Estimates are that close to 200 people participated in the conference at one time or another.

The proceedings kicked off with a talk by Dr. Reginald Blake, professor of Physics at New York City College of Technology, also a Visiting Research Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and director of City Tech's Black Male Initiative (BMI). Dr. Blake cautioned us to remember that new and old media are inextricably intertwined, setting a framework for what proved to be a day of intense and instructive conversation.

Following that came four concurrent sessions:

First was “Race, New Media, and Religion.” The Reverend David Dyson of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn headed a panel that looked at the impact of Reverend Jeremiah Wright on the Barack Obama campaign, among other things.

Second was “How Can New Technologies Be Used As Tools for Community Development?,” a panel chaired by City Tech English professor Richard Hanley, founding editor of the Journal of Urban Technology featuring Sigmund Shipp, director of the public service scholar program and associate professor of planning and urban affairs, Hunter College; Laxmi Ramasubramanian, associate professor in the department of planning and urban affairs at Hunter College; and Christine Stearn, formerly the technology director at Npower.

Third was “GreenWalk,” a reprise of a walking tour held for the first time last Thursday and led by City Tech English professor Mark Noonan and Chemistry professor Peter Spellane.

Fourth was “Questioning OLPC,” a panel made up of Barlow's own Advanced Technical Writing students discussing the pros and cons of the One Laptop Per Child project.

Next came Mizery, a film by Carmen Oquendo-Villar and Joaquin Terrones.

After a break for lunch, Omar Wasow provided a keynote speech that had the audience spellbound—not to mention standing and sitting at his command. Wasow is co-founder and ongoing strategic advisor to and an on-air technology analyst. Under Wasow's leadership, became the leading website for African Americans, reaching over three million people a month. Wasow also works to demystify technology issues through regular TV and radio segments on NBC's Today Show and public radio's Tavis Smiley Show. These days, however, most of his time is spent in graduate studies at Harvard University, where he is pursuing a joint program in Government and African-American studies.

To give a break after that, the teenaged singers of 2Divine sang and danced, raising the energy level in the auditorium even higher, if that were possible, than Wasow had left it.

The next panel proved to be the last, for discussion was so enthusiastic that we did not have the heart (or desire) to stop it. Featured were Wellesley College Professor Diana Williams, Otis Gaddis of Yale Divinity School, Joel Rainey, (Harvard History PhD Candidate), Peter Rosenblum (Columbia Law School Professor, formerly of Harvard Law School), Ebone Bishop (Fordham Law School), Mark Chackerian (MIT alum and digital analyst), and Baratunde Thurston of Jack and Jill Politics.

The final event of the before the evening party was provided by performance artist Kanene Holder, “BlackFace Crime.”

Rounding things out was a party and multimedia show at Superfront, an architecture gallery and project space hosted by Mitch McEwen.

We want to thank everyone who attended or who supported the event, including Provost Bonne August and Dean Sonja Jackson of City Tech, who supported the event in so many ways, and ePluribus Media, which provided, and continues to provide, a Web presence for the conference

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Battle of Olustee

One thing that always interests me is people who argue based on the weight of their experience yet who don’t have the courage to admit who they are. Someone using the name “olustee” responded in just this manner to a piece of mine first published by the ePluribus Media Journal and reprinted by David Horowitz’s Front Page Magazine. His comment is here. Claiming half a century of experience and the guts to stand up to “a seething collection of back-biting anti-heterosexual male ideological hatemongers,” he is, unaccountably, lacking the nerve to make a public argument under his own name.

Oh, well.

The comment "olustee" penned is full of sweeping generalizations unworthy of response, but I would like to address several of the points “olustee” makes. Speaking specifically of the study of literature, he complains of the “looseness” of “criteria for judging what is and what is not relevant to the field's range of appropriate subject matter.” What’s interesting about this is that he makes a comparison between “appropriateness re: various criteria of literary quality/historical period placement/formal literary characteristics” and “stories which dovetail with the plotlines of standard political narratives which fund what are in effect various marxist-derived and marxism-driven political narratives.” The first, in his eye, is legitimate, the second not. Putting aside the validity of his description of what we in literature choose to teach now (there’s really little substance to his charge: syllabi in historical literature courses are quite similar to what they were fifty years ago), I find it notable that he accepts the primacy of the old viewpoint without challenge. I would argue, for instance, that “literary quality,” in the sense he uses it, reflects only the assumptions of a tradition and not an abstract or foundational value. It carries with it its own political orientation. As does use of “historical period” for placement, for we filter our views of the past through the choices made before us, rarely going back to the past for a fresh look. “Formal literary characteristics,” like “quality,” rest on subjective choices and not on absolutes—the formal aspects of a work of art, after all, are determined by practitioners and observers through the development of the form. They are, by definition, exclusionary—and it is this that foes of “olustee” object to. So, if the new standards are too ‘loose,’ his old ones were certainly too ‘tight.’

“Olustee” writes:

The student academic rights people have decided to take a legal approach to dealing with this take-over, because it offers certain leverage by way of the legislative control in the case of publicly-funded universities and colleges.

What he leaves out is that the leverage he argues for is non-academic and political. This, and not the rising number of feminists in his department, is what will lead to the real institutionalization of propaganda in our public universities.

I’ll agree with “olustee” on one thing: The people in control of our academic departments today can be as small-minded and cliquish as anyone ever was. Even as were “olustee” and the others they wrested control from. But I would rather fight them than I would a bunch of politicians who have rarely darkened a classroom door. For one thing, the power of the academics is limited in a way the power of the politicians (for all of our laws and safeguards) is not. As an untenured academic, I can lose my job by incurring the wrath of my department—but I will not be thrown in jail.