Monday, October 12, 2020

Cultural Exchange: When It's Good, It's Good, and One of the Small Joys of Diversity




            My one significant contribution to the U.S. Bicentennial celebration was a speech I gave on 19 May 1976 on "Revolutionary republicanism (with a small 'r')." Vaguely relevant here — I'm sneaking up on my topic — I started out with a small joke on how I was basically a Chicagoan and how most Chicagoans rejected elitist ideas on expertise and didn't allow our ignorance to getting in the way of shooting off our mouths … and that I was going to shoot my mouth off for them on properly appreciating how revolutionary our Revolution was by looking at some of the more memorable parts of the Declaration of Independence not from our present looking back but from earlier times, so to speak, coming to the Declaration with more Medieval and Renaissance ideas. So I tried to lead them through an exercise in imagination coming to what to us are well-worn clich├ęs, to hear them with ears that had been brought up not on ideas of liberty and equality and human rights but on "An Exhortation concerning good Order, and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates" and human society as part of a universal Great Chain of Being, and solidly hierarchical.

            The speech went well, or at least I didn't embarrass myself that I noticed; still I was nervous about speaking in public on an issue about which I knew more than your average Ph.D. and assistant professor but still not a lot. I've been even more hesitant about posting on the web comments on race and/or ethnicity, since at least one of my former colleagues and Facebook friends is a regional if not world-class expert on such matters.

            I'll go this far, though, with somethings (sic) positive and relatively personal stemming from what was called in my lifetime "race mixing" and we can see as part of diversity and not cultural appropriation but more useful cultural exchange. (We also exchange diseases: useful for the pathogens; not so good for us.


            (1) A few days ago I got out of the house and shopped at the Port Hueneme, CA, Ralph's — that's Kroger's in the U.S. West — and treated myself at Manhattan Bagel. I had a classic bagel and lox, with cream cheese, tomato and onion and (increasingly common) some capers, and, my addition, a leaf of lettuce. I chose a dried-tomato bagel and had it toasted. It was a perfectly-made lox and bagel, with my only objections the labelling: the objections of a Chicagoan with relatives and friends in the Bronx and Brooklyn, who doesn't think of bagels as particularly Manhattan. But more-so Manhattan than Port Hueneme; from our on-line demographics: "The largest Port Hueneme racial/ethnic groups are Hispanic (59.4%) followed by White (26.1%) and Asian (5.8%)." We don't do Jews much in Port Hueneme, and I was the only Ashkenazi in sight.

            That most-excellent lox and bagel was made by the local Manhattan Bagel manager, who is Asian, giving instruction to a new employee, who is "Hispanic," i.e., in this part of California, Mexican-American.

            Also: Max Morenberg, the senior linguist at the time at Miami University (Oxford, OH), told me that "lox" just might be the oldest word in English, going back through Germanic to Indo-European — and one Wikipedia entry has it, even Proto-Indo-European. And like chop suey, bagels-and-lox as a combination is American (from New York City).




            (2) Before they got down to more earnest analysis of the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, a couple of women commentators commented on one facial expression Harris directed toward Pence, with the Black woman of the pair saying that anyone who'd dealt with — or, maybe better, been dealt with by — a Black mother knew what that look meant. And they chuckled and ended the segment with the one word, "Momala."

            "Momala": Our Indian/Jamaican-Black/African-American potential future VP and then U.S. President, going by a kinda-Yiddish honorific from her step-kids. My grandparents' generation might've joyously said, "Only in America," and their kids and grandkids would've smiled at them condescendingly. So, okay, not just in America, but it's happening here, and the alte Kakers had a point. 



            (3) During the very later 1960s through 1970, I was a member of the Board of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And one day a grad student dropped by the office to introduce himself as new on campus but, even so, a member of the Board of the U of I Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA).

            This was not this guy's first rodeo as they say, so we got past the niceties quickly and actually got a little work done on the one bit of negotiation required each year between the two groups: how much of the GSA appropriation we'd sub-appropriate to the BGSA. We got in some of the posturing and bullshit required at least among males, and generally enjoyed the sparring until he had to leave for another stop.

            On the way out, he had a definitely non-business question he thought I could answer. "What's this word 'schmuck' I keep hearing around here?" I told him it literally meant "penis," but the usual use was figurative. "Like calling someone a prick?" he asked. And I said, "Maybe; it'd depend upon the context and tone of voice. But 'schmuck' can be used almost affectionately — like calling someone 'poor, dumb schmuck.' If it's out-and-out prick, you'd probably use 'putz.'" He thought that handy, and we agreed that parents would be thrilled about how useful attendance at a major university could be for enlarging and sharpening vocabulary.


            (3a) I've been thinking about that adoption of "schmuck" by colleagues at the U of I who came from subcultures at the cutting edge of competitive invective.

            Specifically I've been wondering whether or not I should feel guilty of cultural appropriation in adding to my vocabulary a word I was looking for: a non-sexist, unisex, term of abuse that hadn’t been over-used and drained of venom the way "asshole" had been. I found it in pendejo: literally "pubic hair" but with a rich history bringing with it implications of immature punk-hood, ignorance, stupidity, and, well, asshole-etry. Plus, apparently with the possibility of being used affectionately or with different meanings in different varieties of Spanish (though none exactly a compliment).

            I've decided not to feel guilty.

            My people gave the world schmuck and putz (and in the New York City incarnation the combination of bagels and lox); I can appropriate pendejo.


* * *

            In a summer job working with Black Chicagoans at Illinois Public Health, I also got introduced to "Willy" stories, and one cartoon, primarily by a colleague who described herself as "a respectable Black widow-woman" — and told people to eat more slowly and sit up straight — and I inadvertently cracked up the lunch group by asking if anyone had ever told her she'd make a fine Jewish Mother. "Yeah — the Jew who had your job last summer!" But that's for another blog post.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Supporting the Biden/Harris Ticket (but "I Don't Do Enthusiasm")

I'm still plowing my way through Radley Balko's understandably well-documented but way too long Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces (2014) and learning more reasons why I should not be keen on Bill Clinton and Joe Biden as drug warriors.
As I've mentioned in a few places, Biden is the only presidential candidate I've ever really talked with one-on-one so the only one for which "like" or "dislike" is a really relevant category for me. (Biden came a across as a nice guy, and he held his own at a conference on NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR in 1984, among a bunch of heavy hitters, of which I was not one).

I take seriously the etymology of "enthusiasm" — that "possessed by the god" bit — and generally distrust it, along with bringing into politics the celebrity "worship" and passing excitements of fandom, as in sports or SF/F.

I'd have more ordinary people thinking and acting like the rich: voting and supporting candidates as one would hire servants, although with "Leadership" a desired talent. "What can they do for me and my group? What are they likely to do *to* us?"

A fortunately unusual variation with Trump is this:

An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same [...]."

On a handful of occasions I've taken a similar oath (in writing for employment in Illinois and Ohio). The people administering the oath were not serious or sincere, but I take my word and words very seriously (I'm guilty of a kind of Stoical/Book-of-Job loving arrogance here). Donald J. Trump is a domestic enemy of the Constitution and American Republic, and in questioning the peaceful transfer of power an enemy of liberal democracy and civil government. The crucial issue is getting him out of office in as boring a way as possible. Biden is good for that, although in 2016 I supported Bernie Sanders and for policy still prefer him and Elizabeth Warren (my main qualms with Sanders are with him as a candidate and have to do with that kind of political *performance* and what it says about his stubbornness that he won't deal with performance as part of politics even for policy wonks).

I hope Biden (and Harris) firmly renounce The War on Crime/War on Drugs. But I'm supporting him and hoping the election will be all that will be necessary for that "preserve, protect, and defend" bit.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Lives that Matter


SLOGANS on my mind, and policy:

"A bumper sticker is not a philosophy, Charlie Brown," and a policy statement makes a poor bumper sticker. So let's try thinking of slogans like the 2x4 in the old story from across the political spectrum of the two farmers and the Missouri mule, with the farmer arguing for reasoning with a mule trying his way, after hitting the mule upside the head with the 2x4. Punchline: "Well, first you gotta get his attention."

Don't try this at home. Don't hit helpless animals. Get the joke: Even the best of causes might require some ... non-discursive attention-getting before we can have a useful argument about policy.

ALL LIVES MATTER: As with "All life is sacred," don't tell me this while you're eating a bacon-burger, or a carrot, or using a hand sanitizer. Actually, don't tell me any of these variations since in my brief time in microbiology I destroyed life by the billions and hundred of billions and feel no guilt. I do feel guilty for other lab work, where I killed a lot of rats, a cat, a rabbit or two, and helped kill a number of dogs: it's one of the reasons I avoid eating mammal meat.

What people are talking about is human life and our belief that human life is special. Indeed part of the central myth of American culture is the one early in the US Declaration of Independence where Thomas Jefferson et al. tell us about a creator god making us all equal and endowing us with "certain unalienable rights," including life and liberty. That's a belief, a leap of faith, and either a self-evident "truth," or stupid-human, arrogant b.s.

BLACK LIVES MATTER is centrally about White people's and various political and other systems' recognizing and realizing — as in "making real" — that Black people are people: full human beings, with whatever rights White's legitimately claim for them/ourselves. (People seriously serious about Whiteness don't accept me as White.)

BLACK LIVES MATTER (also) helps provide the Race part of a set of interlocking and overlapping sets of issues on policing in the USA, including the militarization of the police. We need to look at this super-set of issues, and I hope those working for BLM will allow that they've "got our attention" (see mule story above), and that we can move on to policy and wider politics.

And I think moving on a good idea in large part because I'm a Jew who specifies which holocaust I'm talking about and who uses the 11 million figure of total deaths in the Hitlerian Holocaust and not the 6 million figure for Jews: If "the Holocaust" were literally unique to Jews, it would have no usable lessons for anyone else, and only ethics and decency would motivate non-Jews to care. And if you know about the Hitlerian Holocaust, you know the limits of ethics and decency: far better the formula "First they came for" and get others to recognize that they have some potential-lamp-shade skin in the game.

Even so with the militarization of US police, thoroughly documented in Radley Balko's Rise of the Warritor Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces (2013). Blacks are far more likely than Whites to get beaten, maimed, or killed by American cops. "First they came for the Blacks" in using "the Justice System" for social control. But The War on Crime and especially The War on Drugs have had their White victims. Which is a good thing for BLM since they don't have to limit their appeal to the often-limited ethics and decency of non-Black people.

So: BLACK LIVES MATTER, HUMAN LIVES MATTER, The Rights of Americans Matter — and let's talk policy (and by, say, Fall of 2021 get around to restitution, reparations, and reconciliation: a policy slogan I definitely like is "Guilt isn't inherited, but the loot is.")

Monday, July 20, 2020

If I Were a Republican Black-Ops Operative (excerpt from 15 August 2017)

         If I were a Republican black-ops operative preparing for the elections of 2018 and 2020, an operative of "a certain ... 'moral flexibility,'" I'd be putting money, incendiary tracts, and provocateurs into several of the more obscure and violent fascist groups and into the more ideologically ardent anarchists, Trotskyites, and any remaining Maoists or LaRoucheans. When the struggle gets taken to the street — especially in our time of open-carry on those streets — when there's street fighting and riots and maybe firefights, it's thriving time for politicians of the "Law'n'Order" variety, and nobody in America does law and order appeals better than Republicans backed by operatives with the "moral flexibility" to paint any and all opponents as soft on crime and violence.

         This round of extremism, the Left is way behind the Right. Still, violence in the streets from just about any source is likely to help Republicans win elections. If they play their cards right — or wrongly enough —  street violence may help the more respectable-looking Right to a victory like Nixon over McGovern in 1972 and the backlash victories from 1968 on.

         Older readers may here supply analogies, if we're really unlucky, with 1933.

Full essay here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

"Treason," Testing, Teaching — Citizenship

Initially published as

‘Academic bulimia’ and the test game

I became aware of the problem early in my teaching career, in 1967 or so. We were doing a standard-definition exercise in a composition class, and a student was reading aloud her brief definition piece that began, “In the United States treason is” — and then merrily gave her own definition.
“Whoa!” I said, “Time out!” and made the “time-out” gesture. “If ‘treason’ is the word you want to define, you can argue for all sorts of definitions, but if you start a sentence ‘In the United States treason is,” you have to finish the sentence with the definition in the Constitution.”
(It’s Article 3, section 3, but I just looked that up; I couldn’t have given the citation from memory in 1967, and didn’t. But back to the story).
Blank stares from the class.
“It’s the one crime defined in the Constitution.”
More blank stares.
“You’ve got to know this!” I said; “You’ve all just passed an exam on the Constitution.” And indeed they had.
I was teaching at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and my class was 100 percent students from, mostly, Illinois, with a few from New York. They had to pass the Regents’ Exam in New York, or the Public Law 195 exam in Illinois to get their high school diplomas, demonstrating among other things working knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.
“Right,” one of my students replied, “we passed the exam.”
“OK, so you have to know this,” I said.
Giving me the sympathetic look we insensitive people give the pathetically slow, the student repeated, with more careful enunciation, “We passed the exam.”
I had figured — like the legislators who mandated the exams — that high school graduates would pass a pretty thorough examination on the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, have a working knowledge of the Constitution. My student knew that they had passed the exam and, therefore, didn’t need to know the material any more, and probably wouldn’t.
I was starting to learn to take very, very seriously what has recently been called, “academic bulimia,” the process by which students “cram” for an exam and “regurgitate” the material on it.
When you regurgitate, you get some poison or irritant or excess out of your system.
Now an English-speaking student might, figuratively, chew on an idea, decide to swallow it, digest it and assimilate it. (We like eating metaphors for learning.)
The easier method, though, is cram and regurgitate, and that was what the fully certified high school graduates in my class had done to get to a major university, and that was back when U.S. education was in good shape.
They had figured out the system, played it and won: If not a top slot, they got a respectable niche in higher education.
The only problem is that they were U.S. citizens who had passed the exams and came out pretty much ignorant of the most basic way — an elegant theory, not messy political facts — their government worked.
Students in the 21st century will be equally proficient in gaming the system of high-stakes exams, and nowadays the schools have money on the line, too, and many schools will help with the game.
So, don’t expect much from high-stakes exams beyond more kids and their elders in the education business getting good at the various games of high-stakes exams.
What you can hope, wish and pray for is a change in American culture where education for citizenship and the life of the mind are respected by people important to kids, primarily by other kids.
Don’t hold your breath while waiting.


Wednesday, June 10, 2020


Occasion: A program on The 1A show on WAMU of NPR from 9 June 2020:

When Journalists Say They’re Objective — What Does That Even Mean?

From Chemistry 101, day one, in 1961: "The observer is part of the system." So observers can't report on what "the system" — anything happening — is in itself, but only what it appears to be, as observed.

So even the best trained anthropologist can't tell you about The Village, but only — in one kind of work — the village with an anthropologist in it. An astronomer can't tell you some absolute truth about the Crab Nebula, but only the Crab Nebula as observed by a human being with a given set of senses and instruments. It's a good guess that observing the Crab Nebula from Earth isn't going to change it, but it could be that the most important thing about the Crab Nebula is going on in ways humans are going to have real problems observing.

This is a practical issue for reporters, most clearly a TV crew with lights at a demonstration where people in a crowd know they're at least potentially on camera and might make the evening news or a posted video. But even with a word reporter in the The New York Times there are issues, perhaps especially in the NYT and respectable publications in its tradition.

"NYT" style tends toward "omniscient narrator": the literary technique of telling a story with a narrator with a god-like overview and entry into people's thoughts and who doesn't identify himself or herself as a "self," and avoids using the word "I". So in that "objective" style you do get a form of transparency: pretending the reader looks through this transparent pane of a reporter and sees The Story in Itself.

Nah. The reporter is at best a kind of lens, and as said on the show the best the reporter can do is to work industriously and diligently and try to be open about any biases s/he'll bring to the picture — and try to be honest and accurate, which is hard enough without trying for the impossible of objectivity.

Also not desirable. If you want an idea of truly objective reporting — detached dealing with people as objects — think of a "nightcrawler" cameraman filming the carnage of an auto accident without helping, and when the reporter he's recording gets attacked for his cruel questioning of a survivor, just keeps on filming this new story.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Some Old Slogans for Continuing Debate on Climate Change

• Best pronounced with an accent from southern Scotland or the north of England: "Where there's muck, there's money." There's a history to environmental degradation for profit, and checking out old arguments can be useful to avoid accusations of bias in current arguments.

• "Posterity don't vote (and neither do most young people)."
Encourage them young folk to register to vote and get involved in boring elective politics. And remind old folks they might want to leave a livable world to their grandkids and/or avoid ending up Soylent Grey™ in their last days. On which subject, or part thereof ...
• "Let em all go to hell, / Except Cave Seventy-Six!" — First national anthem, according to Mel Brooks's 2000-year old man. It's preferable to "Hurray for me; and piss on you all," but on a global issue a global-size "circle of concern" is a good idea. Global disasters will take Cave 76 with them.
• "Know how to answer an Epicurean": Talmudic advice meaning a theistic Jew should learn how to argue with a materialist. Similarly, atheists should learn how (when and if) to argue with theists and even Fundamentalists.You don't have to agree on fundamentals to come to some practical conclusions and work together. (Variation from 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness: ""We can pull a sledge together without being kemmerings" [§6] — we don't have to have a bonded, long-term, loving relationship with people [or even like them] to cooperate on specific projects.)
• "Rhetoric: The Art of Ethical Persuasion": That's *persuasion*, getting people to do what you want them to do (and which they should do: that "ethical" part). Winning the argument and/or getting Truth is for philosophy. So let it go with "global warming" and "severe climate change" and drop insisting on "anthropogenic" if it'll get turn the discussion n from survival strategies to the deep causes of the phenomena and/or will have you come across in another in a long line of elitist puritans trying to shame people. Earth is heating up; this is a long-term trend; it's dangerous — What can and should we do about it? Cutting down carbon emissions is one obvious thing, especially advisable since we should be doing it anyway (our descendants might want some handy hydrocarbons of their own and may be very pissed off to learn, "You freaking burned it?!" See above on Soylent Grey™.