Thursday, May 28, 2015

Boycott! (Orientation, O Parents of Undergrads)

      When I started college in 1961, the University of Illinois at Urbana ran an orientation for frosh (which I didn't bother with), but certainly felt no necessity to attempt to orient our parents.
        In my years at Illinois as an undergrad, the University claimed to be "in loco parentis" — i.e., in a parental relationship with students who could be seen as "legal infants" when convenient for Big U officials — but generally left us alone. There was, though, one custom that cut different ways, and interesting ways on matters parental. The Big U would accept payment for tuition and fees only from the student: no checks from the students' parents or guardians; students wrote the checks.
      Or the students paid cash. My memory of tuition and fees at the time was maybe $150 a semester or year for in-state students: a service charge, plus some important symbolism.
      When teaching (briefly) at the University of Illinois, I sometimes handled parental complaints — not necessarily against me — and found it really good to have a ready answer to the line, as an appeal for some benefit for some student, "I'm paying for my kids' education!" We could usually answer, "No, the people of the State of Illinois are paying for your offspring's education, with the taxpayers chipping in even for students from out of state. And for who's paying our service fees — well that you are is more than we know. It's the student's name on the class roster, and it's the student's check for tuition and fees."
      Nowadays, I'm sure, billing at the U of I is set up to get money from the deepest pockets around, and I'm very sure without checking that the great majority of payments are made by parents: cash, check, or maybe even PayPal, wire, or automatic deductions, but whenever the Big U can arrange it, by the parents.
       And that's too bad.
       When I worked at Miami University, Oxford, OH, I used to say that Miami U succeeded financially by "getting our fair share of young adults who go to college in Ohio and way more than our fair share of children who are sent." To repeat one of my main mantras as a university professor, College is for grownups, and it doesn't help that philosophy when colleges and universities aid and abet keeping young adults financially dependent upon their parents and encourage not just firmly-tied apron strings but what we used to call "the two-hundred-mile-long umbilical cord" and add, "And that really must be really uncomfortable 'cause the parent calling me is a guy."
       So parents of America unite in this: Next fall, drop your offspring off at college, do a little schlepping to help them move in, and then get the hell out, go home and enjoy the extra space and quiet around the house. Boycott orientation, and burn the glossy handout for heat and light.
       Then send a bit of that time you saved lobbying for more sensible ways of funding US higher ed. than the current weirdness of having the State offer (nearly) free schooling to parents' children while they're children, and then asking — demanding? — that parents pay huge amounts on education for offspring who should be adults.
       Tuition and fees should be paid directly by the students, and payment should be structured so that even working-class 18-year-olds can afford to pay.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Waco: Cossacks v. Bandidos / Team America: Typical More than Exceptional

"Let 'em all go to hell, except Cave 76!"
                  Mel Brooks's 2000-Year Old Man
"[T]he battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton […]"
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn  (1941),
alluding to a probably apocryphal quotation
— US Fan Chant for US v. USSR Hockey, Winter Olympics, 1980
— US Fan Chant, Operation Desert Storm, 1991

            I tried to come up with a variation on "Hell hath no Fury like a woman scorned" that would make a similar statement about bores. Having just come from a meeting of my local Home Owners' Association, I'll try "The complainers klatch of an HOA has few bores as virulent as a sports fan disappointed." Not a great line, but it'll do to introduce a scene burned into my memory of getting cornered at a party by a drunk Cincinnati Reds fan who felt utterly betrayed that his team, against the laws of God, Nature, and probability was having so lousy a season. After listening to his complaints for, oh, let's say an eon or so, I finally said that I admired his concern for the team and his loyalty to its leadership, but clearly it was time for him to fire the manager and shake up the staff. "I can't do that," he said, sobering up a bit; "only Marge Schott can fire a manager." To which I replied, "Then the Cincy Reds is Marge Schott's team, not yours, and you needn't be so emotionally involved." And I slipped away.

            I understand, somewhat, the feelings of this fan. One time, when I was fourteen, I was at a football game with my (by God!) high school's team — the  Lake View High Wildcats — just three point behind or something like that in the last seconds of play, and our quarterback threw a secular, public school version of a Hail-Mary pass just when the cheerleaders and their boy friends were able to get our school pennant on a long pole and wave it in a great arc across our field of vision watching the field of play and we all jumped up and cheered and the ball game down … way short of the receiver and the goal line, and we lost the game.

            I felt a twinge of keen disappointment at the time, and obviously a memorable twinge — that time was nearly sixty years ago — but we loyal Lake View-ites left the stadium and bought pizza, and got on with our lives.

            A game's a game, and school was just school.

            And maybe also, Lake View High School in Chicago is in the Cubs' neighborhood, and most of our elders either became rabid fans or learned not to get too emotionally involved in games other people played.
            Well, and throw in the fact that I'd played grammar-school football but stopped growing at 5'2", and serious football (to say nothing of basketball) was definitely something other guys played.

            The Beach Boys hadn't sung "Be True to Your School" yet — that song came out in 1963, and I graduated high school in 1961 — but I was and remain pretty loyal to my high school, attending class reunions and having donated a media collection and all. But I wasn't into the idea of my high school, apparently, as much as most.

            Or at least that was the accusation of Mrs. Wilkinson, the permanent, immovable Senior Class Adviser, against me. And she had a point.

            My older sister had attended Senn High School before district boundaries were tightened up, and I was in a high school fraternity that had more members from Senn and some other North Side schools than from Lake View, so I understood that it was just where you lived that determined which school you went to, and that North Side Chicago public high schools weren't all that different.

            So "my high school" wasn't a major deal for me, and when challenged by Mrs. Wilkinson, I had to take somewhat seriously her hyperbolic, "You never participate in school functions!"

            I told her that the "never" was wrong — I was in Key Club and had done some school service stuff, especially back when I was in ROTC ("JROTC" to be exact) — but, okay, I certainly did far less than I might have.

            "I can never be elected high school Principal," I finally told her; "so I concentrate my efforts where I can be elected president and have some clout."

            More exactly, my philosophy of personal politics, as I later learned, was that of Creon in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus: I wanted a situation where I could be elected president but preferred not to be; I liked being vice president of organizations. That way I had clout but could act quietly and, if necessary, pass the responsibility-buck up to the president. And if being VP meant doing occasional metaphorical hatchet-work so the president could keep his hands clean …, well, I could do that.

            My attitude was cemented in college when I joined a fraternity rather than live in the dorms. The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana was and remains a very large school and something of a "total" institution: we had our own power plant, police, and fire department. I didn't want to add having the Big U as my landlord.

            In the fraternity, eventually, I could have at least a bit of influence over my minute part of the campus. Fraternity life meant taking a bit of shit as a pledge and a shitload of shit as a "neophyte" going through Hell Week. But after that I was a member of the community and would work my way up in seniority and could get elected to office.

            The University of Illinois did not offer undergraduates those sorts of option ca. 1963: you had no vote and little voice until graduation — and after graduation you were sent on your way. As I was later to gently chide my faculty colleagues who bad-mouthed fraternities, "Fraternities are a hell of a lot more democratic than the rest of the Big U."

            In the old frat lodge, I could at least decide how to paint my room. As I once said to a candidate for the U of I Student Senate, "The day Senate can determine the size of the wastebasket in the Student Senate office without clearing the decision with three deans and a vice president is the day I'll vote in a Student Senate election.

            Several years later, I become a board member of the English Graduate Student Association and then the University Graduate Student Association, but the Student Associations aspired to be like a union, not a "toy government," and we would talk about ourselves as graduate student government only if we got authority to tax graduate students and legislate campus-life regulations (which, of course, did not happen).

            My undergraduate fraternity was my fraternity in part because I had some say in its running, and also in part for reasons I will get to. The University of Illinois was "alma mater" and all — competing a bit with Cornell, where I went for an MA — but it wasn't exactly my university.

            Indeed, when the Big U came up with the title of a publication stressing "Your University," I responded with, "Oh, good! Let's sell it."

            But I do identify with the U of I, and I'm typing this wearing my new "ILLIONOIS"™ sweatshirt; and I wear an "Illini" cap from time to time, one time significant for where this ramble is going.

            I was wearing my Illini cap and was asked about it and got vaguely worried I'd be called out for the Indian name — but the guy just wanted to know if I was an Illini Football fan; and I said, "No; I'm an Illini." And he said, "You played football for Illinois?!" — see above on my size — and I told him, "No" again and said I went to school there, two degrees worth, and didn't add I had damn well earned the right to wear the cap.

            The University of Illinois both is and isn't "my" University, and it's an interesting question to whom it belongs. For three weeks it technically belonged to the attorney David Stevens, in terms of legal esoterica, and at law the University — although not the sports teams when I was there — was the Trustees. I would ask rhetorically, however, whether the University was the Trustees to the extent that they might burn down the University Library if they liked or even — in those days before e-books — disperse the collections. The collections are a national and world treasure, and the Trustees don't own them but, as the word "Trustees" suggests, hold them in trust.

            So I identified a lot with my high school and college fraternities, and more so my year club, because I had a say in running them and because many of the people in them, if far from all, were my friends. I can see identifying strongly with a sports team if you played on it (and weren't liable to be dropped or traded casually), and I identified with my high school and universities — a bit for status and more because I'd invested a lot of effort in my studies there.

            But enough about me ….

            That people identify with and feel part of small groups is no mystery: bonding with sexual mates, family, clan, and friends is rooted deeply in figurative human social and cultural DNA and ultimately underpinned by traits encoded in our literal DNA. "One chimpanzee is no chimpanzee," as Robert M. Yerkes said, and a reliable-looking website adds to that a Greek saying, "One man [is] no man." Most humans feel increasingly uncomfortable if isolated for a long time; "solitary confinement" is a serious punishment, and it's about as close as one can come to simple facts about human nature to assert "No man is an island / Entire of itself" — "no, nor woman neither" — and that human beings are social animals.

            What gets complicated and somewhat weird is identification with groups larger than a military fire team, year club, or sorority, or a platoon or clan or village. Or, for some, identifying even with a small group where you don't like the members.

            It's a joke — though a bitter one — that there are American bigots who love American while loathing 90% of Americans, and we used to joke, though with wonder (and exaggeration) more than bitterness, about guys in the fraternity chapter who "Love the house, but hate the brothers."

            Most of us, though, need "the house," the group, and it's occasionally scary how arbitrary that identification become. In the Jewish expression, there's "My schul is better than your schul": one's local synagog, or congregation, but also just "school." Was Lake View any better than Senn, or vice versa? Is 
Cornell significantly better than the U of I? Or, from the outside looking in — and ignoring what ethologists call territory and movie Mafiosi call "business"— why would the Texas motorcycle gang that Bandidos be a group one might identify with and be willing to die for, fighting against the Cossacks?

            A small motorcycle gang can be your "Cave 76," and Neolithic or Paleolithic rules might apply. But gangs nowadays, even motorcycle gangs, can get very big, and identification and loyalty beyond "Cave 76," identification and loyalty sometimes unto death, require explanation.

            Such loyalty and dedication clearly require some (apparently) peculiarly human talents, plus some indoctrination and individual effort. Apparently, humans and only humans on our planet can deal with the world with such vigorous abstraction that we can identify with symbols and react as if those symbols were human beings to whom we are bonded.

            Consider attacks upon sacred or "sacralized" symbols. There are people who will respond to the stomping on a crucifix or urinating on a Torah or lampooning the image of Mohammed or the burning of a flag or appropriating the word "Texas" as the "bottom rocker" on a motorcycle jacket with the same sort of physiological and physical reactions that they would with an attack upon one of their children.

            That is mysterious behavior and perhaps central to the larger mystery of why we can use the word "love" seriously for all of the parts of "I love my spouse, my children, my parents, my dog, and my country." Okay, we can say also, "I love ice cream," but our listeners will be confident that we wouldn't risk our lives for ice cream, not in the sense of putting our bodies between a tub of ice cream and a blowtorch. And okay, also, indeed, in combat men don't often die for their country but for their comrades and friends; but in a fair number of cases guys dying for their country — and some gals as well — got to where they were likely to get shot because of patriotic love and devotion.

            And that sort of love and devotion is for a more abstract abstraction than even a flag: a paradoxical "concrete symbol"; such love and devotion is for one's country, and that sort of love and devotion doesn't just happen: it is inculcated, or, in a nice image, instilled, i.e., added drop by drop.
            It is also reinforced by social conditions. If you're living in a neighborhood where loners tend to get beaten up or shot, it's a good idea to get other guys to watch your back, and there's strong pressure to join a gang: when the Sharks might knife you, it's a good idea to run with the Jets. When the Crips might shoot, you it's a good idea to become a Blood, and a really pressing matter if the Crips might kill you if you don't join the Bloods — and the Bloods might kill you as well.

            But for privileged folk pressures are subtler and for larger groups inculcation/instillation is a long-term process. We pick up our identity and our folkways almost as unconsciously as we pick up language. We learn how to operate in our families and neighborhoods and communities and so on outward, and we learn initially not so much "this is how we do things" but "this is how things are done." We're socialized and acculturated and that includes loyalties.

            By the time we reach adolescence, and our world expands beyond the family and — if we're lucky enough to have one — the neighborhood, then things get more complex because there are competitions for our loyalties.

            And there are people out there looking to attract our loyalties.

            Frequently, the attraction is weak and the competition would be silly if so much money and emotion weren't involved: as when we're tempted into "brand loyalties" and the fandom for sports teams or movie genres or music.

            Beyond those, however, matters are thoroughly serious, and best seen when they're deadly serious and necessarily highly concentrated, as in military "basic training and indoctrination," where instillation is something of a deluge.

            Classically, there's Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and the breaking down of a civilian and rebuilding a Marine. Part of this is the attraction of "The Few. The Proud." as the USMC slogan went — which is also said to have been picked up (or carried on) by the outlaw motorcycle gangs claiming to be "the [top] 1%" of badasses. More though is the following of traditional patterns of initiation.
            I'm confident of this assertion because I helped put together a new pledge training program for my fraternity, and we looked very carefully at child development, tribal rites of passage, and at the most basic parts of Basic Training in the US military.

            We decided that brutality was optional, and an option we rejected: we made sure pledging came with some pain — people value things in terms of the price they pay as much as for any intrinsic value — but stressing, "the little things." It's not so much Gunnery Sgt. Hartman and "I will P.T. you all until you fucking die! I'll P.T. you until your assholes are sucking buttermilk"; it's the "Sir" form of address and the saluting and the little arbitrary dip-shit rituals day in and day out, the routine drill and the drilled-in routines of the military in general and basic training strongly in particular.

            And in this way people — especially late-adolescent guy-type people — can be assimilated into a group and come to accept its authority.

            Which is not a bad thing, if, but only if, people incorporated into a group are eventually brought to consciousness of what has been done to their heads.

            Which is why I insisted that our fraternity "neophytes" had one question on their final exam before initiation that they had to answer correctly: Identifying the logic behind our more illogical rules for pledges. They had to figure out that the rules were arbitrary and that that was the point: we were requiring obedience — and the dumber the rule the purer the obedience — and thereby instilling acceptance of the authority of the group.

            Our group: that ol' frat lodge.

            Not their parents. Not the university. Not the State — or not only them; but we wanted our initiates to accept the authority of pretty much their peers before they went from a kind of mildly-indentured servant status (pledges) to part of the demos of what would probably be the most democratic institution they'd encounter. It's a pretty low bar, there, and "democracy" doesn't necessarily mean liberal democracy — note the status of ancient Athenian slaves or women or resident aliens about that issue — but we'd be more democratic than the university we were embedded in or the corporations Americans work for, or for most Americans, the government of the United States.

            We fail in America in not making enough people conscious of how their group identities get formed.

            The first national anthem, the 2000-Year Old Man, sang, was "Let 'em all go to hell / Except Cave 76!"; and that stance and way of dealing with the world is still with us, but dangerously expanded.

            The Battle of Waterloo was won in part on the playing fields of Eton because the young gentlemen of Eton were taught there and elsewhere at Eton to identify with their teams and with Eton and with the Empire. The quotation from Orwell goes on, however — war veteran, socialist, and iconoclast that he was: "Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there." That is, the British elite learned at Eton and the other "public" schools the chivalric code and snobbery that led the British officer corps in subsequent wars to make some really dumb and costly moves. Significant here is that the playing fields of Eton and American sports arenas and school stadiums are part of the system of instilling a habit of loyalty, so that a cheer of "USA! USA!" for a US hockey team can be transferred fairly easily to what Trey Parker and Matt Stone called TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004).

            Group identity is inevitable, necessary, and usually a good thing. But we need to understand how it operates and how it can become highly dangerous.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Blasphemy, Satire and Other Language-Taboo Violations

            The numbers say I shouldn't be surprised, but I'm still a little disconcerted when some of my former students tell me they are taking early retirement. And with retirement, for many, comes clearing out files and some exercises in nostalgia. One of my former students wrote me a while back (early spring 2015), "I was going through some boxes in a closet and came upon one full of folders of old class material from MU [Miami University, Oxford, OH] - including my freshman English class!  Could you still assign 'The Student as N*gger' in class today […]?"

            The reference here is to Jerry Farber's once famous and infamous essay/screed/satire from 1967, a piece I taught some years in courses in Composition and Rhetoric. Farber intended to provoke, and the essay was useful for stimulating class discussion on topics in education and "student life" and demonstrated nicely some rhetorical strategies (Farber was an English teacher and knew what he was up to).

            I wrote back to this former student that his was a "Most excellent question. I taught the essay as late as 2002, but only in a Senior Capstone, and early enough in the semester for people to drop the course if they were too grossed out.  (The other option would be to work up to the more challenging and/or problematic materials, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man [1970/75].) Also, I taught 'S as N' the week where the texts included the Prophet Amos and the primary reading was the Book of Jonah. (MORAL: Morality ≠ Decorum and 'sensitivity.') […]." And I sent on to him the two opening questions for class discussion: "(1) Rich Erlich's first [public] speech at Miami University corrected Jerry Farber, arguing that US students' central problem wasn't the hyperbolic 'The Student as N-gger' but the related, less grotesquely stated oppression of 'The Student as Child.'  I'll still argue my formulation is more correct — but why might Farber's allow for satire" in ways my more restrained, more expository, less figurative, approach did not? To which I could add the question of the many reasons why Farber's inflammatory, transgressive piece got wide distribution and my more scholarly one sunk without a trace.  Related to this was the question "(2) Should we see the origin of satire in insults, wise-ass cynicisms, taunting songs, and the rant?  If so, has part of those origins become part of the 'essence' of satire?"

            Later in our exchange of e-mails, the student noted that one of my syllabi had the line, "WARNING: YOU MAY PERCEIVE THIS COURSE AS HAZARDOUS TO YOUR MORAL HEALTH." (I also had warnings on my advanced expository writing course that I taught the Plain Style, the habitual use of which could be hazardous to careers in business, the military, and the academy.)

            Farber's satiric essay demonstrated directly how Satire as an attitude and artistic mode could invade even the essay and demonstrated emphatically the Satiric risk of transgressing taboos so much that the work doesn't provoke readers as much as turn them away — and how the revulsion/repulsion factor varies with audiences, including audiences over time. One Black woman in my 2002 class said she couldn't get beyond Farber's title and opening lines ("Students are n*ggers.  When you get that straight, our schools begin to make sense") — which is unfortunate, since the essay, if anything, is anti-racist and (if occasionally misguided) definitely pro-student.

            As a quasi-official of the English Graduate Student Association at the University of Illinois (Urbana) ca. 1969, I defended teaching assistants' teaching "The Student as N*gger" against vociferous attack. (One message to me said, "The Governor called." I responded that that had to be "as aide from the Governor’s office called"; I was told I was undoubtedly correct, but the message they received for me was "The Governor called"). We were successful in that defense of teaching "The Student as N*gger"; today, as my former student implied, I'm less sure a defense would succeed.

            I'm a Professor Emeritus in English, and I spent much of my professional life, and my political one as well, dealing with words, and, partly as a joke, partly to meet a joking challenge, I once delivered a conference paper on "The Modal 'Must' in the Writing of Ursula K. Le Guin": I spent twenty minutes, plus some follow-up dialog with Le Guin, on what she meant by "must." So I'm into words, but nowadays too many people are to far into words as words (and overly concerned with attitudes) and miss larger contexts.

            The most significant context is actual politics and policies, and I've challenged Leftist comrades to perform a thought experiment asking them to decide between two candidates — all else being equal. Candidate 1 tells you, "I respect my friends in the hard-working African-American community too much to insult them with handouts; so they have my best wishes for all their programs of self-help." Candidate 2 says, "Well, I don't like colored people much, but a debt of honor is a debt of honor, and we White Americans owe the descendants of slaves reparations; now let's work out how to pay those reparations equitably and sensibly."

            The sainted George Carlin said, "All we have is words." Nah, that's bullshit, George; actions speak a whole lot louder than — and systematic action, like public policies, use words but are more important than the words as words. Besides, good ol' racists et al. can learn to talk the talk and talk it persuasively, while walking, as the expression goes, very different walks.

            (Keep an eye on Republican proposals for dealing with poverty in 2015-16.)

            Even with just literature, however, people can get too hung up with just words.

            E.g., I did some initial research and then had two groups of students check and expand those findings on changes made between the two-part original Buck Rogers stories in the late 1920s, a revision in the 1960s, and then a second revision in the 1980s. How was the science updated between 1929 and the late 20th century? More important, what changes were made in a somewhat sexist, virulently racist, genocide-promoting book to make it more acceptable in the 1960s and 1980s?

            Answer: some words were changed and, otherwise, the 1980s version was, if anything, more Right-wing since it added a Thatcherite/Reaganesque attack on labor unions.

            The "girls" references got cleaned up a bit, as did the "Yellow-Peril" language. The happy ending of the book, however, still remained the extermination by atomic ordnance — yeah, some SF nerds knew the possibilities of nukes by 1929 — of the Asiatic invaders who'd taken over the USA. (There's a kind of coda to the genocide saying nice things about some Asians, and Africans, and suggesting a "taint" of truly Alien "blood" in the enemy — but the happy ending remained literal genocide, as in the total extermination of a very large human — if not American, if maybe not totally Terran — population.)

            Far more recently, as in 2014, I attended a scholarly session at a science fiction convention (the feminist WisCon) where people were still arguing Ursula K. Le Guin's use of masculine pronouns for the androgynous species who are almost all the characters in her 1969 classic The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, she should have come up with something more interesting and progressive than falling back on "the generic 'he'" for references including both human sexes — almost always two — for people in Left Hand who most of the time are both and neither. (They'd become male or female when they went into rut [although nowadays we should assume that a small number — "0.14 per 100,000 inhabitants over 15 years of age" if they were like Swedes — were in some sense "trans").

            The Left Hand of Darkness was a major feminist work in 1969, all things considered, and very useful for getting people — especially men and young women — thinking more flexibly about gender. More relevantly here, if you wanted to attack Left Hand for gender problems, there are more immediate problems than pronoun usage — looking back from the 21st century — including an entire long scene of sexual harassment that the cultural feminists missed (Erlich, "CRITIQUE: Kulturkampfing on the Left with The Left Hand of Darkness"). "Can't see the forest for the trees," as the cliché has it — and some people can't see what's going on in a work of literature because they get hung up on individual words.

            It's probably just as well that "n*gger" becomes nearly totally tabooed to say for a while, as least for White folks and maybe most Blacks. But high school juniors and seniors would do well to study Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; and, since my much better argued "The Student as Child" isn't and has never really been available, college students should be passing around underground — i.e., on the web — Farber's "The Student as N*gger." (And they are free to call one another "bitches" and "girl" but damn well shouldn't do it! And given how regularly and thoroughly they get screwed over, students had better learn some solidarity. [Just thought I'd throw that in, given that there really isn't a transition to the next section anyway.])

            What I've written so far might go over well with conservatives verbally attacking political correctness and coming out strongly for free speech after the assault-weapons attack on Charlie Hebdo in January of 2015 and the more recent attack on the "First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest" contest in Garland, Texas, sponsored by "the American Freedom Defense Initiative" (AFDI) as part of their resistance to "creeping jihad" in America.

           I'm a life-member of the ACLU and continued to support the ACLU after their principled defense of the right of neo-Nazis to parade in Skokie, Illinois — even though I'm also a Jew who grew up in the Lake View District of Chicago, not far from Skokie, and had been greatly angered at seeing uniformed neo-Nazis parading in downtown Chicago seventeen years earlier. So I'll be consistent and easily assert the right of Charlie Hebdo to do transgressive satire, as I grimly assert my right to say that AFDI are publicity-hungry assholes and add to that my usual apology to the anus for such a comparison. (The anus is necessarily unconscious and innocent and was a great breakthrough in evolution; none of that can be said for Pamela Geller and her co-conspirators.)

            Still ….

            Still, since the virtual book burners who closed down the blogs (including mine) at, and the algorithms at Google, have made my initial offer pretty much impossible to find, I'm going to suggest to recent converts to The Right to Blaspheme the thought experiment of a limerick contest that goes beyond drawing Muhammad and may, closer to home for them, a little border upon the blasphemously obscene and obscenely blasphemous.

            There is an old limerick (#265, 266) said to go back to the Victorian period but of only legendary provenance and probably later than the 1880s and the publication of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. The usual form of the limerick begins "Thus spake I-AM-THAT-I-AM," whereas the form I learned — "Thus saith I-AM-THAT-I-AM" — is one syllable closer to the classic British form of three anapests (= nine syllables). Anyway, both the original and lightly corrected version include a mild profanity ("damn"), a vulgar slang infinitive, and an obscene verb phrase.

            I rewrote the limerick to eliminate the "bad words" but to leave it obscene and blasphemous — and more clearly a theological statement: mockery of Trinitarian doctrine (God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

            There is also, I recently learned on line, a Spanish version.

            So, Thought Experiment for recent converts to The Right to Blaspheme: How would you take to a well-publicized contest for the best limericks — and maybe other forms poetic and graphic, or maybe in Spanish or Québécois — that mocked a crucial element of Christian faith? Or, for more-equal opportunity, Judaism?

            How long do you think this post would stay up if I got a fair number of readers and actually quoted the classic limerick or gave my somewhat more refined version?

            Like many countries, the United States is a confederation of different smaller nations and a patchwork of, among other things, ethnic groups and different religious traditions. One of the bonds that holds us together is belief in some basics like Free Speech As a practical matter, however, we are only occasionally at each others throats because most of us, most of the time use or freedom carefully.

            So, one cheer for Freedom of Speech for all and another for the usefulness of satirists and the right to provoke — and then a moment of quiet respect for respect for others (even for the idiots who disagree with us), and another moment of silent respect for the virtues, usually, of moderation and propriety.

CODA: The Student Affairs Council of Miami University was asked in the 1980s or so to approve a revision in our Statement of Good Teaching Practices that cited as an offense making students uncomfortable. A somewhat older colleague responded that as an undergraduate in Religion he'd been made very uncomfortable in a Bible course in being taught that — contrary to what he had been brought up to believe — Scripture did not pronounce Black people inferior and segregation the law of God. We voted down the provision as written and allowed on the record that making some students uncomfortable might be part of very good teaching.

            On the other hand Jerry Farber decorously used satiric hyperbole and what can awkwardly be called "transgessivity" to note "the master-slave" relationship between teachers and students. So making students uncomfortable, on occasion, is necessary to good teaching, but should be carried out — even in studying so insensitive a mode as Satire — consciously, mindfully, and very, very carefully.