Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Butlers and Speaking Fees and Missing Major Political Points

         We've missed a key point with the stories that Donald Trump's butler emeritus (Anthony Senecal) is a racist. Equally important is that Trump had and has staffs big enough to require management and therefore has had (and still has?) a butler. Bruce Wayne has a butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who is succeeded in some Batman versions by "Aunt Harriet" Cooper — thanks to my friend Dave Taylor for that bit of Bat-trivia — but neither Alfred nor Aunt Harriet manage a staff of servants or function as alpha-lap-dog for an entourage.

         Similarly, we miss a key point if we succumb to the temptation to view with alarm the high speaking fees received by Bill and Hillary Clinton and miss the larger point that no speakers should be receiving huge honoraria. Universities have better things to do with their money than lure in Big Names for prestige, PR, and minimally-targeted marketing; big businesses are either wasting stockholder money or buying access — or paying bribes.

         I was taught, and taught correctly, that the two great over-arching political theories of the 19th and early 20th centuries were class on one hand (most extremely with Marxists) and race on the other (most extremely with Nazis). In the United States, class and race have been intimately intertwined, and if we do very poorly discussing race in America — and we do very poorly — we don't do much better on class.

         Start here, then: Bruce Wayne doesn't have a large staff of servants to avoid obvious plot problems with Batman stories but also because (1) audience members rarely ask about the lower orders in heroic narratives — Who's preparing all those feasts in Tolkien's Middle Earth? —  (2) because we don't want to reduce our identification with Bruce Wayne by looking too closely at his privileges; and (3) because for all of our pious blather about equality, we in America habitually accept as just normal that some of our fellow citizens can have a staff of menials and some of us will be those menials, if lucky enough to get the jobs. And most of us accept as normal that a rich hotshot can earn more from one speech to a banquet than two or three or more of the waiters will make in a year, combining their incomes.

         In 1993, Judy Brady did an instant-classic short essay, "I Want a Wife," which can add gender to the class/race mix here. Well, wives are okay, but more than a wife I want a staff or two, and a butler to manage the domestic one. And I want a manager and an agent from my business staff to start the bidding at $50K for a mostly-canned speech by me, plus the mana of my presence at a commencement or at an invitation-only, haute cuisine fête for the obscenely rich.

         Judy Brady didn't get a wife, and I'm not going to get a butler and a domestic staff or even just an entourage. So I'm not going to accept as normal and inevitable that a trust-fund-baby/con artist like Donald Trump can afford to indirectly pension off old retainers, or that people far less talented than the Clintons can demand and receive thousands of dollars for twenty minutes to an hour of banalities and/or craziness — or even a pretty good but not history-making speech.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Academic Politics and the English Language

REFERENCE: Chronicle of Higher Education on line

Why Most Academics Will Always Be Bad Writers
No one should be surprised if much scholarly writing continues to be mediocre and confused
         By Noah Berlatsky JULY 11, 2016

I have some comments to throw into the conversational mix on this topic.

    * There's also a question of assignment of labor between writers and their audience. For many of us — almost all? — clear writing of anything beyond a couple pages requires at least one additional draft, sometimes after getting feedback from people other than us, readers who don't already know just what it is we want to communicate. Some writers are unwilling and/or unable to put in that extra time, and if editors let you get away with it, there's reason not to. The folklore, anyway, is that Robert A. Heinlein advised young writers of pulp fiction, "Never revise unless an editor makes you," and much of his writing indicates he followed his own advice — and in economic terms for pulp writers, and for busy academics, such advice made and still makes sense.

    * In the late 20th c., portions of the academic Left at least claimed to write clotted prose intentionally in order to slow down readers and to make their writing less "determinate" (?) — less liable to being pinned down to one meaning. Given the success of Donald J. Trump's going at indeterminacy from the simplistic side, the academic Left might come to value clarity, but as George Orwell noted, writing pretentious prose can be habit forming.

    * Academic legend (anyway) told of an experiment where two versions of the same essay were submitted to journals that claimed to insist upon clarity. One version was written for clarity, the other in convoluted jargon. The version light on jargon and strong on clarity did less well for acceptance. I believed that story since I once got back an essay with referee comments I couldn't understand. My younger co-author looked at the comments, said, "I'll stodgy it up," combined sentences and substituted some Latinate words for colloquial ones — and that version was published.

On the other hand

    * On the other hand, technical vocabularies are necessary, and academic writing should be directed toward specific and necessarily limited discourse communities. Still, jargon, like slang, helps establish and maintain virtual communities with their own social structures and hierarchies. Street signs in Boston have been said to be guided by the rule, "If you belonged here, you'd know," and a similar rule governs a fair amount of academic language. The social/political purpose of jargon and overly complex writing can be precisely to render the piece unintelligible to the uninitiated, keeping out the unworthy.

    * Most positively "on the other hand," if one really does have something new and original to say, it's likely to be difficult to communicate. On the other other hand here — bilateral symmetry being so banal — I'd say that that the difficulty of communicating something original is all the more reason to strive mightily to be clear and to get help with revising.

Most important, though, is the point of academic politics: A fair number of academics have been trained in intellectual humility and think if we don't understand something it's our own faults, and to some extent that's almost always the case. What is crucial, though, is that division and assignment of labor and the reinforcement of power relations in requiring readers to do extra work. It's a sign and exercise of power to force readers into re-reading; and it's a sign and exercise of status if editors won't require you to rewrite. And it was a beautiful if annoying irony back in the late 20th c. that a fair number of academic Leftists analyzed power trips in all sorts of areas but were utterly blind to the exercise of raw power in the prose of their own convoluted analyses.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Lives Matter (But Most, Individually, Not Much)

"A bumper sticker is not a philosophy, Charlie Brown."
But, then, a carefully worked out philosophical
statement would make a lousy bumper sticker.

Before we get too deeply into "Black Lives Matter" or "Police Lives Matter" or "All Lives Matter," we might ask "To whom?" If you mean in some absolute sense that such lives goddamn bloody-well matter, a realistic response would have to be, "Do you mean they matter to God?" 'Cause if not, no, in absolute terms, in terms of The Big Picture — that universe of Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson's "billions and billions of stars" — all life on Earth may matter, but not much. And in the multiverse of any number of universes, possibly an infinite number of universes, our mattering approaches zero.
         So let's ratchet down meaning to just our little planet and human scale. In that case ,"All Lives Matter" can be like "All life is sacred": two statements you shouldn't pronounce while eating a hamburger or even carrots (especially not baby carrots) — or in my presence. That's "not in my presence" because I used to do lab work for summer jobs and in that line of employment killed a significant number of rats, a few dogs, one cat, a rabbit or two, and, in two microbiology labs, bacteria by at least the billions. I feel guilty about the mammals and now decline to eat mammal meat (or octopuses since I encountered one very smart one), but I don't regret the bacteria and to this day still feel some smug satisfaction at having steamed to death any odd billions of Mycobacterium tuberculosis I autoclaved in used sputum samples from TB patients.
         So come on! The vast majority of people who say "All Lives Matter" don't give a rat's ass about bacterial life or, for that matter rats, or for the vast majority of living things on the planet. In context, all but the Jains and most rigorous eco-freaks mean that all human lives matter, and that's a statement of faith. As the Good Book saith, or at least Koheleth (Ecclesiastes, "The Preacher"), "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that man hath no pre-eminence above a beast […]" (3.19).
         For excellent practical reasons, we humans arrogantly see ourselves as special and insist that (at least generally and in theory) "All Human Lives Matter" a whole lot more than the lives of such old and successful fellow critters as bacteria, jelly fish, round worms, social insects, and even sharks or such relatively close relatives as sheep.
         And then the question becomes how serious we really are about "All Human Lives Matter" and/or just whom we see as fully human.
         And that can get complicated.
         Racism is a relatively recent invention, and it is an invention. Bigotry and xenophobia are widespread and part of the figurative DNA of the human species; racism is an ideology, with a history very much in relatively recent historical times. In the ancient world most places most of the time, most people were willing to treat some other people as things to be bought and sold — slaves — without racial theories to deny humanity to slaves. Indeed, the Spartans kept Helots, publicly-owned slaves who were fellow Greeks, and the Romans were cheerfully equal-opportunity enslavers of prisoners of war and the children of slaves and of the desperately poor.
         For understandable reasons, we accept as fully human and proper recipients of our care and regard, to start with, ourselves and then working out to immediate family, extended family, village … and then further out until we get into increasingly abstract social structures of clan, tribe, and country. Perhaps God and a few saints manage to truly love all of humanity, but for most of us the circle of concern is small, and we really do care about only a few people because that's all we really can care about.
         Look: If God loves us and says we're important, then we're important because God loves us and says we're important, not for any reason intrinsic to us. If there is no God, or if God has better things to do than concern Him/Her/Itself with recent species on minor planets, then we're not important and don't matter. That's the one hand. The "on the other hand" is the practical necessity to affirm human value precisely because in a merely material(ist) universe there's no good reason to believe in human value but strong reason to accept an absurd belief in it so we feel justified to forbid unnecessarily killing or otherwise harming one another.
         In the US of A, we need assertions of "All (Human) Lives Matter" and stronger assertions that "X", "Y", and "Z" lives matter when X, Y, and Z are subgroups whose full humanity has been seriously questioned in American history, e.g., by dispossessing and massacring people, such as Indians, or buying and selling them, such as Blacks.
         The United States has not been a melting pot, reducing Native Americans and then the later immigrants to "atomized" individuals: and our not being a melting pot — a terrifying image — is a good thing. In fortunate times, we're more like a mosaic or stew or that all-American dish, chop suey. When things aren't so good by us in America, we're a race war waiting to happen, a potential chaos of ethnicities, regions, and tribal enclaves that could make the Middle East or the Balkans look like Denmark.
         So let us assert strongly that "BLACK LIVES MATTER" and recognize simultaneously the humanity of all police and the necessity for policing, and let us insist on the decency and loyal service of most police officers most of the time. If you're an American of mature years, you're familiar with Rodney King's rhetorical question, "Can we all get along?"; there's an answer to it, and it's that we Americans had damn well better get along better, or we're going to be in big trouble.
         We are in for a literal "long, hot summer" in 2016, and for a number of years to come as Earth goes through another warm spell and this time around humans add significantly to it. We're also in for another period of large-scale migrations and more and less fanatical and massive mass movements, with ISIS as the harbinger. We in America can't afford another figurative "long, hot summer" of racial violence.
         So, yeah, "BLACK LIVES MATTER," and, indeed, be nice to nice cops. And "If you see something, say something" about terrorist preparations, crime, and/or about any criminal cops.

         And finally, please recognize that for the sort of people who read blogs, the USA is a safe place, where you can (usually) leave your guns at the shooting range or in a locked locker at home.  

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Trump, Truth, and Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

            When you consider Donald Trump's campaign for President of the United States, the first thing you think of is probably not Tim O'Brien's 1990 Vietnam work, The Things They Carried. Okay, it's probably not the 222nd thing you think of. I make the association because of some occasionally strong disagreements about Things back when I was teaching on the Oxford, OH, campus of Miami University.
            Tim O'Brien's Going After Casciato (1978) was the summer reading for incoming frosh in 1990. Incoming first-year students read the book (in theory) and were invited to a convocation at which Mr. O'Brien read "On the Rainy River" from his new book, The Things They Carried — a story about "Tim O'Brien" — and then O'Brien discussed that story. O'Brien's performance was videotaped by Miami's A-V folk, and I got a copy of it for my teaching.
            Here's a summary of "On the Rainy River" from an on-line study guide — no longer available — from New Trier High School, I assume the one in the Chicago suburbs. In any event, it's the high school study guide I edited, corrected, and incorporated into my own study guide for Things for a College Composition course I taught Fall Semester 2002. (And, yes, I gave a full citation to New Trier, noted the lack of any claim to copyright protection — and feel no guilt given all of the study guides I have immodestly placed on the web.)

4. On the Rainy River The narrator tells a story of the summer of 1968. He had just graduated from college, and was living with his parents in his hometown in Minnesota. He was working at a slaughterhouse cleaning blood clots out of pigs. He got a draft [notice], and pondered what to do with it. In late August, he decided to run for Canada. He quit his job, and took his parents’ car up to the border, were he lived for six days with an old man in a cabin on the border. He never tells the man why he is there, but the man knows. He does odd jobs around the house, and thinks about what his next move should be. The old man takes him out fishing on the Rainy River, the border between the US and Canada, almost as if he was taking him to the border. The narrator sat in the old man’s boat just a short swim from Canada, deciding what to do. In the end, he goes back to the cabin and drives home. He finishes the story by saying, "I was a coward. I went to the war."

            O'Brien read this story to a quiet and attentive audience at convocation and followed it by saying it was untrue: he, the author Tim O'Brien, had spent the summer of 1968 playing golf and sleeping in a lot — which would have made a short and boring story. There was audience reaction of surprise and I'd say some dismay — and I used the tape to jump-start discussions in the College Comp course, and, more to the point here, I used the tape or my report on the tape to get discussion going in more advanced courses later.
            In a team-taught course on the Vietnam War in history, literature, film, and other arts, the instructors went along with the people in the convocation audience who'd been surprised and not totally pleased to be told that the real-world Tim O'Brien of the summer of '68 had done nothing like the Rainy River experience of "Tim O'Brien" as a character in The Things They Carried. We "older guys" in the Vietnam course (two men and a woman of "War Baby" and "Baby Boom" vintage) thought the author Tim O'Brien should have called his lead character "Tom" or "Bill" or "Ishmael" or something other than "Tim O'Brien" and avoided giving the impression that the stories in Things were more autobiographical than they actually were. The students in the Vietnam course — often history majors, mostly far younger than 40 — didn't see a problem. And in referring to the issue in a course for Senior English majors, one student with a strong views against literary-high-Theory surprisingly argued strongly for O'Brien and O'Brien's intention to do metafiction, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

            I had in my study guide, as the first real item (after how to cite Things):

2. Type of Work: Title page has The Things They Carried "A Work of Fiction by Tim O'Brien." The blurb [on the edition we used] from The New Yorker uses "novel" and "autobiography" in talking about the book, and The Wall Street Journal blurb says it has "the raw force of confession." Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek calls it "a sequence of stories," and a Miami University senior in the Western College program wrote on it as a (unified) short story cycle."

And I went on in #2 to note the term from Science Fiction of "fix-up" and could note in class Ursula K. Le Guin's suggestion of using a term from music, and talk of a suite of short stories — with both these terms referring to stories, forms of fiction. I went on to call my students' attention to the "history of publication given on the copyright page (opposite the dedication, at the front of the book)" when they "consider how you would classify this work."
            In the novel/fix-up/suite version of The Things They Carried, there is a good deal on why O'Brien chose to use a metafictional mix of fact and fiction, and of stories and essays about fact and fiction and "How to Tell a True War Story," the title of Chapter/Story/Whatever 7.
            The Things They Carried as a book forthrightly states that it's "A WORK OF FICTION BY," but then there is the Dedication: "This book is lovingly," and apparently sincerely, dedicated “to the men of Alpha Company and in particular Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa” — the names of characters in the book. As one blogger notes, for another "but" — "But then, if you are a really careful reader, the copyright page […] says, '[…] Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.'"
            Throwing in a "however" — I insisted, however, to the senior fan of O'Brien's take on metafiction in Things, I, however insisted on the significance of the copyright page's indication of individual publication of a number of the stories in Esquire and other magazines and collections, including "On the Rainy River" in Playboy. I don't know whether or not those stories came with the disclaimer that "Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary," but I do know they came without the surrounding material on "How to Tell a True War Story," or "Good Form," in which we're told or reminded that Things is fictional.
            Like the Miami frosh, naïve about capital "T" literary Theory, most Playboy readers, I suspect, would take "On the Rainy River" straight and assume — unless strongly warned otherwise — that the "Tim O'Brien" of the story was, more or less, the Tim O'Brien who wrote the story.
            Which is O'Brien's point.
            Now, there are no ethical objections to metafiction in the sense of fiction that draws attention to itself as a fiction; indeed, that sort of metafiction performs the good deed of reminding us that a fictional story is a highly artful, usually long and convoluted lie and that literary (or cinematic or graphic) verisimilitude gives the impression of truth; it's not verity, true as such.
            In The Things They Carried, however, the blurring of fact and fiction can work to blur fact and fiction period, and O'Brien didn't call his lead character "Tom" or "Bill" or "Ishmael" precisely to that end.
            In the Vietnam course, the breakdown of opinions on the ethics of such blurring was stark: those of us who grew up with "the War" tended to remember that lies got America into Vietnam and helped keep us there for what at the time was the longest war in American history. "The younger guys" didn't bring that background to O'Brien's book, and were willing to cut a Vietnam veteran some slack to play with his biography and with history.
            I thought of it this way. Shakespeare's Richard III is one of my favorite plays, with Richard as a great villain. But Richard III and the First Tetralogy of History Plays that it's the culmination of are a work of propaganda: in their upshot dramatizing "the Tudor Myth" justifying usurpation. And that's no big deal nowadays since we're a long way from 1485 and Bosworth Field and the English War(s) of the Roses and the usurpation of the English throne by Henry Tudor and the murder of Richard III. For "the older guys" teaching the course, however, Vietnam was and remains much too close for literary fun and games, especially when literary games are a conduit for very earnest philosophical and political theories that say there's no problem in blending fact and fiction because there are no real facts, just elements in competing narratives, possibly different fictions.
            The French philosopher Jacques Derrida's 1967 assertion "il n'y a pas de hors-texte […]" may have as its correct "Translation: 'There is no outside-text,' but it "is usually mistranslated as 'There is nothing outside the text' by his opponents to make it appear that Derrida is claiming nothing exists beyond language […]." And that is the idea that has bled out from the academy into more general culture, and reinforced by otherwise admirable literary play.
            Which brings me, and I hope some readers, to one of the core dangers of Donald Trump.
* * *

            A joke from the Vietnam Era went, "George Washington couldn't tell a lie. Lyndon Johnson couldn't tell the truth. And Richard Nixon can't tell the difference." Update the politicians as you like, including accusing Hillary and Bill Clinton of being habitual liars. Trump is something else, and that something is more literally and radically subversive: undermining not just US politics but civil society at the roots, at the level where "Words Mean" and are the basis of human community.
            Trump either "can't tell the difference" between truth and falsehood or just doesn't care. In that sense he may be another in a long line of pushers of "the paranoid style" and/or, maybe more likely, the ultimate (for now) US huckster: a confidence man who believes his own line of bullshit as much as he believes anything, and can always change the line because truth has no practical existence. You say what you need to say to make the sale, to haul in the sucker.
            Nothing all that new here. What is new in my experience is that resistance to Trump has been so widely ineffective. W.B. Yeats saw nearly a century ago, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." And here I'm going to toss a very small bit of the blame at Tim O'Brien and a lot more at the academics who reduced conviction in those who should be at least good if not "the best," and who helped prepare the way for Trumpism and, before that, the denigration by Karl Rove of what he called members of "the reality-based community."
            O'Brien and the Modernists and postmodernists did useful work in helping teach readers that an objective, god-like view of a world of facts is possible only in fiction, where the Narrator is an observer outside the fictional world the author creates. Members of the reality-based community have to admit the crucial reality that "the observer is part of the system," and that is that. An anthropologist can't deliver to her readers The Village: you get only the village observed more or less from afar or the village with an anthropologist in it. Reporters can't give us The Story; they can only give us the story with a reporter in it, nosing around and/or setting up cameras and lights. (And if you don't believe normal people act differently when the cameras are around and shooting, then you've never been to a demonstration when the TV crews arrive.)
            The future-author Tim O'Brien went to Vietnam and fought in the American Army there and has war stories to tell. True stories can be told in very indirect ways, as Joe Haldeman does in his science-fictional tales of The Forever War (1974): true stories about war and William Mandella — with "Mandella" a partial anagram for Haldeman's last name. (Haldeman has asserted in my presence he really, really, really didn't know at the time what a "mandala" is.) But no one would take a world of faster-than-light travel and space war for the historical Vietnam or confuse William Mandella with Joe Haldeman.
            Haldeman told his true story of a "Forever War" with a fiction that did not present itself as historical facts. His use of the novelist's license to lie was not extended to "deconstructing the binary" of truth/falsehood, and that's a damn good thing.
            By not naming his protagonist something other than "Tim O'Brien," the author Tim O'Brien contributed to the part of the post-structuralist, postmodern project that made it difficult for a couple generations of academics in the humanities — and some of our students — to "speak truth to power." It's hard to speak truth to power if you really don't believe in the existence of truth.
            "The truth is out there," even if it's hard to come by and often corrupted by crooks and kooks: which is all the more reason to be careful with truth — and forceful in resisting borderline-pathological grifters like Donald Trump.
            Trump will likely fail, but unless he fails large and definitively, he'll invite an imitator with the same line but more intelligence and more charisma, who will truly endanger the American Republic and much else.