Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dispatch from Paris: Lunch With Victor Hugo

Okay, so I didn't really have lunch with Victor Hugo. But I did become exhausted in what proved to be a difficult search for the Victor Hugo Museum, and I had to pause at a boulangerie for a sandwich and a tarte pomme. More about that later. However, I am happy to report that so far la famille Radicale is well, and having a bang-up time. My French is holding up, and contrary to what everyone used to say when I was growing up about how French people were endlessly horrid to foreigners about their French, this is emphatically not my experience. Perhaps it is the intervening half century from Eisenhower leaving De Gaulle in the lurch in a certain Vietnamese valley, or perhaps everyone who told me this spoke even worse French than I, but it is downright fun to function en français, and I seem to be getting better at it day by day.

And, except for the fact that the q and the a are reversed on the French keyboard, and a few other notable features that make me realize that I am more of a touch typist than I knew, I have found a way to report from Paris. This internet cafe is right around the corner from the Pont au Double, where I am supposed to meet N. in 55 minutes. Today we experimented with untogetherness which, I realize at the end of the day, has the advantage of allowing you to share twice as many adventures rather than experiencing the same ones simultaneously. I wouldn't want to do the whole trip like this, but for today it's been fun.

Perhaps my greatest triumph has been finding La Maison Victor Hugo which is in all the guidebooks we have, but without an address. I suspect this is because the guidebook writers followed the helpful brown signs, as I did, and were promptly dropped by them about three blocks away -- as I was -- and they never found it. After four passes, and several people pointing me in the wrong direction, the mystery was solved: it is tucked away in a corner of the Place des Vosges, on the right as you enter from the Rue St.-Antoine side. There is a ragged little tricouleur marking the spot, which is hardly visible unless you are looking for it, which I was, because a gang of helpful gay Frenchmen told me to.

Anyway, if I were to write a guidebook to idiosyncratic French museums (of which there are many -- on Monday, I hope to visit a museum near Père Lachaise Cemetary which is totally dedicated to Edith Piàf, and is only open by appointment) this would be at the top of the list. It has several dozen busts of Hugo at various ages, an entire floor dedicated to oil paintings of his family, and an extremely large collection of newspaper cartoons that comment on his political activity over the years. One floor, where he actually lived, has some of his furniture and attempts to reconstruct his decorating style -- or rather, the decorating style of Mrs. Hugo, which was dark, dark, dark. But the best part, for my money, was the room of photographs of famous actors and actresses in costume for Hugo's plays, including a set of four featuring Sarah Bernhardt. There are also numerous photos of the sets built for Hugo at the Comédie Française, which are just astonishing in their depth and detail.

This evening we are going to try to get into some sacred music at St Chapelle, which may or may not succeed. But what I have discovered today is that with a museum pass, a carnet of Metro tickets in your pocket, and keeping a sharp eye out, you really can't lose here, particularly if you avoid some of the larger sights in the afternoon and head to really obscure memorials and museums, which then put you in the way of stuff that you couldn't plan for. Like the string section plucked out of an orchestra and dropped into the Metro stop at the Place de la Bastille that was playing selections from Debussy. Or the Vietnamese woman in the middle of an otherwise trashy market full of the same stuff from Guatemala you can buy in Shoreline, but who was selling rid and blue silk reversible robes for 20€ (bought one.)

OK: got to fly. Either sacred music or a bottle of wine on the Quai de la Tournelle, whichever seems easiest. Au revoir, mes amis: je reviens vite

Monday, May 19, 2008

I Love Paris in the Springtime

On May 20, 1927, at 07:52 in the morning, Charles Lindbergh -- not knowing that he would play a bit part in a book published by the Tenured Radical in 1997 -- took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, flying "The Spirit of St. Louis" on the world's first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris at 22:22 the next day, as hundreds of Frenchmen cheered wildly and hoped that he would not try to speak French.

Strangely, the Radical herself will by taking off from JFK tomorrow -- although the plane will be piloted by a clever German employed by Lufthansa -- and landing in Paris the following day! And I am sure there are lots of French people who are also praying I don't test run my French on them. But you know what? They're out of luck.

Meaning -- unless I happen to fall into an internet cafe in either paris or Corsica in the next two weeks -- this blog is on hiatus until June 5.

Happy summer vacation!

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Queer Day in History: The Radical Celebrates Her Birthday By Revealing A Variety of Well-Known and Little-Known Facts About May 16

It is no coincidence that we wake up this morning and find that gay men and lesbians in the state of California have, once again, been permitted to marry legally, this time via a split decision of the California Supreme Court. This is an historic event that bitter, angry people at the grassroots in this odd western state hope to reverse by referendum, against mounting evidence that conservative heterosexuals in the United States care more about global warming, health insurance, the price of gasoline, and the failed war in Iraq than they care about Adam and Steve registering at "Tar-jay." One referendum activist I saw on the news last night was predicting that this movement would doom Obama in California, as conservative voters flooded to the polls to save the family.

Mary, please.

It is, however, a fact that May 16 is a truly magical day in the year for queer folk. For example, half a century ago today, on May 16, 1958, a baby was born in the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Her parents peered at her skeptically, observing not only her big mouth but the rather pronounced and nimble fingers on both hands that suggested she might have a future as a....typist?

"Let's call her -- Tenured," suggested the mother, recovering from an intense two hours of labor and not thinking clearly, since she had anticipated being childless for a few precious hours longer.

"You've hit it," said the proud father, who was not really listening, but wrote it down on the form for the birth certificate people anyway. He had arrived just in time from upstairs where he was attending to other, less important patients, to whom he was previously committed because of the Hippocratic Oath and whatnot. "But I want to also name her after my favorite Aunt, who oddly, has been living with my other favorite aunt, her widowed sister-in-law and a librarian, for the last thirty years." The parents mulled it over silently, recalling Favorite Maiden Aunt's Wellesley degree, her life as a social worker at the Catholic Worker settlement on the Lower East Side of New York, her friends who plunged into the battle for Republican Spain in the 1930's. "I've got it!" the father said triumphantly. "Tenured....Radical!"

And thus was the Tenured Radical born and named, almost four decades before computer technology would create the cultural niche that would make her famous. Sure, in nursery school, tiny children would say, "What's tenure?" and the Radical would respond gravely, "I have no idea, but I shall commit myself to rectifying injustices done in its name one day." That is, of course, another story for another day.

And this is but a single episode that marks May 16 as a queer holiday. Other events occurring on this queer day in history (hat tip) we might want to note are:

May 16, 1527, when Florence re-established itself as a Republic, having driven out the Medici for the second time, no less, along with their interior decorators, who kept insisting on Renaissance furnishings. The Medici were an extraordinarily queer family, whose periodic defeats only inspired them to greater feats of kitsch and camp. Among those who would begin to set the tone for gays and lesbians everywhere were Lorenzo the Magnificent, an avid art collector; Pope Clement the VII, who wore a dress and commissioned the Sistine Chapel from a girlie-man; and Catherine de Medici, the world's first successful domineering mother. She ruled through her sons Charles IX and Henry III of France, and was responsible for the St. Bartholomew's massacre in 1572, a large scale slaughter of ill-dressed Protestants with whom the French and the Italians had collectively and utterly lost patience.

On May 16, 1770, 14 year-old Marie Antoinette married the future King of France, who was fifteen and several years from being able to consummate the marriage. Needless to say, the Dauphine was mightily distressed. Although the act was finally accomplished, Louis never really took much of an interest in his wife or the French people, preferring the company of scientists instead. Soon Antoinette's attention turned to big hair (pioneering what would later become the "beehive hairdo,") decorating, and her ladies-in-waiting, particularly the princesse de Lamballe and the duchesse de Polignac. Marie Antoinette became, after her head was removed from her shoulders in an effort to stem her overreliance on credit cards, a great heroine for nineteenth century women who loved women but who had not been fully educated by sexologists to call themselves "lesbians."

On May 16, during the 1822 Greek War of Independence, the Turks captured the Greek town of Souli, and having read Homer, demanded that the Greeks become their boyfriends. The Greeks happily complied, as the Turks were so big and strong. Hence the phrase that allows queer people to respond to accusations of unnatural behaviour by saying pointedly, "What about the Greeks?" Anything Greek is a queer holiday for these and other reasons: if you don't understand this, read the collected works of Mary Renault (who was, by the way, also a lesbian.)

On May 16, 1836, Edgar Allen Poe married his thirteen year-old cousin Virginia. This was an act that would later be replicated repeatedly and in excess by a number of people in Arizona, Utah and Texas, causing periodic and exasperating shortages of pastel dresses in the American Southwest.

On May 16, 1919, Liberace was born. Why is he part of this post? "Staaahp it!" you shriek. Also in the arts, on this day in 1929, woman-identified-woman poet Adrienne Rich was born; and on May 16, 1947, lesbian feminist poet, scholar and essayist Cheryl Clarke was born and began to revolutionize African-American literary tradition on May 17.

On May 16, 1985, actress Margaret Hamilton, otherwise known as Miss Elvira Gulch (aka, the Wicked Witch of the West,) died in Salisbury, CT, after having successfully avoided houses falling from the sky for decades. She would make famous various phrases that are now indispensable to queer people in the United States: "Surrender, Dorothy;" "And your little dog too!" and "I'm melting! Melting!" Her cruelty to Dorothy Gayle would secure Judy Garland's status as a gay icon forever, and allow queer people to mutter to each other about Miss Mary Thing across the room who thinks she's hiding something, but is in reality droppping hairpins all over the house, "I hear he's a friend of Dorothy's...."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Obama Nation

Some of the most insightful discussions of race and gender in this year's endless contest for the Democratic nomination are in the May 19 edition of The Nation, which arrived at my house some time last week (why do magazines arrive long before the date on the cover? And how will future historians actually know when we knew the things in them, if the dates are wrong?) It is an excellent read, particularly if you would describe yourself as one of the following:

1. Someone who has already voted for Barack Obama, but without the enthusiasm that is seen on TV;

2. Someone who can't get a grip on all of the racial discourses colliding around this candidacy;

3. Someone who is firmly convinced that Hillary Clinton is the better candidate, but will slap herself around on election day and vote for Obama if s/he has to;

4. Someone who can't get a grip on what all the second wave feminists are up to, and why they are persuaded that the misogynistic atacks on Clinton (not, by the way, by Obama himself) justify voting for her, when in fact, she is not running on any women's issues, has publicly stated that she believes life begins at conception, and seems to think that war is, in fact, the answer.

I'm sure there are more categories, but these are the ones I have occupied. I was initially a category 3, but drifted into category 1 shortly before the primary in Shoreline; and I have always been a category 2 and an increasingly annoyed 4. Part of why I signed the Historians for Obama statement was to banish even the remotest possibility of not supporting the candidate I knew, in the end, I must support. An unexpected outcome of this has been to focus my attention on Obama himself, as opposed to the "process" -- which has become, largely because of the Clinton campaign and its supporters, mean-spirited and destructive.

Patricia Williams' regular column, "Diary of A Mad Law Professor" asks how we will "overcome the sad hypocrisy of our public discourse" about race that has emerged around the Obama candidacy in Let Them Eat Waffles. (Sorry: Nation non-subscribers will only get the first couple paragraphs.) And in "Race to the Bottom," Betsy Reed calls out second wave feminists like Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem for persisting in the decades-old nonsense that sexism somehow trumps racism as a marker of national dysfunction. This, of course, was a falsehood that was sutured to the women's movement by so-called "politicos" in the early 1970's, who believed that women would be the vanguard of social revolution in the United States. This was because they believed in the utopian idea that the category "woman" was so broadly diverse by race, class, region and ethnicity. There were two problems with this, the first being the flaws of vanguardist politics, and the other being despite the women of color who did rise to influence and power in the movement, white women like Steinem, Morgan, and Friedan continued to generalize their own condition in ways that occluded poor and woman of color critiques. As the Combahee River Collective pointed out in 1979, unaddressed racism in the feminist establishment was an ongoing part of black women's struggle. And guess who those people were? Morgan, Steinem......

But the most outstanding piece in the issue is Ta-Nehisi Coates' review of Shelby Steele's new book, A Deeper Black, in which he takes the opportunity to explain in lucid, brilliant prose what it is that the mass public is just not getting about "the blackness of Barack Obama." As he writes:

It is an identity that asserts itself without conscious thought. It has no need of marches and placards. It rejects an opportunistic ignorance of racism but understands that esoteric ramblings about white skin privilege do not move the discussion further....Obama's blackness is like any other secure marker of identity, subtle and irreducible to a list of demands.

Coates also informs us that Obama's favorite character on The Wire was Omar, "the coal black anti-hero who prowls the streets of West Baltimore toting a shotgun and robbing drug dealers." Yes! I am finally won over! Omar is my favorite character too! And by the way -- he is also unapolegetically gay. I wonder why Coates didn't mention that?

Oh never mind. I have learned to love Barack Obama at last.

Monday, May 05, 2008

What Bush(el) Have They Been Hiding This Woman Under?

I don't know -- maybe it is just the contrast to George, but I think Laura Bush's capacity to do an intelligent, straight to the point press conference on a moral and humanitarian crisis is impressive. Not only did she get all the issues on the table about the dictatorship in Myanmar and its inability -- unwillingness? -- to care for the people of the country formerly known as Burma, either before or after the cyclone that devastated the major rice growing region of an already lean country this week, but she didn't even threaten to obliterate them. Oops -- that wasn't George -- that was another politician who promises that her regime will alter the current course of American foreign policy.

Have the Republicans considered....naw. Wouldn't work.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Kentucky Derby Coda: Farewell to Eight Belles

Those who know the Radical well also know that she is a handicapper, and loves great horses. Derby Day -- and the day before, the Kentucky Oaks and its undercard, are practically national holidays in the Radical household. Although we did not plan it this way, we also live right around the corner from the off track betting parlor, so there is a whole racing community at my fingertips. Yesterday I cleared a large sum at the Oaks, and went into today's races very optimistic: indeed, financially, it has been a successful weekend, with enough winners to cover and surpass inevitable bad picks and funky trifectas.

But as many of you probably already know, today's Kentucky Derby ended on an extraordinarily sad note. Eight Belles, the only filly in the race and the runner-up, had to be euthanized after breaking her forelegs; this may have happened as she was trying to slow down after she crossed the wire, or her ankles may have started to crack as she was straining to catch Big Brown. In other words, as many horses do, she hurt herself fatally trying to win the race. For those of us who love thoroughbred racing, it is a fact of the sport (much as young men becoming paralyzed, crippled, or congenitally concussed, is a deeply regrettable but not uncommon feature of football), but it is heartbreaking all the same. She was a love of a horse, and our sympathies here at Tenured Radical go out to owner Rick Porter, trainer Larry Jones and all the filly's people at Fox Hill Farm. Second guessers will say she should have run yesterday in the Oaks, the fillies race, but if it was going to happen, it was going to happen: thoroughbreds are delicate and over bred creatures, and when they step wrong it is catastrophic. Replacing all dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces could be a big step to making this a sport that is safer for the animals and the jockeys. In Europe, where all races are run on turf, they have many fewer injuries and fatalities.

Eight Belles is seen in this picture in the Honeybee, under Ramon Dominguez. She was ridden today by Gabriel Saez, who won the Oaks yesterday on Eight Belles' stable mate Proud Spell. Here's the story about today's tragedy in the Guardian. I think that we can only be happy that the accident was decisive, and that she wasn't subjected to medical intervention for months like poor Barbaro.

And After Giving You a Bad Grade, I'll Sue Your Sorry Ass

Well, this answers the question of why those claiming to be dissatisfied customers of mine ("Yeah, I was in that class and I think you suck too") need to vent anonymously about this post, rather than discussing our pedagogical differences in office hours. Apparently, at Dartmouth, classroom conflict has reached such a pitch that a teacher is suing her students. I had not realized that there are dimensions of my vast power to dominate others that I have not yet activated.

OK, seriously: I'm sure there is more to this than meets the eye, and both teacher and students have clearly run off the rails in what appears to be a Lord of the Flies situation. But I think the department chair and this woman's senior colleagues may have some explaining to do as to why there hasn't been a mentoring intervention at an earlier date. Things like this don't just happen suddenly, in one class, one semester. Do they? Enquiring minds want to know.

Thanks to my fellow Zenith bloggers for this tip. You might also want to go to University Diaries for several typically incisive posts offering commentary on and extra links for this sad little tale of a classroom run amok: the full story actually reads like one of those movies with Bruce Willis where a city bus full of children and old people has been taken over by terrorists and is careening through the streets of a city completely out of control while the mayor and the chief of police negotiate with an insane dictator. Except with email.

You know, here's a rule of thumb for you: when you can't decide how to respond to a typical academic problem, whether it be with a student, a colleague, or the university administration, ask yourself: what would Margaret Soltan do?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Charles Tilly, May 20, 1929 – April 29, 2008

I just learned today that historian and sociologist Charles Tilly died on April 29, 2008, of lymphoma. He was 78 years old and will be greatly missed.

Chuck was one of the great intellects of our time: as importantly, he was endlessly excited about ideas, a scholar who was an indefatigable teacher, a man who not only taught you how to do history, but encouraged you to find your own new ways to do it. While I wouldn't call him a radical (because it is too reductive -- he was so much more than that), he was the exact opposite of a conservative, an interdisciplinary thinker who believed that knowledge production could evolve as fast as the human mind could accomodate new paradigms and new ideas. He encouraged his students to find new things to think about, but more importantly, to find new ways to think. As a teacher he was generous to a fault, and he had a quiet but firm disdain for academic pettiness and cruelty, that rarely manifested itself in open conflict with a scholar behaving badly, but rather in redressing the wrong done by showering kindness, and whatever resources he had available, on those who had been subjected to the most common forms of departmental and institutional abuse.

I first heard of Chuck when I was a Yale undergraduate: I was an English major who took history courses for fun. Taking history classes was simultaneously a great leisure activity and an intellectual activity, since at that moment Yale probably had a fistful of some of the best lecturers ever gathered in one place at the same time. One of the hippest of them was John Merriman, whose class on the French revolution people used to revisit year after year just to hear the lecture on Robespierre. John was also famous for throwing keg parties for his students at the end of the semester, and at one of them we had a long talk about his great teacher at Michigan, Charles Tilly. John said if I ever had the chance, I should study with him.

Some years later I was in graduate school at NYU and one of those things happened that can more or less derail your Ph.D.: my advisor and mentor, Albert U. Romasco, died suddenly, about a week before my general exams, and there was no one who was either intellectually appropriate or interested enough in me to take over my dissertation. They had to hire someone else, and it was going to take time. But then -- as if there really is some pattern to life if you can only discern it -- Chuck and Louise Tilly came to the New School, right up the street, and one of their former colleagues from Michigan who was on my committee suggested I go up and talk to Chuck about my research because we had some interests in common.

So I did. And the only thing that was misleading about that advice, in retrospect, was that since Chuck was interested in everything, with whom would he not have interests in common? Furthermore, I didn't know that at that moment in time you got Chuck and Louise as a package, and that once you fell into their orbit you never really left. You became part of this network of astonishing people with capacious intellects who came in and out of town, moving through offices that were a hive of activity, research and ideas. Looking at something I had written one day, Chuck said, "Theda Skocpol is coming through next week -- let's have her take a look at it and pick her brain." Chuck ran a proseminar on the state which was my principle intellectual context during my final years in graduate school: one fall, in the first meeting, I walked in and sitting around the table were E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Bridget Hill, and Eric Hobsbawm. The Hills and Thompson remained for a month; Hobsbawm, who was particularly helpful in talking to me about my research on social bandits in the Great Depression, stayed for the semester, and then came and went for the next several years.

I mean really -- imagine being a graduate student writing about social bandits in the twentieth century United States, and someone drops Eric Hobswbawm in your lap. It's like Christmas for historians.

This post is only a snapshot of what Chuck did with his life: there is a universe of scholars out there who would tell you similar and different stories. If I could characterize his pedagogy, I would say that he believed in bringing smart people together and creating an atmosphere where ideas could flourish. He taught me to think big, and he taught me to take risks. He taught me the difference between scholars who were capable of rigorous, useful criticism and people who criticized others just to make themselves look smarter or more important. And he taught me to believe in my own intellect, that ideas that didn't make sense to others would, in time, when the ideas had developed sufficiently that my readers could finally grasp them. Once we were sorting out a problem in a dissertation chapter, and he persuaded me that something I wanted to write about was just a diversion from the argument the chapter needed to make. Reluctantly, I agreed: I pulled those pages out, crumpled them up and flipped them into the trash can. Chuck got up and walked across the room, pulled them out of the trash and handed them back to me. "Never throw an idea away," he said "Whatever took you there once, will take you there again." And he was right, of course: the pages I had discarded became an article on the labor gun molls performed in criminal gangs in the 1930's.

So I now tell my students the same thing.

When you ask Chuck's students -- and there are so many of us -- you will hear stories about teaching, about research (he once dumped a bunch of documents on my desk and said, "Would you take a look at this? I can't figure out what to do with them, but I think you can"), about teaching people to have faith in their own instincts, about generosity. You will hear stories about his capacity to listen, and about his boundless respect for others. Most of all he encouraged his students to think big: to make comparisons, to examine patterns that extend over centuries, to imagine grand theories and write about them, to challenge orthodoxies, and to make history matter. He brought people together, was generous with his friendship, his time and his ideas. And I have a strong feeling that, were he peering over my shoulder now, he would say, "Alright, that's enough about me. It's your work that is important today. Isn't there a drawerful of research you need to get to now? So wind up this blog post and get back to your book."

For Lee Bollinger on Charles Tilly, click here; for the New York Times obituary click here; and for Chuck's predictions about how history would unfold, written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, click here. This essay is crossposted at Cliopatra.