Sunday, August 31, 2008

You Don't Need A Weatherman: Conservatives Respond to Sarah Palin

Do you know that Radicals read conservative publications? Well, they do -- if they want to keep up, that is. I am even signed up for alerts from Human Events which, along with the National Review, I read regularly (this is the only thing, as far as I can tell, that I have in common with Dinesh D'Souza, unless he is secretly gay. Then there would be two things. Or maybe still one, since it is not a secret that I am gay.)

But D'Souza reminds me of an important point. The Republican Party, which has done its best to dismantle affirmative action and revile Democrats for trying to establish "quotas," may have trouble with the Palin candidacy because they, and their stalking horses in the conservative intelligentsia, have gone to a great deal of trouble to convince their base that promoting the interests of women over men is ethically wrong. And there is at least the appearance that this is what they are doing with Sarah Palin.

My conclusion from scanning the Usual Suspects this weekend? Most of the conservative establishment likes Sarah Palin, some love her, but there is also a glimmer of serious dissent. McCain himself has the look of a man in a shotgun marriage in some of the pictures, and the rumour mill suggests he was very lightly involved in the choice. And since everybody doesn't love McCain either (Patrick Buchanan seems to actually loathe him,) it probably isn't the smashing coup the Republican National Committee hoped it would be.

The Palin choice could even be a sign that the RNC knows they can't win this one, and they are not throwing a good candidate like Elizabeth Dole to the dogs. My guess? They have asked Palin to fall on her sword, and have promised her Ted Stevens' Senate seat when he is, almost surely, forced to retire for ethics violations. You heard it here first.

John McCain (who I always kind of liked until he repudiated everything he stood for to kiss the RNC's nether parts) is beginning to remind me of Elvis at the end of his career: to all outer appearances Elvis was still "Elvis," but the person inside had become obscure, so surrounded was he by handlers who made all his decisions for him, crafting a superstar image that he didn't want.

So, forget about me. What do conservatives think? Here are a few samples, starting at the center: announces that Sarah Palin "electrifies the conservative base", however some conservatives Politico didn't talk to seem to be on the verge of grabbing a fork and sticking it in a wall socket to achieve this effect. Right wing pro-gay-marriage queer Andrew Sullivan is spitting mad as far as I can tell, calling the Palin nomination "the most irresponsible decision by any leading presidential candidate since Bush picked Quayle." Tell it, Mary.

The Weekly Standard has more or less fallen into line to back the choice, but strangely, columnists like Dean Barnett, William Kristol, and Fred Barnes have almost nothing to say about the substance of her candidacy and have focused their remarks almost exclusively on how the Democrats will try to destroy Palin's reputation through lies and misrepresentations (Republicans would never do such a thing, I know.) And am I right that there seems to be only one woman who writes a regular column for The Weekly Standard? Someone else go take a look and tell me if this is a lie or a misrepresentation, and I will retract it.

In its typically genteel way, the National Review has endorsed Palin, but also has virtually nothing to say about Palin's qualifications for the job.

Commentary has maintained what I would say is an ominous silence for the two days since Palin got the nod. One insight here would be John Podhoretz's strongly argued column favoring Joe Lieberman for veep (strong on foreign policy, strong on Israel, terrifying on the war of terror.) I'm not sure Palin does much for foreign policy intellectuals for whom putting Israel first is an article of faith: as a matter of fact, I doubt that Israel comes up in Alaskan politics at all. And I think Podhoretz was right -- this would have been the smart pick, and I am very relieved that, for whatever reason, it did not work out.

David Horowitz, at has said -- nothing. Which is very unusual for him. Ditto Ann Coulter, who hates McCain, and won't be mollified by Palin if she runs true to form. Coulter has posted links about Palin in a sidebar on her website but has, as yet, failed to make a statement about her party's nominee. I think we have to think that Horowitz and Coulter might be part of the conservative base still trying to get the fork out of the socket.

Veering back to the center-right, The Wall Street Journal's response was fair, but tepid. "Most years, vice-presidential picks end up having little concrete impact on the outcome. Voters usually tell pollsters they care little about the second name on the ticket," the Journal notes. "But the 2008 race, already unusual in other ways, could be an exception, because both choices are meant to deal with key issues the presidential candidates haven't been able to solve on their own." But the article -- co-written by Laura Meckler, Elizabeth Holmes and Jim Carleton, also cites the Quayle pick, and ends the article with reference to something we will hear more about I am sure: Palin's apparent dismissal of a high-level government official in what may have been a personal matter. They continue:

While she revels in her reformer role, Ms. Palin has not been free of controversy herself. In July, she fired Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. He later said that Gov. Palin and her husband had pressured him to remove a state trooper who had been married to her sister and feuded with the family. Gov. Palin denied that, saying she removed the commissioner she appointed 18 months earlier because she wanted "a new direction," and offered him a job as liquor board director which he turned down.

Some legislators have called for an investigation into the affair. "This is going to show people just how vindictive and obsessed the Palins were with this guy," says Andrew Halcro, a rental-car executive in Anchorage and fellow Republican who ran against her in the 2006 gubernatorial contest. "It's not going to be pretty."

I will also be very surprised if McCain's high stakes gambling does not become an issue in the campaign, as well as questions about how and why he "transitioned" years ago from the wife of modest means (who kept the family together while he was a POW) to the rich wife (who buys houses on impulse and finances Senate campaigns for those she loves.) Details about both of these issues are well-known, undermining his rock-solid leadership image, not among Democrats, but within his own party.

Other than grumpy right-wingers roaming the streets of St. Paul, the other thing that is not going to be pretty next week is Hurricane Gus which, as of this writing, seems to be on target to slam into the Big Easy and the surrounding Gulf Coast in the next 24 hours with winds currently at 120 mph. Michael Moore's comments on Keith Olbermann's show couldn't have been in worse taste, could they? A kernal of truth remains: other than being a tragedy for those whose lives will be ripped apart by the storm, it couldn't be a worse piece of luck for the already shaky McCain campaign.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Is Sarah Palin Good For Women?

A commenter who can only be known as Anonymous 7:50 (choose names, people! it's half the fun of blogging!) asked yesterday on my Obama post, "So, given all that, what didja think of the Palin selection today? Another historic step in the advancement of
women?" I hope this person is one of my students, because it is one of the best questions I have been asked lately and the idea that I might encounter Anonymous 7:50 in the classroom sounds fun.

My answer, less direct than you might like, is: Yes. I Suppose. And No. Not Really. And -- Good For Her! Let's Crack Open A Cold One!

For details on Sarah Palin's career, you can go to this article in the Los Angeles Times. For her official bio, including pictures of her family and of the Governor holding a dead caribou by its rack, click here. For a checklist of why Palin strengthens the McCain ticket among conservatives, go to the ever-reliable and witty Historiann.

After quick research, I have a strong feeling that I would probably like Palin as a person. She's outdoorsy, and so am I. She seems real. While I don't hunt, I can imagine kicking back on the porch with her after cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, having a few laughs and a serious policy discussion that was intelligent and mutually respectful. I have firm roots in Idaho and the mountain West, and so am quite comfortable being friendly, intimate with, and interested in, people who cleave to beliefs and practices that the Northeastern intelligentsia sees as quite marginal or worrisome. For example, here are some things I like about her:

While I think guns are too dangerous for crazy people and untrained enthusiasts to own, I grew up around a lot of rifles and shotguns, and understand why rural people in particular value hunting and often have an economic need to hunt. I understand less well when they feel the need to own automatic weapons and rocket launchers, drill with the Michigan Militia, patrol the border looking for migrant workers, and collect seven years worth of canned food in the basement in preparation for the Last Days, but Palin doesn't do that. She buys a license and shoots her limit every year. That's all.

I'd really like to go to dinner at her house: I bet she makes a heck of a caribou roast.

I have no problem with creationists as long as they are not trying to institutionalize that knowledge as "the truth," and I have no problem with people who are morally opposed to abortion, as long as they don't interfere with the right of my nieces to choose not to give birth to an unwanted child, deny them knowledge about their own sexuality, and prevent them from having access to birth control. I think Palin's decision to carry a child she knew had Downs' Syndrome to term makes her particularly likable, since not everyone has the empathy and emotional strength to contemplate that. Downs' kids are more often than not really nice people, and I think it speaks well of Palin that she isn't eugenicist and doesn't need to have traditionally perfect children like so many of us do. On the other hand, as we admire her capacity to juggle family and (a very ambitious) career, and her willingness to raise a disabled child, let's take a look at the financial resources she has to do that and get those to other families too!

As an anti-war liberal, I respect it that Palin's eldest son is in the military, which is neither here nor there, except that so few proponents of the war seem to live in families where military service is valued over other ambitions. I hear he is deploying soon, and I hope that she gives McCain a good talking to about his failure to support preparedness in the military, his opposition to expanded veterans' benefits and his incredible current silence on the issue of torture.

Palin sounds ambitious, decent, honest and -- while I resent the political turn which has forced every candidate to talk about God as if She was House Majority Leader -- I have several good friends and colleagues who are people of strong, sometimes evangelical, faith, so I don't happen to have that particular liberal prejudice. Being religious may have something to do with what seems to be an ethical profile that one might argue is unusually good for politicians in Alaska.

So Palin's nomination may be a good one, and it seems to be consistent with the past three decades of Republican political positions. But is Palin's nomination good for women?

I think that is harder to say. One of the great contrasts between Republicans and Democrats is that the GOP doesn't really do women's politics, and hasn't since the Ford administration: they do what they call family politics, and strenuously resist the idea that there is such a thing as inequality, racism or sexism. Current Republican policies are based on the ideological position that identity is irrelevant to individual prosperity, and that the only differences between people are their relative level of virtue, which can be gauged by an individual's capacity to be disciplined and adhere to "values." Economic success, for example, is a subset of virtue; hence, the incredible concentration of poverty among women and minorities is usually ascribed to their lack of values. This is not unrelated to the importance of religion in Republican party politics after 1972. Christians, and particularly antinomian Protestants, have long believed that personal misfortune is an outcome of being at odds with the Lord, and that tracing the source of God's wrath to failures of virtue may be the only way to prevent misfortune in the future. General catastrophe, however, is a good thing, as it might be a harbinger of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming. It's a stretch, but if you understand this you will also understand why government not responding to AIDS and the Bush administration provoking the possibility of nuclear war in the Middle East would, in the end, be consistent with family values.

But I digress. The Palin nomination may be good for some women, particularly Republicans who have ambitions for higher office, but in the terms I am arguing, not good for most other women. It's hard to tell, and hard to care, because a Republican victory in November (which I think is unlikely) will be bad for the poor, and bad for those who are not poor -- including women -- who suffer from structural inequalities and have nowhere to go for help, given that there is now a pro-business majority on the Supreme Court. A United States without national health insurance will be bad for women; a prison system that is Hoovering up black men and warehousing them for generations can't be good for women; badly crippled and mentally traumatized veterans with no health insurance will be bad for women, particularly when they are women; schools that think they are making children more capable through rote learning and testing will be bad for girls who are becoming women; welfare policies that offer no route for improving yourself aside from getting married will be very bad for women; assuming that sex just works itself out after marriage, and that normal humans are content to wait for a committed monogamous relationship to have sex, has historically been bad for women; taking children away from mothers because they are lesbians is really bad for women; teenagers having babies they can't afford and don't know how to raise will be bad for girls and the women who are their mothers and grandmothers. And so on. Pick your issue: I can tell you why Republican policies are bad for most women. And Sarah Palin isn't going to change that.

I also think that the Republicans may get little effect from a move that is historic for them, since they have also come to the party too late. And it isn't just because Hillary Clinton ran a terrific campaign, and could have been President. It's that interest group politics, which flourished in the 1960's and began to break apart during the Ford and Carter administrations, are really over. They have been killed by the relative successes of 1960s social movements, and not sufficientIy sustained by the things the civil rights, gay rights and women's liberation movements failed to achieve. As a result, I don't think most people vote on sentiment or identity; I think they vote pragmatically, and attend to more than one identity when they do. I don't think there is a category empty of ideology and political content called "women" that a candidate can -- or cannot -- be good for. I don't think having "a woman" on the ticket is necessarily moving the cause of "women" ahead more generally, since women have moved towards a variety of forms of equality without a female chief executive or veep, even under conservative administrations. Note: in 1984, when Democrat Geraldine Ferrarro was chosen by Walter Mondale and the convention as the first woman Vice Presidential candidate, other women were in the mix -- Dianne Feinstein, the Mayor of San Francisco and Martha Layne Collins, the Governor of Kentucky. Since then, a quarter of a century ago, not only has a woman not been chosen or elected, but very few women have even been vetted for the position.

I think what is more important than whether the Palin nomination is good for women is that the Republican Party Platform, regardless of who is on the ticket, is not good for women. Women are more likely to be poor, homeless, uninsured, single parents, and caring for dependent relatives than men. As long as Republicans believe that they can campaign on "social issues" rather than "pocketbook issues" they can put the Virgin Mary on the ticket and "women," as well as "men," will vote Democrat in the fall.

Friday, August 29, 2008

What Would Eleanor Roosevelt Do? The Radical Ponders The State Of The Union

Last night, after a week of watching the Democratic Party proudly raise its liberal banner years after George H.W. Bush operatives tagged the Dukakis campaign with "the L word," I am happy to say that, whatever happens in this election, the spirits of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey once again walk the land. And in a black man's body, no less. The Democratic party is reclaiming its commitment to working people, to the frail among us, and to the rule of law.

I had many thoughts, but prominent among them was: "That I should live to see this day."

While some may not have felt Obama brought anything more specific to his acceptance speech than he has to any speech, I disagree. What use has it ever been to hear that a president will spend eight billion dollars on this problem, and three trillion on that? When has money been more critical to an historical outcome than a sense of mission? Obama committed to guaranteed health insurance; ending the war in Iraq; saving social security; quality public education; reforming the tax code to stop the flow of money to the wealthy. He committed to addressing the great national shame of foreclosure and poverty; to the future of military veterans who currently return from combat and are cut loose as quickly as possible to fend for themselves in confusion and pain.

I think the consequences of the war we never wanted will be particularly important for liberals to embrace in this election. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in economics to know that it is better for many wounded veterans' families if they die, rather than live: death at least brings several hundred thousand dollars in insurance and federal compensation payments. Life brings decades of medical bills that bankrupt the family. In fact, most people who have been plunged into poverty have done nothing to cause it. They have been robbed by deregulated markets, by refusal to enact national health care, by an illegal war and a prison system that has stolen our young and our money and poured it into contractors who line the pockets of politicians, by disastrous education policies that bleed money out of the public coffers to privatized schools and unfunded mandates that replace real learning with tests.

Can Obama turn things around, given the ruined state of our country? Is anything we do, as citizens of good will, going to be enough for him to succeed? I don't know. But let me remind you, dear reader, that when the United States began to commit to the fight against fascism in 1939, and then went to war two years later, this country was ruined in similar ways. But we did it anyway because we had ideas and the will to succeed.

Si, se puede.

You can argue with me on the fine points. You can remind me of the Democrats who have been collaborators in this disaster: the Clintons, for example, and everyone who voted for NAFTA, NCLB and the war. You can remind me of the Democratic policies that turned resentful (yes, resentful -- historians know he spoke the truth here) white voters enraged about desegregation and antipoverty programs over to the Republicans. But I still maintain this central truth: this disaster was planned and executed by a ruthless conservative establishment dedicated to the transfer of wealth from the many to the few - not just the Reagans, Bushes and Cheneys, but the William Kristols, the Pat Buchanans, the Milton Friedmans, the John Yoos, the Phyllis Schlafleys, the David Horowitzs, the Rupert Murdochs, the Rush Limbaughs, the Ann Coulters, the John Silbers. This is what they have done to us, and to our country: they stole our money, and spouting constitutional pieties all the way, they stole our constitution. Talking about freedom all the way, they stole our freedom and replaced it with fear, suspicion, intolerance and poverty.

And this is what made the most difference to me last night: Obama, and others, have finally said, straight out, what Congress and the press has been unwilling to say for years: "the Emperor has no clothes. None. The Emperor is stark, staring naked, and those of us who could afford to have turned away because the power of corruption in this country has been so awesome and overwhelming." But many people, for example every member of the military, their families, people wallowing in debt because financial fraud is now legal, and hundreds of thousands of people on the Gulf Coast still suffering from the impact of Hurricane Katrina three years later to the day couldn't turn away. They have had no place to go. And as southerners wait for another hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast, wait to see if their hard earned property will still be there next week, the same mean, broken government is in charge. The Bush administration let them drown once, and they will do it again, because three years later that city is no safer, the levees no taller, the working people no more able to help themselves than they ever were.

There's the Republican party in a nutshell, friends. You live and die, succeed or fail, alone. Forget it that the rich, or even the modestly well off like your Radical here, are never alone. They have financial advisors, tax accountants, trust funds, 401k managers, secretaries, domestic servants, a whole army out there fighting to keep gasoline under $5.00 a gallon. They have inheritances, private schools, several (seven? eight?) homes. And even those who don't expect to be independently wealthy have parents who write a check every year for the maximum annual gift that can be passed on from an estate without taxation. And yet all we hear from the Republicans is that if every American doesn't go it alone, the Union will fall.

Well, they have lied. And they will go on lying. But -- regardless of the details (or lack thereof) Obama and the Democratic party are telling the truth this time. Things are bad in America, and it doesn't require a return to Great Society policies (which, I might remind you, were enacted during one of the most dishonest periods in American foreign policy ever, and did not end poverty either) for us to be Democrats again and admit that no one -- no one -- goes it alone. To say loudly and clearly that the federal government has a special obligation to citizens who are alone. That is part of what a commitment to human rights and to freedom, at home and abroad, means.

I want to close by citing the ideological architecture of modern American liberalism, as it was articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his state of the union address on January 6, 1941. This has come to be known as the "Four Freedoms" speech, in which FDR spoke of the responsibilities of government at a dark time when the United States had not recovered from the Depression, and was about to plunge into a terrible war. As he reached the conclusion of this speech, Roosevelt said:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.

This wasn't very specific, was it? And yet a whole democratic world order, not to mention the ongoing achievement of civil rights for minorities, women, children, the poor and the queer in the United States, was built on it -- however imperfectly.

It's time. We need to act. And for those of you who are still ripped about Hillary Clinton not winning the nomination, ask yourself: what would Eleanor Roosevelt do? Then go do it.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Remembering Del Martin, 1921-2008

I would say that I am saddened to hear of the death of activist Del Martin, except that she was 87, had been ill for some time, and lived an extraordinary and accomplished life, so I find just thinking about her uplifting. Plaintiffs in the California marriage case, (Martin is on the left with life partner Phyllis Lyon, in the above photo taken in 1972), the couple was first in line to get married when that case was successfully concluded earlier this year. Like many queer people who add constantly to kin networks soldered together with love and political commitment, I don't think that Phyllis will be alone. Furthermore, I would say that since Del Martin is an excellent example of a woman who left no unfinished business, we might even want to pause for a celebration.

Now, just to be radically perverse, I will also maintain that there is always unfinished business in a life like Del Martin's. Phyllis and Del were organizers, and an organizer's work is never complete. Martin and Lyon were on the front lines of post-war anti-homophobic activism, an activism that laid the foundation for homosexuals to enter the social and political mainstream and also -- for those of us who don't care much for the mainstream -- to stand on the shoulders of that movement to craft a radical queer politics as well. They were co-founders of Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, a lesbian homophile organization that worked with religious and mental health profesisonals to battle legal, social and economic discrimination against lesbians, and in 1960, Del became one of the editors of The Ladder, a newsletter that connected usually closeted lesbians across the United States and internationally in a support and information network. In 1972, the energetic pair were among the founders of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club in San Francisco. The Toklas Club not only brought gays and lesbians into local politics, it created a model for formal political participation by gays and lesbians on the "interest group" model that dominated Democratic liberal politics at the time.

What people talk less about is Martin's significance as a feminist: in 1963, the couple joined the National Organization for Women, becoming the first lesbians to publicly identify with the organization. In 1981, Martin published a pathbreaking book, Battered Wives, that addressed questions of domestic violence that were beginning to provide a central focus for political feminism. Analyses by Martin and other feminists like Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon would provide a literature for cultural feminist activisms that would coalesce and become visible in the 1980's in anti-pornography, anti-rape and battered women's shelter movements.

Martin's life work is too extensive to review here. But you can read about in Marcia M. Gallo's excellent history of DOB, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. Martin saw GLBT rights as part of a larger human rights movement, something that is worth remembering as we move forward into what will almost assuredly be a new chapter in American political history.

Crossposted at Cliopatria

Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Joe Biden?

Beats me, except for voters like Mother of the Radical (MOTheR), who is a formerly Hillary-supporting Pennsylvania voter and thinks Joe Biden is the bee's knees. The comb over doesn't seem to bother her at all.

But Delaware? Who needs Delaware in a general election? Wait! I know! Except for an accident of colonialism and the fact that it is owned by Dupont, Delaware is actually a county in Pennsylvania. Don't believe it that Obama is eschewing the old "state strategy" by choosing a senator from little, insignificant Delaware as his vice president: the campaign is hoping that Joe will bring in the very important swing state of Pennsylvania (where, by the way, black politicians are not overly popular and gregarious, boot-straps white guys are.)

Of course, I didn't like any of the people on the finals list, except perhaps Evan Bayh. And I was a little afraid of the Governor of Virginia. Given this, maybe Joe will be OK. And his wife is hot. The Michelle-Jill wife ticket is one I can totally get behind.

So what do we think of Joe? Here are some highlights:

On abortion: not so good. Voted for the so-called "partial birth" ban; claims to believe life begins at conception (which is a stance that was invented so that people could fudge their position on abortion and hope Christians wouldn't notice); voted against maintaining the abortion ban on military bases; consistently voted for federal funding for contraception; claims to support Roe strongly, but has voted for a great many laws that have greatly restricted who actually has access to abortion.

Conclusion: Joe is pro-choice, but wants to placate the pro-life crowd (a group of people who are, I think, not that stupid) and is not willing to stand up for a universal right to choose.

On civil rights: voted against court-ordered bussing to desegregate schools; believes gays should be allowed to serve in the military and have civil unions. Believes that gay marriage is probably "inevitable", but that "government should not be able to dictate to religions the definition of marriage" (as if marriage were a religious rather than a political institution); voted for the Defense of Marriage Act which makes it ilegal for the federal government to recognize gay marriages enacted legally by states (because he knows marriage is a political act --duh.)

Conclusion: probably not homophobic, but caters to the homophobic on Sundays and holidays. Has gay friends.

On education: Believes that his vote for No Child Left Behind was an error (good thing his own children didn't go to public school!); doesn't think segregated schools are an issue as long as racial separation isn't enforced by law; voted no on school vouchers in DC, an unsuccessful effort to prevent draining public money into private education corporations who now educate half of the children in the District of Columbia; voted in favor of funds for abstinence education -- $75 million dollars worth -- that was under the Clinton administration!-- as well as for funds to provide information about contraception as part of a comprehensive sex ed package.

Conclusion: not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to education, but has many bases covered. Doesn't quite get it that most minority and poor kids get screwed because middle class and wealthy people of all colors don't have to go to school with them.

In case this leaves you feeling lukewarm to cold on Joe, here's the bright side. Joe received an "F" from the National Rifle Association; a 16% rating from the Christian Coalition; a 0% rating from the National Right to Life Committee (but only a 36% rating from NARAL-ProChoice America); 100% from the NAACP (but only a 78% from those centrist queers at the Human Rights Campaign and a dismal 60% from the American Civil LIberties Union). The United States Chamber of Commerce gave him an anti-business 32%; and the AFL-CIO a 100%, for his pro-union stances.

Oh and the other bright side -- Did I mention that the wife ticket is really hot?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bye-Bye, Mom and Dad; or, Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out

These are the days when academics begin to float back to campus to get ready for the onslaught. If school didn't start this week, it starts next week. You can feel the energy start to rev up. People just beginning new jobs seem to be incredibly excited, and I admit that as I hit my 45th year of beginning school, I am too. I ran into (Not So) New President yesterday, and he seemed to be practically levitating, so excited was he about the arrival of the new class at Zenith and the return of the upperclass-people (at Zenith we do not gender our students against their will, thank you very much.)

Those of us who have come to the office to get ready for the boots to hit the ground next week meet each other as we cross campus on our way to the library, to pick up departmental mail, to get sandwiches since the campus center isn't open yet. At Zenith, hornets buzz around sluggishly at ground level, rising only to dive bomb our Diet Cokes as we cluster in groups of three or four on late-summer lawns soon to be colonized by students. Yesterday several of us were reminiscing about being dropped off at college. The big topic was: "How did you get them to leave?" -- them, of course, being parents. Not everyone, of course, had this problem. Parents used to the boarding school routine knew what other parents did not: that it was only a precious nine weeks to Thanksgiving; they literally dropped their offspring on the curb with a stereo, a typewriter and a duffel bag, and gunned it out of there. Several of my friends who came East (or went West) to school remember just being put on a plane with a couple suitcases. My parents, however, made the ritual drive to Oligarch. When it looked like my mother was about to start ironing my socks in a strategic ploy to not return home without me, my father said brightly, "I could really use an ice cream!" and spirited everyone onto the street. After that, wrapping Mom in duct tape and putting her in the trunk was a cinch. And I was free! Good old Dad.

It's more difficult to get rid of parents in a timely way now. Administrators in charge of this crucial life transition have responded to parental hovering by creating formal, structured activities for the (soon to be) bereft grown-ups so that there can be an equally formal transition to the moment they are asked by other grown-ups, firmly but politely, to leave. Now, please. This means that being dropped off at college is now at least a two-day event, if not longer, where the moment between meeting your roommates and one of them saying happily, "Who wants to get high?" has been prolonged indefinitely. And it appears that the conservatives are right: masculinity has been eroded. Whereas we used to rely on those fathers with fabulous boundaries to snip the old umbilical, they too are organizing the tee shirt drawer and claiming that there seems to be something wrong with the fan belt that requires another night at Ye Olde College Inne.

But it has gotten worse. I now know, because of this morning's New York Times, that some parents never leave at all. Fortunately, the real estate industry -- those great, great folks who also brought you the sub-prime mortgage with zero down -- has stepped in to deal with that pesky problem of parents tenting in front of their childrens' dormitories. In Following the Kids to College Louise Tuteleian tells us about Jim and M.J. Berrian of Westport, CT. Jim and M.J. exemplify a new phenomenon whereby parents are "following their kids to college. From South Bend, Ind., to Oxford, Miss., from Hanover, N.H., to Knoxville, Tenn., they are buying second homes for themselves near campuses where their children are enrolled." For many of these special people, it is because their children are athletes: having never missed a single game of Trixie's field hockey or Chipper's football season, they aren't going to let something foolish like geography get in the way. No sirree, Bob. For example:

Paula Olsiewski and John Healey of New York City had already played musical hotel rooms in South Bend when their older daughter, Georgia, was at Notre Dame. By the time her sister Vivian, 19, decided to go there, they didn’t want to be frustrated again."

"I said to my husband, 'Let’s just buy a place out there,' Ms. Olsiewski, a program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, recalled."

What a good idea Paula! And do you know there is now a name for you? First we had "helicopter parents" (why? 'cause they hover!) and now we have "boomerang parents" -- that's right, those parents who leave their kids at college only to come back again. And again. And again.

Myself, I would call them "kangaroo parents." Except even Mrs. Kangaroo has to get it that someday Junior must leave the pouch. Experts warn that students and their parents will have to set very careful boundaries when Mom and Dad launch their second, so much more fulfilling, college experience (Really? Why?). One young person quoted in the article says that initially she gave her parents a lecture about making their own friends, but soon found herself coming over to do her laundry when she knew her Mom would be there so they could hang out (Perfect! This way the student can ease up about making her own friends, which can be stressful and a huge time-waster).

Helen E. Johnson, a "parental relations" consultant employed by colleges and universities to manage this problem, and the author of Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years, warns "that parents should make sure they’re buying a [second] home for the right reasons." (Which would be......?) This would involve answering the following questions: “Would I like to be in this town even if my child wasn’t here?” and “Does this have more to do with my need than theirs?” (Answers: no, yes. Why pay for therapy when you can read Tenured Radical?) In conclusion, Johnson warns such parents, “You might be making your child more fragile, not less.”

I mean really, what is wrong with people? We in higher ed have seen a number of such changes over the years, each more unbelievable than the last. We know students who go home every weekend. We know college students who send their papers home so that their parents can edit them (much better than going to see your professor); students whose parents walk into advising sessions with them and have to be asked to leave; students who interrupt advising to call Mommy or Daddy on the cell phone to ask whether they should take this course or that course; and parents whose response to an ordinary academic or social problem is to pick up the phone and call a professor, a dean, an administrator and demand an explanation. One parent called me not so long ago to tell me he wanted his daughter to come to my office for several hours every day so that I could supervise her "homework."

I could go on -- so could you, dear reader, I am sure, if you are a college professor from a certain kind of institution. But I won't: why be such a grump at the coolest time of the year? Let's just say, for the 44th year, I am completely excited about the start of school, and I can't wait for the parents to go away so my students and I can get down to the business of teaching and learning -- not to mention growing up.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dream A Little Dream Of Me: Six Easy Steps to Writing a Great Job Letter

Last year I was in conversation with a fine scholar and a caring mentor from an excellent northeastern university. Since I have no graduate students, I expressed surprise -- given how much more emphasis is being placed on readying candidates for a tight market at institutions like hers -- that the quality of job letters in a recent search was so uneven. She rolled her eyes. "If my students would only show me the letters they write," she said. "The problem is they tend only to show their job letters to each other, and they repeat each other's mistakes."

So this is where we need to start, as you ready yourself for the job season by drafting the letter you will use as a template for your job applications. Don't write your letters in isolation, and don't get advice from other people who don't have jobs yet. The letter is what introduces you to search committee members: not your recommendations, not your vita, not your writing sample, not your teaching portfolio. And while writing a great letter won't get you the job, it needs to perform a single function well which is to get you a preliminary interview.

The letter should, in other words, say to a search committee:

"I'm fabulous. I am your fantasy hire. Dream about me"

Pay attention to the following basic principles, and you will have a good chance of writing the letter that makes you some committee's Dream Baby. Or at least, one of ten or twelve Dream Babies who will get preliminary interviews.

A good opening paragraph delivers complete and relevant information. It should answer the followng questions: What job are you applying for and where did you read about it? (Yes, there may be more than one search in the department.) In one sentence, how do you describe yourself as a scholar and what are your major and minor fields? (It's best to do that in some way that makes an immediate and logical connection to the job that is advertised and the department you are applying to, don't you think?) Then you need a sentence that describes where you are in your career. (When do you expect to/did you defend? Where are you teaching now, and on what basis? Do not tell the committee that you just lost your job; your referees will handle this for you. And do not offer any explanation for why you are leaving a tenure-track job after two years. It is none of anyone's business at this, or any other, stage.)

Then you need one sentence that describes the writing sample you have sent, and that relates it to the topic of your dissertation/manuscript. This should be written in such a way as to cause the reader to think: "Ooh! How interesting!" as opposed to, say, "How early is it okay to eat lunch?" And please note: if you have not yet defended it is a "dissertation;" if you have defended it is "my book manuscript." And if, like many recent degree holders, you are silently twittering, "I have such trouble thinking of it as a book!" please remain silent on this point throughout the process. In my fields, history and American Studies, graduate students write dissertations; people with Ph.D.s write books. People who get hired are people who can project the image, at least, that they are people who view publication of a book in the next three to six years as realistic.

The penultimate sentence should state what is included in the application that you have sent, and a final sentence that says who the committee should expect to receive letters from and which of these people is actually your current/former dissertation director. Remember, you have no parents. You are directly descended from your graduate advisor. And you are helping the search committee cultivate a lovely fantasy about -- you!!! "A Smartypants Breathtaking student!" they want to be able to say to each other, with little stars flying out of the corners of their eyes, as if Professor Breathtaking herself will be coming to the department in your body.

But to return to a more serious tone: you want to be clear about who you are and what you do. Every sentence needs to contain basic and relevant information that will cause the committee to proceed with interest in and great openness to your candidacy. You do not want committee members to keep reading after a sigh of exasperation that they are going to have to tease the information they need out of the rest of the application (some people are too lazy to do this. Sorry, but it's true.) You can certainly recapture interest, but why come from behind when you could start by throwing the long ball and scoring first? Which is all to say, writing a letter is no different from writing anything else: the opening paragraph should contain the structure and information your reader needs to understand you as you mean to be understood.

That you are fabulous.

The next two paragraphs should describe the argument of your current major work; say why it adds to the literature; and characterize the research you have done. One paragraph for the argument and its significance to the field; one paragraph for your sources and methods. This is the part of the letter that can be reproduced verbatim for any job, because this is the one thing about you that won't change. In paragraph two, you will want an opening sentence that tells me this: if the archive, data, literary tradition has been written about a lot, why are you going back to it? If, however, your research is quite new, emphasize this. Remember, particularly at small colleges, or in small or mixed discipline (say "humanities") departments at large universities, there will be people on the search committee who aren't in your field or perhaps even in your discipline, or may -- I am sorry to say -- not be very active scholars: it doesn't hurt to draw everyone a map. And don't forget to add a closing sentence that lets the reader know what has already been published from this research and where; or what is under review.

The fourth paragraph should characterize your teaching experience, and why it, and your scholarship, makes you the person they should hire for this job. Don't make the committee figure this out on its own; better yet, don't force the person on the committee who is enthusiastic about your scholarship and field have to make the case to his co-committee members that you should have made to all of them about why they should pursue your application. This paragraph is the place to say you have actually taught the Victorian Lit survey, or to say that you haven't, but you have included a syllabus that you have thought up for the occasion (this, my friends, is where the teaching portfolio can do you some good; and if you don't have a teaching portfolio, include this syllabus in your application anyway.) This is the place to say that you offer something special: that although a microbiologist, you have taught sections of Freshman Comp for the last three years and you would love the opportunity to teach young science majors at a small liberal arts college how to write; that although a historian, you have a master's degree in anthropology, and would love to teach a course in ethnohistory, or oral history methodologies.

Eliminate jargon. This is so important I wish to repeat it.

Eliminate jargon. By this, I do not mean eliminating language that is part of being a specialist, although you might take the trouble to prune it a bit so that you can demonstrate your ability to make your work accessible to the vast number of non-specialists you will work with and teach. Nor do I mean shelving the theoretical perspective, and its attendant language, that places your work in its field. But I do mean that you have to make yourself clear, and it is a sign of scholarly immaturity to not be able to express ideas in a way that most other people with Ph.D.'s will understand. Confusing people, and creating a big mystery about what your work really is, is not fabulous. If you are in a marginal field, and you use jargony language, you reinforce ignorant prejudices about the unimportance of your specialty to the larger field rather than persuading the committee that universalist paradigms, to paraphrase David Liu, need to speak to minority knowledges, and vice versa. If you are in a field that is central to the discipline, don't make that field unrecognizable to those who know it well by putting it in a fancy party dress: say clearly why your work adds to a powerful and interesting set of questions that are in circulation. Jargon doesn't make you sound smart, and it can have the opposite effect of making you seem inaccessible and unaware of how you are perceived by others, the last thing one would choose in a teacher or a colleague.

Know your audience. Before you re-draft your basic job letter, go to the website for that department and see who works there and what they teach. This should guide your choices about what you emphasize as your minor teaching fields, or a specialty course you could offer. Extra points for calling attention to the fact that you have done this homework, e.g. "An intensive seminar I would like teach on gay liberation might ideally be positioned as an upper level elective for students who have taken the Theory of Social Movements course already offered by the department." This not only marks you as a person who is aware of others (see above), but as a person who takes initiative as part of a team.

Proofread your letter. Let it sit on your desk overnight. Then have someone else proofread it. You also need to eliminate basic mistakes like: putting the wrong name in the salutation (I have seen, bizarrely, a colleague from another institution being greeted; and I have seen "Dear Professor Zenith.") If no one is named as the chair, "To the committee" is graceful (although I do not care for the laborious and outdated, "To whom it may concern"); and if someone is named, "Dear Professor Radical" will do (not "Dr. Radical"--I'm not a real doctor.) And for a variety of reasons, in this day and age I think it is wise to avoid gender completely in the salutation.

And for God's sake, proof that first paragraph! It shouldn't say you are applying to Zenith when you are actually applying to Potemkin; it shouldn't say you are applying for a job in twentieth century United States history when the job description said "post-1945 United States."

To sum up: Let the letter represent you in all your fabulousness. It is true that brilliant people write bad job letters, and people who write bad letters get jobs (a friend of mine once hired someone who sent a job letter that was not only confusing, but written on a piece of theme paper. This former job candidate -- who turned out to be Fabulous -- is also now Very Famous.) But although you can get through to the next stage with a job letter that doesn't represent you well, why leave it up to chance?

Next week: For the scholar with everything, why ask for more? Applying for a job when you already have one, and -- for the search committee -- how to evaluate a candidate pool that contains scholars with different levels of experience.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Senior Scholars, This Is Your Conscience Speaking

Hey you.

Yeah, I'm talkin' to you. No, don't turn around, there isn't anybody else here. I'm talkin' to you -- you, with the manuscript sitting on your desk that you haven't read yet. The one that you agreed to read -- yeah, you agreed, don't pretend you didn't. Hey! Look at me! Was it a month ago? Two months? THREE?

You bastard. And it's still sitting there? You haven't even taken off the rubber band yet? And school starts in a couple weeks? You make me sick.

OK, I want you to think about something. I want you to think about your first book, and how happy you were when you sent it off to the press. I want you to remember that your editor told you s/he would get back to you in six weeks, and by the time it got to be two months, you were like, "Geez, what do I do?" You were like, "Hey, I set aside August and September for final revisions, so what's up with this?" And finally after three or four months, one of your colleagues told you it was ok to call, they wouldn't reject your book just because you called. And maybe -- just maybe -- you really needed that book contract for your tenure case. Remember that? I thought you did, wise guy. And some %#$&*@ had your manuscript sitting on a desk kinda like yours the whole time. Or was using it for a doorstop, or some damn thing.

So read the effing manuscript, ok? Write some helpful comments if you can pull your head out of whatever pathetic part of your body you have it stuffed in. And don't forget to send your social security number so the press can cut the check, or send you twice the amount in books.

Thank you. You skunk.

Friday, August 08, 2008

A Sister Radical Crosses Over

Back in the early 1980's a bunch of young feminists, for different reasons, decided to attend graduate school in history at New York University. One of them was me; another was Adina Back, a public historian who later worked at Brooklyn College, among other places, and who also became the mother of two sons. Adina died Wednesday, August 6, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. We will all miss her: she had a wonderful smile, was smart, and was a sweet and generous human being. She was 50. Click here to view a brief online obituary in the New York Times.

You can read a short article that Adina, who worked on the history of schools in New York, wrote about media coverage of Brown v. Board of Education for the Radical History Review (v. 90, 2004), where she was a member of the editorial collective, here.

Internet Kudo of The Week: Canada Speaks

Knock me out with a wooden spoon, but a quick check to the sitemeter this morning elicited the information that your favorite Radical has been noted on a list of Top Academic Blogs by, a Canadian on-line magazine that describes itself as "Canada's site celebrating women over 40." The Radical is joined in the top three by two of her own favorite bloggers, Margaret Soltan of University Diaries; and her second favorite dean, Dean Dad, at Confessions of a Community College Dean(as regular readers know, my favorite dean is my very own dean.) But this is excellent company indeed, particularly for a historian, whose lack of talent for punctuation is a continual shame to her, and makes her reluctant to even send email to members of English departments, much less be put in the same category as Margaret Soltan's alter-blogging-ego, the Scathing Online Schoolmarm.

This is particularly welcome news since -- to unveil a personal factoid that has gone unrevealed on the internet up to this very moment -- the Radical is, in fact, half Canadian, and the daughter of a naturalized citizen who still prefers to celebrate Dominion Day over Independence Day.

I am, therefore, especially honored by this recognition from My People.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tell Me What You Want -- What You Really, Really, Want: Writing and Placing the Job Advertisement

I want to begin with some bad news: if you are a search chair, and your ad has not already been placed, you may be up Hiring Creek right now, because important deadlines in many fields have passed. Just saying. And yes, one of your responsibilities as search chair is (was) to know when those deadlines are (were.) An experienced department chair will, of course, remind you of deadlines and help you meet them by facilitating the process I describe below, but as we all know, one of the joys of a successful tenure case can be the unhappy surprise of being informed you are the next chair, so s/he may not be experienced enough to have known this either. That said, let's get down to brass tacks. How do you write and place an ad?

1. Write the ad for the scholar your department has agreed it wants to hire. This means being as clear about rank and field as you can be. If you are only willing to consider people who do not have any time on a tenure clock anywhere, the phrase you want is "beginning assistant professor;" if you are willing to consider experienced but untenured folk, just say "assistant professor;" if you are willing to consider experienced people, but only those who would not be eligible for tenure immediately, indicate how many years seniority you are willing to consider: "assistant professor who has not progressed beyond the first contract." Remember, there will be people out there who, through no fault of their own, have not gotten tenure and must apply for assistant level jobs; there are others, again through no fault of their own, who have held a number of visiting positions and accumulated a significant portfolio. These people, frankly, have been through enough, and you shouldn't encourage them to apply if what you want is someone who will complete a lengthy probationary period by which they reassure their colleagues of their qualifications for tenure (yes, I'm talking to you, liberal arts colleges.) And one thing you must not do is suggest in the ad -- if it is a terminal appointment -- that it might be converted into a tenure-track line. That's the kind of news that would surely be welcome at a later date for the lucky winner, but it is false advertising to say that a terminal contract is anything other than a terminal contract.

And as to field, take a good look around your department, see who you have, and whose strengths you would not duplicate in a new hire. Now the wise applicant will do that too, but given the state of the market, candidates should not be expected to guess whether you do -- or do not -- want a second scholar who specializes in the Civil War. Your ad should have at least one line that indicates exclusions or preferences, if they exist. For example:

"Blinker College invites applications for a beginning, tenure-track position in twentieth century Russian history; scholars whose work focuses on gender and ethnic minorities during the Soviet period are particularly encouraged to apply." This is the kind of ad I like to see, because it demonstrates not just that there has been a thorough discussion about what kind of Soviet historian is desired, but it also demonstrates how such a person might meet other needs in the department. But check this one out:

"Aardvark University invites applications for a position in Twentieth Century United States history, specialty open." This is the kind of ad that can -- in some circumstances, although not all -- be careless, if not borderline unethical. Now, if Aardvark has a big department, if it is an R-1 university, if it is a senior appointment, I would believe them that they are open to anyone. There is enough turnover in such departments at higher levels, enough need for graduate supervision in the twentieth century United States, and enough demand for big surveys, that what they want is to hire someone who is going to win the Bancroft six or seven years down the line, and duplication isn't an issue. If it is a small department in a big university (State Tech) where there will only be one person covering the field, fine. But if it is a smaller school that is more like a SLAC than an R-1, but with a large history department that employs several Americanists, and that doesn't hire frequently, this isn't a good ad! In such a case, I would urge the department to specify a field it does not currently have covered with a specialist. Don't encourage applications (and false hopes) from scholars who will be taken off the table because of duplication in field.

Finally, the department and the search committee should not be in fundamental disagreement about what they are, or are not, open to. It is an inappropriate compromise to put fields in play that some people in the department will actively oppose during the hiring process, and unethical to put candidates in play who will be ammunition in an internal struggle. Make your compromises now, and keep your word about the agreement you have struck internally.

Conclusion: do not encourage applicants to put the time, effort, expense and emotional capital into an application to your school if, for some reason out of their control, they haven't got a fair chance of being considered for the job.

2. Be clear about what the application should look like. Do not ask for more materials than you will legitimately consider, and don't intimate that there is a minimum but you might want more. It is convention in history to ask for a letter of application, curriculum vitae and three letters of reference. I wouldn't ask for "at least x letters" as some search chairs do, because it suggests that it would be better to have more than x, and sets candidates scrambling unnecessarily to add to a dossier they thought was already complete. It is convention to ask for a writing sample: for a tenure-track job, set your limit at 40 pages because if you ask for less, grad students have to actually cut a dissertation chapter or article to meet an utterly arbitrary standard (I knew some last year who were actually engaged in this process, when it had no other purpose intellectually, and it served no other function but to impede the completion of a dissertation. And save the search committee time in their reading.)

Conclusion: be considerate of the candidates, many of whom are struggling to apply for jobs and finish dissertations simultaneously; many of them will also be teaching full or part time. Ask for what you really need to evaluate their candidacies, with an eye toward what they can give you readily and what they will be asked for by others.

3. Teaching portfolios are useless, particularly at the preliminary stage, unless you actually care more about a commitment to teaching than a commitment to active scholarship. Don't ask for them. If the Radical were the Drag King of the World, one of the things she would do is outlaw teaching portfolios. I want to say this with the caveat that I probably disagree with many of my Zenith colleagues, and friends at other institutions, in this matter. But teaching portfolios take a huge amount of time to prepare, they are almost exact replicas of each other, and they only tell me what the candidate thinks (often hypothetically) about teaching -- not whether s/he can teach well.

I don't believe any of us can evaluate our own teaching, and to ask a novice teacher to do so is particularly unkind. In my view, it takes pedagogy lightly to suggest that it can be mastered in the course of a few teaching assistantships and one or two independently taught seminars. I don't want copies of teaching evaluations (wouldn't any candidate pull out the ones they considered unfair or prejudicial?); I don't want to hear about how a graduate student centers Freirian methods (as if s/he just discovered this empowering theory, and our students were Brazilian peasants emerging from two centuries of illiteracy); and I don't want to know how your heart leaped when you entered your first classroom (ee-yew.) But I will take seriously what a member of the faculty, in a letter of reference, has said about a teaching observation as we are picking semi-finalists. I will also take seriously the record of experience, as it is listed on the cv.

Conclusion: Unless teaching skills are virtually the only requirement of the job, and scholarly accomplishments are a distinctly minor factor in the hiring and eventual tenure process, serious evidence about teaching should be provided by candidates at the semi-finalist stage, in the form of interviews and draft syllabi. Teaching portfolios consume time and money that people who do not have jobs don't have. And when evidence about teaching is solicited, it shouldn't be part of a grab-bag "portfolio" that relies on ill-defined terms like "excellence" since different teachers teach well differently. Evidence about teaching should make the candidates comparable to each other. This excludes student evaluations entirely, since they are not comparable instruments across institutions, and more important, the committee has no sense of the institutional context within which they were generated, or who the students are. Any course the successful candidate would be required to teach, and will be asked about in an interview and subsequent requests for materials, should be named in the ad.

4. The deadline for applications should represent a realistic date that both allows applicants to prepare the materials you are asking for, and allows you to evaluate their applications and generate a preliminary interview list in a thoughtful way. No application that took a day to prepare should be read in twenty minutes. No job applicant should be asked to spend money far in advance to attend a convention where s/he might not be interviewed; conversely, no job applicant who is not already a tenured professor making a good salary should be ask to spend $1000.00 at the last minute for a plane ticket and a hotel room that could have been acquired at half the price a month in advance. If you are running late, let your semi-finalists know that you are willing to interview them by phone or, if they live nearby, that the committee can meet them briefly on campus. Graduate students will make deadlines, within reason, whenever you set them -- why not set a deadline of November 1 and generate your interview list by Thanksgiving so that you are not calling candidates on Christmas eve or New Year's day?

Conclusion: treat job candidates as if their time, money, peace of mind and energy were valuable too.

5. Advertise everywhere your budget allows, and particularly on the internet, which is heavily used by younger scholars. This means definitely advertise in the job listing for your professional association, in any newsletter or e-newsletter connected to that association, and in any publication or e-publication produced by scholars in subfields that are named in the ad as areas of interest. I like H-Net, and Inside Higher Ed gives you listings by state, which is helpful for couples who are on the market. The ad should be posted on the university web page, and preferably, your department web page. You should distribute it to colleagues elsewhere who might know potential candidates, and as search chair, you should be willing to discuss the position briefly with any candidate who is unsure of whether s/he would be taken seriously as an applicant for reasons of field, (in)experience, or status of degree. In other words, is the committee willing to recommend someone who works on masculinity for a joint appointment in women's studies? A candidate who already has a book out and might wish to come up for early tenure? An American Studies Ph.D. for a history job? A person who won't defend in the spring, but could realistically take an October degree? These are fair questions to want an answer to, in my opinion.

Finally -- and here I reflect many conversations I have had with colleagues and graduate students since this post but -- keep an eye on the appropriate wiki in your field. I am on record as disliking wikis, as the information they disseminate tends to be random, inaccurate and sometimes mean-spirited. But they are a fact of life now, and they have become a fact of life because we search chairs do not give candidates full, accurate -- or sometimes even honest -- information. Rather than deploring their existence, I have decided to participate in them. The responsible search chair, in my view, will keep an eye on wikis and make sure that the ongoing search report generated by applicants is correct. If certain kinds of questions keep coming up, the way to be fair to all candidates prior is to volunteer new and accurate information to the wiki.

My last comment is that search chairs need to remember that they are advertising for candidates, and you are not advertising yourself: your institutional and departmental web page, and the reputations of your colleagues are the primary advertisement for your institution, and it is inappropriate to include sentences that characterize values -- even good ones, such as the importance of colleagueship -- as criteria a candidate must speak to in a two page letter. There is one big exception to this, in my view, and this will probably draw howls of protest. It is not altogether clear whether it is ethical for private, religious institutions to give preference to candidates who represent a set of religious or ideological beliefs, but at present it seems to be legal, and search chairs have an obligation to put that in the ad. "Christ on a Cross University expects all employees to meet its standards of moral behavior" may not be a value to the taste of some of us, but it is honest if, for example sexual preference, divorce or union activism would be actually be an issue that would exclude some candidates from being employed by your institution.

Next week: Job Seekers, What Does A Good Letter of Application Look Like?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Playing the Race Card

By sheer luck, two things coincided last week: I began reading Kevin Kruse's wonderful book, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2005) and I saw an unusually acerbic exchange between journalists David Brooks and Mark Shields about the McCain campaign's charge that Barack Obama had "played the race card." Obama, as we all know, said in a speech that John McCain and his people are trying to whip up fear about his candidacy because he doesn't look like the presidents featured on our currency (although given the state of our economy, I think that Obama's first presidential act should be to put a picture of George W. Bush on every denomination.)

Now, as someone who is far more progressive than Obama on many issues, including race I suspect, this nevertheless won him my sympathy, and I raced to my computer to make my first campaign donation to --as he is now called-- "the presumptive Democratic nominee."

I too have been accused of "playing the race card," more than once, and in settings various, including comments on this blog. What people mean, as I understand it, is that at moments when I have believed it was crucial to talk about racism, particularly in a situation where damage was being done, I have been accused of introducing, not naming, "race" as an issue. This has become a standard tactic of the contemporary conservative repertoire, whether in the political sphere, the blogosphere, the university, or any other setting where power sharing, rights or equality might be at issue. The outcome that is intended is that I -- and others engaged in similar work -- should be made to feel embarassed, and that I should shut up or recant so that the conversation can go on. What it then means is that we cannot speak about racist behavior as anything but an accident or a misunderstanding, when in fact we need to talk about whether institutional racism (at the very least) is at work, and what we might do to correct the problem so that we can proceed in a fair way.

But of course, as in all things bloggable, "the race card" is more complex and devious than my little life can illustrate. It is a phrase that came to national attention, we should recall, in 1995 when prosecutor Christopher Darden accused defense attorney Johnny Cochran of having introduced -- not pointed out, mind you, but introduced -- race and white racism as a possible factor in the O.J. Simpson trial. That both men were black was confusing to many observers, but shouldn't be. Rather, as Linda Williams points out in her book Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson (Princeton University Press, 2001) the use of this phrase is deliberately intended to rescript legal or political narratives as melodrama. In other words, when one accuses one's opponent of "playing the race card" one deliberately diverts attention from the cultural, political and social facts of the history of race in America by claining that such things are -- well, only history. And it articulates racial discourse itself as merely a highly subjective, emotional state of mind, rather than a multi-faceted epistemology that Americans bring to their contemporary social, economic and political encounters because of their collective history.

Linguistically, and socially, the phrase plays another function as well. Some words are constricted by their past, and yet the ideas they express have not fallen out of use: hence, they require euphemisms. Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, for example, has argued in a book and several articles that there are only very selective, usually private and contextual, uses of the word Nigger that are not readily perceived as doing harm to social and economic relationships in the contemporary United States. So instead, polite company has chosen the euphemism "the n-word" which allows one to both reference and disavow the concept that this volatile word calls up. Similarly, I think it has always been unequivically rude to call a person -- as opposed to an act -- racist, even during Jim Crow. Hence, a euphemism was called for that not only stood in for the word "racist," but that could be used to describe anti-racist activists as well. Thus, when someone has "played the race card" it means that we are all acknowledging that race is in play -- the point of conflict is whether that has corrupted the conversation beyond repair (the position of the McCain camp and its surrogates), or whether by talking about race we are describing the complexity of political culture in the twenty-first century United States, as it is embedded in a long and well-documented history of attempts to limit or suppress black political participation (my position.) And despite the significance of Obama's candidacy, that history is not over.

This is where we, the people, may be fortunate in the particular personality traits that Barack Obama brings to the table as a presidential candidate. Often there is no way to respond to melodrama but -- well, melodramatically. And Obama doesn't do that. He doesn't have a melodramatic bone in his body. He seems capable of taking almost endless abuse without losing his temper; of responding to nonsense politely, and then walking away. Which returns the Obama narrative to its origins as a story about heroism, not suffering (hat tip).

What is even more interesting to me is that Obama may actually be doing something he claims to care about: changing political culture in the United States. Because of his insistence on a heroic narrative, rather than a melodramatic one, members of what is now called the MSM (main-stream media) seem to be following along and not allowing such events to turn into festering cultural sores that divert us from critical national issues. For example, in a piece that is unusually insightful for a centrist news weekly, Andrew Romano of Newsweek has called the McCain campaign's attempt to slur Obama for talking about (his own) race Playing the 'playing the race card' card, and exposed this moment as campaign strategy intended to obfuscate the issues, not political information. Furthermore, in response to David Brooks' comment on the Lehrer News Hour that "talking about race in this context [of a political campaign], I think, is the worst thing," Mark Shields snapped back, "the charge yesterday that Obama had introduced and played the race card was so over-the-top by the McCain campaign. I mean, it was truly -- it boggled the mind. And it went beyond any concept of rationality." As Shields had pointed out earlier, "Now, did he raise the race issue? The race issue is with him every day of his life. When you see his picture, the race issue is there."

Which brings me back to Kevin Kruse. As Kruse argues, the New Right's claim that their movement and ideology are "color blind" is grounded in the history of white racism. He argues persuasively that the roots of this claim are in the alternative forms of segregation whites constructed when Jim Crow was struck down by the courts and civil rights activists and urban progressives, for similar and different reasons, sought to enforce the law. By the 1970's, when massive resistance to desegregation had failed, southern whites used their economic mobility to re-segregate themselves in the suburbs. Kruse points to what I think is an interesting paradox -- that the structural successes of the civil rights movement forced whites to displace their desire for racial separation onto new social and spacial formations where racism became "invisible" because it was not written into the law. As he also argues, the strand of conservative ideology and political discourse that culminated in the Reagan Revolution was developed in a suburban landscape whose defining halllmark was the absence, except as low wage workers, of people of color. "Inside such a homogenous setting," Kruse writes, "it is perhaps easy to understand how some have accepted without question the claims of conservative activists that their movement was -- and still in -- 'color blind' and unassociated with class politics. Indeed, in the suburbs, with no other colors in sight and no other classes in contention, such claims seem plausible. How could modern conservatism be shaped by forces that weren't there?"

Kruse -- who, by the way, although he is tenured at Princeton, lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, a classic case of a city abandoned by whites when faced with demands for black economic equality (good on you, Kevin) -- points us to how someone like David Brooks, could say that while he was "fine with Obama's "grand speech" on race in Philadelphia, and that he does not think that either candidate can talk about race or racism in any other than a "demeaning" or "dirty way."

Perhaps. But the rest of us can, and I think it will be a central role for historians to play in this campaign to do so. And while you are doing your research take some time to go here and do what I did: play the race card. Give a few dollars to the Obama campaign.